To begin the journey, we congregate almost four hundred years after Jonson. In front of the Palace walls, a set of variations in muted ochre, the orange pantile roof catches weak strands of sunlight on this September morning.
Culross, a small coastal village in Fife, which according to legend, was established by Saint Serf - a one-time Pope, dragon-slayer and foster-father to Saint Mungo / Saint Kentigern. A village built on coal, salt and for a short time, monopoly production of iron baking griddles. Today the core of the village is the most complete example of a seventeenth / eighteenth century Scottish Burgh, making it a sought-after location for visiting film crews and television production companies. Even the local electricity substation is housed in an early seventeenth century building.
James Loxley and Anna Groundwater open proceedings for our nine-mile social walk to Dunfermline with a bit of context about Ben Jonson's visit to Fife in 1618. In Culross, he visited Sir George Bruce, a wealthy merchant who built his unique mansion house, subsequently known as the Palace, using materials from his overseas trading. The red pan tile roof, still common in Fife coastal villages, providing evidence of trading links with the low countries, where they would arrive as ballast in the holds of ships.
The Palace looks much the same today as it would have done when Jonson visited. The longue durée of ochre colourfield variations and materiality of the building contrasting with the nearby fringe of trees and their returning cycles of red and green:
Like Jonson, we head to the coast. Remnants of Bruce's pioneering, offshore coal workings and the saltpans still visible. Derek Abbot, from Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, tells us the story of the ash lagoon and the vitally important nature reserve of the humble mudflats. The reclaimed land of Preston Island with the stones of its quarried rock armour (sea defence) "riddled with fossils", yet not from the locality. It seems even fossils can become detached and rootless from their place of origin. Local stories of large black cats seen prowling through gardens. Evidence of deer kills by an unidentified predator. It reminds me of the occasional 'black panther' sightings in nearby Devilla Forest. All those otherworldly black animals that inhabit and roam the rural imaginary. In Fife, it seems to be predominantly large black cats, whereas in other parts of the UK it's the large black dogs such as Black Shuck padding the hinterlands of East Anglia. As the wind picks up it catches the flapping lining of a litter bin, yapping like the maw of a large black dog.
We set off towards Dunfermline along the coast with the tower of Culross Abbey looking out over the village like a one-eyed king. We're not sure if it's exactly the route Ben Jonson would have taken and perhaps, not surprisingly, he undertook his journey by horse, having just walked all the way from London to Edinburgh. What is clear is that we are walking paths established by footfall. Routes that people and animals have travelled over many many years. Local people travelling to and from Dunfermline and the villages in-between; pilgrims heading to Dunfermline Abbey and onwards to St Andrews. Today, it is the very fact that Ben Jonson made a similar journey almost 400 years ago, that has brought us all together as we share this social walk and tramp the paths towards the same destination.
As we weave between, woodland and the perimeter buildings of the village, we encounter an array of colours and textures, both organic and manufactured. How does colour change with technology through time? What colours would have inhabited Jonson's journey? What are the colours of the future?
As with any path, it's moving off-track that often reveals the hidden surprises. Roger Pickering of the Fife Pilgrim Way project invites us to crawl through some trees, mud and nettles to visit the remains of an early 1600s pack-horse bridge over the Bluther Burn. Within seconds we enter another world only yards away from the passing vehicles on the main road into Culross. We dissolve into a landscape that Jonson may well have passed through. It also has an immediate effect on the body. Cloaked by trees, the stillness of the burn, reflections in the water. Layers of subtle sound weave around us: the call of a blackbird, a falling leaf, the suggestion of pack-horse hooves?
On the other side the burn, there is a hint of some other structure submerged in the wood. Tangles of tree roots like the beard of some forest elder:
The pack-horse bridge remains passable, although very narrow. A few of us decide to cross in single file, stepping around the obvious holes in the structure where we can see the burn flowing underneath.
On the other side, after lifting some vegetation:
Over the ancient bridge
Submerged in the forest
Sitting still since 1770
In a quiet place
I watch the sky
fall to earth.
A few leaves
cast adrift, circle
as clouds and trees
slip silently below
the skin of water
If we are not literally following in Jonson's footsteps, there is clear evidence that many other feet have walked parts of this journey, casting their footwear, socks and the occasional glove on the way. Each item a discarded prop in a hidden story:
There are also the non-human travelers who join us for the walk. Two dogs accompany us for the entire journey and at one point we are greeted by a talkative, friendly cat who appears to suddenly materialise on the path beside us from behind a fairly substantial fence.
The cat pads alongside us for a good distance until it appears to reach the outer limit of its territory. It suddenly stops and watches us continue on the path.
"I'm sorry I can't go any further" it seems to say. "Here marks the threshold of my known world".
A signpost reminds us of some of the smaller scale political interventions that impact the quality of our everyday life. Whilst the Brexit farrago continues to play out at increasing levels of absurdity, perhaps, this sign embeds a continuing aspiration: Europe and Scotland. Making it work together.
On Torryburn Bay, the sky appears to expand to a grey cloak as we experience a brief rain shower. It's a suitable backdrop for Kate Walker to tell us of the dark history of witch hunting along this coast in the seventeenth century. Zealous, self-appointed witchfinders, usually being local clergymen searching for those who had 'danced with the devil'. They used an armoury of pseudo-scientific techniques to prey on poor, elderly, and vulnerable women, with their use of witch pricking and searching for the devil's mark. The familiar power structures embedded in organised religion and misogyny. Kate recounted the tragic story of local woman Lilias Adie, buried face down in the mud on the beach, between the high tide and low tide marks as it was outside consecrated ground. Buried neither on land or at sea, huge stone slabs were placed on top of her; a folk remedy for revenants who were suspected of returning from the grave to torment the living.
