This first Spring walk is like chancing on a found poem. Close to the water’s edge, pale-pink inflorescences of butterbur nudge through. On the other side of the path, the last of February’s snowdrops are jostled by swards of few-flowered leeks. Where clearer ground is found, yellow constellations of lesser celandines are strewn across the woodland floor. For me though, outshining them all are the anemones.
Eager for light, their ghost-white flowers emerge before the broad-leaved trees stretch and unfurl their canopy of green. As they rely for spread on the slow growth of their root structure, not the distribution of their seed, anemones are looked upon as markers of ancient woodland. Over the course of a century, a cluster will range just half a dozen feet. By taking one step back, I see where they had grown when I walked the same banks as a child.
Even their name summons times past. The Anemoi were Greek gods of the winds; and of them, Zephyrus was the bringer of lighter breezes from the west. According to legend, to herald his coming in early Spring, they made a gift of anemones. For the Romans too, these windflowers, nodding on delicate stalks, were seen as a lucky charm: picking the first flowers of the anemones each year would ward off sickness.
What has called me back to the River Almond though is my mother’s illness. Cancer came calling last summer. She felt the lump during lockdown. Waiting for the surgeon, fearing how it might grow and spread, she decided that she wanted to return to Cramond, the village we had first lived together in Edinburgh, the place where the river flows out to the sea.
To reach the river, I walk down Peggy’s Mill Road. Peggy’s had been the second of two upper mills, the first being Dowie’s closest to the old Cramond Brig (or bridge). The lower mills were known as Craigie, Fair-A-Far and Cockle. All five of them had drawn from the Almond as the river flowed onwards to the little natural harbour. After its demolition in the late 1960s, a few years after my family came to Cramond, all that was left of Peggy’s were remnants of the mill lade, a floor slab and sluice gates held open by rust.
The promise of a new day is needed. I want to see the sun rising over the Firth. First light is already here. Dawn-chorus is not just sound, but a transforming state of light. I hear thrushes, robins and blackbirds. Their songs are interrupted only by the occasional startlement of pheasants, suddenly caught up in an unarbitrated dispute.
Having passed an old fence that is no longer keeping anything in or out, I reach the edge of the river and stop. My arms go behind my back – ‘take in the view’. A reverent pause, not quite in the moment (but conscious of it). The lighter breezes from the west are passing through. Onwards, seawards.
Made rich by shipping, Captain Salvesen of ‘Inveralmond’ resolved to give back, to encourage people to the sea. What he gifted was land – and steps to pass that land. Those steps offered passage over a rocky outcrop lying halfway between the Brig and the coast. Without them, there would be no continuous path by the river out toward the Firth. However, like all part-metal structures close to water, they have an inbuilt obsolescence. Every half century or so, the locals must decide to renew them, or to campaign to persuade the Council to do so. When I get to the Salvesen steps, the structure now seems so impermanent, so unkempt that I think the villagers and the councillors must have reached an impasse over who pays next. Later, I read that was about right.
How was my mother going to go this way? The steps are many and steep. As part of her convalescence, it would be good to encourage her this way – as if traversing the rocky crag, going seawards, would get her strength back up.
Onwards now to the Fair-a-Far Mill, long since made a ruin by the river in spate, unprotected even by its weir. Once I see the old Mill, I begin to remember what is coming next. From here, the path will lead to the row of white-faced cottages known as Caddell’s Row. The path will narrow and straighten, mimicking the river before it opens out onto the little harbour, the ferryman’s steps and the oldest parts of Cramond village.
Place-making may take a while for some. Others will never be home. But sometimes, somehow, places are in your bones. You recognise them first time you set foot, as if you had somehow met before. Rare those places that one really sees (and, you may tell yourself, see you) rather than those one just looks at. Cramond is such a place for me. I quicken now and by the time I get to the headland, the combination of the rising sun and the ebbing seawater forge filigree on the sands.
In my childhood, two crossings could be made from the village. The first was a minute’s journey by ferry across the stretch where river meets sea. The second was to Cramond Island by the causeway. When revealed by receding waters at low tide, it is slippery underfoot with strewn seaweed; the incoming tide reclaims the walkway. The old ferry is no more (time and tide not waiting even for the ferryman); only the crossing remains to Cramond Island.
Tidal islands like this one leave me feeling as though I have crossed from one border to another, a threshold to another realm. That is not what I want this morning. On the way back, I have flings of prospecting sandpipers for close company until, like quicksilver, they flee ahead. I learn afterwards that another collective noun for them is time-step. As I regain the mainland, I hear the beat of a swans’ wing tips threshing the salt-water, seeking to get airborne and land where the ferry once crossed.
