I will relate events as they occurred and leave you, the reader of this journal to judge what is real and what is not. I cannot explain more than I write; perhaps you can understand things that I cannot, or maybe there is no explanation. I can only say what I saw, and what I heard and felt and experienced. I can do no more. Please, God that I did not do the things I may have done, or seen the things I believe I saw.
I shall give you a little background before I properly begin so that you can slot me into the context of my story. I am an orphan. In 1896 somebody dumped me on the doorstep of an orphanage in Perthshire in Scotland, without a note or an explanation and only a scanty white cloth as covering. I knew nothing about that until I was eight years old when the good people who ran the orphanage took me aside and told me what little they knew about my life. I listened in silence and gave no hint of my feelings, for that was the way things were. I had already learned it was best to merge into the background than to step forward, and I knew how to sit on the sidelines while more important people took centre stage. I accepted the meagre facts of my life. I knew that nobody cared for me; I was a faceless, unwanted child, a burden on society and dependant on charity for my existence.
Perhaps my lack of worth explains why I have always been interested in the outdoors, in the wild spaces of Scotland. They provide an escape from the realities of modern life and allow me to think and contemplate and wonder who I am and from where I came. One can avoid people out there. One does not have to watch those fortunate enough to have friends and family and wish that life was different. One can be oneself.
However, I had never expected the spaces to be quite so wild as we found in those few days up in the Rough Quarter, the terrible peninsula of the Ceathramh Garbh in north-west Sutherland. Nor, God help me, did I expect the other events that happened on An Cailleach, the hill that people called The Dark Mountain. I can only hope and pray for my immortal soul, as the eagles soar above me.
Sutherland, Scotland, October 1921
‘It’s said to be haunted.’
We stood outside the remains of Dunalt Castle, with the wind tugging at the elder trees that strove to grow on the shattered stones and the smell of salt sea-spray strong in our nostrils.
‘What rot!’ Kate could still speak in the language of the schoolgirl she no longer was. ‘It’s no more haunted than I am.’
Rather than replying, Mary stepped closer to Dunalt and crept inside the gateway that gaped like the open jaw of a skull. I followed, resting my hand on the shattered stones as I entered. Despite the westerly wind, the stones retained the residual warmth of the autumn sun. Weeds and rubble choked the interior of the long-abandoned castle, yet the plan was distinct. The main keep dominated the north, soaring up from the sea-cliff-edge while the stables, kitchen and servants’ quarters hugged the curtain walls.
I stood for a moment, trying to imagine what this place was like when it was all a-bustle with women and men, horses and children, and the proud standard flew over the keep. There would be the music of harp and pipes, the long tales of a sennachie and a flame-haired woman standing at an upstairs window, watching me, an intruder into her world. I could nearly hear the mutter of Gaelic and the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the ground, the batter from the blacksmith’s forge and the soft lilt of a harp. I could also hear somebody’s low moaning.
‘There has been darkness here,’ I said.
Mary gave me a sideways look. ‘Now that’s a strange thing to say.’
‘I am a strange person,’ I told her and she laughed uneasily.
‘Oh, we all know that, Brenda Smith.’ She stepped further away from me with the clach gorm, the blue stone crystal she wore for luck, swinging from her neck.
‘Do you know this castle?’ I asked.
‘I know of it,’ Mary said. ‘It was a stronghold of the Mackays once, in the far-off days.’ She pointed to the keep. ‘There is said to be a glaistig, a green lady haunting that tower. She took a lover from the Gunns, the enemy of the clan and her father walled her into a tiny chamber until she starved to death.’
‘Lovely fathering,’ I said. That explained the moaning.
‘Oh, there’s worse than that in Sutherland,’ Mary said. ‘We have a history of clan feuds and massacres going back centuries.’
‘Why is it a ruin?’ I was aware that the others had crowded in behind us and stood in a chattering group, making inane comments and remarking about the romance of it all. I could not feel any romance in Dunalt. I could not feel much at all.
‘There are two theories,’ Mary had to raise her voice as Kate gave her views on Dunalt. ‘One version of the story claims that there was a ball at the castle and the keeper ordered the blinds drawn, and the tongue ripped from the mouth of the cockerel so that the music and dancing would continue for days. In those days, you understand, there were no clocks so the cockerel would signal dawn. Naturally, there was whisky and wine.’ Mary smiled, ‘when the wine is in, the wit is out, and men and women began to argue about which music to play next.’
