Jen McConnel’s trip to St. Andrews and the Scottish highlands in December, 2007
Magic Abroad: Travel Memories from the Land of Plaid
The freezing cold water flowed rapidly up my nose and the unruly chunk of curls on the top of my head was doused when I suddenly had to scramble for balance with both hands. Somehow, this undignified experience was not quite how I had imagined my first dip in a fairy stream would go. Did I mention that I dipped my face in said stream because an earnest Scottish tour guide had promised that submersion of your face in the rushing current for a full count of seven seconds would render the snuffling participant blessed with the eternal beauty of the fey? Did I also mention that I partook of this bizarre yet invigorating ritual deep in the Scottish highlands in the middle of a very cold December? Not my most brilliant moment. Perhaps the enthusiasm of the tour guide came from her enjoyment in watching foolish foreigners submerge themselves in the river; you made quite a spectacle of yourself, leaning forward into the water, pressed flat against a damp, mossy rock, clinging desperately to the shore, fearful of plunging headfirst into the current. My nose ran for the rest of the day, and while my eyes could detect no outward change in the mirror, I certainly felt a difference.
Maybe that difference was due to traveling around a land that is as drenched in magic as it is in rain. When you can see past the overwhelming force of the constant slate grey skies to glance at the rich, verdant earth bellow, the highlands of Scotland are a truly beautiful place. The physical beauty is astonishing: rocky cliff faces plunging down into the sea, rolling green fields that seem to be almost untouched by modern technologies, and crumbling clan castles thrown here and there to accentuate the picturesque feel. Although my spirits were sodden with rain, when I stopped complaining about wet socks and cold hands I was usually rendered speechless by the landscape. The fairy stream of Sligachan was no exception, the rushing clear waters topped neatly by a bridge that looked as if it should mark one of the boundaries of Brigadoon. Located on the lavender and emerald hued Isle of Skye, Sligachan has long been blessed by the fair folk. According to the exuberant travel guide, this stream had once saved a poor, miserable maid from a lifetime of despair and shame.
Skye had historically been fought over by the powerful MacDonald and MacLeod clans. The fighting had gone on for years, but at one point, both clan chieftains became tired and longed for peace. It was arranged that the daughter of MacDonald and the son of MacLeod would wed, to cement an alliance guaranteeing strength and peace between the two erstwhile enemies. Such a happy ending was not to be the case. Cruel misfortune befell the daughter of MacDonald as she rode in splendor to her wedding: she was thrown by her horse and landed on her face on the rocky ground. Cut and bleeding, the poor disfigured girl refused to turn back, insisting that she must uphold the treaty, for she would not be the cause of more bloodshed.
So she and her retinue arrived in the lands of Clan MacLeod and made ready for the wedding as if all was well. Of course, there comes a moment in most wedding ceremonies when the veiled bride is revealed, and when the son of MacLeod saw the bruised and bloody face of his bride, his temper flew out of control. He was certain that the disfigurement of his bride was an intentional slap in his face, meant to dishonor him before his own clan. The hotheaded young son of MacLeod cast away the daughter of MacDonald and prepared for war. Horror struck at the events which were unfolding around her, the poor girl fled through the night. Blinded by tears and fear, she tripped on a stone and fell face first into a small stream.
The river fairies saw the face above them, weeping into the water, and they somehow discerned that it was her appearance that was causing her to despair. They promptly blessed the stream and swam away to watch events unfold. When the daughter of MacDonald finally spluttered her way out of the stream, her original beauty had been heightened in an ethereal way, and there were no wounds on her face. With her beauty restored, the girl returned to her fiancé, and their marriage was a long and happy one, offering piece at last to this portion of the highlands. Or at least, so the Haggis tour guide claimed before sending those of us foolish enough to try into the stream for our own magical dunk. Evidently, the fairies had forgotten to remove the enchantment, and the locals had been benefiting from it ever since.
When you are in a foreign country and have been traveling for two days on a canary yellow bus along winding country roads, you are practically duty bound to make as big a fool of yourself as possible. Not taking a dip in the stream was not an option for any of us on that tour, and the fact that our guide took a dunk first was enough a show of good will to smooth even the most travel weary feathers. Afterwards, sitting in a warm pub in Portree sipping at a creamy cup of strong black tea, I tried to recapture the flicker of magic I felt while the rushing water caressed my face, but all I could feel was a sneeze coming on.
My dip in the stream may not have brought me as close to the otherworldly realms as I would have liked, but soon enough I had an experience which offered more magical energy than I could safely handle. Heading back from Inverness towards Edinburgh at the end of the tour, our bright yellow bus veered down a winding dirt road and we were suddenly promised an unscheduled stop at a stone circle. Past farms we rode, and just after driving by a magnificent aqueduct, we turned into what appeared to be a small private driveway lined with trees. When the bus pulled to a stop beside an old barn, I still had no idea of the intense level of emotion that waited for me among the stones.
The site, known as the Balnuaran Clava Cairns, was a fairly large one in scope if not scale. I had perhaps been anticipating the stereotypical megaliths when I heard the phrase “stone circle”, and first appearances of the Clava Cairns disappointed me deeply. Here were two round burial mounds, barely as high as my head, and they were each ringed with standing stones that matched their height. There was a third ring of standing stones in the field, but again, these stones were short and fairly un-extraordinary in appearance. I later learned that the stones had been built and used in at least two different eras of history, with the first construction taking place 4000 years ago. The two cairns themselves are positioned to fill with light precisely during the sunset of the winter solstice, built with the precision seen all over Great Britain at countless other ancient sites. I also learned that the structure of the cairns is repeated in almost a straight path over 30 times, cutting through this region of Scotland. I knew none of this that afternoon: I only knew that the longer I stood and walked among the stones, the more dizzy and irritable I was becoming.
