Wednesday 23 April 2008

Poem: Hydrology

This poem was inspired by the rubbish weather we've had in the last 18 months. Here's hoping this summer is a bit better. (It can start improving this weekend if it wants!)

It started with a trickle
a gurgling murky drain
growing to a puddle
as it gathered day-fresh rain

But muckle's born of mickle
and it grew in strength a while
recruiting Neptune’s army
in every sodden mile.

and with every drip incessant
dam walls grow ever cracked
with a blockage in the system
probing water has a knack
of finding other ways –
in drips and drabs and drams:
Hydra's subtle gain
in this land of silent dams.

Lochs brimming on the blockage
and a landslide in Argyll
dams cracked fit to bursting
tides flooding up the kyle

amongst damp grass and stonework
of the headrace, concrete stained
gravity shouts “join me!”
to the waters just contained

and from rivers gorged with silt
and the sky burst into rain
from sink holes to sink estates
the deluge comes again!

weeds are growing
trouble sowing
wind a’blowing
dams o’er flowing

rivers rumbling
drains a'mumbling
culverts crumbling
rain keeps tumbling

Raise the gates!
Flood the valley!
Save the rich!
On hillside tarry!

Enroaching sea!
Sunken nation!

And now Westminster's flooded
the gunpowder unblown
our streets and fields are flooded
the barrier overthrown

high water walled with sandbags
comes welling out the drain
and all around the North Sea
one phrase remains the same
"I have a boat! I have a boat!"

oh rain!
Forty days ago I saw
beyond the Brixton riot
a fish-bone sky.
But, ere we see the sun
Avon be Avalon again.

Sunday 20 April 2008

An Ettrick Adventure

Ettrickbridge spans the Ettrick Water - a whitewashed line of cottages running down to the bridge, a leap of water in a small dark gorge, and trees overhanging the rushing, stone-filled afterleap. David Steel, the first Presiding Officer of the new Scottish Parliament, lives here in a 500-year old house above the river - Aikwood Tower, won in game of cards against Walter Scott, the 9th Duke of Buccleuch. There's a small museum to James Hogg, known popularly as the Ettrick Shepherd, a poet contemporary with Walter Scott (the famous author - not the 9th Duke). Hogg was known for his poetry, but today, it is his novel Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner that excites: a psychological thriller written decades before the genre was invented, a study of manic religiosity unsurpassed in the English language.

And we have not yet even started on the hill!

The day's objective, Ettrick Pen, is a long way from Selkirk. These hills form the watershed, and the long tail of the Ettrick prods far into Dumfriesshire, a quirk of geography draining into the basin of the Tweed, despite lying west of Annan and Carlisle. I had wanted to visit these hills for a while, mainly to look into the full length of the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall across Moffatdale from Andrewhinney Hill. But the wind blew strong from the east, and Andrewhinny and Ettrick Pen were ambitious targets for the same day in a strong east wind.

We parked at the Ettrick roadend to rushing water, rushing wind, trees rolling like ocean waves. A windy day for Ettrick Pen! A man and his wean and their dug with a cosy fire in Over Phawhope - "we were up the hills," he said, "but for my leg playing up." Steep and windy to the top of the Pen. This is the highest point to the border, visible south, and the land falls away in blocks of Sitka Spruce to the Solway Firth, with the snow-capped dome of The Cheviot east. North, the Moffatdale and Tweedsmuir fells, their corrie headwalls snow-wreathed below flat summits, Broad Law carrying a cap of snow still.

It was unpleasantly windy, and we headed west with our cold backs to it.

Annandale fell away west, beyond Croft Head: a gorge and the Southern Upland Way finding a way round the base of this hill. The Way crossed our route up towards Capel Fell, and I am glad we took a look into the Selcoth gorge. Because part of Capel Fell drops into the gorge, the regular hill slopes steepening from grass to loose rock. The rocks are eroding into infinite fins of sandstone, and on a level platform we chopped away at the friable rock to reveal fossilated looking ferns. How did sandstone form at 610m altitude? It was people asking questions like this that begat the ruination of religious orthodoxy. Perhaps Darwin and Hutton had banged away at hillsides like this, or Galileo stood on one to look at the stars.

Perhaps the Ettrick Shepherd had chiselled away at this very hillside too.

Friday 18 April 2008

The Trouble with Edinburgh

Anyone walking about Edinburgh's centre, the Royal Mile, New Town or South Bridge, cannot fail to be struck - by the dirtiness of Edinburgh's buildings. Consider the university's Old College, for example:

(no decent internet picture available, and my camera is still in repair - hurry up Canon!)

Dirt dating back to the nineteenth century cakes the sandstone exterior, black soot impregnated into the stone. The same is true for the neoclassical grid of the New Town, filthy as a miner's fingernail. Why not give them a good wash? Edinburgh is dark and grim at the best of times. Give us some bright streetscapes, Edinburgh!

Tuesday 15 April 2008

The Lunchtime Run

My occasional jogging route is around Queen's Drive on Arthur's Seat. This is hilly and the thought of it can be intimidating if you're not in the mood, but it never fails to provide enjoyment once out of the office and up the hill.

Today the sun shone on vibrant green grass, wet from April showers, with snow on the distant Ochils and Highlands beyond the Forth Bridge, glimpsed in the distance through clear air. Daffodils are out and cherry blossom too, the trees full of birdsong. It was warm today - the warmest day of the year? Or was I just hot from running?

