John Muir Way
SLATEFORD TO SOUTH QUEENSFERRY
9 April 2018.
Back on the John Muir Way again. The buses worked well: we were becoming veterans, Grey panthers with Bus Passes. We hit Haymarket Station bus stop and straight onto the Slateford bus in a single bound. Jumped off under the bridge, cut across to the canal and we were there. Starting where we began, downstream. I know, Canals don’t really flow, but around 9 a.m. canal paths do. The Edinburgh Psycholist Union is on the footpath, in front of you, behind you: beware! Canal paths are wonderfully flat, enabling folks on bikes to gather speed and they tinkle their little bells at you on their aerobic journey into work.
I think both Neil and I were quite intrigued with the prospect of the Slateford Viaduct. We first encountered part 1 of the Slateford Aqueduct thing which is named the Prince Charlie Aqueduct.
As it happens we’d walked under the Prince Charlie Aqueduct when we got off the bus and hadn’t noticed. It is pretty ugly from underneath. Frankly, on a fairly dreich morning in April, it wasn’t the best ever from the top either. Apparently, Charlie Stuart camped nearby at the time of his visit to Edinburgh in 1745. The viaduct wasn’t there at the time, Charlie’s adventures being the wrong side of the industrial revolution.
Charlie’s viaduct has the obligatory graffiti, and I was torn about whether it makes the thing look better or worse. I don’t really know what to say about the graffiti on the wall, except to say thank god I’m not a teenager. I’ve not a scooby-doo who Mike is but the “Area 51” is a bit quirky. It suggests that someone has some notion of what that may mean (although nobody knows about Area 51, do they?). Edinburgh has its contrasts and the urbane centre of Edinburgh and, as we discovered, the trappings of wealth behind the walls and gates of houses lining the golf courses to the west of Edinburgh are far removed from the realities of people living in the less affluent areas.
Kenny MacAskill in the Herald (17 Aug 2018) talks about the societal divide which he sees growing: “Received wisdom when I was Justice Secretary and the financial crash occurred was that crime would rise. It didn’t even as poverty increased, as after all, the poor are disproportionately victims rather than perpetrators of crime…..
Neil and I had both been looking forward to crossing the Slateford Aqueduct, so we were slightly miffed that the JMW uses the Charlie Aqueduct but slides down the bank just before the Big Brother Slateford. In fairness, the world below with the path running by the Water of Leith was a pleasant surprise.
There are steps down to the Water of Leith, and the path follows beside the Water under the former Caledonian Railway viaduct that headed south-west from Edinburgh. The new Sainsbury building squats neatly on what is shown on old maps as the Inglisgreen Bleachfield. The walkway side is a green way, with some significant trees. It is comparatively quiet, and definitely secluded. A well known hidden place.
The Watery Leith does a loop, and has within that loop a cemetery and a significant expanse of allotments, the latter protected by a tall fence (bordering on a fortification), protecting the precious veg within. Many of the allotments are more than a place to grow veg: they look like a community of individuals digging their fingers into the earth. Over the Water is Saughton Prison, a grim block of concrete and steel. I’ve been in a few prisons, for work. I’ve even been locked up in a cell, briefly. They aren’t homely and the barriers to freedom are very evident. Chilling
So walking past Saughton made an impact: I appreciate my own freedom, something I’ve felt several times following prison visits. Neil and I talked obliquely about it: Neil likes crime novels and so on, a something like many things he and his daughter share. There are apparently some authors whose plots and twists involve the very worst of cruelty, real or imagined. I commented that the two convicted murderers I’ve met were both, in their way, impressive. One of them was Jimmy Boyle, briefly. Funny how a meeting can be memorable for one person (me) and not the other (him). He had an amazing charisma. I’ve always felt that he would have been successful at whatever he did: his direction of travel was to a large degree determined by the career pathways available where he lived as a kid, the main one being crime. But his talents seem to have been transferrable.
Like most cemeteries in Scotland, Saughton Cemetery is identified as having Commonwealth War Graves Commission burials. These home burials have stories to tell stories: airmen who died on active service; members of the Lothian and Borders Horse, and Scots from the Lowland Infantry Regiments, KOSB, the Royal Scots; an ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) Section Leader, Sophia Matheson; Gunner Andrew Aquroff, 78th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. Over 40 names. My father was a soldier in the 80th Field Regiment RA. His comment on the war? “What a dreadful waste it was”.
