Spring has sprung

Out walking along the nearby Union Canal a few days ago, the first properly spring weekend of the year – we’ve had nice, bright days but usually still cold, this was sunny and also warm for the first time in the year. Beautiful light and the welcome return of colour to the world after the long, dark winter. It happens every year and yet each year it still seems like some wonderful magic as the dullness of winter suddenly gives way to a riot of vibrant colours:

spring has sprung 04

spring has sprung 01

spring has sprung 03

I have always found the way light reflects from water to be entrancing, and as I walked under one of the canal bridges the bright spring sunshine was bouncing off the water and creating a flickering, rippling dancing pattern of changing light on the stonework. I had taken a photo then thought it would be better in video mode, just to capture the quality of the patterns and movement. In still photo mode it looked better in monochrome (I’m not a fan of altering my pics in PhotoShop, so when you see a black and white photo from me, it means I shot it in B&W, not colour then change in PhotoShop. I know I could do it that way, but it feels better to me to shoot in B&W if a scene feels like it works better in mono, rather than just greyscale it afterwards in an editor), and fortunately the video mode in the new camera allows me to shoot in mono as well as colour, so I took a few seconds:

water under the bridge vid

At last, signs of spring…

finally some spring petals 02

At last, very belatedly signs of spring here – walking home tonight it was a fine spring evening, glorious light quality, bright, clear. I noticed a lot of daffodils in full bloom, a full two months late – those should have been in bloom back in March but such was the appallingly, unseasonably cold (even for Scotland)weather for much of this spring they are only now blooming. It was so nice I went slightly out of my way to walk along the Union Canal on the walk home from work, and saw that – finally – the blossoms on the trees are starting to flower, again weeks later than they should (really they should have flowered and fallen by now leaving carpets of soft white and pink petals across the pavements). Normally I would shoot these delicate petals and the clear, blue dome of sky above in colour, but for some reason I felt like trying them in monochrome and actually I’m quite pleased with how they came out, which I attribute to the beautiful light quality more than my own eye.

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The turning of the seasons

Some leaves are clinging to their lush greenery, aided by the bursts of almost summer-like warmth, while some have already begun to dry and turn red and gold. In Mel’s garden some late bloom roses have come out after we trimmed the plants back earlier in the year and some final insects are buzzing round the flowers in the sudden warmth before winter arrives, while the berries hang on the bushes. Walking home the long, red twilight stretches long, thin shadows, skies blue, wispy clouds tinged salmon pink. The wind rustles in the branches and with each little breath more leaves fall to join their cousins in little piles on the ground or to float along the canal alongside the ducks and swans. When the autumn moon rises it is a huge, harvest moon, glowing brightly in a purple-black sky, the stars changing their tempo to their winter configuration. Each warm day now is a gift; you wonder if it will be the last one before the inevitable slide into the long, dark winter.

Moments of transitory beauty

On the way to work, a glorious, almost perfect Scottish autumn morning; the sun is lower in the horizon and its light now stretched out to deeper, warmer tones than the harsher light of summer – we’ve entered the Golden Time. Our location north of the edge of Europe means our weather and climate isn’t always the nicest but it also means we are at the curve of the Earth to see the sun tilt further as the seasons pass us, from the height of summer to the low arc of the sun’s brief appearance in winter. At this time of year, when we are lucky enough to have a clear day, it means the sunlight becomes the most glorious golden-copper hue; against the older buildings constructed of great blocks of native stone rather than mere bricks it looks magnificent.

It looks even more beautiful against our nation’s natural beauty (and regardless of weather one thing Scotland has in abundance is astonishing natural beauty), the warm gold of the autumnal sun matching the colours of the season perfectly, the gold of the harvest being brought in, the leaves browning, crisping, drying, turning, falling. Yesterday morning an almost perfect autumn scene – clear, pale blue sky and the sun, low now in the sky, just above Castle Ridge, shining directly through the rich foliage of the trees in Princes Street Gardens as I passed.

The branches are still full of heavy greenery from summer, but already some leaves are turning, a mix of verdant green with touches of red, brown and gold, the trees equivalent of the man with just a touch of distinguished gray, perhaps. The low morning sun came through them from behind and lit them up, the green still vibrantly alive, the turning leaves glowing as if from inner fire, a last reminder of beauty and life before the long sleep of winter; Edinburgh Castle, her ancient stones warming in the morning sun, the backdrop to this and what a backdrop. It lasted only seconds, the juxtaposition of where I was, where the sun was in relation to me, the trees, but for a few seconds I saw pure beauty shining in a dying leaf and the play of shadows and sunbeams across the Castle. For a few seconds I had no cares in this world, lost in the ephemeral, momentary beauty of my homeland, glowing with the glorious light of an Impressionist painting but infinitely more lovely than any artist’s hand could capture.

