Friday 24 January 2014

Scotland by Rail - Burntisland, Fife. Hill & farm, ravens, standing stones

Wednesday 22nd January 2014

flocking teal - read on

Burntisland. A small town on the Fife coast. The fifth settlement and fifth station north of the Forth Bridge. Thirty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, trains twice hourly during the day. Also, as of last Friday, my new home.

My studio will move to Burntisland too but until there's time to do that it remains in Linlithgow and I'm commuting to work. Other than a morning beach walk last Sunday I hadn't yet had opportunity to get out into these new surroundings and, sticking to my resolution of regular Scotland by Rail explorations and blogs, I was due a railway day. So I chose Burntisland for today.

This was a rambling day, using map but going hither and thither rather a lot. It wouldn't be possible to describe it exactly, nor sensible to follow it. Get an Ordnance Survey and use it to aid your own meanderings. Roughly, I made a large loop with a bit of a there-and-back wiggle on one end. An unshapely balloon-on-a-string walk, up the Binn Hill and curving out through the countryside up there.

From the station east takes you along the High Street to the links (running north-south are houses, road, grass, railway, sea). Turn left at some point to get yourself up through the housing and onto the B923 road to Kinghorn. When a golf course building is on your right turn left up a little path that leads uphill through trees. Here were snowdrops and a few aconites with their lion's mane petals, two thirds of the way through January. Off path were old workings, mining perhaps.

At the top of the steepest bit were sandstone ruins. Old and full of green ivy, pioneer trees, dried hogweeds and grasses. In the corner of one of the buildings I found a maroon plastic urn, still lidded. It looked like it was to hold ashes but now it was empty.

Walking a bit higher I was in farmland, on a stone-walled track. I could see distant landmarks - Edinburgh, North Berwick Law, the Bass Rock, even the Isle of May far far off. I'll be on the Isle of May again this year, a week drawing seabirds and cliffs.

Bass Rock

the Isle of May

North Berwick Law

I painted here, a finished watercolour, farm track winding the eye across and up to Arthur's Seat and our Capital on the far side of the Forth. A large flock of small birds - finches and sparrows? Too far to see. - were flocking to and fro in bounding flight, landing sometimes on ploughed field but soon taking off again. Pheasants and sheep were in the fields below me and buzzards and ravens in the sky above. What a treat to have ravens, only half an hour from my home!

watercolour, 21x15cm

I spotted someone else's home - a vole hole, mouse house, house hole - a perfect dark circle in a field.

I found what I was sure was a fox's dropping except it looked like it had starfish remains in it, light in colour and textured with many mini dimples. When I saw a second patch of dropping I decided I had to investigate. It was the skin of the under or upper side of the foot of a bird. I washed it in tractor hollows that had filled with muddy water. Definitely a skinned foot. The pencils beside it give scale in the photo, lucky that someone dropped those there. From the size and location I'm guessing pheasant. They're rather cumbersome and can't fly fast. I can imagine a fox, possibly, finding one in slumber. If you know better please do tell.

I detoured a short way east along a quiet road that in four kilometres would take you to the outskirts of Kirkcaldy. I wanted to see the Standing Stones, marked in gothic script on the map. There are two in a field, small and squat compared to what you see at Ring of Brodgar or Callanish, but nice to have. Islanded at present by freshly growing crop. Tree sparrows were in the hedgerow along with other songbirds. There was a feeding station in a garden and through trees an ornate and old glasshouse conservatory.

Walking west now along that road (seemed very safe, almost no cars, beautiful for cycling. In fact it's part of the National Cycle Network, Route 76). Yellowhammers were in the hawthorns, and a pair of reed buntings in one particular bush. A kestrel hung, flutter-winged, still-bodied, over a small gorsy rise. Another short detour to my right brought to a rise and sweeping views inland: wind turbines; an old church, graveyard, manse; the Lomond hills; the hill at Ballingry, beyond which Loch Leven lies, not visible from this angle and elevation.

Lomond Hills on the horizon, right of middle

spot the yellowhammers (two of them)

spot the reed buntings (two of them)

Turning left (south-south-east) off the quiet road I walked across a field and to the edge of the plateau, looking down to a little pond, the town, the Forth. By a young stand of conifer, on a wall under a mature (not ancient) beech I had the remains of my lunch - thick beetroot slices between crackers, and coffee from my flask. A mixed fieldfare-redwing flock 'chack'ed and 'tseep'ed high in the largest of the beeches. They flew and I counted at least 60 of each. They didn't go far, I kept hearing them and saw them again later. I was also hearing the tinkling calls of teal, contrasted by the rasp of mallards, both down on the pond.

spot Burntisland

spot the redwings and fieldfares

The track to the pond followed a deep cutting in the brow of the plateau. Possibly a holloway, created by centuries of passage, or possibly it had been cut or blasted by man. I didn't take it because of deep livestock-made mud. I scrambled down the slope instead.

On the pond were mallards, teal, coots, and at least one each of moorhen, little grebe and tufted duck. I was delighted to see the teal. They're Britain's smallest duck. The males are beautiful with rusty read heads and metallic green eye masks ringed with golden yellow, stunning when a low winter sun catches them. I chatted for some time to a man who was out with his dog and his camera. He knew all the species and knew the area well, had lots of good tips as to what I might see and where I might see it. A dark helicopter flew over, low and loud. The noise spooked the teal and they flew in a flock, round and round and round, up down up down up down above the pond. It was some minutes before they seemed to feel it safe to land.


spooked teal - spot the green wing flash

I sat and painted, light going fast but illuminating magnificently the beech tips and dried rushes. I started a second one, really quickly, to capture the colours of the Forth - aqua blue green by Edinburgh to a light salmon pink yellow by Fife.

watercolour & coloured pencil, 15x21cm

Now getting to dusk, up the steepest path of all to the main brow of The Binn Hill. A hare bounced away, much faster than I could manage up these tussocks. I looked at my nice little new (1900) house through binoculars and scanned along the East Lothian coast. A runner ran past going the opposite way. It got darker and darker, proper nightfall by the time I was downhill at the east end of The Binn. In the town I delayed by a few minutes to walk to the shore to wash my boots in the sea, replacing mud with salt. Which, come to think of it, is probably worse.

watercolour (quickly), 15x21cm

In future posts, lots more to write about Burntisland; the cafe, the artists' studios at the station (full), the Museum of Communication, the summer fair and the beach.

How to get there by train
Thirty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, trains twice hourly during the day. Timetables on ScotRail website here.

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