Visit to Seacliff and Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman

October 12, 2021

I last featured Seacliff Beach on the blog in 2016 and we went for a walk there recently. Seacliff Beach (plethora of photos) is nearly 10 miles/16.2K along the coast from Dunbar and is recognised as having the smallest harbour in the UK. There is a wide area of sandy beach which stretches to your right and left as you go down the wooden staircase. The harbour is to the left on the rocky part of the shoreline. The photo below was taken at the edge of the water. You can see the Bass Rock in the centre and to the right is St Baldred’s Boat/Cross out to which you can walk at the lowest point of the tide. There had been a high tide, so there were small clumps of seaweed on the shore. You would not normally see this in the summer time. In the warmer weather, the beach is a haven for families and horse riders, but because of it’s location – down a narrow track and car entry via a toll – the beach is never very busy as people are well spread out.

The shore at Seacliff Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

As you walked along the beach towards the harbour, numerous surfers, stand-up paddlers and swimmers came into view. Stand-up paddling (good photos) has become very common now in Dunbar and around the coast. The photo below shows a surfer in the foreground, an SUP (stand up paddler) and a swimmer with the Bass Rock as a background feature. The sea was calm enough for SUPs and there were just enough waves to allow the surfers to stand on their boards as they glided towards the shore.

Stand up paddling at Seacliff Beach

Thence to the harbour and it is a remarkable sight, with (photo below) its attractive , lined, natural pink walls, with reinforcement behind on the left. The harbour was carved out of the rock and the link above notes “This was constructed in 1890 by Andrew Laidley, the then laird, who used a steam engine and compressed air to cut the stone”. The mass of sandstone was known as The Gegan. The entrance is so narrow that, presumably, the few fishing boats who use the harbour would only be able to enter it when the sea was fairly calm. The smooth walls of the harbour contrast with the rougher sandstone beyond.

Seacliff Harbour

Looking north west from the harbour you get a view of (photo below) Tantallon Castle (good photos) which dominates the promontory. The castle dates back to the 14th century and is famous for its 12 feet thick sandstone walls. You can visit the castle and admire not only the views to Seacliff, the Bass Rock and Fife across the water, but also to the fertile fields of East Lothian. This was a location where the castle owners cold see potential enemies approaching by land or by sea. Just below the castle, at the harbour entrance, you can see the old winding mechanism that fishermen would have used to pull up boxes of fish, crabs and lobsters.

Seacliff Harbour and Tantallon Castle

I took this 360 degree video from the rockface above the harbour.

I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s novel The Night Watchman (review). I found this novel while perusing a range of books in Edinburgh’s Waterstones store. When I read on the cover that Louise Erdrich had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this novel and has published many novels, I was surprised that I had never seen any of her books before. I will certainly read more. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who live on an Indian reservation in the USA. The novel is what Erdrich calls “my grandfather’s story” and relates to the attempt by the native American people on the reservation to stop an attempt by the US government to “emancipate” the tribe in 1954. In fact, emancipate means to the protagonist’s father “To unmake, to unrecognise. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here”. Thomas Wazhusk is the eponymous night watchman at a local jewel bearing plant, who works constant night shifts. He is also the leader of the tribe and sees it as his responsibility to gather opposition to the threatening bill. The other main protagonist is an intelligent and feisty young woman, who demands to be called Patrice and not Pixie. Part of the story relates to her search for her sister Vera who has gone to live in Minneapolis and has had a baby there. Erdrich contrasts the environments of the rural reservation and the busy metropolis, including its seedy side. One the of most interesting parts of this novel is where Erdrich goes into the history and culture of the Chippewa and this is done with a light but magisterial hand by the author. There are a range of other characters in the book and none are stereotypes, as might have been the case with a lesser writer. The novel is set in the context of the government bill but it is also a story of relationships within and between families and tribe members. I would highly recommend this novel.

Louise Erdrich’s captivating novel

Bringing in the harvest at the Knowes Farm

October 5, 2021

The harvest is now over in East Lothian and some of the fields have been stripped of their bales, ploughed over and sown with Spring wheat. When the harvest was at its height, I went along to the Knowes Farm which is 5 miles/8.1K from Dunbar. The farm has a long history and the 1853/4 Ordnance Survey Names Book for East Lothian describes the farm house as “About 1/4 Mile S. [South] East from Knowes Mill. A Comfortable dwelling house with extensive offices, including a thrashing mill, the vegetable garden and a large arable farm of land attached occupied by John Stott. The property of Earl of Haddington”. You can read about the long list of earls here. The OS site refers to William Forrest’s 1799 map which was published in 1802. The photo below shows an extract from this map. As you can see from the circled area, the spelling is different – Knows instead of Knowes. To the left of the circle, the village is called Linton. Today it is called East Linton.

Forrest’s map surveyed in 1799 (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I went to see the harvesting on a calm, sunny day and part of the field I was in had already been cut. The photo below shows the view looking towards the farm cottages at the Knowes – on the right. The combine had left a long stream of straw, not unlike the wake behind a ship. At the cottages on the right, there used to be the Knowes Farm Shop, which was a traditional farm shop with a stone floor and a range of freshly dug vegetables. The farm shop has moved to the village of East Linton and the building was taken over by The Chocolate Tree. I like the way your eye is taken up the photo to the trees by the river of straw.

River of straw at the Knowes Farm

The main crop of barley was still standing tall in the field. Taking a close up of the fecund stalks and grains (photo below) makes you aware of the growing power of this crop, as each beautifully crafted stalk of grain came from one seed planted months before. Graceful and elegant, the well-manicured-looking grains are arranged in intersecting rows, as if they might have been strung together by an expert jeweller, and grow independently in this dense jungle of mature and ready for cropping barley.

Barley stalks and grain

The combine harvester is an impressive piece of machinery and it makes you think that if harvesters from say 300 years ago, with their scythes slowly cutting the fields of barley, could see this monster in action, they would be amazed by its power, speed and efficiency. No more hand cutting of the crop, no more stook making and no more hand threshing. It is interesting that the first mechanical threshing machine was invented by Andrew Meikle, a Scottish millwright whose mill was called Houston Mill and this mill is shown on the map above to the left of the red circle. The first photo below show the side and back of the harvester as it moved relentlessly through the field, storing the grain and spewing out the straw from its rear. The tractor behind is waiting to be loaded with grain from the funnel, which stretches out the back of the machine, like the rear gun of a WW2 fighter plane. While the second photo shows the front of the harvester, with its wide open jaws, ready to consume the unsuspecting barley. It reminded me of huge whales catching great numbers of fish at once from a swirling shoal.

Harvester in action at the Knowes Farm
The huge mouth of the harvester

I took two videos of the harvester in action. In the first video, I blanked out the sound of the harvester and edited it on Animotica, so I could add a commentary.

I took a second video and this time, instead of my voice, you can hear the roar of the harvester and watch its slow progress as it munches its way through the barley. There is something quite poetic about the turning of the cutting mechanism at the front as it slowly revolves and ingests the grain stalks. The harvesters of 300 years ago might well see something diabolical about this machine’s action and deafening sound.

i am repeating myself here as I posted this video just over a year ago on the blog, I make no apologies for reposting one of my favourite songs, so singalong if you can.

Agapanthus in the garden and walk at Whitekirk Hill

September 27, 2021

I am still catching up on my list of potential blog posts, so this is from a few weeks ago. This summer saw an explosion of blue and white agapanthus in our front garden. Agapanthus Africanus or African Lily originates from South Africa, but is common all over the world nowadays. In some parts of Australia, it is regarded as a weed but this is usually down to poor maintenance of these plants in the wild. Our own agapanthus have spread slowly over the years and will have to be restricted in growth at some point. This year has seen a plethora of flowers in the corner of the garden where we grow them. The photo below shows how the agapanthus produce this explosion of flowers, from what was a tight head on the plant stem. It is as if there was a secret fuse inside the stem, which when lit, ignites the flowers to display like a bursting firework in the sky. This photo shows buds yet to open, full trumpets – perhaps making a sound we cannot hear – open to welcome a proliferation of bees, and some spent flowers which sag and change to a purply colour. De-heading these is important to maintain the beauty of the show.

Blue agapanthus in our garden (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

For the first time, we had white flower heads this summers and they are equally attractive. The photo below was taken after overnight rain. This plant is still in the early stages of producing the elegant and graceful trumpets seen in both photos, and the ones in this photo are enhanced by the drops of rain which still cling to the open petals. The unopened heads appear to mimic the shapes of drops of water you might see forming on a window. They also look like the heads you see on some Xmas tree lights. The heads/trumpets have this delicate streak of purple running to their tips, but this is only apparent if you go close up to the plant. Otherwise, you may think that the heads/trumpets are pure quite.

White agapanthus in our garden

We had enough heads on the plants this year to allow us to cut some heads and put them in a vase inside the house. The white heads were the most effective. The photo below was taken late in the evening when the light was on in the kitchen. The white trumpets with their purple stamens are shown to very good effect in front of the blue of the vase. What is also intriguing about this photo of course, are the shadows. Some appear to be gesticulating or dancing on the wall, while others stream down the front of the vase to the worktop. More can be seen on the worktop itself. The dark, abstract sculpture-like shadow to the top left is from the cooker head, although you would not recognise it as such. So these flowers were a delight to see during the day and transformed by their shadows in the evening into a vivid display.

