I took the track west and stopped on the ridge below Carn Fiaclach, ‘the toothed hill’, looking down through pine and birch to Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin, ‘the loch of the middle hill’. It was October and the afternoon sun silvered the water. Small islands were crowned with trees, the leaves of the birch, bright yellow. When the light faded, I went looking for a place to camp and found a clearing on a promontory that curved out into the loch from its southern shore, surrounded by pine, birch, willow, a rowan stripped of its berries. A well-used hearth lay at the centre of the clearing – a circle of stones, brimful with ash.
It was dark by the time I’d pitched my tent and gathered dead branches for the fire. I cooked stew and ate it with oatcakes. A barn owl shrieked not far from the clearing. On the forest floor, mice would be scurrying for cover, their tiny hearts quickened like mine. I’d heard that shriek before – so unlike the affable hoot of a tawny owl; but even still, its witchiness had me peering into the dark between the trees, aware that my fire was a beacon.
Dòmhnaill Donn-shùileach, ‘Brown-eyed Donald’, is camped one evening and striking a flint to light a fire to cook his supper, when the Cailleach appears at his side out of the darkness.
‘Greetings, mistress,’ he says, as calm as he can muster, ‘and from where did you come?’
‘Oh well, I was on top of Beinn a’Chrulaiste when you struck the first spark of your flint, Donald of the brown eyes,’ she replies, casually.
‘You’ll have been running then,’ says Donald, just as casually, knowing full well that Beinn a’Chrulaiste is a full day’s walk to the west.
‘Oh, no,’ says the Cailleach, ‘just strolling along, I was.’
They continue with their banter as Donald builds the fire and sets a pot on it; and even though he’s ravenous hungry, having been hunting all day on the hill, even though his teeth are swimming in his mouth at the thought of the venison bubbling in the pot, Donald is sure to offer the Cailleach the best portion of the meal. They share supper in companionable silence, then the Cailleach thanks Donald and disappears into the dark, leaving him to spend a fitful night, wrapped in his plaid, wondering if she might return and insist she snuggle her bony, croney body next to his.
There are many versions of this tale. In some, the hunter is identified as Dòmhnaill mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn, ‘Donald son of Finlay, of the Lays’, who lived in Lochaber in the 16th century. This Donald was both hunter and bard, composer of Òran na Comhachaig, ‘The Song of the Owl’, a celebration of hunting culture described by folklorist Calum Maclean as ‘one of the greatest ever songs to have been composed in Gaelic’.
As for the Cailleach, she’s the most significant, and fearful, character in Scottish myth. She’s winter’s crone, land-shaping giant, and uniquely in the Highlands, she’s the mistress of the deer.
The moon was up and the barn owl shrieked again, charging the air with its otherness. I sat by the fire, thinking of Donald and his encounter with the Cailleach, impressed by his composure, wishing for a measure of it for myself. When the fire burned down to embers I crawled into my tent. In Gaelic, a common name for owl is Cailleach-oidhche, ‘the Cailleach of the night’.
In the morning the tent’s fly-sheet was patterned with birch and rowan leaves. It was so still I could hear the wing beats of small birds as they flew between the trees. I lit the fire to boil water to make tea and then followed the path to the shore. When the sun cleared the ridge, the loch was intense with light, a bright mirror for the mountains that held it; a wild loch, older than Scotland. I took three quick breaths and walked in. My pale legs turned bronze in the peaty water. There was a man, there wasn’t a man. There was a loch. I plunged under it, the cold shocking and the water a dark, deepening landscape. My arms thrust forwards and down, a few quick strokes and then I was up and gasping and whooping and swimming back towards the shore, my head raw.
It was joyful to stand waist-deep in a loch whose water was whisky-coloured, to splash and wash away the sweat of climbing the Corrieyairack pass, to walk back under the trees to the fire, the loch an unbroken mirror behind me, as though I’d never been in, or never came back out. If anyone had been walking on the forest track above my camp, looking down through the trees they’d have seen a naked man, dancing an awkward jig around the fire, scuffing fallen leaves and flailing a thin travel towel, warming himself at the flames.