Later that day Mum and I walk back down Peggy’s Mill Lane. Her arm is locked on mine, the under-part still tender from the biopsy. We turn to the Salvesen steps but stop short of the first tread. There is a mallard dabbling by a boulder close by the largest islet. Mum sees it and tells me: ‘Tasty bird. Not much eating on it though. You need one per person’. I laugh – a Frenchwoman who has lived longer in Scotland than France, remembering the meals of her childhood!
When the results of the biopsy come through, I am in England. All clear in the tell-tale nodes. A day later, there is a message from my mother. Without her realising, it is a photograph of roughly where I had paused, with the note: ‘Lots of love from the river side xx’. For half a moment, I wonder whether this is from her or the Almond itself. A fortnight later another like message – this time of the largest islet, ringed by boulders and the caption: ‘Mr and Mrs Mallard. This afternoon. Mr fishing, Mrs working on her tan plumage! Lovely walk xx’. I am touched. Perhaps she sees more than a meal for two.
A month later, I am back. Even with the biopsy, the big operation has still gone ahead – better safe than sorry, the surgeon feels. The train returns me to Edinburgh not long after my mother, (as she puts it in her message just before surgery) has ‘said goodbye to an old friend’. No visitors are allowed on account of the pandemic. In the hours before collecting her the following day, I decide to set off back down the Lane.
What a difference four weeks has made. Though the butterbur has lost its pop of colour and the celandines are dimmed, pockets of pink purslane have joined the anemones. Below the greening trees, the few-flowered leeks are slender alongside the ramsons that dominate with star bursts of white flowers. Both fill the air with garlicky scent; their conspiracy cover the woodland floor leaving little room for bluebells.
Two days later Mum and I head out. At the start of the walk there is a scuttling on bark. Treecreepers! ‘They look almost like mice’, she says – skittering, as much as flittering. I like the description. This is a little different from the mother of my childhood. She generally patted her hands together on seeing beasts and birds, seemingly to encourage them to ‘do’ something. Given that she was a linguist, her conviction that they generally spoke but one language – the clap – struck me as strange. Here she is though, slowed to near stillness – and really watching. The pair are indifferent to our presence, which gives her long enough to notice how they hop, how their gently-curved beaks winkle out grubs cached in the bark. I hear their feet, tipped with long claws for clinging on, minutely clink across the surface of the wood; I hear a slight catch in Mum’s breath.
The day to see the doctor again has come. I wake very early and head beyond the Salvesen steps. Mum has now asked me to produce a bird book of down by the river. Camera in hand, I go looking for the sentinel spirits of where the river meets the sea – the great cormorant and the Cramond swans. I see neither as I head downstream, an indication that the tide has not yet receded. At the harbour, first views across the Firth to the kingdom of Fife show a lead-weight of cloud, bearing down like Winter, on the woodland close by Aberdour. But the trees themselves seem autumnal, as the rising sun to the east burnishes the bark. Time seems out of joint.
Before stepping onto the seawall that leads to the causeway itself, I check the tide times. Too long to wait. My turn for home is stopped by sight of two mute swans arcing out toward the wide Firth. Though by now they are high aloft, I hear the effortful whirr of their wing-beats. As they bank away, the underside of their white feathers are set aglow. I want Mum to see this – is she still sleeping or perhaps now awake with worries about what the doctor will say? – and I take a photograph.
By the time I hear the cormorant, it is well past me, tracking straight up river at altitude. The mid-river air is like an avian superhighway. Mallards, with occasional bouts of flight, dash up and down, no great height above the surface before skidding to a halt. Higher up, the heron charts a lonely, lugubrious course. But loftier still goes the great cormorant. This one does not deviate until it settles on a tall tree on the far bank. Only a forbidding cloak of black feathers to be seen. I can’t even make out the plague-doctor beak. Mum messages me to ask: ‘Are you ok? Xx’, I reply ‘3 mins away’ – it was nearer 10 minutes but, well, sons! In comes another text: ‘I was worried you might have been ambushed by some birds’. In a way she was right.
The news from the doctor is good. No more growths found. We emerge from seeing him and the radiographer (always one more doctor to see) to a rainbow that is not a bow; more a colourful smudge foregrounding the Pentland Hills. Mum smiles and I take some more photos, now of her. She looks straight back to camera, a protective mask in one hand; and in the other her fleece held up to cover the surgeon’s work.
On the last morning before I return southbound. The causeway is fringed with algae and there are tiny, dark periwinkles littered under foot like ball bearings. I have come to take more photos for the book. The last page will show the steel-eyed cormorant diving in the stretch of the Almond before the weir at Fair-a-Far where there is the map by the Mill that reads: ‘You are here’. Never truer words.
Patrick Limb lives in Nottingham where he works as a barrister. Edinburgh remains his home from home.
Photographs by the author.