Tuesday 11 April 2017

Scotland by Rail - Dundee, Balgay Hill & Cemetery

crossing the Tay

I get up to Dundee about once a year, visiting Gallery Q or my friend Martin or both. Martin and I were at secondary school together and he's a painter too. We exhibit in some of the same exhibitions and galleries and not often enough we go sketching together. Last time we sketched at the top of Dundee Law but it was cold up there and we retreated quickly to a pub. This time the weather was lovely and we had a long ramble followed by a bit more sketching. Then a pub.

I've been reading a lot of Jim Crumley. You should too. Try Nature's Architect for up-to-the-minute species reintroduction discussion and in-depth beaver ecology understanding and inspiration; Try Encounters in the Wild series for short, personal, beautifully published accounts of individual species - Badger, Skylark, Barn Owl, Fox, Hare, Swan. Try the The Nature of Autumn for Jim's newest book and the motivation for this my latest trip to Dundee.

Jim is from Dundee, grew up there in the 1950's and 60's. In his books he often mentions his Dundee childhood on the edge of Balgay Hill and cemetery with views to the River Tay, autumn geese overhead, spring skylarks song-flighting from surrounding fields. Although the skylark fields are long built over, Balgay Hill is still a place of nature. I'd just finished reading about Balgay in The Nature of Autumn and decided to pay it a visit.

Travel was by train from my home in Burntisland, changing at Kirkcaldy. Total journey time a little over an hour. If you want to read about the route try this Dundee blog post from 2014.

looking west from the Tay Bridge

The area around Dundee station has been a building site for a good few years. Since I was last there a new station entrance has sprung up, not yet complete, and the dark hulking body of the ship-like V&A Dundee, also not yet complete.

Dundee station

HMS Discovery de-masted, V&A behind

V&A and Tay Road Bridge

I started my walk westwards along the Dundee waterfront, headed towards and then under the Tay (rail) Bridge where three mallards paddled. Tide was low and four seals pretended to be bananas out on a sand bank. On another temporary island were gulls (common, herring, black-headed) and a preening cormorant. Down at the river edge a curlew waded the temporarily revealed mud. Take time to read boards about the Tay Bridge Disaster and the verses of William McGonagall. Also the sad tale of a humpback whale which visited Dundee in 1893. Jim has a book about that too - The Winter Whale, Birlinn, 2008.

Soon after passing under the Tay Bridge turn right across road then playing fields (a hundred or more starlings were foraging the grass here) and across the Dundee-Perth railway line via this footbridge.

The bridge leads Magdalen Green where I recognised the colourful cast-iron bandstand, a century and a quarter old, from one of my favourite of Martin's paintings.

Martin Hill - Bandstand, Magdalen Green, oil on board, 45x57.5cm

From Magdalen Green the entrance to Balgay Hill at Victoria Park is less than a mile away bearing north-west. I went first to Martin's studio, a good big white space in the depths of an old church, full of stuff to look at, as studios should be. We discussed work then gathered sketching stuff and headed to Balgay.

The Hill and cemetery are two side by side lowly rounded hills, all part of the same maturely wooded Balgay landscape. The sites are spanned at the hip by an elegant Victorian cast-iron bridge, matching Martin's bandstand from earlier.

The sun was out and birdlife was in full voice. Three or more great spotted woodpeckers were particularly obvious by their song, high in the trees around us as we walked up the hill to the Observatory summit. The drumming of bill on wood is unmistakable to the ear but as often with woodpeckers I could catch only glimpses. This drumming is the bird's song, used to mark and defend territories, heard most often in the spring.

Once, staying in an organic pink watermill in Little Salkeld, Cumbria, I heard a great spot performing its drumming on the metal-capped tip of a railway telegraph pole. The rhythm was absolutely familiar but the sound was alien and took some moments to place, so much stronger and sharper than the normal drumming on wood. It rang out from the railway cutting, up through the wooded slope where we walked, down across the valley of the River Eden.

Wildlife was great down in that area. I once found a dipper nest spot under a railway bridge on a tributary of the Eden, watched the adults bringing meat for their young, heard the chicks frantically squeal as their meals arrived, glimpsed their downy heads and scrawny necks. At the mill nuthatches were often on the kitchen window feeders, red squirrels too.

Back to Balgay, where there are also apparently red squirrels. We didn't see any but Martin will be tasked to let me know if he ever does. After a few hours of exploring and sketching we were leaving the hill when a jay surprised me as I went off-path on the heathy eastern slope.

We ended with half an hour in a cosy book-themed pub before I left to catch my train.

Balgay Hill, woodpeckers drumming

from Balgay looking west

 Balgay cemetery, pen in sketchbook

from Balgay looking north

 Balgay cemetery, pen in sketchbook

in the George Orwell pub, pen in sketchbook


Martin's paintings

See more of Martin's work on his website and by following him on Twitter:

If you'd like to see pieces for real try the Sutton Gallery in Edinburgh, Billcliffe Gallery in Glasgow and Gallery Q in Dundee:

Contact Martin to ask about any artworks, possible workshops, demos, talks, etc.

Many thanks for permission to show Bandstand, Magdalen and these Balgay oils:

Martin Hill

Martin Hill

Martin Hill

Martin Hill

Martin Hill


Friends of Balgay

Lots of info here - www.balgay.btck.co.uk


How to get there

Trains to Dundee leave:

- Edinburgh and Aberdeen every half hour, journey time c.1 hour 10 mins
- Glasgow every hour, journey time c.1 hour 20 mins
- Perth every hour, journey time approx 25 mins

Timetable - Glasgow/Edinburgh/Perth/Aberdeen - Dundee

Very many thanks to ScotRail for supporting my Scotland by Rail work.


  1. Hi Leo, and thanks for taking the time and trouble to visit the Balgay. We natives always cry it "the Balgay", or (at least when I was bairn there) "the Hully". Hully is just the Dundee vowel preference for Hill followed by the inexplicable tendency to stick a 'y' syllable on the end of stuff, having first shortened it...as in "Perthy" for the Perth Road, "Blacky" for Blackness Road etc...my favourite is the Conshy, for Constitution Road.
    Thanks for your observations, sketches, kind words about the books, and for introducing me to your pal Martin's oils which I like very much. See you up the Hully sometime and we can have a pint in the Anky afterwards (the Ancrum Arms, not to be confused with the other Anky which is Ancrum Road Primary School, just on the other side of Lochee Park from the Hully, and which taught me everything of value that I know).

  2. Many thanks Jim for your inside knowledge of the Balgay. Absolutely game for a return to the Hully followed by pint in the Anky. *Not* a pint in the Anky, which surely wouldn't be allowed, unless it was milk.