To make my way to a funeral service, I took the tree-lined Warriston Path into a sunny St Marks Park. My appreciation for and exploration of this place really began during lockdown. I had the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the park as well as learn about how they interweave. These include a sheltered group of well-tended allotments and the football ground used by Craigroyston FC of the East of Scotland League.
This green space connects numerous 'communication lines' (river, old railway, path, road, bridge, woodland walkway) in the north side of Edinburgh. The park is on the margins of several areas of the city, including Leith, Broughton and Canonmills. Historically, it was wedged between (the old) Chancelot Flour Mill, Warriston Cemetery and Powderhall Greyhound Stadium.
In her history of the area, Joyce Wallace relates that the name comes from St Marks Farm, which covered much of this area in the past. At that time, the Water of Leith was much more substantial than today's 'much reduced stream'. Though this part of the river may not be impressive in width, it's one of the most bucolic sections. One of Anthony Gormey's 6 TIMES
standing figures peeking out from a vigorous growth of foliage. The Water of Leith Conservation Trust's volunteers spend many days 'blitzing' the highly invasive Himalayan Balsam which sprouts up aggressively in this area.
St Marks Park is a place of interconnection from which you can embark on any number of perambulations, with endless possibilities before you. That may increase if the disused section of rail line that runs along the edge of Redbraes Park and then parallel with McDonald Road, and runs under Leith Walk (at Croall Place) and towards Meadowbank, is eventually turned into a footpath. At present, the abandoned sections are an enticing slice of 'hidden Edinburgh', enjoyed by the more adventurous.
The end of a draining week found me sitting on a bench there for half an hour, trying to regain my strength in the warm, watery sunshine. This park is well used but fairly peaceful, though it will get busier if 250 new homes are built on the site of the former Powderhall Refuse Depot. The elegant stables block on that site is currently being restored and converted. As with the development on the old Powderhall Stadium site (sold in 1988 and demolished in 1995), this will make the area more residential.
There are rapid changes in this part of the city. The challenge is to strengthen the path network in this area to maintain (or improve) its permeability. With impressive views across the city, the park is an obvious place for contemplation. I reflected on the symbolic significance of St Marks Park's proximity to Warriston Cemetery and Crematorium. While many routes start in the park, it also serves as a terminal, an endpoint. The routes to the park can be circuitous or direct. Our paths always lead to the same end.
On to the crematorium and around the back to the Cloister Chapel, next to the Rose Garden, where gardeners were busily working on the edging of a path while visitors enjoyed the peace and beauty of the surroundings. As people congregated, there was the usual uncertain chatter as people arrived ('are you here for…', 'I usually go to the other one'). It was standing room only in the chapel, with only a number of us able to hear the minister. Any funeral provides a moment to pause, reflect and engage with deeper questions. It was an uplifting event celebrating a long and meaningful life. The man's birth in 1930 was a reminder of the different eras he experienced; a unifying thread.
The life he lived was typical perhaps of his era. Following a familiar path, he met his wife at the famous Fountainbridge Palais. This provoked a lovely moment, with warm ripples of recognition, as the minister said: 'if I had a pound for every time I've said that…'. As the minister talked us through the life, interests and the institutions he was involved with and contributed to, there was an appreciative warmth in the chapel. The minister did a lovely job of promoting this spirit within the chapel; that it was a life to be inspired by. We should use the example to really throw ourselves into the various activities we do, even those some might consider humdrum and routine.
The reminiscence included some of his many adventures on the Scottish Munros with the Ptarmigan Mountaineering Club. On occasion, he took the wrong path and got into a number of 'scrapes' ('he had nine lives', a family member said). A broken leg near the top of Beinn a' Bheithir next to Loch Leven required him to be stretchered down by Mountain Rescue as it pelted down with rain (Scottish Mountain Rescue were the charity selected for money contributed at the funeral). He was then taken by boat to Inverness and Raigmore Hospital. This escapade in June 1979 was one of the many interesting paths taken in his life.
This is what was in my mind as I made my way back home. I did so via St Marks Park. As I lingered there, I contemplated the many varied paths that lay before me.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh