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Safe Harbours and Energy Zones – a wander around ‘The Path’.


a tidal log book: salt, moon, sun, wind

I – Kirkcaldy Harbour

To think of the journeys that have started and ended here.

Safe harbour: a place of refuge or shelter. Arrivals and departures, crossing borders. Time measured in tidal flows. A log book of salt, moon, sun and wind.

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II – The Space of A Tide

1505 – Four haven masters were appointed and given powers to seize the goods of any skipper who dumped his ballast in the harbour and left it there for longer than the space of a tide.

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III – To the Isthmus of Panama

One small harbour on the Fife coast, a nodal point in tentacles of international trade, extractive exploitation, colonial ambition and hubris.

1698 – the Company of Scotland raise capital in an attempt to establish a world trading state by establishing a colony named  “Caledonia” on the Isthmus of Panama in the Gulf of Darién. Two ships are built in Hamburg –  St Andrew and Caledonia which are sent to Kirkcaldy in readiness to sail as part of the first Darien fleet.

The ill-fated scheme started well, with a settlement  established at New Edinburgh, but the initiative quickly turned sour. A supply ship was wrecked and the colonists struggled with hot weather and tropical disease. A second expedition which set out the following year fared little better. Out of c. 2,400 Scottish colonists, only around 50 survived the venture. The failed scheme almost bankrupted Scotland and arguably, precipitated the Act of Union in 1707.

An anchor on the quayside – a question mark. What memories exist in the tidal log book of the day St Andrew and Caledonia sailed out of harbour for Leith, eventually bound for Darien?

There is little harbour infrastructure visible around the harbourside today, having been largely replaced by a new build housing complex. A weathered warehouse of indeterminate age remains. An image in peeling paint emerges, acting, perhaps as witness, or as a warning to South American dreams, cross-border conquests and colonial expeditions.


a cubist angelfish peels off dreams from the Orinoco basin

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IV – Chasing Whales and Fortunes in the Arctic

Found arctic map on top of a utilities box

Kirkcaldy’s first whaling ship left harbour in 1813, heading North, searching for whales and fortunes in the arctic. Nearby, on Pathhead Sands, where we will walk shortly, a whale oil ‘manufactory’ was once established.

Found poem: A list of early nineteenth century Kirkcaldy whalers:

Abram

Triad

Rambler

 

Earl Percy

Chieftain

Majestic

 

Ravenscraig

Regalia

Viewforth

Lord Gambier

Ice Bound

In 1835, Viewforth left Kirkcaldy for whale grounds near Greenland, in search of blubber and whalebone.  Spreading sea ice trapped eleven British ships, in the Davis Strait, including Viewforth. A long winter followed with one of the nearby ships, The Jane, crushed by ice. Ship crews faced the twin threats of frostbite and scurvy. After eleven months, the sea ice eventually loosened and Viewforth managed to sail to Stromness harbour. Six of the crew had died.

1860 – Lord Gambier, Chieftain, and Abram returned to Kirkcaldy with 14 whales, 200 tons of oil, and 14 tons of whalebone.

Sun Dogs, Comets and Irradiated Cloud

The ship’s officer of Viewforth, William Elder, kept a detailed diary of the time the ship was trapped in sea ice. The tone of the diary is generally melancholic, although there are periodic poetic descriptions of natural phenomena witnessed. This includes a spectacular display of sun dogs with the “halo of both sun and moon appearing at the same time in two or three luminous circles”. The Northern Lights are also recorded: “The most brilliant and cheerful spectacle was the aurora borealis which tended to enliven the long gloomy night. These fine works of nature are nowhere to be seen in perfection but in the distant north. We have also seen a beautiful comet-star over these past three nights; it bears NNW of us and has a very bright tail … it’s tail had the appearance of the reflected light of an irradiated cloud”.

Crushed By Ice

1862 – both Abram and Lord Gambier are crushed by ice. Their crews spend four months being looked after by Inuit people before being picked up by another vessel.

On today’s walk around the harbour, a a ghost ship of the old whalers still sails.