Something in me shifted: the man who might have stayed ashore, whose head was busy with the surface of things, gave way to the man who’d swam in the deepening landscape of the loch.
Like the rest of the glen, Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin isn’t really wild. The head of the loch was dammed in the 1950s to feed the hydro station at Fasnakyle. The shore of the promontory is strewn with the washed-up stumps of dead pine, remnants of trees that once grew down to the old shore, before the dam was built. After breakfast I used my folding saw to cut a load of arm-thick roots from the stumps, and carried them up to the clearing for firewood. They burned clean on the fire. Something in me shifted: the man who might have stayed ashore, whose head was busy with the surface of things, gave way to the man who’d swam in the deepening landscape of the loch.
Donald is on the ridge of Beinn a’ Bhric. His plaid is dun-coloured, like the mountain, like the deer he’s stalking. He’s moving on the mountain with the deer as though it’s a dance, or as though his mind is cast on the deer; but it slips. The deer veers off the ridge, leaping down the slope of the corrie like a stream in its course. Donald crawls to the edge and looks down. In the corrie’s bowl he sees that the deer has found its herd, and that a familiar figure stands in their midst. Donald lowers his bow.
The high pastures of the corrie of Beinn a’ Bhric is where the Cailleach leads her deer in summer, to graze the sweet grasses and mountain herbs. In the evenings she milks the hinds, singing to soothe them. But she’s having trouble this evening, the hind she’s milking is restless, despite her attempts at soothing; it kicks the cogan, the milking bowl, out of her hands, spilling the evening’s milk, and then runs off up the slope. Knowing that he’s there, watching on the ridge, the Cailleach shouts after it, ‘I wish Donald’s arrow was in you.’
Donald makes no show of the strength required to bend the great Highland bow. His arrow finds the heart of the hind. The Cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric is pleased to be rid of such a troublesome beast, and she offers Donald a gift in return, asking whether he’d prefer the sense of sight or the sense of smell to be taken from any deer that he hunts.
‘You take the nose and I’ll take the eye,’ Donald replies. Meaning that he can conceal himself from the deer, moving with the features and contours of the land, but he can’t deceive their keen sense of smell.
‘Henceforth,’ says the Cailleach, ‘you can stalk upwind of any deer. But mark this,’ she says, raising her hand, ‘one day you’ll shoot a great stag, and when it’s gralloched, you’ll find a ball of blue worsted yarn in its belly. That will be your last kill, Donald of the brown eyes.’
I don’t know any hunters. I’ve met people who like to shoot guns at birds and other creatures, but that’s not the same thing. In my twenties, working as a gardener, one wealthy, rural client gave me a tour of his gun room. He also showed me his family sword, which was wielded during his wedding ceremony. He wasn’t much older than me, but he held his entitlement like the sword, between us. On autumn days while I pruned roses and dead-headed the dahlias, the woods beyond the garden would be loud with the blast of his shotgun and the squawk of dying pheasants.
My head felt spacious in the evening in the forest of Glen Affric, thinking about my old employer didn’t rattle me. I took my cup of whisky to the shore to see the last of the light. Trout rose for autumn gnats, casting circles on the water. The sky was heavy with cloud. Walking back under the trees, following the path through the heather and blaeberries to the glow of the fire, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a hunter here. Or maybe it was the other me who imagined it, the one who stepped into the loch in the morning and didn’t step out, my bronze, peaty double. Maybe he was walking back down through the silt of the loch to a camp on the old shoreline, that we left such a long time ago.
When the glaciers retreated from Scotland at the end of the last ice age, the Mesolithic era of human habitation began. It lasted until we adopted early farming practices, and entered the Neolithic. For 6000 years at least, our Mesolithic ancestors made home here as hunter-gatherers, living so lightly that the only evidence they were here at all is a couple of shell middens in the Hebrides, some flint shards, a few fragments of tools shaped from bone and antler. It’s hard to guess the population density, but safe to assume it was sparse: a scattering of extended family groups, each with a large territory. In evolutionary terms, they were just like us: physically, intellectually, and emotionally; though the environment in which they lived, and their attitude towards it, was very different.
