Granton is changing a lot, very quickly. Today I plan to make the first of a series of walks using different maps of Granton to document the area, to make an extended snapshot in time. I am interested to see where this place begins and ends and how it borders on its neighbours.
Today I will set off in a clockwise direction, following the map I photographed at the National Galleries presentation of their new project, Art Works, at the Edinburgh College in June 2022.
from Granton View via Lufra Bank
up Granton Rd and right onto the cycle path
off at Pilton Drive, and westwards along Ferry Road
down Crewe Rd North back towards the sea
turning at the ‘new’ gas building by Caroline Park
along Waterfront Ave to the harbour (I will wait to see how I manage that because access to the boundary is cut off here and the Western and Eastern Breakwaters are not connected by land but by the Firth of Forth rushing between them)
Wardie Bay beach
up Wardie Steps
to the post box
completing the circle
I have been on these roads and trails many times, however, as a long-time Zen practitioner I am trying to start without expectations of what I may find. I am ready to encounter and notice what arises. As a psychogeographer, I will resist straying if my interest is piqued, but will take care to look into corners and pay as much attention to the urban as the rural, the so-called banal as the beautiful. As a secular pilgrim, this is known territory, very different from walking a new path as a pilgrimage usually is for me, nevertheless, this short journey is a pilgrimage. I will leave home, skirt a venerated place, and return. There is no triumphant arrival, but the return. It will inevitably be some sort of transformation, for me, for the landscape through which I will travel, and for those (human and more-than-human) I meet along the way.
“Such journeys served a variety of functions: a pilgrim might set out to fulfill a vow, to expiate a crime, to seek a miraculous cure, or simply to deepen his or her faith.”
This blog is related to walks I have led in life and online which focus on the lives of Leith’s women. The next walk is to celebrate International Women’s Day on Saturday March 11 2023 meeting at Rosebank Cemetery at 1.30pm. Book on Eventbrite here. This event is free to attend.
Focus on women
I am focusing on women’s stories because as a woman and a feminist I need to know who came before me, about my backstory; it helps me sense my place in the continuum of the generations. I have a special interest in the lives of people who are forgotten or overlooked, and especially those who were connected to the area where I have lived for so long. I took solitary and group walks to visit the graves of notable women in Rosebank Cemetery, North Leith Burial Ground, and South Leith Parish Church, stopping at streets between them to discover more about the women who lived there.
Located by the sea, we have records of Leith’s wharfs being in use as far back as the eleventh century, and know that by the fourteenth, it had become the principal port. (After that Glasgow took over, offering quicker passages to the Americas). The docks (named after Victoria (the Queen), Albert (her consort) and so on) were built between 1817-1904. By 1833, we know that Leith had grown into a powerful independent burgh. In 1920 there was a plebiscite about joining the City of Edinburgh, and the people voted 26,810 to 4,340 against. Despite this, the merger went ahead, but to this day Leith has a distinctive and independent character. Many of the women we will be finding out about will have seen those changes happening; they and their families would have relied on the goods and business which was channeled through the port, and sailed in and out through it.
I have spent a great deal of time trying to discover information about the women buried in Leith, and have not found as much as I would have hoped. I did come across a record with the names of the women in the Leith Poor House in the eighteenth century which made very interesting reading, but very little detail about their lives, and thus I scoured newspaper cuttings, Facebook, local history groups, and online links for associated details. Nevertheless, thinking about these women I never knew, searching for details about their lives, and trying to understand what it might have been like for them to live in Leith / Scotland in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries has been worthwhile, emotionally and symbolically.
As we all know, behind the inventions and developments, the ports and ships and grand buildings which were built then and which have survived almost entirely with the names of men attached to them, were the women and girls giving birth, loving and supporting them.
The women who were buried with headstones, so that we know their name and sometimes, their family affiliations, came from monied families and/or were married to monied gentlemen. Although the language you will find on them is archaic to our ears ‘Sarah Adam relict of Alex…’ these were wives, sisters and mothers who were ‘loved and respected’ and ‘much missed’. I will continue to be interested and to listen to as many stories as I can, to unearth not the bodies but the lives of them.
One of the most famous graves in Rosebank is that commemorating Ida Bononomi (probably Italian). It reads, ‘Sacred to the memory of Miss Ida Bonanomi, the faithful and highly esteemed dresser of Queen Victoria, who departed this life October 15 1854, in the 37th year of her age. Beloved and respected by all who knew her.This stone had been placed by Queen Victoria as a mark of her regard’.