Agapanthus in a vase and their shadows

We were told of a new walk on what was the former Whitekirk Golf Club. The golf course suffered from being an inland course, as golfers come to East Lothian to experience links golf. The recently developed Whitekirk Hill (good views) features a restaurant, café, play areas and lodges for overnight or longer stays. The owners of this new venture have also installed paths and sign posts for walking over what was the golf course. About half way around the walk, there are two large ponds. The photo below shows the second pond. It was a calm day and the trees were still and replicated in the even stiller water on the pond. From a distance, the object in the middle of the pond looked like a rock but as you got closer, you saw that someone had – very imaginatively – put in a bale of straw from a previous harvest. This bale, along with the trees and elegant and upright reeds, was also reflected and was a water sculpture in itself.

Pond reflections at Whitekirk Hill

One of the reasons for doing this walk – apart from exercise on the undulating route – is the range of views that you get of the countryside and the coast. The photo below shows the view across the fecund East Lothian farmlands to the Bass Rock (good videos). As you can see in the foreground of the photo, the path takes you across scrubland but you can look left here and see the fields, from left to right, of barley, potatoes and sprouts. It was one of these partly cloudy days, but the clouds you see in the photo were high, puffy and white and a delight to look at, as well as the land below.

View to the coast on Whitekirk Hill

Whitekirk Hill is not far from the bonnie village of Whitekirk (good photos) with its ancient St Mary’s Church (good photos) and is approximately 7 miles (11.3K) from Dunbar. The site lies on the road to North Berwick (good photos) and from the walk, you can look over to the town. The photo below shows the view looking towards North Berwick Law (good photos) which dominates the landscape. Just to the right of the Law (Scots for hill), you can see two peaks which are part of the Lomond Hills in Fife. Formerly known as the Paps of Fife – the two peaks are West Lomond and East Lomond, also known as Falkland Hill. The Law sits proudly beneath another varied and interesting sky, so it is always good to look upwards on a walk and take in the sky, as well as the environment on the ground.

North Berwick Law beyond the fields

Near the end of the walk, you come close to some of the newly built lodges at Whitekirk Hill. The lodges (detailed description with photos) attract many visitors and their situation ensures not only comfort but a delightful rural setting with excellent views. The photo below shows some of the lodges, which are quite substantial and have a grand view across the fields to the Bass Rock and the Fife coast behind.

Lodges at Whitekirk Hill

This is a very enjoyable and mainly easy walk, with varied scenery and some birds in view or heard calling from the trees in the wooded area. We will return to this walk at different times of the year e.g. it will be a sparkling walk in midwinter, with our shorts and T-shirts a mere remembrance, and with us, as the Australians say, well rugged up.

Previous post – part two

September 19, 2021

I am unsure about everyone receiving an email about Part 2 of the previous post, as I did not get one. This should work. See


Lochmaben walks around the Castle Loch and Kirk Loch and John Paul Jones’ House

September 17, 2021

Note: Some readers will have read the first part of the blog post already.

Part One

We recently visited one of my younger sisters and her husband in their new house in the attractive village of Lochmaben (good photos) in Dumfriesshire. They previously lived in the county town of Dumfries (good photos) which was featured in this blog post in 2019. There are 3 main lochs on the village – Castle Loch, Kirk Loch and Mill Loch. We did the walks around Castle Loch and Kirk Loch. You can read more on Mill Loch here and view photos of the walk around the Mill Loch here. You walk around the Castle Loch and on the way, you come to the ruins of Lochmaben Castle (good photos). The first photo below shows part of the ruins and what is impressive is the sheer thickness of the walls which were built by masons and labourers by hand with only block and tackle as building tools. This was very dangerous work especially on the very basic scaffolding that would have been available in the 1300s. The second photo below shows that most of the castle was build of locally sourced rough whinstone and you can only see dressed stone in some parts of the castle. The close-up view of the walls is a work of sculpture with the intersecting stones and mortar making your eye trace the flow of the space between the stones.

Ruins of Lochmaben Castle (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Rough stone construction at Lochmaben Castle

At the start and in the middle of the walk, you get views of the Castle Loch and the photo below shows the view from just along the path from the castle ruins. This is a very varied walk as you start going through the forested area by the loch and then veer inland to the castle and then back along the loch side, so you are never very far from the loch itself. The photo below shows the wide, calm, blue loch with the village in the background and the hills beyond that. In the foreground are the loch side grasses and reeds which were mainly still as there was hardly a breath of wind to sway them. As you can see, it was a beautiful day for a walk, with just a few white clouds in the sky, . The path is clear for walking and there is a boardwalk across marshy ground at one point. You can see more details of the walk, including tree sculptures in the forested area, here.

