By Tim Porteus

A WEEK before the lockdown, I went for a walk with an old and close friend who was even then feeling isolated.

We were very conscious of not going anywhere busy, and the need to avoid close proximity for ourselves as well. It was so strange not being able to give each other a hug, as we have always done over the past 25 years of our friendship.

I chose a walk in which I hoped we would meet nobody else, and we walked two metres apart. Despite our plan not to talk about the virus, we inevitably ended up doing just that, although not all the time.

The walk took us to the site of the old Byres Kirk, just beyond Ormiston. As hoped, it was deserted, and so we entered.

The eeriness of current events affected my behaviour. I walked around with my friend, carefully ensuring I touched nothing. The original kirk built here in 1696 is long gone. It replaced an even older kirk, the remains of which are hidden in private woodland next to nearby Ormiston Hall not far from this site.

The first kirk at Byres was eventually demolished and replaced by a neo-gothic building in the 1850s. But after the opening of a new church in Ormiston in the 1930s, Byres Kirk was finally abandoned and eventually demolished in the 1960s.

But the graves remain, including war graves, and there is also a headstone erected by Isabella Burns, sister of the famous poet, to the memory of her children.

It was this headstone I had come to see. Isabella was the youngest sister of Robert Burns and she lived in Ormiston and Tranent for a while. In 1813 she was widowed, with nine children, three girls and six boys. She set up a village school to help make ends meet.

It’s difficult to imagine what her life must have been like, but I think the fact she was part of Robert Burns’ immediate family may have given her a status and a degree of respect most women were denied.

I found the stone and was intrigued by it. Two of Isabella’s children are mentioned; one of them, Edward, died at the age of 31 in China.

“China?” I said out loud to myself, wondering what he was doing there. I saw the date of his death: November 2, 1840.

Then it dawned on me: the Opium Wars! He must have been a soldier. I quickly Googled it on my phone and sure enough he was serving in a regiment there.

I stood for a moment, thinking about the story behind this scant piece of information. The Opium Wars are not usually a prominent part of our history curriculum, although they should be. The British state went to war with China to safeguard the ability of British traders to sell opium to the Chinese, which resulted in 10 million addicts there. It’s a dark part of our imperial history, and the fact that a nephew of Robert Burns ended up dead in China defending state-sponsored drug smuggling by Britain seemed horribly ironic and sad. But it also gave me a sense of the connectedness we all have. The decisions people make, especially those in power, affect the lives of others in ways we will never know or predict.

The memorial headstone also had a later inscription which recorded the death of Isabella herself. She lived until she was 87 and died in 1858. She isn’t buried in this graveyard, however, as she spent the last years of her life in Ayrshire and was laid to rest in Alloway Kirkyard.

Such a web of life and connection, now mostly long forgotten, revealed by this one memorial stone.

As I left, I noticed the trees: oak, sycamore, beech and yew. They seemed to grow out of lost human memory, as if they were now the guardians of forgotten stories.

On our return journey to the car, we passed another memorial stone, this time to the Polish soldiers who had been based in Ormiston Hall in the 1940s during the war. This too is now a time of memory fading, but not forgotten, as the flowers someone left revealed.

We had succeeded in a walk seeing almost nobody, except a passing cyclist at the end. Next time we go on such a walk, spring will have arrived undisturbed by human footprints. Keeping people safe must be the priority.

Although it was an unusually sombre walk, we found time to laugh and see the funny side of things too. We have to live life, make the best of our time, and the times, we have.

And when we can once again regularly venture into nature’s wonders, what an extra special gift it will seem.