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Container ship delivering Christmas presents. A water borne Santa. Firth of Forth.
Ship passing Burntisland and The Binn cliffs rising above this small coastal town in Fife.
As the light faded around Arthur's Seat I opened the 'Arc Illuminata' to the relevant page and started reading the binding spell. ' Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian. All rise- all fall...Let feathered flocks heed this call- come to me now! Every black creature of the air on the mountainside- come to me now!'
I flapped my arms and gargled a harsh greeting in the universal bird language of all corvids, chanting the binding spell in the black feathered tongue -reading from the book of the dead. And behold..... they came. From all corners of this ancient volcano they arrived within minutes.
My guests invited to witness this great wonder of nature were not impressed however as I flapped my arms theatrically and slowly on the edge of the cliff as the light faded. 'Persian, Hittite, Hebrew, Aegean. All rise- all fall. I chanted my way through the ancient civilizations ritual.
'Nah! Rubbish! Boo. Crap magic act!' Belinda complained. 'Bigus Disappointus. We can see the bits of sponge cake and biscuits dropping out your sleeves. How is that mastery of birds? ' They're only here to get a feed. We want our money back!. Whatever you're doing do it faster so we can get gone. I'm ********* freezing!' It's taking too long'
' Silence Harpy! You've not paid a bean yet.' I protested. ' And that's not food. It's edible wages. Crows are easily as smart as monkeys. Would you work for nothing? I'm their temporary boss for the next ten minutes so I am in total control. Gig economy. Suck it up!'
I had promised my companions that I could attract dozens of mountain ravens to me on Arthur's Seat by thought alone. It would seem they were less than impressed when only crows arrived on cue.
Mutton dressed as spam! That's not dozens of ravens under your control- that's crows doing what they do for food! Call that a 'Game of Thrones Evening Extravaganza. ' We was lured up here under totally false declarations. You swindler! Boo! Cheat!'
'I'm painting the entire sky above Edinburgh with ******** crow silhouettes here. Shut your gob and give us a break woman! How often have you seen this happening? Talk about a hard to please audience. Ye Gods! There's a least 30 crows here within five minutes ... all under my command'
'Where's our dragon then?' chipped in Anne. 'That was to be the highlight of the tour. It's really cold up here. C'mon, don't muck around. We could easily freeze to death in this wind if anything bad happens.'
'Winter is coming.' I nodded solemnly, agreeing with her.
Unfortunately, they didn't crack a smile at the box set reference... just continued looked glum and miserable... and very, very cold. It was around minus five on the summit at a guess with a strong breeze blowing so even lower than that.
'400 years ago you two would be toast on a bonfire- you've certainly got the faces for it.' I joked.
'I don't think I've ever been this cold.' Anne informed me, straight faced. 'Seriously! Can we start heading down now?'
We were all well wrapped up with hats, warm jackets and gloves but it was well below zero with added windchill on the highest ridge lines where we were. By now the crowds had departed speedily and we were the only ones left on the summit- hence the theatrics from me and growing unease from them. Although I was well used to being on the mountains at night alone they weren't and were starting to look distinctly worried. An understandable concern when everyone else seemed to be heading down the slopes in a rush to beat the darkness but I was enjoying myself and in my element here.
' Behold ye doubters! A small but perfectly formed dragon.' I proclaimed.
'I really hope you have something better for the third act.' Belinda stated dryly.
'There's always a critic in any room. Call yourself a coven witch. You've no poetry in your soul- its magnificent up here. I'm just providing a few extra artistic touches. '
'Give us the faster version on speed dial then.' This from Belinda, impatient as usual. 'Feed crows- crows dance- we leave... they **** off home ...everyone's happy- .the end...Done.....' she got up to go. ' Sorry to spoil the script.'
'Ok'...I sighed. ' Let's go.' I could see they were getting worried about being the last folk left on the hillside with only a few stragglers far below, the only other people in view.
We descended down the path until we reached the start of Salisbury Crags- the long escarpment line of cliffs above the city. This was the third act. It was slightly warmer down here, out of the arctic wind chill effect and they started to enjoy the experience more, especially when the city lights came on. We found a sheltered spot and sat down again to pick out details. 'Hillend Ski slope on the Pentlands' I pointed out, doing my dutiful tour guide. 'Royal Commonwealth Pool, blah blah blah...'
'This is worth the effort.' Anne admitted. 'Really special.'
'It's a beautiful view by day but at night it's world class.' I agreed.