Bononomi’s job was a position of extreme intimacy with the monarch. In the Autumn of 1854, Ida had been travelling in Scotland with the Queen and stayed with her at Holyrood Palace where she fell ill. She was therefore unable to travel on with her mistress. In her journal, the Queen wrote, ‘Saw Sir James Clark, who brought me a telegram with the sad news that my excellent maid Ida Bononomi, whom I had had to leave at Holyrood as she had become so ill, not having been well at Balmoral before – had died last night. It was a great shock to me, & I was thoroughly upset, for no one, including Sir James had apprehended any immediate danger. She was the kindest, gentlest, best being possible, & such a pleasant servant, so intelligent, so trustworthy & her calm, quiet manner had such a soothing effect, on my often over wrought nerves. To lose her thus, and so far away, surrounded only by strangers is too grievous. Everyone was shocked & grieved, for she was quite adored.’
Queen Victoria liked funerals and had an interest in the protocol of mourning, ‘a mentality as much as a personal observance’ (see below for references). It is known that she recognised the deaths of her housemaids and others with ritual in which other members of the household were required to be involved, and also that she visited Ida’s grave six years after she died.
There are, of course, many other graves of interesting women in this cemetery, and there is also one which commemorates the stillborn babies who, by Scots law, cannot be cremated and must be buried. Annie Blackie is said to be the oldest person buried here (105 years). There is a rare female WW1 grave to E G Elder of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (7/7/18) and a WW2 memorial to E W L Fruish, also of the WRNS.
Also, Held in our Hearts charity providing baby loss counselling and peer support to families. Tracy Watt can be contacted here firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessie Mann (1805-1867) is a strong candidate for Scotland’s first female photographer. She was known to be the studio assistant of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and worked at Rock House, Calton Hill. Later a school housekeeper in Musselburgh, she died of a stroke aged 62. She is thought to be the photographer of the King of Saxony which hangs in the Portrait Gallery on Queen’s Street (yes! the same queen).
According to a Commission for Racial Equality paper, it is important that Scottish cemeteries set aside a section for Muslim graves, as is the case in Rosebank. It is important that they are raised 4-12 inches above the ground, as it is forbidden to walk over them. Before burial, the body will be washed in a ritual manner (Ghusl), usually in the Mosque, then taken to the grave where a prayer is said (Salat Al-Janazah). Then the body is wrapped in 1 or 2 sheets of white cloth and laid in the grave (traditionally without a coffin, and strictly only one person per grave). The headstones are usually simple.
Turning left out of Rosebank, we can walk across the junction and along Newhaven Road. Second on the right is Elizafield, named after Eliza, a native of Leith, and the woman who bore Dr. Robert Grant (not Dr Robert Edmond Grant, zoologist). I have not been able to find out anything about her and her life – her story has disappeared, perhaps deemed less important than his, despite the fact that he would not exist if it weren’t for her, not least because birthing was such a dangerous task in the 1780’s.
Historically it [birth] was thoroughly natural, wholly unmedical, and gravely dangerous. Only from the early eighteenth century did doctors begin getting seriously involved, with obstetrics becoming a medically respectable specialty and a rash of new hospitals being built. Unfortunately, the impact of both was bad. Puerperal, or childbed, fever was a mystery, but both doctors and hospitals made it worse. Wherever the medical men went the disease grew more common, and in their hospitals it was commonest of all.
Eliza’s son was a surgeon and left Leith in his twenties (1782-92) to settle, very successfully, in South Carolina (USA) marrying Sarah Foxworth. The rice plantation he established in Georgia was also named Elizafield, and, as was the way then, it only drew the produce and profits it did, as a result of the female and male slaves who carried out the work: they were, ‘the driving force behind the success of the plantation’. (Amy Hedrick, author on glynngen.com).
Women in industry
Flaxmill Place is almost opposite Elizafield. Flax was used to make linen, most of which was exported from Scotland, and it was a very successful industry employing 10 – 12000 workers, many of whom would have been women (although the exact data is unavailable).
The Bonnington Mills, on the banks of the Water of Leith, made woollen cloth as well as linen, and much of the wool was produced by women in their own homes nearby. As the owners were always aiming to improve profits and cut corners, they controversially introduced Flemish and French workers (who were accommodated at Little Picardy(ie), the current Picardy Place). The women and girls spun the cambric yarn (for the close-woven, light type of linen) to try and improve the quality of the cloth, but this took away the local jobs.
Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread source of female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so the majority of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun, found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew, taking the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.
In 1686, the first Parliament of James VII passed an ‘Act for Burying in Scots Linen‘, the object of which was to keep the home-made cloth in the country. It was enacted that, “hereafter no corpse of any persons whatsoever shall be buried in any shirt, sheet, or anything else except in plain linen, or cloth of hards, made and spun within the kingdom, without lace or point.” Heavy penalties were attached to breaches of the Act, and it was made the duty of the parish minister to receive and record certificates of the fact that all bodies were buried as directed. On hearing this, we can imagine that the women in the graves we were visiting may have been bound in just such a linen shroud, made right in this place.
Here are the remains of the Catherine Sinclair drinking fountain – the first ever such watering place. She was a children’s writer and philanthropist (1800-1864) and it can be found at Steadfastgate, Gosford Place. See the Women of Scotland site for more details.
North Leith Burial Ground
Colonel Lady Anne Mackintosh (b 1723-1787) was the daughter of John Farquharson, the chief of the clan and staunch Jacobite. She married the head of the Mackintosh(es) when she was aged 19 and was feisty by all accounts, known as one of the damn rebel bitches (the name of a book by Maggie Craig). These were women who acted as moral supporters for their men. They served in intelligence and communication roles, built support for the movement, sheltered Jacobite fugitives, and had their image torn apart by the enemy press in the papers’ attempt to discredit the Jacobite cause.
When Anne was 22, she dressed in male attire and rode around the Scottish glens to enlist men to fight in a regiment for the cause Prince Charlie. This was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart in what became known as the 1745 Jacobite uprising or ’45 rebellion’ or, simply, ‘The 45’. The numbers of men she raised are different in each account, from 97 to 200, 350, even 400! If the women who supported the cause in such a way were captured…..
“The ‘ladies’ all got off with at worst, a brief term of imprisonment. Some made pretty speeches to King George and got their husbands released and their lands restored. Even when in prison they were well treated, and allowed their silk gowns and nice food. This applied even in cases where they were clearly guilty of treason. ‘Common women’, on the other hand, mostly got shipped off to the West Indies as slaves for life, usually for doing nothing more than following their husbands on campaign.”
During the uprising Captain Angus Mackintosh, her husband, fought on the losing Government side at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 and was subsequently captured. He was later released into Anne’s custody. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, however, when the tides turned, Anne herself was held in Inverness for six weeks before being turned over to her mother-in-law, whose family had fought for the other side. These family disagreements were eventually forgiven and Anne and her family moved to Leith where she died in 1784 and was buried in North Leith Burial Ground which would have had a church beside it in those days.
The memorial stones at North Leith Burial Ground are old (1664 – 1820) and varied. You can find grand mausoleums and individual slabs – some half buried and unintelligible. Almost all have engravings and carvings are worth seeing. I suggest we search for the grave of Lady Mackintosh as well as carvings of a long bone, angels, skulls and hourglasses (some on their sides and others upstanding, the sands of time sifting down through the narrow neck as life passes by).
Queen Charlotte Street
Crossing the Water of Leith again, along Sandport Place and Tolbooth Wynd, is Queen Charlotte Street, named after the Queen of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). She is remembered in Queens Square, Bloomsbury, London with a statue (see above). Charlotte was an immigrant and did not support slavery (there is a bit of a theme emerging here!)
Sara Sheridan, in her book Where are the Women, tells of Elizabeth Nicol (1807-189), an abolitionist, anti-segregationist, suffragist, and chartist who “attended the World Anti-slavery Convention in London in 1840 as one of only six British female delegates. On arriving the women were told, despite their objections, they could not participate and were made to sit in a segregated area.”
Queen Charlotte was a reknowned botanist and founded Kew Gardens. Married to King George III, she had fifteen (that’s 15) children and was, famously, painted by Allan Ramsey (also an anti-slavery campaigner) in 1762, when she was aged 17 years. The painting is owned by the Scottish National Galleries. Recent articles have posed the question whether she was of African origin herself which would explain her support.
Round the corner and on to Constitution Street is St Mary’s Star of the Sea, a Catholic church and home to the missionary oblates.
