Sighting the Triple Kirks

Prologue

In June 2013, the inaugural Famulus journal was published, to a tiny print-run of 25 retail copies. I contributed an essay about the Triple Kirks ruined church in the centre of Aberdeen, Scotland. The future of the site has long been debated, with developments proposed and quashed every couple of years. However, Dandara have now stated their intention to redevelop the site, flattening all but the spire, which itself will be subsumed into a glass-fronted office block. It will be called ‘the Point’; which calls to mind the tatty cinema complex in Milton Keynes of the same name – although this is to be demolished too, according to Wikipedia. (I used to visit this cinema as kid. That metal pyramid exoskeleton seemed enormous to me then, reaching up in to the clouds. Sadly, as an adult, its size is somewhat diminished and puny-looking). I am republishing my Triple Kirks essay here, to share that special structure/non-structure, soon to be lost to the developer’s vision.

* * *

Sighting the Triple Kirks

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Contrary to most of the other grand old buildings of Aberdeen city centre, this one is not composed of granite: that hard, cold rock that so easily mimics the sky above (or is it the sky that mimics buildings below?). The Triple Kirks is a brick building. Bricks of deep vermillion; small bricks: pre-metric. Small and long; flat.

The Triple Kirks was hastily built in 1843 by Aberdeen’s architect son Archibald Simpson. The Church of Scotland was in crisis, with serious concerns that the Kirk’s spiritual piousness was being too intertwined with political, secular matters. The Free Church was formed during this Disruption (capitalisation intended) to counter the established church’s politicisation, and buildings were needed quickly. The Triple Kirks was built to house three congregations; these three churches being united through the use of a single steeple, with each church arranged around the central spire in a pinwheel style.

The site selected was on the edge of the Denburn Valley: at the time, a swathe of lush picturesque greenery, with Den Burn at its centre. The flame-red spire serving to add that so-valued human addition, which was thought to only improve existing natural beauty. Previously, and for seventy years, a weaving factory occupied the site. From here came the red bricks that forms the spire (plus some further brick from demolished fisherman cottages at Ferryhill). One of those employed at the former factory was William Thom, Weaver Poet of Inverurie. In Lines Written at Ravenscraig1, he talks of the ruins on the banks of the River Ugie:

        Bring ivy wi’ its peaceful green,

Gae hide ilk hoar, unhallow’d stane;

They maunna bloat you bonnie een

                                That watch the gushin’ Ugie

Unlike the Ugie, the Den Burn is now hidden; culverted to make way for a rarely-used dual carriage way. Along this valley there also runs a train line. But across from this there still remains a shadow of the green Denburn Valley, in the Union Terrace gardens. The eyes of the steeple still watch across the valley: not at the plash of water, but the sporadic flow of car and train. In writing that poem, William Thom unwittingly foretold the fate of the building that was made from the demolition of his employment. The once hallowed, but now unhallow’d red brick of a spire that no longer serves its purpose: as an antenna to heaven; as spiritual beacon for the people below. The churches themselves now pulled down, left empty and roofless, or converted to pub, nightclub, dance studio.

* * *

The church that still remains, but is roofless, is supported by the angular symmetry of modernist scaffolding. In a north facing wall, the wooden frame in the window place has shifted. Its pointed arch outlines skewed against the vertical walls and the order of the scaffolding. The space within these roofless walls is out-of-bounds. But today the service yard for the adjoining pub is quiet, so I sneak in. A piece of rotting chipboard is all that prevents access. I pull the board away, just enough to be able to see the rear of the walls. Despite the relative ease of getting this view, it feels like an act of subversion. I am looking on the wrong side of the walls. Sometimes developers might get in here, and birds have free reign to fly over the walls, though perhaps not the aesthetic wherewithal for its uncanny appreciation.

