A young prince sails out of Norway, across the North Sea and down the west coast of Scotland, to the Isle of Scarba, to court the king’s daughter there. The king of Scarba consents to their union with one condition: ‘Spend a night anchored in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, and in the morning, if she’ll give it, you’ll have my daughter’s hand in marriage.’
A powerful tidal flow surges between Jura and the mainland, with the sea being funnelled up the sound and then squeezed between Jura and Scarba. This strait or gap is known as the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Within it, reefs and deep channels create up-thrusts and eddies of water, as well as a whirlpool reckoned to be the third largest in the world – on a spring tide, you can hear the churn of the sea for miles around.
The prince of Norway, aware of the danger of the gulf, but sore-keen on the king’s daughter, and assured by her that the feelings are mutual, says: ‘Fine, I’ll do that, I’ll spend a night anchored there, but not for a month and a day.’
As quick as the wind can fill his sails, he races back to Norway; and there he gathers as many rope-makers as can be found, ordering them to source the best hemp in the land, and to make from it a rope thick enough to withstand the fiercest tide. He orders a second rope to be made of silk: not as thick as the hemp, yet supple enough to stretch with the highest swell and still not break. Finally, he orders that the hair should be shorn from the heads of all the maidens in that part of Norway – only those who were truly maidens – and from their hair a third rope was to be made that would be as unbreakable as their virtue.
The hemp and the silk are gathered, the hair is shorn from the maidens, and three cables of rope are made. Thus equipped, the young prince sails back to Scotland and down the west coast, arriving at Scarba a month and a day after he departed. If the king is impressed by his punctuality, he makes no show of it.
‘Tomorrow, I’ll marry your daughter,’ declares the prince, ‘for tonight I’ll do as you ask, and moor my boat in the Gulf of Corryvreckan.’
The king comments only: ‘It’s slack tide now; you best get on with it.’
The prince and his men row the boat to the middle of the gulf, and three anchors are cast overboard, one attached to the rope of hemp, one to the rope of silk, and the third to the rope of maidens’ hair.
At Craignish Point, the sun was bursting through clouds and, from a distance, the Corryvreckan seemed benign, with a few patches of white water the only indication of turbulence beneath the surface. Over on Jura, I could see the whitewashed house at Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote his novel, 1984. While living there, he and his son were nearly claimed by the Corryvreckan. A boat they went out in was swamped as they crossed the strait, and they had to be rescued by a passing fishing boat.
Through the night, the sea swirls and bubbles, but the prince of Norway’s boat holds fast; until, at midnight, a great whirlpool pulls so strong that the boat shudders and the hemp rope snaps. ‘Fear not,’ the young prince cries, ‘the rope of silk and the rope of maidens’ hair will hold.’
The Corryvreckan heaves and boils, the tide approaches its peak, and with a jolt, the second rope, the rope of silk, also snaps. ‘Fear not,’ the young prince cries, ‘the rope of maiden’s hair will hold.’
At high tide, just as the dawn begins to colour the horizon, a great surge races down the gulf, creating a maelstrom in the centre, sucking at the boat until, at last, the third rope, the rope of maidens’ hair, snaps. The ship is pulled down into the maelstrom, disappearing beneath the waves.
In the morning, hearing the news that the ship has sunk with all hands lost, including the young prince, the king of Scarba only shrugs and says, laconically, ‘It seems that some of Norway’s maidens are not all they claim to be.’
Folktales and myths can do the big work of providing stories to steer our lives by; they can also do the smaller, no less important work of anchoring us to a place. The tale of ‘The King of Scarba’s Daughter’ was told to me by the owner of the hill farm where I now live and work. She’s in her late eighties, and has lived on the farm for 65 years, though she grew up further down the coast, on land that looked out to Jura and Scarba. She heard the tale when she was a child, and told it to me as though she was remembering details from an event that had happened in her own life.
A few days before moving to Argyll, I visited my mother in her home at the edge of Glasgow; the house she moved to when she married, and where I grew up. Perhaps because I was in a state of transition, or perhaps because my mother is old and unlikely to be there for many more years, I followed the urge to revisit a place that once held me tight; to re-anchor myself there, possibly for the last time.
I followed the urge to revisit a place that once held me tight; to re-anchor myself there, possibly for the last time.
I was out of place: a man walking alone, without a dog, on the path between the golf course and the housing estate. The fairways of the golf course were fertiliser green, and the windows of the houses eyed me with suspicion. It used to be a country mile of fields from our house to the woods – I remember barley as tall as my childhood self, and yellowhammers flitting amongst the stalks – but in the short time of my growing up, the fields were sold and the estate was built.
A sign says ‘Mains Plantation’ at the entrance, but it was always the Deer Woods to us: a 50-acre patch of broadleaf and conifer, where we tracked the prints of roe deer, occasionally catching sight of one as it sprang through the undergrowth; and where, in a clearing near the middle, a beech tree carries the scar of my initials, carved with a pen knife more than forty years ago.
At the far edge of the woods, lies the moor, stretching north towards Loch Lomond and the Trossachs – an unfathomable distance to my child-eyes. Now, I struggled to recognise it.
Quarry work began before I reached my teens, so I knew it would be different, but still it was a shock to see the scale of extraction: great bites taken out of the moor; the raw edges of shattered cliffs; deep pits and tall heaps; giant machines and sheds.
Many of the pits, excavated of all their worth, had been left to flood, creating post-industrial wetlands and pools. It was heartening to hear the squabbling of geese and ducks on the water, the loud skraak of a heron from the margins; and it was oddly dissonant to be glad of these new habitats – places now imprinted in the memory of migratory geese and other waterfowl – and yet to be reeling from the horror of the ravaged moor.
I followed a deer path amongst bracken, west along the edge of the moor, tracing the limit of my childhood range – we were allowed up to the moor, but not onto it. Rounding a slope, a crag appeared and stopped me in my tracks, its profile unmistakable.
Eagle Rock stands oblique against the slope, a sentinel, like a bird version of those Easter Island statues, looking north to the mountains beyond the moor. We’d named it well – even with an adult’s eye, it was obviously an eagle: the blunt, squared beak; the imperious tilt of the head. No-one told us to call it that, and it’s not marked on any maps, but rounding the slope and seeing it there for the first time in decades, the words were shaped in my mouth before I could even think of them.
There we were, myth-makers ourselves, generating a landscape cosmology with Eagle Rock as its genus loci.
I don’t remember the details of the story we told ourselves, as children, about how an eagle had been petrified there, becoming stone; but I do know that, at that age, we were wide-open to the notion of a mythic consciousness. We wouldn’t have articulated it as such, but there we were, myth-makers ourselves, generating a landscape cosmology with Eagle Rock as its genus loci. Had we been held by a culture that honoured such cosmologies, Eagle Rock wouldn’t be tucked away in the memory of a middle-aged man, unrecalled for more than forty years. Instead, it would be celebrated as part of the dreaming of that particular piece of land.
Walking back from Eagle Rock through the Deer Woods, the past was more present than the present, and I felt insubstantial, spectral, like a ghost from the future, haunting the boy who used to play there. Through the trees, out on the golf course, I saw golfers in bright jackets, wielding their putters on a green, playing a game that made no sense to me.
Two stories from different parts of the country, one an ancient tale, the other an episode from my own life; both rooted in specific places, animating them, turning the landscape into something more than scenery. ‘Everything that happens must happen somewhere,’ Keith Basso explains, in Wisdom Sits in Places, his book about the world-view of the Western Apache of Arizona – a world-view where their stories, and therefore their culture, would not exist without being entangled in the landscape. It’s a challenge for those of us who’ve grown up in modern, homogenised cultures to grasp such groundedness; but it’s a useful challenge, one that might help repair our relationship with the world, that might encourage us to restore, and re-story, the places that hold meaning for us.
This is a book about stories – old stories of people and place, and of the more-than-human world.
A vivid account of a journey through the Scottish Highlands, The Bone Cave follows a series of folktales and myths to the places in which they’re set. Travelling mostly on foot, and camping along the way amid some of Scotland’s most beautiful and rugged landscapes, Dougie Strang encounters a depth of meaning to the tales he tracks – one that offers a unique perspective on place, culture, land ownership and ecological stewardship, as well as insights into his own entanglement with place.
Dougie sets out on his walk at the beginning of October, which also marks the start of the red deer rut. The bellowing of stags forms the soundtrack to his journey and is a reminder that, as well as mapping invisible landscapes of story, he is also exploring the tangible, living landscape of the present.
The Bone Cave: A Journey Through Myth and Memory is published by Birlinn Ltd on the 5th October. It’s available to buy here, or via all good book shops.