Hail, Queen of Heav'n, the ocean Star, Guide of the wand'rer here below! Thrown on life's surge we claim thy care, Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea, Pray for the wanderer, pray for me
Based on the anonymous Latin hymn, Ave Maris Stella
South Leith Parish Church
Further up the same street is St Mary’s Chapel, part of South Leith Parish Church, dating from 1483, and its graveyard. I spent some considerable time researching the women in this kirkyard, trying to find out their stories, but to almost no avail. I focused on another Charlotte, Charlotte Lindesay (1780-1857 aged 77), and did manage to discover that she was one of a brood of six from Feddinch in Fife, and that her parents were William Lindesay and Elizabeth Balfour. In 1805, she married her cousin, Patrick who was very active in the community.
Amongst other jobs, Patrick was the president of the Leith Dispensary and Humane Society which was formed in 1825 on Maritime Street, later to become Leith Hospital, bringing healthcare (via a clinic and hospital, both initially in Broad Wynd) to the poor. I like to imagine Charlotte accompanying him, or even visiting the needy with a basket over her arm as portrayed in countless Jane Austen films, but I am woefully ill informed about her true particulars.
The forerunner of that Leith Hospital was the Old King James Hospital in the Kirkgate, founded in 1614 and closed in to make room for the new one in Sheriff Brae overlooking Mill Lane in1822. You can still see part of the wall close by the South Leith Parish Church.
If you were one of the very first groups of female students who were finally ‘allowed’ to do clinical training at a Scottish hospital in 1886, you would have done it in Leith – in your long skirts and tight waisted costumes.
Christine Hoy tells us about the first district nurse, Mrs Brown whose role it was “to carry out faithfully the doctors’ orders, to instruct the relations or friends of the patient in the art of good nursing and to inculcate, and if necessary enforce, attention to cleanliness”. The hospital paid for her to attend a nursing course at King’s College, London. Popular and hardworking she made 13,000 home visits in 1877 alone. More information on The Edinburgh Seven. Leith Hospitals information here.
Some other women associated with this church
Mary of Guise (also called Mary of Lorraine), ruled Scotland as regent from 1554 until her death in 1560. A noblewoman from the Lotharingian House of Guise, which played a prominent role in 16th-century French politics, Mary became queen consort upon her marriage to King James V of Scotland in 1538. (Wikipedia). She worshipped at this church in 1559 and her coat of arms is displayed in the entrance today. Mary had fortified the town and she was in Leith being guarded by the thousands of French troops stationed there at the time.
There is also an altar dedicated to St Barbara who had a very sad and sorry life. Wanting to dedicate herself to Christ instead of marrying the man her father wanted her to (Dioscorus, 7th century), she was tortured and her father chopped her head off. He got his comeuppance, apparently, being struck by lightening and reduced to ashes. Perhaps this is why she is invoked in thunderstorms. She is also the patroness of miners, although I am not sure why. (From the Britannica and Archdiocese of St Andrews on facebook).
When excavating for the trams in 2019, mass graves were found. There were 50 per cent more bodies of women than men, and the bodies were smaller than the average woman today, showing signs of malnourishment compared to the national average even then. An exhibition and book were made and it was posited that they had something to do with the plague and/or that they were from the poorhouse. There is a banner in the entrance to The Museum of Edinburgh with some information about this and the book is sold in the shop there.
The graves of Jane Eliza Mackie and Jane Smart (left)
As a way of paying respect to the women whose names I discovered here, I made a list of them, together with their relationships, but omitted the names of their male relatives. This is to recognise how many women we know so little about, and the manner in which they were remembered. I will read out the list during the walk, in remembrance.
These have been women’s stories, of their families, interests, occupations and deaths. They are often seen through the eyes, or in the context of men, making it hard to celebrate them in their own right, but the search to find out more about them was well worth it and is by no means over.
Walking Artists Network and Women Who Walk
Tamsin Grainger is a member of Women Who Walk and the Walking Artists Network. The network is for those who use walking in their creative or academic practice. It includes artists, writers, field historians and archaeologists, psychogeographers, academics and more.
We celebrated the festival of Terminalia by looking for the invisible line that marks the mutual edge of Edinburgh and East Lothian.
Along the way we looked for hermits, skylarks, horses, incinerators, filmmakers, and a shoe tree. We found all this and we offered our libations to Terminus.