‘Men and women don’t need wine to argue about that,’ Charlie said, loudly.
‘No, they don’t,’ Mary agreed. ‘In this case, the guests could not agree, so they wanted a neutral party to settle the dispute. Up here in Sutherland, there were no neutrals, so they shouted for the devil to come and arbitrate.’
‘Nonsense,’ Kate scoffed.
We ignored her, which was what she deserved.
‘When the devil arrived, he came with a burst of flames that set the castle alight and all the guests ran screaming away. The castle was abandoned and never occupied again.’ Mary finished her story.
‘Best not meddle with satanic powers,’ I did not mock. ‘What was the other theory?’
Mary ignored me, as I had expected.
‘That was a good story,’ Lorna said. ‘You said there was another theory. How did that go?’
‘Well, Lorna, the other theory is not so colourful. The owner abandoned the castle for a more modern house in a more convenient location.’
I nodded. ‘I prefer the devil’s story.’
‘The first story was more entertaining,’ Lorna said, exchanging glances with Mary when Kate gave a hoot of laughter.
‘Some people are receptive to the atmosphere,’ Mary murmured. She glanced at Kate. ‘Others are not.’
I smiled and looked away. I am generally susceptible to the aura of a place, either good or bad. I could find neither in Dunalt. To me, it was merely a castle burdened with years. I felt neither ghost nor devil, only the sense of sadness that most abandoned buildings possess and a spirit of darkness from the deeds done there.
The voices that rose from the keep were neither devilish or from the past. I saw the gaggle of tinkers emerge from the battered doorway. They saw us at the same instant. There were six of them, three sprightly barefoot children, their parents and a dark-eyed woman with more than the wisdom of years in her glance. Her gaze passed over us until it rested on Christine. Her eyes widened, and she moved quickly to me. I saw her frown, hesitate and lift her chin.
I walked towards her, knowing she wished me to.
‘Who are you?’ She said.
‘I am Brenda Smith,’ I told her.
The lines on her forehead creased into the shape of a horseshoe. ‘That is the name you call yourself,’ she said, and added: ‘you know.’
‘What do I know?’ I felt drawn to this unknown woman.
Her frown dissipated and the expression of her eyes altered to great sadness. ‘You do not yet know that you know,’ she said. ‘Soon you will know.’
‘What will I know?’ I asked. ‘I am afraid that I don’t understand.’
‘One of you understands,’ the tinker woman said. ‘One of you understands everything.’
‘One of us?’ I glanced around the company. Kate had led Christine and Lorna to examine the dungeon while Mary had interrupted a conversion with Charlie to glower at the tinkers. ‘Which one of us?’
Mary stepped towards the tinkers. ‘God between you and me, mother,’ she said to the old woman.
‘Oh, I’ll not harm you,’ the tinker woman said. ‘You have bigger concerns closer to home. Be careful when you are safe from the big step.’
‘You’re talking in riddles, mother,’ Mary shook her head.
‘May God help you all,’ the tinker woman made a strange sign with her thumb and forefinger, somewhat like a circle. Still watching me, she took hold of the youngest child and hurried away, with her family close behind.
‘I wonder what that was all about.’ I said.
‘Strange people the tinkers,’ Mary told me. ‘They like to unsettle people by pretending knowledge they don’t possess. Some say they are descended from the old broken clans. Others think they are far older, descendants of itinerant metalsmiths from pre-Christian days.’
‘Is that so?’ I wished I had the skill to keep the conversation flowing.
‘Back then tinkers were sought after, skilled men. Now?’ Mary shrugged. ‘The women tell your fortunes, and the men fix broken kettles.’
‘I didn’t know the women told fortunes,’ I said. ‘The only tinkers I see in Edinburgh sell clothes pegs door-to-door.’
‘Oh, yes they tell fortunes. Some are said to be able to see into the future. They claim second sight, that sort of thing.’
I was about to prolong the conversation when Kate decided to assert her leadership. ‘We’ve had about enough of this place,’ Kate said. ‘Come on, girls!’
