Published 30th July 2020, 16:04

    THE sun was beginning its languid farewell to the day as Duncan McNab approached the summit of Ben Vorlich.

    A lovely summer evening, a late decision to head up this sprawling mountain above Ardlui in search of a few hours' serenity after a long day at work.

    There are three summits along the crest, the centre one being the highest. The cairn is perched on an outcrop which provides a view all the way down to Loch Sloy. From the trig point at the South Top, this rocky prominence has the features of a craggy human face. 

    So far, Duncan hadn't seen another soul. But after arriving at the main cairn, he noticed a figure tucked down among the rocks about 12 feet away. He called out a greeting, but got no response.

    “I could make out it was a man, but he was small, less than five feet tall. He was wearing what could best be described as a dufflecoat. The hood was up, but it looked odd. It seemed to come to a curving point.

    “He paid no attention to me, didn't once look up or acknowledge my presence in any way. He held what appeared to be a cardboard tube, and seemed fascinated by it, staring into it, shaking it and twirling it over and over in his hands.

    “His continued lack of response leaving me a little spooked, and I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. The hairs on my neck were standing on end, and I decided to head off. I kept looking round as I walked away but there was no movement. I never saw any sign of him again.”

    As he descended the ridge with the setting sun behind, Duncan was confronted by a Brocken Spectre, that haunting figure caused by your shadow being magnified amid the cloud. Most mountaineers are delighted to see this, but for Duncan it just added to the already eerie atmosphere. He was relieved to get down safely in the dark without further incident.

    He had spent many days wandering the hills of the Pentlands and Perthshire but had never experienced anything like this before nor since. His father was a hill shepherd and Duncan had grown up on and around farms, so he had no reason to feel uncomfortable in wild terrain.

    Duncan is also an accomplished musician and is weel kent on the Scottish folk scene. He has been writing and performing farm and bothy ballads and poems since he was a teenager, and has played at Celtic Connections. 

    No surprise then, that he has used his Ben Vorlich experience as the inspiration for a song. He added other elements of Scottish folklore to come up with The Heathery Knowes O' Auchnafree, namely references to the raven as a harbinger of doom. Duncan said: “A Gaelic-speaking friend on Skye believes that if a raven looks in your window, it's a sign that death is near. It seemed an appropriate link to my Ben Vorlich experience.” 

    The raven's links with death and the supernatural is common in many cultures. It is often regarded as a shape-shifter, and its appearance at battlefields to pick over the bones of the fallen inspired feelings of awe and terror amongst the living.

    Those intending climbing Fionn Bheinn, the Munro above Achnasheen, should be aware of the so-far unfilled prophecy of Kenneth McKenzie, the Brahan Seer, that “the day will come when a raven, attired in paid and bonnet, will drink his fill of human blood on Fionn Bheinn three times a day, for three successive days”. You have been warned.

    The Heathery Knowes O’ Auchnafree

    A shepherd lad set oot yin evening
    His ain sweetheart all for tae see
    And the path he took, it took him oot
    O’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

    But the light that shone frae the setting sun
    It glint sae bright in a raven’s ee
    He was perched high up, on an auld peat hag
    On the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

    And the raven watched the shepherd lad
    As he cam scramblin’ o’er the knowe
    Wi’ his plaidie hingin’ loose around his shou’ders
    And the sweat running free frae aff his brow

    “Aw turn yer heid ye croakin’ hoodie
    Aw turn yer gaze awa frae me
    For I’ve a sweetheart, who’s waitin’ for me
    O’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

    Then o’er the riggin’ there cam a beggar
    An auld fesh’t beggar wi eyes o’ green
    And in his hand was the finest fiddle
    That the shepherd lad had ever seen

    “Oh Beggar! Beggar! Tak up yer fiddle
    And play a tune of love tae me
    As I gang aff tae see my sweetheart
    O’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

    “I’ll play nae tune for a love-sick shepherd
    Tho’ mony’s the tune of love I know
    For although my fiddle it is the finest
    This very nicht I’ve broke my bow”

    “But turn aroon ye love sick shepherd
    And the brocken-spectre ye will see
    As the sun and mist dance aroon yer shadow
    On the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

    The shepherd turned to the brocken-spectre
    That summer’s night up on Auchnafree
    But the shadow o’ a beggar’s knife
    Was the last thing that he e’r did see

    The summer soon gave way tae autumn
    Then came the snaws sae cauld and white
    And the raven ruffled up his auld black feathers
    Against the winter’s bitter bite

    But when the spring came and the snaws had melt’d
    O’er the knowes the raven’s flown
    And he’s carried tae the auld fesh’t beggar
    A shepherd’s white and weathered bone

    The beggar sat doon amongst the heather
    And frae this bone he’s carved a bow
    And wi’ the raven perched upon his sho’der
    Around them baith the wind did blow

    Then the beggar he’s tain up his fiddle
    All in the blink o’ a raven’s ee
    And he played a lament for a love-sick shepherd
    Ca’d “The Heathery Knowes O’ Auchnafree”

    He plays his fiddle as he walks the knowes
    He plays in sun and mist and rain
    With the raven flying close a’hint him
    Should ‘er he break his bow again.

    You can find more of Duncan's music and poetry at https://www.duncanmcnab.scot