Terminus was one of the really old Roman gods – more of a symbol of the basic patterns of reality – he didn’t have a face, he was literally a stone marker. Terminus was given influence over less physical boundaries too, like that between two months, or between two groups of people. Terminalia was celebrated on the 23rd February – which was the last day of the Roman Year, the boundary between two new year. …Traditionally, feasting and sacrifices were performed during Terminalia at boundary markers. In Roman times for the festival the two owners of adjacent property crowned the statue with garlands and raised a rude altar, on which they offered up some corn, honeycombs, and wine, and sacrificed a lamb or a sucking pig. Today we can look back and acknowledge the timeless pattern of boundaries and landmarks.
We began on the coast between Musselburgh and Portobello and walked a route via Newhailes (National Trust for Scotland) for loos and a cup of tea. We spotted spoil heaps and culverts, railway lines, bridges and the hermitage, and ended at Newcraighal Shopping Centre which is on top of the old mine shafts and site of the Niddrie Brickworks.
This project was conceived by Kel Portman. We drew a straight, red line the length of the UK on a phone map between our homes (334 miles) and started to walk along it towards each other; Kel from his doorstep in Gloucestershire and I from mine in Edinburgh. We allowed one day and had to abandon before meeting in the middle.
5th April 2022
Let’s begin with the weather! It was wet, not pouring though, and I was on familiar ground. Strange that one’s sense of distance changes if you set out for long walk – I seemed to be in Inverleith Park in a matter of minutes. Slow came the raindrops.
I passed a worm on the pavement and admired a Tree Creeper bird as he did just that.
I have a book of poetry with me by Denise Riley, ‘Say Something’. Stopping after 2,108 steps in Stockbridge, overlooking the Water of Leith and one of Andy Galsworthy’s statues, I count 21 words from the first of the book and write the next ones on the tabula rasa of my flag: “I understood as a stone”.
I added to my flag at each of my stopping places and in this way I made a Found Poem for the walk.
I took the hint and put myself in to the rock that I was standing and leaning on. I felt stalwart.
Walking further uphill through the New Town, there are removal men stacking a truck. One says, “it looks like you’re surrendering”. I remember a conversation with a Polish taxi driver last week who said that the Ukraine should surrender, to save lives. That was during the fifth week of this pointless war that Putin is waging. Perhaps my flag is going to prompt some interesting and topical conversations with people I might otherwise never discuss politics.
I guess I am surrendering to the route to the idea of this walk, and to the wet.
Phone call #2 with Kel is at 10.03am. I tell him that, of course, Edinburgh residents are used to people doing weird stuff on the street, because of the annual summer Festival with its buskers and theatricals. My new app said 2,891 steps so 28 words further on into Riley’s book I copy my second phrase in the orange pen: “stream with mud-shall I never get it clear”.
Moving from one watercourse to another, I am making my way steadily behind the west side of Lothian Road to Lochrin Quay, the beginning of the Union Canal. Here are swans and seagulls and the start of the water’s journey to Glasgow and the west.
Still attempting to follow the red line as closely as possible, I am being taken a new way, winding through residential areas which are peaceful, all except for repeated deliveries – vans hopscotching up the street from door to door.
To surrender: to give in. Also – to allow your instinct or others you trust to lead you. To listen to what’s drawing you on, for signals to turn right or left. It is a blend of controlling and releasing control.
Surrender – I’m getting interested in this ‘given’ theme: to say ‘yes’ to Kel’s prompt, follow the line which happens to connect us on the map and see what happens.
Now I’m entering ‘the South Side’ of the city. I nip into the Bike Shop for a wee. More climbing. More detours around gardens that only key holders are able to sit in. Where to have my picnic? I cannot find any seats – it’s a recognised issue in Edinburgh which I understand is to stop homeless folk sleeping on them. Instead, I pass piles of grubby bedding at pavement corners. It must be so cold.
I perch on a post and nibble my oatcakes.
Number 3 stop is at 4,521 steps and I count 45 words by the railway line. I am noting the difference between my phone’s two step-counting apps (the other says 11,476 – oops).
On completely unfamiliar territory now, I’m meeting no-one and there are plenty of dead ends. It is raining more heavily on me and I’m having to stop constantly to consult the maps, compare them and try to find a route through. The phone is getting wet so I’m balancing the umbrella over it with one hand and using the other to awkwardly hold and tap at the same time. Still climbing. Still in a residential area, though this time of bungalows and front gardens and driveways.
I take a wrong turning around the Midmar Drive area where there are some trees, but mostly pavement, offering time for me to continue thinking about surrendering to the ground, letting it support my increasingly tired feet.
