I stumbled upon the lone sheiling of Coire Beath on my very first day. Not only was I not looking for sheilings; I did not even realise what the place was, until I had asked about it later in the hotel bar.
The day was pleasant enough, although at the start it had felt rather cool for August. I had decided simply to wander around with my ordnance map and get a general idea where the hill paths went to, and which of them might afford me a few days’ interesting walking. Upon the mountain summits themselves I had no designs. I am not that sort of walker.
On leaving the hotel in the morning, I back-tracked about a mile by the main road, then turned eastward along the dirt road up Glen Ardair. This road served only two farmsteads, which I soon passed. Beyond them the track continued as a good footpath, and I learned from a man at the second farm that it was used frequently by anglers heading for two well-stocked hill lochs, and also by climbers seeking the heights of Ben Druie.
As the day was showing signs of improvement, I decided to walk on up the glen. For perhaps two miles I walked, with the heat of the sun increasing and the river singing pleasantly on my left-hand side. Then the ground between the path and the river widened out and flattened to a level area, partly alluvial, and I saw the clachan. I saw the remains, I should say, of the erstwhile clachan of Glen Ardair.
I knew just enough about Scotland to recognise the place for what it was, although it was not marked on my map. It was one of those deserted highland townships, once long ago viable as an economic unit, but abandoned in the early nineteenth century, when the people were driven out by money-seeking landlords to make way for the transiently profitable sheep. The place was profitable for nothing now. One could still see quite clearly where the land had been cultivated and where small patches of it had been enclosed for folds or gardens. The bracken was rank everywhere, swathing the silent grey stones that had once been the walls of snug houses. The sun beat down hard on my head and shoulders. A shrunken, peat-brown stream tinkled its way toward the river. The grey stones shimmered in heat-haze. On a dry bare patch an adder lay sunning itself, paying no heed to me. I let it be.
Sad, it seemed to me, that a place where families had lived and loved and worked their lives out should now be a mere heap of stones and bracken, not even rating a mention on the map. And yet, I thought, times change, all things pass. What appeals to us now as a forgotten idyll may have been, to them, a harsh sore struggle for existence.
Leaving the adder to its basking, I walked on. Very soon the path divided, the main branch veering away to the left, where there was a crossing of the river at its narrows by a shaky-looking bridge. This was the fisherman’s route to the lochs, which I would explore another day. Ahead, a narrower but still well-marked path climbed along the steepening flank of the glen.
On my later visits, I came to realise that the pathway was neither as narrow nor as precipitous as it seemed at first. It would, in fact, have been easily passable for the nimble hill cattle. For myself, I was chiefly aware of the massive hulk of Ben Druie looming above on my right, and of the slope on my left sweeping away down to the rocky channel of the foaming river.
After a mile or so of this I came upon a small cairn of stones, which marked another forking of the path. A side branch took off on the right, climbing in worn zig-zags up a bulky shoulder of Ben Druie. This clearly was the mountaineers’ way to the heights. The direct path, fainter now, bore also to the right, away from the river, but it contoured around the hill’s flank with only a gradual gain of height. I could not resist the temptation to go on and find out where it led.
It took little more than another mile’s walking for me to find myself in a great corrie of the hill, which my map told me was called Coire Beath. The path, vestigial now, curved gently below the shoulder of the mountain; only by looking back did I appreciate that it had changed direction by nearly ninety degrees, so that I was now facing south, roughly. From this angle, the entrance to the corrie seemed shallow. It was when one became aware of the looming shadow, the sudden coolness of the air, that one realised the immensity of this deep bite, gnawed out of the mountainside by an ancient glacier. Sheer walls of black, dripping rock encircled its closed sides, while beneath them lurked a small still lochan that was dark, even now, at midday.
There was less to explore than I had thought. A few stunted birch trees clung near the lip. I was struck by the improbable flatness of much of the corrie floor. Its grass was rough, but surprisingly lush and green – the effect, I decided, of several small streams which meandered across it. The main drainage, of course, flowed from the black lochan, which was itself the principal feature of the place. Its surface was unruffled by any breeze or rising fish. I did not think it could ever catch much sunlight, except perhaps in midsummer evenings. I also thought that it must be fairly deep. Certainly, when I dipped my hands in, the water felt very cold.
I shivered. After sitting in the sunshine I was finding it chilly under the shadow of the crags. Moreover, there seemed to be some unseen power about this place, a kind of earth-magnetism such as I had never encountered before. I made a move to go. It would not let me go – until I had found – what? For a few minutes I stood gazing out to the sunlit slopes across the glen. I could make out the faint line of my path leading out of the corrie, as it had led me in. I was ready to go back to the hotel, yet I could not go, unless I could find the mystery, whatever it was, that lay in Coire Beath. I began to make a clumsy circuit of the lochan, scrambling over the many sharp-angled boulders which, I thought, must have split off and fallen from the ragged cliffs.
I had almost completed the round when I stumbled upon the ruins. Here, now, was something altogether different from the clachan in the glen. The stones, half-buried in tussocky grass and heather, were scattered all anyhow, hardly recognisable to a passing glance as belonging to a structure at all. Yet faintly, the walling could be traced, and the earth-power beat all around me, as palpable as the heat-haze on the open hillside. I felt slightly giddy, and began to think I must have been affected by walking too long in the hot sunshine. But sunstroke could hardly explain my present sense of oppression, of unease, of – evil? Yes, I thought so; I could acknowledge its presence, without knowing whence it came or why. There was a great silence: if water trickled over stones, if buzzards mewed from the high crags, I did not hear them.
At once held and repelled, in this strange state of tension, I must have lost track of time. Quite suddenly, I became aware that the air struck much colder, that the sunlight had taken on the orange haze of evening, and that the corrie was wholly in shadow. Shivering in my light clothes, I gathered up my belongings and made my way back to the path. I would have to hurry if I wanted to reach the tarred road before nightfall.
Once out of Coire Beath, I walked again, briefly, in brightness, before the sun dropped behind the hill across the glen, and the light-headed feeling left me at once. Relieved, I made good progress down the path.
Although the glen was now all in shadow, a limpid light was still aglow in the sky when I came again within sight of the green flat and the clachan. Certainly it was light enough as yet to see the figure emerge from among the ruined houses and start along the path toward me. As it drew nearer, I made out that it was a woman; a youngish woman, apparently, wearing a long dress of some coarse, dark-brown material, which she had kilted up for freedom of movement. A sort of scarf or hood was wrapped around her head and fastened under her chin. Her feet and legs were bare, splashed and stained brown to the knees with the peat of the bogs.
When we met on the path, I gave her Good-evening, as pleasantly as I knew how. She smiled in a shy, anxious fashion and replied in Gaelic, which I do not understand. I returned the smile, shaking my head in apology. She was quite a nice-looking girl, if not very clean. Gazing into my face with something like entreaty, she spoke again in rapid Gaelic, gesturing beyond me to where the line of the path still glimmered pale in the dusk. She seemed to be asking me an urgent question, several times repeating what seemed to be a name, Dowell or Donal.
“I’m sorry,” I said, shrugging and spreading my hands. “I don’t understand. Can you speak English?”
The girl stared at me without comprehension, again muttering something about Donal, and then her gaze slid away beyond my shoulder to the dark gulf of the glen.
It was obvious that I could not help her. I smiled again and stood aside to let her pass.
Walking the last miles under the last of the light, I pondered this curious little episode. From the oddness of the woman’s dress, and the lack of shoes, I concluded that she might be a tinker. Perhaps there were tinkers camping somewhere in the glen, although I had seen no sign of tents or vans on my way up. Perhaps they were just lodging among the ruins of the old clachan. Undoubtedly the woman was looking for someone – someone called Donald? Some child, maybe, who had wandered off and would have to be rounded up for the night?
I had made up my mind to ‘pump the locals’ in the hotel bar. In the event, there seemed not to be very many of them about on that fine summer’s evening. Apart from the barman, who appeared only when you rang for him and disappeared again after serving you, there were two men who stood, as I did, at the bar, and a crowd of pink-cheeked, bright-eyed, raucous youngsters around a table in one corner. Of the men at the bar, one was an ancient, grey-stubbled character in well-worn tweeds and cap, who might have been an old shepherd or a stalker. The other was middle-aged and also wore tweeds, whose cut, lovat-grey colour and general condition suggested the professional man rather than the outdoor worker, as did the steel-rimmed spectacles which sat astride his long thin nose. I discovered later that he was the local doctor.
I gave the shabby patriarch a nod and offered some trivial comment upon the weather. The man registered my accent immediately, as I had known he would; it caught his interest. Cannily he probed,
“It’s on holidays you’ll be, is it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Well, yes and no. Business and pleasure both. I’m on a long leave from my company. Been doing a conference circuit – London, Scarborough, St. Andrews – now I’m having three weeks’ vacation in Scotland. I’m taking in the Edinburgh Festival, then I go home. That’s Toronto,” I added, to put him out of his misery.
“Oh, yes, Toronto.” The patriarch chuckled. “Have you come to look for your ancestors, maybe?”
“Ancestors!” I laughed. “Good gracious, no. Don’t see any point in that. I’ve come to enjoy myself looking at the scenery and walking among your hills. I just fancied the look of this place, so I stopped off for a few days. No ulterior motives at all.” I told him that I had already been out walking, and had been up Glen Ardair. “Then I went on up to that great corrie, Coire Beath I think it’s called.” I pronounced the name “beeth”, not knowing any better. Since this obviously meant nothing to the patriarch, I got my map out to show him the place I meant. It then transpired that he could not manage to read the map without his glasses, which unfortunately he had left at home, not having expected to need them that night. He summoned Dr. Macdonald to assist.
“Ah, Coire Beath,” said the doctor, peering at the map. He rendered it something like “beh” or “bay”.
“Ech yes, Coire Beath,” echoed the old man. “The Cauldron of Life, that’s what that means.” The doctor cut him off short.
“Oh, come on, Eachainn, you know better than that.” He turned to include me in his remarks. “Local philology is no more to be trusted, sir, than local spelling. It is simply a mistake by the ordnance map-makers. Coire nam Beith is what it should be, the Corrie of the Birch Trees. ‘Coire’ might perhaps be equivalent to a kettle or a cauldron or a pot, but Coire Beath is mangled language, Eachainn, and you should know it.”
“Well, maybe, maybe,” Eachainn mumbled grudgingly, staring straight at nothing. “But you know too that the ‘place of life’ is what it has always been called. That is the tradition.”
Being ignorant both of Gaelic philology and of local traditions, I was unable to follow the nuances of their argument. I said,
“Yes, there are some birch trees there, rather scraggly little ones. But it didn’t seem a very lively place to me. Rather a spooky kind of place, actually. What are those ruins, up beside the loch?”
“Oh, so you found the sheiling, did you? You have a keen eye.” It was the doctor who spoke. He went on to explain how in former days, the cattle from the villages were taken to different grazings during the summer season, often at higher levels, so that they would not eat or trample the growing crops, for there were no fences to keep them off. The ruins in Coire Beath had been a sheiling belonging to the clachan of Glen Ardair, where the herd boys and girls slept and the milk products were stored until they could be taken down to the clachan. “But you are right in one thing,” the doctor added. “That corrie is a very strange place. I should not go there again, if I were you.”
So saying, he gave me a hard straight look. I could not help noticing that his general build and physical appearance were not unlike my own, although he must be at least fifteen years older than I. He was medium tall, and fairly slim for his years without being skinny; he had straight dark hair that was not quite black – slightly silvered, in his case; a dusky complexion that was neither swarthy nor sallow; and dark hooded eyes that were not quite black either, but had a glint of green in them. Thinking that he too must have noticed the resemblance, and feeling vaguely uncomfortable about it, I tried to change the subject.
“I wouldn’t have thought,” I said, “that there were still people in Scotland who couldn’t speak any English. I met a woman this evening who spoke only Gaelic.” This remark of mine caused both pairs of eyebrows to be raised in polite disbelief.
“Och, no, no,” the old man, Eachainn, chuckled at last. “Everybody has the English nowadays. But there might be one or two around hereabouts who would be pulling your leg maybe, with you being from the other side of the Atlantic, you see.”
“No, I really don’t think so. The woman seemed quite genuine to me.” Was I imagining things, or had I caught a flicker of a meaning glance pass between the two men? I told them, all the same, about the young woman on the path, her uncouth dress, our mutual non-comprehension, and about her earnest questioning after something or someone possibly called Donald. “I thought,” I went on, “that perhaps she was a tinker-woman. Do the tinkers camp in that glen? I confess I didn’t notice any tents.”
This time there was no mistaking the look that flashed between Eachainn and the doctor. Was it conspiracy? Warning? Or perhaps something more? The old man just turned away and stared at nothing. After an awkward pause, the doctor cleared his throat and said,
“Yes, a tinker-wife. I expect that is who it would be.”
Not a word more could I get from either of them that night. I came to the conclusion that the woman was perhaps mentally defective, or deranged: a shameful relative or neighbour who was not spoken of.