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V – Flows

By the mid 1800s, Kirkcaldy was bound up in the nexus of international trade, trading with North and South America, France, Germany, Scandinavia, The Mediterranean and the Baltic States. The products of Michael Nairn’s expanding floor coverings and linoleum empire was a key export and imports included flax, for the linen mills, timber and in one instance a cargo of Peruvian guano.

At the north end of the harbour, Carr’s Hutchison Mills continues the long established tradition of flour milling on the site. Now a gleaming, state-of-the-art citadel of chrome and steel to bring us our daily bread. In the dock, a general cargo vessel, Kirsten B, sailing under the tax haven flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines, with a home port of Elsfleth in Lower Saxony Germany, unloads it’s imported grain cargo. A reminder of the continuing sea-borne mobility of international capital and commodities in a nexus of trade flows, production, distribution and consumption of material goods.

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VI – Facade

Directly opposite the harbour, stands a striking industrial façade from 1886. Michael Nairn’s St Mary’s Canvas Works, originally housed 1,870 looms using steam power to produce floor cloth. Nairn had already built an enormous factory – The Scottish Floorcloth Manufactory on the shore at Pathhead in 1847. The size and scale of the building was initially ridiculed and known locally as ‘Nairn’s Folly’. However, Nairn secured the patents for the production of the new floor covering of linoleum and the venture became a huge success. By 1876, linoleum production had become a global industry, centred on Kirkcaldy, with the use of linseed oil in the production process giving the town it’s distinctive smell.

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VII – An Ecumenical Square Go?

A little further along the road is another archway remnant. The Dunnikier Union Church was a breakaway from The Free Church of Scotland. Reading the plaque conjures up an image of the aftermath of an ecumenical gang fight with the Dunnikier Union Church leaving the Free Church on The Path.

This makes more sense when considering that the road that rises from the harbour up to Pathhhead is indeed the wonderfully named ‘The Path’.

A skeletal structure overhead has replaced the old rail bridge that used to carry the harbour line down a steep incline. On more than one occasion, locomotives ended up in the harbour itself.

In an echo of St Mary’s steam-powered canvas factory, a rail bridge support column functions as a wind powered canvas in an impressionistic shadowplay of light, and tree movements.

Off to the left, the culverted Den Burn (East Burn) channels down towards the Firth of Forth.

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VIII – Pathhead

It’s a reasonably challenging gradient up The Path and you enter into Pathhhead, a Burgh of Barony dating back to the sixteenth century, where nail making was the chief occupation. Nails also functioned as a local micro currency known as Pickle Tillem (a measure of nails). The nail makers of Pathhead were studied by Kirkcaldy born, Adam Smith who incorporated his observations into The Wealth of Nations.

The early days of Pathhead centred around the ‘big hoose’ at the top of The Path, then known as Dunnikier House, now as Path House. Built in 1692 by John Watson of Burntisland, for his bride Euphan Orrock, the house has been renovated fairly recently with the initials of the couple remaining in the small window gables facing south. A variation of a marriage stone which typically acted as a commemoration of the marriage itself, but also as a (sometimes overt)  display of rising social advancement. (A significant leg up from lovers carving their initials on a tree trunk). However, the couple had a relatively short stay in the house as Watson fell on hard times after a number of failed business ventures. After being made bankrupt, he was forced to sell the house to the Oswald family in 1703.

 

rising, setting

a wingbeat

of captured sunlight

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IX – An Absent Folly

Before heading down to Pathhead Sands, we can stand and look over the area where the afore mentioned whaling works would have been and Michael Nairn’s floorcloth and linoleum factory. Other than a heritage plaque to commemorate ‘Nairn’s Folly’, you would have little inkling what once stood here.

We descend on the road that leads to the sands and enter a quite different zone of feeling.  A wall of obligatory graffiti broadcast their semiotic transmissions to whoever cares to listen, before a short desire path leads down to the reclaimed area of a post-industrial landscape.

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IX – Swifts

For a while we stop and become mesmerised by the kinetic energy of tumbling, scything  swifts, simply doing what swifts do. A temporary safe harbour in their borderless world.

We head off  from the landscaped greenery across sandy scrubland to see what the other side of the harbour looks like as it meets the shoreline. We pass the enigmatic presence of a substance that could either be plant based or fine down feathers. But so much of it in only one location? The remnants of some bizarre pillow fight ritual on the sands? No-one wants to pick up the material for a closer look.

