I believe that the wild wind blows yet on that cold, bleak northern isle. Perhaps, indeed, it never ceases.
It was during an Easter vacation, just before the last war, when I toured Scotland, visiting some of my peers working in the field as well as former colleagues now based in Scottish universities. My furthest port of call was that island off Caithness. There I was to meet Donaldson, an old friend from student days, now employed by the Ministry of Works.
Donaldson was a medievalist and had been puzzled by some of the older relics he had found on the island. The best-preserved sites appeared to be Bronze Age: most later remains had been plundered and desecrated. He wanted my opinion on what he had found.
He greeted me at the island pier. Tall, long-limbed, uncoordinated in his movements, he embodied the lay perception of a field archaeologist.
‘Glad you could come, Croftext,’ he said, grabbing my portmanteau, ‘Let’s get you to the inn.’
A short, steep slope led to a handful of bleak buildings that cowered, as if from cold, in the greyness. In the space of those two or three hundred yards, we came out of the comparative shelter of the harbour and I had to take care to avoid being blown first one way and then the other. The wind roared and thundered over the little buildings, hissed through the bleached dead grasses of winter and sang along the surface of the unquiet sea. Donaldson led me to the inn, the only two-storey building.
Once inside we were made comfortable in the taproom. The island people barely looked up from their drinks as the proprietress busied and fussed around us. I could hear the wind moaning about the roof and feel the building shudder as fresh gusts pounded. The rain on the window-panes sounded like thrown handfuls of gravel.
‘I take it,’ I quipped, ‘that the ancient peoples of this island were untutored in seamanship – or they would have left?’
‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ said Donaldson, ‘I rather like it.’
Our talk turned to Donaldson’s work on the island: most of the identifiable sites were outside his period, but he remained enthusiastic.
‘Very little visible above ground – just bumps and rubble. The people have just pillaged the later sites to build their own settlements. But the exceptions are the remains I want you to see: Bronze Age, I think, and almost untouched. There has been some superstition passed down about tampering with them.’
‘That is not uncommon,’ I observed, ‘Legends about the cost of disturbing “fairy knowes” and whatnot. Often ignored, of course. Have any archaeologists investigated the site?’
‘There was McCarthur, about ten years ago. He and a couple of research students started a few trial trenches. But he took ill and had to close up the site early. I’ve been working from his notes, though.’
I knew McCarthur, vaguely. A career ravaged and ended by illness. ‘And nothing since then?’
‘Nothing. It’s an expensive place to come to.’
My room was small, but warm and comfortable. In minutes I was asleep. Several times, though, I was awakened by furious breakers of storm battering the house, rattling the windows, shaking the walls, sighing in the rafters and breathing fitful life into the tinkling embers of the fire.
Next morning the rain had gone. There were blue skies and a pale sun, but the winds still roared. I wore almost all the outer clothes I had brought with me, but I still felt cold as I walked with Donaldson along a cart track that led across the island between low, heathery hills.
At the island’s western end the ground dropped away in front of us and we looked out on a rocky coastline marked by a froth of breaking surf. A small headland poked out into the wild waters. On the crown of the headland I saw a gaunt megalithic circle standing proud from the heather. An avenue of more stones led to a series of humps and bumps on the landward side.
‘Remarkable, isn’t it?’ said Donaldson.
But I was already off, pacing out the stone circle, studying the various mounds and folds of ground. There were some dome-like structures that might be burial cairns. It was impossible, without excavation, to ascribe a period to the various remains. Some features might well have been historical curiosities even to Bronze Age people, for example.
How could I not be excited by this storm-ravaged site, alive with human activity perhaps four thousand years before? I tried to imagine the children at play, the men at work, the wives gossiping at the nearby well, the cries of the livestock. They knew this same island: the rock, the heather, the sea and, yes, that ubiquitous wind.
These were real people. Not so different from us, but we will never know their names or celebrate their achievements. Their customs are as lost as our innocence and their language is unknown. But it is the stone circle that most separates us from these people. What effort it took to build, yet the rites, rituals and worship it saw are forever lost. And nothing is as lost as a lost faith.
Donaldson showed great patience. Finally, he roused me from my reverie by asking, ‘Would you like to see something really puzzling?’
He led me to the far end of the stone circle, where the wind and weather were wearing away the cliff. In time, not far off, it was likely that the furthest stones might collapse into the sea. Donaldson pointed to the very edge, where a gravelly chute led into the void. ‘I found it there,’ he said, ‘A few weeks more and it would have been in the sea.’
‘What?’ I asked, but he was already striding towards the nearest of the standing stones. He bent down and picked something out from a small recess in the rock.
‘It fits neatly in here. Perhaps that’s where it belonged originally, though that’s just speculation.’
He handed it to me. It was a small, worked stone, the size and shape of a paperback book.
‘Look at the markings on the other side.’
I turned the object over. It had suffered from its time in the soil, but there were markings, faint scratchings, repeated patterns, whorls and linear wanderings.