Eventually I am at the Hermitage of Braid and the Braid Burn, a small river running through woods. I love the smell of garlic, the crunch of pine cones underfoot and warmth of a little sun on my back. The café offers a seat, tea and a scone and I am reviving. Not far along is an abandoned dovecot / doocot, a community garden and some random-cut primroses lying on the path.
A man with a military moustache is with his wife, walking, and he makes comment on my flag. I explain. He guffaws that those who want peace must prepare for war and I repeat that I favour peace and surrender. He counters with “that’s a naughty word – surrender”. I give up.
Back and forward to find the way, I happily discover public toilets. Some nice Council men are clueless about the geography of the area, wish me “good luck”. It is a steep climb up and out, always travelling south towards my distant walking companion.
Turning back at a fallen tree because there’s a fence around the building, I cross a main road and must alternate crawling under brambles and pushing through yellow flowering gorse, then must retrace and try again further along. I’m flipping between the ordnance survey app, Google and my saved maps.
It’s windy up here. “Wha’s the white flag fer?” Asks another Council employee with a van and tools. “Are yer givin up?” “Peace?” He turns to his friend and says: “You need one a them Jimmy!” and Jimmy scowls.
It’s 7,487 steps up on golf courses with a great view across the city towards home and Inchkeith Island, far away now. A headache threatens so I sit on the red line (metaphorically speaking) for a cup of tea from my flask and a snack. Tiredness. Riley’s words are “Perking up”.
1.40pm and I’m feeling connected to Kel as we walk towards each other – like an internal compass adjusted south west, a magnet in my chest.
I must retrace my footsteps to Calachlaw and then it’s stop number 5 at 12,101 steps and I add to my flag: “But little songs”. Kel phones to say that he is abandoning his walk for the day. Frogston Road West. There’s an unidentifiable smell of chocolate and a new, blonde fence – harbinger of…?
And then I must walk an extra big loop back, at 5pm. Circumstances demand that I surrender. I must abandon my walk because of the man-made, traffic-laden road that has no pedestrian crossing. It’s 5 mins until the #11 bus is due to drive me back.
My found poem
I understood as a stone….stream with mud-shall I never get it clear ….. for kindness…. perking up…. But little songs…. we hope to find ourselves
Denise Riley from Maybe; maybe not and A Part Song @uealdc Denise Riley
From Denise Riley’s book: “for kindness”.
1st stage 8.86kms. 2nd 2.76kms. 3rd 17.09kms equals 28.71kms equals 17.84 miles. 6 and three quarters of an hour. 14025 pedometer, 28439 Huawei health app.
A small group of us met for a Community Walk on Wardie Bay by Granton Harbour, and walked along the coast in the direction of the Forth Bridges. We slid on the ice as far as the Boardwalk Beach Club and then headed inland to Lauriston Farm.
We were scanning for eider, curlew and oystercatchers, birds which are all currently on the RSPB Amber List because they are under threat from ocean pollution and decrease in habitat and safe feeding grounds.
The UK’s breeding curlew population has halved in the last 25 years.
Dogs were chasing the waders and we talked about how much energy the birds expend escaping them, energy they cannot afford to use up when the ground is frozen at this time of year and short daylight hours are filled with finding food.
There were eider ducks floating, thank goodness, plus cormorants and herring gull, redshank, guillemot and turnstones, great crested grebe, mergansers, and grey plover.
Other sightings: crows, robins, magpies, blackbirds, fieldfare, a heron, and a flock of linnets.
Lauriston Farm, higher up, offers a glorious view of the Fife hills. We stopped to chat with Toni, one of the tireless team who run it, and Bob, a local birder who said the curlew “are definitely coming back”. Not ten minutes later as we walked to the bus stop, he was proved right. By the road was a group wandering and feeding, and again, taking off when they were disturbed, needlessly, by a jogger who ran through their midst.
A community walk along the edge of the Firth of Forth to look for eider ducks, oyster catchers and curlew which are all on the RSPB amber list. This is the first post of two. The story of the walk is here.
Why we walked
“Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways, and ecological communities.
Whilst emphasising that these losses are rooted in violent and discriminatory governing practices, the day provides an opportunity for participants to make or renew commitments to all who remain, and to develop creative and practical solutions.
Remembrance Day for Lost Species honours diverse experiences and practices associated with enduring and witnessing the loss of cultural and biological diversity“
Starting at the end of the Eastern Breakwater at Granton Harbour and walking along through the industrial area between Granton Square and the end of the Silverknowes walkway, continuing along the front, then turning inland to Lauriston Farm.