The birds

A very disturbing story doing the rounds of the Scottish media this week – the unlawful killing of various Scottish birds of prey, from hen harriers to one of the nation’s symbols, the magnificent Golden Eagle, are at a twenty year high despite legal protection. And gee, isn’t it just a coincidence that the geographical distribution of the cases often matches the location of major ‘sporting’ estates where fat businessmen shoot flocks of tame pheasants scared into the line of their shotguns by beaters? (I put ‘sporting’ in commas because I don’t see anything sporting in killing animals for kicks, especially when it involves practically tame creatures and almost no skill from the so-called ‘hunter’) Yes, I’m sure that’s just coincidence and not gamekeepers and landowners poisoning, trapping and shooting raptors on the side to make sure they don’t interfere with with their game birds.

Or maybe there are just a lot of scumbags out there who don’t give a damn about our wildlife and environment (or law) as long as they can exploit it for money – a double irony some of the people in these sorts of jobs who are probably doing this vile act like to tell the rest of us that they are ‘the guardians of the countryside’ No, you’re not, you condescending, tweed-clad twats, you’re vicious, amoral bastards. I’m sure there are plenty of gamekeepers who do adhere to the law and try to protect species including raptors, but from the evidence there are obviously a hell of a lot of them who are only to happy to kill even endangered animals. The answer? Well these feckers all love hunting and complain we’ve restricted so much of that, so let’s have some more hunting – open season on hunting anyone in tweeds or Barbour jackets and Deerstalker hat, anyone? Tally ho and give ’em both barrels – don’t worry, its a humane way to kill ’em, you know, otherwise they ruin the environment…

Blue, green, gold

Suddenly after a depressingly bad summer (even for someone like me who is allergic to strong sunlight) we’ve had a sudden burst of sunny, warm weather, very summer like; the beaches by North Berwick were packed at the weekend. Ironically as we have this sudden splash of warmth and sun as we move into September and autumn – instead of light until late into the night the darkness is falling earlier each night and as soon as that sun goes down its cool, a coolness that whispers of the change of seasons and the autumn and winter knocking on the door.

Looking up from my book on the way home this evening the sky was the most beautiful shade of blue, glowing with light, the trees in Princes Street Gardens and the side of Castle Hill still a deep, lush myriad of green hues, a brilliant contrast against the blue, long, long shadows stretching out as the slow autumnal sunset drifts into golden beams. When we do get dry, sunny days at this time of year it really is a golden time in Scotland, the sun moving further round the horizon from its position of summer dominance so that now its light is stretched out to softer, more golden-copper tones. And here and there among the still-emerald foliage the odd leaf slowly turning brown; within a few weeks they will all being to turn, crisp, brown and red, fluttering to the ground and I’ll go running through the piles of leaves and kick them in the air because you’re never too old to enjoy that.

And just a few more weeks on from that it will be dark by the time I come home, the deep darkness of winter as the wheel of the seasons turns. My breath will mist in the frigid air and frost will sparkle on the bare branches. And again I’m not sad as some are when summer turns to autumn to winter because I love the seemingly eternal cycle of the seasons; each has its own transitory beauty and each connects us to nature and our world. When the long darkness falls it also means watching my cats contentedly sleeping in front of the fire’s flickering flames, the lights of the Winter Wonderland, the wonderful warmth of a friendly pub after walking in from a cold, dark night, the simple delight of hot, homemade soup after a cold walk. Then the spring will dawn again behind that, then back to summer and Festivals once more. How quickly they seem to go past and yet how everlasting they feel. Goodybe to another summer, welcome to another autumn in its golden crown.

When Penguins Ruled the Earth

For years I’ve made jokes about gigantic prehistoric penguins, from millions of years ago – Penguinosaurus Rex, tall, with a huge, long, sharp and deadly beak, from the Time When Penguins Ruled The Earth and Doug McClure had to rescue buxom women in fur bikinis from them. Then today I read that actually there is a little truth to my penguin-obsessed nonsense. I just love it when real life is almost as weird as fantasy.

Walking in the glen

I went off with Gordon and Bruce the greyhound (with his head stuck out the car window as usual) to Roslyn, just outside Edinburgh, for a good wander around the woodland walk around the glen, then up to the remains of Roslyn Castle and finally a walk past Roslyn Chapel.

Starting from the carpark down in the glen, we crossed the river and started up the steep slopes. The greenery you can see all over the hillside is not grass – it’s wild garlic, masses and masses of wild garlic. The entire area is virtually carpeted with garlic plants and even early in the year like now you can smell the pungent aroma – another month or two and it will be much stronger. There’s more garlic here than every Italian and French restaurant in the whole of Edinburgh combined.