The path follows the Water, passing under pipes over the water, ironwork wilting, neglected. The Way is the path, a quiet, peaceful thoroughfare which occasionally glimpses the everyday goings on, hustle and bustle where people work rather than wander. The Way here is an appendix, not really part of the real world. Which would include things like, well, toilets…. I picked up Neil waiting for me by the road. The Way meets Gorgie Road, the A71 that heads south west out of the City. The sign on the office block said “To Let”. I felt the need of an “I” could have been helpful just a little earlier.
We crossed over and followed the road past “Buyrite Bathrooms” (Buy Once Buy Smart and BuyRite) and past enormous willows gracing what is a pretty scruffy area which has seen better days. This was previously a small industrial area, using the Water of Leith to support leather works and laundries. The buildings have the look of having been built with a purpose, but that purpose is no longer obvious.
We approach the railway and I force Neil into a photograph, basically because I like the brick work and the essential “railway age” statement the whole tunnel beneath the railway makes. There’s a neatness to it, and a long-lastingness. Appropriately enough, the bridge now carries the Edinburgh Tramway (next stop Murrayfield) then on into the heart of the city. I’m sure the creators would have been pleased…..
The tunnel marks a border, and you emerge into an open space within which stands Mrrayfield stadium. Here the Water of Leith is a managed water in concrete storm drains. And Murrayfield, across the training pitches, is the Field of Dreams and Sorrows. But what a place… We looked across to the stadium with folk going about their trainings. Magic.
Apparently, according to the old maps, Murrayfield is on the site of a polo ground. There has to be a joke in there somewhere.
Neil and I looked and admired. I should mention that Neil’s tragedy is that he is a purebread Geordie Sand-dancer and a loyal supporter of NUFC, the toon. It is a form of punishment I guess. This has opened an opportunity. He, and the formidable Mo, have become keen rugby watchers during the 6 nations. But the same rules apply: be kind to Neil if England lose. I’ll need to get him to a live game sometime….
I wanted to follow the Leith Water, which passes close to the stadium but no: the signs say turn left. So we head down Baird Drive, a typical ‘20’s homes fit-for-heroes Scottish housing estate with four in a block apartments that can be found across Central Scotland (Carol, my other half was born in one, just round the corner from where her mother still lives).
And there is Jenners Suppository. Ok Depository. The Scottish younger brother of the Harrods Depository
(Both are the warehouses of iconic stores in the Centre of Capital Cities. And both are landmarks close to important sporting venues: the Boat Race (and Tideway Head of River) course and Murrayfield. But I’m not sure the Water of Leith is in the same bracket as the Thames. I think I prefer the Water of Leith; call me a WoLy if you will.
The Way parallels the tramway (and the railway line to Dalmeny and the Forth Rail Bridge) with a row of houses in between to the south. The Way heads directly towards the Depository before doing a wee sidestep (or shimmie, as Bill McLaren would say) to slip past the building and to surprise us with the tram halt at Balgreen sitting by the side of the railway. Whilst the tramway and railway head west, the JM follows the track of the old railway branch line heading north east towards Corstorphine.
The Old Railway and the New Tramway
We are now heading back to Golf Country: the pathway looks over Carricknowe Golf Club to the west. According to the website, the Golf Club was founded in 1905 (but then called Saughton Golf Club). The Clubhouse is a fair old lump of a building, and would have nestled cosily alongside Corstorphine which was, in the early days of the 20th century a village all of its own. The branch Line that connected the Village with the City suggests an established commuter settlement with easy connection to the City.
To the East, just before the bridge, over the entry to the golf course, is The Tram Shed. I tried subsequently to find a mention of this wonderful eccentricity on the web, but failed.
The Tram Shed
Not only did this appeal to me, but it appealed to the mighty Neil as well. An achievement indeed. Knocked the golf course into a cocked hat.
The owner has created a wee shed and bus stop park called the Tram Shed with collected bus stop signs and general memorabilia, and plenty of sheds. This is a person of many sheds and a fondness for well, buses. Brightened our travels it did.