View across the Castle Loch in Lochmaben

Our second loch walk took us around the Kirk Loch and also through part of the the very attractive and popular Lochmaben Golf Club (good photo of the loch). The photo below shows the view across the loch from the Kirk Loch Caravan Park (good photos). (Part two starts here) This is a beautiful location for visiting caravanners with its view across the loch. In the photo, you can see the reflections of the trees in the water and the little whirlpools of water made by the two cygnets in the foreground. To the left centre of the photo, you can see a shaft of light making a silvery path across the lake and as the few clouds in the sky moved across the sky, they were reflected also in the loch.

View across the Kirk Loch in Lochmaben

I took a video from this location and in it, you can see more the loch – calm in its peaceful serenity.

Kirk Loch in |Lochmaben

While we were in Lochmaben, we drove to the John Paul Jones Cottage Museum (good views from the location) in the Dumfriesshire countryside. John Paul Jones was born on the estate in which the cottage stands and went to sea as a young boy and became a ship’s captain at the early age of twenty one. He was briefly engaged in the slave trade but went on to decry the trade as “abominable”. He later became a captain of military ships and, despite being British, fought for the USA and later Russia. The site above gives a detailed biography of Jones who was called “The father of the American navy”. Jones was born in 1747 and the cottage is designed to show elements of life at that time. There is also a section devoted to Jones’ later life as a captain, including a fascinating video telling the story of the Battle of Flamborough Head in the words of his midshipman Nathanial Fanning. While the story of J P Jones is fascinating, the cottage itself gives visitors a look at what conditions were like for rural workers in the 18th century. The photo below shows the fireplace in the cottage and this would have been the hub of the cottage. The fire would have kept people warm, although only in that room, and was also used for cooking – see the large pot on the hook on the mantelpiece. The large kettle on the right hand side of the fairly basic, wooden mantelpiece, which is devoid of the ornamentation which would have been seen in the houses of the more wealthy landowner, would have been used not just for making tea, but also to heat water for washing clothes and perhaps filling a tin bath on a weekly basis.

John Paul Jones’ family home

The photo below shows a close up of one of the flat irons or sad irons (history if ironing) which would have been heated on the fire. This iron had a wooden handle which meant it might not get as hot as the metal handle on the smaller iron above, but Jones’ mother or sisters – only females did ironing – would probably always have used a cloth to lift the iron. Compared to today’s irons, this specimen is very heavy and would lose its heat gradually. This meant a long wait for it to heat up again. Domestic life for women at this time was mainly drudgery.

Large iron in Jones’ cottage

The final photo shows a beautifully crafted model of one of the ships upon which Jones sailed in his long naval career. The ship is a work of art and must have been the result of many hours of work by the model maker. You can see the ropes up which the large sails would have been drawn, as well as the many canons along the side of the ship. There is a smaller boat in the middle of the ship and this would have been used to take sailors ashore, possibly to board an enemy ship or, in times of distress, as a lifeboat. The more you look at a model ship like this, the more you see. This was a fascinating and educational visit to a museum in an attractive rural setting with stunning views from the cottage. There is a link between John Paul Jones and Dunbar as the harbour battery (good photos) was built to withstand possible attacks from Jones or American ships.

Ship model in Jones’ museum

Whiting Ness walk: The Needle’s E’e, The Deil’s Heid and Castle Gate

September 7, 2021

This post follows on from our visit to Stonehaven, Catterline and the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre. On the following day, we drove to Arbroath (good photos) and stopped at the large car park by the shore, just north of the town. Our aim was to do part of the Whiting Ness Walk, also known as the Seaton Cliffs walk (good photos). The walk takes you along a path above the searing cliffs below and in some parts, it is quite vertiginous and you can feel yourself being drawn to the cliff edge. The views are varied and some are quite spectacular. The photo below gives you a good idea of the scale of these cliffs, which seemed to get higher as you progressed on the walk. This is looking back to near the start of the walk and you can see the town of Arbroath in the background, the very clear water at the base of the cliff, and the gently rippling white waves in the blue sea. We picked a beautiful day for our stroll along the cliffs.

Part of the cliff face on Whiting Ness walk (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The Scottish Geology Trust site tells us that The Arbroath cliffs are made up of river-lain sandstones and conglomerates (petrified gravel) of two different ages – 410 million years old (Lower Devonian) and 370 million years old (Upper Devonian). Also, surprising to me at least, that During these times, Scotland was located south of the Equator in the desert belt. One of the standout sights on the walk is the Needle’s E’e (Scots for eye) and this is the remains of a collapsed sea cave. It is a remarkable piece of natural sculpture, given that the cave has gone but the entrance has remained. You have to think that it must have been a huge needle if this represented its eye. Maybe giants walked the earth back then. On the left of the photo (best enlarged) , you can see a canoeist out in the water, no doubt enjoying the tranquillity of the day and the open space around him. We saw the canoeist land his craft at the end of our walk.

