The Ghost of the Highlands

Special note

Draoidheil:  (pronounced DROOee-yah) Druid, Druidical

Dùn:  (pronounced doon) hill, fortified hill, hill-fort

CHAPTER 1

Genesis

The ride from the airport seemed to take her back in time, as though history unfolded itself among the hills and mountains of Scotland and embraced all who entered this realm of crags and heathers.  Anne felt a sense of homecoming in the land of her ancestors, though neither landscape nor people held familiarity.

A good place to die, she thought.

***

MRS. MACVAIL STEPPED out of the kitchen as Anne entered the front door of the bed-and-breakfast inn.  The sharp lemon tang of dishwashing soap mingled with the fading odours of cooked onion, fried herring, and freshly baked cake.  Supper was well past.

“My goodness, dearie, I was beginnin’ to worry ye’d lost your way!”

“I’m sorry to be so late, Mrs. MacVail,” Anne apologized as she removed her red wool jacket and hung it on the hook next to Mr. St. Clair’s gray tweed overcoat.  “It won’t happen again.”

“Oh, don’t mind me, my dear,” said the innkeeper.  “Ye’re havin’ a good time with your sightseein’ and that’s all that matters.  Did ye enjoy the Loch?”

“Oh, yes,” Anne grinned.  “Even saw Nessie.”

“Did ye, now?” the plump little Scotswoman replied with skeptical humour.  “I suppose the wee monster likes Colonial lasses, then.  Never showed his face to me.”

When Anne turned toward the rear of the house, Mrs. MacVail said, “Well, good night, my dear.”

“Good night,” Anne called back as she headed for the stairs at the end of the oak-panelled hallway, smiling to herself at the maternal attitude of her hostess, a woman she guessed to be at least ten years her junior.  She had become accustomed to people assuming her younger than she was, but it always pleased her, nonetheless.

As usual, she glanced at each of the old sepia-toned photos arranged at eye level along the corridor.  Some were MacVail and Keith family portraits, the latter Mrs. MacVail’s own family.  Others were clearly old service memorabilia from World Wars I and II and the Falklands.  And one below the ceiling lamp that lit the stairwell entrance bore the image of a soldier from the Boer War.  A fighting family, the MacVails.

Across the hall and immediately next to the stairwell, one photograph immortalized a lovely woman in the kerchief and uniform of a World War I nurse:  Mrs. MacVail’s great-great-great aunt Isobel.  Anne always took a closer look at this one.  The nurse’s personality seemed to reach out of the image and grab one’s attention, its strength too great to be contained by paper and photochemistry.

Anne admired bold women—like her sisters, both accomplished.  No one had ever accused her of being strong, though.  Of strangeness, but not strength.

With a sigh, Anne turned and followed the panelling up the stairs to the second-level hallway where a single lamp shone feebly, most of its golden glow absorbed by the dark wood of the walls and floor.  She unlocked the third door on the left and stepped inside, automatically pushing the light-switch.  She glanced into the mirror over the dresser.  Yes, she thought, she did, indeed, look younger than she had twenty years ago, bold streaks of white through her mid-brown hair notwithstanding.  Most people thought those came from a bottle.

A half-hour later, undressed, toilette concluded, door locked, gold-rimmed glasses set at the bedside, and light turned off, Anne climbed into the bed, ignoring the squeals of the ancient metal springs.  She pulled the sheet and quilt up to her neck, their scent of citrus soap filling her nostrils, and she lay staring at the twin bands of moonlight stretching above the window curtains and across the ceiling.  Mrs. MacVail’s footsteps sounded on the stairs, then along the hall as she made her way to her own room.  Next door, Mr. St. Clair’s snores rose steadily in volume, ending in a sudden grunt and a shriek of bedsprings when he turned onto his side.

Anne sighed, watching the stripes of light reflected from a small garden pond below her window creep along the ceiling as the moon rose.  She had been exploring the Scottish countryside and the tourist exhibits for three months, now.  She would have to make a decision soon.

But not tonight.  She rolled over and curled into her favourite sleeping position.

***

THE MORNING MIST had given way to a fine sunny day:  perfect walking weather.  Away to the south and east, across the River Spey, the Cairngorm Mountains undulated along the distant horizon like a mirror image in water, muted by gentle waves, of the nearer Monadhliaths in the northwest.  Anne wandered the meadows below an ancient kirk among the ruins of a tiny village west of Cluny Castle, a basket on her arm to hold any interesting flowers or herbs she might spy.  She had brought a small guidebook picked up at a bookshop in Kingussie.  After all, the countryside might share similarities with her homeland, but several thousand miles of ocean and untold years of evolution could bring about significant differences between the plants of the Highlands and the related species she knew.

