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