The Needle’s E’e

Further along the cliffs, you get a view of another unique structure formed by the sea. The photo below shows the Deil’s Heid (Scots for Devil’s Head) and this leaflet states that The erosive forces at work include the power of the waves driven by the wind and tides. The stack looks precarious and maybe, in time, it will collapse into the sea, but at the moment it projects statuesquely above the water for us to admire. There is a path in the photo that leads you down for a closer look at the stack, but we left it to others to do that. There is a scattering of wildflowers on the grassy slope in the photo and we came across a range of differently coloured flowers.

The Deil’s Heid

At one point on the walk, (photo below) we looked down some very high cliffs to see two men in a canoe gliding effortlessly along one of the many inlets. On the magnificent cliff sides, shining in the sun here, there many lines and cracks and shapes, some of which resemble figures that you might see sculpted on temples and cathedrals. To the mid to upper right of the photo, you can see a face-like shape – similar to a Buddha to my eyes. The two canoeists are in delicately turquoise water, and you can clearly see the rocks below the water. It must have been an inspiring experience to paddle here with these hugely impressive cliffs above. This was also one of the sites of nesting seabirds and we could see and hear seagulls and kittiwakes below us.

Canoeists below Seaton Cliffs

We did not do the whole walk which ends at Auchmithie Bay (good photos) and turned back after walking down a very narrow path to the beach where we got a close up view of Castle Gate (photo below). The leaflet tells us that This arch (NO 6698 4222) just north of the Mason’s Cave has formed along the line of a small fault which defines the south side of the narrow, elongate headland here. When you stand this close to this imposing structure, you feel very small indeed. In the photo, at the top, you can see what looks like one type of solid sandstone and this appears to have fallen on to the more rugged stony face next to it. It was a very peaceful place to be, with only the sound of the relaxed waves rolling nonchalantly on to the shingly beach.

Castle Gate on the shore below Seaton Cliffs

The photo below shows the Castle Gate from the top of the cliffs and you can see how the headland extends outwards to an array of small islets in the sea. There were people camping at the cliff base and they would have had to carry their equipment food and drink quite a long way to find this idyllic spot. To the left of the Castle Gate, the stony beach gave to way to a long stretch of sand beach. This takes you along to the path back up to the path and onwards to Auchmithie.

Campers at Castle Gate.

While we were looking at the Deil’s Heid above, I took this video of our sea and land surroundings.

So, this was a tale of two Herrings enjoying a walk at Whiting Ness. If you are ever in this area, this walk is a must and can be enjoyed all year round, north easterly storms notwithstanding.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and flowers on the decking

August 27, 2021

I recently read Maggie O’Farrell‘s stunning novel Hamnet (review). Before reading the book, I did not read any reviews and did not read the blurb on the back of the jacket either. My advice would be to do this to get the full effect of the major incident half way through the book, although I realise that many people will have read about the book in advance and know the main outline of the plot. . Hamnet is the son of William Shakespeare and his wife, who is called Agnes in the novel. This is a moving, sometimes tragic but always totally engrossing book which captures the time that the book is set in expertly. O’Farrell gives us the sounds, smells and social interactions in what we now refer to as Shakespearian Britain. The focus of the book is on the families involved. Shakespeare – referred to throughout as firstly the son and later the father, is seen living with his parents and suffering the disdain of his father who has a glove-making business as part of the house. After he meets Agnes, who toils for her family under the watchful eye – and severely critical mouth – of her stepmother, we are told of their marriage and subsequent family. The narrative goes back and forth in time but is no less effective for that.

There is a contemporary relevance to the novel, in that the bubonic plague was rife in some parts of Europe including Britain when the novel takes place. There is a superbly well written chapter – in depth research by the author clearly interpreted here – which traces the origins of the pestilence as people then called it then, to a single flea in Alexandria. The flea on a monkey transfers itself and then breeds on sailors who carry the disease across the world. O’Farrell notes that she wrote the book pre-pandemic and could not have foreseen the parallels with our own times, in terms of the effects on society e.g. lockdowns in cities. Given that Covid-19 may have come from a single bat, the power of nature to disrupt human lives and our economies, has not changed over the centuries.

O’Farrell is a stylish writer and has many poetic touches. Agnes is looking at her baby daughter Susannah – Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susannah’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the wing-like sweep of her tiny eyebrows… Hamnet comes downstairs at dawn and sees that – The candles have burnt out, drowning in pools of themselves. The fire is reduced to a heap of idling ashes. In a memorably moving scene, to Agnes – The grave is a shock. A deep, dark rip in the earth, as if made by the careless slash of a giant claw. I wrote down more quotes but these give a good impression of O’Farrell’s quality as a novelist. Hamnet is a fine, compelling novel and the scenes at the end of the book will stay with the reader for a long time. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. so buy, beg, steal or borrow it.