'Just a shame it's so cold.' Belinda added, but not with any malice.
I had to agree as by this time I could hardly hold the camera steady to take clear photographs and couldn't even feel it properly. Once my hands had been exposed taking photos of the crows, even for just ten minutes in frigid air they never really recovered and it felt like oven gloves holding the camera instead of bare hands. A very familiar winter mountain feeling where teeth work better than frozen fingers on objects but I also knew from experience how far I could go before I had to pack it in and heat them up again. We could see the Christmas attractions along Princes Street... the 80 metre high drop tower on George Street, the big wheel in the middle, and the 60 metre high star flyer. And we were perched high above them all. They seemed very far away and tiny. Remote.
'I would never have thought of doing this in a million years.' Anne admitted.' not at night.'
All of us were staying well back from the edge as it was very easy to walk over the cliffs in the near darkness but someone ahead of us had other ideas.
'Are they totally crazy!' Belinda hissed, pointing.
'I don't think that's a person.' I whispered back. 'It followed us down from the summit. Woooooo spooky!'
We then noticed it walked strangely, with a rolling shambling gait.
As we moved further round the cliffs it disappeared into the gloom then reappeared behind us- always keeping its distance on the edge of sight. Well, Edinburgh is famous for it's ghost tours so I would expect nothing less.(see photo above.)
The Old Town around the castle and The Royal Mile- looking very Gothic.
Palace of Holyroodhouse and the road running down towards Leith.
The Scottish Parliament Building at night. By now it was really dark but I knew the landscape layout well on Salisbury Crags and made sure my two less experienced walkers were well away from any real danger at all times. They didn't know that though :o) Grass slopes lead down off the cliffs on one side but it is not a place for anyone without a detailed knowledge of the landscape here or nighttime mountain walking experience. Although we had head-torches with us I never used them until well down the hillside and on safer ground as its easier to make out the cliff edge using night vision alone. As soon as you switch head-torches on you lose that ability and its actually harder to see what's in front of you just beyond the beam. It is a serious mountain at night with numerous high vertical cliffs and you don't want to be up here after dark without a clear idea of where you are going and what's ahead of you every step of the way.
Luckily, they both trusted me to guide them down safety but it was an unnerving experience for first time mountain novices.
'I'm ******** myself.' Anne admitted at one point. Both kept their nerve though and we made it safely down.
' Now that was a third act!' Belinda was buzzing with energy. 'There's nothing like a near death experience to get you feeling alive.'
With these two particular companions by my side I had to agree. A memorable outing.
And it was not over yet.
It was only 5:00 pm when we reached the city streets again but felt much longer....a rebirth of sorts....
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The Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh with ice covered ponds. I've been going through to Edinburgh fairly frequently over the last year or so as it's cheap and easy for me travelling by bus to get there. Over roughly a dozen trips later I must have saved myself well over £200 pounds in petrol if going through by car. Edinburgh is also a photographer's dream date with thousands of different photo opportunities in every district. It must be one of the most visited and photographed cities in the UK so I like to try and capture stuff off the normal tourist trails to make it a bit different.
A view of my dream islands. You can keep your tropical islands- for me these scattered rocky islands in the Firth of Forth are equally alluring. From 'King' Arthur's Seat looking across at Inchmickery (island) Cow and Calves (islands) Oxcars (navigation/ hazard light on rocks) then, in the distance, the larger island of Inchcolm with its substantial medieval former Augustine Abbey clearly seen here. Beyond that the hidden sea channel of Mortimer's Deep then the coastline of Fife near Dalgety Bay. The smaller islands here are hard to reach without a private boat or kayaks- some are bird reserves now where landing is discouraged during the breeding season. I'm lucky enough to have explored them all in the past but they still remain mysterious and illusive.
It was a cold day for our trip with snow lying over the Ochll range of hills to the north, seen here, and below zero temperatures but I had promised my two bus companions- Anne and Belinda- that it would be a highly memorable one. Most of my Edinburgh trips this year I've been alone but B and A had loved last Christmas through in Edinburgh and wanted to do it again. Last time though they had stayed a week in digs, spent a fortune, toured the shops and tourist traps around Princes Street and The Royal Mile, stayed for the New Year party then returned completely skint. I promised them the same thrills, spills and genuine adventure this time- but on a shoestring budget instead.
They accepted my invitation but could only fit in an overnight stay and two full days- which was fine by me. That was all I would need. You can pack a great deal into two full days. And we did.