As the sun reached mid-sky, she plucked a couple of furze blossoms from a bush next to the stone fence surrounding the kirkyard.  Then, she strolled along the fence to the gateway, its gate long since fallen away and the only indication it had ever existed two rusted metal pins that had once connected wooden posts to the stone.  She stepped into the dooryard and headed for the shade on the west side of the crumbling church.

Sheltered under the eave, Anne leaned against the wall and enjoyed the cool of the stone on her back, rough though its texture was.  She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.  The smell of the grass and the scent of the flowers among the gravestones hung heavy in the air.  Birds sang somewhere nearby, their trills and twitters unfamiliar but soothing.

After a time, Anne opened her eyes and rooted for the bottle of water she had set in the bottom of the basket.  As she drank the sun-warmed liquid, she surveyed the graveyard before her.  All of the markers were old, she noted, like so many others found beside abandoned churches throughout the Highlands.  She recapped and replaced the bottle and stepped out of the shadows to walk among the graves.  Some looked like pavers, mere slabs in the grass.  Others rose above the herbage, their weathered lettering proclaiming the names of the dead Scots buried before them.  A few contained chiselled epitaphs.

A pair of tall stones near the edge of the yard drew her attention.  They had been carved to form the shape of a heart, and heather grew around as though to shelter them.  She strode to stand before them and stopped short, eyes wide with shock.

Anne Louisa Hurley Grégoire MacGregor, belovèd wife, read the right side of the heart.  Her body tingling as if shot through with electricity, her hands trembling, she reached to touch the speckled rose-grey granite.  Slowly, unbelievingly, she traced the letters worn with long exposure to the elements.

Then, she looked to the left side of the heart, its name partly obscured—by frost damage, perhaps:  es Michael Fraser MacGregor, belovèd husband, was all that could be discerned.  Again she traced the letters, as though the action would reveal a truth she was not sure she wanted to know.

She pushed back the grass that grew at the base of the markers to find a poem, which began:

He was orphaned son,

Alone come from

Dùn-Draoidheil, the magic-stane.

“Dùn-Draoidheil,” Anne said aloud, wondering where she had heard that name before.

***

“DÙN-DRAOIDHEIL?”  Mrs. MacVail stopped stirring and looked up from the large blue stoneware bowl.  The stainless-steel kettle began to whistle on the cream-enamelled Aga cooker behind her.

“Aye,” she confirmed as she took up the kettle and poured steaming water into the waiting china teapot decorated with sprays of red roses. “I know the place.  It’s near Ben Nevis.  Not famous as the Clava Cairns, ye understand.  Not really much to recommend it, and a bit out of the way, there in the rough West Country.”

“Nonetheless, I’d like to see it,” said Anne.

Mrs. MacVail shrugged and resumed her assault on the cake batter.  “If you like, dear,” she said with the patience of one long used to accommodating the peculiar requests of foreign tourists, though Anne thought she detected a hesitance in the woman’s voice.  “Perhaps Mr. MacGillivray can take ye.  If not, he’ll know who might.”

“Thank you,” Anne replied, grateful.  She sniffed loudly.  “It smells wonderful, Mrs. MacVail!  Is that lamb?”

The innkeeper looked up and smiled in delight at the compliment.  She said, “Mutton, my dear.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever had that,” Anne admitted.  “I can hardly wait until supper.”  With that, she left in search of Mr. MacGillivray.

***

“HERE WE ARE,” said Mr. MacGillivray without enthusiasm.  He pulled the boxy black car off the track they had followed from the side road southbound from Road 82 and Fort William, and he stopped.  “The Druid hill.  Ye’ll have to walk from here.”

The middle-aged man opened his door and stepped out of the vehicle as Anne opened hers, and he waited as she looked up the hill.  The ground rose sharply from this point, but she spotted what might have once been a broad path curving gradually upward through a dense forest that ringed the dùn.  After a moment’s hesitation, she reached into the back seat and pulled out the shawl and picnic basket she had brought along.

“Would you like to join me for lunch?” she offered.  With a grin, she added, “You know Mrs. MacVail:  There’s enough for us and two more.”

“Aye, she’s a generous woman.  But no, thank ye,” he replied a little too quickly.  “I’ll just go back to the village and wait in the pub.  But you enjoy yourself.  It’s a good day for walkin’ about and seein’ the sights.”  Examining the sky, he added thoughtfully, “Won’t likely rain before evening, but it wouldn’t do to linger too late.  Weather here can be treacherous.  I’ll come back in a couple of hours, shall I?”

“That would be perfect,” Anne said with a grateful smile.  “Thank you, Mr. MacGillivray.”

“I’ll see ye later, then,” he said, touching the brim of his cap in farewell with one hand while he slid into the driver’s seat and pulled the door to with the other.

