Unnumbered Years

Ravens over North Berwick Law—could any phrase be more hyperborean?  I turned the words over lazily as I watched them 50 feet above, circling and diving on one another, flicking expert wings, commenting incessantly on their sport as they alternately dropped or upheld the thin blue vault.  Below the volcanic cone of its Law, the town lay snoozing along the Firth of Forth.  Somewhere on its yellow beach my wife, Amanda, was watching Guy delve sand with a four-year-old’s intensity—a ludic, pointless activity like that enjoyed by corvids, an in-the-moment celebration of physicality, space, and sunlight.

Far to the west, Edinburgh bustled under haze.  North in the Firth the guano-whitened Bass Rock glinted at ships heading to Leith.  Eastward, Tantallon Castle stood guard on its seas-smashing headland—while to the south the Lothian hinterland rolled away toward the Borders’ small hills and histories.  North Berwick is a pilgrim port turned resort, emblematic of the many sides of Scotland, a country caught always between Catholic and Protestant, Gothic and classical, magic and science, chivalry and coolness, sentimentality and severity.  These “Debatable Lands” have often been occupied, and cross-cutting legacies have been left, as at Athelstaneford, “the birthplace of Scotland’s flag” for a legendary ninth-century Saxon-beating saltire-in-the-sky,...

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