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The Longest, the Loveliest and the Loneliest

Cameron McNeish’s new book, Come by the Hills, is published later this month, following on from the success of his memoir, There’s Always the Hills . In this extract, Cameron delves into the history and legends of one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens.

IT was Sir Walter Scott who first described Glen Lyon in the above terms and my old mentor Tom Weir was fond of using the same alliteration to describe this 34-mile long glen of highland Perthshire. He often told me Glen Lyon was his favourite glen and for a man who knew Scotland like few others that was a high recommendation.

It is indeed a magnificent place, from its heavily wooded lower glen near Fortingall where the River Lyon crashes and tumbles through its deep, shadowed gorge, all the way to the bare upper slopes of the glen, a place of desolation and remote mountain grandeur despite the hydro works that have dammed the loch, created a stony tideline around the shores and laced the upper glen with power lines.

Notwithstanding the hand of man, Glen Lyon is famed for something else. It is also Scotland’s most mysterious glen, a place of myth and legend and according to some, home to the Creator Goddess of the ancient Celtic world.

Years ago I met an old friend of mine here. Lawrence Main lives in mid-Wales and has a penchant for New Age thinking. Lawrence describes himself as a druid and has a longstanding fascination with the earth-mysteries and legends of our wild places. He had come north to Glen Lyon to visit Fortingall, a place he believed may have been the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge of Christ.

Highland cow in Glen Lyon | Photo: Walkhighlands

Two thousand years ago, the legend suggests the Emperor Caesar Augustus sent an emissary to Scotland, to Dun Geal, near modern Fortingall. The emissary’s wife gave birth to a baby, and they called him Pontius Pilate. He went on to become the fifth procurator of Judea and ordered the crucifixion of Christ.

Lawrence was also searching for the Praying Hands of Mary, a large split rock that stands in Gleinn Dà-Eigg, an offshoot of Glen Lyon close to Bridge of Balgie. He also believed that Glen Lyon was the home of the Celtic Creator Goddess, and was itself a sacred place.

Although megalithic remains are found just outside the Glen, in Fortingall and near Loch Tay, Glen Lyon is curiously devoid of megalithic monuments. As the home of the Creator Goddess the glen was sacred by its own nature and such special sites were normally left untouched by the ancient Celts.

Lawrence’s revelations about the Celtic importance of Glen Lyon had aroused my own long-standing interest in such mysterious matters. Just as North American outdoors folk have learned much from the native North American tribes so I believe we can learn much from our Celtic ancestors, particularly about living in harmony with the land. Lawrence’s various speculations about the importance of Glen Lyon reminded me of a story I had been told some forty years ago by an old pal of mine, the late Harry McShane, a former warden of Crianlarich Youth Hostel and an erstwhile hillwalking buddy.

Glen Lyon from the Cairn Mairg range | Walkhighlands

Harry told me a story about small stone figures that were apparently taken to a lonely spot near the head of Glen Lyon every spring, and removed again every autumn. He couldn’t verify the story and he had no idea who moved the stones but the story has always been lodged somewhere in the scree slopes of my memory and my conversations with Lawrence Main encouraged me to carry out some further research on it. What I discovered surprised and astonished me. This is the story of a pagan shrine dedicated to The Cailleach, in the tradition of the Celtic mother-goddess, who once blessed the cattle and their pastures and ensured good weather.

The Cailleach, often translated as the ‘old woman’ or in this case the divine goddess, is a potent force in Celtic mythology, commonly associated with wild nature and landscape. The Cailleach was the Celtic Creator Goddess, encountered throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, an entity that took many forms and was represented in a variety of different shapes. Believers would see her essential nature in the harmony and balance of the natural order, the ebb and flow of growth and decay, of life and death itself.

Nearby, in Rannoch, legend names her as the Cailleach Bheur, the blue hag who according to the old stories rides the wings of the storms to deal out her icy death to unfortunate travellers. According to AD Cunningham’s excellent book ‘Tales of Rannoch’ this old witch was once a familiar sight on Schiehallion: “Her face was blue with cold, her hair white with frost and the plaid that wrapped her bony shoulders was grey as the winter fields.”