We followed her, as we always did, as everybody always did. Kate was like that; she was a natural leader. People may like her or loathe her, but they followed her. If she had been a man, she would have been an officer in the army, probably in the Brigade of Guards. I could imagine her leading a battalion over the top and advancing into enemy fire, winning the Victoria Cross and enduring fame. That was our Kate, forthright, domineering, thrusting and perennially successful.
Piling into our two cars, we roared away, leaving the tinkers alone in the castle. I could still feel that woman’s eyes on me, and for a few moments, I wondered what she had meant. Then I forgot about her. More important things lay ahead.
Kate drove the leading vehicle of course; her Vauxhall Velox Tourer was a two-seater beauty that kicked up the dust that we in the second car had to drive through. Kate had Christine at her side while the remaining four of us squeezed into an ex-army Crossley 20/25 that had seen hard service in France even before Lorna brought it onto these twisting Highland roads.
‘Poor Christine,’ Mary said, ‘sharing with Kate. She’ll hardly get a word in edgeways.’
‘They were at school together,’ Lorna reminded. ‘Christine will be used to her.’
‘Poor Christine,’ I echoed, but nobody replied. I relapsed into my habitual silence and wondered why I had come. As we headed west and then south through the most glorious scenery imaginable, we watched the magnificent mountains rise and envelop us with the grey-white mists that flowed over them.
‘The Norse thought these hills were gods,’ Mary nearly had to shout above the noise of the engine as it laboured on the rises.
‘They look like gods,’ Charlie spoke from behind me. ‘Male gods, arrogant and domineering, thrusting themselves upon the landscape, bearded with mist, rough and pretty useless.’
We laughed and enjoyed the majesty of the scenery.
‘I wonder what An Cailleach is like,’ Lorna spoke from the driver’s seat. ‘Is it like Suilven? Is it jagged and rocky?’
‘We’ll soon find out,’ I said.
‘It’s like none of these hills,’ Mary said. ‘An Cailleach is a hill unto itself. It’s unique.’
‘Have you seen it?’ Charlie had her pencil poised above her notebook. ‘Have you been there?’
‘No and no,’ Mary tossed her bobbed auburn hair. ‘I have heard about it.’ She was silent for a few moments before she added. ‘Family stories passed down from generation to generation.’
I knew Mary did not wish to say more. Kate’s Velox was pulling ahead, so Lorna double declutched, changed gear and stamped down on the accelerator, roaring us over the road and frightening a group of sheep that scampered into the surrounding heather.
‘You’ll never catch her,’ Charlie had her notebook open and was sketching the tail of the Velox, as seen through a cloud of dust. ‘She’s far too fast.’
‘I’m not trying to catch her,’ Lorna shouted. ‘I’m only trying to keep her in sight! It seems like the only proper thing to do as she knows where we’re going!’
As we approached the Strathnasealg Inn, a thin smirr of mist eased over us, embracing the body of the car and smothering our view of the surrounding hills. Our headlights reflected back to us in a dim yellow glow, so even Kate was forced to slow to a modest forty miles an hour. To my imaginative mind, it seemed as if Sutherland was pressing down on us, trying to drive us away. We were southern intruders into this northern land, English speakers in the Gaeltacht, Lowland women with long skirts and lipstick in a land where hardiness was required even to survive. I kept my thoughts to myself and tried to appear cheerful.
‘Come on girls,’ I said. ‘We’re on holiday, and we’re about to make history. Let’s chase away the mist with a song.’
There was silence for a few moments until Mary said, ‘how about some music, ladies?’
Somebody began with It’s a long way to Tipperary until Lorna shuddered.
‘Not that one,’ she said. ‘Not that one or There’s a Long Long Trail a-winding either.’
‘How about Roaming in the Gloaming?’ Charlie asked and began singing. We all joined in right away, with Roaming followed by I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Swanee and Look for the Silver Lining.
We were still singing when we rolled up outside the Strathnasealg Inn. Kate parked head on to the front door with the twin beams of her headlights boring into the windows, while Lorna turned neatly and reversed beside the Velox, ready to drive away. Only a pair of oystercatchers disturbed the sudden silence when both engines were cut.