This one-day conference organised by our Edinburgh postgrads Anne Peale and Richard Sobolewski looks terrific. Download the full programme as a pdf here (0.6mb).

The ordinary ebb and flow of coastal sediments at Portobello beach has temporarily exposed the outline of the old harbour and sea walls. Though the existence of the harbour has been well documented – particularly in light of rescue archaeology work undertaken for the Harbour Green residential development – the seaward side is usually covered by sand.

An unusually large winter transport of sediments has revealed the base and masonry of the outer harbour walls, which have not previously been subject to archaeological survey.



The stone harbour was built at the instance of Edinburgh architect and builder William Jameson during 1787-88 in order to sustain the industries that were then mining the clay beds of the Figgate Burn.

As well as providing a limited haven for fishing boats, the harbour was mainly designed to export brick, tile and earthenware goods; it also enabled the import of local coal.

Jameson hired local contractor Alexander Robertson, the lessee of nearby Joppa Quarry, from where the stone was obtained.

The development of the harbour tied the then tiny village of the Portobello into much wider industrial networks, not only within the Forth region but also further afield, with Cornish whiteware clay imported for the local ceramic trade.

As is clear from the exposed outlines, the walls were not thick, storms took their toll and the harbour fell into disuse. The advent of the railway likely provided Portobello’s kilns with alternative access to markets and raw materials.

‘Portobello, in spite of its name, is no seaport’, noted one gazeteer in 1842. It ‘neither has, nor probably ever will have, any sea-ward trade. A small harbour was constructed at the mouth of the Figgate burn, by Mr Jameson, soon after his discovery of the clay bed; but it never was of any use except for boats, and is now completely ruinous.

It is not enough that particular buildings are deemed unusable. Nor will simple demolition suffice.

It is the very ideal that must be destroyed: the postwar modernist ideal in which housing as well as healthcare was a legitimate object of public planning. ‘The universal provision of good housing’, wrote the late Robin Cook, ‘is just as much an impetus to an egalitarian society as universal education’.

No mainstream political party now believes this. And somehow this undefended ideal has become synonymous with the architectural style in which it was imperfectly realised. We think of Red Road as being quintessentially Modernist but many within the architecture movement felt that such quick design for the masses – ‘public building without airs and graces’ in the words of Red Road architect Sam Bunton – devalued the elite currency of their style.

That sort of nuance has long been lost.  The image of Red Road has, in Scotland at least, become tied to a vision of public housing that must now be emphatically, unambiguously destroyed.

For this reason a global television audience is to be enlisted so that Scotland can, as Gordon Matheson has said, ‘wow the world’.

Where we used to do quiet self-deprecation, we now need to detonate our towering achievements – flawed though they were – as the prelude to an imperial sports event. We need to publically disavow having once been modern. When Glasgow City Council Labour leader Gordon Matheson tell us that it is about ‘unveiling Glasgow’s social history’, this bungled justification is in some ways more damaging than the demolition itself.

A basic question should be asked: what does Red Road mean?

Here’s Andrew O’Hagan’s protagonist in Our Fathers, talking of an allied site:

A thing of wonder, [the towers] stretch to the skies and can seem for a time great catacombs of effort.  They stand for how others had wanted to live, for the future they saw, and for hopes now abandoned.


These towers had everything of us. My heart was there. And the need to destroy my heart was there.

Of course there is a legitimate impulse to remove and to renew. But the destruction of an iconic public good as a form of spectacle is pure ideology. And it takes its place within a wider repertoire of images that seek to render the municipal ideal of housing as necessarily drab, conformist and lacking individuality.  Monochrome socialism.

As if liveliness, vivacity, sensuousness – colour itself – belongs to the new architects of capitalism and the engineers of the post-political state. This is what must be resisted.