But there have been other ancient forces at work in Glen Lyon. Years ago, just before I climbed the Corbett of Cam Chreag, high above Glen Lyon, I had visited the little church at Innerwick. There’s a car park with interpretative signs beside the start of the right-of-way that runs over the hills to Rannoch and the little church is well worth a visit, even if just to see the ancient bell of St Adamnan.

St Adamnan, also called Adomnan or Eonan, was Irish born and is famed for his biography of St. Columba, who he studied and worked under at Iona. Adamnan lived in the 7th century and died around 704 AD. His bell has been dated to 800AD and apparently lay in the churchyard of St Brandon’s Chapel in Glen Lyon for centuries before being rescued. St Adamnan travelled here from Iona, setting up Christian cells on ancient pagan sites of worship. Another of his churches lies on the shores of Loch Insh, by Kincraig in Badenoch and curiously that church also has a bell that apparently belonged to the well-travelled saint.

At Loch Insh, according to the legend, St Adamnan used to ring the bell to summon the Swan Children of Lir, a brother and sister who were half child, half swan, to worship. Today, Loch Insh and its adjoining meadows is Scotland’s principal wintering place for whooper swans. Coincidence?

Given that St Adamnan, like other travelling priests, would have set up Christian cells on ancient pagan sites of worship it’s perhaps not surprising that pagan Glen Lyon was a target for the early Christian missionaries. The name Lyon is thought by many to be a derivation of Lugdunum, after Lugh, the Celtic sun god. Other historians believe that Glen Lyon was a stronghold of the Picts and suggest that Glen Lyon, rather than Scone, might have been the epicentre of their kingdom. If this is true it could explain why Glen Lyon was thus named: the sun god was normally associated with the king. 

Glen Lyon | Walkhighlands

St Adamnan is also credited with banishing the Black Plague, which apparently raged through Glen Lyon in 664AD. It’s said the saint prayed and summoning God’s help cast the plague’s evil spirits into a hole in a rock. The rock itself is said to lie by the roadside at Camustrachan and is known as Craig Fhionnaidh but I’ve searched for it without success. However, I did find the Bronze Age standing stone with the carving of a cross that is said to stand close to the spot. Further up the glen, near Bridge of Balgie, is Milton Eonan, said to be the erstwhile home of Adamnan and the site of his original cell.

Encouraged by finding the standing stone I set off in search of the Praying Hands of Mary, the name of which I suspect is a twentieth century Christianised invention. Some say the historic name of the rock formation is Fionn’s Rock, the split in the rock created by the supernatural arrow of Fionn MacChumhail, leader of the ancient Fianna warrors.

Conical-shaped hills were important to pre-Christian religions and that importance possibly dates beyond Druidism and the ancient Celts. Glastonbury Tor is a good example and the 642 metre Creag nan Eildeag in Glen Lyon could be another. On the lower slopes of this hill, in Gleann De-Eig, a curious rock formation depicts two hands pointing skywards as though in supplication, the fingertips not quite touching. The split upright stone is balanced on a base rock and leans against another, as though placed there by man’s hand.

Despite a long search on the internet I can’t find any archeological research that suggests this is a natural phenomenon and so the assumption is that the formation is man-made. Having said that I’m pretty open-minded about the origins of the rock formation. Over the years I’ve ceased to be surprised at the highly unlikely formations that nature so often produces. However, the position of the stone formation is interesting. If you stand some twenty or thirty metres downhill from the stones and look back at them they appear to be praying towards the most conical aspect of Creag nan Eildeag, a symbol perhaps of the ‘primordial’ hill, the first hill created n Earth and suggestive of the navel of the Earth.

Other interpretations suggest the primordial hill mimics the extended belly of a pregnant woman. In this case it’s believed by some ancient scholars that the sun-God Lugh had impregnated the Cailleach, hence the conical shaped hill expressing her pregnancy.

Come By The Hills, by Cameron McNeish, is published by Sandstone Press on 20th October 2020. You can pre-order direct from the publishers, via Amazon or all good bookshops.

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