Isle of Arran, Scotland | May 3, 2006
Like travelers to a fire in the dark of winter, the villages and towns of Arran huddle around the narrow coastal road encircling the island. We tracked north from the port in Brodick to the village of Lochranza where an old church, converted to a bed and breakfast, awaited. Above us, like sea frigates turned to airships, broad-bellied clouds plied the skies around the Goat Fell and its sister corbetts, their faces hidden in veils of mist and running with the sometimes audible sound of rivers. Centuries had passed since The Clearances had drained the small of isle of many of its people; hard voyages to Canada, conceived in deceit by the island’s earl, were damned from the first frigid waves that crashed over the Caledonia’s bow.
Across the tidal plain from our B&B stood the mossy stones of a ruined castle. A long rainbow, magicked through the salt-heavy air, terminated on its ragged island, but we sought the ancient standing stones of Machrie Moor where Fingal leashed Bran while he supped. Further west and then south we drove, past caves where kings once sheltered. The road split fields running with sheep, florescent orange numbers stamped on their flanks. Over there was 31, and there, settled on the ground, chewing, was 10.
After a time, we left the car near a sign. The rhythmic drumming of thick raindrops beat against our jackets like holy water cast from a priest’s aspergillum. What I had interpreted as the island’s blessing at the time was perhaps an act of warding. The sea’s freezing winds moaned and rifled through our layers like the ghost of the Gaelic language. For decades that spirit must have flit among the island’s high slopes as its usage decreased and ultimately disappeared, much like the forgotten remains of its speakers’ crofts.
We forged ahead on raw muddy tire tracks, our heads bent into the swirling onslaught. Shorn yet vibrant green turf peeked through tufts of tall brown grasses that clattered and hissed in the wind. Ahead of us, a palette of earth tones rolled off into the distance and faded where the low sky clasped the ground. We pirouetted and scanned the horizon.
All in vain, for nowhere did we see Fingal’s stones on Machrie Moor. The wind leaned into our backs.
I yanked my hood back into place and turned to see a pair of lambs following us down the rutted path. They looked sage and prescient; their pink ears, peat-tinted wool, and mud-stained knees noticeably lacked florescent markings.
In spite of the sea squalls, I shivered at our escort, these ghostly guardians that silently urged us back to the road and villages where our kind now belonged.