The following day, Wednesday, I took a different walk; but whatever its scenic delights may have been, they were quite wasted on me, for my mind was constantly jumping back to Coire Beath. Some mystery lurked there which I felt I must, and could, solve. I dearly loved such a challenge.
On Thursday, after visiting the fishing-lochs, I re-crossed the river Ardair and made my way again to the lonely corrie. And again the silence, the overbearing shadow from the cliffs, the motionless water of the lochan, cast their strange spell. Stepping within that charmed hollow of the mountains, I knew myself gripped and held more strongly than before, by a force that was compelling and not at all pleasant. The closer I came to the lochan, the more unpleasant did this sensation become. I could feel it around me like a miasma. And I made no doubt about it: it was evil.
Not knowing why I did so, I began to clear away some of the tumbled stone and tussocks from the ruins of the sheiling. Hours must have passed while I worked there, until at last I could clearly trace the foundations of several little huts. One, rather larger than the rest, had a small oval section hardly bigger than a lambing-pen walled off at one end. Even as I uncovered it I was hit by a wave of nausea. This, surely; this little closed-off chamber of a shieling-hut was the centre of it, the focus from which all the evil came. I could feel it pulsing from the very ground, beating upon my brow and into my brain, until I became so dizzy that I could not dig any more, and had to sit down.
It was then, while my swimming head slowly cleared, that I heard the singing. Such singing it was as may be imagined but seldom achieved, weird and wild and lonely; not loud, but caught and held captive within the rocky walls of Coire Beath, its circling echoes blended and re-blended there in a cold resonance. So intent had I been on my work that I had neither seen nor heard the woman approach. Still wearing her long brown dress, and taking no notice of me, she sat on a flat rock at the far side of the lochan and sang alone to the echoes.
What might be the nature of the song, I do not know, but only that it was a lament of some sort. I fancied I could pick up the name “Donald” among the unknown words. Yet by its force, the song seemed a lament for some great loss beyond ordinary comprehension; there was more to it, much more, than could have been called forth by such a commonplace occurrence as the death of a kinsman or a lover. That much I could grasp, without any understanding of the words. Undoubtedly the woman was a little mad. Only madness, I thought, or genius, could sustain such intensity of feeling for so long.
Just as I had been unaware of the song’s beginning, so I began to despair of its ever reaching an end. Strangely, it never entered my head that I might be eavesdropping on a private grief. Instead, I was myself drawn into the song until my very being became one with its melodic thread, and my soul soared and circled with the echoes, to fall spent at last on the limpid surface of the lochan when the singing stopped.
Suddenly the sun had gone. The lochan was in deep shadow, the outer air was filled with scented twilight, and the spell was broken. I woke up to the fact that I was again at risk of being benighted here, with a mad woman for company. Hastily I picked up my bag and made for the path. The girl in the brown dress stared dully. I was sure that she saw me, but she gave no sign of it. Was she, I wondered, still locked within the hidden world of her own song?
I chanced to run into Dr. Macdonald on my way out the following morning. As we passed the time of day, I mentioned casually that I had not yet found out where the tinkers were camping, although I had met that young woman again.
“She’s mad, isn’t she?” I asked. The doctor stared at me blankly for a moment.
“The – ah? Oh, eh, the tinker-wife? Yes, yes. Quite mad, yes. So you’ve been up to Coire Beath again, have you?
I admitted that I had.
“It’s a very queer place, that,” I said. “Evil, somehow. I was poking about the ruins of that old sheiling, and it just about jumped up and hit me. I felt quite ill for a minute. I never knew a place get to me like that before.”
Dr. Macdonald was regarding me keenly with those not-quite-black eyes. Except for his greying hair and the glasses, I might have been looking at myself in a mirror. He said heavily,
“No place on this earth is evil of itself, or good either. It is we who make them so. Where great good or great evil has been done, it will linger in the soil forever, and there are always a few like yourself who can feel it. Evil has indeed been done in Coire Beath. My advice to you is to leave it alone. Don’t go turning over any more stones. Please believe that I have nothing against you personally, but I would strongly advise you to go away home to Toronto and attend to the work that you understand.”
In such a position, what would any normal man have done? I bristled. If Dr. Macdonald could not or would not elucidate the mystery for me, could he reasonably expect me not to seek out the answer for myself? I failed to see how the evil of the past could do me harm in the present, even supposing I were a little psychic, as the doctor seemed to imply. Besides, there was another consideration, which I had not confessed to him.
