Startlingly, Edinburgh has awakened to find itself beneath a Mediterranean sky. The familiar spires and domes are now stranded under an immense peaceful blue, which is at once dreamy and vivid. Today Edinburgh looks shrill in the sunshine, like something which knows that it is going out of fashion. With the arrival of springtime, you want to delve into forests, run your fingers through innumerable wildflowers, pause and gloat over majestic, shining waterfalls.
My journey to Hailes Castle begins in Haddington, but I am currently on Princes Street, waiting for the X8 bus to Haddington. A tram, the most futuristic thing in the world, is gliding up to me. It rings a forlorn little bell like a medieval leper. One with any memory of the Edinburgh tram fiasco might assume that this tram has no passengers because the city’s entire population is boycotting it. I think, however, that the tram is still, even now, in some spurious stage of development. They want to see what will happen if somebody steps in front of it, but without delaying any real passengers.
There is somebody out there, presently typing in an office or strolling across the Meadows, who will one day become the first person to die under an Edinburgh tram. The whirring wheels beneath the tram’s skirts will slice without stopping through a shoulder, a thigh, the thickest bone. “Tell me mother, what is that/ That looks like strawberry jam?/ Hush, hush my dear; ‘tis only Pa/ Run over by a tram.” On the bus I sit transfixed, ruminating on these awful possibilities all the way to Haddington.
The most curious thing about Haddington is its patently English name. The English reached too far when planting Haddington and Haddingtonshire (which was only renamed East Lothian in 1921), and when walking around the town and appreciating its mildly alien character, you get the firm sense of a historical error. Haddington was once the fourth largest city in Scotland, but its population had fallen to 3800 by 1891. Even today, with its council headquarters, newspaper offices and malt brewery, it seems extremely well stocked for its 9000 inhabitants. It is grand in a sort of dainty, rather mean way.
Perhaps characteristically, one of the town’s most stunning features is nowadays obsolete. The seventeenth-century Nungate Bridge, which stands slender and elegant over a peaceful stretch of the River Tyne, is too small for modern motor usage. I capture this bridge for myself and look down on Haddington and the water. Above me urgent gulls are falling in a curtain, whilst below me they are hopping on the air. A family on the riverbank is sowing bread on the water. A swan sits immaculately enthroned on an island in the river, like a Tudor monarch on a Royal barge.
There are various signs around here with directions to Hailes Castle, but they are actually luring you on to a cycle path. Pedestrians should retrace their steps to the town and then cross upriver at the Victoria Bridge. The path ventures behind some Commonwealth war graves, where the river should be crossed again at a rudimentary bridge on the corner of a housing estate. Thereafter the path turns its back on Haddington for the open country. It passes over a stile under a fourth bridge, the Abbey Bridge, which is sixteenth century but still sprightly.
The River Tyne is a snug, tight little river, practically as small as a river can get. It wends its way between colossal fields, only the size of a country lane with a smattering of overhanging trees, and often so shallow that it looks as bare as a road. As with Haddington, there is something residual about the name. The Saxons had rushed up, stuck their word on this river and then they were gone and an English river was left slinking inconspicuously around a Scottish landscape.
The solitude of the River Tyne walkway is undisturbed once I am beyond a mile of Haddington, or at least on my side of the river. It is a weekday and so on my plebeian side everybody is at work and on the corporate side there are parties of golf players. If you have an eye for nature, or if you want to acquaint children with the wild, then the seclusion of the riverside means that there are frequently pleasant things to see: wrens and chaffinches, swallows and swans. Once, I walked down to the river and something unfolded itself hugely, with a suggestion of rabbit haunches, before pouring itself back into the bushes. A roe deer? Another time I spotted a kingfisher, or at least in the rather miserable, unsatisfactory way that you always see kingfishers: a scrabble of something between azure and sapphire, so improbably colourful that it looked like it belonged in a jungle in a children’s book.
On another occasion, I had climbed up the slope over the walkway to see what I could see, well okay I also wanted to relieve myself out of sight of the path, and I was met by a silent, scrubby field that stretched to the base of the sky. Happily, there was also a tussock to urinate against. Suddenly the landscape seemed to crouch as what looked like a gigantic limb weaved its way helter-skelter overhead. It was two fighter jets and the second leaned down so low that I had the unnerving impression that I had made eye contact with the pilot. They were gone, with a peal of thunder, before I thought to stop urinating. As an experience, this had the flimsy quality of a hallucination, but I suppose that it made sense in theory.
These incidents do not add up to very much over a day’s walk. The afternoon continued with an agreeable but distinct monotony, although the appearance of Sandy’s Mill provided a comic interlude. The various announcements which bring it to your attention that you are passing through Sandy’s Mill are determined to wrack you with guilt. These are family homes and yet you are still allowed to walk within view of them. There is a friendly notice which warns that you are being watched by 24 hour CCTV, which begs the question of quite what they expect to come down this path at two in the morning. You can imagine how bad I feel further ahead, however, when the River Tyne walkway takes a shortcut through somebody’s “private garden” (there is a notice telling us off for lingering). How I have impinged upon the longsuffering families of Sandy’s Mill!
Waiting a few bends down the river is Hailes Castle. It is a beautiful but somewhat banal structure: in those magnificent seconds when you first behold the castle and the world stops, you have seen almost everything. It is a soaring edifice, more gnarled and crooked than all of the elderly trees which surround it. The walls are stained with different colours which seem to run down them and built with thousands of swirling higgledy-piggledy stones which snag your eye like a gnat in a spider’s web. Yet this castle stands on the far side of the river and it is suddenly, alarmingly, disappearing over my shoulder. I walk on with dismay until I encounter a lean wooden bridge which leads around and back to the castle.
Hailes Castle is comprised of a few claustrophobic stone boxes which are piled shapelessly on top of each other. All of the rooms seem to be slightly too small and they make you feel sorry for the poor aristocrats who would have been cooped up in them. In its time, Hailes was a feisty, brawling little castle, which was attacked by Hotspur and held the kidnapped Mary, Queen of Scots. Less illustriously, it served in its later years as a granary and a doocot. It is basically a farmhouse with a curtain wall.
As with Haddington and the River Tyne, there are Hailes in England: the word predates the Romans. I am now inspecting the castle, going from room to room and dutifully noting the purpose of each one. I try to picture the castle in the fifteenth century and it seems unprepossessing. There are several children armed with sticks running around these rooms, and a father in shorts who is like the lanky member of the gang. I feel guilty at reminding them of the castle’s previous owners. I get out of the way and wind up on the riverbank under the castle. Smoking, I look down upon the navy: a shoal of minnows, laid out motionlessly in the water. Next, I try to make out the children’s distant game and it sounds like an aimless, undisciplined version of tag. Perhaps these children are all so stupefied by the sight of the castle that their society has collapsed. I am conscious that I should approve of this – whenever I talk with children, I always chide them for being constantly plugged into their PS4s and Xboxes.
Another Lothian castle with so much history and yet no ghost. There is some Johnny-come-lately white lady, discovered by the Most Haunted generation of ghost hunters, who drifts around the castle like a patch of stately mist. But nothing dire and black, bubbling up from peasant lore. Hailes Castle is maintained but unmanned by Historic Scotland, and so once night falls there is nobody to ward off campers and squatters. Even with this promising setup, however, nothing creepy has ever stuck to the castle. Dozing in the dell beside a chuckling river, Hailes Castle, despite its history, remains picturesque rather than Gothic.