Maggie O’Farrell’s outstanding work (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We have had a mostly, dry and warm (for Scotland) summer and this has produced a plethora of colourful flowers in our garden. In one of our pots on the decking, in the Spring we saw a tiny reddish growth in the compost and we were unsure what it was. From something which was a couple of centimetres in width, we were rewarded with a huge begonia. The photo below shows the begonia at the height of its spread and colour. We had rain the night before I took this photo and the raindrops on the smooth, velvety flowers enhance the look of the plant. I took this photo 18 days ago and it is only now, with temperatures starting cool, that some of the flowers are dropping off. The flowers, which open up like fallen beechnuts, are complemented by the green leaves from which they emerged.

Raindrops decorate the begonia on our decking

We have pots of flowers along the front of the balustrade and the various colours of the flowers are shown more clearly by the blue of the incoming tide. The photo below shows the pots looking west towards Dunbar’s east beach and coastal housing. The flowers in the first pot are the second blooming of this plant after the first ones had been cut back. We also have phlox, geraniums, emerging gladiolus Muriela, lobelia, fuschias and some new shrubs planted this summer.

A range of plants on the decking

The final photo is looking along the fence we share with our neighbour and at the end of the row, one of the gladioli had flowered. In the sun, it was tall, elegant and graceful with the brilliant white standing out against the blue sea. The other gladioli in the photo are just starting to show the hard, green stems from which the flowers will blossom in the next couple of weeks. I like the shadows in the photo as they produce back and white replicas of the flowers in the pots. Come September, it will be time to take out the now fading purple lobelia in the pots, but it has had its two months in the sun, occasional rain and haar and has lasted well.

I took this video of the onrushing waves, with their wonderful sound producing a sonic backdrop to my commentary, and the flowers on the decking. For some reason, the word lobelia escaped me in describing the flowers.

Coldingham Beach with wispy clouds and Jen Hadfield’s poems

August 16, 2021

In mid-July, we went to one of our favourite haunts (previous post) – St Abbs Head – and walked along the cliffs to Coldingham Beach. The beach was much busier than it would have been two years ago -pre-pandemic – because of people not going abroad for their summer holidays this year. The photo below shows the beach looking back to the houses in St Abbs at the far right. You can see some of the beach huts – very well maintained – on the left of the photo, as well as the windbreaks on the beach. There were many families on the beach on the day of our visit and you can see the wide sweep of the bay. Where the beach peters out in the middle/right of the photo, there are stairs leading up to the clifftop path which leads back to St Abbs Head – a very pleasant walk.

Coldingham Beach at low tide (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo below, taken from the same spot as the one above, looks out over the quieter part of the beach and out to what was a fairly calm sea, here enjoyed by swimmers, body boarders, surfers and canoeists. There were waves of a sufficient size to allow the boarders and surfers to allow themselves to be carried to the shore in the surf. In the autumn and winter at this beach, you can get huge waves hurtling themselves to the shore and proving a test for surfers who are standing on their boards. Looking at the exposed rocks on the right of the photo, you can see how far the tide goes out. This can be a dangerous beach from which unwary swimmers can be quickly taken out to sea. On summers weekends – as on this one – there were RNLI lifeguards on duty to ensure that everyone kept within the tall flags on the beach.

Coldingham Beach and shoreline

The photo below is at the end of the beach and looking towards Homeli Knoll, a steep hill. The 1850s Berwickshire OS Name Books record that the hill was originally known as Homeliknow or Homeliknoll and is described as “A small knowe at the sea shore south of Coldingham Sands. It has the appearance of being artificial, being of an oblong shape and rising abruptly on all sides The priors of Coldingham used to hold their civil courts on this hill. Prior Arnold held a court on this hill during the reign of William the Lion”. I am unable to find a definition for Homeli but do contact me if you know the origin. A knowe means a mound or hillock and Coldingham Priory (good photos) dates back to the 7th century. From the top of the knoll, you get a superb view across the bay but also, to the south, of the path along the cliffs and this path forms part of the Coldingham to Eyemouth walking trail (good photos). The path is also used by runners as a training session.

Homeli Knoll at Coldingham Beach

I hope that you will have noticed that one of the features of our walk that day was the light, wispy clouds above us. These were fascinating in themselves and if you looked at the sky at intervals, you could see how the little brush strokes of cloud were constantly changing and forming new patterns in the sky. The two photos below show how, within a short time, the smaller white, spectral clouds had metamorphosed into larger ones, forming new shapes until they formed a different, but no less pleasing surreal painting. I also noticed the multiple shades of blue, changing from a darker, more serious looking blue at the top of the photos to the much lighter and maybe more carefree blue at the bottom. On this day, what was going on in the sky was – to me – more interesting than what was happening on the beach and in the sea.

Darting clouds above Coldingham Beach
Dancing clouds above Coldingham Beach

Reading Jen Hadfield’s book of poems The Stone Age (review) was a rewarding but sometimes irritating experience. Jen Hadfield is based in Shetland and it is the landscape that she is most interested in. The first poem Rockpool begins “Above the rockpool/ everything is tilt or/ rough, glazed in/ weed like afterbirth/ the stark rocks/ starry as the / domes of Istanbul/ seedling barnacles/ streaming down/ the gutters of / the mosques/ of the limpets/ like falling stars”. Throughout the book, the poet is capable of producing startling images e.g. limpets as mosques. In the enigmatic poem Need Ice Wealth Hail Hadfield compares a razor clam to “.. the broad/ fingernail of/ a buried giant”. In Limpet, the poet urges the limpet to “Clamp down -/ turn the key of/ yourself in the lock/ of yourself, fasten -/ with a hundred/ infinitesimal mortices -“. Hadfield, in her poems, gives plants like rhubarb or a tool like a strimmer what we might call a personality. Rhubarb is “lean and feral” and the strimmer is referred to as ” .. you butcher/ you-as-soul are the hardest to/ imagine”. The blurb refers to this as panpsychism i.e. everything has a consciousness. Others might see this merely as anthropomorphism. The poetry itself, mostly in formal lines in even type, is of high quality and makes stimulating reading. The book also contains pages where letters are in a huge type and in a light grey. I assume that Jen Hadfield sees this as perhaps avent garde and challenging poetic conventions. To this reader – almost certainly a minority – it was irritating and self indulgent. I would still recommend this book of poems – just skip over the annoying bits.

New book by Jen Hadfield

Stonehaven, Dunnottar Castle and Joan Eardley

August 6, 2021

On a recent 3 day break, staying in the village of Edzell (good photos), we ventured to the coastline. Our first stop was at the attractive seaside town of Stonehaven (good photos). We walked along the wide sweep of beach to the west side and then walked back towards the harbour – see photo on the link above. As we approached the harbour – on a long stretch of boardwalk – we passed some metal sculptures (good photos). The one that caught my eye was the Viking longboat – in the photo below. Most people on the boardwalk passed without a second glance, but stopping to see the intricacies of the design was rewarding. From the dragon’s head on the ship’s figurehead, to the shields and oars, then up to the large sail – see the dragon appearing again here – this was an admirable and impressive piece of sculpture. Given the detail on the piece, I imagine that the ship must have taken hours and hours to complete. The rocky shore and blue sea beyond the sculpture form a perfect background for such a well-crafted work of art.

Viking longboat sculpture on Stonehaven boardwalk

Stonehaven also has a very attractive harbour, with a very sandy beach, in contrast to the more pebbly beach beyond. I took the photo below of a local fishing boat, with the intriguing name of Banamha Ighstir. I contacted the harbourmaster James Brown and he told me that it was his father’s boat and the name was pronounced Bana Veecha. I was told that the name is Scots Gaelic and means mistress, as in a lady in authority. The harbour at Stonehaven is very similar to our harbour (good photos) here in Dunbar. At the right hand side of the photo, you can see the Marine Training Academy which trains people on aircraft and ships in safety procedures and supplies products such as “life jackets and immersion suits” as well as inflatable boats. There is a very well known seafood restaurant on the northern harbour wall – The Tollbooth – which has a delicious looking menu. We might have been tempted but it was closed at lunchtime.

Fishing boat in Stonehaven harbour

From the town centre, it was a short journey to Dunnottar Castle (good photos) which must have one the most spectacular locations of any UK castle, as it is perched on the edge of some vertiginous cliffs. The photo below is an aerial view from the helpful information board at the car park, a short walk from the castle itself. We hadn’t booked online and there was no on-the-day entrance, so we did not get to wander around what are quite substantial remains of the original castle. There has been a building on this site since the 3rd century when a Pictish fort was built. The castle was then established over the centuries but destroyed by Viking invaders in the 9th century. The modern castle – again added to over the centuries – was first built in the 14th century. There is a very good outline of the history and the main parts of the castle here.

Dunnottar Castle

I made this short video from one of the promontories opposite the castle and it gives you a good idea of how impressive the castle is and why so many sieges of the castle failed. You can see a longer and more detailed video of the castle here.

Our third visit that day was to the village of Catterline (good photos) which was the home of two well known artists – Joan Eardley and Jim Morrison. My wife was particularly interested in Eardley, having seen this TV programme. The photo below shows the view from what was Joan Eardley’s house. According to her former neighbour, whom we met on our visit, Eardley spent many hours – in all weathers – down at the pier, doing paintings. The 2nd photo below shows a plaque commemorating Eardley’s stay in Catterline. The plaque is on the building next to the Creel Inn restaurant, which was closed on our visit but looked extremely inviting. The menu on the website confirms this. There is currently an exhibition featuring Eardley and Catterline at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and some of the paintings featuring Catterline are on view on the website.

