A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Hooptedoodle #300 - Visit to a Local Landmark - North Berwick Law

Unprepossessing lump - North Berwick Law doesn't look so great from the car park
In the area where we live there are a number of strangely shaped bumps - some of them are hills (like kids' drawings of hills, really) and some of them, because they finished up in the sea, have become rather quirky looking islands. They are all the hard, basaltic cores of ancient volcanoes. Let the frost and the wind and the Scottish rain nibble away at the softer outside covering for many millions of years and - bingo - you have these strange, characteristic bumps.

One of the more famous examples around here is North Berwick Law. You can see it from most of the surrounding county, you can see it from the Fife coast, across the Firth of Forth - you can even get a glimpse of it from the North Bridge, above Waverley Station, in Central Edinburgh - 40 miles away. It is, in short, a landmark.

Because it's local, of course, we seldom go there - we leave that sort of stuff to the tourists. It's only about 600 feet high, but since it's a fairly abrupt climb from the harbour, it seems higher. Certainly the view is worth the exertion.

I must have climbed NB Law maybe 8 times in my life. The last time before today was when I took a visitor up there, in January 2012 (I am surprised to learn - how time flies) - I recall that walk well, since I slipped on the mud on the way down, and slid about 30 feet on my a*se, which damaged my dignity far more than it injured my person.

Anyway, today was a beautiful day, and off we went for the afternoon. Splendid - clear view, not too windy. As ever, you wonder why you don't do this more often.

The Contesse took her camera, so you get to see rather better quality pictures than I could have managed. My son was much quicker than us, both up and down, and he told us afterwards that he had finished the downward leg in 7 minutes, while we took 23. Maybe this means we enjoyed our walk about 3 times as much as he did? It's a thought.

Apart from these old volcanic plugs, this is quite a flat plain - looking south-west
from the top - note the characteristic red-brown earth that you get in this coastal area
of East Lothian, which continues down the coast into Berwickshire
Looking west across the town - the island right in the middle of the picture is Fidra,
which is supposed to be where RL Stevenson's childhood trips fired the idea behind
Treasure Island
Ah yes - the jawbones. The ones you see here are a replacement set, supplied quite
recently - a fibreglass replica of the genuine ones which rotted away. I find this interesting;
naturally we could not condone the killing of a modern whale to obtain replacement
jawbones, but what will our descendants make of this strange plastic structure on top of
a hill? Obviously some kind of religious significance. In any case, we are in trouble
 - there must already be those who feel we should not be erecting monuments celebrating the
historic hunting of whales. This really is difficult, isn't it...?
Plaque to explain why there is a fake jawbone on top of the hill.
On the horizon on the left are the Lammermuir hills, on the right are the Pentlands,
over near Edinburgh, and in centre, rather closer to our viewpoint, are the Garleton
Hills, near Haddington
View across the harbour towards the island of Craigleith, with the weekend dinghy boys
giving it their best shot. The villages on the Fife coast, right at the top, are Anstruther and
Pittenweem, though I can never remember which is which...
View to the east is back towards our neck of the woods; the Bass Rock - another famous
volcanic plug - looks a bit unreal here - the colour confirms that the gannets are
arriving for the Summer.


  1. I'm glad to see that Montreal isn't the only area where the land is basically flat plain with sudden near vertical sided volcanic hills (Mounts in local parlance). Its no wonder I wasn't immediately offended by wargame tables which were flat with sudden vertical sided hills.

    Anyway, very enjoyable pictures, thanks for sharing.

    1. Flat, with lumps. Scientific description, there - you can see I've never looked back since that one term of Geomorphology at uni. Mounts is good - I'll try to remember that, to impress people. "Of course," I'll say, breezily, "the Mounts in Quebec are very similar, as I'm sure you're aware..."

    2. Uhoh This is how this sort of fake knowledge is created. Mount Royal, Mount St. Hilaire etc are the names (Mont Royale, Mont Ste Hilaire etc properly these days but I was an 'Anglophone') but they are referred as mountains when the name isn't used. Some who have never seen an actual mountain may even believe it, certainly the view from the top was impressive since the land around is tabletop flat.

    3. Well, you said....

      Good heavens, I can only work with the material I'm given.

      OK - I can just tell people they have lumps like this is Quebec too. Thanks Ross!

      I'll just have a mug of the horse stew - thanks.

  2. Prof De Vries commented that the plaque does not explain why the fake jawbone is there, it merely states that it is there. This, presumably, in case visitors are worried that they imagined it. Hmmm.

  3. Saw the title and was hoping for gratuitous shots of glamorous Scottish lady lawyers a la "LA Law"... n'er mind... :o))

  4. M. Foy,

    Once again I find something completely unexpected when dropping into your blog! My apologies for the self-indulgent essay to follow...

    I was surprised to see these pictures from Berwick. Berwick was a power- house in the whaling trade and so had outsized importance in the colonial period history of the North Atlantic and Arctic. It was the origin of important economic and social forces pulling and pushing Inuit in places like Labrador, who steered their own whale hunting into a way of life combining subsistence and commerce. In some ways this period of time can be seen as the Best of Times for the Labrador Inuit as they were able to live grandly and autonomously through whaling and seal hunting prior to the establishment of more constant and onerous colonial forces. The impact of the latter still defines daily life in these same communities while the whaling days are the stuff of legend.

    I’m curious if your readers know about mandible arch monuments elsewhere in British Isles. Similar monuments were erected by Inuit, Yupik and their ancestors in places they hunted whale across the N. American arctic, especially in Alaska. Monuments with Avebury-style avenues (well, not quite so ambitious) of mandibles are found in Siberia as well. Less dramatic but more frequent were formal entrances to winter houses were often made with a smaller arch of mandibles and maxillae. Whale bone was used to built other parts of the house as well. As you can well imagine, whales were the objects of great fascination among the Inuit, huge and good to eat and to use, and also owners of among the most powerful of animal spirits (and a feminine one). All animals were considered moral creatures and more or less the equal of a human. Killing one so powerful as a whale is a grandiose act that make’s ones reputation and larder for a long time, but also a dangerous act that needs a good bit of magic, prayer and conscious effort to be a good social person to palliate. Generally, hunting was couched in an ideology of reciprocity; the animal gives and the hunter receives the gift of the body, and then the hunter gives and his family and community who ultimately receive the body once it is given once again, and transformed into food and materials. And there community reveres the animal. These monuments are celebrations of animals as well as the hunters to braved risks hard for us to comprend to the course of the hunt. The Inuit whalebone house is a metaphorical commemoration of the whale, one enters by passing through its mouth and one finds warmth, shelter and food in its womb. Sculpins are much less interesting…!

    I’d guess that this story is what inspired the Berwick monument in one way or another, if only through Berwick sailors seeing such monuments in their travels. Bravo for the responsible choice to rebuild it in fibreglass as the Atlantic Right Whale is perched on the very edge of extinction. The toll of the commercial hunt is a real tragedy. Nevertheless, I would hope that people find it in them to tip their hats to the Berwick whalers instead of castigating them. Their exploits are amazing stoires. They were far more innocent of the end results of their activity than are we, who have good reason to understand exactly the cost of what we are doing and persist nonetheless. The Berwick men would not have thought of whales with the same ethical sense as the Inuit, but they did live better by the hunt and knew where they gained their wealth. They made a prosperous city and kept their families out of the mines and mills!


    1. Jim - many thanks for the instructive and fascinating note.

      I'm a bit embarrassed to have to mention that North Berwick, the site of my post, is some 40 miles from the much more famous Berwick-on-Tweed - the entire county of Berwickshire (confusingly) lies in between, though neither town is actually in that county, and they are actually in different countries. No problem. The English town, as you say, was a centre of whaling, but North Berwick doesn't have any such tradition as far as I know. Until Victorian times NB was a tiny place, with a little fishing harbour - there was a ferry service over the Forth to Crail, back in the days when pilgrims used to trek up the East Coast - NB was on the leg between Lindisfarne and St Andrews. The coming of the railways turned the place into a dormitory town for Edinburgh, and it became a rather genteel holiday resort.

      I understand the NB jawbones have been on top of the Law since 1709, and were regarded as a symbol to welcome homecoming sailors - the more serious local fishing towns of Dunbar, Port Seton, Musselburgh and Leith did have whaling boats, I believe. The most recent genuine (non-plastic) NB jawbones stood from 1935 until they fell down a few years ago.

      We do get whales around here - they get washed up on the beaches sometimes.

      The first whale jawbone arch I saw was at The Meadows in Edinburgh - very near my university. That has now been restored as well, I believe - the original stood there from 1886, when it was featured on the stand of the Zetland and Fair Isles Knitting Association, at the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art (thank you, Wiki). That's the only other one I've seen.

      I find it very tricky when people/society/ whoever judge history by current behavioural and ethical standards. There are all sorts of subcategories of this - in particular, for centuries sailors have risked their lives in the support of whaling, slavery, the torpedoing of merchant ships and so on and so on. If we do not always admire what they were trying to achieve, we must have some regard for their spirit.

      Anyway, we now have a plastic jawbone, as far as i know we have no real local tradition of whaling (though we must have killed an awful lot of fish and sheep, of course). Vicarious association with the unmentionable seems to be a necessary consequence of having been around for a while.

      The only people who are always right, and never forgive, are the PC brigade. It is wearying but true.

    2. Apparently there is another one on top of Dundee Law, so i guess they were pretty common, at that.

      Check out


    3. Well now, the wrong Berwick!? How very embarrassing. Oh well, if I hadn't written it, I'd never have learned that these curious things exist elsewhere. There must be something about these bones that makes people think that they should be set up standing in the air. I'll refrain from elaborating on Dundee's importance in whaling until I check on Google whether there is a second Dundee in the mountains known only for its sheep...

      Your post set the mind to work nonetheless. Thanks!


    4. Not embarrassing at all - a fine note, and I learned a lot. In fact you've got me reading further into the subject online! The world and the traditions of the Inuits is fascinating - I really don't know much about it, but am intrigued.

      Thanks again. Blogs do work nicely - sometimes the accidental hits are better than the official ones!

    5. If I may suggest a couple of web links:





  5. Superb views! That must really make your heart sing, as well as pound walking up the hill/mount/lump.

    The sea looks very inviting (probably a 'bit' parky though).

    1. Hi Chris - I can promise that the sea will be what the locals would describe as "bloody baltic".

      Yes - the scenery is remarkable, especially for its ability to make one feel better. It disappoints me that I don't spend more time making an effort to seek it out and enjoy it - I did when i first moved from the city. Mind you, I wasn't so tired in those days.

      Note to self - must work at it. You know it makes sense.

  6. I got a further email from the Professor, asking for my details of my mud-sliding adventure in 2012. He says it sounds amusing enough to be worth a re-visit. No - I have no YouTube footage, I am delighted to say.

    I guess I was lucky - I could very easily have bounced off a few pointy rocks on the way down, but all OK. The really uncomfortable bit was that I collected about a hundredweight of mud and turf up the back of my walking jacket - not comfortable, and not a great look. I had to unload it all, and I had to put a plastic bag on the seat before I drove us home, all the time making polite, relaxed conversation with the visitor about the state of the Stock Market, and whether Barolo is worth the extra cost in comparison with Tesco's cheapo Montepulciano (or some such crap) - could hardly hear myself above the crackling of the plastic bag...