WE WENT for a walk this week around Smeaton Lake. There was magic in the autumn colours and the quiet stillness of the air. When we entered the wood, it felt both eerie and magical.

As it happened, I’d told the children the tale of Ghillie Dhu the previous evening for their bedtime story. This is a traditional tale from the north west of Scotland, originally set in the woodlands of the Gairloch area. The name is Gaelic and means the dark-haired lad.

The story connects us to the lush woodland from Scotland’s west coast, sometimes called Scotland’s Rainforest. There are only remnants left now, of course, but all the more important for it.

I’ve come across different ways to tell this tale; it can be spooky, as it’s set in a deep birch wood covered with moss and lichen, a place easy to get lost in, and where at night strange shadows and shapes haunt your imagination.

The Ghillie Dhu was a faerie who lived in the wood alone. He was small and, as his name suggests, dark-haired. He got all he needed from the forest, including his clothes; his trousers were made from sewn-together oak leaves, his hat was a large acorn cup, his shoes were made from bark and the rest of his clothes were made of lichen and moss. His home was amongst the bracken of the wood, and his diet was the nuts and berries it provided.

He would hide during the day and had a fear and dislike of human adults, whose presence in his wood he resented. This was because adults normally came into the wood to destroy or kill. But he was kind and friendly to children, with whom he felt an affinity. In many ways, the Ghillie Dhu was a Peter Pan kind of character, a young lad who had a wild and adventurous side.

The story goes that a young girl called Jessie MacRae got lost at night in his wood. She was scared and he heard her cries. He reassured her with kind words and helped her to find her way out of the wood.

Later, the local laird, upon hearing Jessie’s story, set up a hunt to find and kill the Ghillie Dhu, for he believed his head on his wall would make a great trophy. In some versions, Jessie ventures into the wood to warn Ghillie Dhu. The hunters fail to find him and he was never seen again in that wood. So I reckon he must be hiding somewhere else.

Smeaton Lake Wood is very different to the ‘rainforest’ woods of western Scotland, of course. The lake (I still like to call it a wee loch) was created 200 years ago, and all kinds of trees were planted around its banks. The circular walk is fascinating as well as beautiful, especially on an autumn day full of magic quiet in the air! The trees include a giant redwood and evergreen oak. But there are also native trees such as sessile oak and birch.

As soon as we entered the wood, the kids vanished in play. I found my wee boy Lewis hiding with a leaf on his head.

“Shh, I’m the Gillay Doo,” he said, “I’m hiding from the girls.”

And so the wood, mixed with the story of Ghillie Dhu and the faeries, immersed us in magic. As the children explored, they remembered that the wood had a carpet of snowdrops in February, where now fallen orange leaves rest. They retraced their footsteps from different seasons, looking and searching for faeries.

Then they made a discovery: a small table, with chairs, next to a faerie door on a tree. Evidence of faeries! Some folk had left coins on the table for the wee folk, but organic and edible gifts would be better! We decided to make a wee bannock and return with our gift perhaps in winter.

I don’t know how long we were in the wood, but the sun was beginning to lower fast so I decided we should leave. We had met nobody else in our exploring, which made it feel wild. The kids wanted to stay longer just in case they saw a faerie, maybe even Ghillie Dhu himself, in the twilight.

“Maybe he’s hiding in this wood now,” they said.

We did see a fox scamper into the undergrowth, and the kids’ imagination was alight looking for other creatures, both real and legendary, as we finally made our way out of the wood.

Stories have truth in them, even if they are not about actual factual happenings. I think kids understand this more than adults. And the tale of Ghillie Dhu, with its connection to the gifts of nature and the magic of a wood, is a tale with so much truth in it.

And who knows which wood he might hide in now. Maybe for his sake, it’s best we never find out.