It was the introduction of sheep in the late 18th century that finally ended a way of life, and a culture, that had been sustained for thousands of years
In the mountainous interior of the Highlands, the shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer happened more slowly, and less comprehensively, than in other parts of these islands. Even as late as the 16th century, and the time of Dòmhnaill mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn, hunting for deer and other game continued to provide a staple part of the local diet. It was the introduction of sheep in the late 18th century that finally ended a way of life, and a culture, that had been sustained for thousands of years. In Donald’s encounter with the Cailleach, it seems we’re forewarned of this: the ball of ‘blue worsted yarn’ as a symbol of the ascendancy of sheep-farming, and of the impact it would have on the people and the landscape of the Highlands.
I spent four days and nights in the forest. On the morning of my last day, blue tits were busy in the trees around me, a treecreeper worked the pine next to the hearth, and a pair of chaffinches beat the bounds of the clearing. It was a blustery morning. The wind shook down wet leaves and the sky and the loch were grey. I wrapped myself in warm clothes and waterproofs and scrambled up through the heather to sit beneath a pine that gripped exposed rock at the highest point of the promontory. Sitting, looking at the loch and the wind ruffling it, at the trees swaying on the islands and the solid ridges of mountains rising into cloud, I felt buoyant, as though I was on the prow of a boat.
The weather shifted through the day. By evening, when I went to the shore to wash dishes, the loch reflected a clear sky, turning from blue to pink as the sun set. I took a long time to wash my pot and spoon. When I returned to camp it was dark and I had to blow hard on the embers to coax the fire to flame. The night settled around the clearing. I added the logs I’d been drying, let the fire flare for a last time, then sat with it till it faded to a core of embers and a curl of smoke.
Donald hunted the mountains of Lochaber for many years, and was renowned for his uncanny skill as a stalker. In old age he lived in a small cottage at the head of Loch Treig below Beinn a’ Bhric, and was looked after by his daughter who lived nearby.
One autumn evening, sitting on the bench in front of his cottage, he sees a great antlered stag come down to the shore to drink from the loch; and though he’s too weak to draw his bow – the great Highland bow that requires the strength of youth – his daughter is there to help. They bend the bow together and their arrow finds the heart of the stag. When his daughter grallochs it, removing its guts, she finds a ball of blue worsted yarn in its belly.
‘The Cailleach’s prophecy,’ says Donald, ‘my last kill.’
He bids his daughter goodnight and she takes the path to her own cottage and family. In the morning she finds him upright on the bench, with his head slumped forward and his white beard like a ruff on his chest. Donald’s daughter wraps his body in the skin of the stag, and with the help of her people, he’s taken up and buried on the side of his beloved mountain, Beinn a’ Bhric, the Cailleach’s mountain. His daughter sheds tears into the stream he’s buried by, a stream that’s still known as Alt Nighean Mhic Domhuill, ‘the stream of the daughter of Donald’.
I rose early after a calm night, unpitched my tent, packed my rucksack, and left the clearing beneath the trees – its hearth, the loch, the spaciousness. A jay flew overhead, bright bundle of colour and noise. Its scraich at the sight of me prompted a response from a buzzard on the other side of the loch. On the track back to Eas a’ Choin I passed a middle-aged couple who were walking their dog. The couple stopped when I approached and were clearly curious to know where I’d come from, so early in the day. I wanted to tell them about witches shrieking in the woods, about Donald the brown-eyed hunter, about the other landscape beneath the loch; but I wasn’t sure my reality and theirs would cohere, so I bid them good morning instead.
There were ripe brambles in the verge on the road to Cannich, and devil’s bit scabious in flower, and the red hips of dog rose. I stuck my thumb out. Three hitches took me 70 miles north and west to Ullapool.
All photos by Dougie Strang
Dougie Strang is this month’s Featured Mountaineer. More posts about his work can be found here.