The white feather/plant enigma?

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X – The Ultimate Safe Harbour

[Carlo Scarpa] understood that the past is not dead and that we in the present must engage and intertwine with it.

Reaching the other side of the harbour somehow conjures up long forgotten images seen of Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, perhaps the ultimate safe harbour and border crossing. It feels as if the sky is pressing down on the granular heft of angled greys and reflective still water.

place a slab of sky

on

solid / angled / calm

 

XI – Energy Zone

Overhead, the non-human world is fully engaged with life and in contrast to the speed freak swifts, squadrons of seabirds soar, fall and ride the currents of the buffeting shoreline wind.

 

watching the rise      (the fall)

the fall                      (the rise)

 

It is clear that we have entered an energy zone.

As we approach the shoreline an energy antenna conducts the circulating coastal energies. With Bass Rock and Berwick Law, distant on the horizon, a triangular energy field  pulls us into an expanded world. Bardic bird yells, brine on the tongue and buffeting sea breezes whip up folding white breakers that fizz over the sand.

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XII – Pathead Sands

As we walk along the shore, four structures, stretching skyward,  puncture the northern skyline. Three high-rise flats and a castle all bearing the same name: Ravenscraig, Ravens Craig – rock of the ravens.

Four Ravens on the cliff to the to the north and to the south, looking across the Firth of Forth,  the red-needle stabs of oystercatchers counterpoint the rhythms of the breaking waves.

The only ships we see passing this afternoon are bulk crude oil carriers, likely heading for the Grangemouth petrochemical complex, home of the Anthropo-obscene Rorschach Test. More arrivals and departures recorded in the tidal log book.

The aggressive wind summons up another local story of when John Paul Jones, the Yankee privateer, and founder of the American Navy, dropped anchor in the Forth in 1778. This caused much  concern and fear that he was about to unleash cannon fire on Kirkcaldy and plunder anything of value. The story goes that a  local church led by the Rev. Robert Shirra congregated on the sands and prayed for help to thwart the marauding Yankee. Apparently their prayers were answered when a fierce storm blew up into a turbulent gale, resulting in Jones pulling up anchor, retreating and being blown back down the Forth.

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XIII – Deep Time Transmissions

Underneath the castle, clambering over some huge rock formations, the ground appears to be melting underfoot in spectacular configurations of psychedelic rocks. Stare long enough and the whorls, swirls and solidified sediment begin to coalesce into a magic eye painting. Deep time itself coming into focus, passing through the present, projecting into a deep future.

 

 

On first glance, a sealed off cave at the bottom of the cliff looks innocuous enough, intriguing even, yet this is the location of a terrible tragedy which occurred on Hansel Monday, 1740. A group of youngsters had been playing hide and seek and several had taken refuge deep in the cave, believing they were ‘safe’. Without warning, the roof of the cave collapsed on top of them and ten children were killed.

Reflecting that even safe harbours can harbour danger, we cast a last look back along the sands towards the Lang Toun before a set of steps leads us up towards the castle, past an impressive beehive type Dovecot.

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XIV – Ravenscraig Castle

Seen from the beach below, it looks like “a protruding shin bone sticking out of the soil of the dead past,” —as strangely bedded and neighboured as the hulk of some anti-diluvian mammoth that has been uncovered on the bank of a Siberian stream.”

(John Geddie, The Fringes of Fife (1894)

I see the land of Macbeth, so when shall we two meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?’

(Joseph Beuys in a letter to Richard Demarco)

Witches on the battlements, a raven’s croak

The looming tower of Ravenscraig Castle does conjure up something of a protruding shin bone and the aura of the land of Macbeth. Indeed, Macduff was the Thane of Fife and the ruined castle of  the Earls of Fife, Macduff Castle, lies a short distance along the coast at East Wemyss.

Richard Demarco, the artist, curator and general cultural agitator, has long been a champion of the arts in Scotland forging cross-cultural and cross-border relationships with many Central and East European artists including his long collaboration with Joseph Beuys whom he introduced to ‘the land of Macbeth’. Beuys subsequently became fascinated and inspired by Scottish culture, myth  and landscape, visiting the country eight times before his death in 1986.