Since hearing the girl’s song in the corrie, I had felt a personal involvement with her that would have been difficult to explain. It was rather like a morning dream, in which you seem poised on the brink of some vitally important discovery or achievement: you always snap awake before you have managed to grasp it. I felt sure that if only I could trick her or persuade her into speaking English, she could tell me something that I needed in order to close that elusive link between dream and reality. It seems strange that I could find such an unfortunate creature attractive, but so in a way I did. I discounted the good doctor’s advice, and went again to Coire Beath.
I cheated, as a matter of fact, although I pretended to myself it was a compromise. Instead of following the contour path, I clambered up the shoulder of Ben Druie until I reached a point from which I could look down into the bowl of the corrie. But for the cloud, I would have had quite a bird’s-eye view. As it was, I caught only patchy glimpses of the dark lochan, the scattered boulders, and the green floor with its streamlets. The weather had changed, so that the whole corrie was filled with a roil of shifting cloud, like a great seething cauldron, although the ridge upon which I stood was quite clear.
I had noticed, on my last visit, a scree-filled gully which did not seem too steep and which, I thought, might offer a feasible route down to the corrie, should I decide to go there after all. Now, from the top, it was proving harder to find than I had expected.
It was while I was casting back and forward, searching, that I realised the girl had got there before me. I realised, too, that she was very beautiful. She was seated on a projecting lip of rock about a hundred feet above the lochan, with her scarf thrown back and her long black hair flowing loose behind her shoulders. Her face was calm and lovely and unspeakably sad. I felt, then, that this surely was the woman I had known and loved since the beginning of time; the woman I would know and love again in all time hereafter. It no longer mattered if she were mad, or a tinker. If only I could get down there beside her, could show myself to her, perhaps even make love to her, she would awaken out of her fey dreaming, would know me and love me also, and so be healed of her sorrows. Such is the arrogance of man.
I found the top of the gully and began to work my way down, taking care the while not to dislodge any stones, for fear of startling the woman. She had stood up, still bare-headed and bare-footed, on the rock, and was turning her head here and there, gazing searchingly around the rim of the corrie. It seemed that she failed to see what she sought, for she turned then to look down toward the ruined sheiling, shading her eyes with one hand. Watching where I was putting my own feet, I lost sight of her for a few moments. When I was able to look again, I saw that she had stepped back a pace. Even as I watched, she raised both arms toward the sky and gave a long keening cry that made my spine prickle.
I was just too slow to understand what she meant to do. By the time I had seen it, it was too late. My shout of warning was flung uselessly among the black crags, booming back into my own ears mingled with the echoes of the girl’s crazy shriek. I saw only a wheeling blur of brown dress and streaming black hair, and a monstrous splash. Even before the echoes had died away, the water of the lochan was still again.
In the moment of shock, this was the fact which registered: the cold stillness of the water within seconds of that mighty splash. Then I recovered myself and was scrambling down with a reckless haste, slipping, stumbling, no longer heeding what loose stones I sent tumbling, hardly caring if I went plunging headlong myself. Breathless and dishevelled, I reached the water’s edge. There was nothing. Not a ruffle on the surface of that hideous black pool. Nor was there any sign of the woman’s body. She had vanished as completely as though the lochan were a bottomless funnel.
I must have been a little mad myself at this stage. With one part of my mind I knew that the woman must be dead, that neither I nor anyone else could do anything to help her; yet despite my panic, the instinct to seek help asserted itself, and I began to run. I ran, with bursting lungs and pounding heart, out of the corrie and down the path and all the way to the main road. I lost count of the number of times I fell. My feet were on fire, my legs were bruised all over and my clothes were torn. I thought my chest was going to explode. By the time I had reached the Police Station I was on the verge of collapse.
I spluttered out the story as best I could. The sergeant and the constable looked at first sceptical, then alarmed, finally pitying.
“But you’ll have to go up there,” I persisted in stupefied repetition. “She fell – or jumped, I don’t know – the tinker woman – into the loch, from a rock – there was nothing I could do, nothing – somebody has to go up there – find the body – “
“That’s all right, sir,” the sergeant said gently, taking me by the arm. “We understand, we’ll attend to it. You just come along to the hotel now. A little rest, that’s what you need, and get yourself cleaned up a bit.”
