Archive for the ‘Dunbar’ Category

Walk on the Biel estate and Keith Brockie paintings at Waterston House

January 31, 2023

I last posted a reference, with photos, to Biel House, almost exactly two years ago on this blog. In order to get to Biel (pronounced Beel) Estate, which c3miles/5K from Dunbar, you leave the A199 and go up a long drive to the house, firstly passing a cottage which would have formerly been the gatehouse to the estate. Once you are over the bridge spanning the A1 dual carriageway, you come to a newish set of gates (photo below) which lead to an impressive avenue of cedar trees. This is a stunning entrance and it is a very pleasant walk with the tall, thick trees to your left and right and the Lammermuir Hills in the distance. There is farmland on both sides of the trees, with the winter/spring wheat growing slowly but becoming a sparkling lightish green in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Biel Estate (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the end of the cedar walk, you come to a lane (photo below) with a small forest on each side. The side of this narrow road is still decorated with fallen leaves from the autumn and this scene refreshes your memory of when the leaves were yellowing and browning, but still on the trees. The adjoining wood is a mixture of rhododendron bushes, evergreen and deciduous trees. So there is a contrast all the way up the hill, with the bare tree on the right and the branches of the fir tree extending across the avenue. At some points, where there are mainly deciduous trees, you can see through to the fields beyond. This view will disappear in the late spring.

Lane leading up to Biel House

At the top of what is quite a steep hill for walkers and cyclists, you come to a crossroads, with the left taking you down to the Biel Burn and the right to attractively named Beeseknowe Farm (good photo). The entrance to Biel House itself (photo below) has impressive, elegant and graceful twin columns, with decorated, thistle-like rounded tops. The sign says Private and this is meant for cars, as walkers and cyclists appear to be welcome as passers-by. The photo shows the still flowerless rhododendrons to the right and left but if you look closely at them, you can see the small buds appearing, a sign of beauty to come. As you can see, there are some impressively tall trees here and the carpet of rust-coloured leaves adds to the attractiveness of the entrance.

Entrance to Biel House

We visited an excellent exhibition recently at Waterston House in Aberlady, the home of SOC (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) to see the work of well known wildlife artist Keith Brockie, whom I have featured here on the blog on more than one occasion, the last time being in 2017. The exhibition finished not long after our visit and we are looking forward to the present exhibition, featuring examples from Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I am grateful to again to Laura Gressiani at SOC for sending me, with Keith Brockie’s permission, the three examples of his outstanding work below. The first example (photo below) is entitled Brooding Tawny Owl and shows Brockie’s truly amazing grasp of detail and his ability to portray the details of the tree and owls. It is hard for me as a non-artistic layman to imagine just how long this must have taken him to paint, but the result is a wonderful piece of art. Seeing Brockie’s quite large paintings at the exhibition is quite a different experience from looking at the photo, but the enlarged photos here will give you a chance to admire his work at close hand. On first seeing the painting, you notice the adult owl and its tired but still alert looking face, as well as its colouring and the very realistic looking feathers. Then you see the baby owl, fast asleep it seems to me and its green beak accompanied cleverly by the green, exquisitely veined leaves. Then there is the patterns on the smooth bark of the silver birch. In all, a painting to be admired again and again.

Brooding Tawny Owl by Keith Brockie

The second example (photo below) from the exhibition is entitled Mistle Thrush and is another example of Brockie’s supreme artistry in portraying birds and their environment. Once again, you are struck by the sheer amount of detail here. This bird, with the unfortunate (for us) scientific name of turdus viscivorus, has an enchanting song, which you can listen to here (scroll down to song audio). Brockie’s bird is not singing, but is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to sing to attract a mate, perhaps. The patterns on the bird’s breast give an aspect of surrealism, whereas the keen eye and the sharp beak, ready for the berries below, are painted realistically. The colour contrast been the berries and the bird draws our attention to both. The branch upon which the bird sits has a claw-like feature, seen just above the artist’ signature. A study in ornithological concentration is presented here and is as eye-catching as the owls above.