In 1996, Demarco brought an open air production of the Scottish play to Ravenscraig Castle, staged by the Belarus State Theatre directed by Valery Anisenko. Full use was made of the castle environs and the not untypical Fife weather presented a challenge to a number of critics ill-prepared for the torrential rain running up the Forth. One critic bemoaned the fact that Kirkcaldy at the end of August does not quite enjoy “the same balmy climate as Verona or Epidaurus or other places where the classical drama is performed in the open air”. It became cool, then chilly, then cold, then finally freezing”.

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XV – The 39 Steps?

Local folklore claims that John Buchan named his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps after the path that leads down by the east side of the castle to Pathhead Sands. A similar claim relates to a set of steps in Broadstairs, where the final scenes of the novel take place. Both sets of stairs have more than thirty nine! However, Buchan’s father was a Free Church of Scotland minister and Buchan spent most of his formative years in Kirkcaldy. His novel Prester John opens with a scene on Pathhead Sands, with Kirkcaldy thinly disguised as Kirkcaple.

At the top of the steps, we pass a Tetris landfall, scattered like a delinquent Carl Andre sculpture. An  underpass records a purple heart addressed to unknown others, perhaps all of us.We exit under the shadow of the towering, human built cliffs of the Ravenscraig flats.

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XVI – To Turn the Face Towards Home

Crossing over Nether Street, a small, ancient graveyard looks out over the castle walls. Many of gravestones are so badly weathered and eroded that the names of the plot occupants have completely disappeared. The mute stones a presence of absence. We ponder on the life and circumstances of ‘Nelly’ one of the few well preserved headstones but offering minimal detail.

A carved anchor and message on a sailors grave indicates that it’s time to start heading for safe harbour.

As we head back to The Path and ponder what ‘home’ meant for sailors who could spend months or years at sea at a time, a solitary magpie standing sentinel on the castle tower, rattles out it’s call across the Forth.

Perhaps it tells the tale of a ghost ship, long lost in the tidal log book, sailing up the Forth looking for safe harbour.

(Mural depicting a late sixteenth or early seventeenth-century galleon, Merchant’s House, Kirkcaldy).

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A related walk also featuring The Path can be found here: Two Hours in the Lang Toun

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Now Playing: Porter Ricks – Harbour Chart

Key References:

Richard Demarco, A Unique Partnership: Richard Demarco Joseph Beuys (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2016)

John Geddie, The Fringes of Fife (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1894)

Carol Mc Neill, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018))

Various publications of Kirkcaldy Civic Society.

Categories
Field Trip Found Art Happenstance I Remember Observation Psychogeography rag-pickings Signs and Signifiers Some Questions of the Drift

Two Hours in the Lang Toun

Two hours.

I have just dropped off a bunch of excited teenagers at Kirkcaldy Ice Rink (now rebadged as Fife Ice Arena) for the afternoon skating session. With too little time to return home and do anything meaningful, it seems like a good opportunity to start walking into the locality and see what draws the attention. I increasingly find that often the most interesting walks develop out of  the imposed time constraints of everyday life. Start from where you are and see where it leads.

Two hours.

But first, I’m standing in front of an ice palace from the late Art Deco era. Designed by Williamson and Hubbard in 1937, the softened edges, horizontal lines, ribbon windows and vertical, coloured detailing conjure up a period in time when form was equally important as function. Apparently, the original restaurant featured Parker-Knoll chairs, monogrammed cutlery and curtains designed by Dame Laura Knight. This afternoon, under a high sun, the contrast of vibrant colours and ice cream white offers an elegant counterpoint to what would no doubt be constructed today as a functional leisure shed.

I’m in Gallatown at the North end of the ‘Lang Toun’ of Kirkcaldy. Initially, thinking the name may have been derived from some form of recurring gala festivities, I subsequently find out that it is a derivation of Gallows Town. Apparently, due to it being the site of numerous public executions in medieval times.

Gala

Galla

Gallo

Gallow

Gallows

Originally a small village in its own right, Gallatown, along with its near neighbours Sinclairtown and Pathhead, were parts of Dysart before becoming annexed as part of Kirkcaldy in 1876.

Walking down the main, arterial road into Kirkcaldy, Rosslyn Street merges into St Clair street. A clue to the history of this area in the street names. A reminder of how all land is property and often concentrated in the hands of a few. Sinclairtown developed from the 1750s on the estate of the Earls of Rosslyn and derives from their family name St Clair. (Also owners of Rosslyn Chapel).

This whole area developed as the industrial end of Kirkcaldy. A place of nail manufacture in the seventeenth century and site of the ‘pin factory’ studied by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Coal mining and power-loom weaving emerged in the mid eighteenth century and pottery manufacture in the early 1800s.

I walk past the entrance to Pottery Street but after a short walk down into what is now light industrial and residential buildings there appears to be little evidence of what once existed here. It is only on returning and approaching Rosslyn Street again that I notice a plinth in the grounds of a vet’s surgery.

The original site of the world famous Wemyss Ware pottery of Robert Heron and Son. The Chief Designer of the pottery was Karel Nekola from Bohemia, recruited by Robert Heron in 1882. A skilled, imaginative artist, he continued to work until his death in 1915. His sons Joseph and Carl also worked in the pottery. The original pottery closed during the Great Depression in 1930 and the rights to Wemyss Ware passed through several hands until Griselda Hill acquired and revived the name in the 1990s.

It is perhaps heartening to know that the spirit of the original pottery and the curious Wemyss cats continue to be tended by a veterinary practice.

Wemyss Ware cats. Public Domain image.

Walking further down the road above what is now the Happy Days Chinese Restaurant is a magnificent example of a Co-op bee skep. Presumably a former Co-operative Society building. Not quite as impressive as the magnificent trio in Leven but a fine reminder of the co-operative ideals of those Rochdale Pioneers.

On the other side of the road, a narrow path into a residential area.

Sun drawn cubist angles.

“Stewart Lod”.

I’m not sure where the boundary lines of Gallatown, Sinclairtown and Pathhead merge, but for these purposes it is a delight to encounter the colourful Puffins of Pathhead.

Behind is a Ladbrokes shop. A window of lurid coloured interpellation: Grab a Grand!; Win Free Machine Play Cash BoostGoal! Price Boost; Best Odds Guaranteed; £30 Free Bets on Your Mobile; Sunday, Now Open Longer.

Ladbrokes

Lad   Broke

Never a more aptly named chain designed to part people from their money. I don’t remember that many pearls of wisdom from my dad but one that sticks is that: “you never meet a poor bookie”.

On another wall close to the puffins, a golden eagle takes flight ready to pounce on a small mouse. The disorienting sun perhaps allowing the mouse a respite today. Off it floats on the back of a golden orb.

You cannot walk down St Clair Street without noticing Rejects. A gargantuan store by any standards and a family owned Fife institution selling everything for the home in twelve departments. There is also something delightfully perverse about deciding to name your retail emporium Rejects. I’m not sure what the received wisdom on retail marketing is, but I suspect this breaks most of it. Rejects also houses a very fine cafe but with the clock ticking, I have to pass on that today.

This is the weekend before ‘The Beast from the East’ arrived in Scotland and I’m starting to feel the cold around my ears. However, the sun is strong, bright and warming as I take a moment to watch the swaying, skeletal trees. How they shift slightly out of phase with the moving shadow forest projected on the wall of the car park. A Steve Reich piece playing out in visual form.

 

On the corner of Commercial Street sits a curio from the days of the Kirkcaldy tram network. A Bundy Clock was used to monitor tram services to ensure that they ran on time and according to timetable. When the tram driver reached the designated terminus, they would insert a unique key into ‘the Bundy’ and the time would be recorded. The Bundy clock was patented in 1890 by Willard Le Grand Bundy and mass production of employee monitoring systems began. A practice that has had workers clocking in and out under surveillance ever since. Of course, technology advances and Bundy Time Systems still appear to be around.  Their wares now include ‘Fingertec Biometric Packages’, ‘Face ID’ and ‘Easy Clocking Time and Attendance Systems’.

Walking along Commercial Street reveals a mix of some very old buildings. largely, in various states of disrepair. However, the Spiritualist Church is looking bright and sprightly. Thursday Healing. All Welcome.