The main path continues on the old railway track, but the Way does another slip down an embankment into Balgreen Avenue before throwing a left to head up to the Corstorphine Road. The main road was eminently crossable: some nice person had erected temporary traffic lights with considerable delay on them (as we had found out on the bus trip into Edinburgh). For us. no scuttling across a busy road. And so to Corstorphine Hill.
We did the ritual:
“Neil, you promised me no hills”
“Naw ah didna”
“Yes you did. You promised”
“Well I lied.”
“I’m telling Mo”
The Hill is well used, not least by ATB’s which have tended to cut up the grass and leave some wet muddiness which is a bit of a pain. There are hints of buildings left around, but nothing clearly exists. So the Way winds up to squeeze between a wall and a fence, with an excellent view to Arthur’s Seat and beyond to the east. On a good day presumably you would likely see the (North Berwick) Law; on this day we couldn’t. We could sit on the wall and watch the golfers on the Ravelston Golf Course (Golf Course? How unusual)
We did have company. The view from the wall toward Arthur’s Seat etc was good, the view behind us less so, with its tall fencing preventing access to an area of trees and grass behind us. But the bonus ball was the stripey horses (“Bring on the Stripey Horses” - a gratuitous reference, for which I apologise but I do remember the Empty Horses, and like to remember people like David Niven).
But returning to the sheep or in this case, the zebras, our overall trip was trending to the exotic. At the start of the endeavour, we had not anticipated seeing emu’s and llamas. To be face-to-face with zebras should not have been a surprise (just didn’t realise the zoo was so close to the Way, but did reinforce a certain exotic whiff to the trip).
The path leads to the top of Corstorphine Hill; the hill offers good vews from the top, and is a popular spot. It is wooded and has ruins, and boasts a microwave tower which is dwarfed by Clermiston Tower or Corstorphine Hill Tower (built in 1871) to celebrate Sir Walter Scott. Scott is remembered as being responsible for inventing Scotland and Scottish history. He is known to have single-handedly built the Trossachs. He also known for the 1822 Royal visit to Scotland and the wearing of pink tights with kilts, a tradition that has sadly fallen away. And there was me and Neil thinking we were just walking up the hill. I have to say that we had been unaware of the whole tower thing, and needed to investigate.
The hill is also the site of a radio tower and, apparently, an old cold war bunker. The radio tower is very evident in a way that the bunker isn’t. Mainly because it would be daft to build a radio tower underground. I think. In fairness , the bunker is further north along the ridge so we made a break left down the hill towards the Clermiston Road and Clermiston itself. Clermiston Road meets the Queensferry Road and we followed part of the way before being diverted into an older part of the area, again with those ex-council, four in the block apartments mixed in with semi’s we have met already on the walk. It’s Edinburgh and close to some pretty expensive housing, so Clermiston has its standards. It has green areas that kids could play on. But not with balls. Perish the thought of kids disturbing the sounds of folks settling into old age. We were unimpressed.
It had been a day when paths walked contained local dog walkers, people on the way somewhere local, people running out for the shopping (messages in Scotland). Nothing particularly strange really: our previous sections had been pretty thin on serious walkers and we had not encountered anyone walking the JM Way which we thought was pretty odd not least because we were travelling against the tide as it were. So imagine our surprise when the three guys we encountered said they were indeed walking the way. Celebrations, but with the exception of a couple from Spain (and we weren’t sure of them because of a certain lack of linguistic skills), these were the only people walking the John Muir Way we met until the end of the penultimatre stage, Balloch. And there weren’t any more. Plenty of people on it, not many doing it.
So we moved on, coming out onto the Queensferry Road and heading to the pedestrian lights before hitting Barnton. The local secondary school is the Royal High School, possibly the 18th oldest in the world. It used to be a public school, but is no longer so. The school’s catchment area is Davidson's Mains, Blackhall, Clermiston, and Cramond . We walk through the area and past the Royal High School into an area which appears minted. There are of course golf courses; there are huge houses hidden behind high hedges and walls, with automatic gates and not many people walking around. It reminds us of North Berwick with steroids. It is not a place that Neil or I recognise or belong. It reeks of money. We pass golf courses, walking by designer houses. It is a worrying place to be.
