Wednesday 28 March 2012

The Heatwave

After a day of thick haar, we woke on Sunday to the song of the blackbird and a promise of perfection in each dewdrop jewelling the lawn. The sky was grey blue, bright and pale in the east, last night's laundry hanging in utter stillness. As soon as I returned from the shops for morning rolls with the heat already rising it was obvious the roads and beaches would be mobbed. I pictured abandoned cars all round Portobello, large families with dogs and ice creams on the sands, roving groups of teenagers with their tongues barely rolled up, tomorrow's papers with the obligatory shot of a girl in a bikini in a city park and the headline 'Hotter Than Spain', ghettoblasters and barbeques...

Portobello beach (source: the Scotsman):

We wanted to get out but also avoid the crowds. The car had to be avoided at all costs. What better way of enjoying the unexpected heat than taking to two wheels down the cool avenue of the Penicuik to Musselburgh cycleway, following the River South Esk?

River Esk:

I had changed into shorts and deck shoes and it felt like a summer holiday's cycle through France. 'Ne'er cast a cloot till May is oot' goes the old saying. Well March is still with us, and the cloots were well cast.

Debouchment of the Esk at Musselburgh:

At Musselburgh we dropped the bikes for a picnic and a wander at the mouth of the Esk, ducks being pestered by drakes and a load of honking, splashing Canada geese landing for a rest on their way to the arctic summer. I had forgotten that Musselburgh has its own small beach, and it was far quieter than Portobello.

Musselburgh beach:

When we got home the radio announced it had been the hottest March day on record, 22.8 degrees C in Aberdeenshire (and has been hotter since - 23.6 degrees C). A thought occurred to me as I watched the hazy red ball of the sun setting over the rooftops of our town. This winter just past has been the first since I started hillwalking twenty one years ago that I have not used my ice axe.

Saturday 24 March 2012

St Cyrus

Montrose is a 15 minute detour on the drive between Aberdeenshire and Midlothian. If you want to break the journey this detour is worth taking, because it means you can spend time on the beach at St Cyrus.

St Cyrus beach:

This is a magical place with the tide out, littered with semi-precious stones such as agates for the gem hunter, and some Elie Chain Walk-style rocks (with coral in the rock pools) at the northern end.


The beach, like many along the east coast, was once a workplace. The work has gone, along with the salmon nets until recently visible at low tide, but the fishing bothies remain, in the dunes between the cliff edge and the beach.

Old fishing bothies:

The cliffs are slowly eroding, and this house will not be much longer occupied unless drastic measures are taken:

House on the edge:

Clifftop view:

As we ascended the steps from the clifftop to the beach, I saw a black shape in the water. What was it? I watched a bit longer - and saw a dolphin! And then another! Suddenly there were half a dozen of them, breaking the surface not far beyond the surf, heading perhaps for the fishing grounds at the mouth of the Tay that are already the haunt of the grey seal.


What was meant to be a short leg-stretch of half an hour turned easily into an hour and a half. Twice that time on the beach would not have been a stretch, mingling with the seagulls at the sandbar as the sun went down, chipping at the rocks for agates, and watching dolphins beyond the surf.

Monday 19 March 2012

St Brides of Dalgelty

Whilst I am in daffodil mood, here is another wee gem of a walk not far from us, across the water in Fife.

Edinburgh and Inchcolm from Aberdour:

The Fife coastal path (voted second best coastal path in Britain (after Pembrokeshire) by readers of 'Coast' magazine) is, apart from the stretch between Leven and Buckhaven, an underrated beauty. In a country whose outdoor enthusiasts are largely calibrated towards hills, a low-level, lowland coastal path on the east coast attracts very little attention. Yet I would have the two-day jaunt from St Andrews to Elie (taking in, if possible, the Elie Chain Walk) in my list of top 100 walks in Scotland. There are plenty of easy stretches on this path, and we planned to do a short walk from Aberdour to Inverkeithing. I wanted to see again the great mass of daffodils carpeting the route between Aberdour and Dalgety Bay, and wasn't disappointed.

Daffodil avenue:

These daffodils are out early, and are picked by volunteers to raise funds for Cancer Research. Go now if you want to see them! I like daffodils. They mark the end of winter, a colourful marker of the longer days and warmer weather of spring, and herald the arrival of my favourite flower of all, the cherry blossom.