Lauriston Farm write: “The north section of the farm is dedicated to habitat creation for coastal birds – we’re working to create the right conditions to encourage curlews and other wading and coastal wintering birds to return to the farm so they can find undisturbed areas to roost and feed. We have also seen a family of grey partridge (a red listed species) on the farm this year, and our work to create meadows, wetlands, hedgerows, field crops and tree lines plus a mixed management regime on grasslands will support this species as well as the curlews and other coastal birds.
The message we really want to get across is that we encourage and support people to visit and go for walks on Lauriston Farm *and* we really need visitors to help protect the north and middle field as a habitat for these endangered bird species. We ask all visitors to stay away from the north and middle fields, and to keep dogs away from those fields (look out for the maps on the farm that show the protected areas) so that the birds are not disturbed. We maintain a large area of grass to the east of the market garden to give space for dogs to play away from the north fields.
I have been involved in a project devised and documented by Kel Portman. A curator on this Walking the Land project, his initial invitation set off a chain of coincidences and connections to do with the passing of time and how we experience sound.
“As the equinox marks the cusp of seasonal changes with the beginning of Autumn in the North and Spring in the South, artists record their reflections on the transition, the changes of light and the passing of time.”
Stretching Time was my contribution.
I walked in Edinburgh on consecutive days, photographing the sunset on the 22nd September, and the sunrise on the 23rd. As the earth’s axis comes perpendicular to the sun which crosses the equator from north to south, we, in the Northern Hemisphere, are traditionally celebrating harvest and know that we are moving into a darker and colder, more restful and reflective period. At this auspicious occasion, we pass through a time of near balance of 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night (equi-nox : equal-night).
I time-ordered my photos, made an equator-axis tip, and then overlaid the images. I had been reading about “light being stretched and becoming redder” in The Guardian (24/9/22), and inspired by the James Webb telescope photo of Saturn, used a bloody tint. On that day, I was on a train crossing from Scotland to England and added some words about my own feelings at this time.
As the sun hits the equator And the earth tilts an iota, I marvel.
As the cells die in my body, And the train hurls itself southwards, I cry.
As the rain stops at the border, And the year passes the baton, I know I must change.
Then in October I attended an opening at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop where Alliyah Enyo‘s work, Selkie Reflections, is in the tower. It is an other-worldly soundscape, reminiscent of sea mammals’ song and Tibetan Tonqin Longhorn. She writes about whale sounds taking more time to travel through sea water, but being able to travel far longer distances, and she mentions stretching time:
This is much like the pathos experienced when listening to an audio recording of a person from years ago, as time is stretched and distended by a voice communicating from the past.
I had already been listening to David Haskell describing the way sea creatures hear with the whole body:
If I had a watery fish body, sound would penetrate through me. Aquatic beings are immersed in the sound that they’re in.
David George Haskell on Walk Listen Create
So, as I sat in the tower listening to Enyo’s installation, I imagined I was hearing through my watery, bodily fluids. My eyes were not shut, but I could see horizontal, parallel wavy lines between me and the walls, and there were layers of sound, not just of the composition itself, but of birds from the cycle path, voices from the bench beside me, and people speaking outside the tower.
The more we engage with what we used to refer to as a separate, natural world, the more it is obvious that we are part of that world, that we all influence and have the opportunity to influence each other. Humans are limited in the world of sound, compared to birds (which I have written about before No Birds Land) and dolphins, for example, and I’d be interested to hear if you have tried listening in different ways and if so, how that was for you.
Sound Walk and Art Installation, September 2021-September 2022
Sound Walk September, a global festival, has come round again and I am minded to reflect on the year that No Birds Land has been in the Trinty Tunnel on the Edinburgh cycle paths. Here is last year’s blog with all the details about location, transcript and documentation.
Funded by Sustrans and the RSPB, No Birds Land was shortlisted for a Sound Walk September award in 2021, and a year later, No Birds Land is still up, albeit in a different form.
The preparation time for No Birds Land consisted of lengthy email conversations, and long hiatuses between communications with lots of departments of the City Council and tunnel owners; a frustrating process. I was in contact with all my local MSPs and Councillors, most of whom were very helpful, and some who pulled strings behind the scenes I think. In the end someone (maybe anonymously) telephoned me and suggested I go ahead!
