By Tim Porteus

AT THE beginning of this week, a short trip to see a friend in the lovely town of Callander gave us the opportunity to make a short excursion across the Highland line to visit some favourite places around the area of Loch Lubnaig.

While East Lothian is my home, I understand Robert Burns’ sentiment: “My heart is in the Highlands.” There is something magical which overcomes the soul when crossing the Highland line; the way the landscape suddenly changes into mist-covered mountains which fold into beautiful, loch-filled glens.

There isn’t a more spectacular way to experience this transformation than to travel through the Pass of Leny just beyond Callander. As you emerge from the tree-covered pass, an ancient Scots pine, with its roots in an old McKinlay burial ground, welcomes you into what was once the border lands of Scotland’s ‘Gaidhealtachd’, or Gaelic-speaking area.

It’s as if you have entered another world, and in a sense you have. Loch Lubnaig, overlooked by Ben Ledi and Ben Vorlich, frames a spectacular introduction to what to expect as the traveller ventures north.

But we had limited time and did not venture beyond Balquidder. Here clan legends hang heavy in the atmosphere, and visitors to ‘Rob Roy’s Grave’ have made it a place of pilgrimage.

Sadly, the Gaelic language which held sway in this area for a thousand years is now mostly a ghostly remnant in this part of the Highlands, preserved in the name places of the land and lochs.

But the stories survive. The soil and rocks here are seeped in clan lore and legend. Evidence of a people cruelly removed is everywhere; old settlements, ruined houses, burial grounds, old clan assembly points, ancient kirks. They whisper tales of the clans who once held this land, some of them by title, others by the sword: MacLaren, MacGregor, MacNab and Stewart.

As we explored the ancient landscape, I told the kids the stories of fairies and giants of this area. At the end of our walk we visited Balquidder Kirk, and there at the back of the church we discovered the drawing by Watson Wood of an image later remade into what became known as the Fairy Postcard.

It depicts scenes around the old church of Balquidder, and one of these is of the Rev Robert Kirk, who was the minister here from 1664 to 1685. He is seen in the corner of the picture with five dancing fairies. It immediately caught the attention of my fairy-loving daughter Manja, who asked why fairies were in the drawing.

It is a tale often told and well-known. Robert Kirk was said to have been taken by the wee folk in retribution for his writing of a book which gave away the secrets of their lives and society. The book was called ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’. Kirk firmly believed in the existence of fairies, as did most of his parishioners. For him, this belief was no contradiction in his Christian religion, but rather a confirmation of the existence of an unseen and magical world.

The wee folk enraged

He later moved to Aberfoyle, where he collapsed and seemingly died in 1692 while walking close to Doon Hill, a well-known fairy hill. But it seems it was not death which took him but rather the wee folk, who were enraged by his writing about their secrets.

The story goes that soon after his supposed death, Kirk appeared to a relative to explain he’d been taken by the wee folk and was captive in fairyland, and asked for help to escape.

Sadly, his relative failed in the attempt and so Robert Kirk now remains forever a captive in the other land he so elaborately wrote about.

“Just like the Lothian farmer’s wife,” I said to my daughter as we travelled home. And so I’d given myself the task of telling this tale as darkness fell and we headed home.

The tale of the farmer’s wife, as recorded by Sir George Douglas, and indeed other tales similar to it in East Lothian, shows the belief in fairy lore was not exclusive to the Celtic traditions of the Highlands.

The exact location of the farm is not revealed in the tale. The wife of the farmer had been taken by the wee folk, perhaps because of her singing voice. But she would secretly return on Sundays to visit her children, comb their hair and soothe them.

Soon her husband discovered her, and after getting over his initial shock, listened to her as she explained that she was not dead but trapped in fairyland and was desperate to escape. She told him how he could rescue her.

He loved her dearly and listened carefully to her instructions. She told him the location of the fairy hill, then said: “Ye maun wait there for the procession of the wee folk tae pass at Samhain (Hallowe’en). Ye will ken when they are tae emerge fir ye will hear the ringing of the fairies bridles, and there will be a fearsome sound. Dinnae be feart, my husband, when I pass ye throw a metal knife ower ma heid and I will be released.”

And so the husband did as instructed and waited by the hill. It was a cold and dark night, and sure enough a blood-curdling sound sent shivers through his body and heralded the emergence of the fairy procession.

And there he saw his wife, and she saw him and smiled. But he cowered in fear, paralysed with terror at the sight of the host of magical creatures. His wife implored him with facial expressions to do as she had told him, but he was just too afraid to reveal himself and risk becoming captive.

The procession finally vanished, with the wee folk laughing and shouting in glee at the husband’s failure. The final sounds were of his wife crying in lamentation at her husband’s failure of nerve at the crucial moment. He had lost her forever and she was destined to remain a captive. We can only imagine the guilt he lived with thereafter.

There are many variations of this tale told all over Scotland, and the weaver’s wife of North Berwick (whose story is told in my first book) is but one other example.

It’s not a happy ending, and the fairies of Scottish tradition are not the romanticised winged versions of today’s children’s movies.

But my kids know this. They understand that the ‘real fairies’ can be dangerous and capricious. That is why they always wear something made of metal when out walking, just in case. It gives an edge of excitement and adventure to any walk, and a sense of empowerment.

After our discovery of the Fairy Postcard at Balquidder Kirk and the story of Robert Kirk and the Lothian farmer’s wife, my children told me to be careful what I wrote.

“But don’t worry, dad,” said Manja, “if you get captured we will not get too scared. In fact, maybe it’d be a good idea to write about the fairies so we get the chance to see them and rescue you!”

And so I have. We’ll wait to see what happens...