Following Tracks

Following Tracks explores beauty in the quotidian, extracting poetic pleasure from everyday scenes and objects encountered on a coastal walk. Featuring photography from Dean Smith.

                Knowing how way leads on to way

Robert Frost

A mammal swells and circles and lays him down. You and I have finished swelling; our circling periods are playing out, but we can still leave footprints in a trail whose end we do not know.

Anne Dillard

21st April 2018

  At last, heat. I take the lighthouse road in the morning sunlight. Walking along here beside the river, as the river becomes the sea, I always have the feeling of walking on a seaside pier, gradually going further and further out to sea. Leaving behind, across the broad estuary of the river, the metal pipework, tanks, chimneys and jumbled buildings of the Glaxo factory and then the dunes. Where the river finally becomes sea, a seal lazily curves over, light gleaming on its shiny black skin. It slips silently through the water’s surface and disappears. The fields on the other side of me climb to the sky; the sheep field, empty of sheep now, cropped grass covered with a sheen of hay swirls, is picked over this morning by a flock of starlings, flashing their brilliance as they walk and turn in the sunlight. There’s the straggle of a barbed wire fence at the field boundary, each post topped by a rook. In the next field of newly drilled brown earth, a few rooks scrutinize the surface with wrapt concentration. Two appear to be on look out and waddle slowly up and down hill, like bow legged sentries in long overcoats,   their eyes looking more to the distance, watching me and the dog.

   I feel like I am coming to the end of the pier, the exhilaration of the open sea beyond the tower of the light house, newly painted, gleaming white. There’s a crowd of daffodils at its foot, the smell of them; it’s as if they’re catching hold of my arm to make sure I haven’t missed their brightness, as if I could. There’s hardly a breeze. The river and sea are almost without a ripple, only the shush of the swell breaking occasionally over the rocks, a flash of white, like the gleam of a tooth of a sleeping dragon. 

   I will have to give up the illusion of reaching the end of the pier today, as I’m carrying on, past the lighthouse, to go further down the coast to Mains of Usan, over the cropped pasture of the black cattle, who wander lugubriously along the shore line. The churned mud in the paths they have made through the gates, makes a mountainous landscape for the squadrons of tiny flies, whose wings flash in the sunlight. I climb over the barbed wire fence that runs down to the sea and  negotiate the stepping stones that cross the mill race, where its sparkling water mingles with the incoming waves. The old mill buildings are grey and roofless. This must have been a substantial mill at one time. But I’m making for the memorial chapel, also roofless, its back to the sea, on this flat patch of short grass above the rocks. Apparently this was built on the site of an earlier, possibly medieval, chapel, dedicated to St Mary. The mill was called Chapel Mill. Now three tall, broken topped walls enclose a patch of rough grass.

 The end wall is almost filled by a creamy marble slab, covered in faint, barely decipherable Latin. This is a memorial to Patrick Renny of Ulysses’ Haven, the old name for Usan. He was 67 when he died in 1735. A founding member of the Moscovy Company, trading with St Petersburg and Riga, dealing in hemp and furs. It is somehow always surprising, when we talk now of how small the world has become, that our forebears were so well travelled. The other memorials on the side walls are to the Scott family who were also landowners here and at the neighbouring Rossie and Craig estates. Some of them are interred at Nottingham, it says, so they perhaps also held lands there. They apparently claimed ancestry from Michael Scott, who in the 13th century studied in Oxford and Paris, and travelled to Toledo in Spain where he learnt Arabic. This enabled him to translate lost works of Aristotle, which had been preserved in Arabic, in to Latin. 

  I go round behind the end chapel wall and sit against it, looking out to the sea, the sky and water almost the same translucent blue. The slow waves make a crinkling sound as they lift and let fall the piles of bladderwrack that festoon the rocks. There are no ships in sight at the moment. Before railways, when the sea was the fastest route for long journeys, ships sailing from Aberdeen to Leith used to call here.    

   I tread through the trampled mud at the field entrance, climb the metal gate and take the road inland, past the large bulk of Usan House behind its long walls. The road rises, heading back northwards. Over a hedge I see a tractor clacking across a brown field, preparing the earth for sowing. Before the road falls again I pass the house where the artist James Morrison I think still lives. He has a beautiful garden. I glimpse it through the gates. A blackbird is standing under apple trees in soft green grass. All the way the road is lined by gorse in full bloom. The flowers look freshly painted this morning, the yellows still wet. A small brown bird, with touches of yellow on its head, flits over the hedge into the ploughed field, as if caught by the same paint filled brush. The sun has dried the surface of the field to a pale pinkish brown. I can see the darkness of the damp earth in the cracks and folds. All the way, larks are singing unseen in the blue sky, as if rising on countless tendrils of song.

  I turn left along the road from Inchbrayock House to Kirkton of Craig. The air is filled with the scent of the gorse. The same scent will probably have been here centuries ago, and the small leaf buds at this precise moment of their growth. Spring mornings like this, feel like the opening movement of a symphony, one you know well, but which delights you anew each year. The opening leaf buds, like phrases played by different instruments in the year’s first airing of ancient themes. Hard bright green buds. White buds on a small tree, opening like trumpets. Pink and green shiny buds. The swelling sound rising from the earth, taken up first by the hedges, where hawthorn is already in fresh, young green leaf until it reaches the larger trees .A flowering current with its hanging tassels of pink and green and its burst of soft earthy scent, looks like a musician who has come in too early in a hedge row of last year’s rusting brown beech leaves. 

  I pass the ends of drives to the houses in the hamlet of Kirkton of Craig, each set in their own large grounds. The castellated square tower of the church stands against the blue sky. No longer a church it’s now called Kirkton Tower House and a post box stands at its gate. A garden behind a beech hedge is full of bird song.  Craig House itself is partially hidden from view behind rough old stone walls, in the crevices of which tiny plants flower. Tall trees cluster around it on the slope of hillside above the expanse of the basin.

    I skirt the western side of the house through a grove of quiet silver birches where a sycamore in new leaf flares out. It almost looks embarrassed, such a fancy dress. Near the walled garden two tall horse chestnuts are coming in to leaf, bearing thousands of little cascades of leaves at their twig ends, some offering up little spires of tiny green balls, that will grow in to the creamy towers of blossom in another few weeks and in several more will be the shiny conkers in their green spiked, white lined cases. 

   Below me, on the Arbroath road, there’s a steady hum of traffic, the whine of weekend motorbikes. I have already seen a few cars towing trailers, a good weekend for gardening or DIY. 

   The old road between Craig House and Rossie Castle is hidden between the trees and rhododendrons that line it. The grass is starting to grow again, brighter green and straight, taut with life. I can look between the trunks across the basin over to where I can make out the rise of land on which lies the graveyard of Sleepyhillock. I think of the quiet shaded paths there under the tall yews and Scots pines. Here the mud is soft under my feet, marked with footprints and bike tyre tracks. Ollie trots on, keeping to the path. He usually does this, sticks to a path, especially now he is older and less prone to chasing rabbits. Even on an open field he will follow any faint track that has been made. Held here probably also by the smells of the other dogs who have walked this way. Is there a comfort in following previously trod tracks? Or in my love of old roads. Or in our belief in the permanence of the roads we drive.

  A cyclist passes me and we exchange good mornings, before he goes through the gate on to the lane, hesitating for a moment, as if undecided, before turning down hill. We turn uphill. A for sale sign stands at the end of a track between two ploughed fields. At the end of this lie the remains of Rossie Castle. A castle has existed at or near this spot since the thirteenth century. The most recent one was demolished in 1949. You can still find photographs of it. Its grand castellated symmetrical front with two outlying wings and beyond them further colonnades. It was built by Hercules Ross, the son of an excise officer, from Johnshaven, a fishing village few miles up the coast. Hercules made his fortune in Jamaica where he befriended Horatio Nelson, who became godfather to his son of the same name. Horatio Ross went on to be the local MP, sportsman and keen photographer. Many of his pictures are of shot stags, often lying eerily beside the blurred rush of a mountain stream. One story in The Times of 1830 tells how he was involved in a bet to see who could kill the most sparrows as they were returning to their nests to feed their young. Perhaps it’s not surprising that his voting record was not always compassionate, including, wrapped up as he perhaps was in concerns of hemp mill owners and manufacturing, a vote  against improvements and protections for employed children.

