Elegies for coal, Cockenzie and carboniferous modernism

Levenhall Links is one of my favourite places, a small slice of the wild where Edinburgh spills into East Lothian. I escape here to watch the birds from an earlier age, when agriculture still found a place for lapwings and skylarks, curlews and meadow pipits.

Sitting behind the damp concrete wall of the bird hide, I lift my binoculars to scan the shallows for waders and ducks. On each visit they are alternately abundant and absent. The pleasure of anticipation is a little like that offered by a good second-hand bookshop: you never know what you’re going to get. Today, mostly oystercatchers.

Levenhall is a great place for a telescope. Wait … godwits! Are they bar-tailed or black-tailed? I’m definitely going to need the ‘scope for that.

Tilting the glass up from the waders, I follow a ship on the Firth of Forth and admire the outline of East Lomond rising above Glenrothes. There is a depth of field here.

For all its apparent naturalness, there is nothing wild about Levenhall Links. The site is dominated by – and has its origins in – the imposing hulk of Cockenzie Power Station, the ash from which has been landscaped to create ‘wader scrapes’ for post-industrial godwits and their kin.

I love Cockenzie Power Station. It is hard not to be moved by what is reputed to be Britain’s least efficient coal-burning behemoth. Unfortunately the EU doesn’t feel quite the same way which is why it is being decommissioned next year. Whether it will also be demolished is as yet unclear.

Part of my fondness is architectural. Few towns are so dominated by a single modernist building as Cockenzie, which carries itself like a mediaeval cathedral towering over its hinterland. To lose it is to mark the end of an era – the dissolution of the carbon monasteries.

Modernism in Scotland seldom had such scale to work with and, in 1959, the architectural firm of Sir Robert Matthew did not waste the opportunity. It is a shame then that the building has fewer advocates than others from the same design partnership – most famously, the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank and Edinburgh’s Royal Commonwealth Pool.

Located on the edge of the Midlothian coalfield, Cockenzie guzzled coal by the trainload which came snaking down the rails from the new superpits at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen.

Watching the godwits (bar-tailed, but you always have to check), I can’t help thinking of the late Professor Neil Smith ­– Marxist geographer, spatial theorist and also, apparently, a keen birdwatcher. His untimely death last month deprived geography of one its most lively minds (my colleague Tom Slater and Don Mitchell have both written fine tributes).

Smith’s work on the ‘production of nature’ shaped my early academic interest – the idea that nature is the outcome of social processes, not the other way round; that nature is, in a sense, congealed human labour.

The godwits preening on the pulverized fuel ash are on a substrate whose provenance lies in the labouring communities – not only in Cockenzie but also in mining communities across the Lothians.

A few miles south at the Monktonhall Colliery, the mine shaft was sunk over 900 metres – a inverted Munro’s depth – into the Jurassic past. Thousands of workers poured daily into this meticulously engineered abyss, capped with a winding gear that was itself encased in pulse-quickening Brutalist architecture.


These superpits were the pride of Scottish labour, at least until Thatcher’s henchmen at the National Coal Board, Ian MacGregor and Albert Wheeler, took revenge on an entire industry for the miners strike of 1984-1985.

Monktonhall had a reputation for militancy; many of its workers came from Neil Smith’s home town of Dalkeith.

All these material histories – of dirty, skilled and risky work; of solidarity and community – lie dormant in the mud at Levenhall, in the mountains that the miners moved, in the spoils of these now privatized utilities.

The aerial architecture of Monktonhall lasted just a few months into the era of New Labour but the site is still there, a dispiriting wasteland of new birch framed by mature ash avenues along the colliery bund. It is exceptionally quiet.




At least Monktonhall looks set to resist ‘amenity’ use. There is no getting round the fact that the ruins of coal-powered modernism aren’t pretty even after thirty years.

It is doubtless a good thing that Levenhall has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But I worry that the modern guise of nature-as-biodiversity is apt to obscure the ‘storyable’ properties of nature – of landscape as an archive of labouring histories.

In Neil Smith’s classic first book, Uneven Development, he observed that when the

“immediate appearance of nature is placed in historical context, the development of the material landscape presents itself as a process of the production of nature. The differentiated results of this production of nature are the material symptoms of uneven development.”