A decent looking place with an Inn with a carpark full of high status cars, presumably with folks doing lunch. We passed by and took the farm road that runs to the east of the River Almond. We were aware that there is a Roman fort site in Cramond but that was across the river. We “did” lunch on the beach, admiring Cramond Island and the causeway and munching and chatting.
Cramond is on the airport side of Edinburgh: landing and taking off from Edinburgh can often mean an amazing view of the Forth and Fife. In former days it offered a sight of where we used to live picked out by the Kincardine Bridge. It is an expanding airport and now an easy point of departure for visits south and abroad. On the day the stretch of walk we were in put us directly under the take off path from the airport. What was surprising was the proportion (or is that “prop” portion) of propeller driven planes taking of which seems to be Loganair who cover the Shetlands and Orkneys and the far north of Scotland. Oh, and Norwich….! Biggles would be pleased.
As we hit Cramond, Neil had been afflicted by a mysterious pain in the foot. The wiry Geordie rarely feels pain (supporting the Toon apart), so this was unusual. And a bit worrying. Even more worrying was him revealing his little pink tootsies on the shingly beach of Cramond. I was sympathetic. We moved on.
Cramond marks the start of the approach to the Forth Bridges, a walk that follows the south side of the Firth of Forth as far as the Kincardine Bridge possibly where the River Forth ends and the Firth of Forth begins, although the definitive of Firths and Forths, estuaries and rivers is probably definitively (well…) stated by one Donald McLusky (editor, Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science), Ardoch Cottage, Strathyre, Callander.
The path along the coast from Cramond allows you to see ahead: we were, we thought, looking at Dalmeny House, a white blob in the distance and set our sights on that. Wrong. That’s Barnbougle Castle, which does look pretty castle-ish, and which looks over the Forth with military intent.
On the day, the golf course was pretty empty. I had something in my head suggesting that Dalmeny was a notable course. And it is, but it’s a private course of 9 holes important for other reasons. Neil and I are neither of us in the first flush of youth; our kit is well-worn, and wear well-worn clothes which really don’t match. I guess we look like a certain kind of walker, not ramblers (there’s only two of us and we can’t do the crocodile thing with just the two of us). I suppose we’re our own kind of walkers. So we carefully picked our way along the edge of the forth and got to see the imposing Dalmeny House, set back from the foreshore, with views across the Forth to Fife. It is a significant building, owned by Lord Roseberry of that ilk.
Dalmeny House is a stately pile with a golf course, and Wullie. It comes after the vicious exclusiveness of the houses of the rich we had passed by earlier in the day. You can walk up to it, but we followed the Way and encountered Wullie.
Wullie (with the whisky) is the Secretary of the Golf Club and more. Google him. And in the nicest possible way, he accosted us, and we chatted. He told us of the Eisenhower connection, the trees planted to mark the meetings in the years following the end of the Second World War. He pointed out the architecture, and he talked a wee bit about golf and Dalmeney.
“Look me up on Facebook,” he said, so I did.
Neil and I have done a fair bit of hillwalking together. I may have mentioned that elsewhere. I love being on the top of a hill on a cold, clear, bluesky day seeing for miles. For each of those days, I have had ten more days of walking in clag, catching glimpses through the mist, of getting wet and cold. More and more, I look to walking through history, to talking with people on the Way or way, treasuring things like the encounter with Wullie.
I will not complete the Munro’s (Neil will). Ah! Neil Munro…
Continuing on our east to west journey, we walked out of Dalmeny, between the trees, between brae and Forth to see clearly the Forth bridges and the tankers moored in the Forth. Ships travel up the Forth to discharge their oil into pipelines running along the shores.
The Forth Railway Bridge is iconic, immediately recognisable. It was the first crossing of the Firth, connecting north and south shores of the Firth of Forth. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped begins around Queensferry and that part of Lowland Scotland. Before the Railway bridge, the Fife Shore was a different land accessible only by boat from the South: Queen Margaret’s Ferry (of which more in part 5), which took pilgrims across the Forth to continue their pilgrimage to St Andrews
I should mention that the end of the walk was the first time we had rain real, and even then it didn’t get us. We’d phoned Carol to pick us up (buses to and from South Queensferry are not easy west-east) so we waited in a pub. Whilst in the pub, it rained: Neil noticed cos he had a fag…