Catterline Bay – photo by Alan Morrison and produced here under Creative Commons Licence
Plaque at Catterline

Also on the website is a link to this fascinating YouTube video which (we think) features the man whom we met at Catterline.

The coastline in the counties of Angus and Aberdeenshire feature many interesting places to visit, including the one cited here, and it is certainly an area to discover if you are ever in this part of Scotland.

Cloud formations, summer sunsets and Kevin Barry’s That Old Country Music

July 27, 2021

The UK has been going through a mini heatwave recently and we’ve also had some dramatic sunsets in the past few weeks. This has brought not only mesmeric views of the setting sun but also some interesting cloud formations after the sun has set. The photo below is one example of an interesting, not to say dramatic cloud formation. The large cloud, which goes from a lightish blue to a very dark blue and black at the top, suggests that it could turn into a tornado, although this is, I assume, unheard of in this part of the world. On the right, we see the light pink clouds and then, as if an artist had decided to splash bright colours on the canvas, we see the orange and yellow clouds in the lower half of the painting. The dark outline of Dunbar below appears to be insignificant below this show of magnificence above it.

Dramatic cloud after sunset (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

A very different interpretation of sunset affecting clouds can be seen in the photo below. Gone is the threatening would-be tornado. Instead we see light streaks of cloud – pink and yellow – in the sky above the sea, now transformed from its daytime blue to its evening orange, as if it had got changed from workaday clothes to posh evening wear for going out to dine. There are also streaks of what look like molten gold above the harbour and rocks at the right end of the town. This view lasted for about half an hour and there were subtle changes – in the colours and in the shapes of the clouds – every couple of minutes. It would have made a fascinating, wordless, mind-easing 30 minute video. I will of course, only see this exact view once as the evening sky is never completely replicated on other days.

Sunset glow in the clouds and in the water

On to the sunsets themselves. It can be quite tricky to take a photo of the actual sunset i.e. when the sun appears to be just slipping below the horizon but I keep trying. Sometimes it is too bright and at other times, I miss the last of the sun itself. The photo below just captures the final white glow of the sun and you can see faint rays from the sun, like wartime searchlights, going through the clouds. The town buildings are more visible here and the sea is pink, reflecting the sky above, but in a subtly different shade of pink. . Above the clouds, the sky has taken on a purple tinge. The light in this photo faded very soon and 30 seconds later, I would have lost the bright explosion of white as the darkness rapidly approached.

Glow of the setting sun in Dunbar

Bob Dylan expressed the feeling I had in this superbly atmospheric song.

I recently finished Kevin Barry’s superb collection of short stories entitled That Old Country Music. The link is to a Guardian review which has the sub-headline “The west of Ireland teems with canny characters and vivid language in the author’s third collection”. There is certainly a wide range of characters in this book, some canny, some definitely not. The stories are all very readable and Barry presents a collection of eccentrics, young and older, many of whom are in difficulty of some kind. In the Coast of Leitrim, Seamus Ferris falls in love with a Polish waitress in a local café. This is one of the stories with a happy outcome but not before Ferris drives the young woman away with his self-doubt. Barry is also a very witty writer and in one story Who’s-Dead McCarthy, local worthy in Dublin approaches the narrator – “The main drag [O’Connell Street] was the daily parade for his morbidity….. ‘did you hear who’s dead?’ he whispered”. McCarthy tells of “A ninety-six-year-old poor dear with lungs papery as moths’ wings” and each time they meet, there is a new death to be savoured – “Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death”, who would “retreat back into the folds of the overcoat, like a flowerhead when the sun goes in” as he ended his grim tale.

Barry is a very lyrical and often poetic writer. both blackthorn and whitethorn are regular features in the stories, the blossom enchanting some and frightening others if brought into a house. In That Old Country Music – “The whitethorn blossom was decked over the high fields as if for the staging of a witch’s wedding”. In Old Stock a woman was “attractive, quite dark, and with a Donegal accent like running velvet” – poetic precision in the last two words. In Toronto and the State of Grace, a barman sees two Americans arrive “They entered my pub like a squall of hectic weather”. Barry is also very funny in some stories and droll in others. In Old Stock, a woman walks out on the storyteller – “Maybe it had not been the best idea to get into my suicide attempt over coffee”.

I also noted down a sentence that Barry includes in Extremadura, which links in with where I started this post – “Now the sky makes a lurid note of the day’s ending – there are hot flushes of pink and vermillion that would shame a cardinal”. This is a memorable story collection which I highly recommend. If you think you do not like short stories, this is the book to change your mind.

Kevin’s Barry’s remarkable book of stories