At the end of the road, The ‘A Listed’ Feuars Arms proclaims its Victorian lineage back to 1859. Impressive stained glass windows reflect a more modernist addition to the landscape in the fifteen story Ravens Craig flats built in 1964-65.

 

 

Sparkling in the sun like pink sponge fingers with frosted, glazed balconies. The image provides a jarring contrast to imagining why Flesh Wynd may have gotten its name.

Not too far away from the Ravens Craig complex is Ravenscraig Castle. Local folklore claims that John Buchan named his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps after the path that leads down by the side of the castle to Pathhead Sands. A similar claim relates to a set of steps in Broadstairs, where the final scenes of the novel take place. Both sets of stairs have more than thirty nine. However, Buchan’s father was a Free Church of Scotland minister and Buchan spent most of his formative years in Kirkcaldy. His novel Prester John opens with a scene on Pathhead Sands, with Kirkcaldy thinly disguised as Kirkcaple.

I’m becoming conscious of the time and need to start heading back towards the ice rink. I loop around and through what would once have been a colossal industrial area, dominated by the Nairn linoleum factory complex. Michael Nairn was initially involved in the weaving of ship’s sails but later entered into floor coverings. The original factory built at Pathhead, in 1847, was initially ridiculed and known locally as Nairn’s Folly. However, the venture proved a great success and by 1876, linoleum production had become a global industry centred on Kirkcaldy. The use of linseed oil in the production process was what gave the distinctive ‘queer-like smell’ highlighted in the poem The Boy in the Train written by Mary Campbell Smith in 1913:

I’ll sune be ringin ma Gran’ ma’s bell,

She’ll cry, “Come ben my laddie”

For I ken mysel’ by that queer-like smell

That the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!’

Most of the industrial complex has now gone but one operational factory unit remains, sitting in the vast empty space like some remnant from an imagined post-Packard Detroit.  The factory is clearly still productive as the distinctive, and not unpleasant, sweet smell is clearly discernible in the air. Perhaps a bit more localised these days rather than enveloping the entire town.

I meander through some of the side streets back towards the ice rink and whilst many buildings are in disarray, the sun is bringing out the best in them.  An old industrial fence morphs into beautiful, striped, colour field, minimalism.

A ‘found’ Gerhard Richter decays on an old wooden board.

An abstract landscape, framed in brick under a painted sky, sits in the alcove of a boarded up window. (Perhaps a found Howard Hodgkin, thanks to Hamer the Framer, added 07.04.2018):

Whilst a short history of building is revealed in an industrial assemblage of brick, stone, concrete and metal:

In dappled sunlight, a typographical erratic.

I am indebted to fellow travellers Laurence Mitchell and Alan Nance for the idea of the cultural erratic. This originally arose from a comment by Alan regarding Laurence’s piece  on re-purposed Kyrgyzstan railway wagons.  Alan’s comment is worth noting in full:

To use a landscape-related term, it strikes me that these wagons are like cultural (as opposed to glacial) erratics, whose presence, through interpretation, can tell us something about the forces and processes that shaped the place in which they are located).

It’s a great expression and in this particular instance, I like how EAST FIFE has somehow survived the weathering process, much like a glacial erratic left behind.

Another abandoned looking building draws the eye, due to the panel above the door:

Langtoun Aquarists Pondkeepers Group. Another cultural erratic? Is that a fish on the door blowing a bubble?

Sadly, I can’t spend any more time pottering around and hoof it back quickly to the ice rink. So quick that I’ve a few more minutes to spare before the skating finishes. I walk round by a mysterious, mausoleum looking structure. Some form of sub station? Or perhaps a sealed vault storing all the forgotten sounds, smells and memories of Gallows Town?

Behind the vault are some of what feel like the oldest buildings I’ve seen today. The narrow passage of School Lane. Just enough Sunlight leaking down the walls to outline a set of strange material interventions close to the ground. Portals of exit or entry?

And back to the car park just in time to catch the ice rink crowd spilling out into the sunshine. The tired teenage skaters, pile into the car and I listen to their stories of careering around the chilled interior of the ice palace.

Two hours.

Oh and almost forgot. Wasn’t particularly looking for it, but it’s always good to find it …

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This walk took place on Saturday 24th February, 2018.