I know that this is not the usual stuff of contemporary nature writing, but perhaps it could be? Such natural histories might yield more politically productive accounts of the corresponding labour of humans and godwits.



Wreford who? Will Self to the give the Wreford Watson annual lecture

On 27th September our annual Wreford Watson geography lecture at Edinburgh will be given by the novelist and essayist Will Self. His title, ‘Decontaminating the Union: Post-Industrial Landscapes and the British Psyche’, will doubtless give an audience of geographers in Alex Salmond’s Scotland plenty to chew on.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether my colleagues ‘savour it or spit it out’, to paraphrase Richard Rorty. Pretty fun either way, I suspect.

Will Self, whose latest novel Umbrella was last week shortlisted for the Booker Prize, will need little by way of introduction. The same can hardly be said for James Wreford Watson (1915-1990) in whose memory the lecture is held, funded in part by the Edinburgh University Club of Toronto.

Wreford Watson is probably better remembered as a poet than as a geographer and if this dual identity seems less unusual these days, Watson can be credited as something of a pioneer.

Born in China to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, he spent the first half of his academic career in Canada eventually becoming ‘Chief Geographer’ – a enviable title, you have to admit – for the Canadian Government.

In 1954, Watson moved back to his alma mater here at Edinburgh where he took up the Chair in Geography.  That same year, he received Canada’s highest literary honour – the Governor General’s Medal for Poetry – for his collection Of Time and the Lover which, as with his other poetry work, was published under the name James Wreford.

Though Watson’s geographical work is by no means unimportant, his contributions were to fields that now seem rather obscure. Who now thinks of geography as ‘a discipline in distance’?

On the other hand one might find some correspondence with contemporary intellectual tastes – in affect and enthusiasm, for instance – which are evident in his 1983 Presidential Address to the IBG:

Geographers can’t afford to miss out on passion – far less dismiss it. Geography without passion is about as alive as a body without blood – ready for the grave diggers.

By far the most important of Watson legacies is his insistence on the centrality of literature. It was, he said, ‘the soul of geography’ and an essential part of a geographical education. He even boasted that he had ‘never written a [geographical] article or a book without an appeal to literature’.

The converse is also (mostly) true: his poetry usually bears the trace of his professional career, evident in poems such as ‘Cross Section’ and ‘Aerial Survey’.

Of Time and the Lover employs the language of geography to detail bodies in luuurve. By his own account at least, he seems not to have missed out on any passion.

It is earnest stuff: a suggestive topography of rivers; valleys; hollows; shallows; depths; days of summer heat and silken rain; surfs of passion; trembling leaves; and elms laden with drizzle.

Is it as bad as I’m making it sound? Probably not. To say that it is ‘of its time’ is to gloss matters that would make it a suitable subject for Gillian Rose’s critique of the landscape tradition in geography.

Try this, from ‘Identity’:

All his geography projects

on the mollweide of her hips,

and yet there is no map can trace

the well known frontier of their lips-

that war-torn boundary and bridge

O both their eagle is and dove;

themselves on this side, but on that

a greater than themselves they prove.

‘There are lapses of inspiration and of taste in Mr Wreford’s book’ wrote Northrop Frye, ‘but there is also a dignified simplicity and a sincere eloquence’. Allowing for the genre, that feels about right.

Much of Watson’s poetry tended towards pastoral, vaguely Christian elegies – a form which, like that of his geography, is now deeply unfashionable. It’s hard not to wonder what he would have made of The Book of Dave.

One might argue, at a push, that Watson set the stage for thinking of geography as a literary project or, more plausibly, for thinking of literature as a geographical project. And it is to this stage that we are pleased to welcome the geographically-inclined Will Self.

St Kilda Fatigue

Here we go again; it is St Kilda o’clock.

Today is the day we remember the evacuation of St Kilda, our new favourite Scottish myth of origin. The tragedy! The poignancy! The sublimity!

I’ll be honest here and admit to St Kilda fatigue. And I know that this is slightly hypocritical of me as I too have added my stone to the cairn (cleit?) of St Kilda scholarship. Back in 1998, I was critical of prior histories – by Tom Steel and Charles Maclean – that had failed to place the written sources on St Kilda within the genre of bourgeois travel narratives.