Mistle Thrush by Keith Brockie

The final example shows Keith Brockie’s art (and artistry) at its finest. This is a stunning portrait of a wild animal and you can see the muscularity in the hare which will give it its lightning speed. Out cycling around Dunbar, I have often seen hares, whether on the road in front of me or in a field, and when they start running, they go so fast that you think they might be flying low above the ground. The hairs on the animal’s ears, face and body are drawn so convincingly that you think this must be what it is like to be really close to a hare. There is alertness in the ears, the eyes and the nose and this is a hare which is very aware of its surroundings and possible dangers. This site (good video) tell us that “The hare grazes on vegetation and the bark of young trees and bushes”. You have to admire Brockie’s skill in painting the grass upon which the hare will feed and the way in which the grass mimics the shape of the hairs on this powerful but stunningly beautiful animal. The contrast in colours – white, brown, black, orange and green – in the painting should take your eye up, down and across the painting to appreciate its visual beauty. This was a most remarkable exhibition and if you ever get to see a Keith Brockie art show, grab the opportunity with both hands. A huge round of applause to Waterston House for acquiring this enchanting display of wildlife art.

Brown Hare by Keith Brockie

Wintry swans at Seafield Pond and a frosty West Barns Bridge

January 10, 2023

One of my last walks of 2022 was to nearby Belhaven. I parked the car opposite the Surf School (good photos) and walked up what is known as the Dump Road to Seafield Pond, which was originally a clay pit for the Seafield Brick and Tile Works in the 19th century. It later became Dunbar’s refuse site, thus the name Dump Road. The wall separating the sea from the path to the pond is known as the Divvy Dyke and was built by David France, who established the brickworks. France was referred to by Dunbar historian James Miller as “the man who beat Canute” after building the dyke (wall). At high tide, the sea comes right up to the wall. On the day of my walk, instead of sea water, there was thick ice to be seen over the wall. The first photo below shows the frozen grass – submerged at high tide – and the ice beyond. Further out is the wide stretch of sand forming Belhaven Bay (good photos) with the Bass Rock in the distance. The second photo shows the very thick ice further along the sand and you can just see an array of birds further out. These birds – oystercatchers and redshanks – normally feed closer to the wall.

Frost and ice at Belhaven Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Ice on the shore at Belhaven Bay

My walk was in the afternoon and I managed to capture the partly frozen pond while the sun was setting in the west at about 3.30pm. I was lucky enough to have two elegant, graceful and very calm swans feeding in the pond. The photo below shows the swans, with the sun making a golden streak across the pond, the frozen and whitened reeds to the left, and more frozen solid in the ice in the foreground. It was a freezing cold, but fairly still day and the only movement at the pond was the two swans lowering their heads to feed where they had broken the ice. There is a serenity about this photo which I like, although it was not a day to stand still for long. There are numerous lines in the photo, with the grasses above the ice, the reeds standing to attention and the bare branches of the trees shown clearly by the white glow of the sun.

Ice, grasses, reeds and swans at Seafield Pond

You need have patience when taking photos of swans as, just when you think you have the perfect shot, one of them dips its head into the water. The swans were aware of my presence but treated me with insouciance, as if to say “Take your photos but don’t expect us to pose for you”. In the next photo below, you can see the ice in the foreground and, waiting a short time, I managed to capture the sun coming over the pond and the narrow strip of gold on the pond, ending beneath the feet of the swans. The ice/water below the swans has turned to pink and the sun has made reflections of the swans in the water. Just at the point of taking the photo, the further away swan lowered its head but this does not detract from the photo. Swans have a beautiful shape and look perfectly formed with their graceful necks, orange beaks and feathers neatly tucked in to produce warmth on this winter’s day. The legs and feet are perhaps less elegant but there is a fascination about swans which attracts the viewer. You can see more photos and a video of swans at Belhaven on a sunny autumnal day in a previous blog post.

Ice, swans and reflections at Seafield Pond

If you keep walking west past the pond, you come to a path which borders the Biel Burn, over which stands West Barns bridge. West Barns is a village about 2 miles/3.2k from Dunbar. The photo below shows the path and the bridge looking west, with the sun nearly set but leaving a white glow above the trees. There was a dog walker on the bridge and his reflection can be seen, as well as the bridge’s in the water. Across the bridge, the fields to the right were thick with frost and the path was very slippery, so I had to walk next to the wall on the left. So, a very picturesque scene but there was only enough time to take the photo and move on, my breath showing white in the cold air.

Frosty path and reflections at West Barns bridge

Looking east, back to the bridge (photo below), you can see that the wooden railings going on to the metal bridge are white with frost and the grass next to the path is temporarily petrified by the frost. The reflection in the water looks like an impressionist artist’s depiction of the bridge, which loses its colour in the water. I have taken my mountain bike over this bridge many times as you join a path to the right which takes you along a bumpy route to John Muir Park (good photos).