A view across Edinburgh to the misty Central Highland peaks.
Of course A and B being A and B as soon as we got off the morning bus they wanted to do some sightseeing and shopping around Princes Street and visit the Christmas Market so I tagged dutifully along biding my time. Eventually we stopped for lunch.... ( Greggs sausage rolls- 90 pence each- they've went up in price like everything else. Wah!) then we finished with the shopping and had a slow wander up Calton Hill. Being so cold the views were fantastic both over the city below and the Firth of Forth.
Shipping on the Firth of Forth and Kingdom of Fife coastline. The east coast and Edinburgh does appear to have more commercial water traffic than the River Clyde and the Firth of Clyde. Most of the Clyde traffic is ferry based taking folk over to the larger community rich islands there, several of which have small island towns. The east coast islands are mostly abandoned or have very few folk living a modern hermit's existence on them. Maybe that's what I find so appealing about them. Close to a major urban hub and seaport yet still remaining very isolated.
On this coast it is container ships, oil tankers and cargo boats mainly, and Edinburgh itself in general has a far livelier feel than Glasgow these days- all tall cranes, endless building projects, crowded pavements and sometimes gridlocked traffic. The downside was it took us ages to get through Edinburgh's busy streets and reach the bus station but that didn't really bother me as it meant less shopping for B and A and more adventure time for me.
A view of Inchkeith, one of the further out islands in the Firth of Forth.
Our final destination was Arthur's Seat, the ancient volcano in the heart of Edinburgh. Unbelievably neither A or B had climbed this small but rugged peak before or during their week long trip so I had agreed to take them up... for the sunset. Not being into hill-walking neither had proper boots but had compromised and were wearing what I'd term to be a women's fashion idea of what 'comfortable walking boots' should look like... i,e respectable enough to have on your feet for a party or shopping trip as well as being suitable for city walking. Hopefully, that would be enough for what I had planned as they had similar footwear to most other folk ascending Arthur's Seat--- snow and ice, luckily, seemed absent on the slopes. The summit of Arthur's Seat above. Both Arthur and Merlin have a strong connection to this area, and the border's region in general, with numerous place names, some dating back centuries. Whether this is just romantic whimsy and poetic licence or has any basis in fact is anyone's guess after all this time but the advance of the Romans through Britain did push the original ancient tribes who resisted them into some remote corners and hard to reach mountainous regions like Cornwall, Devon, Wales and The Scottish Borders- all of which have Arthur and Merlin place names. In that age and time Arthur's Seat would have looked very different of course, lower slopes pathless and heavily wooded with the surrounding hilly district wild and still largely untamed. .
It was the usual biblical epic crowds on the summit of this very popular hill. Due to its rugged volcanic nature and abrupt vertical cliffs dropping off into the city streets below it always seems far higher than it's 823 feet, 251 metre height would suggest. People have died on Arthur's Seat falling off the cliffs and many others have sustained serious injuries, either slipping or tripping on the highly polished rock, worn smooth and glass-like by generations of feet, or from unplanned slides in winter under snowfall and ice.
Although slap bang in the middle of a city it's not a mountain to be taken lightly and I've climbed loads of 3000 foot Munros, including many of the 4000 foot Cairngorm summits, that were far easier walking underfoot than this modest little peak- especially the now horrendous descent via the zig- zag steep stone staircase of the Gutted Haddie, traditionally the fastest and steepest tourist route off the summit. These days if it's at all wet or icy its a slippy hell of a route down for novice walkers and if you fall, slip, or trip anywhere on it its a rocky face plant straight onto sloping sharp edged steps covered in slick mud so I wanted to avoid that at all costs and hopefully not put them off for life.
This photo was taken on a recent previous trip- from the Gutted Haddie staircase.... Edinburgh's equivalent of Gollum's back entry route into Mordor. Under snow or ice these stairs are an equal death trap invitation without crampons but hundreds still happily come down this way in street shoes every winter. I've seen people crawling down them on hands and knees with the ground completely invisible under layers of frozen snow and thick ice. Mad stuff.
The previous photo was our sunset arriving on the summit slopes. We had timed it perfectly so we didn't have to wait around too long. On the upper slopes it was bitterly cold with a biting wind.
Sunset hitting Duddingston Loch and historic village below Arthur's Seat.
A wider view of Duddingston Loch. A wild tranquil place despite a city location. The white dots are swans and gulls, depending on size.
Sunset over the Pentland Hills.
Edinburgh Castle view.
