The world isn’t in your head

Daydreaming at school; remembering yesterday and remembering childhood; summer sunlight and a sense of wonder; Robert Duncan Milne (a long-forgotten, Scottish-American science fiction writer); travelling to Spain; changing moods; good and bad feelings; words as treasure; Bernard Cribbins; Dundee’s history. These are some of the things I wrote about in RAINSHINE blogposts over the last 10 months, from January 2022. I also wrote a special blogpost about mental health, and I intend to write another – for a different website.

I haven’t checked through my earlier RAINSHINE posts: the 30 weekly ones, to see what they are about, but I think I’d find a similar mix of reflections of my life, local sights and sounds, with a few glimpses of things far away in place and time. And, of course, there would be recurring appearances by Nergal, doing cat stuff, like running up trees and waking me up early in the morning. I suppose I’d also find mentions of books I’ve read (the obscurer the better), and me saying things like: “What do you mean ‘obscurer’ isn’t a word? It is now.”

Not long ago, I turned 60. I became a grandad for the second time. That’s not a proper mention of the event, so I’ll mention the proper name: Rosie, Rosie, Rosie. She has a very sweet little face and seems to like sleeping in my arms, so she deserves three mentions. I’ll mention my other grandchild too: Marcus, Marcus, Marcus. He is 11 now and lives in Sweden. We intend to visit there next year. So, between going there and seeing Rosie in Arbroath, plus my usual Nergal tales, and occasional mentions of Isobel, I will always have a few things to write about which do not just involve me reading books and remembering what I read in excruciating detail. So, is that what I meant by my title: ‘The world isn’t in your head’? Well, no.

One of the things about getting a bit older is you have a great excuse to not do things. You may want to get out and about more, but, well, you’re tired. Put your feet up; watch TV instead. There’s nothing wrong with this: when it’s cold and raining or snowing, staying at home can be great, unless you think about the rising cost of heating. And now you’re worrying about that. Or you might decide to go out to a pub. Again, it’s costly, so it’s not something to do a lot, and anyway – a walk across to the bar and back to your table with a round of drinks is only ‘exercise’ in cliched TV comedies. Do it too much and you will end up not very fit at all.

When I turned 60, I decided not to turn into a blob. As I wasn’t actually in a 1950’s sci-fi movie, I thought this would be quite easy. Plus – I had my new bus pass! Suddenly, I could travel anywhere in Scotland free. Within a few days, I’d returned to all  my old favourite places: St Andrews, Arbroath, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Great! BUT I hadn’t walked very far. Visiting family, and going to bookshops, and Glasgow Botanic Gardens, and some other places was fine, but my smart watch was raising its critical eyebrows at me and saying: “Is that it? You’ll have to do better than that.” I realised that going to familiar places wasn’t enough. For my plan to work, I had to go places where I could walk as many miles as I could.

I decided on a first warm-up trip. Kirkcaldy. You have to spell that name right, by the way, because if you don’t the one person you know who lives in Kirkcaldy will spot your crime on Facebook and demand your Terry’s chocolate orange. 

On the X61 bus from Dundee to Edinburgh, which I was on because it gets to Kirkcaldy in just over an hour and a half, I noticed a few things outside the windows. At first, on either side of winding roads, most of the fields were a bright emerald green, like some merry artist had coloured them in with a pencil and then scribbled another layer on top and then another layer, just to make sure. Small clusters of grey farmhouses, narrow lines of trees and hedgerows separating the fields, and cows, sheep, and horses dotted here and there made me feel I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, which was good because I never was. So, I suppose I mean, I wasn’t in anything like Dundee streets. But that changed, the closer I got to Kirkcaldy: in the towns on the way there and in Kirkcaldy itself, the familiar blocks of council housing, supermarkets and small shops returned and closed in around me. The closer and more familiar it all seemed, the less details I noticed. When I was still twisting through the fields along the narrow roads, my eyes seemed to want to see every detail of the green and yellow patchwork of fields stretching to low hazy hills. I noticed a lot of the cows, sheep and horses had puzzled expressions, as if they wondered how they got there. But maybe that was just the shuggling of the bus making me dozy and half-dreaming. I did not nod off however because a small girl sitting on her grans lap in a seat opposite kept squealing in excitement every time a field of puzzled animals appeared.

Around halfway to Kirkcaldy, as the bus veered around a corner in the middle of an interesting looking nowhere, I saw a sign pointing towards a small but dense wood: Craighall Den. I made a note of it, as a possible destination for a future walk.

