In Gaelic, they call the Isle of Skye : Eilean a’Cheo – The Isle of the Mist. When you drive from the bridge to Broadford, sometimes it can be as bland as you like, and butter wouldn’t melt. Bheinn na Caillich on a sunny day looks like an invitingly pleasant walk. It doesn’t look like 3000 feet of granite scree and boulder that might break your heart. And on a clear day, you can see, on the summit, a low mound. It’s a cairn, 50 metres round the base, and reputed to be the burial mound of a Norwegian princess. A bookseller in Broadford said to me one day, quite casually, ‘ah, yes. Saucy Mary’s cairn’. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? He sold me a book: Skye: the island and its legends. [Otta Swire. pub. Birlinn Limited. Edinburgh 2006. First edition O.U.P. 1952] and that’s how I came to learn about the hill, about Mad Mary, about Grainnhe, and about the other Bheinn na Caillich, not many miles away, that overlooks the Sound of Sleat where the Black Cattle would be swum across early in their long trek to cattle fairs as far south as the one up above Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales….how one tale bleeds into the next!
You start to think of legend and magic on days more common on Skye, when it’s not gentle and sunny, but when the light is ominous and the rain squalls blow in from the Outer Islands. Days like this by Sligachan, looking down the glen, towards Marsco and the west ridge of Bla Bheinn; then you can hear the legends come alive. I was intrigued by the coincidence (which isn’t all that of a coincidence, really) of two mountains with the same name, so close together. Bheinn na Caillich – the Hill of the Old Woman – is a name found throughout the Scots highlands and islands. What caught my imagination is that on each of these two is reputed to be a tomb, and that there is treasure in both. Mad Mary, the Norwegian, is supposed to have become notorious for stretching a chain across the Kyle of Lochalsh (where the old ferry used to be, and near the new bridge); in this way, she could stop passage of boats through the Sound until they paid a toll. The story of the other hill is that on the summit is the grave of Grainnhe, the daughter of Morven. Hers is a complicated legend. Cursed by a Grey Wizard, for saving the life of her lover, she was tansformed into a deer, doomed to be hunted for 12 years before she was killed, and at that moment returned to her human form. And of course, it was her hunter-lover who had killed her. It’s said that all the clans of Glen Elg laid her to rest on the summit, along with a huge treasure. There’s no connection between the two stories but the accident of a common name.
Still. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by narrative songs, with ballads, and one day I thought I’d try to write one of my own. I’ve tinkered about with it, on and off, for a very long time, but coming back from Skye last week, I thought I’d have one last tweak. I couldn’t stick with a regular rhyme scheme, so it’s not a strict ballad form. But I shall try it out at open mics. I think it might work. See what you think.
Two Bheinn na Caillichs, each an Old Woman’s Hill:
on na Caillich by Broadford lies Mad Mary’s tomb.
There’s a cairn of piled stone and the wind’s dreich and shrill.
Mad Mary’s unquiet, but Grainnhe lies still
on Kylereah’s dark na Caillich. For twelve fearful years
she was a shade in the birches, along the cold braes.
The Grey One who hated the lovely and fair
laid the curse that doomed Grainnhe to run as a deer.
In the whole land of Alba she was most blessed and true,
wore a charm against death in her long raven hair,
but to save her love Fionn from the Red River water
she gave up that gem, did King Morven’s daughter.
Twelve years in the shape of a deer till her dying.
In that moment she became lovely Grainnhe once more,
and she prayed to be laid on the height of na Caillich
where the west wind blows soft toward Knoydart’s shore.
The clans of the Fiennes fron Gleneg and Kylereah
to answer the prayer of Grainnhe the Fair
carried her gently, so pale through the birches,
by the corries and screes, and they buried her there
on the heights of na Caillich where she’d run as a hind.
And to honour the lady they gave their gold free,
and they sang, and the breath of the Fienn is the breeze
that combs the grey stones where Grainnhe’s at peace.
So she lies quiet on Bheinn Caillich’s height
five leagues of dark sky from Mad Mary’s tomb
where the north wind blows chill over boulder-field stone.
Above the broad crossing, Mary’s lying alone.
Mad Mary, from Noroway’s land of cold fjords
had stone laid on stone to build Caistell Maol.
From Lochalsh to Kyeleakin stretched a linked iron chain
that halted all shipping for payment of toll.
Then Mary’s coffers held gold coin in store,
gleaming and chinking as the windlass was wound,
tightening the chain from shore to stone shore,
and barring free passage all through the dark Sound.
Now she twists and she twists as a dreamchain is drawn
tighter and tighter from sunset to dawn.
Poor chilled Mad Mary in her mist winding sheet,
silent in shrouds of mad flying sleet.
For Mad Mary’s last wish was Mad Mary’s command:
to lie where the wind blows from the north land.
Through the Corrie of Wildcats fee-d men bore her high
to the summit of Caillich full in the wind’s eye,
where they raised up a cairn fifty paces all round
so Mad Mary’s tomb can be seen from The Sound.
Unquiet she lies there, her dreams full of pain
as the bitter north wind wails through Mad Mary’s chain,
and it carries the grating of links wound and wound
as they clear the dark waters like a shade in a dream
and her gold’s an illusion that won’t let her sleep
as diamonds of water melt out of the deep
and long fronds of kelp that bleed ruby red
hang from the iron that chills Mary’s bed
where she lies in the the track of the wind that again
and again sings in the links of her tensed iron chain,
then blows clear and keen ‘cross the brown moors of Sleat,
over swift burns running dark with the peat
through the bracken and birch by the Black Loch water
to the other na Caillich and her lovely daughter.
On the one Bheinn na Caillich, the Old Woman’s Hill,
Mad Mary’s unquiet while Grainnhe lies, still.
Just down the road from Broadford, below Mary’s tomb, and just by the roofless shell of the old church of Kil Chriosd, with its enclosed graveyard of tilting headstones, there’s this shallow lochan. There’s a dragon that haunts it. Just go on a day when the light is bleeding out of the sky.
Goodness knows where we’ll be next week.