One might think of Glen Tilt as the drove road less travelled. Bisecting the Grampian massif, it divides the mighty Beinn a’ Ghlò to the east from the wild treeless Forest of Atholl to the west. I’ve been there a few times over the years, most recently working with the artist Victoria Bernie and landscape architect Lisa Mackenzie on The Valentine Project.

This remote glen occupies a central place in the modern history of Scotland. ‘There is scarce in the Kingdom a better known piece of roadway than that which runs through the glen’ observed the Victorian writer and geologist Hugh Miller. ‘There is not a man in science in the world who has not heard of it’. Glen Tilt’s nineteenth century renown was partly founded on the visit of two field scientists, distantly related: the Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) who visited in 1785; and Hutton’s cousin’s grandson: the botanist John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884) who visited in 1847. Each of these visits – a lifetime apart – left its mark on the Scottish imagination.

It was in Glen Tilt that James Hutton found evidence for his theory of Plutonism and of deep time. In the exposures created by the River Tilt, Hutton observed how granite was to be found ‘breaking and displacing’ the schists ‘in every conceivable manner’. For Hutton, this suggested that granite had once been molten – the result of volcanic activity. As such, it gave us a glimpse of a geologic time that had, famously, ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.

In a later age, Hutton’s grand nephew, John Hutton Balfour, then Professor of Medicine and Botany at the University of Edinburgh, took his students on a botanical field class. There they were met – and then violently repelled – by an enraged Duke of Atholl. The resulting furore saw the ‘Battle of Glen Tilt’ taken to the House of Lords which, in finding against the sixth Duke, paved the way for Scotland’s statutory and cultural freedom to roam. It is this unique past that can justify an apparently hyperbolic claim: that in the upper reaches of Glen Tilt we can find vestiges of our modern sensibility about time and space.

For it was in Glen Tilt that our hard-won freedom to roam was tested and tempered; and it was here too that the abysmal depths of geologic time – what has become the assumed epistemic background to the present landscape – found early demonstration. Landscapes like Glen Tilt may be geographically particular but in such isolated contexts universal theories can arise; science, like art, is situated in place. Landscape is the cradle of invention.

Walking up the glen with Victoria and Lisa, I was reminded of the epigraph to John Berger’s remarkable novel Pig Earth, about the waning of Europe’s Alpine peasantry. It reads: ‘others have laboured, and ye are entered into their labours’ (Pig Earth and Berger’s two successive novels are for this reason known as the Into Their Labours trilogy).

If Berger can appropriate the quote from Christ in the Gospel of John, I see no reason why I cannot also let it loose in Glen Tilt. For it well describes a recognition that our labour follows that of our ancestors; our routes follow their routes; our modes of thought are shaped by their cultures of experiment and observation.

Our fieldwork collaboration in the Grampians links us, in unexpected ways, to these earlier fieldworkers. Their work is unavoidably present in ours. We walk and think our way up the glen, in part, because a century and a half earlier John Hutton Balfour, our antecedent at Edinburgh University, fought for the right to do just this.



It’s probably not very fair to use the death of Doris Lessing to recall a very minor episode in the annals of the Scottish Folk Revival. I’m going to do so anyway as it brings to light some neglected characters of her close acquaintance and offers a small insight into how the 1950s revival circulated in networks well beyond Scotland.

A key figure here is the Glaswegian actor Alex McCrindle, once a household name, who is now comparatively forgotten other than for his appearance as General Jan Dodonna, leader of the rebel force in George Lucas’ Star Wars. In the early 1950s, McCrindle was at the height of his fame having played Jock in the radio programme Dick Barton, Special Agent. Although it ran for 700 episodes and attracted 15 million listeners, McCrindle struggled to find subsequent work after being blacklisted as a communist. He eventually directed his energies into the actors’ union, Equity, setting up a life in London where he married the children’s author and Daily Worker film critic Honor Arundel.