“But – but – ˮ I stuttered. “The woman – she – who is she – was she – why did no-one –”
“Just you let me see you along to the hotel, sir,” said the sergeant, politely but very firmly.
In the end it needed both the policemen to support me, or escort me, to the hotel. Dr. Macdonald met us at the door.
“Thanks boys,” he addressed the sergeant. “I hadn’t realised it had gone so far. I can cope now.”
I remember being taken to my room, and the jab of the hypodermic needle, and then no more.
When I woke it was daylight. Morning, I supposed. Someone was sitting dozing in a chair near the foot of my bed. I gathered my wits a little, and recognised him as Dr. Macdonald. He stirred when he saw I was awake, and asked how I felt. I gave my head an experimental shake or two.
“Okay, I guess. Yes, I’m all right. But – I still don’t understand. I don’t seem to understand anything much. What is it – what is the craziness about that place? I never knew anything like it before.”
The doctor drew a long hard breath, dilating his nostrils as he did so, then let it out through his mouth like a little sigh.
“Yes,” he said at last. “Yes, it has already gone too far. You will need to know more now. I will tell you what I can, although there must be much of it that has been forgotten.
“You have stumbled into a story which may seem to you like ancient history. But here in the Highlands, two hundred, or two hundred and fifty years, is no time at all. After all, it is only about four generations for the most of us since Clearance times, and two or three more would take us back to the Forty-Five, which is a convenient enough time to begin. At that time, there were more than a hundred people living in Glen Ardair, mostly in independent crofts. One of the better-off crofters was a man named Domhnall – or Donald, to anglicise it.
“You must understand, of course, that in those days surnames were not used in the Highlands as we use them now. You would distinguish a person by a patronymic or a whole string of them, by the place he lived or by a by-name – that is what you would call a nick-name. That would usually be based on his physical appearance, or it might be something to do with his trade, or it might even be inherited from an ancestor. I’ve no doubt it sounds complicated to you, but it served, and it was especially useful in families where several children were all given the same baptismal name – oh yes, that was quite common, too.
“Well, you see, this Donald was a crofter in Glen Ardair. Only two of his children had survived to maturity, young Donald and his sister Sionag. They would both be in their late teens, I suppose, when the word came in that Prince Charles Stuart was coming to Scotland and would raise an army.
“Now when the chief sent out for his levies that summer, there was trouble at the croft. One must go, either the father or the son, and one must stay to attend to the work on the croft. Neither of them really wanted to go, but for loyalty to the chief. Moreover, Donald’s wife had the second sight. That was a very common thing in those days – indeed it still is, much commoner than you would think, only people don’t talk about it so much. Well, it was strong in Donald’s wife, and she foreknew that the plan was doomed and that the one who went with the Prince would not come back again. Young Donald too had enough of the sight to see his own death, if he should go; as for his father, he could not tell. In the end, the father made the decision for himself, that he would go, although he was then nearly fifty years of age and beyond his prime as a fighter.
“So young Donald and Sionag were left to help their mother with the work at home. You can imagine that that would not be a very happy time for them. With so many of the other young men being away, young Donald fretted, and began to think himself a coward for having stayed at home. Indeed, there would not be much frolicking and fun that summer for the young people up at the sheilings, where they usually did much of their courting, so to speak. Then as the autumn wore away into winter and the days turned short and dark, young Donald fell more and more to reproaching himself with guilt for having shirked the man’s part, as he saw it, and allowed his father to put him to shame. The mother, meanwhile, went into a gloom; she would sit for hours alone and hardly say a word to anybody, so the burden of the work fell on Sionag. The Prince’s army was still marching southward, but of Donald the father there was no word. Some say that he was caught and hanged at Edinburgh; some say he was transported to the colonies, some say he was killed. No-one really knows, only that he never came back to Glen Ardair.
“With the turn of the year came the news that the Jacobite army was retreating again. By the middle of January they were at Stirling, and a call went out for more men, to try to hold the Whigs and Sassunach there, as the Scots had done so often before. Young Donald fretted and chewed his nails and didn’t know what to do at all. His mother’s health was failing by the day. He wanted to be in the adventure, being young enough still to see visions of glory even in a lost cause, yet he didn’t want to leave Sionag with the whole of the croft to manage, and most of all he didn’t want to die yet. He would be eighteen or nineteen then, I suppose. Like the Prince himself, Donald dithered and dathered and couldn’t make up his mind, and when he got to a decision in the end, it was the wrong one.
