Creative journalism by Elizabeth Angus
It’s a sunny spring Saturday, and I’m headed up a Fairy Hill. The way is not long, but the path in places is steep. I’m recovering from illness, and the exertion makes me light-headed.
Quick movement at my feet, half-seen. A swift flitting across the path. Probably dead leaves in the breeze. Probably my dizziness. Probably not elves, fauns or fairies.
I’m looking, rather optimistically, for the footprints of the Reverend Robert Kirk. He was the minister here in Aberfoyle, and my path to the hill has taken me past the Old Manse. Not, sadly, the same manse which Kirk lived in – it has been rebuilt since his day – but quite possibly the same manse in which Sir Walter Scott wrote The Lady of the Lake and kicked off tourism in the Trossachs.
The Reverend used to walk this path daily. Doon Hill, which is its proper name, is not far away from the old church – what could be more natural than the minister taking a gentle perambulation around his parish every evening after his dinner?
Nothing at all – except that Robert Kirk used to wander up this fairy mound in his nightgown, and lie with his ear to the ground, listening for the Little People. Sometimes he would stay for hours, until his wife came looking for him.
In 1691 Kirk wrote a manuscript essay called The Secret Commonwealth, which is still in print, and which I am clutching a copy of as I follow the worn, muddy path. This treatise was the conclusion of a lifetime’s interest in the supernatural – a matter-of-fact account of the lives of fairies, collected from parishioners who claimed to have the second sight. The Reverend seemingly saw nothing incongruous in juxtaposing a belief in a Christian God with a belief in more otherworldly creatures:
‘They are said to have aristocratical rulers and laws, but no discernible religion, love, or devotion towards God, the Blessed Maker of All.’
I ponder this apparent dichotomy as I continue my way upwards. The wooded hill is peaceful, yet vibrant with the onset of spring. There is little sound apart from birdsong and the wind in the branches. I fancy I feel a spirit of enchantment about the place. It would not take much to believe, as Robert Kirk apparently believed, that this mound is inhabited by fairies.
The wind dies for a moment; the sun is warm on my hair. Suddenly I want to lie down right here; curl up; fall asleep for centuries. I feel so tired. The skin prickles across the top of my back: I feel suddenly spooked, and I push onwards.
Abruptly I reach the summit. The path broadens into an open space under the oak trees, perhaps forty feet across. Bare forest floor beneath my feet; brown, dead leaves; pine cones.
All around the edges of the clearing, the oak and holly trees are festooned with strips of rags and ribbons. People write their wishes on these cloths and tie them to the branches for the Little People to grant. As I look closer, I see that it’s not just rags: there are wind chimes, amulets, pieces of paper. Tibetan prayer flags, sunglasses, scarves.
The wind caresses them. Fairy tinkling.
And in the middle of this space stands the Minister’s Pine.
It’s a peculiar vision. The tree is girdled with string and ribbons. From these belts dangle an array of wishes, turning the pine into some bizarre hula dancer. I approach curiously and read some. Wishes for happiness, for long life, for an easy death for terminally-ill loved ones. Wishes for boyfriends, for money, for decent birthday presents. Some are folded for fairy eyes only. Others hang loose for the world to witness. Further offerings lie on the ground under the tree: shells, model fairies, pennies. A tiny plastic pineapple.
I sit on the feet of the pine, and lean back into the wishes. What do I expect? Some supernatural encounter with the Reverend Robert Kirk? I close my eyes.
It’s a warm evening on Wednesday the 14th of May. The year is 1692, and the Reverend Kirk is about to leave the manse for his habitual after-dinner stroll. His wife, one hand caressing her extended belly, lays her other hand gently on his arm.
‘Dinnae gang oot the nicht, Robert. Bide here wi’ me.’
‘Whit’s the matter, my dear? Are ye no’ weel?’
She looks beyond him through the open door and sees the Fairy Hill, dark in the gloaming. She shivers, though the night is mild.
‘No, Ah’m weel enough. But Ah hae this oorie feeling… bide at hame, Robert!’