The home of McCrindle and Arundel in the fifties was a hub of Communist Party activity and organisation. And the Party had, perhaps surprisingly, thrown its weight behind the resurgence of folk music under the auspices of the Edinburgh People’s Festival which ran between 1951-1954. Hamish Henderson was of course a driving figure in the Festival even if he was by this stage held in political suspicion by Party stalwarts like McCrindle. What I find interesting is how the influence of the Folk Revival extended to the networks of Doris Lessing. In her autobiography*, she remembers that:

In a garden on the canal known as Little Venice, now very smart, then dingy and run down, there were held ceilidhs, where Ewan MacColl sang […]. The house belong to Honor Tracy (sic) [Arundel], an upper-class young woman whose education had destined her for a very different life, and her husband Alex McCrindle … who was in a radio series of immense popularity. There were people from the worlds of radio, music, and nascent television, and of course, women with children. Most of them were communists, but none of them were communists ten years later, except for Alex. And Ewan MacColl, the communist troubadour and bard. I found these occasions pretty dispiriting, all these people doing Scottish folk dances, often in a cold drizzle.

For Lessing, the point is how the revealed horrors of Stalinism massively shifted political allegiances in the course of one decade. McCrindle never departed from the Party; he saw it through to the bitter end, living just long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I find it hard to comprehend McCrindle’s politics, his commitment at least feels more authentic than that of his friend Hugh MacDiarmid. It takes a particular type of villainy to wait until after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to rejoin the Communist Party. Not for the first time, Lessing’s preoccupation with the grey British weather also stands as a judgement on some of the dismal political choices of the era.

*Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: volume two of my autobiography, 1949–1962 London: HarperCollins1997, 108.




I have a new longform essay over at Aeon Magazine about my fleeting brush with Apollo 15 astronaut, Jim Irwin.

It’s about this famous photograph. And also: God, the moon, the origins of the Earth, stamp collecting and Aberdeen’s Music Hall – though not in that order.



This is just magic.

Programme 11 by Radio Belbury on Mixcloud

A short essay of mine over at Bella Caledonia called Unwilding Scotland attracted many intelligent responses. It’s taken me too long to reply but I thought I’d try and clarify a few things.

Since I first wrote on this topic a few months ago (again at Bella) the debate seems to have acquired a renewed energy. I find this reassuring.

What follows is mostly in response to Paul Webster’s comments (Paul runs the wonderful Walk Highlands website which is more or less essential browsing for anyone planning a longer walk in Scotland).

Paul has a fair point when he complains that when I talk about the Uist machair, I don’t make it sufficiently clear that this doesn’t lie within any of the SNH proposed areas of ‘core wild land’. This wasn’t intentional obfuscation on my part. My experience of living in North Uist certainly informed my thinking about how much labour goes in to making Scotland’s landscapes conform more closely to the aesthetic ideals that are projected on to them.

My key point is this: areas of ‘core wild land’ may not include the machair land but the hills are still very much part of the cultural hinterland of the more inhabited districts. Part of the abstracting philosophical consequence of ‘wildness’ is to separate such landscapes from the very people who have the greatest cultural claim on them.

The hill land of South Uist – ‘core wild land’ for SNH – is not a place set apart, a landscape that can be meaningfully detached from the islanders on the west side. Unfortunately that, as I see it, is the rhetorical function of wildness as it being used here. Just because a place is not currently inhabited does not mean that it is some kind of tabula rasa to be reduced to its visual attributes for the passing hillwalker.

There are doubtless ‘wild’ places in Scotland that are less tied into their hinterlands than is the case in South Uist. But that merely reveals that the concept of ‘wildness’ is entirely insensitive to local cultural nuance.

The Uibhisteachs, to my mind, are right to be worried. They should be concerned that such a move may inhibit their ability to use the land resources that have been so hard won. There is also a wider argument to be made about the continuing failure by the state-sanctioned guardians of our natural heritage to recognise and celebrate the ways in which our natural history and cultural history are entwined.