Anne watched as he started the engine and drove back to the track that was recognizable as such only because of the twin strips of flattened grass with patches of bare rock peeking out here and there.  She had noticed his reluctance to bring her here; his repeated efforts to persuade her to visit the Clava Cairns, instead; and his nervous glances toward the top of the hill.  Clearly he had some superstitious fear of the place.  And as evidenced by the overgrowth and wildness, few others came to this remote landmark.

The car disappeared along the track, beyond a cluster of hummocks and pines.  Anne stood alone and stared up toward the crest of Dùn-Draoidheil.

***

CLOUDS SCUDDED as though in a hurry to escape the sky above the dùn, some catching on the towering peaks of the Ben Nevis Nature Reserve that surrounded the little hill.  Birds aloft seemed to avoid the patch of blue directly overhead.  Wind, on the other hand, raked the peak without concern for Druids or legends.

The forest ended abruptly, as though halted by an invisible fence.  Beyond, a heather-and-furze moor covered the summit.  Anne strode on with determination to where the hilltop levelled before her in a narrow ledge that rimmed the mount like a parapet and sank to a ditch that rose again to wide, flat ground in the middle.  Indentations pocked the outer mound at regular intervals, tokens of ancient timber uprights.

She walked toward towering lithic posts and beams and fallen chunks that stood in a rough circle around the centre, looking to her eyes like the remains of a roundhouse hewn from rock, the structure long since abandoned, its walls toppled, the smaller stones scavenged, and its roof rotted away.  There were no trees here, though a few stunted shrubs grew outside the stones, all of them smaller than their kin scattered down the slope to the sudden forest belt.  Only grass and hardy herbs thrived within the circle; as she stepped into it, she realized why.

She felt it first as a slight vibration that sent a shiver through her spine.  Ignoring it, she set her basket and shawl on the ground and strolled among the stones, noting the varied shapes and heights and the differences in their colours.  Some were plain light- to iron-gray, others brindled, several banded in shades from black to red-brown.  Though not native, all sprang from the turf like teeth jutting from a jaw bone.

As she drew closer to the shortest stone of the ring, an oddly compelling white-banded black one that appeared as though Zeus or Thor had cleaved it in two, its top half toppled to one side, goose-bumps rose on her skin and the hairs on her arms bristled.  She sensed static in the air and heard the distinctive sound of electrical arcing somewhere ahead.  Her belly suddenly clenched as her mind warred between an urge to flee and a desire to press on toward whatever lay beyond that slab.

Desire won.

As she approached the divinely divided stone, she suddenly recalled where she had heard the name Dùn-Draoidheil:  A child had gone missing here two years ago.

***

“ALEX, DON’T STRAY too far,” his mother called.

Mommy always said things like that to him and he always ignored her in his quest to see what might be seen.

“Don’t ignore your mother, Alex,” his father warned.

Alex grimaced.  How did Daddy always know?  He heaved a sigh and grudgingly called, “Okay.”

But in truth, there was plenty to see right here, he realized when he reached the top of the hill.  To his amazement, he found huge stones that must be ten times bigger than Daddy, standing in a circle like the gazebo in the back yard at home—only much bigger.  Some had big stones resting on top, though a few must have fallen down.  They looked like doorways with no doors, he thought.  Doorways for giants.  Maybe giants lived here, once upon a time, long ago.

He heard Mommy trying to calm his baby sister, Janice, who was shrieking at the top of her tiny lungs.  And Daddy was telling Mommy something about a place called Culloden where everybody died.  His parents had not reached the top of the hill, yet.

The wind was stronger, up here, smelling of trees and grass and heather, penetrating Alex’s cream wool cable-knit sweater, and whipping his black-and-red checked kilt about.  He enjoyed wearing a kilt:  the feeling of air up his derrière, the freedom of not having to struggle with trouser flies when he needed to go to the toilet, and the gushing of plump ladies who called him “a wee Hielander” and gave him extra scones and cakes.

The call of a bird even more shrill than Janice drew his attention, and he watched it swoop down and then climb high again as another plunged earthward.  The distant dance of the birds kept him rapt long enough for his family to reach the hilltop.

Mommy laid Janice on the grassy little wall on the edge of the hill, outside the ring of stones, and proceeded to check the baby’s nappies as Daddy rooted in the carryall for clean diapers, still talking about something called “the forty-five.”

Not interested in either his sister’s hygiene or in Daddy’s incomprehensible tales, Alex began to examine the giant stones in earnest.  Some were plain and others had lots of colours, even stripes.  And they came in different shapes and sizes, too.  A smaller black one looked like it had been cut in two and the top fell off, like the candle that Zorro sliced with his sword in Daddy’s favourite movie.  Alex wondered what could cut such a gi-normous rock in two.

