I became disorientated, clinging to my seat while at the same time floundering out on the moor. The sensation was brief but overwhelming. I’ve never felt so lost. I pulled myself together – that’s how it seemed, as though I had to haul some part of me back onto the train – and spent the rest of the journey unnerved, buried in a book for distraction, grateful that, as night fell, the windows reflected back the lights of the carriage, keeping out the dark.
Rannoch Moor is a big chunk of land in the Central Highlands. It’s no wilderness – its ecology has been drastically affected by the presence of man – but it’s certainly remote and, in these overcrowded islands, it has a rare sense of spaciousness. You can walk for days without crossing a road or bumping into another human; although, of course, it wasn’t always thus. Like everywhere in the Highlands, the moor bears the terrible imprint of the Clearances – that period during the 18th and 19th centuries when so many communities were forcibly uprooted and pushed out to the unproductive margins, the rocky coasts, or else herded onto emigrant ships bound for America and Canada. You don’t need to wander far on the moor to find signs of the people who once lived there: at a bend in a river, an old settlement, the houses roofless but with their walls intact, the lintel stones above the hearths still black from cooking fires.
Since that train journey in my mid-twenties, I’ve returned to Rannoch Moor again and again. I’ve walked across it and climbed the mountains at its edges. I’ve gained a bright store of memories: a glorious swim in the Allt na Caim after a hot day’s walk, the water peatstained and golden in the sun; two days in a tent reading Sorley MacLean while a gale scoured the moor, the tent like a curach, prow to the wind, its skin keeping me dry and buoyant in the pouring rain; an evening on top of Glas Bheinn, watching the sun burn the ridges and peaks of the Aonach Eagach as it fell.
The moor’s a good place to learn to be alone, and often, when out on it, I’ve felt a loosening of self that seems far healthier than that first experience of dislocation on the train. I’ve also begun to learn about the moor itself, its seasons and its plants and birds and beasts. And I’ve delved into its cultural ecology, its stories, spending hours doing detective work online and in the National Library, sifting through books and journals, seeking versions of a particular story or making the connections between place-names and events. Better still, I’ve sought out and learnt from those with a life’s store of passed-down tales. It’s been a joyful learning.
Rannoch Moor is rich in all the different layers of story, from local tales of memorable events and characters, to legends of the Fianna. Tales of Fionn and his men abound on the moor and the glens that surround it, a wild theatre for their exploits, and at the heart of the moor lies the loch of Fionn’s son, Oisien the Bard. These stories animate the land, drawing us to a deeper relationship with it and the people who once lived there. Through them we glimpse the world view of a Celtic culture that flourished in Scotland for fifteen hundred years. But there are deeper layers still, older stories.
Out on the moor you’ll find traces of the peat banks that were worked by generations of families, cutting the peats each summer to dry and then store for winter fuel. This is still practised in Scotland, though mostly now only on the Outer Hebrides. On a fresh cut bank you can see most clearly the different strata: from the turf on top to the first spongy layers of peat and down to the fàd a’ chaorain, or bottom layer. This is where you find the darkest, densest peat. There are stories from Rannoch Moor that equate to the fàd a’ chaorain, that carry the deepest myths of the land: stories of giants and earth shapers; stories of the Cailleach herself, ‘the veiled one’.
It’s said that there are three great ages: the age of the eagle, the age of the yew tree, and the age of the Cailleach. These aren’t spans of time as we moderns perceive them. This is big, deep, ancestor time and the Cailleach is the oldest of all. She’s first mother, mountain maker and loch former. She’s also the goddess of winter and controller of the elements. And in Scotland, uniquely, she’s the mistress and protector of deer. There are countless tales in the Highlands of the Cailleach tending to her herd of hinds, as well as accounts of her shape-shifting into a deer herself. Such stories suggest a link to other northern cultures and their shamanic traditions, like the reindeer-herding Sámi (it’s worth noting that some experts date the extinction of reindeer in Scotland to as late as the 12th century). It’s also been argued that these tales represent surviving fragments of a deer-cult that came north with the hunter gatherers who gradually populated the glens at the end of the last ice-age.
What I find remarkable, what prickles my hair and sets my head spinning, is that here in the UK – one of the epicentres of modernity – there remains what the folklorist Hamish Henderson called a ‘carrying stream’: an oral tradition of song and story that survives even to the present day. And borne on that stream are tales that take us all the way back: folk memories from a pre-Christian and possibly even pre-Celtic people; stories that collapse time, defying the distance between us and the earliest inhabitants of this land.
The Cailleach is closely associated with a particular mountain on Rannoch Moor: Beinn a’ Bhric, ‘the speckled mountain’. It’s to the high corries of Beinn a’ Bhric that she leads her hinds in the summer. By day they graze the sweet mountain grass and in the long evenings she milks them, singing songs to let any hunter nearby know that she’s present (woe betide those who disturb the Cailleach at her milking). Today modernity intrudes even on Beinn a’ Bhric. A wide stalker’s track has been laid half way up the mountain, so that wealthy businessmen can be hauled up to shoot the deer that still frequent the corries. But you can climb away from the track, and if you know where to look you can find, near the summit, the Cailleach’s well. And drinking from it – the same well used by those early hunters who would have quenched their thirst and made their offerings – it feels like no great thing to shrug off a few thousand years, it feels possible to enter into some kind of communion.