Free State

Fiction, essays, reportage.


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After our break, we cut up a path that led along the edge of another field, on a line that led towards Cammo Park. There was a farmhouse on the other side that we would unavoidably have to pass if we were going to make the road; there was no way to go unseen here. I was reluctant to be seen by anyone, but by farmers in particular. Farmer, that monstrous emanation breathed out by the landscape … I didn’t want to be challenged at all. As much as possible, I wanted to move through an unpeopled world on this walk. It was as if there was some disconnect between our purpose, such as it was, and the other people we might pass who had equal right of access to the land. It was not that our purpose was more valid, but it marked in my mind a more active engagement with the land, or an engagement that was undeniably different. All through the walk, from the moment we stepped ‘off-road’ at Cramond and saw the foxes, I felt that I was being forced to think of walking as somehow illegitimate, that there was something furtive or suspect in moving out of the normal, prescribed boundaries. People were expected to walk on the path here by the river, but moving beyond it was automatically suspicious. I could make a comparison with the plane spotters we saw later, who had such a profound effect on me, sitting in their immobile cars. Their relationship with the airport was fixed on an entirely different axis from the passengers or the people who worked there, and, without examining the prejudice, it seemed inherently unwholesome.

As we walked up the side of the field, there was a sound of crashing and breaking branches from the tree line on our left. Had Farmer tracked us this far, and was he about to burst from cover with his rage and his shotgun to confront us? We were safe for the moment though; it was a young deer, graceful and elegant, leaping balletically from the trees, bounding ahead and glancing back almost as if it wanted to check that we were following. That grace and elegance made me assume it was female. The land, so close to the city, lying beneath the flightpath of the airport, was so rich and fecund, so bountiful with life. It could support that line of foxes, this deer, larger animals within a compact space. The airport, unusually, was set within a rural area. The urban sprawl had not yet connected it to the city, not quite, and pockets of resistance remained.

No one challenged us from the farmhouse, something which seemed to underline my paranoia rather than undercut it. The contrast of a paved surface was strange after spending so long walking on rough ground. We walked along the road, under the shade of the trees, until we came to a gate for the Cammo Park estate. The OS map was no real use here, as it didn’t cover the park in any great detail. There was an information board at the side of the gate which, arrogantly, we didn’t bother to look at, something which condemned us to spend the best part of the next two hours disconsolately wandering around, with increasing frustration, through a strangely variable zone that seemed to change its topography every time we crossed it. The estate, wild and overgrown apart from a length of tended lawn in front of the ruins of Cammo House, felt completely isolated. There were other people around, dog walkers and strolling families, but it was easy to miss them if your paths diverged even slightly. Originally built in the late 17th century, Cammo House had apparently been an influence on Robert Louis Stevenson, and the House of Shaws in ‘Kidnapped’ had been based on it. It had been vandalised and and demolished in the 1970s, and the whole area was now a nature reserve. As we rested inside what was left of the house, a magpie skittered around the grass.

This whole walk had been a way of emphasising my own relative ignorance of the natural world. Throughout this piece I have referred to fields of ‘wheat’ for example, but I have absolutely no idea what these fields contained. I couldn’t identify the types of grasses and plants that surrounded us, and I was wholly ignorant of the taxonomy of trees. Birds were easier, as long as they adhered to your basic garden varieties, and even then everything of a median size I tended to identify as ‘sparrows’, a catch-all term for anything small and aggressive.