Salisbury Crags and Edinburgh.
The sun dipping below the horizon....
We were not really up here for the sunset however as I had promised them thrills and adventure of a completely different magnitude....
Edinburgh is an ancient city holding many dark secrets. I had in my possession the legendary 'Book of the Dead' This is not it however- this is merely a tribute in stone and I was not about to heave that thing up a hillside as he wouldn't let it go... Luckily, I had the modern concise version- a thin paperback.
With the light rapidly fading I asked my companions to take a seat on the hillside for the second act. I then turned to the chapter entitled 'Arc Illuminata- charms to entice the soul'... of skin- fur-feather-bone and scale. A binding spell. My little commune waited eagerly for something to happen...
And it did. My word....the old guy still has it in him to deliver the goods when it matters...
To be continued....
Oh, and Merry Christmas to everyone... A lovely sailing adventure video around the coast of Scotland.
ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
One morning I awoke to Strange Kingdoms.
I dressed quickly and rushed outside. A horse chestnut Stonehenge.
The 'Last Rose of Autumn' was still in bloom.
as was my heart....
filled with the magic of childhood returned.
What child doesn't remember the powerful glory of any humble stream. No Niagara was ever better than this discovery 'at a certain age and time.'
Young forever, I sat down in the glade and awaited the arrival of Esmeralda, the 'Faerie Queene'.
But I was not alone, and never have been at any time, in this 'Wood of Knights'.
My friends will always find me there.
Altar prepared, spells appropriate given, and food laid out... we waited for she.
And so, eventually, she came...
transforming the glade with her wondrous gifts of euphemism and allegory that would daunt even Spenser.
For food there was in this strange kingdom for those who could see it.
but not for all ---- as some were 'beauty bewitched.'
and danger lurked in every mouthful took and swallowed... which or 'witch' to choose... wisely?
Boundaries, landscapes, forms, and traditions may be mixed and merged together- then blurred...
as we slipped on a journey down Carroll's rabbit hole into sweet smelling caverns and caves of jet, jade, yellow ruby and musk.
no 'golden dawn' for us...
but sweet the tingling memory of Esmeralda's first kiss as she departed.
as wherever she sat... wherever she walked... whatever she touched- turned white overnight. As did I.
Remaining leaves dropped around me...and at her departing heels the little 'mice of the woods', the nimble hedge accentors, followed in hopping, darting flight.
soon joined by tinkling goldcrests in abundance, swinging and sneaking through the pines.
leaving behind a faint scent of angels...
and a multi coloured sunset.
of dazzling form.
as reflections of her own complex personality.
Christmas treats. Five excellent books of the imagination I've read in the last few years that are easily the equal of any of the well known children's classics. Alice, Oz, Pooh, etc... I would even hesitate to call them children's/ young adult books as they can be read and thoroughly enjoyed by anyone of any age. This post is a homage to them. Philip Pullman- Northern Lights..... Already a well known modern classic. This can stand alone or as the first book in a trilogy. Terrific read and great memorable characters. Wicked. Gregory Maguire..... Once you get past the first 30 pages and start to develop a sense and feel for the olden style language used, this book is a marvel. Funny, poignant, moving, intelligent and profound. The story of the green witch in the Wizard of Oz but also a mirror held up to society at large. Are people who are simply born different into a closed community automatically destined to be labelled 'evil' in some way by others? Are they likely to find themselves subjects of gossip, suspicion, and conjecture throughout life just for being so and thereby judged and found guilty by speculation, rumour, and inbuilt prejudice without a voice of their own in return? This book gives a credible answer to that question. Utterly brilliant writing and imagination used to fill out the many blank spaces in Oz. Itch. Simon Mayo.... A real surprise find. A teenage boy obsessed with the Periodic Tables and collecting elements is plunged headlong into a world of danger, darkness, and intrigue through his hobby. A cracking fast paced thriller and very different from anything else I've read over the years. Cold Magic. Kate Elliott.... Enter another world completely- like post medieval, dawn of industrial age central Europe but with marked differences. Reassuringly familiar yet also very exotic and strange in turn. I loved this book. Flood and Fire. Emily Diamand.... A true children's story as good as any before or since. It's the year of our lord 2216. A young girl and her pet cat travel through a partly submerged London holding the last working computer from the teknological past on their boat. Chased by outlaws, pirates and warring factions they plot a course that may change the drowned city and the reverted half- savage people around them. A lovely creative book for any age. Winner of the Times children's fiction competition.