I took the view that most of what we knew about St Kilda was written by visiting elites – the very people least qualified to understand island life and culture. [My paper St Kilda and the Sublime can be downloaded as a 1.5mb pdf here]

This critical historiography was then taken up in the work of the archaeologist Andrew Fleming and others. But fifteen years later, the preoccupations of those privileged nineteenth century travellers still characterize our continuing popular interest in St Kilda.

Never mind that St Kilda was little different to numerous other island communities up and down the western seaboard. What about North Rona? Mingulay? The Monachs? Taransay? Pabbay, Harris? Scarp?

All these islands had forms of social organization quite similar to St Kilda; and their stories of endurance and ultimate evacuation are every bit as interesting. But poor St Kilda is alone left to shoulder the burden of our nostalgia.

The outstanding example of this geographical fetish is our fixation with the St Kilda Parliament.  Everyone knows the photograph.

The surprise that such ‘primitive’ people might have their own patterns of governance had become a standard curiousity for nineteenth century travellers. Though various writers had referred to this meeting – a mòd – it was the journalist John Sands who, in 1876, took something ordinary and turned it into a spectacle:

“The men of St Kilda are in the habit of congregating in front of one of the houses almost every morning for the discussion of business. I called this assembly the Parliament, and with a laugh they adopted the name”.

Sands was mostly having a laugh. You can get the general idea from the title of his book, Out of the World, or, Life on St Kilda.

But then after the popularity of this publication, the photographer Norman Macleod – working for the George Washington Wilson studio – staged the now iconic photograph in playful mimicry of Westminster.

And there we have it: the St Kilda Parliament.

The point in all this is not to complain that the St Kilda Parliament is an ‘image’, and thus not ‘real’. Such attempts to separate ‘image’ from ‘reality’, ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, are in my view part of the problem.

Rather, the project of a critical history is to understand that the ‘reality’ of St Kilda is itself constituted through numerous such images; that the lives and subjectivities of the islanders were folded into these systems of representation; and that the islanders in turn performed, subverted and re-worked these image-realities.

So that is theoretical work necessary to tackle the story St Kilda. Not for me though. I’m over it.


The founder of the Welfare State visits North Uist, 1919

‘Wasn’t there a famous Beveridge?’ Barbara asked me. ‘I think he was here’.

Barbara Maclean of Sollas, who recently passed away just short of her 92nd birthday, grew up on the intertidal island of Vallay which lies off the north coast of North Uist. Her father was the farm manager for Erskine Beveridge (1851-1920), the linen baron, archaeologist and photographer who built a mansion on the island and which still stands today as an enigmatic ruin.


For fifteen years, I have been slowly scraping away at the story of this house and its inhabitants. When I interviewed Barbara back in 1998, I wondered if what she called ‘the famous Beveridge’ might turn out to be Lord William Beveridge – author of the Beveridge Report, the architect of the British Welfare State and one of the giants of applied social science.

I was doubtful. It took me altogether too long to work out that he was, in fact, a cousin of Erskine Beveridge; and that, yes, he had holidayed there in the summer of 1919 – albeit over 20 years before he wrote his famous report.

Last month, I went down to the archives of the London School of Economics to sift through the papers of William Beveridge and discovered a modest treasure trove of correspondence that provides new insights into the Erskine Beveridge family and their island home.

The story of the then Sir William’s trip to Vallay House is itself fascinating. It was here he penned his inaugural lecture to the LSE whose Directorship he took up later that year.

He wrote to his parents about the unhurried pleasures of travel in the islands. While waiting for the tide to allow him cross the sands to Vallay he stopped in at the Post Office in Malacleit ‘for an hour or two with a very welcome fire and tea and whisky’.

He finally arrived at Vallay in the early hours of the morning ‘where we found cousin Erskine sitting up for us’.

Also surviving from this trip is a holiday snap of the family group. ‘Will’, as he was known to his cousins, is in the middle. Erskine Beveridge, of whom very few photos exist, is in sombre Edwardian fashion. Standing in front of Will is Erskine’s youngest son Charles (wearing a cap) and another adult son, George, wearing plus fours with his regimental Balmoral.

Within in a year, Will would be taking one of the coffin cords at cousin Erskine’s funeral. George, who inherited Vallay, later drowned in the ford.

This is, of course, just a tiny episode in a full life. Although born in India and having lived and died in England, William Beveridge was came from a Fife family that maintained close links with Scotland.