He shivered.  The wind was cold, but there was something else here that gave him goose-pimples.  He felt the little hairs on his neck stick up and he shook himself at the weird feeling.

Despite Janice’s wails, Alex discerned a crackling sound much like someone squishing gift-wrap paper.  Once before he had heard a noise exactly like it:  a hissing and snapping near a very old pine tree in the forest near home.  This time, it seemed to be coming from the broken stone.  The lady at the inn had talked about monsters—maybe this was their house—and about faeries with tiny wings.  Could there be faeries here making those sounds?  He remembered that Aunt Eleanor once said faeries like to live in nature places like forests and gardens.  Maybe this was a nature place, too. 

Alex crept forward cautiously, hoping to see the faeries before they saw him and flew away.  The sound grew louder as he came near.  He reached out to the black-and-white stone to balance himself as he leaned forward to look behind it.

A scream sent a jolt of electricity through him—like the time he touched a wire Daddy had said not to.  He felt as if he was falling.  He thought he might be drowning.  He couldn’t see anything for brightness that hurt his eyes.  Or was it darkness?  He tried to call out, and he tried to run.

All of a sudden Alex found himself running down the hill, screaming with all his might.  He tripped on something and rolled, banging his legs against stones, barely missing the trunks of scattered short trees and bushes, and getting slashed by smaller plants on his way by.  Finally, he came to a stop near the forest that covered the bottom of the hill.  He breathed hard, sobbing with fright and staring about with eyes round as saucers.  He sat for several minutes, calling out and expecting Daddy and Mommy to come to him.  But they didn’t come.

Calming gradually, he guessed that his parents must not have heard him; so, Alex climbed back up the slope.  Along the way, he wondered why there were not as many of the little trees and bushes as before, but he thought he must have come down the wrong side of the hill when he was scared by the screaming rocks.

At the top, he stepped gingerly toward the stones, not daring to touch them.  Up here, he could hear them still crackling and screaming at him; so, he stayed outside the circle.

But he could not see Mommy or Daddy or hear Janice.  There was no one in the centre of the circle or outside it.  No one at all.  He ran along the flat wall on the outside, calling, but his family was nowhere to be found.

He looked down the side of the hill, hoping he would see them walking nearby.  Or perhaps he would see that “nice local man,” as the inn lady had called him, Mr. MacGillivray, who had driven his family from town.  But there was no Mr. MacGillivray, and Alex could see no car parked where it should be, below the forest, where the ground flattened out on its way to the river.

Alex circumnavigated the entire hilltop, shouting until he grew hoarse.  But no one called back and he could see, in any direction, only trees and bushes, grass and flowers, bees and birds, and tall mountains that stood like big, cross grownups staring down at the naughty baby hill.

Exhausted, Alex sat at the edge of the hilltop, where he had first stepped over the rise to find the stones.  He looked along the path his family had come.  Seeing no trace of them even in the distance, he hugged himself as his heart sank.  He wept silently while the birds swooped overhead and the wind blew round him.

It seemed a long time that he sat there sobbing and it must have been, because the sky had darkened.  Night must be coming soon, he thought.

He remembered the piles of rocks on the edge of the forest at the bottom of the hill—Daddy had said it was once a village—and he decided he had better go there before it got really dark.  Among the broken buildings, he figured, he might be safe enough from wolves and bears and coyotes and cougars and whatever else might be prowling in the night.  Before he headed there, though, he scooped handfuls of water from puddles he spotted, quenching the thirst that he now noticed.  As he drank, he wondered when those puddles had filled up; he did not recall seeing water there before.

When he reached the village ruins, Alex gaped in surprise to find they were not ruins anymore—at least, not all of them.  By some magic, the stones had risen into walls and a grassy roof had grown over some of them.  A wooden door stood open on the nearest cottage that still had a covering and, inside, there was a long wood bench with a tall back—like a sofa, but without cushions.  There was no glass in the windows—or maybe they were just holes where stones had fallen out of the wall.  Nonetheless, the wind did not reach inside once he shut the door, and he did not think bears or cougars could fit through the little holes.

It started to rain soon after he arrived.  He cleared away cobwebs with a stick from the floor and climbed onto the sofa thing with its narrow seat and high back.  He shifted one way and another, trying to find a comfortable position on the hard wood.  Finally, he lay on his side with his arm under his head and his knees curled up so that he could pull his kilt over them.  He listened to the rain patter on the roof, and he heard it drip down the empty hole where a chimney should be, onto the stone where the fireplace must have been.  He wondered who took away the fireplace.  And he wondered why the rain smelled salty.

He tried not to cry as he peered into the deepening gloom, feeling abandoned and hungry and afraid.

Sometime in the night, he drifted to sleep.

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