Heavy frost at West Barns bridge

In a previous blog (good photos), I referred to what a relative and a friend of mine would call the art of guddling. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) – a treasure trove for Scots words – defines to guddle as “To catch (fish) by groping with the hands under stones or the banks of a stream”. Another definition given is to catch trout “by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other”. One reference from 1921 states “An’ oot aneth a mossy stane some muckle troot he’d guddelt” which is translated as “And out beneath a mossy stone, some huge trout he had guddled”. See here for more examples of guddling from the DSL. The photo below shows the view upstream in the burn and a favourite guddling site was just around the corner to the right, where the burn forms small pools, into which the trout would swim and rest. There are more reflections here – of the wintry trees and although there was little wind that day, some of the trees appear to waving their “arms” about in an aerobic fashion. There are more lines of sight here, from the left you see the wall, the path, the grassy verge, the burn, another verge and another wall, so the photo is well worth more than a cursory look. The walk ended with me going back along the Dump Road, into car and driving home for a warm and welcoming cup of tea.

Upstream view from West Barns bridge

Warkworth in winter re-visit and frost hits the churchyard and the sprouts

December 20, 2022

Checking the blog, I realised that we stayed in Warkworth in 2013 and that was in July. This visit – overnight only – with relatives was in the depth of the very cold spell we have been having for the past two weeks. The temperature was below freezing on the day we arrived and never went above until we arrived back in Dunbar the next day. On the positive side, we have very warm winter clothes and it was a gloriously sunny day, with a big Australian sky above us. We went for a walk around the historic Warkworth Castle (many photos) but had to be careful of icy patches on the pathway. The castle dates back to the 12th century and was the stronghold of the powerful Percy family from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Percys owned most of the land in the north of England at this time. To the right of the photo, you can see the Great Tower, described as being “in the shape of a Greek cross, with four polygonal wings radiating from a central block, above which rises a viewing tower”. In the photo, you can also see the motte and bailey, along with the drawbridge and the portcullis. This castle was built to impress and to withstand attack or siege. It is still a formidable looking building which dominates the landscape around the village and beyond – exactly as the Percys would have wished.

Warkworth Castle in Northumberland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Beside the castle, the River Coquet provides a quiet and peaceful environment and a good walk. As it was a beautiful day, the reflections on the river were very photogenic. Perhaps the -3 degrees temperature enhanced the quality. In the photo below, you can see the multiple reflections of the stones, the tree trunks, the greenery of the evergreens, the pampas grasses on the right and the patches of blue sky. The river appears so still that it could be a mirror. I also like the shadows on the right which are also reflected.

Reflections on the River Coquet, Warkworth

Further along the river’s edge, on which stood very tame ducks as we passed, you come to the medieval bridge (good photos) and the site above notes that “John Cook of Newcastle, who died in 1379, left the sum of 20 marks towards the building of a new bridge at Warkworth, on the condition it was built within two years”. Approaching the bridge, we got another excellent display of reflections (photo below) of the trees but also the bridge itself. We were hoping to cross the bridge but it was so icy past the defensive tower (good photo) that we had to turn back.

The 14th century bridge in Warkworth

On the following day, it was still below zero at home and there had been a hard frost and a light covering of snow overnight. The roads were clear, so I drove up to the nearby Spott Kirk (good photos) to capture it on a freezing but still crystal clear day. The first photo below is taken from the entrance to the church and shows the gravestones – some dating back 200 years – amongst the ice. There are shadows in this photo as in the previous ones and you can just see the shadow of a nearby tree on the roof and the bell-tower. The trees on the right are mostly bare, with some greenery on the top of the more distant trees. The other green on show is the ivy climbing up the trees and the bushes just above the old stone wall. The second photo is taken down the steps from the left of the entrance and shows more shadows on the bell tower, more gravestones and looks towards the more modern section of the graveyard behind the church. Beyond the kirk on the left, you can see the fields stretching over towards Wester Broomhouse (good photo) farm in the distance.

