Firth of Forth: walking the coast of witches and war

War machines, tax avoiders, climate change. If you want to escape politics, walking along the Firth of Forth is not the place to do it.

Aircraft carrier in docks
HMS Queen Elizabeth – the Royal navy’s controversial new aircraft carrier

Most of the time our walking is an escape into landscape, memory, thought, nature and the physical rhythms of placing one foot in front of the other. Walking in the countryside is always political, whether you to choose to see it or not. Who owns the land? Who defines your right to walk it? Who can do what?

I was looking forward to starting the Fife Coastal Path at Kincardine, a 116 mile long-distance path. It would be an escape from Brexit, culture wars, Boris Johnson and the constant news of the ever-worsening climate crisis. There was little chance of that on a disconcerting day of record-breaking heat, and walking the Firth of Forth whose shores pack a political punch every couple of miles.

Witches and Ineos

Take Torry Bay for example. Here you can enjoy the frisson of dark historical horror. A heritage board informs you that women suspected of witchcraft were tied to a rock in the middle of the bay. If they were drowned by the tide, they were innocent. If they survived they were a witch and promptly burnt at the stake. Somewhere out there, below the high tide mark, are the remains of Lilias Adie, who confessed to being a witch and died in prison before she could be burned at the stake. They buried her there and put a heavy flat stone over her, to stop her returning to torment the living and being used by the devil to have sex with witches.

Your eyes lift for a second to the other side of the Forth, to the belching chimneys and flames of Grangemouth. I love this cathedral to industry, this beautiful rude industrial violation of the distant hills, but what you’re seeing is the belching petrochemical economy, spewing out more carbon, its oil tankers gliding up and down the Forth.

This is the land of Ineos, owned by Jim Ratcliffe – one of Britain’s wealthiest billionaires. Ratcliffe likes to privately lobby governments to erode union rights, escape his tax bill and reduce environmental and climate regulations. He ruthlessly broke a strike by the Grangemouth workforce when he cut jobs, attacked their pensions and forced them to accept a pay freeze. He held a key piece of national infrastructure to ransom until the union accepted his terms. He’s a proud Brexiteer, so proud to be British he’s moved his operations to Switzerland to avoid paying taxes. All perfectly legal of course. It tastes bitter but that’s the game.

I remember how odd it was that tabloids like the Daily Mail, posturing self-appointed guardians of British and family values even if they actually seem to loathe most of Britain, took the side of a tax-dodging billionaire against unions and workers trying to protect their families and community.

No matter. Let’s move along the coast and be soothed by the cries of waders, feeding at the eternal shifting edge of the tides. Butterflies abound the hedgerows and wild flowers. Swallows and swifts screech and swoop amongst the old wynds and ochre-coloured buildings of Culross. I slip past, nodding to the statue of my ancestor, the Admiral Thomas Cochrane who was born here.

Sussex to Scotland: Brexit fantasy and reality

As I walk I can’t stop thinking about a line from a Boris Johnson article written in March 2019.

Johnson’s writing and speaking is weakened by his desire to show off his intelligence, to speak falsely and feed the narcissism. Some of his recent rambling speeches really do echo John Crace’s ‘pifflepafflewifflewaffle’ satire. But that doesn’t mean he can’t forge a good speech (wiff waff anyone) or write a decent line.

“It was meant to be the week when church bells were rung, coins struck, stamps issued and bonfires lit to send beacons of freedom from hilltop to hilltop. This was the Friday when Charles Moore’s retainers were meant to be weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties at the tops of their voices and beating the hedgerows with staves.”

For a second it casts an evocative spell. Those moonlit Sussex lanes. The camaraderie. The hearty inebriation of scrumpy. Who hasn’t been in that scene, drunk and singing (although perhaps not Brexit shanties)? And then you realise how many people are excluded from this so-called national celebration, like the dwellers of the city, suburbs or edgelands.