I saw a Chinaman in a touristy family group grab a swan by the neck on Dunsapie Loch. "Haw, Chinky-baws!" I yelled, but his family were already scolding him, and he let go. I don't normally speak like that, but I've never seen a swan handled like a snake either.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Loch Leven Castle

Historic Scotland's free entry day was on Sunday, so like a fair few others we took the opportunity of a free boat trip to Loch Leven Castle.

Ducks bobbed on the choppy grey water as the cheerful boatman took us across the loch, the surrounding hills falling away as we reached open water, huge clouds sailing stately across the sky. No one else seemed to be on the loch except two trout fishermen in a small rowing boat. Gliders rode the winds above the escarpments of the Lomond Hills and Benarty. The small castle sits on an island in the loch, and doesn't take long to explore. It is best known for Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent an unhappy year imprisoned here from June 1567 and May 1568, between her defeats at Carberry and Langside. She escaped disguised as a maid, and, given the intimacy of the castle, one wonders how this was accomplished undetected.

My favourite story about the castle is older. In 1301 it was beseiged by an English force. They decided to dam the outlet to the loch to flood the defender, John Comyn, out. But, as John wondered what could be done, the English force retreated to a neary church to feast and celebrate Michaelmas. While they were away, Comyn's men undermined the dam: and after they came back, drunk, the Scots seized their opportunity, rowed across the loch with muffled oars as their enemies slept, and burst the dam, drowning the force below.

The moral of this story: don't camp beneath temporary dams.

View from a window in Loch Leven Castle:
Loch Leven Castle

There is another curiosity about Loch Leven, overlooked by the Lomond Hills, and drained by the River Leven. That is that there is another Loch Leven, overlooked by a Lomond, and drained by a River Leven - but at some point in history, this other Loch Leven was renamed Loch Lomond. Why were there two such similarly named lochs and hills so close to each other in Central Scotland?

Friday 11 April 2008

Poem: The Stone Room

Why is not
the stone of Scotland:

a pillar of Mull basalt
a weathered board of gneiss
the pink of Nevis granite
or crumbled muds of Fife
red vivid Angus heartstone
or whitened Atholl quartz?

Orange Merseland richloam
a lump of Lanark coal,
precious Lowther goldstone
black polished, Reekie's soul,
or silver-speckled slab hewn
from Cairngorm or Aberdeen?

A Caithness plate of split slate
grey as the eyes of seamen
a rough thrust of Skye gabbro
where torn skin made a free man
the fossil-beach of Jura -
or weathered Orkney sandstone?

Of all these I will sing.

But in the castle's stone room
can we really hear
the keening stone of Scotland?
This trapped stone pathetic
does it really fool us
and do we even care?

For boys of destiny
still play under Argyll skies -
freedom is a noble thing.
I found myself some bedrock
and in time-honoured tradition
have proclaimed myself a king.

The Stone of Destiny

Greyfriars Kirk was just an afterthought, a digestif after visiting Edinburgh Castle. As pleasantly surprised as I was with Greyfriars, I was as disappointed with the Stone of Destiny. It is smaller than expected, and the most unprepossessing and apologetic of rocks. But perhaps we should not be too underwhelmed. After all, the legends state that it was a black meterorite, carved into a seat, that never left Perthshire - and other legends say that it never even left Ireland in the first place - it is preferable, when confronted with the disappointments of reality, to entertain the legends.

The Stone of Destiny and the Honours of Scotland:

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Poem: Whiteadder and Black

(A story of two rivers)

Whiteadder and Blackadder
serpentine in riverbeds
Where mill wheels turned now kayaks
run upon their rushing heads.

Adder black in kames and esskers
sloughs the mud it has for skin
the adder white hides in the hills
- on adder white we hunt the fin.

The adders meet at Tweedsnake
swallowed up by waters braw -
they're disgorged at the final bend
upon an English haugh -
grown fat on Merse food.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Poem: Mouth Music

I have seen many battlefields
the Boyne, Langside, and Flodden
but over none does the wind
blow its mouth music
so mournfully as over Culloden.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Greyfriars Kirk

Many's the time I've walked past Greyfriars Kirk, looked up the alley to the building, and disinterestedly walked on by. So this last week, we popped in to have a close look. I was amazed. It has the most interesting graveyard I've ever seen in Scotland - scores of 17th and 18th century graves, climbing the ancient walls of the city and nearby tenements like stone ivy. Here are buried some of the most prominent people in Edinburgh and Scottish life - a hidden garden, right in the heart of the city centre. It is a historic place - founded by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the place where the Covenant was signed in 1638 - and the place where many Covenanters were imprisoned after their capture at the Battle of Drumclog, awaiting the gallows.

After hours, this graveyard becomes the haunt of local goths, down-and-outs, and ghost tours - which seem to have blossomed recently. But on a spring day of lovely sunshine, with the cherry blossom coming out and roccoco decoration to the dead everywhere, there could be fewer spots in central Edinburgh more peaceful and pleasant for a picnic than the grounds of this Kirk. There is something very Edinburgh about this dichotomy, this dislocation between degradation and culture.

Unfortunately my camera has died, so you will just have to be satisfied with a word picture!