It came to me as I marched towards North Berwick that I was heading for the wrong place. That NB orientations- topographical-historical-psychogeographical, were not towards the Bass , but towards the May, and via that to Fife. And then I remembered that transport to both the monastery of the May, source of beer and literacy , and the pilgrim route towards Earlsferry and Fife – St Andrews, ultimately – progressed medievally out of North Berwick harbour.
The May was a low flat presence in the distance, a three dimensional jigsaw piece, sufficiently remote to allow me to cogitate over the curvedness of the earth. The Bass loomed close – was the last in the row of jagged teeth that skirt NB – the canine or the incisor, I’m not sure. But to look at the Bass from North Berwick as was, you’d have had to crick your neck to the right, or place your panoramic window at an angle to your façade, or walk and scramble out onto the headlands beyond the East Beach.
And perhaps this is why I have always found North Berwick a pain in the neck..
So, for my purposes, I needed to be further out.
I decided to approach from an assumed hinterland towards the East, via the farmed but currently lightly peopled space east of Whitekirk, from within the three parishes- Auldhame,Tyninghame and Prestonkirk which claimed St Baldred and his miracles.
I am demotivated. Worried again about my rumbling exhaust, and wondering if my quest is coming to an end – not over what I’ll find, but what I’ll do then. But as Basho says every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.
Scoughall. Parked beside a field of cabbages. The farm road slopes East from the pilgrim route defining the edge of the land of golf courses, steading conversions and chocolate labs ( ‘East Lothian – Easy Living’) , and leads towards a different one of football pitches filled with crops ( Arable-Arable-Fodder-Arable–Potatoes), Pheasants, and PRIVATE signs at road ends.
Not an exact geographic split perhaps but a significant psychic one. I can feel the difference – a release of social tension in the area above my stomach, replaced by ancestral anxiety in my gullet over the farmer and his gun.
A heavily built field mouse blunders out of the verge . I think of a surfacing camper at Glastonbury. It checks and retreats. Mid summer.
Up a concrete track between unfenced ( and lightly domesticated) fields the Bass presents – centre stage, lighthouse to the face, cut off from the putative orchestra stalls by a wall, damming a long reservoir of barley ,on which the set floats – the string section drowning under grain.
The May has now changed sides, is out in the Firth seaward of Bass and Fife. The alignments are favourable..
Down Chapel Brae and ower a fence a faint track leads to the shore, across to another zone of ..
Oyster-catcher snicker. Red conglomerate sandstone. And the smell of weed (man..) – wet , foetid. The view south east. Man , dog, erratic (name?) . St Baldred’s cradle, Dunbar, Cement works. Torness, Barns Ness, round to Siccar Point, and a wart I don’t recognise at the end.
St Baldred’s Boat is my destination. A name on the map.
So what is the Boat? – the map is unclear. The most prominent feature on my route is a separated sandstone calf ascending outwards and making a col along the shore path between it and it’s roan-cow mother cliff. Prow-shaped its strata ascend outwards.
It is accessible only from its nose, broken and smoothed by tides immemorial. As I climb it narrows to a turf-ridged butt only a foot wide in places snaking back forty feet above the shore. Between it and the Bass – rocks, pools, a harbour, a skerry topped by a stone memorial and the channel.
My mount deserves a name, I feel. It has a mythic proportion and is, from the east, an obvious landmark, an edge. If it was St B’s Boat we could imagine it has moored him to the coast ,rather than being in the aeon-slow process of separating from it. But it turns out it’s not – maybe it should be his pulpit. It would have been a place for him to proclaim from ,to prophesize to the sea, to the East, to the theatre of May and Bass, to the cells and coracles of the other anchorites.
The other contenders to be the Boat are a small isolated but prominent skerry – crest lined with cormorants and GBBGs, faces decorated with guano – and, athwart midships, a long rocky promontory leading via a narrow tidal isthmus to a headland topped by a concrete concave tower and cross.
I head there, picking up speed as I note the advancing tide.
Then there is a moment – the water to the outsides of the rocks I am crossing looks higher than in the pools at my feet. An instinct about the wisdom of heading out into an approaching tide in an unfamiliar place kicks in , and resounds loudly in my gullet. I reason with it – I have at least two feet of tide to spare. I cross the isthmus onto the first eroded sandstone promontory.
Then I see others between me and the cross – I am suddenly aware of my folly, as I am of theirs, and I wonder if I should warn them about the oncoming tide. Instead I speed back across the isthmus.
I observe them from the safety of the beach. They are a middle aged couple. In cagoules, I note disparagingly. They are determined to remain on the rocks, but within reach of an escape route, until the very last moment. I imagine they have sought the mild peril of potential drowning as a replacement for the swingers circuit they have outgrown. Unlikely to thank me for my concern.
…And yet I feel that the prospect of being rescued from drowning by the coastguard,whilst clinging to a memorial to the drowned, ( however slight) would erode my dignity fatally. Here comes middle age..
Instead, as consolation, I explore Seacliffe beach , which is smattered with diligent holiday makers.
I find out that the Boat is in fact the gull clad skerry. It was moved there by St Baldred, as part of his hundred year residency on the Bass. The rock used to be a hazard to boats on way to and from the Bass, then at least partially inhabited . After a particular tragedy, St B asked to be placed on the skerry, which he then steered to its current location, reverse parking neatly beyond the promontory.
Much research leaves me with only an apocryphal account of the origin of the cross-capped tower. ‘They say’ this is a memorial to a drowned Edwardian daughter marooned by the tide, and as a future refuge for the unwary who might end up there.. Not any more though, as some authority has removed the lower rungs so it is not climbable – more grist to my mid aged discretion..
At the other end of the beach a tiny harbour is cut into the headland like a Bedrock jacuzzi . It is in use – two prawn boats are unloading.
Two other middle aged guys are poking around the headland with cameras and light summer slacks. They take pictures from many angles – they mean business. I am reminded of the pontificating lunching lady, ‘ Men don’t make friends like women do, and then they don’t contact them when they need to’.. Still we are happy in our small corners on the giant lump of sandstone.
I feel I am in the right place. The sprawling derelict Place of Seacliff , atop its woody banks, ivy indiscriminately dragging down the sycamore trunks and walls . The Gothicky archway leading the road down to the shore, the hermit’s cave- a little shelter with a view, the sight lines lead towards the gannets wheeling round the Bass like flecks of shampoo going down the sink drain.
I was niggardly to this place on previous visits. The entrance charge for the road offended my sense of common ownership, but I know now the problem was because I d come the wrong way.
Just to confirm my surmises I find a sandstone outcrop that from certain angles appears like a moai from Easter Island, or as near as I will find in East Lothian.
‘The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics . It resides in a profane illumination’, is written in the sand, by a departed meanderer.