At first, I chalked my strange feelings up to the crash that accompanies any lengthy travel experience: I had been riding around on that bus for three days by this time, and traveling about the country for about a week before the tour, and I was understandably tired. But the more my senses assaulted me, the more I watched all the other tourists wandering around and snapping photos with perfect ease, the more I knew that I was not simply experiencing a severe case of road fatigue. There was a dull buzzing in my ears, as if I was carrying around an insect inside my skull, and I was feeling alternately flushed and clammy. Wandering deosil about the site, first circling one cairn, then the standing stones, and finally reaching the last cairn, I began to become aware of something that sounded an awful lot like male voices, chanting. The rhythm was a steady thrum, but the words were just beyond recognition. I found myself growing increasingly agitated, culminating just as I finished my exploration of the second cairn, when I absolutely could not bear to be there any longer. I had to get back on the bus, right now, no questions asked.
Back on the tour bus, the sounds decreased, but the buzzing sensation remained, and I felt myself growing dizzy and nauseous. I pressed my face thankfully against the cold glass of the window beside me, and rode a number of miles in a daze. I don’t recall the passing of any scenery or time, but I do remember that when the bus stopped in a small hamlet, I was consumed with a desire to eat. I immediately sequestered myself in a pub and ordered thick potato soup and crusty bread. With food and distance, I slowly got my senses back under control, but I was left feeling puzzled, saddened, and foolish. I was not sure why the bronze age site had affected me as it had, and I was upset: this was my first visit to any ancient place of power, and I had always had the romanticized notion that I would dance joyfully in a stone circle, feeling my connection with the earth and the ancestors strengthened in a way that I had never known before. My experience at the Clava Cairns blew my fantasy to smithereens, leaving me a bit gun-shy of rushing out to another site while in Scotland. Finally, I felt utterly exasperated with myself: who was I to assume that I could simply waltz onto hallowed ground unprepared, straight off a tour bus and in to the arms of history? I had done nothing to prepare my mind or spirit for the experience, and I had in no way attempted to put up a psychic shield. It was no one’s fault but my own, then, that the cairns had affected me in such a powerful and painful way. Next time, I would be more careful. However, I decided that next time would have to wait for another trip.
The rest of the trip was a blur of beautiful scenery and dripping skies, ranging from merely annoying to truly dramatic: thunder over the Scottish highlands carries a wholly different power than anywhere else I have ever been. There is a sense that when the clouds finally part, if they do, one might see unimaginable things. The wet weather was punctuated with stops in charming villages, seemingly frozen in time at least a century earlier. I tried haggis, the strange cuisine involving sheep meat from unmentionable places, and I realized that my own Scots blood must be very dormant in me, indeed: I hated haggis. I loved the savory, hot potato soup, of which I sampled variants all over the country. I tasted whiskey for the first time, true golden scotch, and I pronounced it to be something akin to butterscotch candy, but with knives at the end. In short, I was very much a tourist during the rest of my time in Scotland, sampling the regional fare, cursing the constantly wet weather, and taking far too many photographs. I am so blessed to be alive in a time when digital cameras are in widespread use: the ability to take thousands of photos without paying to develop them all has saved me no small amount of money over the years, and this was once again the case as I went camera happy in Scotland.
Seeing only a fraction of such a majestic country as I did, I know that I am in no way an authority on the land of thistles and whiskey and plaid, but I did have some favorite spots. Far and away the most ruggedly beautiful place I have ever been, the Isle of Skye absolutely took my breath away. The landscapes were raw oil paintings, and the land itself fairly pulsed with power. Here on Skye, tales of giants and fairies and magic made the most sense: the land of Skye itself provides the magic, as it has done for thousands of years, and every now and again, someone is able to tap into that power. The vast open sky was overwhelming, the grass a more alive green than I can recall seeing elsewhere, and yet the color that fills my mind when I think of Skye is purple. Everything about the island felt purple: regal, powerful, rare, and coursing with magic. Skye would be an easy place to become lost, not because of its size, which is relatively small, but because of the energy there. If you are not careful, and if you forget to eat hot soup and crusty bread frequently while on Skye, you just may forget to move, and then you will find yourself turned into a boulder, or mountain perhaps, joining the other magical rock formations on Skye that were once breathing beings who forgot to be wary of the power of such a place of magic.
There are many such stones on Skye, stones that once breathed and spoke, and in particular the Old Man of Storr comes to mind. Way back in the time when giants roamed about Scotland, an old giant and his wife were walking along the hillside when they grew weary. Sitting down, each with their own hilltop for a chair, the couple proposed to snooze for just a short time. When the old man woke up at dusk, however, and looked to his right where his wife had been resting, he was shocked to see her transformed into stone. Faced with getting up from the hillside alone or giving in to the magic of the place and resting there forever with his wife, the old man closed his eyes a second time, whispering to the winds as he did so, “let me be stone, and let it be quick!” Although his wife has long since toppled over, the monstrous standing stone that was once the Old Man of Storr still looks down on the countryside of Skye, guarding the land that so enchanted him hundreds of years ago. So be careful, very careful, when you sit and rest your weary bones in Scotland: you may become a new addition to the rugged beauty of the landscape!
http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/clava-cairns.pdf accessed 9/4/10