186. Firth of stone and fire – North Berwick, Scotland

streets-of-north-berwick-scotland-by-paradasos-flickrThe afternoon has flown me here, all across a summer sky of grey. The evening beckons now, and outside the window the narrow streets are empty, the shops all shut up for the night.

Scotland. June. Long hours of daylight reaching out ahead.

I stretch my legs along the main street, past red sandstone houses, cafés, bistros and grey tile roofs. It’s a dull old Monday, and the North Berwick weekend bustle, if there ever is one, is hidden far from sight.

The town runs out on me with just the links ahead, and so I try the steps down to the beach. The tide is low and the shore is softly rippled, quiet. No traffic noise. No planes. Just grey sky, grey water, and the lonesome cawing of a gull.

north-berwick-harbour-by-amaidment1980-flickrThe tiny harbour has seen much better days, but atop its brown stone wall there’s an open view along the coast and across the Firth of Forth.

The busy streets of Edinburgh lie unseen just half an hour from here, but they might as well be half a world away.

fidra-from-north-berwick-scotland-by-only-alice-flickrBelow the harbour, beneath the Seabird Centre, stands a purple wall of rocks. Basaltic lavas, recording the violently fiery geological past of this famous stretch of coast, some 200 million years ago. Along the firth, the scattered islands here each recall a volcanic vent or plug.

Low-slung and to the west lies Fidra, whilst further east lies the looming mass of the great Bass Rock, once housing a prison and now home to the largest colony of gannets in the world.

north-berwick-law-scotland-by-gingiberThe volcanic mass of North Berwick Law stands tall above the town, and in front the seafront promenade threads Victorian seaside villas tight beside the beach. I follow past Glen Golf Club and up the climb beside its closing hole.

At the top, I rest on the tee of a stiff par 3 and breathe the view before the cliff path calls me down to find the beach.

No geologist worth his salt can ever pass a rock, and I’m firmly no exception.

Five happy minutes vanish at a spectacular outcrop of hugely coarse, partly cross-bedded pyroclastics and breccias. Long words to describe a thick pile of wickedly large and angular chunks of volcanic stone and bombs once ejected skywards from a volcano not that far away, before raining down like death and remobilising in surface flows to sweep everything before their path.

pompeii-the-last-day-vesuvius-eruption-crew-creative-discovery-channel.jpgMy mind recalls the fate of Pliny the Elder, the ancient writer and naturalist, stranded near Pompeii in 79AD, recording the eruption of Vesuvius for posterity whilst standing amidst a lethal rain of pumice with a puny protective pillow strapped to his head, before suffocating from the fumes.

I remember the tales of backwoodsmen and geologists struggling desperately to flee the pyroclastic flows shed off the slopes of Mount St Helens in Washington state in 1980. And I’m glad it’s quiet here.

siccar-point-huttons-unconformity-scotland-dave-souza-wikipediaThis coast has given much to the science which earns my humble crust. At Siccar Point, eight miles east and two hundred years ago, James Hutton observed the dipping of the rocks, correctly deducing that older strata had been uplifted and folded before the younger rocks were formed.

The description of Hutton’s Unconformity in 1788 still underpins much of the geological knowledge we use today.


The tide is creeping gently back towards the beach.

I trot over crushed shells and sand, past a couple wandering with their dog, and a fisherman returning from his crab pots behind the submerging reef.

The incoming waves beneath my feet are slow and lazy, just like me, whilst across the bay the town lies grey and red and calm beneath the clouds.

west-links-and-marine-hotel-north-berwick-scotland-by-pet_r-flickrHalf an hour later, a shower and change complete, I’m walking towards my dinner, with city shoes upon my feet and business cards in hand.

I stroll on the North Berwick links with its ancient sculpted fairways and crazy greens. The last players are heading home, and behind them the Firth is dropping grey and still beyond the grass. It’s nearly nine, and a midsummer night has three more hours to fall.

I’m a little late – that can happen when you unfold your passions along the beach.

bass-rock-scotland-from-north-berwick-beach-by-gary-henderson-flickrFour miles of rocks and golf and running I stole across one small corner of a Scottish summer. Now North Berwick lies safely stored within my footsteps, and the evening can begin.

186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland : : 186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland : : 186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland : : 186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland : : 186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland : : 186. Firth of stone and fire - North Berwick, Scotland

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6 responses to “186. Firth of stone and fire – North Berwick, Scotland

  1. What a beautiful, evocative photograph! Your prose, too, is beautifully evocative (as usual)…except when you start talking about pyroclastics and breccias – then you’ve lost me 🙂

    Needs a bit of sunshine though, don’t you think? Summer skies oughn’t to be grey!

    Continue to unfold your passions, Roads. They make such wonderful reading!

  2. Yes, Gigi, it’s good to hear from you and I love that photo, too.

    Grey summer skies or blue ? Well, that’s the difference between Scotland and the south of France at this time of year.

    Or more or less at any time of year, come to think of it.

    But I loved North Berwick. It reminded me a little of St Andrews – with the clouds, but without the crowds.

    Thanks again, and enjoy your sunny summer…

  3. I grew up wanting to have a volcano in my backyard, after reading a story about the farmer in Mexico who had a cinder cone erupt in his fields!

    A geo-nerd, I guess.

  4. I can remember that story now, Silver Fox.
    And likewise, guilty as charged …

  5. Oh, thank you for these pictures and your prose! I’ve been reading the novels of Maggie O’Farrell and this just adds to the pleasure.

    How talented you are!

  6. Welcome Kathy — I’m glad you enjoyed this piece, and thank you for the pointer to Maggie O’Farrell, who went to the local high school here. O’Farrell seems to have mixed feelings about the town — in interviews she describes the outstanding teachers there and the challenge of surviving the stultifying boredom of adolescence in North Berwick. It wasn’t very lively on the Monday evening in early summer when I visited.

    And yet there’s an atmosphere to the location opposite the Bass Rock and a slightly faded charm which I loved. It seemed like the kind of place which is forever waiting for something to happen, that probably never will.

    Meanwhile, from a running perspective, I came across this 20 mile race from Edinburgh to North Berwick. How exciting that must be.

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