Although I had initially planned for wooden A boards at either end of this place where birds cannot nest or sing and hardly ever fly, the signage folk persuaded me that street signs would be better, given the weather and so on, and they have been fantastic, standing stalwart through wind and rain. With their air of familiar street furniture, you need to look twice before realising that they are something a little bit different. Furthermore, covered in graffiti and stickers nowadays, they blend into the tagged landscape beautifully.
The sound endures on the cloud. The QR code printed in indelible inks, its distinctive black and white geometrical pattern prevailing, is the interface between the ubiquitous mobile phone and ‘Soundcloud’, where it sits waiting to be triggered and listened to (to date 1462 people have listened). It’s an eerie experience for me to walk or cycle through and hear my own voice: “What can you hear? Hear, hear. What can you he-he-he…?”
I never thought it would still exist so much later, indeed I was asked how long it would be up for, and warned by several people that it wouldn’t last long, what with vandals and so on. Also, that I better watch out for any danger it might cause.
So what has changed?
The very long string of bunting with bird images and sounds on it, was trickier to install than I imagined even though I had my friend, tall-Andrew, to assist, so people stopped. They wanted to know what we were up to and immediately started to help. This community involvement has continued.
For 6 weeks it was untouched, but in October when I proudly led a group of Pilgrimage for COP26 hikers through to show them, it had suffered its first attack (maybe because school half-term had come and gone) and much of it was lying in pools of bright orange water, the run-off from the walls which had collected ores and elements on its way down.
I had been checking almost daily before we left for Dunbar and the start of our Climate Trek. I would stand or sit close by to watch people interacting with it, listening to their conversations if they were in groups, and asking them what they thought if I sensed they were up for a chat. On Sunday afternoons, perhaps the busiest time of the week, about 40 people an hour went through and of them, 20 stopped to look, listen and comment. Despite my fears, it had stayed whole.
At this stage of the Pilgrimage, we had a journalist with us who was interviewing me as we walked and my distress was obviously clear because other members of the group started to kindly collect the parts and attempt to make good. However, we had to continue on our way to South Queensferry, so I phoned artist-Lesley that evening and asked her if she might do her best to attend to it until I was able to do so myself, and she kindly obliged.
It has taken on a life of its own
Since then, unseen passers by have often repaired and rehung lengths. I used to do it myself but after 6 months, I thought I would leave it to have its own life, and now I see new types of string connecting the pennants, and sections which weren’t there one day have magically reappeared the next. Someone messaged me to say she had found a string of them on Wardie Bay beach. Little changes have been made, signalling the care that has been taken, and also showing, subtly to me, that there is understanding of the work itself.
The graffiti scrawlers add to it, another artist has complemented it, and nature has made many changes. Walking with Jim Slaven along the canal as part of the Art Festival in August 2022, I was interested to hear him comparing the 2 tunnels along the Forth and Clyde, how one was built soundly, is dry and in tact, and the other was not and lets in the rain. Well the engineer who built the Trinity Tunnel, Thomas Grainger (no relation, even though that’s the exact name of my grandfather who was also a tunnel engineer and worked in Trinity House in London!) didn’t do a great job, because ‘my’ tunnel is verr-ry damp.
And No Birds Land seems to still have life because when people ask what I do and I tell them about it, they know what I mean. They say “Oh yes, I’ve seen it.” Happily they almost always add, ” I like it”. Walking along an adjacent path recently, I met a Community Policeman and he knew it too. Talking to dog walkers who were telling me what they thought of the new Sound Walk / Installation, The Wall (my entry for the Sound Walk September 2022), I heard, “Oh you are the artist! Yes, I listened to that and told my neighbours on the stair, “You must listen to The Wall’. We need more of these.” It’s heartening, of course.
What is much harder to ascertain, is the effect that No Birds Land has had. Has it informed people about the plight of our nesting birds and why that is happening? Has it suggested alternatives to the prevailing habits of designing glass buildings with no ledges for birds to perch on, nor eaves for them to make their nests under, for example? That is so much more difficult to guage.
This type of long-term intervention in a public space, which is used by commuters and other regulars as a through-way between the sea and the city, encourages people to eventually stop and check it out, it allows for re-listening and sharing with friends and family (I have been told this). It went up at the tail end of the Covid restrictions, at a time when walking was still super-popular, and so there is a high footfall (12-48 people an hour on average). It has repurposed the space and brought art outside and to its audience.