A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
‘Under the earth I go,
On the oak leaf I stand,
I ride on the filly that was never foaled,
And I carry the dead in my hand.’
These words are an old invocation native to the Scottish highlands, once chanted by storytellers when they wished to set forth upon an evening of tales. They are a spell to call up words, when words were required to flow. They were written down in the 1950s by the great Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson; so taken was he with their shape and their sound that he made them a part of his own epitaph. A start became an end, the words of the past reborn into the present; a circle made complete.
Henderson called the words a druid’s riddle; connecting them to the old religion that preceded that of Christ on these islands. There is something inarguably pagan in their character, an invocation of an imagination whose wellsprings run very deep indeed. Many stories of many sorts have begun this way, over the years…
The precise meaning of the words, the answer to the riddle, is not certain. There are a number of interpretations that have been made; any or all, or none, may be true. Such is the eternal position with any attempt to understand the Celtic past, a past whose records are fractured, ambiguous, and obscure. Certainties are never certain; they disappear into the mist, form and reform, return and are reinterpreted. To seek to catch them is to seek to pin a ghost in a display case; to attempt to fix something ethereal, otherworldly, here in a world where it does not really belong. In the inevitable absence of certainty, we make guesses, fitting the form of our answers as best we can to the shape of the facts; aware all the time the constructions we form are as free of foundation as a coil of ivy attempting to wrap itself around the ghost of a tree.
Here is just such an answer, that clings very tight to the ghost…
When a raindrop falls from the sky and hits the earth, it vanishes into the soil. When drizzle drifts onto the surface of the leaf, it rests there, whole, and stands as a droplet upon it. When the Irish poets looked at the waves of the sea surging onto the shore, they saw within their foam white shapes reminiscent of the manes, tails and fetlocks of white horses; and to the waves they gave the name ‘horses of Manannan’, after the immortal steeds of the god of the sea. When the Celtic tribes wished to sacrifice something, be it weapon or treasure or king; when they wished to send something to the otherworld, to the place beyond the crossing, to the land of the dead, they committed them into rivers, lakes and bogs.
It goes under the earth. On the oak leaf it stands. It rides on the filly that was never foaled; and it carries the dead in its hand. The answer is the beginning; water. It is the wellspring of this story. Let it flow…
We arrived at the water in the darkness. I had trudged over the fields without a torch to light my way, stepping through boulders and birch-trees with only the faint glimmer of the stars to guide me. I walked until my feet descended from stone into water, slipping through the dark surface of the mirror into the shallows. There, by the shore, we piled up a circle of stones and placed within them logs; soon, firelight gleamed upon the water. Woodsmoke and peat mingled their scents on a cold November breeze, swiftly joined by the aromas of wine and smoked meat. Friday night drinks crawled out of the bar, to run feral by the shores of Loch Awe.
We had arrived by car, for once; cutting up the west-coast road from Glasgow to the Highlands, kindly chauffeured by David Lintern. Loch Awe sits in the heart of Argyll, past Loch Lomond and beyond the brooding mass of Ben Arthur, snuggled beneath the glowering enormity of the mountain called Cruachan. It is a place where the wild lingers yet, atop the mountains and in the old woods that ring the shore, woods that paint the islands among the waters a mix of autumn red and ever-green.
The wilds here are, in legend, the abode of the Cailleach; the winter-queen and the witch of the mountain. This is a witch who was once a goddess, one of the principal deities of the old island of Britain as it was before Christ or Empire came to the north. In this little portion of the isle her legends were neither forgotten nor excised.