Now playing: Steve Reich – Violin Phase

Categories
Field Trip Psychogeography

A Saunter through Summerhall

Buildings loom over us and persist beyond us. They have the perfect memory of materiality

Longevity has no chance without a serious structure

Stewart Brand – How Buildings Learn

We finally got the chance to have a good investigative wander around the Summerhall building.  Just in time before the Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions close.

Summerhall is the old Dick Vet building (The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies of the University of Edinburgh) which has now been transformed into what must be one of the most unique art and performance spaces in the UK. (Europe/World/Cosmos?).

A previous visit was during the full-on party atmosphere of the Edinburgh Festival.  Archie Shepp was performing in the Dissection Room, blowing his fire music and détourning jazz standards for the animal spirits. Quite a contrast to a September Saturday when you could wander through the building and its environs and rarely encounter another soul. With over 500 rooms, located over three floors, a basement and outbuildings, wandering the footprint of Summerhall is more like exploring a Borgesian labyrinth where encounters and exhibits are chanced upon and randomly discovered. Quite unlike the mapped-out, directional flow of the conventional gallery experience. Even spending most of the day at Summerhall, we still didn’t ‘find’ everything that was here – around thirty discrete exhibitions that are incorporated into the existing fabric of the  building.

And what a building. Whispering from the walls and corridors, you can sense the stories and sounds that are soaked into this space.  Stories not only of the human, but also the animals who have inhabited and passed through here: the corridors, the stables, the animal hospital, the dissection rooms…

Above the Entrance to 7x7th Street

First exhibition stop is the, rather playful, outdoor installation 7×7 by Jean Pierre Muller in collaboration with seven musicians: Robert Wyatt, Archie Shepp, Sean O’Hagan, Mulatu Astatke, Kassin, Nile Rodgers and Terry Riley. Muller and his stellar band of sonic explorers have created 7x7th Street consisting of seven wooden huts linked to a letter, a colour of the rainbow, a day of the week, a chakra, and a specific place. Riffing on these associations, each musician has then created an interactive sound sculpture tapping into their own diverse personal histories to create “new connections of knowledge, meaning and poetry”.

Robert Wyatt’s hut is ‘A’ for the Alhambra, the Red Palace. Monday, the first day of the week, so the day of the Moon.

Robert Wyatt 7×7

Inside Wyatt’s Alhambra, everything is under the influence of Clair de Lune.  Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar and sings Moon River, Louis Hardin, aka Moondog, keeps watch over the lunar rockets and Neil Armstrong prepares for take-off.

Robert Wyatt 7×7 Interior

Archie Shepp’s hut is ‘B’ for the Blues and the B-line to Brooklyn. The colour of orange sits well with Tuesday, the day of Mars.

Archie Shepp 7×7
Archie Shepp 7×7 Interior detail

Perhaps our favourite is Terry Riley’s ‘G’ for Galaxies, the colour violet and seventh day of the week, Sunday, day of the Sun. A hut of the Cosmos, the domain of The Sun King,

Terry Riley 7×7
Terry Riley 7×7 Interior detail

What is noticeable in Terry Riley’s interior panel is a much reduced number of visual elements.  Instead, symbols and motifs are treated to repetition, distortion, diffraction and linked up through connecting space. Much like Riley’s music!

A few pictures from the other huts:

Kassin – 7×7 Interior detail
Nile Rodgers 7×7 Interior detail
Sean O’Hagan 7×7 Interior detail
Mulatu Astatke 7×7
Robert Wyatt 7×7 Exterior

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After the jaunty, neo-pop art of 7x7th Street, a sharper contrast could not be made visiting the Old Stables. Tucked in behind Robert Wyatt’s hut, this is the scene of Robert Kuśmirowski’s installation Pain Thing. There is a palpable change in atmosphere as you enter the building from the street.  The colours of 7×7 Street leach out of the retina and fade to dirty cream and grey. Flecks of what looks like dried blood stain the floor and an oppressive air starts to envelop and smother.  When we arrive in the main room – an asthmatic room – it feels like we are witnessing the aftermath of some post-apocalyptic scene. An animal experimentation zone where something has gone horribly wrong. The paraphernalia and apparatus of the medical research establishment lies around, test tubes, bell jars, pumps and instruments, some scattered on the floor. The torso of a unidentified creature lies on a hospital style trolley, limbs severed, bone sliced through:

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This is not a place we wish to linger.

Inside Summerhall, the building retains its institutional air. Long corridors, unmarked closed doors, stairwells and the cell like structures of the basement. Signage still indicates past functions: The Post-Mortem Room, The Demonstration Room, The Anatomy Lecture Theatre.  It is a great place to simply wander around, listening out for whispered narratives layered into stone, wood and glass. The fabric of the building is also used to good effect. The original laboratory benches are used for display purposes and basement cells exude a sinister ambience. One room hosts what looks like some restraining, torture chair and in another a dark sticky ooze spreads on the floor, apparently the residue from some long decomposed water melons.

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Chance discovered highlights include stumbling into Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Fewer Laws, More Examples which examines Finlay’s response to and fascination with The French Revolution. An ambivalent mash-up of principle and virtue, but also fear and terror. Robin Gillanders’s The Philosopher’s Garden Redux portrays ten photographs taken in the Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Emenonville where Rousseau spent the last years of his life. Each photograph represents one of the ten walks of Rousseau’s last (uncompleted) book Les Reveries du Promeneneur Solitaire (1782).

“These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Richard Demarco Archives host a treasure trove of photographs and posters and are a wonderful tribute to Demarco’s visionary approach to curating art. There are legendary documented events featuring Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovich and Tadeusz Kantor and Scottish artists such as George Wyllie and Jimmy Boyle. There is also a reminder that Demarco would take his productions over to Fife with photographs of Valery Anisenko’s production of Macbeth at Ravenscraig Castle, Kirkcaldy in 1996. A hand scribbled NB reads:

“MacDuff was the Thane of Fife. His Castle lies 8 miles down the Coast”

which indeed it still does at East Wemyss. Now a ruin, the site is associated with the MacDuff Earls of Fife, the most powerful family in Fife in the Middle Ages.

Venus with Severed Leg is a collection of photographs by William English documenting the early days of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘ Sex’ shop. The crucible for the birth of The Sex Pistols and Westwood’s influential punk stylings.

Venus-With-Severed-Leg (c) Summerhall

Phenotype Genotype (PhG)  is a collection of documents, artists books, object multiples catalogues and other ephemera from 1900 to the present day.  Displayed on the original  college laboratory benches, it is perhaps a bit strange and even disconcerting to see Debord’s La Société du spectacle and Patti Smith pinbutton badges, displayed like museum exhibits, encased behind glass.

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Also in the same room, painted directly on to the wall is The Periodic Table of Art. Executed with a certain touch of humour and perhaps also playing upon what appears to be a fundamental human need to catalogue, and document almost anything into a ‘meaningful’ taxonomy.

The Periodic Table of Art (Extract)
The Periodic Table of Art (Extract)
Michaelek-After-Muybridge (c) Summerhall

The absolute standout piece, however, is David Michalek’s Figure Studies and Slow Dancing.  An utterly mesmerising, beautiful and thought-provoking  3-screen film installation inspired by the pioneering photography of Eadweard Muybridge.  Michalek works with choreographers, dancers, actors and people from the streets of New York and has filmed them, unclothed, performing various 5 second human ‘actions’ in extreme high-resolution. These 5-second actions are then played back over a period of 7 minutes with every nuance of movement captured on the human body over this elongated time frame. The rich diversity of human form is portrayed across age, gender, ethnic diversity, shape and size.  It also raises the question of whether ‘class’ is written on the unclothed body. This is a work that not only enriches and enthralls but helps you to see the world afresh outside of clock time. The work is further enhanced by the (uncredited) soundtrack which is used to great effect to compliment the images. The unmistakable slow breathing of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.

Just before closing, we are trying to find our way out when we turn a corner and find ourselves facing the iconic image of Joseph Beuys. It is as if he is walking towards us, puposefully, the reflecting light creating a halo around him. As we leave, it is good to know that the spirit of Joseph Beuys is patrolling the corridors of Summerhall. We wonder if the vets ever treated a Coyote?

Beuys Halo – Summerhall

Now Playing: Terry Riley – Descending Moonshine Dervishes