“The next news was that the Prince’s army, what was left of it, would have to stand and fight it out at Inverness. It was a counsel of desperation, really: to give the old Butcher a run for his money, more than anything else. There can’t have been many Highlanders who thought they might win, but they were mostly too tired and hungry to care by then. A few daft young bloods still saw it as a chance to prove their manhood, and they chivvied young Donald into going with them. It is not so very far, after all, for a hill-man to travel between here and Inverness.
“As soon as that decision was made, Donald felt a good deal of the weight lifted off him. He believed now that his fate had been fixed so all along, and that he might as well have gone himself in the first place and let his father stay at home. When he went home to collect his gear and say his farewell, he found that Sionag had already gone up to Coire Beath. She would be carrying up some of the crocks and checking to see what repairs the sheiling-huts would need, for it was April and the cattle would have to be taken up soon.
“Donald hurried off up the path after his sister. As he went along he brooded over his fate and wondered how he could cheat it. He was not exactly afraid of dying – no true Highlandman is – but he was young enough to desire more life. Somewhere he had got the idea that if he could beget a child, it would be his guarantee of resurrection, or re-birth in the world, something like that. I don’t subscribe to the belief myself, but when a notion like that gets stuck in your mind, it can gnaw away at you until it becomes an obsession. But there was so little time – and perhaps he was still a bit nervous around women too, being quite young.
“When Donald found Sionag by the sheiling, and told her he was going to the war, she wept, and clung to him. Then the madness came over him, and he desired her. Perhaps as a child she had worshipped her big strong brother; perhaps she desired him also. For sure they were both afraid, mortally afraid. The story-tellers have it that they were both virgins. I would doubt that, but it makes a better story. They knew it was a cardinal sin, what they were about, and they feared the everlasting torment for their immortal souls, if they had any, that the Church taught of. But the greatest of all now was Donald’s fear of dying childless – of his physical extinction from the world.
“So they lay together that night, brother and sister, in the sleeping-place of their sheiling-hut, striving and suffering and bound all about by a shifting web of fears and desires. When the daylight came and the madness went out of them, Donald saw clearly that he had sealed his fate with his own hand. He could not live with the knowledge of what he had done, and he could not die without it. So Donald went grimly to meet his end at Culloden, while Sionag was left to work out her own fate in the glen.
“That must have been a hard, hard year for the wretched Sionag. Her mother was now too sick in mind and body to do any but the simplest tasks, and Sionag herself became slower as her pregnancy advanced. She put it about that the child had been begotten by the Each-Uisge, that is to say the Water-Horse, from the lochan of Coire Beath. You must understand that all our lochs and rivers are inhabited by these little brothers and nephews of Poseidon, and they are often so naughty as to come out and lie with the girls on fine summer nights; so everyone just accepted what Sionag said.
“Now there was a bachelor fellow from the other side of the river, called Niall Ruadh, who had courted Sionag before, but without success. Niall was a big raw-boned red man, good-natured and easy-going. He saw his chance now and took it, giving all the time he could spare to help on the croft, and working away at persuading Sionag to become his wife. He swore that her pregnancy did not distress him; that he would rear the child as his own and never demand to know who was the father. He must have been in love with her. Sionag, at her wits’ end, agreed at last to marry him, but asked him to wait until her child was born – fearing, perhaps, that it would turn out some sort of monster.
“In the dead of winter, the baby was born, and it was a boy, and Sionag named him Donald. Nobody saw anything suspicious about that; more than half the men in the glen were called Donald. He seemed a perfectly normal child. So Sionag married Niall, and her croft and her livelihood were saved. More children came along, and there was never any doubt as to who had fathered them, for they all came with Niall’s big bones if not his red colouring.
“At first Niall kept his word, and showed no favours, yet as the youngsters grew, people noticed more and more how different Donald was from the others. He seemed to have taken all his looks from his mother, or else from the Each-Uisge. I should have told you that Sionag and her brother had been quite alike in looks themselves. There was some inbreeding in the far glens and islands in those days, inevitably, and that may have helped to strengthen family likenesses, as well as some stranger things, such as the Sight. The boy was slender in build, compared to his half-brothers and sisters, from which he was given the nickname Domhnall Lom – ‘Slim Donald’. His eyes and hair were dark and his complexion dusky, like those of his parents. Some people said that this was not surprising, since everyone knew that the Water-Horse has long straight black hair and a dusky skin. Others may have suspected the truth.
