In 2007 I took a long walk between my home in Perthshire and the Isle of Skye with a tent on my back. I was following a drove route by which cattle had been brought down from the islands to the markets of Central Scotland so that I could write about the journey for my book, ‘Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory’. In Broadford on day fourteen I was close to calling it a day and returning home, so beaten back was I by days of rain and now on the cusp of the squally autumn equinox. With encouragement, I continued a little towards my intended night’s stop at Camasunary, by way of an archaeological excavation which I had been told I would find near a red van. A conversation that I had there set me back on my journey, and gave me inspiration I have never forgotten.
The cailleach – the old woman or hag goddess who brings the chill of death and winter with her – had been showing herself to me over the summer, cropping up in placenames anglicised as ‘caillich’ and in folkloric stories. Her face was outlined on the southern headland at the entrance to Loch Broom and in the names of mountains such as one here in Strath Suardal on the Isle of Skye.
Not much beyond the churchyard, near where the road turns west and northwest towards Torrin, I left my rucksack and followed the markers uphill from the red van. On the hill or ‘high pastures’, deep underneath the summer sheiling dwellings of a more recent people, a system of caves has concealed ritual mysteries of female fertility. Poised between limestone and granite, where water dives and vanishes into the earth, archaeologists are discovering in layers of ash the story of a fire kept burning for 800 years. Where daylight hit the womb-shaped cave floor, objects associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid had been buried.
In this underworld, buried treasure tells of transitions. At the cave entrance – the interface of light and dark – there are quern-stones that made flour from grain; iron-smelting equipment that changed rock to metal. Bones glimmer, highlighting the point between life and death. Around 80 AD the site was ritually filled in, and the cave entrance topped with the skeleton of a young woman, the remains of a five-month old foetus and a two-week-old child.
People were kneeling in trenches, scraping carefully at layers of history, straining soil through water to look for clues. The scent of discovery was palpable. A woman told me she’d come all the way from South Africa to volunteer for six weeks on the dig. There were a few of us visiting the site, hanging on the words of the archaeologists. We stood out of the wind in a wooden hut, asking questions: ‘Could it be… ?’ ‘What if... ?’ We added our speculations to theirs and then grew quiet.
We were balancing at a season of equal dark and light, in a place where the world above meets the world below, and teetering on a geological boundary. Now, here at High Pastures where orange tape marked the edges of the excavation and enthusiasts scrabbled at discovery with earth-grained hands, the cailleach seemed to show herself again, just as I neared the end of my two-week-long journey.
Before I left I asked the archaeologist for his name.
‘Martin Wildgoose,’ he said.
‘Of course,’ I thought, hearing an echo of the skein-cries of migration that I’d heard creaking above me over the last days, marking the change in the year. I cast a wry nod at Beinn na Caillich. The hag-goddess was prowling nearby, waiting to be heralded in again by her geese.
I walked back down the grassy slope towards my rucksack, the road, the way ahead. A small figure in a red cagoule moved very slowly ahead of me. It took the road in the same direction, the hood up, arms splaying a bit awkwardly at its sides. It seemed to list like an overloaded boat lashed at by the wind. I caught up quickly and when the figure turned at my greeting, I saw it was the elderly woman who had been in the hut when I arrived at the dig, asking a great many questions. We exchanged a few words of marvel at what we’d witnessed up there and then she told me to go on, otherwise she would hold me up, and it was raining.
I went on, eager to make some headway on the ten miles of road I had to march before the up-and-over on the track to Camasunary. I was also eager to get to the café. I wondered how far the old lady was going.
The village of Torrin hugs a low slope on the eastern side of Loch Slapin. I descended through it, enjoying its bright green meadows and effervescent sprays of orange monbrietia startling against the white cottages. On the other side of the loch the fierce fortress of Bla Bheinn thrust up its craggy skyline, black and gothic.
I sat out several heavy showers in the Blue Shed Café, drank coffee, had soup and toasties. An old BMW motorbike was parked outside, its unconventionally towering luggage flapping string and black plastic. Inside, a tall man with a posh English voice, long wavy brown hair and a weather-beaten face was holding court with a couple on another table. He talked about his motorbike journey, sub-prime mortgages, the world economy, his life story. I wrote in my journal, looked out as sheets of rain obscured and then shimmered on Bla Bheinn’s gully-scarred rocks. In the middle of the day a warm fug of travellers’ conviviality steamed the windows of the café. Each new arrival had to be helped with the damp-stuck door.
After about 45 minutes the woman in the red cagoule arrived and we were soon sharing a table, she encouraging me to eat some cake. She wore a blue jumper which matched her eyes, and she never stopped smiling. There was a sense of great intelligence about her at the same time as a vagueness, an other-worldliness. We talked about what we were both doing, her adventures that week on local buses around Youth Hostels on the island. She told me how, by living in a retirement apartment in Edinburgh, she’d lost the stars in the night sky to a halo of orange security lighting. But in certain places, at night on Arthur’s Seat, she could still find true dark, even in the City. She told me of her former love of walking, and we spoke of unconventional lifestyles.
I told her how a man at a similar table in a Glen Lyon café had said my lifestyle sounded like retirement, and how friends tell me I appear to be on holiday all the time whilst I feel I can never be ‘on holiday’. My life is filled with vocation that has no nine-to-five, that is both play and work, that can never be put aside even in sleep, and whose grip on me I love and occasionally resent. ‘People just think that it can only be work if it makes you miserable,’ she said. ‘Ignore it.’ She seemed to understand with almost no explanation what I was doing and why.
During our conversation, it was as if a tide that had gone out came splashing and tumbling back onto the shore. My journey had been in question the night before, my way lost. I’d felt wounded and weak. My commitment was restored by meeting this woman.
When she stood up to catch her bus back to Uig, she paused, and made sure I was listening.
‘I have arthritis now, it’s stopped me. But please, keep doing it,’ she said. ‘Keep walking. For just as long as you can.’
And I promised her that I would.
I was rummaging in my rucksack outside the café when I heard the blue Highland bus growling up the hill behind me. I turned around. There was only one passenger on it, seated near the front. At the same moment, each of us threw an arm high in the air in an affectionate salute. I followed the bus with my eyes until it was out of sight.
In this brief meeting a connection seemed to have sprung between us. Perhaps I’d seen the woman I hope to be in my 70’s and she’d seen someone she used to be. As she headed northeast past Cill Chriosd and up the valley to Broadford, I knew that a tall broad hill would watch the bus pass at its feet along the single-track road. I began to understand that in her simplest form, the cailleach represents a different stage of life. I thought of this woman as my cailleach, and I no longer felt afraid.
Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back, the result of a major Creative Scotland Award, was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. Starting as a short story writer, then a novelist, she now writes fiction and non-fiction. She has been awarded the Robin Jenkins Literary Award for environmental writing and this year is one of the Robert Louis Stevenson Writing Fellows.