I had the evidence of my own eyes, when all was said and done: there the angel wings were, on the wall of an outbuilding attached to the church, just below a ventilation grille and to the right of a flaked-paint downpipe.
What were they? Why? There was no plaque to indicate their provenance, or indeed what you were meant to make of them. A suspicion nagged at me that they were some sort of trophy exhibit, a stag’s head in a demon-dominated universe. I chose to believe instead that they were a tribute, from someone on the side of the angels.
It had been a curious walk round Levenmouth, to be sure.
I was in Lower Methil to get the car its MOT (it passed, incidentally: the old jalopy is street legal for another year. It’s great, but as it’s now entering its mid-teens, it’s embarassed to be seen out with me and spends all the time it can in its garage on its laptop, watching something it shuts off as soon as I walk in).
I arrived at 7.45 to a darkened car park, handed over the keys, and, rather than wait inside, decided to walk for an hour and a bit round Methil-Sur-Mer, as it’s sometimes sarcastically called.
Now. It would be easy to do a snarky piece about the Levenmouth area, as the settlements of Buckhaven, Methil and Leven are collectively known. They’re not exactly up there in the top picks for Tripadvisor, even in a Fife league table. Built mainly to accommodate the miners for the nearby pits, long since closed, they’ve fallen on hard times, and large parts of the area hit just about every indicator in the Government’s Single Index of Multiple Deprivation.
This is not going to be that piece. The folk that live there deserve better, and there are lots of good people dedicating themselves to make it so. There is hope, as we’ll see. So here’s my walk in pictures, told with affection for my birthplace (I first came into the world in Buckhaven).
I leave the black, frost-sparkled car park and head round the front of the building, where I find my excellent mechanics, RWB Autotec, have been enterprising enough to host a Friday morning market on their land. There’s whole side of an HGV selling butcher meat. I leave the traders to set up, and set off in search of the dawn.
Beyond East Fife FC’s Bayview stadium, I can glimpse a hastily-painted smear of vivid red between the sea and the land. In the distance, the volcanic outcrops that form islands in the Forth Estuary and, beyond, hills in the Lothian landscape, punctuate the sunrise, frozen-lava stepping stones for some long-forgotten giant.
I head out of Lower Methil and take the option of turning right at the end of the road, crossing the Bawbee Brig (‘bawbee’ is Scots for a coin of small value) and heading down into Leven, hugging the coastline in hope of a better shot of the morning sky. The ten minutes or so it takes for me to reach the next clear view of the sea, rounding the end of the High Street at the Shorehead – where the buses are wheezing into life, starting their long day of running on empty – gives time for the heavens to throw a little more light on the matter.
Dog walkers eye me, warily, as I take a photo through the metal-framed bench, designed for a summer’s day, that brief summer of summers, long gone, when folk from the industrial west of the Central Belt would come to visit all the Fife coastal towns, seeing them as a relatively smog-free, drier, alternative to spending their ‘fair fortnight’ at home.
Not many takers today for Beachcombers Family Amusements, though.
I follow the line of the coast, almost as far as where the housing peters out and the shoreline starts to meld with the golf course. Turning inland, I encounter a memorial to Polish servicemen, who fought valiantly for the Allies in the Second World War. Many of them settled in Fife after the War, joined in successive waves by their countrymen and women in search of a better life here. Some I know have gone back, disgusted by the atmosphere created by the Brexit referendum.
Reaching the other side of the memorial gardens, I pass the back of a big care home, where residents and staff are waking up to a new day. In the kitchens, a cook pours a large tureen of something into something else. Rollout of the vaccine is still in its infancy: a race against the virus, our First Minister says.
I head up a side street, reflecting as I do that I have an unusual mental aerial map of this whole area.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, part of my job at Kirkcaldy District Council was to do the legal work involved in the sale of local authority housing. That involved a plan with each individual house sale, showing the boundaries of what was to be sold off; complicated at times by a fairly arbitrary divvying up of gardens and communal areas like drying greens. Overlaid on those individual maps in my head is another layer of the plans in previous title deeds, necessary to create what Scots conveyancers call the ‘part and portion’ clause, showing which bigger area the house or flat formed part of in the Register of title deeds. Often these would be just large lozenges of red, the green fields that held sheep before the workers’ homes sprang up.
Once, in East High Street, Buckhaven, I was involved in a transfer to a housing association, and came across my father’s name on the title deeds. As Town Clerk, he had been the lawyer who’d acquired the jigsaw puzzle of titles from the original fishing village down at the shore there in the early Sixties: now, a mere thirty years on, I was transferring the site of the blocks of flats that had replaced the fishermen’s cottages, and quickly become unlettable. I teased him at the time about the state of the title deeds, although they were fine, of course.