Spott Kirk with snow and ice
Spott Kirk and beyond

On my way home, I stopped at a field of sprouts near the former Easter Broomhouse (good photo) farm. This is a huge field, stretching into the distance, with the sprouts standing to attention in rows like the soldiers of the famous Terracotta Army (good photos and video). Going in closer, I could see the well developed sprouts, clinging to their stalks like mussels on a rope. The first photo below shows the sprout plant, now with drooping, yellowing and purpling leaves, with its family of young sprouts gathered on the stalk, ready for the harvest. Some of the leaves have fallen off and lie frozen on the ground, covered with ice. The sun is shining directly on the plant and this gives us a variety of greens and yellows as well as the white veins, like river tributaries, on the big leaves. The second photo shows the serried ranks of the sprout army stretching into distance, with the Lammermuir hills beyond. You can see the redeveloped farm buildings – now houses and cottages – of Easter Broomhouse on the right. Unlike many people, I am not a fan of sprouts, whether steamed or roasted as I find the taste too strong, unlike cabbage, which I love.

Sprouts and frost at Easter Broomhouse

Harvest time in East Lothian and this year’s gladioli

September 16, 2022

This year, probably due to climate change or, as The Guardian puts it “the climate crisis”, the harvest was very early here in East Lothian, which is known as the “breadbasket of Scotland” (good photo). Unusually, fields of barley and wheat were being harvested in mid-August and this was due to the prolonged period of very warm weather (for Scotland!) and very dry conditions. This was good news for farmers who did not have to fret about rain causing delays to harvesting or having to use expensive driers on the grain. No combine harvesters on the blog this year, but last year’s blog had two videos – see here. Out on my bike recently, I stopped to take photos and a video of a field near the village of Stenton (good photos). The photo below shows the bales scattered across two fields, with the adjoining field on the right. At the top of the photo, you can see some farm buildings and at the bottom, the grasses in the headrig. Farmers are paid to leave the headrig – Scots for the edge of the field – to grow wild to encourage wildlife. I like the scattered nature of the bales being randomly spread across the field. They could have been dropped by a plane instead of being “birthed” by the baler. I cycled past this field today and all the bales have gone. Farmers are business people but not necessarily aesthetes. 

Bales in a field near Stenton (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I took a close up of a bale in the field – see photo below. The bale is an uncountable series of circles with the straw forced into shape, but with the surface full of individual pieces of hay which have escaped the seemingly enforced regularity imposed by the machine. In days gone by, before mechanisation of harvesting, many people were needed to gather the straw into stooks and you can see a good photo of a field of stooks here. Looking at the bale again, you can imagine this being shown in a modern art exhibition, with an accompanying panel stating that the artist’s intention was to show the solidity of the earth but that, if enough environmental action was not taken soon, the whole of the earth’s structure could unravel.

Tightly packed bale

I took the video below when I was at the field. It was a very windy day, so I put the commentary on later. You can see the wind in the film but not hear it. It is pretty impossible to talk over a wind as strong as this, because of the gusty nature of the wind which obscures part of your commentary intermittently. Bales in fields are a timeless but inspiring sight and I always look forward to seeing them, albeit in the knowledge that autumn may be just around the corner.

Because of our long, dry summer, my annual show of gladioli has been much appreciated by neighbours and passing walkers looking up to the back of the house from the promenade. We had some unseasonable heat in August with record temperatures for Dunbar. This is shown in the video below. The heat meant that the gladioli flowered early and produced beautiful displays but they only lasted for perhaps two or three days before wilting. In the video, you can see one of the yellow gladioli with its emergent flowers, which bloomed ecstatically but did not last.

I took the photo below of the yellow gladiolus in the film a day after it was in full bloom and you can see how it had already suffered from the heat. The flower has retained its beauty in terms of colour, shape and patterns but it has prematurely aged.

Wilting gladiolus

The two photos below show an artistic touch with the gladioli. The first photo resulted in an (on my part) unintentional but quite startling surreal appearance. This could perhaps pass for a Salvador Dali mask, with the two raindrops looking like eyes and part of the stamen forming the nose, plus the eerily green aperture which could be a mouth. I could not see this image when I took the photo. On the top left of the photo, there appears to be another head-like structure but this time with a Pinocchio nose. The bottom part of the flower looks like it could be part of a silk and very flamboyant wedding dress.

Gladiolus after the rain

The second photo was more intentional on my part. This gladiolus had fallen over in the front garden in a strong wind, so it was put in a vase in the kitchen. I took the photo in the very late evening – after 11pm – as the shadows appeared when the light was switched on. This is a graceful and elegant flower, with its gorgeous orange colour and its trumpets standing firm, apart from the one at the bottom right which has had its day in the limelight and has dropped. The shadows are energetic dancers, frozen by the photo. There are, in mid-September, some gladioli in the garden which are still to come into bloom, while others are partially out or ready to be dead-headed. Another wonderful year of horticultural delight provided by these flowers and stems, which remarkably grow from a small bulb.

Gladiolus and shadows on the kitchen wall

Pease Bay walk and Grahame Green’s Brighton Rock

September 5, 2022

It is well over two years since we last visited Pease Bay (good photos) which is 9 miles along the coast going south from Dunbar. As it was very busy Sunday afternoon, we had to park on the hill overlooking the holiday park. We walked along the wide stretch of beach in front of the array of mobile homes. The tide was far out and there were a couple of hopeful surfers near the shore, but that day the sea was flat calm. This is a very popular surfing area and you can see from these photos that when the surf is high, the surfers, body boarders and canoeists flock to this spot. This photo shows the beach we walked along when the tide is in. When the tide is out, you can walk past the rocks on to another big beach – a USA visitor we took here many years ago said we could be in California – which ends with the layered cliff in the photo below. As you cast your eye across the cliff face, you see the very attractive sandstone rock shining in pink. Many of the houses in Dunbar, including our previous house, which you can see with the red door on this Google street map , were built with this type of sandstone which was sources from local quarries.

Cliff at Pease Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back to the first beach, I could see that, since we last visited, there had been some coastal erosion – see photo below. In some ways, this is what might be seen as a superb piece of natural sculpture, with the huge rocks seemingly carved out of the hillside and placed in a structured group to provide a visual delight to the eye. These massive boulders look as if they might have been hewn out of the rockface to provide solid material to build a castle or even a pyramid. The truth of course is less attractive, in that climate change is producing more extreme weather e.g. Storm Arwen (video) last November, and rising seas and stronger winds leave coasts such as that at Pease Bay exposed and vulnerable. There has been coastal erosion for millennia but the rate of erosion has increased rapidly in recent years. The rocks remain, even in their fallen state, very attractive to look at, with their multiplicity of patterns and subtle shades of yellow and grey.

Coastal erosion at Pease Bay

Just around the corner from these rocks, you come to a small cave with the most stunning and colourful strata that you will find anywhere. The photo below – enlarge for best effect – shows this graceful and elegant display of colours, lines and streaks of what look like daubs of paint. I am always reminded of Aboriginal paintings when I see these rocks and I feel that a native artist from outback Australia could add dots and curves to these rocks and produce an incredible work of art, like the one here by Clementine Ecila. On a more prosaic note, the bottom half resembles a slice of layered cake, with a strawberry filling. The more you look at this picture, the more patterns you see.

Strata at Pease Bay

Adjoining the above strata, was another piece of natural art, this time resembling a surrealist painting more than anything else. The rock looks less formally stratified and green algae/seaweed has started to form on the curved rock, with a plethora of shapes e.g. the long dinosaur-looking head and body near the centre of the photo. The white surrounding the pink shapes highlight this seemingly random array of mythical creatures depicted here, not by a human but by the effects of sea and wind. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see what looked like to me an elongated shark, showing off off its vicious, flesh tearing teeth to foe and prey alike. This petrified creature is lying on the sand and I felt that it would well swim away when the tide came in and covered the pock-marked sand. The cliché about nature being wonderful certainly applies here.

Fascinating rocks at Pease Bay

I picked up a copy of Grahame Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock (review) in a second hand bookshop, neatly called The Reading Room, in Haddington, the next town west of Dunbar. The book was published in 1938 and there are certain passages which would not be seen as acceptable today but were not subject to the editor’s red pen in the pre-WW2 era. It has a dramatic beginning “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”, so we are set for a crime novel but this book is much more than a plot, which does contain murders, as we are introduced to a range of characters, firstly from Brighton’s gang world and then a woman who is determined, sometimes comically, to find out who murdered Hale, and why they did it. Greene’s main character is Pinkie, a 17 year old who has taken over one of Brighton’s minor gangs but has high ambitions for himself. Greene does not say so explicitly but the reader immediately feels that The Boy – as he is called early in the novel – is out of his depth.

The book often refers to the Catholic faith and Pinkie is ridden with guilt about his crime and also fears having his first sexual experience. Pinkie’s angst is contrasted with the devil-may-care attitude of Ida Arnold, the last person Hale was with, who doggedly follows leads in the case, while enjoying drinks in the local pubs. There is a dramatic ending but not overly dramatic as Greene builds up tension with Pinkie and Rose, whom he has married so she cannot testify against him, driving into the countryside with a gun in the car. This is a very tense novel but one which will keep you by turns intrigued and amused. Greene is a master storyteller and I urge you to read this book.

Grahame Green’s intriguing book

Colm Toíbin’s The Magician and summer sunsets

August 3, 2022

Note: Some of the text has come out larger than others.

I recently finished reading Colm Tóibín’s superb book The Magician (Guardian review) which fictionalises the life of the famous German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s book begins in the German city of Lübeck when Mann is aged 15 and takes us through Mann’s adolescence and adulthood until Mann is 80, when he dies in 1955. The novel focuses on two main themes, Mann’s family and his wife’s family and their children; and the developments in German culture and politics in the twentieth century. So the novelist of the present day who is writing about a novelist and major cultural figure in Germany, has a large canvas to paint and a story, which is complicated at times to tell. To Tóibín’s credit, the reader is entranced by the story being told here i.e. this is no dry literary biography and we are taken seamlessly from event to event in Mann’s life. The novel takes us through the birth of Mann’s children and his work as a novelist, although Tóibín does not dwell on the writing of or the content of Mann’s famous works such as Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain which led to him being recognised as a major international author.

The book also presents us with Mann as thinker and philosopher and his reflections on his beloved Germany. One of the most convincing elements of the book is Mann’s horror at the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and his struggle to resist attempts to get him to speak out against Hitler’s regime while he is still in his homeland. The Manns are forced to flee to Switzerland and then the USA after WW2. A lesser novelist might have made this an overly detailed analysis of Mann’s thinking but Tóibín cleverly interweaves family events and arguments, with major political events from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel could have been overly sentimental e.g. about Mann’s return to Germany in the 1950s, but the author avoids this. The Magician is a major work of fiction for our times and it is a fascinating and intriguing read from start to finish. You will struggle to put it down so go and buy it as soon as you can.

Superb novel about Thomas Mann (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

This summer in Scotland has been mostly sunny with temperatures above average. We have also had some spectacular sunsets on some evenings. Each year, I try to capture the perfect sunset, but of course there is no such thing and I am sure that if you showed ten of my sunset photos to ten people and asked them to choose their favourite, you might well get ten different answers. Sunsets are art from the west and thus open to interpretation. The photo below shows the setting sun just above the horizon and spreading its light across the sky. I like the combination of the low sun with its extended arms and the bulbous clouds higher in the sky. When the sun set, the sky was flooded with colour.

Bulbous clouds and setting sun

The photo below shows the spectacular colouration in the sky that we got later on in the same evening. The yellow sky above where the sun set has extended and gone into reds and purples, with the calm sea coloured by the sky. I like the darker, elongated cloud stretching over the town’s profile and looking like a sea creature making its way gently through the ocean. The more you look at this photo, the more colours and shapes you see. I found it fascinating.

Purple sea after sunset

The final sunset photo below shows a late evening mackerel sky – a sign of good weather the next day – hovering like an abstract painting with the white and yellow streaks below. The broken clouds are like brush strokes done by an impressionist, as is the more compact line of cloud below. As above, the colours are many and varied in texture and shape and this emphasises the dark solidity of the town at the bottom. The photo was taken about ten o’clock with darkness still an hour away.

Mackerel sky over Dunbar

Looking and sunsets and what comes after always has me recalling the repetitive beat and very recognisable guitar introduction to the Kinks song Waterloo Sunset, so enjoy the video below.

Finally, can I recommend that you all check out The Mack Walks, a blog done by my former co-author John Mackenzie and his wife Alison Mackenzie. It features a number of walks in Scotland and is well worth a look.

Walk up Traprain Law and Richard Flanagan’s Living Sea of Waking Dreams

June 19, 2022

We had a walk up Traprain Law, which was last featured on the blog in 2021.  Traprain Law (good photos) is a volcanic structure dating back some 345 million years. The National Museum of Scotland (good video) has a display of Roman silver found when the Law (Scots for hill) was quarried in the early 20th century. The silver was at first thought to be stolen, but research in the last few years has shown that it was likely to have been payment to the local Votadini tribe in return for work done. We normally walk around the foot of the Law and take the Low Level Walk – see photo below but decided to take the Summit Walk this time. My wife – the runner – is much fitter than me, but although it was a hard climb in parts, I was not too far behind at the top.