Brexit is misguided patriotism and a punk desire to break things. It’s poverty and neglect. It’s a culture war. It’s our chickens coming home to roost and a failure to understand our history and our empire. It’s English nativism having a terrible joyless threesome with misplaced superiority and a myth of humiliation. It’s authoritarian personality types and a fear of a new world. It’s self-pity and a need to believe lies. It’s a dream to swashbuckle. It’s a terrible sludge of accrued myths and delusions choking the land.

It’s so many things but it’s also a nostalgic wallow in English rural delusion, its language full of hidden codes and yearnings for Britain as a promised land thwarted. It’s not the countryside of eerie horror, an assault on nature, increasing use of food banks, poverty, Amazon distribution centres, eviscerated local public transport and quiet lonely desperation.

The line, ‘beating the hedgerows with staves’ troubles a little, a needless violent act. The writer Edward Thomas compulsively walked the Sussex lanes and old ways of his beloved ‘South Country’, battling depression and following in the footsteps of forgotten peoples and ghosts. He embodied the 19th century English romance of the open road.  Where Johnson bellows shanties, Thomas treads softly for the dreams of the dead. Johnson terrorises the night creatures of the hedgerows, Thomas listens to the hedgerows for the sound of ‘brisk acid wrens’.

Thomas died in World War One, where soldiers at the front, plucked from cities and cotton mill towns, were sent postcards of English villages to cheer their spirits. This is what we’re sending you to die for – our gentle England, our pleasant land shorn, like Johnson’s article, of troublesome cities, factories, estates and suburbs.

Sussex is a county of rich culture and heritage. It voted only narrowly for Brexit, the major exception being the liberal and Green enclave of Brighton. It’s also been a recent battleground for fracking. Nonetheless, it is not a land that bears the bruises and consequences of our military and industrial decisions like that of the Firth of Forth. Nor is it a county that will feel Brexit pain as much as other areas of the UK. No wonder Boris Johnson and his Daily Telegraph readers can indulge in a simplified interpretation that they insist speaks for all of the UK.

Coffin roads and aircraft carriers

Wheat fields in foreground, aircraft carrier in docks in background
HMS Prince of Wales in Rosyth Docks

Walk the Forth coastline and you also encounter the old ways, the old folklore. Once sailors would be loath to go to sea if a curlew flew over them calling, it was a sign of a coming storm. Semi-abandoned cemeteries crumble by the sparkling waters, their stories and inscriptions being eroded away by time and weather. These cemeteries were once vulnerable to body snatchers arriving by boat. In an old stone wall there’s a liminal doorway, crowned with ferns, between the heat of the open path and the cool shadows of the woods. Birds call in outrage at my intrusion over the threshold.

The path took me inland, away from the Crombie munitions depot. When it returned me to the shore a whining hum drifted up the Firth; spluttering over the quiet cemeteries and swaying cornfields, pervading the coffin road along which they used to take their dead to Rosyth Church. The hulk of HMS Prince of Wales shimmered in the distance. Her flight deck is 70 metres wide and 280 metres long – enough space for three football pitches. She is massive – yet another awesome Forth sight.

The charge sheet is long for HMS Prince of Wales and her sister-ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. They are a £6.2 billion monument to irrelevance and delusions of grandeur. They cannot fight terrorism, cybercrime, espionage or the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions – the biggest threats to national security according to the government’s own security services. They’ll barely fly British planes because Britain can’t afford that many. In 2017, it was thought that HMS Queen Elizabeth would be vulnerable to a cyber-attack because she was using outdated software. At one point it was more expensive to stop the contract so they were going to build the Prince of Wales and then promptly sell or mothball her, a decision reversed by the Cameron government.

The carriers are also vulnerable to attack unless heavily defended and supplied by a flotilla of ships and the Royal Nay right now barely seems able to defend British shipping in Strait of Hormuz. I’m no naval expert but I suspect the Admiral would be turning in his grave. His exploits were based on mobility, surprise, taking on the odds with calculated risks – so much so that he was nicknamed the Sea Wolf by Napoleon. He was also known for his radical politics and battles with a corrupt Navy establishment.