The language of wildness always tries to keep these at arm’s length. In their consultation paper, SNH say that ‘the evidence of past and contemporary uses of these areas is relatively light, and do not detract significantly from the quality of wildness’. Detract significantly? Can’t we just stop conceiving the presence of people – historic or otherwise – as some kind of loss?

Why not think of human activity as being a constituent part of what makes these areas interesting and meaningful?

Wildness ties us up in knots. It requires all sorts of qualifications and clarifications on the part of the conservationists: ‘yes, we know that it isn’t really wild…’; ‘light evidence of people may not be too bad …’ etc.

It simply isn’t a useful term to carry a richer sense of landscape as being a hybrid labour between humans and non-humans.

I don’t for a moment think that SNH want to impose the attributes of wildness on the whole of Scotland. Rather, my problem is that they want to fix ‘wildness’ (and its proxies) as being the defining aesthetic for a big portion of the Scottish landscape. It’s an aesthetic ideal that carries some hefty political baggage and has no democratic mandate in the very regions that are deemed most wild.

One of the problems that besets the whole debate is that proponents of ‘wildness’ can’t see past the category itself. We need to understand wildness as itself a way of seeing rather as some external reality ‘out there’ in the hills.

So statements like this from SNH are rather trying:

“The appreciation of wildness is a matter of an individual’s experience, and their perceptions of and preferences for landscapes of this kind. Wildness cannot be captured and measured, but it can be experienced and interpreted by people in many different ways.”

In other words, you can have any flavour of wildness you like as long as it’s wild. Great. There doesn’t seem much room here for the many people for whom wildness is simply not the cultural lens with which they see the Highland landscape.

The argument that wildness is what brings tourists to the Highlands makes the same mistake of failing to see past the category. We must not conflate the Highland landscape with the cultural lens of wildness. Yes, ‘wildness’ is one part of how the Scottish Highlands have been iconographically represented (though the same taste for wildness didn’t always have happy consequences on the ground).

But this is less an argument about what Scotland should look like and what sort of nature we might want, than it is about how we should conceive of Scotland’s landscapes. That distinction is crucial and, at the moment, it’s mostly forgotten.

Seventy five years ago today, a stalker was looking for a wounded stag on the upper slopes of Ben Avon, the sprawling massif on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms.

Allt an Eas Mhoir @copyright Graham Marr

Scanning the ground in the remote burn of Allt an Eas Mhoir, he found instead a badly decomposed human head. A little further upstream, he found the body of a man dressed in a dark suit with a light check. Nearby lay a plain walking stick and a brown leather attaché case.

The contents of the case were as follows:

  • one pair of pyjama trousers
  • two starched collars
  • one toilet roll
  • one pair of scissors
  • one box of safety matches
  • one receipt from Simpson’s two day coach tours

Also adjacent, on a small ledge of rock were found: a razor; a shaving brush; a bar of soap; a bowler hat; toothpaste and toothbrush.

Extensive police enquiries at the time failed to either identify the man or establish how he came to grief.

I find myself less interested in the life and death of the deceased than in the effect of this discovery on the stalker. We know nothing of either.



University of Edinburgh Human Geography Research Group


A film about Monktonhall Colliery by David Peat


3.30pm Thursday 26th September, the Old Library, Drummond Street


All are welcome.


David Peat (1947-2012) was a noted Scottish film director and photographer, whose works include Gutted (2004) and Please Leave the Light On (1997) as well as numerous films with Murray Grigor.


Monktonhall Colliery was one of the Scottish superpits, designed to exploit the deep limestone coals of the Midlothian basin, into which was sunk an extraordinary 900m shaft – an inverted Munro’s depth.  Though the pit broke records for productivity, it scarcely recovered from the political traumas of the miners strike. A subsequent workers buyout of the mine in the face of privatisation – chronicled here by David Peat – was ultimately unsuccessful. The remarkable pithead architecture, by noted European modernist Egon Riss, has since been demolished.