Map of Traprain Law walks (click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

You get a 360 degree view of the verdant East Lothian countryside from the top. It was very windy when we got to the summit and you could hardly hear yourself speak. The sun appeared only intermittently, so you had to keep moving to stay warm. The photo below shows the cairn at the top, just next to the Trig Point and this site tells the history of the Trig Pillars, which were established as a series of small concrete edifices for “the retriangulation of Great Britain”, starting in 1936, to aid more accurate mapping. The rough stones in the photo have been added to over the years to make a stone circle. The view is looking north and, on the coastline, you can see North Berwick Law (good photos) in the centre and the Bass Rock to the right. Unfortunately, the Bass Rock, home to 60,000 gannets each summer, has been struck by a strain of Avian Flu – read more here. Dead gannets and other seabirds have been found on the shores around Dunbar – a distressing sight.

Stone cairn at the top of Traprain Law.

In the photo below, looking south, you can see the proverbial forty shades of green in the fields beyond the rocky outcrop at the edge of the Law. The lighter shades of green are the barley fields which gradually change from green to yellow to straw colour over a period of weeks, before the harvest in late July/August. The darker green fields are of wheat, planted after the barley, but these will change colour also. The brown fields on view are potato/tattie fields and these fields will now – about 3 weeks later – will also now be green, with the shaws well established. Beyond the fields are the Lammermuir Hills, with the dark, wooded areas clearly on show. East Lothian is known as the Garden of Scotland because of its fertile soils and you can see why in this photo.

Looking south from Traprain Law

It was too windy for a video this time, but I took the video below at the same time last year.

I am a big fan of the Australian writer Richard Flanagan and I have read several of his novels over the years. I reviewed his Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North here. The book I finished recently is The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Review) and, true to form, this novel is much different from previous novels. The book is at heart, a story of a family and three siblings dealing with the hospitalisation of their Mother Francie, who is dying. The youngest – and poorest – child Tommy wants his mother to have a peaceful death, with careful medical attention to relieve the pain. The other two siblings, the much wealthier and highly educated Anna and Terzo, refuse to accept that their mother should die at all, and use their influence with contacts in the medical profession to put pressure on the hospital doctors to prolong Francie’s life, despite the pain and other side effects of the treatment.

The story is told mainly from Anna’s point of view. She deludes herself – in this reviewer’s opinion – that what she is doing is right, but I got the distinct impression that Anna feels that if her mother is allowed to die, she might die also. There is cruelty in the way Anna and Terzo prolong Francie’s life, focusing more on their own selfish desires than on their mother’s obvious pain and delirium. There is also cruelty to be seen in the backdrop to the novel, in which Australia is being threatened with destruction by wildfires and potential animal extinction. Flanagan the author is asking us – not just Australians – to pay more attention to climate change, rather than the constant demands of the digital age – Anna is obsessed with her phone’s Twitter feeds. There is an engrossing plot but no spoilers here.

Flanagan is a wonderfully expressive and sometimes poetic novelist. As Francie declines, Anna sees her mother’s body as “no more than a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in spider’s web”. On a more pleasant note, Flanagan describes parts of his native Tasmania, with Anna’s father looking at “the glittering azure of the sea, the ultramarine of the mountains, and the bands between of ploughed volcanic earth and vibrant forest and crops rippling in the racing cloud shadow”. A eucalyptus tree’s “writhing branches reminded Anna of a woman’s fingers stretching into a new glove” – the reader has to admire Flanagan’s imagination and ease of expression.

There is hope in the book, despite its dire background and hospital episodes, both for family relations and possibly for society IF we can control the effects of climate change and use digital technology to better and more productive us. A Richard Flanagan book is always worth reading and I urge you to read this one and appreciate the talent of this extraordinary novelist.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

The river Tweed at Peebles and hosts of daffodils

March 28, 2022

For our first visit to Peebles this year, we chose a bright sunny day to travel to the town in the Scottish borders. The last post on the blog about Peebles was in 2019 – see here. The historic town of Peebles (good photo) is an affluent borders community which attracts many visitors, particularly in Spring, Summer and Autumn. The walk along the wide and fast flowing River Tweed (many photos) is a must when visiting the town. We only has a short walk this time but there are more extensive walks around the town and you can download a brochure on walks here. The photo below is taken not far from the pedestrian bridge across the river and looks back to the town. There are many reflections in the photo, looking left to right you see the copper hedge, the still bare trees, the straw coloured grasses, the church and the trees beyond. The Old Parish Church (good photos) dominates the town skyline, the clock chimes every half hour and you can hear the sound of the bell for quite a distance. There is a path on either side of the river and both are well maintained.