On the other side of the estate was a hill and what looked like a medieval tower. Inside the tower were pigeons, the inherently sinister sound of them flapping and screeching. I thought the tower may have been a dovecot, but later research told me it was a water tower. At the top of the hill we tried to look for the standing stone we had seen marked on the map, but there was no sign of it. There was a faint and pervasive smell of human shit at the summit of the hill, as well as evidence of a camp site. Martin asked a family of walkers if they had seen the standing stone, but they hadn’t even heard of it. Checking the map again, I was almost alarmed at how poor our map reading was. I had no idea how to triangulate our position, and although I could broadly point myself in the right direction, I didn’t know how to calculate if I was going off true and overshooting. We crossed and recrossed the estate, looking for a stone which I was by now fully prepared to give up as a lost cause. It felt entirely appropriate in a way that we couldn’t find it, as if something so ancient was only discoverable by accident, or by those who were worthy of seeing it. We finally tracked it down in the woods – five feet high, a metal hook protruding from it, weathered, one side greenly smothered in moss. It invited the laying on of hands, and before we left we decided to pour a libation from our remaining water on top of it. It was a charged moment, a self-conscious attempt to invest the stone with personal significance that, at the same time, purely because of the stone’s antiquity, couldn’t help feeling extremely profound. We had sacrificed our water when we didn’t have much left; the emotional, sacral resonance of the journey was more important to us than our bodies, and the stone was the signifier of this sacrifice. Before we left the stone, the family we had talked to on top of the hill passed along the pathway. We crouched down and hid from them.

Done with Cammo Park, we returned to the summit of the hill to scope out the territory. We needed to cross over the golf course in order to get onto the road that would lead us to the airport (I had no idea by now where the river was; our route-marker had by this point served its purpose and we had abandoned it, or it had abandoned us.) There was a stretch of rough ground at the bottom of the hill that we crossed as we headed to the wall marking the boundary of the golf course. Left to its own devices, it was astonishing how impassable the vegetation could get; we had to batter through what felt like a solid wall of thistles, sticky weed (also know as sticky willy), chickweed, nettles, using our rucksacks as battering rams, throwing ourselves over the plant life until we reached the wall. My arms were on fire from nettle stings; Martin’s arms were crossed with a latticework of red scratches and weals. By this point in the walk, I felt that we deserved statues in our honour, so heroic had the endeavour been. Without pause, we climbed the wall and dropped down into the golf course, and here began the most childish and exciting part of the walk so far.

I had lived between the ages of 9 and 17 in Musselburgh, and opposite our house was reputedly the oldest golf course in Scotland. Close proximity to the course as I was growing up had instilled in me an utter contempt, not just for the sport, but for the people who played it. Of the many admonitions that had been thrown at me as a child as I walked our dogs or cycled along the path by the rough ground, my favourite had been ‘This isn’t a playground!’ And this from some humourless buffoon who thinks that knocking a little white ball around with a stick and trying to get it into a hole is a perfectly acceptable way to spend his day. Here, darting from cover to cover, crouching in the overhang of the trees or scurrying bent double across the green, I was sure that we were going to be challenged by irate golfers horrified that their sacred space was being violated by two scruffy, sun-blasted hikers. As an additional thrill, I was certain one of us was going to get brained, either by accident or design, by a golf ball driven along the range.

We marched across the final green, vaguely pretending to be caddies (my flat cap may have helped with this unlikely disguise) and scrambled through some rough ground to the boundary wall on the other side, where I managed to stumble into a ditch and went sprawling across the grass.

Recovering, once we were on the road we headed for Turnhouse. On our right there was a disused quarry, fenced off and filled in. It looked more like a patch of wasteground, although there was still a road running across it, with streetlights. In the long grass we saw a grouse. Beyond the quarry there was a field, where someone had pitched a purple tent, right up against the tree line. At the side of the road there was a locked-up snack van. I had the sense that in these isolated areas, isolated all the more for being so close to such hives of human activity as the airport and the city itself, people had carved out their own spaces where no one would bother them. Attenuated lives, but they had structured them and halted any sense of inner collapse by finding ground where they could take a stand. It was a total rejection of the ordinary and the everyday. I felt this again when we passed the plane spotters, the people who seemed to live semi-permanently in caravans at the side of access roads by the sewage works at the tip of the airport’s perimeter. I recognised something troubling yet heroic in them.