  You can tell that a building stood here, but from the patch of broken rubble, hummocky ground, some breeze block foundations where someone has started to rebuild at some point, a pile of sand dug by rabbits, it is almost impossible to conceive of the grand mansion that stood here with dozens of rooms. Or imagine the lives that were lived here. It’s only when you go through a line of trees at the western end and see below you what must have been an ornamental pond, backed by a stone wall, the huge trunk of an ancient willow, that you begin to be able to recreate it in your mind. I think of the Simon Richey poem, The Emptiness:

When the house was taken down

The air that for so long

Had been parcelled into rooms

Drifted into the day and was lost there

I sit in the grass and the dry stalks of last year’s rosebay willow herb by the pond. Three male mallards are in the middle of it, the sun catching the green of their heads. A buzzard circles overhead. The birds are less constrained I suspect, than we mammals are by the paths we make. The cattle back at Usan treading their path from the barn to the pasture, Ollie and me walking our old road.

I take the road back towards Ferryden, passing Balgove House and Steading. Expensive and immaculate black vehicles are drawn up in a row outside the beautifully converted steading. Signs order strictly no parking and advise that the property is protected by CCTV and sensors. There is a tradition that this was the site of a prison. An execution hill lies two miles away at Govanhill. These hills dot the landscape. I remember passing two regularly near Fettercairn, Gallows Knap and Gallows Know, as if they were a ‘must have’ for any powerful landowner. There is another a few miles from here; I passed it on the way to a funeral at Parkgrove crematorium a couple of weeks ago. An obsolete relic in the landscape. It strikes me it’s rather like an opinion that constantly affects the working of your mind. A landmark you use to orientate your perceptions. Seeing it that day made me think of how your consciousness, your perceptions, are shaped, both by what has gone before in your own life and your response to it, and what has gone before in our history. At the mouth of the river, where I watched the seal dive, is a sand bar, Annat bank, almost visible at low tide, a danger to the shipping that uses the harbour. It’s thought it may have been formed because of a ship that once sank there. Perceptions constantly bumping up against arbitrary, accidental old thoughts and memories to create something from nothing.

Possession was power. And so began the landscape of our history and our perception. So we had castles and their hanging hills, giving way to the big houses I have passed and their CCTV and movement sensors. Way leads on to way; so we live in a landscape in which we accept that I can walk past this house with its cars lined up outside, while a few mornings ago, in Nottingham, I walked past someone sleeping in a shop doorway, zipped inside their sleeping bag with their dog.

In every moment now, we inhabit a mental as well as a physical landscape that contains all that has gone before. You can see it in how we think just as you can see the traces of the travelled road in the faded painted signs on buildings in Montrose, (you can still just make out the words J Watts, Haberdasher, James Smith Tobacconist), or in the street names, Baltic Street, Bow Butts. Or in the figures of the people, the old man slowly pushing his rollator across the street, the neat creases down the backs of his suit trousers, his mind containing memories from before I was born.

On the way back the water in the basin is lower, but the wet mud still reflects the colours of the sky, though more opaquely. The wedge of land where Montrose sits is framed on three sides by the light reflecting water of the basin, the river and the sea. The dramatic chiaroscuro of the rooftops the towers and spires, domes, gables, chimneys, windows, softened by the crowns of the trees that will also be budding now, acquiring that pink softness, like an in breath before song. The bridge, with tiny cars glinting in the sun, the railway line curving over the viaduct, skirting the basin to the station, and further, across the pale calm blue of the bay, the volcanic cliffs of St Cyrus, in a blue haze, and on the furthest high horizon, to the north, the turning wind turbines.

From here I can see how the streets climb gently to the highest point of the town, where the church stands, as if the spire is a needle that gathers and pulls all the threads skywards, the streets and the houses, shops, factories, closes, schools, parks, railway, bowling clubs, football ground, and the land spreading away, a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns, dotted with white painted farms, spread to the distant foothills of the Grampians, washed in sunlight, still dotted on the highest points, with patches of snow.

Nearing home I cross the park which lies behind the houses that used to line the river before the North Sea terminal was built. In the back garden of one of the Council bungalows an old man in a red jersey is putting out apples and bread for the seagulls, who wheel and rise and fall and flap and glide and cry their great ululating cries above and around him. On the roof of his shed a battered merchant navy flag hangs limply. I imagine him travelling the oceans, watching the gulls following his ship. I watch for a while and then turn back down the path to the road, edging round the barriers where they have been repairing the kerb.