‘My lungs love the sensation of Edinburgh’s atmosphere, the biting freshness of it, never still but always thrilled with a shock of salted air, and sometimes the yeasty smell from the brewery on thick evenings.’
Extract taken from Salt on your Tongue: Women and the Sea
By Charlotte Runcie
Published by Canongate
I loved Edinburgh again as soon as I saw it with fresh adult eyes. It was the place my sister and parents had lived before, though I’d only visited for holidays, and heard about it wistfully in stories, until my parents finally decided to move back when I turned eighteen. Then, when I carelessly betrayed it by studying in England, it became my refuge during university holidays.
In Edinburgh I fell in love with the heat that builds encouragingly in your calves when you find yourself walking breathlessly up the hills and over the bridges in the Old Town, late to meet a friend. My lungs love the sensation of Edinburgh’s atmosphere, the biting freshness of it, never still but always thrilled with a shock of salted air, and sometimes the yeasty smell from the brewery on thick evenings. And the way the city is always almost entirely at the mercy of the spooky mystique of the haar, the rolling sea fog that comes on quick with its smoky white haze on a chilly evening and blinds you, if you don’t see it coming first, as it rounds the corner and somersaults its way towards you through the Cowgate.
On a clear day, I love that you can see right the way over the bright blue water towards the green and mauve hills of Fife. You can see the islands nestling there. Inchcolm, with its twelfth-century monastery. Inchkeith, where in 1493, King James IV is said to have performed a strange and entirely unethical language experiment, leaving two babies on the island to be looked after by a deaf and mute nurse in order to determine which language they eventually learned to speak, and which he could therefore conclude was the natural language of mankind as given by God. According to sixteenth-century historian Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, ‘Some say they could speak Hebrew, but for my part I know not.’ Walter Scott was unconvinced (in The History of Scotland): ‘It is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island.’ Maybe, of course, it never happened at all, and is just a legend attributed to a king who was known to be a polyglot, an eager amateur scientist, and an oddball.
Then Fidra, another nature reserve with its own automated lighthouse, and the Isle of May, a boat trip away from Anstruther in the East Neuk on a boat called the May Princess, and St Baldred’s Boat, the rock formation off Seacliff Beach in East Lothian, where the medieval monk and hermit St Baldred is said to have retreated for contemplation. Go up high enough and look past the islands and over to the right of the three broad, spiked bridges that bind Fife to the Lothians, the Forth Rail Bridge, the old Forth Road Bridge and the new Queensferry Crossing, one red, one silver, one white, with the water stretching across towards the little white dots of the coastal towns, winking in the sun as they bend right around towards the East Neuk. The three bridges, each constructed in a different century, binding the land and the sea. The estuary is the only place we can do that, with the sea at its narrowest point that we can still just about build across, the last point at which it’s not yet so inscrutably large.
There is no easily exact difference between the river and the sea; no invisible line where the freshwater ends and saltwater begins. The sea is a gradual process of becoming, of widening and ageing and growing into more. There’s a human scale to an estuary. Settlements cluster around them, growing into industrial heartlands over the centuries because they’re so useful for transport and trade and connection to the world. Even before industry, though, people were drawn to them to build their homes. They are poised on the edge, but still connected to home, to land, and to life-giving fresh drinking water as it turns to the salt of the sea.
In salmon you see the difference that a saltwater environment makes to living creatures. Salmon are small mud-brown creatures when young and just-hatched in the freshwater. By the time they have made the journey from the river into the sea as adults they are transformed: big, shimmering rainbow-streaked blue dashes of light, ready to return home to their origins upstream to lay their eggs and begin the process of life over again. The river is where they begin, but the sea is where they become brightest and strongest.
Estuaries are where we can control the tide a little. At the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, London is kept safe from flood, the sea a little tamer because of a human presence. At Cramond, the village on the beach to the west of Edinburgh, there is a causeway path out to the tidal Cramond Island, the concrete on the route cracked into rockpools by thousands of days of tide washing in and out. In Cramond itself – where the River Almond drains into the Firth – there’s a decent pub (which means that dogs are allowed in the bar, with biscuits provided for them), a café with a good line in Cullen skink and hot chocolate, and generally an ice cream van parked out beside the small harbour, hard by the sign warning about tide times and instructing walkers to make sure to time their journeys out to the island so as not to get cut off.
If the tide is far enough out to be safe, two hours either side of its lowest point, you can walk right out along the causeway towards the little grassy islet with a few stony ruins on the top. As you walk, you’re flanked always to your right by a line of tall, imposing, triangular anti-boat pylons, put there during the Second World War. Once you get to the island you can look at the Firth from its middle, the water all around you and Edinburgh settled and finite before you, with Arthur’s Seat and the southern hills in the far distance. You are standing in the middle of the estuary, the river behind you, and the wide sea beyond, out into the myth and unknown. As you hurry back to the mainland – which you will want to do, for the cold of the coast winds will have by this time stirred within you a violent appetite for soup from the café or a pint of beer in the warmth of the decent pub with the dogs – if you’ve timed your trip right, the water will only just be beginning to fill in either side of the causeway, lapping around the bases of the anti-boat pylons, bringing more seaweed and fish to leave in the rockpools it cracked open on its last visit. If you feel the sea anywhere close to your feet, walk faster, because soon it will be several feet above your head, and you’ll be left to swim with the seals, and the legends of others caught out by the tides before you.
Salt on your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie is published by Canongate, priced £14.99