There was a small industrial estate on the left hand side of the road as we approached the outskirts of the airport. Amongst them, a company called ‘Babes in the Womb.’ I couldn’t figure this out at first, and assumed it was either an anti-abortion charity or religious pressure group, or in some way provided pregnancy advice for those who needed it outside the NHS. When I got home I looked them up on the internet and discovered that they were a company specialising in the 3D imaging of pre-natal scans; they even offered a ‘4D’ service, where they could animate a sequence of 3D pictures of the unborn child and make it look like it was moving; your own private home movie. I tried to imagine what it would be like as an expectant mother coming to a place like this for such an intimate and emotional service; to pull up on the dusty forecourt of a deserted industrial estate, at the back end of the airport where no traffic every came, apart from the Post Office vans working at the nearby hangar of the sorting office. Later, explaining it to Martin, he suggested making an appointment to see if they could scan and animate the workings of my internal organs, so I could document ‘the experience of being alive’. On the other side of the road, on our side, there was a restaurant, utterly deserted, which tried to present itself as a glamorous nightspot for pilots and air hostesses. The airport serves as a locus for disappointed hopes; attempted businesses, failed concerns; abandoned snack vans and people camping on waste ground. Everyone just wants to get there with as little trouble as possible. Nobody, apart from us, wants to linger on its outskirts, for any reason.

At the corner of the road there was a cottage secure behind a garden wall. At regular points along the entire length of the wall there were incredibly severe warnings against trespassers, heavy with the air of paranoia and dread. Picture the lonely inhabitants of the cottage, twitching the curtains, convinced at the imminent threat from intruders. Was this paranoia some backwash from the airport nearby, an emanation from its high-grade security-hum? In an area with so little traffic though, with so little reason for people to be there – an area that was essentially so lonely and isolated – perhaps this wasn’t reflexive paranoia but a rational response to real threat? As we walked past, the only people on foot, the only people at all in the area, I felt again the imposed sense of illegitimacy in our presence here, on foot. To drive past would be acceptable; to walk was suspect.

Up the road, on a rise above the train tracks, a man was slumped in his car staring at the eastern point of the airport, watching planes taking off. The constant background frenzy of their engines, taxiing or launching these machines gracefully into the heavens. There was a row of three or four terraced houses on the other side of the road. To live somewhere like this … It was probably quite cheap, and perfectly safe. There was so little traffic for a start, there being no need for cars to come here. It gave the whole area an atmosphere of suspension, of that heavy, magical summer afternoon feeling of vacancy, heightened by the prospect of incipient action, implicit threat. The area on this side of the airport was still rural, fields of corn or wheat shuddering beneath the pylons of the radar masts.

An aside on pathways, their continuity. It was constantly striking me as we walked that the path we were on, or the paths we made, from the asphalt of Cramond Village to the flattened grass of the wasteground, were continuous only by virtue of our walking along them. You couldn’t from there imagine what it was like here, but the path was one unbroken stretch. Even in the most isolated spots we saw evidence of bespoke pathways, where people had at some point waded through the grass ahead of us. We shared, spatially if not temporally, these areas with others. This evidence of human activity surrounded us. We were never quite sure of who had gone before, who was ahead of us, if anyone. This was another aspect of the general sense of paranoia that surrounded us. Airports are probably the most surveilled zones in western society, ringed with a battery of cameras, patrolled by armed police (not in Edinburgh, but in larger airports certainly). It was as if the airport was reflecting its security complexes back at us, radiating a paranoid expectation of attack, or a challenge to its bodily integrity, back across the landscape of wheat and thistle and grass, to be picked up by those receptive by virtue of their intent to approach it from an oblique and fundamentally unusual direction. The path we were on was mirrored on our right hand side by the river. We had tried to keep the river on our right, but it was surprisingly difficult at times. We weren’t beholden to structured paths, but the land sometimes forced you off-true. Fences sent us on small detours; impenetrable overgrowth had to be surmounted. In counterpoint, our path flowed in the opposite direction to the river, which headed with increasing vigour and enthusiasm towards its own dissolution.

