After the cremation, I felt I had to get away. I found a Perthshire country house hotel on the internet, situated in one of those mysterious winding glens that end abruptly in a wall of rock. The hotel advertised itself as ‘a mecca for hill-walkers,’ but that clearly only applied outside the shooting season, as was evidenced by the stags’ heads in the hallway, bar and library. More like an abattoir than a country house hotel, it seemed on arrival. Nevertheless, the staff were friendly and the weather was surprisingly dry for April, so I decided to stay on for a second week: I didn’t relish returning home to an empty house – her clothes in the wardrobe, her flowers in their pots on the kitchen window. And it wasn’t really until that second week that I got to know Willie Anderson.
Of course, there was still quite a lot of snow lying on the high tops, but I hadn’t brought my crampons and, in my view, it’s daft for an old git in his sixties to go wandering off on his own over snowfields only half frozen, with possible hidden crevasses and overhangs above hidden rock faces. I was quite content, most of the time, pottering along the glen, on both sides of the river. And if I was feeling energetic, there was a path behind the hotel that led up to a saddle-ridge and then down into the next glen. From there, I could follow that glen south to where it met up with the main glen, giving me a circular route back to my evening meal and a drink in the hotel bar. All walkers prefer a circular route, but this one had the added attraction for me that the adjoining glen was completely unpopulated. There was one, unroofed shepherd’s house and, scattered among the bracken, a few ruckles of stones to mark the old ‘black houses’ of the native population, swept away from the only homes they’d ever known to North America in the Highland Clearances of two hundred-odd years ago, all in the name of the dismal science of Economics. I felt an atmosphere lingered over those old stones and to stride among the ghosts of these lost dwellings suited my mood.
It turned out that there were perhaps more ghosts in that empty glen than I’d reckoned on. Andy, the hotel owner and part-time barman, told me the story one quiet evening in the bar over a dram. The shepherd’s house was last occupied in the late 1940s, by a young family – the shepherd, his wife, and two young children (a five year-old girl and a boy toddler). It was a winter’s day and the snow lay thick and drifted. Just at dusk, the shepherd appeared at the hotel (in those days it was a shooting lodge with only a caretaker in residence). The man was agitated, and near-exhausted from pushing through the drifts lying on the saddle. He had come to phone the doctor in the village: his daughter was very ill – her parents suspected appendicitis. The doctor was an elderly man and to reach the shepherd’s house would be quite beyond his capabilities. He said he would get a local farmer to drive him on a tractor through the drifts to the shooting lodge. Meanwhile, the shepherd must return to his own house and somehow carry his daughter back to the lodge.
The shooting lodge kept ponies – Highland Garrons – for carrying shot game back to the lodge. The shepherd begged the loan of a pony from the caretaker. The caretaker demurred, but the shepherd prevailed upon him to phone the lodge owner, in London, to give his permission. The ponies were unused to being ridden, but were docile, and would carry a child, if roped or strapped securely to their backs.
The caretaker watched the shepherd lead the pony away. He was the last person to see them alive. A north-west wind had sprung up, ensuring there would be fresh drifting on the exposed saddle ridge. The doctor arrived just before midnight, too stiff with cold to dismount from the tractor unaided. But there was no patient for him. The wind died with the dawn and half a dozen local men and the village constable struggled up the saddle to search for those missing. They found them all, a mile short of the shepherd’s house. It seemed the mother had come out with her husband to hold the patient steady on the pony, being led by her husband. They must have judged that the storm was too fierce to allow them over the saddle and turned back for home, only for cold and exhaustion to then overcome them all – adults, child and pony died together.
Andy poured me another dram: ‘This was all before my time, you understand. I heard it all from Willie Anderson. He was the gamekeeper here before he retired, but he still helps out when we have shooting parties up here. He stays in the cottage across the bridge. According to Willie, no-one would stay in the shepherd’s house after that tragic business, although there was a terrible housing shortage at the time. Sometime in the Sixties, the roof fell in. It’s called Dookeran Cottage, a garbled version of the old Perthshire Gaelic – Gleann an Dubh Choirein, the Glen of the Black Corries.’
The following day was warm, bright and still, and I lingered on the bridge at the bottom of the hotel drive. I was watching the sand martins. Just upstream from the bridge, the river had cut deeply into a large hummock of glacial spoil (‘drumlins,’ the hummocks are called in the geography textbooks, I don’t know if there’s a Highland name for them), resulting in a near-vertical sandy bank rising some thirty feet above the river. Generations of sand martins had excavated tiny holes in the bank to raise their young, and here were the latest generation to complete the cycle – newly returned from their winter quarters to repair and refurbish, to breed and rear, and to continue the work of their forbears. It’s difficult to say why watching this swooping, twittering, aerobatic community should be so restful.
Yet restful it was; I don’t know how long I stayed there leaning on the bridge wall. At length, an old Series I Land Rover drew up alongside me and a head emerged from the window – a brown, wrinkled, outdoor face, almost hairless, with gleaming false teeth: ‘Aye, you’re watching the martins. They arrived back on Wednesday – a week earlier this year.’ I realised that I was being addressed by an expert, Willie Anderson.
Willie didn’t intrude his expertise: it was a natural part of him, like his toothy chuckle. And he had that pedagogic trick of capturing your interest with an intriguing story: that morning, I was tickled by his tale of how, three years previously, an albino martin had returned to the glen and seemed to act as a sort of leader to the others. Willie was a mine of information about the history of the glen, too. I had already noticed the neolithic cup-marked boulder on the far side of the bridge, but he offered to show me a strange, carved, standing stone, hidden in a small forestry plantation at the head of the glen.
We walked up there together that afternoon. We agreed that it was probably a Pictish stone, possibly erected to mark a boundary between Pictland and the (Scottish) kingdom of Dalriada. Together, we stared at the carved Pictish symbols, more mysterious than Egyptian hieroglyphics: we were enriched, rather than diminished, by the puzzle of the past. On the way back, I stumbled on one surprising piece of Willie’s past: this warm and outgoing man was a widower like myself.
Willie had been born and raised among those hills and in the next few days he showed me many hidden places and told me many old tales: the great cleft in the rocks where the whisky-still had been erected; the cave where one of the Drummond chiefs had fled after the ’45 Rebellion; the ford where the minister’s wife had drowned in a flash flood. Places where jagged tragedies had been worn smooth by the stream of time. On my last evening, we stood together in the kirkyard beside his wife’s grave. Willie told me that it was her birthday. The wild primroses growing among the turf seemed luminescent in the evening light. I noticed that the adjoining gravestone marked another Anderson grave, a husband, wife and young daughter. Willie nodded, ‘Aye, my faither and mither, an’ my big sister.’