The minister looks down into her shadowed face and frowns. He glances out of the door and frowns again.
‘Fancies and imaginings, woman! Get back tae the fireside. I’ll be back hame presently’.
He stoops his tall body to kiss her cheek, lifts his walking stick and strides out of the door in his nightgown.
And in the best story-telling tradition, he is never seen alive again. His pregnant wife, stomping up the hill to tell him to come home, discovers him lying dead beneath the tall pine. Perhaps right where I am now.
The belief soon arose that the minister’s manuscript, giving away so many of their secrets, had incurred the wrath of the fairies. In retribution they stole him away, leaving behind a stock: a piece of wood which had been glamorized to resemble his body. His grave, which lies in the old Aberfoyle kirkyard, does not hold Robert Kirk.
The big old pine tree, against which I am leaning, does. The Reverend Kirk has found eternal life, and is trapped forever within this tree – body and soul. So the rumour goes, anyway. I like this rumour, so I snuggle more comfortably against the bole and daydream a little more.
It is not long after the funeral, and one of Kirk’s relations, who is gifted with the second sight, is nodding by the fireside. Something causes him to look up, and there before him is the apparition of the Reverend Kirk.
‘Robert! It canna be – Ah wis there when we buried ye!’
‘It’s me, richt enough. I’m alive, but the Fairy Queen has taken me for her Chaplain. I’m her prisoner forever, unless ye help me.’
‘Whit can Ah dae?’
‘Gang to my cousin, Graham of Duchray. Tell him my son will be born soon, and I will appear at the christening. Graham maun be there. When he sees me, he maun fling an iron dirk over my head, and I will be returned to this world. Tell him!’
The christening duly takes place. A small congregation gathers in the old church within sight of Doon Hill. Graham of Duchray watches the widow Kirk, dressed in mourning, as she gently rocks her infant son. Suddenly he sees Robert Kirk, standing beside his wife, and staring straight at him. Graham cannot believe his eyes, but the man with second sight nudges him and whispers ‘There he is, man! Whaur’s yer dirk?’
Graham reaches towards his belt, then hesitates. The seer dunts him again, none too gently. ‘Whit are ye waiting for, man? Throw it!’
Graham’s face is pale. ‘I canna do it. What if it hits the widow?’
When they both look up again, the apparition has vanished.
Graham of Duchray was too late, and the Reverend Robert Kirk is now a prisoner of the fairies for all time.
A buzzard screams, and I open my eyes. A motorbike putters past on the road below. Close, but not here, not intrusive. Part of another world, not this one. The trunk of the pine shelters me from the snell wind, the sun is warm and I’m losing track of time. I feel reluctant to move – maybe the fairies are claiming me as well. Already I’ve been here an hour. I gaze upwards into the branches of the tree, brown against the blue sky, and think about the tradition behind the wishes. Cloutie Trees, Cloutie Wells. Our ancestors used to tie rags to branches at sacred places. As the rag rotted away, so too would the affliction you were seeking help for. This pre-Christian practice has managed to survive, without much variation, into modern times, just as Robert Kirk’s fairies managed to survive alongside seventeenth-century religious beliefs.
I realise I have a strong urge to write a wish myself, but I have no pen; and besides, it’s time to go. As I leave the clearing I look back at the Minister’s Pine, and I wonder if he really is trapped inside it. Then I smile at myself for entertaining such ridiculous thoughts.
I take a different, less-used path on the way down, which snakes around to join the first. In the lee of the summit now, the sheltered air is heavy and warm. Enchanting.
Near the bottom of the hill, my way passes between two rocky conglomerate piles. Huge jumbled slabs of stone lean against each other, some split to display crystalline centres. The outcrops are crowned with deep, deep moss, starry wood anemones sparkling against the green. Slender oaks spring from the spaces between the stones.
If entrances to Fairy Hills exist, they surely look like this.
Grateful thanks to the Wee Ginger Dug for once again letting me sully his airwaves with fanciful nonsense.
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