We could see, at last, the airport perimeter. The conning tower had loomed like a medieval spire on the horizon for some time, and aircraft had crossed the skies above us continuously since we set off, but now our destination was almost tangible. We walked along the side of a field, raised up off the road.

‘We’re pioneers,’ Martin said, as we approached the right angle of the field, another beaten path that led down to the airport fence. ‘No one will have come this way before.’

Ahead, perfectly timed, someone on a bike cruised leisurely down the track towards the airport fence.

We tracked down this path, creating much of it ourselves as we did so. The ground was very rough, covered in resilient weed, like wading through mud. We were walking parallel to the railway track, and as we looked ahead to the barrier of the airport fence I saw a security vehicle of some kind, a transit van with flashing orange lights, trundling along the circuit road on the other side of the fence. As we got closer, the van stopped. I couldn’t see into the windows, but the sensation that we were being watched was inescapable. Not watched; monitored. We paused and pretended to drink water, to consult the map; a stand-off while we tried to observe the van without looking at it directly. It moved on and we headed to the corner of the fence. It was immediately obvious that this short, eastern end of the perimeter was impassable. The ground on the other side of the field fence was right next to the railway track, the track itself raised above us on a sloped bank of earth. Walking on railway ground really was trespass, with the threat of heavy fines should we be caught. This was the first time that I felt frustrated in the attempt to get anywhere on this walk; not just frustrated, but that same embarrassment you risked as a child, as you encroached on the adult world in scenarios like these.

We doubled-back and crossed the railway bridge, nodding hello to the slumped man in his car. On the other side of the bridge we saw a proper dirt track, the one the cyclist had used, again running parallel to the rail line. As we walked down to the bottom of this track, Martin fashioned a bizarre turban out of his blue shirt, a vain attempt to keep the sun off his face. His nose was bright red. We passed the cyclist, who had been joined by another; a young man and woman, both incongruously French. I couldn’t think what they were doing here in particular. The intrigue of guessing at others’ purposes, and how they might have intersected with our own.

There was no obvious way of getting across the railway track in order to access the northern line of the airport perimeter fence. We seriously discussed running across the tracks, reflecting on a similar scene in the film ‘Stand By Me’, but as we got closer we saw that there was an underpass ahead. The River Almond flowed, high and leisurely, in parallel to the fence. Between the two was a jungle of overgrowth. Martin stopped to piss by the side of the river. We had by this point virtually run out of water, although we didn’t regret for a moment pouring those libations on the standing stone in Cammo Park. We crouched down by the corner of the fence as the security van made another circuit, then, once it had passed, broached the forest of hogweed and nettles.

I had to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be no proper path running alongside the fence on this side. I had given the terrain a cursory examination on Google Maps, but the satellite picture only showed what looked like tree cover, and not this near-impassable jungle. As the aircraft, so close now, screamed into their take-off patterns it was impossible to avoid the sense of Ballardian juxtaposition. We were in a scene from one of the early dystopian novels, ‘The Drowned World’ perhaps, or one of his apocalyptic short stories. We fought our way through the jungle for a few minutes, gaining no more than a few yards, cutting up onto the river bank to see if there was easier ground on that side. It was obvious that we weren’t going to get very far. This felt somehow appropriate, that the landscape would up its game this close to our central target and make us work for our achievements. I looked out on the spray of giant hogweed, all the thistle plants and nettles and chickweed. Alternate hot and humid days with weeks of rain had given a tropical boost to the plant life. It was somehow unsettling to think that the size of the plants was so contingent on the environmental conditions. Drier days, less rain, and we would have experienced no difficulty at all in strolling through this fecund, impenetrable zone.

‘You could hide a body in this landscape,’ Martin said from in front of me. It was his turn to batter a path forward. At any moment, the expectation of stumbling across a pile of bones, the semi-decayed sprawl of a corpse in the grass, infested with flies. Any dumped murder victim would never be found; who would come here looking for it?


By Richard W. Strachan


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