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Another time, when viewing the north wall from the ‘right’ side, that is, the outside, I can see tiny footprints. There is a thin lie of snow, lying like a white quilt, all smooth undulation, but with small tears where precocious grass pokes through. A single line walks towards the wall, by a bird unseen. Perhaps, after all, birds do have a curious interest in this wall. Or maybe it was for the thrill of leaving a trail in the snowy blanket: a kind of colonisation of an untainted canvas; a territorialisation. Perhaps it was searching for food; though deep down I suspect it’s all of these reasons, and none. (What is a reason, anyway, other than the purposeful deliberation of action; a passing-of-the-moment for time-rich, experience-poor human beings?).­­

Who made this path? I wondered. I hear there are peregrines that roost in the lofty spire. All I have ever seen are pigeons, clucking out of the only-partially-boarded belfry openings. But perhaps these are sly peregrines; venturing out only when necessity dictates. Maybe this trail is an elusive marker of this bird. But then, perhaps not. I am resigned to assume I see the marks of pigeon or seagull talons, and no more. Peregrines are migratory after all: perhaps I will see them in the summer.

* * *

ImagePeregrine falcons are the most kingly of the birds: in medieval times, it was only the king who was allowed to use a peregrine for hunting. They are fast too (indeed, the fastest bird) – flying at over 200 miles per hour on its way to its prey. And so back to the snow-path. Why would the peregrine, with its keen eye, be strolling about the ground? This bird is not one of horizontal strolling, of scrubbing about in the dirt looking for scraps of barely edible debris. They are of verticality; for it can only be through the plummet-from-height that they could achieve those speeds. Where else could these birds roost but the tall, slender spire of the Triple Kirks?

William Thom wrote Lines Written at Ravenscraig, and imagined that ruin looking down on the Ugie; perhaps now the eyes of the peregrines look across the Denburn Valley and Aberdeen beyond: the Eyes of the Triple Kirks. It was, after all, the ancient Egyptian god Horus, that peregrine-deity, whose right eye gave us Sun Ra, and the left the moon; whose symbolism paved the way for the Christian all-seeing eye. An all-seeing eye for the city, but one that is not moved by human actions. A passive eye that, perhaps through generations, sees the rise and fall, the stasis and flux of development and abandonment of human activity.

* * *

Archibald Simpson died in 1847 and his friend James Giles created a posthumous portrait of Simpson sat in a study, in front of the Denburn Valley, including the Triple Kirks steeple2. Viewing this painting, it is not obvious whether the view depicted is that of an earlier painting James Giles made, placed into the scene, or if it supposed to be a view through a window. One thing is likely: there is not a room that would have given such a view of the valley and kirks. But the fact that Giles used this view is testament to both his, and Simpson’s, attachment to the Triple Kirks. Walking through the centre of Aberdeen, reminders of Archibald Simpson’s achievements abound. Giles could have chosen any number of buildings to frame his friend. But the Triple Kirks was used for that living image of Simpson.

Like a memorial bench, we take up that view that was so important to the one being remembered. We embody the passed, as we recognise that which was dear, and so too it becomes dear to us. And we embody the past too: the Triple Kirks are entirely identifiable, but it is clear to see the Kirks as they were built, not as they stand now.

But does this painting really show them “as they were built”? For a start, this is a make-believe drawing room, in that it almost certainly did not have this view. And the Triple Kirks was built to house the new Free Church as it splintered away from the established kirk. But instead we get an image of a timeless-looking church tower (indeed, the steeple was modelled on one of the two towers of the 13th century Church of Saint Elizabeth in Marburg, Germany), with the lush folding greens in front. Archibald Simpson himself looks at peace in the painting, with a gentle half-smile, looking on to his drawings. The church, both above and with the nature of the valley; Simpson beyond the petty ecclesiastical arguments, yet intertwined with them by proximity. Perhaps this is a painting of desire, where the church is as tranquil as the greenery, and Simpson is alive, and smiling.

But of course this cannot come to pass. Death follows life, as ruins follows structure. But as long as ruins remain, the remembrances are painted and constructed, space is appropriated unexpectedly, there will always be lines of sight. Sightlines to see, and to remember, to imagine, and to recreate, and create anew. For now at least, “Simpson’s spire soar[s] above oblivious: it has a stout granite heart within its brick skin, after all”3.

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Notes

1 Appears in Thom, W., 1847, Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver, London: Smith, Elder and Co. Page 109

2 For an image of this painting, see http://tinyurl.com/Archibald-Simpson (accessed 10/04/2013)

3 Brogden, W.A., 2012, Aberdeen: An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Edinburgh: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Page 59.

