I had driven to the north-west shore of Edinburgh, still within the city boundary. The tide timetable pinned to a board told us we had a four-hour window to walk out, around, and back from the tidal island lying in the Forth. When I first moved here, I met a man who told me that he and his band once crossed to Cramond Island at low tide for band practise, happy they could make as much noise as they wanted and disturb only the ducks and gulls. You guessed it, they got lost in the music, forgot the time, missed the tide, and had to spend the night. Such a fate I would not fancy, for if this city is as heaving with ghosts as it is said to be, then I reckon a reasonable spirit measure of them are to be found haunting the old WW2 lookout huts on Cramond Island. I didn’t have so much as a mouth organ to distract me, and besides, it is tiny, you could walk the perimeter in ten minutes, so I knew we would make no such mistake as we crunched our way across the causeway, unable to avoid (though I did try) the masses of periwinkles underfoot. It’s a concrete causeway, flanked by a row of stanchions – tall solid columns, wide at the base, narrow at the top; they were something to do with the war, I’m not sure what.
The wind was up, we’d both been missing it lately, it has been an oddly still summer and autumn, especially in this city known for its rolling wind. Time enough for it to bite this winter. Overhead, the hoop-hoop of the curlew was battered into abeyance by the loud rumble of a Ryanair flight that had looped out over the firth before it came in low over our heads for its descent into the airport. The island is scrub, rocks, and bushes with the odd battered tree. Brambles and willowherb, nettles and yarrow, all of them were spent and tired, drained of colour, and airborne seeds from thistle heads blew around us, catching in branches and stalks. Out there it is peaceful, calming to look back on low tide’s spit of glassy sand when the whole expanse of the firth to the south of the island drains, and the course of the River Almond runs through the sand, shallow, meandering like a vein on the back of your hand. Low tide’s exposed sand is dotted, here and there, with pools, rotting wooden marker posts sticking out of them, and some brave soul has left the causeway to tramp around the water’s edge, throw a stick for a dog way out to where the ocean has retreated.
Only at the north end do we look out onto sea, and Fife seems so close – Fife is so close. To the west I can see all three bridges weaving together, and boats and pipelines and all things industrial. To the east, much further off, East Lothian is low and soft with a few landmarks easily picked out: Berwick Law and the tiny bump of the Bass Rock. This north side is the perfect location for the WW2 bunkers, and here they are, all graffiti-covered, lending them an eerie quality on an otherwise calming place. This place is still Edinburgh, a small sod cast into Blackness Bay, its back turned to the city, yet when I turn south to look back at the city, there it all is: Newhaven and Leith, the Castle and Arthur’s Seat, a skyline of spires against clouds breaking blue. There’s nothing like a trip to an abandoned island to bring you back to you.