“There didn’t seem to be anything physically or mentally amiss with Donald Lom, but for all that he was a strange child, much given to wandering off on his own and greatly fascinated by running water. He would spend hours alone, just watching the river going by. He talked very little, and one never knew what might be going on inside his head. And yet, he was a very responsible boy for his age, and quite fearless; he would defend his little brothers and sisters tooth and nail if anyone bullied or threatened them.
“Unluckily for Sionag, Niall changed in nature over the years, as men sometimes do. He became really troublesome just about the time when Donald Lom was old enough to begin wondering why he was so different in looks and behaviour from all the other members of the family. Niall took to heavy drinking, to the neglect of his family. His manner coarsened and his big body showed signs of becoming gross. He was eaten up with petty suspicions and jealousies. He began to beat Sionag and abuse the children, a behaviour so abhorrent to the rest of the community that he soon lost all his friends, which made him surlier than ever.
“Things came to a head when Donald Lom was about thirteen. His stepfather Niall came home one night in a terrible temper, threw things around for a bit, then grabbed and buffeted Donald and taunted him, asking who his father was. Donald Lom didn’t know, although by this time he was fairly sure it was neither the Water-Horse nor Niall Ruadh. ‘I wish I did know,’ Donald protested. ‘Why don’t you ask mother?’ ‘That’s just what I will do,’ bellows Niall, and begins to beat the daylights out of Sionag, demanding an answer to his question. The more she said ‘the Water-Horse’ the worse he beat her, until Donald Lom thought his mother was going to be killed, and went to try to help her. Big Niall just kicked him aside like a tiresome puppy and went on thrashing Sionag.
“In the end, Sionag gave way and told her secret, to save her own life. And Donald Lom heard it, and knew in his heart that it was true.
“In the morning, Donald Lom was gone from the house. They looked for him, of course, but he was never seen or heard of again. There were some who said that Niall had killed him and hidden the body. Sionag swore that he must have run away, for he had taken a pair of brogues and a plaid and a meal-poke, and a good dirk that had belonged to her father. She swore he would one day come back to her, but he never did. I think myself he may have fallen in with a band of drovers going south to the cattle-markets. Either that, or he was lost and perished in the hills.”
Dr. Macdonald stopped and waited for me to react. I was understanding it now, or most of it.
“No,” I said slowly. “No, I don’t think he died in the wild. I think he must have got himself to Glasgow, and somehow found a passage on an immigrant ship – across the Atlantic, of course.” My mind was churning, seething like the boil of clouds in Coire Beath. “But – the woman?” I asked. “She is – was that her? Sionag?”
Dr. Macdonald shrugged, drawing back closed lips in a curious grimace.
“You saw – what you saw. Oh, don’t worry, she is well known hereabouts. I have seen her several times myself. She is said to be buried in that little graveyard near the foot of the glen, although the place is not marked. You see, after Donald Lom went away, Sionag really went quite out of her mind. Perhaps Niall’s cruel beatings had something to do with that. She lost her reason, and her powers of Sight too. Just as her mother had done, she lost all interest in her work and her family, and took to wandering all over the hills and glens looking for Donald. No-one could ever tell which Donald she was looking for, the brother or the son. I think by that time they had melted together in her mind anyway: brother, lover, firstborn son, it was all the same Donald to her. At the last, her body was found in the lochan of Coire Beath.”
“So the Achooskie got her in the end,” I ventured to suggest.
“That’s what people said. They said he had taken her in revenge for the lies she had told about him. I have no doubt that the truth of the matter was – what you saw.”
“I see,” I muttered bitterly. Indeed I did.
Dr. Macdonald got briskly out of his chair and came over to take a closer look at me.
“Well, you seem to be all right, but take it easy for a bit. And will you take my advice now, Mr. Lamb, and go back to Toronto? Surely there is a life there that you are bred to, and can understand? Live it out as best you can, and try to bear in mind that you are not responsible for the past.”
So here I am now, with my business in Toronto doing well enough. I have all the creature comforts I need; I shall live out my life to its appointed end, whatever befalls, but I will take care never to beget a child. For I have looked into the Cauldron of Life, and have seen that it is also the Cauldron of Hell. There is no point in stirring the dregs of the past; we carry it ever within us, and it will seek us out, whether we will or no. Upon myself I take it to snap this thread.
Eilidh Nisbet asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work