But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories. . .*
In June at the solstice in Scotland the sun doesn’t even set until 10:30 at night and the twilight lingers well into the wee hours. It makes for long leisurely evenings, which we embraced after supper that day along the Coe River at the Clachaig Inn. The Clachaig with its popular pub, sits in a green valley below the hills and crags of Glen Coe one of the most beautiful and legendary glens of all the Highlands flowing as it does down from Rannach Moor to the south under the snowy bens of the Three Sisters and Buachaille Etive Mor to the west and the ridge today known as The Devil’s Staircase, part of the West Highland Way walking trail. At the north end of the Glen where the road crosses the river you turn right onto a one track road that follows the river as it rushes clear over the stones then bends to the right again to pass the Inn. On down the road past the wild purple rhododendrons and the blooming foxglove and the sloping pastures covered with small white daisies you enter a woodland and finally find a sign on the left to Signal Rock Cottage, our home for four days nestled under the pines where the Coe flashes and runs bright in the occasional sun. Behind you, up the road toward the Inn you have views of the surrounding peaks with their unpronounceable Gaelic names: Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, Meall Mor and Bidean nam Bian.
This is MacDonald country and the reason I’ve come. One of the many branches of this wide spread clan had its center in Glencoe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and family legend has it that my ancestors came from here. In this Glen the MacDonalds rustled cattle and fought with various other clans, the MacLeods, the MacKenzies among them, and the infamous Campbells. Up the Glen there’s a place called Lost Valley where its said the MacDonalds hid their stolen herds. In those days these Scottish uplands were cattle country and the Highland Clans were cattlemen. Only later, after the terrible time of the Clearances, did sheep take over the hills and the charming Highland Cattle with their shocks of red hair hanging under their broad horns nearly disappeared. In Glencoe they remember the massacre of a cold February morning in 1692 when the Campbells betrayed the MacDonald homestead and murdered 38 men, women and children, the rest escaping into the snow to live or die as they could. Around Glencoe the memory of this is kept robustly alive thru myth and song and monument, and even a sign on the door of the Clachaig Inn that reads “No hawkers or Campbells”.
The landscape of Glen Coe is as mythic as the history of the place with its mountains and deep blue lochs. The glacier-carved volcanic slopes rise steeply green up from the river valley covered in short grasses and heather and gorse. They become rockier and full of crevasses as they rise, folded and lifted full of caves. One called Ossian’s Cave is said to be the birth place of the great Celtic Bard. Place names make reference to ancient myths of the Fingalian race of giants and the pre-celtic hero Finn MacCool the Glen shares with Irish legend. The weathers move thru this place moody and changeable. The high peaks, snow-patched even in July, are often draped in cloud and seem to pull the rain down out of the sky until it lies heavy on the land. The cliffs spilling with silver ribbons of water falls. Wind whips thru the narrow glens and up the stony slopes and the mist can bite the skin as sharp as the midges down in the bogs. The only trees grow along the streams and in among the glacial boulders that litter the Glen. Once Scotland was mostly forested but no more, not in centuries. Now the rocky hills are covered with Oval Sedge and Early Hair-grass among other sorts making it look like a soft green velvet skin wrapped tight over the bony landscape. Of course the sheep. And in mid summer alpine daisies bloom everywhere.
Along the Coe River between our cottage and the Clachaig Inn lies a protected wood called An Torr and deep in An Torr rises Signal Rock on top of what is locally known as Tom a’ Ghrianain, Hill of the Sun. Tradition has it that this is where the MacDonalds would signal the clan and where they would gather for important news. It may even be the very place the traitorous Campbells signaled the start of the massacre. After supper our last night in Glencoe we decided to take the woodland trail back to our cottage. It was a lovely evening, warm and sunny with billowing white clouds blowing east. Out of the Inn you enter An Torr thru a metal gate where a sign shows a map with a jagged line giving directions to Signal Rock and the depths of the wood. Given the late sunset we knew we had plenty of time to find our way not knowing exactly how long it might take nor how to get to the cottage on the far side of the wood. As we came in under the old trees, a rare thing now in Scotland to find trees hundreds of years old, the slanting sun dappled down thru the canopy onto the soft grasses of the forest floor. The trail was well worn, rocky and full of roots. You watch your going. The gentle evening silence of the place began to reach me and I had to stop again and again to soak it in, to pull the beauty of the dense old forest into my heart’s memory. The trail grew steeper as we rose up the Torr and down again going deeper and deeper into the woods. I felt some anxiety rising as it somehow seemed wilder and deeper than I expected, and more hilly than was indicated by the sign or any view of it from the outside. A place to get lost in. And with no idea how long this might actually take us I was torn with the desire to linger and the felt need to keep moving. Was there a little breeze? I don’t recall. Or evening birds chattering? I think so. Mostly what I was aware of was the drape of boughs of the Scotch Pine, the green limbs of oak and ash trees we recognized and others we didn’t, the welcoming open understory and the floor of grass. The dappling light.
All across the Highlands now you pass vast stretches of clear cuts along the road. Bulldozed forests leveled and left to look like a battlefield, scattered roots and boles and dying trees still standing. I felt the same sick horror each time we passed one. It seems that after the wars of the last century Great Britain looked around and realized they were out of trees. They had no forests left to harvest for timber. They’d been used up in the centuries of ship-building and never replanted. Or cleared out for the grazing of sheep. Then the wars came and they were cut off from where ever they got their lumber. So after the Second World War they planted vast “plantations” of Sitka Spruce, not native but a fast growing tree good for things. Now, seventy years later, the trees are mature enough to harvest. My hostess at the cottage who has won awards for her “green” maintenance of her place told me, “You have to realize it’s a crop.” These mono-crop plantations were not meant to become a forest in the sense we may think. They were planted like corn, for human consumption. Only now, she said, is the country beginning to realize they need a new forestry policy and are beginning to plant woodlands with a mix of trees, forests that can survive in bio diversity for their own sake. And for ours. It will be a long time coming.
So walking in this mixed forest of An Torr is a rare thing in the Highlands where here and there you’ll find tracks of the old Caledonian Forest that are now protected. An Torr is not one of these but old enough to hold the earth and the stories that still whisper thru the boughs. Old enough to remember the MacDonalds, to give me the sense I walked the paths of my ancestors and to hold a bit of the story along with the stones and the trees. Once along the rooted trail, I turned my foot on a stone and fell hard on a log banging my ribs. It hurt for a week. I wonder now if maybe the land was claiming me with this wounding, as if to give me a hard smack and a gift. “Not so fast, woman. Linger. Listen”. I too have a story here now.
In time we reached the turn where the sign pointed toward Signal Rock and we climbed the last steep stones, set as steps up to the great rock now overgrown with small trees and shrubs, ferns and small vining flowers. On the far side more steps let us climb up onto the rock itself. The surrounding forest now gave no view beyond small glimpses thru the branches. Clearly these trees weren’t here when the clan built their signal fires here. Time and wild nature has reclaimed the place. Gladly, I think. This earth has a way of metabolizing our human tragedies and rooting something alive in their place. If Signal Rock signals anything now, it is this.
As we found the trail and our way down the back side of the Torr toward our cottage we passed thru a lovely open hazel wood, one of the sacred trees of Celtic mythology, and it was there we passed the Stag alone and quietly browsing the green grasses. A handsome Red Deer, a mythic breed, with his rack still dressed in the early summer velvet. He turned to observe us, cautious but without alarm. We paused and gazed at each other for a long moment. I didn’t want to startle him off so we turned slowly and moved on down the path where it bent to the left, and from there I looked back at the deer. He was looking back watching us, standing his ground there in the hazel grove full of the gloaming light glimmering against the dark forested rise of An Torr.
But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.*
The Scottish Highlands are stunningly beautiful, wild and rugged, elemental, looming, broody with weather and time. But its hard to take something that big into yourself. There are places that capture you sometimes along the many roads you may travel, that enter the imagination and make a place there for good. I think Glen Coe with its little forest of An Torr is one of these for me. Sometimes its better not even to try “to speak of these things” or make too much of them for they are like wisps, like mythic deer, easily startled, too easily vanishing if you stare too long. So you turn and go, aching from your fall on that beauty, trembling from the spark of patient wildness in a deer’s dark eye. Utterly glad.
-wrensong, Wendy Sarno
*from Directions, by Billy Collins