The Cailleach is the triple goddess of the Celts; a reflex of the mother goddess once worshipped in every land from Britain to Babylon. Such goddesses were intensely potent, but could also be ambiguous, destructive and cruel. She was, in a sense, the personification of the wild old world; the giver of life and of death, cruelty and kindness both in ever-returning cycles of season, sunrise and sunset, death & reincarnation. The deer, the beasts of the wild woods and moors, were considered the Cailleach’s cattle; tired from herding them one evening, the story goes, she fell asleep atop Cruachan. At the time consciousness departed, she had been occupied in tending a well; as sleep claimed her the waters overflowed and poured down the mountainside, forming first a river and then a loch. Thus did the oldest of goddesses give birth to Loch Awe, calling up water from the otherworld and letting it take shape on the land as she, herself, descended into dreamtime. Such is the story…
We woke by the waters on a cold, still morning, as mist and cloud flowed over the loch. On the opposite shore rose the glowering ruin of Kilchurn Castle, its rugged battlements clawing at the clouds above. Behind it, disappearing into the depths of the grey rose the foothills of Cruachan. The Cailleach is known as the ‘Hooded One’; Ben, the Scots Gaelic word for mountain, is rooted in the old Pictish word for head. Today her cloak of clouds hung low over the mountain, the hood wrapping tight around the head. The mountain was decapitated, the seat of its dreams taken by the waters coiling in the mists above. It’s absence was inviting; a call from an invisible otherworld whirling above.
Today was not a day for mountains, however; this journey was not about climbing. Instead, we set about unpacking the devices that were to transport us out onto the water; things called packrafts.
My friend David Hine has owned one of these devices for years, and, for many years has been attempting to persuade me to have a go on one. This weekend, finally, I had succumbed, lured by the possibilities of a journey upon Loch Awe and the adventure it might entail. I rented one from the good people at BackCountry Biking, stuffed it into my backpack, and off we went.
By the shore of Loch Awe we brought the things to life, unrolling them from out of our packs and filling them with air until three little dinghies sat before us. These little dinghies were, remarkably, perfectly capable of supporting three grown men and all their camping gear on a journey down the third largest body of water in Scotland.
Had the weather been a little different, it would have been a different story. One of the principal considerations involved in using a lightweight boat filled with air is that it is extraordinarily susceptible to the wind; strong gusts will move it over the water as effectively as your own paddle can. The forecast had informed us that we would be faced by a strong breeze from the southwest; for this reason we had planned to head back to the car, and commence our journey further south round the loch. In the event, however, the weather refused to fight us; instead the wind dropped away, and the sky welcomed us into the water at the most perfect of all possible places. We were able to set off from our campsite opposite Kilchurn, coasting around some forested islets to the foot of the ruins of the castle, and then off into the loch, southwest towards the islands that were our ultimate destination.
It’s a nice experience, being out on the water in such a flimsy device. Simply a sheet of thickened plastic separates you from the water; you can feel the currents shifting below you, sense the cold mass of the loch through your body in a way it’s not possible to do in a boat of wood or fibreglass. When the rain comes, it strafes into a water surface that lies mere inches below the level of your eyes. The rebounding leaps of the loch-water rise up around you like an ephemeral forest formed from the interaction of surface and sky, stretching off into the distance across the undulating surface of the loch. It’s a beautiful thing; it feels like the water’s embraced you.
Miles passed. The first isles of the archipelago rose out of the waters before us, rocks and trees rearing their heads into the grey. There is a little cluster of three islands here; a tiny one named Badan Tomain (‘knoll of the thicket’), and two larger. The first of these is Eilean Beith, the ‘Isle of Life’; the second is Eilean Fraoch, the ‘Isle of Heather’.
We paused on both islands, pulling our boats from the water and our wet bodies from the boats. Both isles are covered in old woodland; their fertile black soil has allowed mixed forest to grow immense, and I found myself gazing up at some of the largest Scots pines I have ever seen soaring above me. On Eilean Beith no human constructions are in evidence, though some raised ridges of earth on one of its rocky knolls may yet prove to be evidence of some prehistoric construction now obscured beneath the leaf-litter.
On Eilean Fraoch, the evidence of human presence is far clearer. The remains of a castle rise here, now even more ruinous than Kilchurn to the north. It was an early Celtic habit to make use of the walls of water as a portion of their fortification, siting their defended settlements on islands immune to horse-borne raiders. Where natural islands were not available, they constructed artificial ones, piles of stones turfed with earth now called crannogs. Loch Awe is full of them, their stony shapes now encrusted with birch trees and ivy. Such are too small, however, to hold the larger fortifications of later years; when the clans of the early middle ages constructed a castle to rival that of the Normans to the south, it was Fraoch Eilean they chose to hold it.
We wandered for a while amidst the tumbled walls, now wreathed in herbs and the green of the ivy. Trees sprout from the towers; leaves lie thick on the floor. What was nature’s once has returned to it again, the wild reasserting its grip over the isle. Once Britain was full of ruins such as this; now, most are well-maintained places of trimmed lawns and explanatory placards. While such sites may be more educational, and less prone to the slow destruction enacted by twisting roots, they are nonetheless far less effective a communication of the spirit of desolation that originally inhabited such places, a spirit whose stories are whispered so well by the wind that blows through the trees of Fraoch Eilean Castle.
Who built it originally is unknown; it is a near-certainty that older ruins lie beneath the walls, dating back to the times when legends were formed. It was, for a time, the place of the MacNaughtons; a clan who claim descent from the Pictish kings of Moray in the north. After them, it fell to the Campbells; the great clan of the west, who ruled with an iron fist over Argyll and the neighbouring highlands for much of the middle ages.
People have not been the sole residents of these islands; there is a legend that lives upon them also. In the centre of the Isle of Life, just beside where we first pulled our little boats ashore, there is an odd, circular little inlet of loch water. A story tells that there once grew by this inlet a rowan tree, the berries of which held the property of curing all diseases. So powerful were they, that not even the disease of death itself was immune to their effect. Like all such treasures of great value, in legend, they were guarded; in this particular case by a vast, venomous serpent.
The legend tells that there lived by the loch a warrior named Fraoch; ‘heather’. He loved a young woman, and was loved by her; but was unfortunate in that her mother loved him also. Wracked by jealousy and unable to have him for herself, the mother decided to excise her longing by contriving his death. She declared herself mortally ill, and that nothing could save but for the berries of the tree that grew on the Isle of Life. She asked Fraoch to retrieve them for her; this he did once, successfully, without arousing the beast from its rest. Declaring herself unsatisfied with the bunch he had brought, however, the lady demanded he return a second time to retrieve her a full branch of the berries. This time the hero was not so fortunate; the serpent awoke, and the two fought one with another until both were eventually slain. Fraoch was buried on the island that now bears his name; the monster on the island that it guarded. The treacherous mother survives; Celtic myths often lack the simple moral messages inculcated by other schools of folklore.
During the 18th & 19th centuries, this legend was linked to the Greek myth of the Hesperides; at that time, the western cultural obsession with the ‘Classics’ of Greece and Rome tended to see every legend interpreted through their lens. The notion of a plant bestowing immortality, linked to a serpent is, however, as old as the first text of human literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh; ‘He Who Sees the Deep’. It must be older even than that; the very first hunter-gatherers, discovering that some plants had the capacity to drive away illnesses, must have dreamed of finding such a thing. The Loch Awe tale is the Celtic version of a universal obsession; a healing herb more powerful than all others, whose sap is an elixir of immortality.
There are other links too in the lineaments of the legend. The mother, the villain, is named Maeve; this was the name given to the Queen of Connacht, the great adversary in the Irish legends of Cuchulainn. Maeve is often interpreted as a goddess of the land, a personification of its life; in the old Celtic tradition, kings held their power by marrying such sovereignty goddesses. The symbol of the transaction was that the goddess would fill the king’s cup with intoxicating liquid. From this symbol derives the name ‘Maeve’, sharing a sound and a root with the word ‘mead’; both meaning ‘the intoxicating one’. The survival of the legend of a Maeve of Loch Awe may represent another survival of the pagan goddess-cult within this region, tied to the legends of the Cailleach on Cruachan. The tale of Fraoch gains an aspect of old pagan morality in such an interpretation; to deny the love of the goddess of life is to ensure that death will come to claim you.
Death and life, life and death. The isle of burial and the isle of immortality; the goddess and he who sees the deep. Words we weave around the water…
We returned to our little boats, and slipped back into the water’s embrace. We skimmed now southwards, across the broadest section of the loch. To our east spread out the woods and fields of mid-Argyll; to our west stretched away the steep-sided cleft of the Pass of Brander, penetrating the hills beneath Cruachan and cutting into the land of Lorn. Ahead of us spread out another little archipelago of islands, some tiny, others larger.
The smallest of the isles are the crannogs. There’s a veritable hamlet of them here, their builders taking advantage of a stretch of shallower water to stud the silvery surface with artificial islands. At one time the loch-waters must have been well-trafficked; a barbarian Venice of dug-out canoes and coracles, skating over the misty waters from islet to islet. Now, they are desolate little outcroppings, some too low to the loch’s surface to sustain any but the scrubbiest of vegetation. They resemble burial mounds; gaunt, eroded things stripped of life, barrows for the ghosts of those who once dwelt upon the waters.
The larger isles have far more of life about them. The first is the ‘Green Isle’, Inishail; to it’s south rises the cluster of islands known as the Black Isles.
It was to the Green Isle that the water carried us first. We circled its edges on our little rafts, skimming under the over-hanging branches of trees, and skirting the fringing rocks that lined the shore. The isle was named for its green, treeless pastures; these grasslands had once distinguished it from the Black Isles, which were coloured for the deep, dark foliage of the primordial pinewoods that cover them. In the years since the names were given, however, much has changed. While the Black Isles remain black and primal, the Green Isle is no longer green. The grassy pastures were abandoned about a century ago, as agriculture in the highlands began its slow surrender to the wilderness. In the intervening years birch trees have arisen to claim the once-open spaces, their scraggy fingers clad in silver lichen. They claw at the sky from an earth now brown with fallen leaves; the muted gold & silver of the birchwoods replacing the emerald hues of the isle that was.
From the centre of the island, above the hands of the birches, rises a cluster of tall, green trees; old Scots Pine, as high and as ancient as any I’ve seen.
We paddled around the southern tip of the Green Isle and headed onwards, making for the Black Isles to camp under the shelter of the old, old woods. I felt a trace of regret, for there were some things on the Green Isle I wished to see – but no matter. Just where we pulled our boats ashore a perfect fireplace presented itself. It sat beneath the overhang of a rockface topped by an impossible wall of twisting roots; the outcome of the past toppling of a tree that had refused to die, and had instead shaped its fallen limbs into a labyrinthine coil of wood. A still-life frieze of frozen serpents now roiled upon the rock, framing our fireplace in a setting more suited to the fantasies of Pan’s Labyrinth than to nature.
As we sat by the fire drinking wine, we discussed the possibility of a night paddle. This is a risky pursuit, because the spines of submerged branches and the pointed tips of rocks become invisible to the paddler, and can threaten to puncture the soft hulls of the rafts. It should only be attempted in the safest, stillest of conditions…
It was then that the wind died entirely.
We strung up a torch on a tree branch; a star in the darkness to guide our way back. Then we made our way out, into the night.
The darkness hung thick upon the water. Only the stars leavened the blackness. No moonlight could escape the clouds, no twilight clung to the west. The mirror of the silent waters accepted us into its stillness, and we slid away into the unknown…
It took a long time to reach the Green Isle; far longer than it should. Navigation proved beyond us in the formless night, and we followed a mistaken path around a couple of the ancient, artificial islands called crannogs before eventually stumbling on the shore we sought. We hauled our little boats over the waterline, tied them to trees, and walked into the woods.
I couldn’t see the path. I couldn’t tell you how I found it. All I can tell you is that I walked straight into the darkness and before we knew anything else we were on it. It took us through thickets of fern and stands of twisted beech; onwards, inwards, ever deeper. Then, out of the darkness, shining white in reflective lichen in the beams of our torches, the stones appeared.
The Green Isle has also another name, one older and newer; the Isle of Graves. It is a burial ground of vast antiquity where the bones of the clans have rested for centuries. The stones are as old as the Dark Ages; swirling, eroded Celtic patterns still visible through a covering of leaves and of lichen. Some are refined and beautiful in the detail of their patterning; others are primitive, rough-hewn lumps of barbarity. Between their varied forms rise the trees – the very same tall, ancient trees we had seen rising from the centre when passing the first time around the island. Here, standing in the night by their trunks, they appeared truly immense. Even in the beams of our head-torches, their tops were not visible; the great shafts of wood simply rose further and further into the darkness until eventually they faded from sight. Their bases were broader than the span of my arms; true forest giants, preserved by the holy ground of the graveyard for years whose number only the ghosts know. In the midst of it all sit the ruins of what was once a chapel, fallen stones enswathed in ivy and the tendrils of thorn-bushes; a holy place of Christ now returned into the embrace of the holy grove that preceeded it. In the roots that ring the ruins the circle is made complete; the chapel wears the symbol of the wild’s resurrection, a strange reflection of another now gone – a crown of thorns.
We spent some time exploring the carvings and the ruins and the trees, before departing once again for the Black Isle, and for our campsite.
We had intended to arise the next morning and visit the Green Isle once again, to see in the light what had the previous evening been revealed to us under darkness. The heavens were, however, now less in our favour. The wind that had been promised by the weather-forecasters rose with a vengeance, accompanied by lashing rain. A brief attempt to head east towards the loch’s opposite shore ended in complete failure; the headwind blew as back as swiftly as our paddles could drive us forwards. We decided not to fight, and surrendered to the wind. It took us in its grip and swept us back up the loch, in a reverse of our original route, at a pace almost twice that of our journey the previous day.
Back at the top of the loch, we took some time skirting the fringes of the water, and paddled across to Kilchurn to climb the ragged battlements. We were still done in time, however, to climb early into the dry of the car, and to stop for a long, slow pub lunch in Tyndrum. The Sunday passed swift, where the Saturday had stretched forever; intensity of experience stretches time in a fashion almost magical, and there had certainly been more than a little of that magic about our trip to the isles of Loch Awe. I climbed out of the car back in Glasgow to head trainwards and home with a deep impression left upon me – an impression that was to germinate, in the coming days, into a curiosity. Though we step now away from the water, the story does not end there…
On Tuesday evening I found myself sitting alone in the office in the evening, having stayed on to get some things done. I decided I’d stop for my evening meal in a little Bangladeshi place on the way home, and so had time for a coffee and a play around on the internet before I departed. I began to look into the folklore around the Green Isle – and found something that came as a pleasant surprise.
I looked into the history of the old graves on the island, and of the churchyard in which they stand. I found some old genealogies, and some origin myths; and what I found saw my face break into a broad grin.
I had known, in the vaguest of terms, that there was a link between the great clan Campbell and another clan named MacArthur; I had known that the latter, older tribe claimed descent from the King Arthur of legend. This claim was one partly made up of fable, partly of fact; while it did not necessarily follow that they were blood-descendants of the king himself, it did place them among that small group of clans who claimed descent from the race of the Brythonic Celts. Examination of the early layers of their genealogies bore this out; there lay at its root a list of often unrelated figures drawn from the works of the Brythonic bards; Myrddin/Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Such a genealogy is not a blood-line that can be taken as literally true; the literal truth of it, however, is that it places the forefathers of a Gaelic clan among the heroes of a non-Gaelic people. Such a claim would not be made lightly; and it fits with the origin legends of a number of other families in the region.
What I had not known, however, was the following. I hadn’t known the Campbells laid claim to precisely the same origin, tracing their descent from the heroes and bards of the Old North. I hadn’t known the ruins on Eilean Fraoch were therefore ancient seat of the last great bloodline of the Brython to rule over a section of Scotland. And I had certainly not known that the graves on the Green Isle were those of the ancient MacArthurs.
It appears that, as I stood there that night in a graveyard on an island to which purest fortune had brought me, that I was standing in a vital portion of that lost Old North I have been chasing for months now. Beneath the stones lay the bones of the Brython. The ancient trees that rose above were nourished upon their blood.
I love it when a plan comes together. I love it even more, however, when something wonderful falls out of nowhere to take your breath away. Without the slightest expectation, an entirely new chapter to this story poured out of the mountains beyond Ben Arthur; a wild and beautiful land I will be delighted to invite into the narrative. It’s revealed itself in a quite extraordinary fashion; written in bone and wood, a gift of the wind and the water. The story, it appears, flows on; I’ll keep on following the current, and see where it takes me.
You can read David Lintern’s account of the same journey here.