There had been no track, beaten, bruised or broken since leaving his car in the small roadside quarry three hours ago. Just a random scattering of rock poking between pockets of grass in a mass of moss-bound peat. The guidebook said this was an easy walk, his sodden gaiters bleeding globules of black said otherwise.
At the next sloping square yard of solid grey he stopped, sat, placed the map on his aching thighs, and squinted as the midday sun flashed from the scratched plastic surface of his well-travelled compass. He swivelled the map beneath the red and white elongated rhombus that had settled itself along the magnetic axis of the Earth and gazed at the maze of lochs and rocks and barely-grass that lay below. The map scored names across the landscape, names that told tales to those who could decipher the mangling of Gaelic by nineteenth-century surveyors and later scribes. He found the footprints of the giant Fionn on either side of the five-mile wide Sound that lay, island-laden, far below. There was no sound save that of the slow wind that seemed to be taking a siesta as summer flowed slowly by. An eagle, suspended on unseen strings, blemished the solid mass of blue with the beauty of its own majesty as it sought a snack, or maybe it was just wandering the sky like the dot-man it watched warily as he strode the land far below. He looked down at the map, found the feature he was seeking, and turned his head westwards to where a wall of pale-grey streaked with gashes of green stood tall and strong. It was only perhaps 100 feet high but in this scale-less landscape where time and distance telescope and confuse the mind it raised an alarming prospect. And temptation. He picked his way between the worst depths of the hidden bog through thickets of thigh-high heather that tangled at his boots as he stumbled across this ‘easy’ terrain. The guidebook was gaining mass in his daysack in direct proportion to its loss of weight as an authority on its chosen subject.
A clearing of bright green grass surrounding tumbled walls was the first sign of human occupation for miles and his mind conjured spirits to populate the sheiling, and lowing cattle to fertilise the sterile peat below. Sadness and anger fought for his attention and he wandered on, laying a track that resembled the ramblings of inebriation rather than any indication of a true path. He was aiming to access the clifftop from behind and was relieved to find himself on a small plateau but dismayed to discover that the heather here was the tallest, densest and most impenetrable that he had encountered on his trek. There was no way he could get through it and no way to access the cliff and view the loch lying far below. He kept as close to the hidden edge as he could and continued in the vain hope that the heather would part and offer him a route but the plateau soon became a downward slope which he descended with disappointment. The rocks to his right seemed to rise as he continued down the hill as the heather to his left became smaller until he was squeezed between the two and onto a hoof-marked track that opened into an open beach of green sloping gently to the shore of the loch. The rippled blue lapped against the grass for several yards before the inevitable heather that sat within the centre of the clearing and stretched down to the water from the curving bow of grass that surrounded it. This bow was widest at its centre where the long grass at the base of the cliff lay flattened by the harem of the antlered-one. It was a hidden paradise only spoiled by the strange rectangular mass of heather at its midst. You could camp here for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years and none would be wise to your presence – save the deer and the eagle whose nest lay hidden within the rocky cliff. It felt spiritual, if a little unsettling, and he, feeling tired but exhilarated, lay on the grass and slept.
The sun had already begun its descent when he started his slumber and when its fall eastwards grew shadows from the cliff that flowed like a rising tide of darkness across the bright green of the clearing had passed the sleeping figure the sudden drop in temperature stirred him from his dreams. He took some food and water from his pack, ate, drank and considered what to do. He had a bivouac, supplies, a stove and a freshwater loch so staying overnight was definitely an option. There was no phone signal but that was rather comforting because this unexpected Eden didn’t warrant unwelcome interruptions of any kind. He considered the deer. They were becoming almost tame in the island and that was worrying as he would prefer them to be afraid and healthily respectful. He didn’t need to make a hasty decision for night hardly fell at these latitudes near midsummer and he was intrigued by the heather which definitely warranted investigation. Especially as one of the features he had noticed on the map in a ‘Gothic’ typeface seemed to end near ‘his’ clearing. It spelt ‘Souterrain’.
The heather rectangle lay along the shore of the loch for forty yards and was about thirty yards wide. A quarter acre plantation of Erica bounded by a bow of grazed grass and lined by a loch. Having checked that he was tickproof he entered the ‘forest’ at its mid-point not knowing what, if anything, he was looking for. There was nothing of note for several yards and the going was easy before he noticed at what would be the centre of the rectangle a band of grey just below the level of the heather. As he got closer he could see a flat face of stone facing him and beneath it was nothing. A black nothing. A black nothing with a stone top and, he now saw, two stone sides. The space was less that two feet high and a yard wide but it was a space that had been created not by nature but by man. He needed his torch, safely stored in his pack which, of course, he could see in its safe bright-blueness sitting where he had left it on the grass. He was hungry, it was getting late and he had a camp to establish so he knelt at the space, closed his eyes, and listened. Nothing. He opened his mind to his nose. Something. Not bitter. Not sweet. Not humid. Not dry. Not human. Not animal. But something.
Returning to his pack he set about creating a home in Eden, cooked, ate and slept. In its nest the eagle eyed all this. From their view across the loch the deer saw all this. From the depths of his mind dreams saw all this. And more. He woke in the warm cocoon of his sleeping bag covered by the taught gossamer chrysalis of his bivouac ready for a new day, a new birth. Dream memories swam before him, indistinct, flowing images in the gloaming of the mouth of night that never closed tight in summer. He emerged into sunlight, spreading his arms like wings as he stood on the dew-jewelled grass and looked around Eden. The screen of cliffs fully lit by the early morning sun, the loch a myriad burning constellations twinkling across a firmament of blue, the mass of heather stretching from the shore keeping its secrets safe. After breakfast, and alert from several mugs of strong, black coffee, he sorted the contents of his bag, sealed his tent, and strode into the thicket of heather towards the beckoning black portal at its midst. The blue-white light of the torch revealed the short, stone-clad corridor of the souterrain for several feet before bouncing from the blockage of soil and dead heather. He removed the trowel, an essential item when wild camping, from his bag and began to crawl along the dry floor of the sarcophagus. As he started to scrape at the wall of dirt and matted vegetation he felt a vibration like chalk upon a blackboard and there behind the fake skin was the familiar sight of a wooden board. His scraping revealed more boards until the whole of the door, or hatch, was naked before him. He looked back up the gentle incline of the tunnel to the rectangle of cliffs where a pair of binocular eyes watched intently from an unseen nest, then swivelled the four turnbolts that held the hatch to its frame and prised it down towards him with his trowel.
Daylight, shadowed by his prostrate form, lit the sloping floor that led a few more yards before disappearing into black. He shone his torch into the void and saw a series of steps descending beneath a solid ceiling of naked rock. As he crawled along the final few yards of the incline he was able to raise himself on knees and elbows, then to crouch, and finally to stand and stare at the start of the stairwell. The bag that he had been dragging along the tunnel could now regain its place upon his back. Together they began their descent. The air was neither sweet, nor sour, there was no mustiness, just that same unidentified smell that he had detected the previous afternoon. No drops of water disturbed the silence of the stairwell, no breeze upon his face, no hints of what might lie ahead. He counted twenty-three steps before reaching the smooth floor that the torchlight revealed as solid rock. There was a short passage, curving to the left, and then he was in a circular chamber no more than three dozen yards in diameter with a gently domed roof and three blind, dark doorways set within its circumference. He walked to the centre, sat, and smiled. Taking notebook and pen from his bag he made a sketch of his journey along the sloping tunnel, down the steps, around the curving passage and into the hearthless heart of the chamber. He drew a guesstimate of the shoreline far above and saw with satisfaction that he was seated below the waters of the loch. A submarine roundhouse, he thought, and one that Carmichael had failed to find. He took the folded sheet from the notebook. It showed the old folklorist’s drawing and his handwritten letter to Captain Thomas, both of which stopped at a solid wall before the steps. Had there been such a wall or was there just the suggestion of a wall, a mirage of solidity in the mind of man? Whatever the reason, the steps, passage and chamber had remained unknown since, since, since when? Back along the passage, up the stairs and the incline of the narrowing entrance the owner of the eyes readied herself to take flight from her nest for she had news of her own to impart and they would want to hear it now.
He refolded the paper, closed his notebook, repacked his bag and made for the first doorway. It was merely an alcove, a niche, a carved sentry box, perhaps a false start. The second doorway was almost identical save for the stone shelf at the rear upon which was just one item. It was the size of a cricket ball but made of stone and carved with a maze of geometric swirls that were centred at six perfectly equidistant spots upon its globe. It nestled in his hand, his fingers cupping the fine lines of the maze, and he felt warmth, peace, and knowledge. He returned the treasure to its shelf and walked to the final doorway. A passage curved to the right. He entered, walked a few yards, and stopped. The curve stopped too and became a straight corridor. A straight corridor that his torch ran out of sufficient light to illuminate long before the tunnel ended. As he began to walk along the passage the view remained the same – walls converging into darkness – and he walked for half an hour before reaching a gentle curve to the left. The darkness ended in space, a space that was the twin of the roundhouse far, far behind save for one thing. A hearth. In the centre of the floor of the vaulted rock chamber a fireplace sat illuminated by a shaft of sunlight descending from a chimney hole. The hearth was a circle of charred rocks, blackened by the past, lit by the present. When he looked up he saw the vast telescope of the chimney ending in a circle of blue and felt the current of air on his face. Wherever he was, it wasn’t under the loch and wherever it was had only two doorways. One he had entered by, the other was perhaps a third of the way round the wall of the chamber and sealed by a heavy wooden door. He took a deep breath and noticed again that unknown aroma but this time he had found its source for there in the hearth were the embers and it was from them that this strange incense emanated. He picked up a piece, inhaled it, and slept.
The pan-pipes played as twenty four of the diminutive clan sat on six curved benches arranged around the smoking fire. He rose to join them. The elder welcomed him, beckoned him to be seated, and explained that he was now in another land, far across the Sound and deep within a mountain. He had found the portal between islands that these people, sometimes called fairy folk, had built millennia ago to facilitate safe passage for their kin. Carmichael had almost stumbled upon them and he would have quickly seen the connection between this very real portal and the myth of Fionn’s leap across the waters between islands, a device they had created in order to distract humans from the truth. He would now have to remain with them, living far below the world of men, hidden, unseen, amongst these ancient people, the people of the eagle.
The police had been alerted to the abandoned car that had lain untouched for several months. The coastguard helicopter spotted the flapping rags of the storm-torn tent but no sign of the missing man was ever found. They presumed he had slipped into the depths of the loch but the divers were unable to locate a body. From her lair the eagle watched, regularly reporting to her people, who had sealed the portal with improved disguise and cast a stronger spell to deceive any human foolish enough to want to explore the secrets of their souterrain.
a giant leap…
harried from the dun on Beinn na Coille
the mighty Fionn leaps to leave
his footprint upon Filleam
then with one bound
across the Sound
at fairy knoll