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.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Scotland by Rail - Dalry, Ayrshire, Blair Estate woodland

Dalry in North Ayrshire, where I'm soon starting work on large painted panels for station decoration. Previous Dalry blog here.

Here's a nice easy stroll through a nearby wooded country estate.

The Walk

Getting off the train walk east uphill along a main road for less than a mile, firstly through a large housing estate then into open farmland. Remember after the houses to look back for wide views of Dalry and valley and hills beyond. Over those hills are Great and Little Cumbrae Islands, and Bute, and eventually Arran. For another day.

Dalry & valley & those hills

over those hills

The countryside stretch of road is short but with no pavement, take care. Soon on your right is a gatehouse into the Blair Estate. Read the sign, go through, start your exploring.

I walked a clockwise circle of the grounds with a little bit of meandering when a branching path looked particularly enticing.

Snowdrops were out and winter thrushes were in the trees, a great spotted woodpecker called once. Blue, great and coal tits were all over a feeding station at the south gatehouse and through the woods buzzard, robin, blackbird, wren, house sparrow, rook, crow, jackdaw, starling. I made a few sketchbook drawings, quick ones in pen.

Newhouse Farm, having detoured there-and-back past the Blair south gatehouse.

detour found me three buzzards. Here you see one.

thinking of Escher


How to get there

Trains to Dalry take half an hour from Glasgow Central and run half-hourly Mon-Sat, hourly on Sundays.

'Ayrshire, Inverclyde & Stranraer Timetable' and 'Buy Tickets' option on ScotRail website.

Thanks to ScotRail for enabling my Scotland by Rail work.

Friday, 10 March 2017

humpback in the Forth

humpback in the Forth, 10th Feb 2017, 20x40cm, oil

There's a humpback in the River Forth, it's been there at least since the end of January.

I first saw it on 9th Feb when I took 153 photos using smartphone held up to binoculars. It isn't in any of them. I made some sketches then came home and turned them into the above oil.

On 18th Feb we saw it again. 132 photos this time and it features in one of them. Well, its blow does. More sketches and another oil started back in the studio. Three loads of plastics picked from the beach and one dead herring gull found and ring number recorded and reported.

the blow!

Inchkeith island on the left, Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags to right of middle, Pentlands on the right.

herring gull, ring number reported to www.euring.org

Kinghorn litter-pick bins. Great idea.

bag of plastics, Burntisland bay


5th March was our first sun-soaked whale watch. I took only 45 photos and it appears in three. Well, its dorsal and a little bit of its back. Here's the best one.

Kinghorn to the left, Burntisland to the right


9th March we saw the whale for about twenty minutes. A low 29 photos taken, one of which is the clearest yet.

I'm not going to give you links to Facebook friends who're putting up photos of breaches, huge splashes, tail flukes, white belly, flippers... and I'm not encouraging you to seek them out. If you do you'll probably never visit my blog again.


Got a boat?

these people got a good view

If you have a boat and are considering trying for a close look please have a very careful think about whether you really should. Put the whale's welfare above all else and please read this link:


Please help save our sea life:
- www.mcsuk.org

humpback in the Forth, 18th Feb 2017, 20x40cm, oil, not quite finished