Rosyth’s other controversial job is host a graveyard for seven obsolete nuclear submarines. The Ministry of Defence has spent a fortune storing them, but hasn’t managed to dismantle a single one since 1980 because that’s an even more expensive option. It feels like a script for a Yes, Minister gag that would be rejected for being too silly. But reality has long out-distanced satire now.

The defence budget is drained by a nuclear deterrent whose purpose is not to be used, and aircraft carriers with empty flight decks. Scotland bears the brunt of this, despite its politics and local opposition. It’s why military chiefs are said to be terrified by the thought of Scottish independence.

Grand Fleet of British Royal Navy at anchor, Firth of Forth, 1916
1916 aerial photo of fleet of ships at anchor in Firth of Forth

The final stretch

After Rosyth the heat of the day began to intensify in a most unScottish manner, a far cry from John Geddie writing in 1994 in The Fringes of Fife.

“there is none more lonely and eerie than Rosyth, at anyrate at the close of a winter day, when a rising wind is soughing through the bare branches, and the sea is beginning to moan and tramp to and fro over rock and shingle.”

Now I walked through a series of roundabouts, dead ground and busy approaches to the Forth road bridges. Traffic whooped past me. Smells of raw sewage wafted from a local plant. You won’t see photos of this stretch of the path on its marketing materials. The new Queensferry Crossing bridge is another impressive sight, another controversial delayed, over-budget monument to our inability to curb our car addiction. Build a new road and a new traffic jam will materialise in minutes. The Forth Railway Bridge alone is one of the greatest sights in the world. The interplay of all three bridges changes with every angle from all the vantage points along the Forth.

Yet there is hope on this walk. Another of those Forth sites, Longannet Power Station has been shut. It was one of the most polluting coal-fired power stations in Europe. The signs of environmental consciousness grow in the windfarms and community wildlife regeneration projects, albeit some of them part-funded by the EU. The frequent presence of EU flags indicates just how has been achieved through partnership.

Globalisation and international commerce is not new along these shores. In many ways the 16th century time capsule of Culross and its distinctive red roof tiles are a lesson to how things change yet stay the same. The tiles are thought to be a result of trade with Holland, where collier ships returned with Dutch roof tiles as ballast.

We trade, we exchange ideas, we love beyond borders, we’re practical and we make progress – hopefully not too slowly.

My thanks to writer and expert on all things to do with Fife, Murdo Eason, for his tips and insights for this walk.

14 thoughts on “Firth of Forth: walking the coast of witches and war

    • I would take that as dark humour for the use of slaves! Then wonder if it wasn’t meant like that. Thanks for the kind comments – glad you enjoyed it. Glad you realised it was staves. Even Boris Johnson isn’t that bad (I think).

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  1. Who knew white elephants could float!

    I’d love to do this walk. Often seen this area on the telly, and a couple of times from the window of a plane going in and out of Edinburgh. Definitely a part of the world I’d like to explore more of. Will look you up for that pint when I do!

    Incidentally, I used to dig with Dougie Spiers (mentioned in the Lilias Adie article) … down in Surrey back in the early ’90s.

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    • It’s a fascinating walk – history, folklore, scenery, Grangemouth, Culross, Forth Railway Bridge, witches. Look forward to doing the rest of the path over the next year or so though parts of it I know well already. Definitely get in touch for that pint and tales of your digs!

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    • A quick skim reveals and that looks a fascinating article for a proper read later. Thanks for sharing it. A friend of mine recently wondered why the Russians haven’t got Kompromat on Boris. There’s no need to bother as we all know he’s a terrible but fascinating character already and we’ll probably still elect him in the next election. His greatest weakness is his greatest strength.

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    • Thanks for the comments Lawrence – before that day I wasn’t thinking I would write about this walk until I was halfway through it, it was all around me and couldn’t be ignored. The folklore is interesting round there and hopefully will explore more of that on later sections of the path.

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    • Thanks Julie – it’s one of those parts of the UK where there are so many layers of history, nature and culture. It’s always fun when so many thoughts are bouncing and sparking from these kind of walks! Although I will admit there was a bit of anger in there as well.

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