Not a single day goes past I don’t think about them both. They’d have been into their nineties now, closeted away from the pandemic.
No mental map for me of the area I’m passing through at the moment, though: a little conclave of well-scrubbed, well-to-do houses, not mansions, exactly, but the ones that had housed the clerks and shopkeepers rather than the miners themselves. Emerging from it, I cross one of the main routes into the town centre and head along Waggon Road. I reflect that many of the streets in Leven have unglamorous, utilitarian names; there’s a Commercial Road, nearby. Like I said, a working town.
It’s in Waggon Road that I encounter the angel wings. I feel a bit weird going up the side of the church to take a photo of them, but I fancy it as an image. I did read the Bible as a teenager: it’s just, to paraphrase a Marxist dictum (Groucho, that is) I wouldn’t join any church that would have me as a member.
After capturing the wings on camera I head, slightly nonplussed, out of Leven, crossing the Bawbee Brig a second time, and heading up the long hill into Upper Methil. My every move is watched over by giant wind turbines: the area’s latest venture is as a test bed for hydrogen-based technologies, with a mammoth 7MW Demonstrator lurking just offshore, near where the old coal-fired power station used to be. The previous month there was a great fanfare as a project to use the tech to heat domestic homes was announced.
The path is slippery with ice as I climb to a vista of Upper and Lower Methil, and I realise I have no clear idea of how to get back to the garage from here. I can see, far in the distance, Bayview, so I have a rough direction in my head: undaunted, I plunge on. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered in the past year, it can be refreshing to trust your instincts and go for it; liberating to leave certainty and predictability behind you.
Into the narrow defiles between the houses I go, the view lost, all mental maps useless, stranger in a strange land: I might have been born near here, but we left soon after, and this is a place where, I suspect, everyone knows almost everyone else.
The houses are built like interlocking jigsaw pieces, a Sixties architect’s reimagining of a fishing village perhaps, the buildings rooted into the sea-facing slope; huddled against the cold morning breeze. These, at least, have stood the test of modern times.
Then down at sea level again, exploring the half-shuttered streets of Lower Methil; some humour in the advertising; pubs standing, frozen in the landscape, remnants of a time when the miners were legion, not the ageing corner-table occupants that forgot to leave.
Some of the pubs are handsome buildings: my favourite is the Empire, named it seems with no sense of irony, with two faces to the world. Its front door (closed for now of course) is well-maintained, the publican’s pride evident in the smart paintwork; its gable end, on the other hand, is hitched against the bitter easterlies, its pitted haunch protected by barbed wire and rusting steel gates, the Disney advertising somehow worse than graffiti, the way it sells another empire’s dream on an unloved piece of wall.
Nearby is the Methil Heritage Centre, that I visited once, ten years ago or so, with Dad. At the time, I was a little surprised he was interested enough in the place to ask me to go: his extensive family researches took us either to the wilds of Aberdeenshire or the rural north of Fife, our ancestors for the most part scraping an existence from the soil, rather than underneath it.
Now, I reflect that we must have been, after all, eight or so years in Buckhaven, as both my sister and I were born there. My parents were from the North East, but they found a warm welcome in the tight little community they became a part of. It was about the same length of time I spent with Kirkcaldy District, and at more or less the same stage in our respective careers: and they were good times, too.
People live in this place, fall in love, raise families, like every other half shuttered rust belt town in the developed West. It can nurse its pint in the East Dock Bar, or it can turn its face into the brisk East wind rising off the bleak estuary, put its faith in the new rail link that might finally happen, the hydrogen demonstrator, the news that the oil platform fabrication yard has been taken over by Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipbuilding name; all the promises that the next turn of the industrial cog wheel bring. It can know that this post-industrial blight, like this present plague, can pass.
It doesn’t have to go to church to put its faith in angel wings.
Since you’re here…
There’s a tenuous link between this walk round Levenmouth and my forthcoming album of country songs, If God’s Not On The Angels’ Side (Who The Devil Is). The angel wings just seemed a perfect cover image, after a bit of treatment (see below).
The whole album is due to drop, as they say in the biz, on Friday 5th March on Bandcamp, with a single release courtesy of Aldora Britain Records. Meantime, here’s a couple of tracks in advance: the first one, an Isaac Brutal version of ‘Winter That The Snow Fell’ seemed appropriate, given the recent weather in these parts (see pic left, taken near my house).
The other one’s my own version of a Venus Carmichael favourite. It’s the bonus track, which is a way of getting you to buy the whole album – more news on that soon…
Update: final versions of these tracks now available on Bandcamp here – https://andrewfergusonassiasa.bandcamp.com/album/if-gods-not-on-the-angels-side-who-the-devil-is