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Train Of Caledon

It is late summer, 2012. Or what passed for summer. I planned a day in Fort William, that Highland town named after William of Orange, and later Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. It is also the Outdoor Capital of the UK, and I intend to sample the mountain bike trails of the nearby Nevis Range resort. That means an early morning train, utilising the London to Fort William sleeper service, departing from Edinburgh before 5am.

And what a journey.

Catching that early morning sun. The post-industrial grime of Glasgow suburbs. The struts of rotten boat hulls arching upwards like inverted whale ribs, but black from rust; rising out of the blacker-still mud of unused docks. Passenger ferries in vast sea lochs. Rising hills, clothed in short grasses. Abandoned railway tracks, running parallel to my own, but not perfectly; the kinks and curves making me feel drowsy.

The train feels fast from Edinburgh to Glasgow, but out of Glasgow, things slow down. It’s mostly single-gauge. No need for more; the sparse highlands. The tracks here feel rickety; the train giddying from side to side.

I am looking out to the west, down a steep wooded embankment. The slope is dark, and dense. No sun on this slope, at least not ’til later. I like this view. It’s closed in since the grass-covered hills and the vast lochs earlier in the journey.

Then I see what I take to be a hut. A long building with gently-arched roof, like a stretched potting shed. But something is not quite right. Yes! It’s covered in a sheet. And why is it on such a steep slope? Is it really perched against the trees; its only support? And then finally – I can see the heavy steel wheels below the sheet. This is not stalkers’ shelter, this is a train carriage.

Train of Caledon. Pencil and watercolour on paper. © Lines of Landscape 2013

Train of Caledon. Pencil and watercolour on paper. © Lines of Landscape 2013

What happened here? A derailment, for sure. But why? Perhaps the giddying tracks have played a part, maybe it was some japery of bored teenagers, or maybe a detail was missed during the carriage’s safety check. But it’s not really the means by which it got there that intrigues me. It’s that it is there, no longer on the stretched, linear home that is the track; instead now nestled amongst the thicket of trees, cloaked in the deep forest’s clinging darkness. And that sheet. We cover our dead with cloth to hide them away, fearing the grim spectacle of the corpse’ face. And so too the carriage, a sight too unnerving, too properly uncanny for most people to see.

This scene comes close to the end of the journey. Perhaps this is one the last vestiges of that once great Forest of Caledonia. Maybe the forest has decided: enough! and attempted to capture some of that disruptive noise for itself, to silence it amongst its wood and leaves. Perhaps the giddying track is the result of tree roots literally undermining the tracks themselves: the derailed train a long-awaited fruit of its labour.

After a day of riding in the mud in the shadow of Ben Nevis, during a day too windy for bikes to be taken on the chairlift, I set back home on the evening sleeper train. By the time the train begins to depart, darkness has already begun to fall. I sit in one of the old reclining seats of my carriage, and strain to see out of the west-facing window, hoping to catch another glimpse of that spectre of efficient transport and progress. But the twilight, combined with the dense foliage, mean I don’t get a chance to see the forest’s bounty a second time. Now, that unified structure that was a derailed train carriage, and the assemblage-woods of old Scotland, blurred to one seemingly boundless morass of dark shadows.

Following that journey, I never looked into how a train came to be found propped up on a steep wooded slope, or whether efforts have been made to remove it, or if anyone was injured during its accident. And despite making that journey for a day full of adrenaline and easy thrills, it was that fleeting moment spotting a shroud-covered carriage that stayed with me.

Postscript. I would like to thank Diana J Hale and David Southwell for their inspiration and encouragement that saw me write this piece. See in particular their posts here, here and here.

Pentland Remembrance – and beyond

The other day, I took a wander in the style of what some might call ‘cyclogeography’, but which I prefer to think of as merely ‘a bike ride in the hills’. On the edge of the Pentland Hills, which lie just to the south of Edinburgh, there stands a memorial. A look at an Ordnance Survey map will show its location, situated to the south east of the masthead that is Allermuir Hill (situated as it is on the city-facing edge of the hills), in the shadow of the imposing Castlelaw Hill, with its DANGER AREA, and red warning flag and the pop-pop-popping of the rifle-range guns, and a stone’s throw from the Woodhouselee clachan (or hamlet).

Map of Tytler Memorial. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland in 1882-4 describes Woodhouselee as: “a mansion in Glencorse parish, Edinburghshire, 6 ½ miles S of Edinburgh and 4 N of Penicuik. Romantically seated on the eastern slope of the Pentland Hills”. As far as I am aware, there no longer stands the mansion or tower of Woodhouselee, though I’ve never explored the hamlet to find out.  If this is the case, it would be a shame – Will Grant thought it “one of the most delightful in all the countryside” (p66, Grant, 1951). The Titlow family has a long history in the area, being first found in Haddingtonshire, just out in East Lothian. Through time, the name got distorted to Tytler, the family branch of which became seated in Woodhouselee.

It is for the Tytler’s that this monument stands. Built in the 19th century, it commemorates various members of the clan, including Alexander Fraser Tytler, who was a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and Lord of Woodhouselee. It faces down the hillside, looking across an open field, home to some sheep, cows, and some large ornamental trees (is this the remains of an arboretum, attached to the Woodhouselee estate?), and then over the town of Penicuik, with the Lammermuir Hills making up the horizon.

Tytler Memorial. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

But the contradiction of this – and most – memorials is the direction they face. The photo above shows the front of the memorial, and the short view of the hill behind. In order to see the sweeping views out to the Lammermuirs, we must turn our back on the memorial, or stand behind it. But if a memorial is to stand in a landscape, like the menhirs in Francesco Careri’s Walkscapes (2002), then why doesn’t the face of interest also look away from the landscape? So one may view both landscape and the front of the memorial together?

This isn’t the first time I have paused for reflection at this memorial. There aren’t buildings in its immediate vicinity; this isn’t a graveyard – the memorial states that the graves are interred at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. I’ve stopped at this point before. Back then, I leant my bicycle against the rear of the monument, to stand in as a cypher for my own presence, as a means to frame the view behind in order to take a photo. The cross wasn’t significant – I could have leant my bike against a tree or fencepost. But what of the cross itself?

Rear of Tytler Memorial with bench behind. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

But this time, there is something more. Since I last lingered here, a bench has been placed on slope behind the cross. Sitting on the bench, one is drawn to the vast view, with the cross at the neartohand. The plaque on the seat states “In memory of Mae and Will Hoggan who so loved these hills.” So this is a more modern take on the memorilaisation. But to what hills does this plaque refer? The horizon is filled with the Lammermuir Hills, but this bench lies unquestionably in the Pentlands. Just which hills did they love?

In 2009, John Wylie considered the memorial benches overlooking a Cornish cove. He conceives of the landscape as being criss-crossed by multiple gazes – gazes of those who are absent, where the benches become those who are absent, and the person sitting on the bench manifests the gaze of the spectre: “looking-with – a host of ghosts and memories” (Wylie, 2009, p277).

It’s a curious notion. As I sit on the bench, I manifest the gaze of the missing couple (whether they like it or not). The bench-and-me becomes the absent. And so too for the cross. The reason the cross faces across to the Lammermuirs is precisely NOT to frustrate those who come to remember those passed. It is because, in the process of creating a memorial, it becomes the very thing it is there to remember. The physical remains of the Tytlers may not lie here, but there forever remains their eternal gaze, facilitated by the cross. The family motto becomes a suitable epitaph: Occultus non extinctus: hidden not extinguished.

The hills so loved by Hoggans become apparent. It is the Pentland Hills, but not just for the hills in themselves, but for the views across the landscape that these hills afford. For while the Pentland Hills may have a neat line drawn around them when viewed on  the map, a categorisation that assists both users and unitary authority in their making their way around, it is these views across lines-of-concept that give the hills their life – even in death.

References

Francesco, C, 2002, Walkscapes: walking as an aesthetic practice, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili

Grant, W, 1951, The Call of the Pentlands: a land of glamour and romance, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd

Wylie, J, 2009, Landscape, absence and the geographies of love, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34:3, 275–289