Schiehallion, aka The Faery Hill of the Caledonians, is a magnificent, isolated, rugged, limestone ridge in Highland Perthshire, in the plumb-centre of Scotland. I’ve climbed it many times in the past, but now my arthritic knees deny me that pleasure: the jarring of the knees taken all the enjoyment out of hill-walking. So what the hell am I doing now, struggling along Glen Mór, on the south side of Schiehallion, in the November sleet, with a giant ship-in-a-bottle in my rucksack?
I’m here because of that ship’s bottle. I bought it at an auction, after I’d retired from the sea. We’d moved to a smaller house and decided, regretfully, to sell a couple of larger pieces of furniture. Included in the auction was my great-grandfather’s chest of drawers that had stood in my bedroom as a child. It had a secret drawer that used to fascinate me back then and I pestered my mother til she showed me how to open it. On impulse, I ‘d decided to attend the auction and maybe demonstrate the drawer mechanism to the new owners.
That didn’t work out: the new owner was an internet bidder. But I came home with a previously unintended purchase, the ship-in-a-bottle. It was, and is, a giant bottle – a jeroboam, containing a model of an early iron steamship. It had a screw-propeller and there was no Plimsoll Line marked on the hull. So I guessed it dated from the 1850s or 1860s. Its provenance was that it had previously been stored in the offices of one of the last UK-owned shipping companies, which had gone bust in the 1980s. There was no record of the name of the vessel. Strangely, there was just one tiny figure on the deck, with raised arms, dressed in a black frock-coat and a top hat; I guessed the figure represented the original owner of the vessel.
I was pleased with my purchase, but Dorothy wasn’t. She peered at it for a minute or two, shook her head, reckoned there was something creepy about it, and banished it to the spare bedroom.
A few weeks later, our niece, Ellie, came for a short stay. She’s the mate on a chemical tanker operating out of Grangemouth, and so she was naturally interested in the ship-in-a-bottle on her bedroom window ledge. She mentioned casually that the vessel was fully loaded, lying low in the water. She was dead right, of course: as a ship’s mate, the safe loading and stowing of cargo is her responsibility. But I was quite surprised: I hadn’t previously noticed that the blue-painted clay that represented the bottled sea was so high up the ship’s hull.
That led to a lunchtime discussion of the load lines marked on the hull of every contemporary ship, showing the safe level of loading of the vessel. I mentioned that one of the factors that had led me to date the model as pre-1870, was that it didn’t have a ‘Plimsoll Line,’ named after Samuel Plimsoll M.P. who had campaigned for a law to introduce safe loading lines, back in 1875. Dorothy listened, horrified, as Ellie and I discussed the elderly ‘coffin ships’ that unscrupulous owners had previously carelessly overloaded, knowing that if the vessels foundered and the crew perished, the insurers would still reimburse the owners.
That’ll be why I hate the damn thing,’ said Dorothy, ‘it’s a coffin ship.’
Ellie smiled. ‘Maybe that’s why the wee man in the top hat is waving? The owner knows he’s about to drown.’
I snorted my disbelief.
But, secretly, I kept a close eye on the model after that. And by the autumn, I knew that something inexplicable was happening to that ship: week by week, I could tell that the hard clay sea was very slowly creeping higher and higher up the ship’s hull. I could hardly credit it, but there could be no doubt: in a few weeks at most, the clay sea would be over the gunwale and the ship would founder.
And then what would happen? I made enquiries about the circumstances in which the shipping company that had owned the model had gone bust. The information I received was disconcerting.
Dorothy knew something was bothering me: one night, we lay in bed talking it over. We got up at one point and went to the spare bedroom to stare at the damn thing. It was more than creepy. We stared at the clay sea splayed against the hull and we stared at the top-hatted figure waving his despairing arms. Dorothy grabbed me. ‘That wee man, I’m sure he’s changed position!’
She was right: the top-hatted owner had shifted two or three centimetres closer to the bows. I had a sudden feeling of sick revulsion. Turning away, I muttered that I’d put it back in the auction.
Dorothy vetoed that: ‘No way, Alan. It could be bringing disaster on whoever buys it.’
‘OK. I’ll destroy it.’
‘No, no, no. That could bring disaster on us.’ She had a point. We threw an old duvet cover over it and went back to bed.
Eventually, we settled on a plan to get it right out of the house and into it a safe place where it couldn’t harm anybody. At the head of Glen Mór, south-west of Schiehallion, there’s a large cave, ‘Tom a Mhoir-fhir,’ the cave of the giant. I ventured into it several times as a young man. Some say it stretches a great distance underground, right under Schiehallion. It was said to be a faery dwelling place. And it was said that three Knights Templar once took refuge there from persecution. And it was also said that it’s the entrance to the Otherworld. The cave is marked on the Ordinance Survey map, but fools and the foolhardy can search the cave all day and all night, and search in vain – there’s a secret place I know in that cave where it’ll stay hidden til Hell freezes.
Image – Eas Mor – John Allan, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons