Cleaning the Cailleach’s Well

is a writer, performer, and storyteller. He sits on the Dark Mountain Steering Group and has co-created and directed many of Dark Mountain’s on site performances, including Liminal (at Uncivilisation Festival) and The Night Breathes Us In (Festival of the Dark, Reading). He lives in South West Scotland by the River Ae.
The wind was fierce on the ridge. At the summit I sheltered in the lee of the cairn, crouching among stones and moss, the tiny green hands of alpine lady’s mantle. I stayed too late on top, thrilled by the views as the sun set behind the peaks and ridges of Lochaber. Below me, the moor seemed to heave and shift in the dark, as though it was unmoored, as though the lochs dotted across it were the only fixed points, glinting the last of the light.  

 I dropped down from the summit onto the western slope of the ridge, searching amongst banks of turf and exposed swathes of peat. Water seeped to the surface in dips and creases but you wouldn’t call them pools. It was late and time to stop, even before I stumbled into the bog. When I pulled out my leg it was cast in wet, black peat, heavy, like a false leg, or someone else’s, so that I had to shake it until it felt like my own. I pitched my tent in the dark on a patch of firm ground, pulled off wet clothes and crept into my sleeping bag. My head torch threw shadows that billowed with the tent in the wind.  

By early morning the wind had eased and cloud huddled around the ridge. I was inside the cloud, the air wet and cold, and there was no summit or sight of other mountains. I cut out a small circle of turf on a level bank and unpacked the bag of dry kindling and the half-dozen split birch logs that I’d carried in my rucksack. My fire was a compact sun, unnaturally bright against the grey of the mist. I boiled water in a pot, willing the flames to lift the cloud and conjure the actual sun. I drank tea, ate oatcakes and a cold, sweet apple, and with the last of the logs burning, I walked around the fire three times and then jumped over it. It was the morning of the 1st of May, Beltane according to the old Celtic calendar – the word’s meaning most likely a compound of ‘bright’ and ‘fire’.                                                 

 A decade ago I began to educate myself about climate change, habitat destruction, ecocide. It hurt my head to think about it but how could you not? I read the books and articles and learnt that the world was unravelling. I didn’t sleep well. Then I read a manifesto by two writers I hadn’t heard of. They were digging down, unearthing the truth that something had broken that wouldn’t be fixed simply by reducing carbon emissions. I got involved with the project the writers started, making performances for its festivals, which led to other collaborations with writers and artists, both within Dark Mountain and without. I’ve tried to make work that responds to the unravelling, that reminds us of our place within, not separate from, the natural world; that humbles us. In doing so, I’ve found that performance can happen anywhere: in a theatre, a festival, on wasteland at the edge of a city on a Saturday night; and that sometimes performance becomes ceremony, and has to do with old-fashioned ideas of gratitude, obligation, propitiation.  

I took down my tent and packed my rucksack, waited until the fire’s embers died and then replaced the circle of turf, tramping it down. The wind shifted, thinning the cloud so that I could look around and gauge my position relative to the map I was holding. I was in the right place, marked Fuaran Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, the ‘Well of the Old Woman of Beinn a’ Bhric’. In Gaelic, fuaran usually means a well in its natural state, an undug pool or spring, so it was possible that the peat bog I’d stumbled into the night before, with its few inches of surface water, was all there was to find. As for the Cailleach, she’s a versatile figure in Scottish folklore: wise-woman, crone of winter; but also land-shaping giant and, especially here in Lochaber, mistress of the deer. 

The side of the mountain steepened below me. I clambered down to where a stream had formed a gully between two crags, and then followed its course back up amongst the folds of the slope, hoping it might lead to what I was looking for. Rags of cloud drifted across the hillside. I startled a mountain hare that was crouched in a dip to the left of the stream, encroaching on the tolerated space between us as though I’d nudged a tripwire. It sprang away into the mist and left my body charged with adrenalin. 

The Cailleach’s well is tucked in a hollow so that it’s hidden from above and below. Even at a short distance, you could walk by without noticing it. It’s a small, oval pool, gravel-lined and clear, like a portal. The stream I’d followed poured from the lip of it. The water tasted like stone. I filled my water bottle and cupped my hands and washed my face.  

Local tradition tells that the Cailleach cleans her well on the morning of the 1st of May. In her absence, I rolled up my sleeves and began to clear silt from the bottom of the pool. After a few minutes of scooping and splashing my arms were numb with cold. When I stopped, the pool returned to stillness. 

It all needs doing: performance, ceremony, acts of creativity and beauty, whether for an audience or alone on the side of a mountain; all of it a vessel for our grief and for our joy. 

Dropping beneath the cloud, I followed the stream back down to the gully. Gleann Iolairean, the Eagles’ Glen’, opened below me. A bird flew past, contouring the crags: a swallow, unexpected in this place and at this height. It tilted its body away from me in alarm, flashing its orange breast and looking back with a tiny, black eye. Small, quick life, heart the size of a tic tac, following an old ellipse from Scotland to Africa and back, carrying the sun from the south on its breast. Now I was blessed. Now it was the first day of summer. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

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