This all seems worth remembering now that William Beveridge’s legacy is being systematically unravelled and with such muted protest.

The family of Erskine Beveridge had sorrows aplenty, to which the crumbling Vallay House still testifies. The present ruin of the Welfare State is a tragedy of an altogether different order.


A narrative essay, The Ruins of Erskine Beveridge, is forthcoming in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

On the ruins of St Peters Seminary

On Saturday 9th June, I donned some stout boots and a hard hat to visit a Catholic citadel. The trip to St Peters Seminary in Cardross was certainly an education – though not perhaps in the ways its founders might have anticipated. St Peters is one of Scotland’s iconic Modernist buildings; it is also a splendid ruin.


It was a glorious day spent ‘botanising on the asphalt’, to use Walter Benjamin’s memorable phrase, picking over the detritus of utopian architecture and a monastic ideal. And, appropriately enough, it was the botany that moved me most. A seminarium is, after all, a seed-bed – a plot for nurturing our knowledge of creation and Creator.

While the ‘seminar’ is one of the familiar rites of modern university life, we are apt to disavow its religious provenance. Here, in the often dank confines of St Peters, the strained kinship of seminar and seminary were reunited under the avowedly secular auspices of The Invisible College – an AHRC-funded project convened by academics Hayden Lorimer, Ed Hollis and Michael Gallagher together with Angus Farquahar at NVA.

Completed in 1966, St Peters was designed by the architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia – a piece of monumental Modernism that now enjoys category A listing.

St Peters embodies a familiar paradox: that the building has found greater favour as a ruin than it ever did when it housed the diminishing supply of priests in training. It is now a place of pilgrimage for urban explorers; it surely won’t be long before it acquires that ultimate hipster accolade of being featured on Fuck Yeah Brutalism.

It is, for all that, a remarkable place – not just the seminary itself but the many other ruins on the estate, which once featured Kilmahew House, a large Baronial pile that dates from the mid-nineteenth century. Ruins are heaped upon other ruins.

One of my tasks of the day, as a member of The Invisible College, was to do a little digging through this palimpsest. I was dispatched to the former greenhouses of the old walled garden of Kilmahew House where, not unexpectedly, I found a lot of broken glass.

Among the more interesting vestiges of the greenhouses in their glory days were the self-propagating epiphytes that have now colonised the crumbling walls. These are bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium nidus), originally from Asia and Polynesia, but naturalized in Britain as a glasshouse stalwart in the era of high Empire.

To inhabit these spaces is to enter another age – one which, for me, also has a family connection. A neighbouring ‘Big Hoose’, comparable in grandness to Kilmahew, can still be found across the Vale of Leven at Overtoun. Alas, the walled gardens and greenhouses of Overtoun House have since been demolished. My grandfather, James Salmond – from whom I acquired my modest gardening knowledge – grew up there as the gardener’s son. He was doubtless familiar with the setup at Kilmahew. Gardening on a grand scale was all my grandfather knew – at least until he became another child soldier in Europe’s imperial war.

The Salmonds, like other branches of my extended family, were originally Presbyterian. Which brings me to a question: why was it Catholicism that favoured Modernist architecture? It is actually hard even to imagine the words ‘Scottish Presbyterian’ and ‘Modernism’ in the same sentence.

The easy explanation is that Presbyterian expansion was largely a nineteenth century affair. But as I wrote in a paper (1mb PDF) a decade ago, the theology of protestant architecture is oddly aligned with the principles of Modernism: a stripped down aesthetic that gives primacy to function; and a worship space shorn of ornament, so as to emphasise the centrality of the Word.

As film footage of the St Peters chapel shows, similar principles found a welcome home in the post-Vatican II Catholic church. It is interesting to note that the construction phase of St Peters (1961-1966) closely parallels the duration of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), even if the Catholic affinity for Modernism is clearly much older.

A stencilled graffito at the current entrance to the St Peters site – a well-used gap in the perimeter fence – approvingly quotes Sir Herbert Read from his 1934 Art and Industry

‘The machine has rejected ornament and the machine has everywhere established itself. We are irrevocably committed to the machine age’

As the ruins of the machine age are now encased in ivy, this uncompromising sentiment now seems slightly quaint. It is the living ornament that so often has the last word.