"A blue light came into the field and she danced with the devil".
In Torryburn churchyard, an inventory of past trades, occupations and relationships to the land and sea.
The sock & coulter symbol of the plough. A farmer's life, turning soil, slowly returning to the land
At our lunchtime stop in Cairneyhill, we are entertained by the folk songs of Andy Shanks before all joining in a collective rendition of The Witches Reel, led by Kate Walker.
Back on the track for the second part of the journey, an impressive monkey puzzle tree is a portent to a conundrum that sits just around the corner.
We are soon walking through what can only be described as a graveyard of cars. Not in any scrapyard or auto salvage facility, but six cars, just sitting in the lane in various degrees of decay. It is obvious that they have been here for a very long time.
Who wants to hear our stories? Some of us were fairly top-end saloon cars in our day. That's the late 1960s and early 1970s. The roads were different then. You could drive for miles on motorways without seeing another car. We travelled all the way through Europe, had adventures ...
Of course, we haven't turned our engines for a long time. You can probably tell. Each year, something else falls off, and the rust spreads further and through our skin. We change colour, lose our shine. It's not all bad though. We are tickled and caressed by green leaves as new worlds form around us. Our wheel arches sustain constellations of spider's webs. Moss and lichens form on windows to seal us from the wind. We are transforming into something ... something different.
Not many people pass by this lane but those that do always stop and stare. What is it about the human fascination with ruins? Even just a bunch of old rusted up cars?
The human story behind the cars remains a mystery. A dream deferred? Someone who had to leave in a hurry, abandoning their possessions behind? The remnants of a life that has passed on?
Now the natural world is in control:
In Pitconnochie Wood, we are invited by Rebecca Crowther to think in the moment. Feel the ground beneath our feet and our bodies in the landscape. We enter the wood to individually choose a specific place to take five minutes to focus our being and presence in that spot. How often do we take five minutes to become fully aware of our surroundings and the opening of all our human senses? To connect with the vibrancy of non-human things? I nestle in a large coppiced tree where I can stand up, cupped within the multiple trunks. Five minutes to feel and hear the wind, smell the resin of the wood and touch the tree's limbs. Tuning into the life energies pulsing through the tree underneath its thick bark. Drawing nourishment from the earth itself. It is a restful and sustaining experience.
A little further on, a few of us become intrigued by the beautiful patterns in a recently ploughed field. The furrowed textures delineating the gentle contours of the cultivated land, throwing off echoes of Zen gardens, such as Ryōan-ji. This is further accentuated as we draw closer to find a solitary stone sitting in the field. We ponder why the farmer left it there and what its significance may be.
It's also on the edge of the field where we notice a horse's footprints in the mud and wonder if it's a sign that Ben Jonson passed this way. Right on cue, a horse and rider approach and trot past. We accept this as a tenuous confirmation.
Near to Berry Law, Roger Pickering gives each of us a handful of sand (a phrase that conjures up the scene with the beach hermit in the film Local Hero) explaining how pilgrims would carry sand as a burden to remind them of their sins and to reflect upon them. I wonder if they got this the right way round? When a lot of us fight to banish the negative voices and thoughts in our head, perhaps sand trickling through our fingers is a good way to let go of them. We can just walk away, letting the sand flow, leaving a trail behind us until it is exhausted. An act of walking to jettison our 'burden' rather than intently trying to carry it with us!
On the last stretch into Dunfermline, we can see the inviting skyline of Dunfermline clearly ahead. The gothic spire of the City Chambers and the Abbey itself. Over to our right, the Forth Bridges are just visible and on the horizon, hay bales lie scattered in a field as if thrown on the ground like pocket dice.
Our final approach to Dunfermline Abbey takes a route through Pittencrieff Park, or as it's known locally 'The Glen'. A public park gifted to the people of Dunfermline by Andrew Carnegie whose own family had been barred from entering what was once a private estate.
We cross the 'Double Bridge' which was part of the original pilgrim route approaching from the west as we have done. The first stone bridge was built in 1611 to assist the journey of pilgrims travelling to the Abbey and was funded by Anne of Denmark. Pilgrims may also have visited St Catherine’s Almshouse nearby to receive food and drink and in certain cases medical care. The first recorded mention of St Catherine's in historical records was in 1327.
We end the official part of our walk in late afternoon sunshine with Anna Groundwater concluding proceedings by telling us how, upon reaching Dunfermline, Jonson and his companions, "drank hard" and were made burgesses of the town. After our nine miles, it seemed a fitting note to head off for some refreshments.
So, it was off to the wonderful Fire Station Creative for more songs, stories, drinks and stovies. A shower of rain threatened a last-minute dousing on our brief walk to the venue but it came to nothing leaving the trace of a rainbow over Carnegie Drive. A fitting conclusion to close the colours of the day.
Hats off to Ben Jonson!
Fife Psychogeographical Collective
With special thanks to James Loxley and Anna Groundwater for initiating this project and to Miranda Swift for organising it all so efficiently.
Thanks also to all who came and participated. It was especially good to meet and talk with people who had previously only been known though social media. Thanks also to my daughter Rose who managed to keep up and put up with all the oldies.
Until the next one!