After about an hour on the bus, I became distracted by social media on my phone. I scrolled through photos of birthdays, other people’s trips, things people were angry about: rising prices, wars and stupid politicians, and I vaguely scanned articles about books, movies, and places in Scotland to visit. As I read, I could feel the bus rattling and turning around corners, but I stopped looking out the windows for several minutes. I sensed we were continuing the journey, but the bus could have driven on to some giant contraption which shook it so that it seemed to be moving but wasn’t going anywhere. So, I could have been anywhere.

When I eventually looked up again, I saw empty industrial buildings on the outskirts of Kirkcaldy, including a huge gey hulk I thought might be the remains of a mine. Later, in Kirkcaldy Museum, I saw a photograph of Seafield Colliery under demolition, and it looked similar to that.  Passing it and other dead buildings, and still-used car showrooms and houses and shops, I was surprised how large Kirkcaldy is. I wondered if it was maybe a mistake making it my destination. The beautiful countryside seemed like a distant memory.

With my head full of the contrast between a city and the countryside around it, I wandered around the centre of Kirkcaldy for an hour or so.  I went to the museum, charity shops, a café. I started to worry I was falling into the same trap as I had when I visited other cities: failing to walk far by not planning a good route. This time, I decided on a quick solution: walk towards the waterfront and keep going. Soon, I was walking along the wide beach beside the Firth of Forth. It was windy but not cold. The sky was massive – big clouds, but no feeling that it would rain (it didn’t) and there were long strips of blue sky between the clouds. Across the water, I could just make out an oil rig in the distance. Three large supply ships were anchored far out. On a few dark rocks jutting out of the river I saw a cluster of birds standing upright, perhaps guillemots. Further along the beach, perhaps a mile away, there were low cliffs and some kind of castle or at least a structure that looked like the ruins of a castle. I decided to go in that direction.

As I walked, aware of the vast sky above me and the firm beach beneath my new walking shoes, I felt happy. Distant tiny dog walkers gradually got bigger as they approached me. Dogs of all descriptions raced along the beach, waving their tails ecstatically. Small flocks of seagulls and other sea birds floated up and out over the waters, and they were mostly in the distance: they seemed to move on and on as I or other walkers approached. Much farther away, beyond the low cliffs and beyond the thing that might be a castle, I could see darker blue water with a dark green topping as if the colours of fields had mixed with the river, and all of it was flecked with white froth on the faraway and thus miniaturised waves. There were a few dark blue mountainous shapes beyond.  

The more I walked, the more it felt that it was exactly the kind of trip that I wanted to do, all over Scotland. I took a few photographs, as I always do: big rocks covered with seaweed,  sands turned into mirrors by water spreading out thinly as the tide came in. As I got nearer to the ‘castle’, I saw that it was the ruins of an ancient castle tower: orange-brown rocks called ‘red sandstone’, devastated by the wind. It is Seafield Tower, built around 1542, and abandoned in 1733. It is a hollowed-out wreck, like the wreckage of a ship, and it is hard to imagine anyone ever lived there.

When I reached beyond the tower, I walked down a short path to a very small bay. It was mostly pebbles, carpeted by seaweed, with lots of rockpools crowded with seabirds. I’m not knowledgeable about seabirds, but I think I saw oystercatchers, turnstones, sandpipers, and a few types of gull. For a while, I used the binoculars I had brought with me to marvel at how busy and organised all the birds seemed. Then, just as I turned away to climb the rocks back to the main path, I noticed that one of the larger rocks out in the little bay seemed to have moved. It was too far away to see clearly, so I used the binoculars again. A blur of rock and flashing silver water quickly came into focus: a wet grey rock and a shiny seal. It shifted it’s rounded plumpness awkwardly on the rock and turned its huge eyes towards me. I looked and held my breath. It stared at me and flopped comically to make itself more comfortable.

I scanned the area through the binoculars and spotted another seal on a different rock. This one was browner, perhaps younger. It was already comfortable and did not need to move. It too stared at me or in my direction. It’s eyes too were huge and its face gave me an almost overwhelming impression of intelligence and peacefulness. Through the binoculars, I scanned from it to the other seal, and its face gave me the same impression. Again and again, I looked back and forward. I was enchanted and grinning like it was the best thing in the world.

On the way back home, I took a few last photographs, and picked up a small white shell from the beach. I decided to keep a memento from everywhere I visit. I passed by a woman with a small, beautiful brown dog. She told me it was a Tibetan Spaniel. “You probably won’t have seen one before” she told me. “They are rare. He’s an old man now.” The little dog was walking along the coastal path very slowly but it seemed happy.

On the bus home to Dundee, travelling through the darkness, I thought about the title of this blog. I knew what I meant by it on the way to Kirkcaldy – that the world is out there waiting for us to explore, and it’s not in our heads, no matter how much we think about it. But I also knew something else. Going to places we have never been before can remind us of something we all knew as children: this world really is an amazing place.

Harvey Duke

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