Daffs close up:

After the daffs comes the commuter town of Dalgety Bay. But first, tucked in a coastal suntrap, surrounded by ivy clad tree trunks, rustling gently in the breeze, the sea lapping the precinct wall and saturated with sunshine and dappled shade, is the ruin of St Bridget's, dating from at least 1178, and remaining in use through the reformation until the early 19th century. Now it is a peaceful, aged ruin.

St Bridget's:

All around St Bridget's are gravestones dating from the 18th century and earlier, some lying at crazy angles as the bodies beneath have long since sunk into nothingness.

St Bridget's skull:

What a place to be buried!

What a spot to entertain thoughts of eternity!

After the daffodils and St Bridget's, the walk skirts the town of Dalgety Bay, the wild rugged cliffs of Downing Point on one side, the neat suburban lawns of the post-war housing on the other. And at the far side of Dalgety Bay, the Forth Bridge becomes visible:

Forth Bridge at the end of the Fife coastal path:

But we did not go as far as that. Inverkeithing and a sudden blast of spring showers was far enough for us for a stroll. How good to get out the house and luxuriate in sunshine for the first time this year.

Mercat Cross, Inverkeithing:

Friday 9 March 2012

Brodie Daffs

This year the daffodils are out early. St David's Day is 1 March and in Wales is traditionally marked with the wearing of daffodils. Normally there are none in Scotland until later in the month. This is the first year I can recall daffodils being in bloom in Central Scotland on St David's Day.

Pink-harled Brodie castle:

If you like daffodils, the premier place is Brodie Castle near Forres, home of the national narcissus collection. For someone unversed in horticulture, it may seem astonishing that there is a national collection of daffodil species. But why not? It is comforting to think there are people out there dedicating their lives to preserving daffodils.

In the walled garden:

From 1899 to 1943, the 24th Laird of Brodie, Ian Brodie, grew and propagated new daffodil species. A kind and sensitive man, he was deeply affected by his war experience, and on his retiral from the army in 1917 took solace in his daffs, cross-breeding 25,000 seedlings. These were meticulously logged in his notebooks and only 414 were deemed worthy of being named.

Two of the unusual varieties grown at Brodie:

According to local historian Margaret Woodward, there were several mishaps with the breeding programme, including this one:
a group of children, wishing to make a toy farmyard, tumbled the bulbs from several separate labelled boxes into one. The irreversible mixing of six years of breeding results earned the oldest child, who confesses she should have known better, two days on bread and water.
In 1978 the 25th Laird, short of money, decided to sell Brodie castle to the National Trust, against his children's wishes. The castle is now open from Easter till September, and the gardens all year round.

The classic view:

I have a confession to make. Last year we took the plunge and entered the realm of middle-age and middle-class. We joined the National Trust. For the rest of the year we only flashed our cards at another two sites. Many National Trust sites (Glencoe, Kintail) are free to visit, and many of the most interesting cared for castles and other historic sites in Scotland are not under NTS care (Historic Scotland, for example, does not have membership compatible with NTS, a real shame).

But there are still a few months left on our membership. Expect a slew of posts from National Trust sites over the coming months!

Saturday 3 March 2012

Gridiron Glasgow

Here's a question: Why does Glasgow often stand in for period American cities in Hollywood movies?

The answer is Glasgow's late Victorian and Art Nouveau gridiron architecture. Unlike the cities of the US, Glasgow did not continue to thrive and grow much after the Victorian era. The slums were knocked down and vast peripheral estates built, but no skyscrapers were erected in the centre, making Glasgow perfect for those atmospheric shots of 1900s New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

A former Clydesdale Bank:

Like North American cities, the centre of Glasgow is built on a strict grid pattern, climbing up Blythswood Hill from the High Street.

St Vincent Street:

Look up, and you'll see all kinds of wonderful details on the richly decorated facades, minarets and cupolas.

St Vincent Street Church:

Window detail, Gordon Street:

Before the late 19th century banking crash, Glasgow, the self-proclaimed 'Second City of Empire' hosted a major financial sector. Over the course of the 20th century the liquidity in Glasgow banks tended to concentrate in London, but not before handsome bank buildings were thrown up in the centre.

The Royal Bank:

It is easy to end up with a cricked neck wandering around the centre of Glasgow. I am especially keen on the post-Victorian, Art Nouveau architecture littering the centre:

The Beresford:

Period Lintel:

Dental Hospital:

So if you are a film maker, there's no need to cross the Atlantic to find Gotham. Glasgow has temples of commerce, sin and redemption all of its own.