‘Well?’ asked Donaldson, ‘What is it? Is it language?’
I couldn’t say. You often find later – but still old – graffiti scratched on Bronze Age sites. But this was different. Could our distant ancestors have developed ways of expressing their language in symbols? And what purpose did the stone serve?
‘I’d need to take it with me and compare it to other inscriptions in the university library. Could I do that?’
‘I hoped you’d ask, so I’ve already cleared it with the Ministry.’
I wrapped the stone in a length of cloth and placed it in an inside pocket.
Over dinner, Donaldson consulted a notebook. ‘I was reading Martin Martin,’ he said, ‘He didn’t spend much time here, but he does mention the remains on the headland. He says the islanders were afraid of ghosts in the mounds and among the stones.’
‘I understand Martin Martin is not always the most reliable…’
‘Then read this: I copied it out of Boswell.’
Donaldson’s notebook included the following passage.
‘Oh, no!’ the woman exclaimed to Dr Johnson, ‘We could not allow anyone to harm the knowes or the stones!’
‘Why so vehement, madam?’ replied Dr Johnson.
‘If we did so, sir, then the Guardian would come for us!’
Dr Johnson shook his head sadly, and muttered about the darkness of heathen superstition. Yet, even in dismissing the woman’s fears, he still showed that graciousness of demeanour, that generosity of spirit….
‘I spoke to Mrs. Cleatt, the proprietress of the inn, too. She remembers such tales from her childhood.’
This was intriguing. Did a vague tradition about bogles in the stones preserve a warning from thousands of years before?
I slept well that night, but outside the wind thundered on.
I left the island next morning. Again the wind swooped and soared and I felt grey and ill by the time I stumbled onto the mainland. The car and driver I had hired were waiting for me. During the slow journey on the unspeakable northern roads, the landscape became softer and greener, and the weather less violent. The wind lost strength and there were signs of spring. By the time we reached Inverness the sky had cleared, a bright sun shone, and the air was still and cold.
I put into the Station Hotel. It felt good to be in a solid mainland town, but the wind had evidently risen again. That night it rattled along the rooftops, screamed and whistled past the windows and drowned out the clanking from the railway yards. Next morning, though, dawned bright and still. A pale sun lighted half the town and threw the rest into cold, dark shadow.
‘Fine morning, sir,’ said my waiter at breakfast.
‘It is indeed,’ I replied, ‘but there was a wicked wind blowing last night.’
He looked puzzled. ‘Not last night, sir. Cold and frosty. No wind at all.’
‘I distinctly heard the wind outside.’
‘Should stay nice all day, right enough,’ he continued, ignoring my comment, ‘Though there’s to be heavy snow in the hills.’
During the day I met with a former colleague who now worked in the museum. In the late afternoon I had my portmanteau portered from the hotel and took my place in a first-class compartment on the Edinburgh train. I settled down to a book but I soon dozed off, and when I spluttered into wakefulness, the train had already reached the high ground and was speeding along with tall mountains on either side. It was getting dark, but the land gleamed with a thin covering of snow.
I was several times jolted from returning to sleep by the strong conviction that someone had spoken, distantly and incoherently. But each time I found myself alone in a railway compartment, trundling slowly up a snow-clothed Highland valley.
I picked up my book again. However, it was not long before the train pulled into a small village station. Another train stood at the platform opposite. Quietness fell, and the platform grew invisible behind clouds of steam. Presently, there was a bustle in the corridor and the guard thrust his head into the compartment.
‘Sorry, sir. There’s a right heavy snowstorm at Drumochter a few miles south. The line’s blocked and it’s still snowing. That’s the Glasgow train that left an hour before us.’ He indicated the train on the other platform.
‘Will we be delayed long?’ I asked, with a sigh.
‘It looks bad, sir. However, accommodation is being made available in the village, if you’d care to move along, sir.’
I stepped out onto the platform where alighting passengers were milling ghosts amongst the steam. The guard pointed the way: the station approach road curled round an open field and doubled back to reach the main road, along which were strung several large buildings distinguishable by their lights. Rival hotels, but neighbours. The road was also blocked in the passes, he told us.
Everyone shuffled off through the snow. I noticed a path leading off through a gate and running directly across the field to the main road, a shortcut that would save much effort (my portmanteau was heavy). It was hard to believe that a few miles off there was a raging snowstorm. Here, as I crossed the field, it was still, clear and quiet. The stars blinked innocently in the snow-lit darkness. The bright hotels in front and the station behind me seemed like distant mirages.
There came a puff of wind, and another. Then a stronger gust tugged at me. The next one nearly knocked me over in its ferocity, and when I tried to continue walking I found that I could not: this was a wind from a nightmare. I was lost in a troubled vortex of wind, starlight and snow.
As I staggered this way and that, I had the sense that someone else was with me. I could see no-one, yet I felt sure that someone was nearby, relishing my discomfort and fear.
And then the storm died down. Silence fell like a pall. I looked nervously for the presence I had sensed. Terrified, I half-ran, half-staggered, dragging my portmanteau, to the nearest hotel. Though it felt as if I had been battling the squall for an age, I had not been delayed long: those who had followed the station road were arriving just as I was. They looked at me as if I was some malevolent apparition and, surely, I must have appeared wild and unkempt at that moment. I asked if they had been caught in the squall.
‘Squall?’ said one, ‘There has been no squall. We were remarking on how still it was.’
Inside, the hotel seemed stuffy and close: smells mingled, of a wood fire, of pipesmoke and coffee and whisky. After some haggling, I managed to procure and pay for a single room. A servant led me to a small, cold chamber where I deposited my portmanteau. Before leaving the room, however, I was careful to transfer the stone to my jacket pocket.
I returned to the coffee-room, where several travellers were spending the night. I found an unoccupied table and ordered a meal. By the time I had eaten, the great fire was dying in the grate and the others were settling down to sleep where they sat, underneath blankets or rugs. I set off for my room. In the corridor I thought I heard a voice behind me, but again there was no-one there. I continued, time after time glancing over my shoulder.
I had another disturbed night. No sooner did I drift off to sleep than I shuddered into wakefulness and looked around in confusion. I had no doubt, now. A voice had spoken. Not loudly, but nearby; not distinct, but nonetheless audible.
Two more times this happened. It was still dark, but with an unearthly pale snow-glow at the window. I sat up straight in bed. That such a dry old stick as myself should succumb to such irrational fears! I vowed to remain awake, alert and logical. And also, I hardly dared tell myself, avoid the terror of sleep.
Rigidly I sat, arms folded, eyes open. But, inevitably, I weakened and nodded and drifted back to sleep, only dimly aware of the sounds of a vigorous gale tugging at the corners of the building.
The voice that woke me up in the early hours of the morning was clear, lucid and very loud.
‘Sir! If you’d like to go back to Inverness, the train will be leaving in an hour!’
It was the guard from my train, banging on the door. I called him in, and asked him the time.
‘Just past seven, sir. They’re taking one of the trains back to Inverness. It’s still snowing up at the pass. If you take this train you can change in Inverness and head south through Elgin.’
It seemed better than staying in this dismal place. He told me that the train would leave around eight o’ clock.
I changed quickly and packed my portmanteau, slipping the stone into an outside pocket. I descended to an empty coffee room. ‘Most people have already gone, sir,’ said a waiter, ‘They’ll be able to serve you a breakfast on the train, if you’d like to go there directly.’
I buttoned my coat and stepped into a bright morning of blue skies and snow-covered mountains pinked by a morning sun. To the south, though, the hills around the pass were hidden by an angry bruise of cloud. I set off on the field path, which was now patterned by many footprints. I could see steam and smoke rising at the station. Even in the cheering brightness of the day, I confess that I shivered as I approached the site of my terrifying experience. Many footprints now obscured the place and I passed beyond it. I breathed more easily.
And then a small tongue of wind lifted a few feathery snowflakes from the ground. As on the night before, there came another, and another. I remained motionless in terror as the strengthening zephyrs threw puffs of snowflakes in all directions. The bright day dimmed, it grew dark, and the sun became engulfed by clouds. Behind me I heard a sudden, deafening roar, like an approaching express train. A monstrous wind knocked me face-down in the snow.
I had never felt a gale like this before, not even on that northern island. As it screamed, its violence caused me to claw at the ground as I feared being carried off. It tore at my prostrate body, ripping my portmanteau from my grasp: I watched it slide past me and lodge a few feet from my head. Then I hid my face in my gloved hands and cowered from the blast.
How long it went on for I cannot recall. Then, just as suddenly as before, it stopped. The silence that fell was unbearable until it was broken by the voice.
It came from just behind me, clear and distinct, deep and sonorous, and I knew that I alone was being addressed, scolded, condemned. But the words resembled no language I had ever heard.
The strange words ceased. I dared not look, but I sensed a movement, a shuffling through the snow and then something fumbling with my portmanteau. Something was removed. After that, for a few chilling seconds, I knew that something, a tall dark shape at the very edge of my vision, was fixing me in a cold, timeless stare. I remember nothing more.
I regained consciousness some days later in hospital in Inverness. I had been expected on the train, and the stationmaster had been sent to look for me. He had found me lying in the field, carried me to the train and a doctor among the travellers examined me. No one else had seen or heard the fearful storm that had struck me.
While in hospital I received a letter from Donaldson, chiding me for forgetting to take the inscribed stone with me. He had found it at the stone circle. He admitted, though, that he’d been sure I’d taken it with me. He offered to send it to the university by Royal Mail.
I replied briefly, insisting that Donaldson leave the stone where it was. I have not spoken to him since, nor have I ever returned to the island.
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (i.e. hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (i.e. TV), and supporting his home-town football (i.e. soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.