After walking up the steep, wooded slopes, ducking low branches and clambering over roots and moss-covered rocks and fallen trees we came to the bass of Roslyn Castle and decided to do a circuit. This is the approach to the stone bridge linking the road to the castle.

Looking up towards the bridge above us; this doesn’t really do the sense of scale justice, it is a fair old drop from up there, then on the far side yet another drop down to a low river valley where you can see walls of stone eaten out by millennia of water erosion.

On the other side of the stone bridge, looking up; I love the way some of the base stones are just huge boulders with the edges trimmed by stonemasons, then higher up the structure is of more conventional stone blocks cut to shape. Looks several stories up on the left and you will see glass and curtains – this part is still occupied and we’ll come round to it in a moment

Roslyn has quite a history, including being attacked by Oliver Cromwell; old warty face stabled his horses in nearby Roslyn Chapel to show his disregard, although at least he didn’t destroy the chapel. Much further back Sir William Wallace has associations with the castle and further along the forest walk than we went today is Wallace’s Cave. All across Scotland there are sites named for Wallace and associated with folk tales of our hero – I grew up near Wallace’s Well on the outskirts of Glasgow and used to cycle to it, it’s supposedly the spot where he was betrayed to the English and finally captured to meet a gruesome end. There are far fewer such places now, but they still number in their hundreds, probably a hangover from a pre-literate time when the common folk wanted to remember their hero and so named spots for them and associated them forever after with a tree, a rock, a cave, a well… It may also derive from a deeper, older Celtic heritage and the association of the hero with the land itself.

Reached the summit now and this looks very much like a lovely old Scottish rural cottage, doesn’t it? Actually this is the top of the building you saw earlier – the back of this drops down several stories as you saw two pictures back; quite deceiving from this angle though, isn’t it?

Another view of the still habited remains of the castle; between the location and the fact it is surrounded by great swathes of wild garlic growing all over the hill and glen it must be the single home most protected against vampire attack in the entire kingdom.

On top of the stone bridge pictured earlier, leading up to the remains of the castle.

Just walking past Roslyn Chapel, which as you can see is still covered in scaffolding and a temporary roof as it is repaired and renovated. As Wallace is associated with the nearby castle so the Bruce is with this building, with a stone carving within said to be a death mask of the greatest of King of Scots. Of course the Chapel is also associated with the Knights Templar, several of whom pledged their service to the Bruce and fought for him at Bannockburn in 1314, where a vastly outnumbered Scottish army shattered a vast, well-armed English army and secured the independence of the nation, changing the future shape of Great Britain as they did so, although they would not have known it at the time. Far distant ancestors of my own clan, the Gordons, also fought alongside Bruce at Bannockburn and this is thought to be where they started their rise to prominence in later Scotland, being granted extensive lands by the Bruce for their services.

Another view of Roslyn Chapel, covered in its repair structure. Somewhere deep within this small structure is said to lie the Holy Grail itself; certainly one of the functions on my new camera was set off today, the special function which lights up in the display to warn you that you are close to an ancient and mythological device (it also works on Arthur’s sword and other ancient relics, but I don’t use the function much). Seriously though, I have no idea if the Grail is buried within the Chapel at all (Dan Brown includes Roslyn in his pile of second-hand nonsense in the Da Vinci Code) but the carvings within it are of astonishing quality and intricacy.

It is also linked with another mystery, that of early visitors to what we now call America; the Sinclair family who were instrumental in building it were also known as sailors and they hired navigators to sail from the Orkneys westwards. Some local traditions from native tribes in Canada and eastern America tell of their visit, long before that idiot Columbus took a wrong turn. On the roof of the chapel is carved the ‘bounty of God’s Earth’ and among the fruits and vegetables is a representation of the crop of maize, then unknown here, being a New World crop. Does it mean they made their voyage and came back? No-one knows for absolutely certain, although some circumstancial evidence leans in their favour; I’d like to think they did. Next to the chapel is a fine old house which used to be an inn, which saw visits from Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Boswell and Doctor Johnson and Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, lest we get carried away with mythology, history and nostalgia, I loved this advert one of the local farmers had placed, cashing on on the Dan Brown associations while also pretty much showing what he thinks of it all:

Killer Whales

Workers on that mighty piece of Victorian engineering, the Forth Rail Bridge, have spotted a pod of Orcas swimming past them in the River Forth, right up past Edinburgh. There are seals on some of the islands in the Forth, which may be attracting them, although it is remarkable to see them swimming so far upriver. That would be a sight to cheer you up on the commute from Fife to Edinburgh, wouldn’t it? How cool is it that a couple of miles from my door there are killer whales swimming in the river?? And why couldn’t those darned Orcas arrive over the weekend when I could get out there with my camera?!?!? Mind you, I suspect the local seals have a somewhat different view on this.