River Tweed in Peebles (Click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

Walking towards the town, the photo below shows, on the left next to the bridge, the cauld (pr called) which is a Scots word for weir. In the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the word caul comes before cauld. One quotation from 1934 is “Dark, deep, and strong the river ran beneath the high-peaked bridge; then with a sullen roar it dropped — a foaming line of snow-white fury — beneath a high-banked caul”. In Peebles, they prefer cauld, not to be confused with the word being a Scots version of cold. The water is calm near the bridge and it then becomes a torrent as it reaches a small dip in the land beneath the river. Snow white fury above describes it well. It is at this point that you are aware of the noise of the river as it briefly gurgles furiously before becoming calmer. The church still points to the sky and the hills behind the town are clearly visible.

The cauld at Peebles

Then you come to the road bridge and its impressive structure. This is the Tweed Bridge and this Canmore site tells us that there is evidence of a stone bridge being at this point in the river from the 15th century. The bridge was widened in 1834 and then again between 1897 and 1900. The site also tells us that “This bridge over the Tweed appears to be a typical ca.1900 masonry structure, with its five arch spans of about 38 ft and parapets surmounted with decorative cast-iron dolphin lamps cast in Glasgow”, but that there is still evidence of older bridges underneath. This was a bridge built by highly qualified stonemasons and represents solidity and strength, as well as being aesthetically pleasing on the eye. More of the church is revealed through the stretching branches at the top left of the photo.

The Tweed Bridge at Peebles

My friend Paul in Wagga Wagga sent me a short video of the Murrumbidgee (many photos) riverside in the inland city, so I took this video below for him.

All of a sudden, it seems, in our gardens and parks and on roadsides and hillsides, the world has turned to yellow as daffodils make their annual appearance, and it is a heartening sign of Spring. Each year, I try to take photos of these elegant and graceful flowers in different locations. You can see last year’s post here. We now have a plethora of daffodils in our front garden and, as there is a gentle east wind, they are certainly fluttering if perhaps not dancing, in the breeze. I took the photo below on our walk last weekend in the village of Gifford (good photos) which, in running terms, is a half marathon from Dunbar. My wife has run this in the past but we drove there on Sunday. The tête-à-tête are huddled together and of course, may be having a tête-à-tête with each other, given the alternative definitions of the phrase in English. The Old Mill (photo) stood further on up the road near where the old station used to be and this listed buildings site describes it as “1725. 2-storey, rectangular plan granary with square-plan former kiln adjoined at S and single storey outbuildings added to N by early 19th century. Converted for residential purposes”. 

Tête-à-tête in Gifford

Nearer home, there is a hillside – adjacent to the Hillside Hotel appropriately enough – which for most of the year looks like dull and uninteresting waste ground, but it comes into its own with a show of several groups of daffodils scattered across its length. The photo below is of one of these groups/mini-hosts. It consists of white-petalled daffodils, known as Poeticus Narcissi and this site states that “Poeticus daffodils or narcissus also know as Pheasant’s Eye or Poet’s daffodil are timeless with a delicacy and elegance all of their own combined with their unique fragrance”. The brilliant white of the petals contrasts nicely with the yellow flower and the darker green stems. I did not get close enough to experience the “unique fragrance”, so must venture closer in future.

White petalled daffodils in Dunbar

In my own garden, I have a section with the same Poeticus Narcissi which sit beside some more “normal” yellow-petalled daffodils. They sit attractively above the stone wall which I built several years ago and cast long shadows along the coping slabs on top of the wall. What these daffodils also do, in the late March sunshine, it to cast shadows on each other and you can see this on closer inspection. On the right hand side, you can see some raspberry canes beginning to bud and I am hoping for a better crop than last year.

Daffodils above the stone wall

The final photo below shows a section of the garden next to the house and it is very pleasing on the eye, with its mixture of daffodils, grape hyacinth and red and white dwarf tulips. Grape hyacinths have the musical sounding scientific name of Muscari armeniacum and the flowers seem to appear overnight, while the green stems have been there since the end of last year. This site gives the name of the grape hyacinths and notes that “They are extremely attractive to spring-flying pollinators, particularly the hairy footed flower bee, Anthophora plumipes“. You can see some photos of this creature – new to me – here and it is one of the first bees to appear in Spring. They are apparently very small, so you will need a magnifying glass to spot the hairy feet.

Spring flower variety in our garden