A shortened version of our columnist Tim Porteus’s new book, Road of Legends, is exclusively serialised each week in the Courier. Here is the next mini-chapter.

IZZY waited until Finn had finished his fish supper, then told the old story of a young Maclaren lad who had bought a salmon at the market at nearby Kilmahog.

He was making his way home with it towards the Pass of Leny when a group of Buchanans began to taunt and bully him.

“Why did they do that?” asked Finn.

“The young lad was a simple boy and an easy target. But there was also bad feeling between the Maclarens and Buchanans,” explained Izzy.

“He tried to ignore them,” said his aunt, “but they followed him. Then one of the Buchanans grabbed his salmon and slapped the young lad’s face with it, so hard his bonnet came off. It wasn’t just painful but also horribly humiliating. They all laughed at him as he got upset.”

“I’d have punched that bully in the face!” said Finn angrily.

“Well he wasn’t really a fighter,” explained Izzy, “but he was angry and yelled at them: ‘I dare you to come to the fair at Balquhidder and do that!’ They just continued to mock him. He picked up his fish and headed home, deeply upset. Eventually they left him alone as he walked through the Pass of Leny.”

Izzy paused. Finn was listening, so she continued.

“But when he got home, he didn’t tell anyone what had happened or what he’d said to the bullies, he had forgotten about it. But the Buchanans hadn’t, they regarded it as a challenge. So later that summer, at the Balquhidder Fair, a group of heavily armed Buchanan clansmen arrived, looking for a fight”.

“And what happened?” asked Finn, impatient to know the outcome.

“I’ll tell you when we get to the site of the battle.”

“Aw aunty, no, well I hope the bullies got their a***s well kicked!” said Finn, with real passion.

“You’ll see. Let’s go phone your mum now, then we can travel through the Pass of Leny ourselves.”

It had been arranged that his mum would be in her hotel for his call in the late afternoon. Izzy stood close to the phone box, half listening. It wasn’t that she wanted to eavesdrop on his conversation, just that she wanted to know how he was coping with the separation. Finn seemed OK and Izzy then had a quick chat with her sister to reassure her all was going well.

Then they set off.

Ben Ledi was silhouetted against the sky as they approached Kilmahog. Finn could see the wall of hills that his aunt had explained was the Highland Line; ahead the road twisted then entered the mouth of the ancient pass that would take them beyond it.

Their destination was Loch Ness and Finn had initially wanted to drive straight there, but his aunt had told him they’d arrive on the last day of their journey: Monday.

They had four nights ahead of them and evening was approaching on their first. Finn wondered where they would go to sleep and felt a wave of anxiety at not knowing.

But he didn’t say anything to his aunt, who put on music as they entered the pass.

Almost immediately, Finn could feel the embrace of the land as they wound through the narrow and steep-sided Pass of Leny.

Trees surrounded on all sides and from his window Finn could see the river which had helped carve out this gateway over thousands of years. It was swollen by the recent days of rain and tumbled and roared its way out of the Highlands.

“It’s called Garbh Uisge in Gaelic,” explained Izzy, “which means boisterous river. There’s the falls further up, look out for them as we go by.”

“Can we not stop and get close to the falls then?” asked Finn.

Izzy hadn’t planned on stopping but she was pleased Finn wanted to. It would be a good time to show him the present as well.

She pulled into a forest car park just before the falls.

“I have something for you,” she said with a smile. She went to the back of the car and took out a box.

“Here,” she said, “they are for you, I hope they fit.” It was a shoe box, and inside a new pair of proper walking boots.

He tried them on. “Perfect fit,” he said, “how did you know my size?”

“Och, aunties know these things Finn,” she smiled. “You’ll need to break them in, but this is a very short walk so perfect for a first try.”

As they walked by the river to the Falls of Leny, its roar echoed around them. When they reached the falls, Finn stood transfixed by the sight of the water as it turned white in a torrent of rage. A large rocky outcrop rose from the middle of the river, making an island with trees. One was a silver birch, some of its leaves painted yellow, a reminder that autumn was arriving.

“What does boisterous mean?” asked Finn, staring at the river.

“Erm, wild, unruly, full of energy.”

Finn nodded. They stood together, watching and listening.

“I don’t think the Maclaren lad just forgot about the bullying incident,” Finn said, out of the blue. Izzy didn’t speak. She waited as she sensed Finn wasn’t finished with what he wanted to say.

He continued to stare at the water for a while then looked at his aunt.

“I think he didn’t want to remember it or admit it, because it made him feel so bad about himself. So he didn’t talk about it and found a place inside him to hide it.”

Izzy felt a painful pull on her heart; she understood her nephew more than he could know.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” she said, moving to give him a hug. But he pulled away and she immediately retreated.

“Wish we could spent the night on that rock island,” said Finn, “and listen to this all night, all safe.”

Izzy agreed; if there had been a way to do it, she’d have made it happen.

Finn stood immersed in the feeling of the place. Silent understanding can sometimes be the best communication and they stood together without words in the mesmerising roar of the boisterous river.

They were at a point of transformation. Beyond here lay the Highlands. For Izzy, since first remembered childhood, the Highlands had been a place of memory and longing. In adulthood, they had always been her healing place. She hoped that the Highlands would work their healing magic for her nephew too.

When they eventually got back to the car park, Finn was too busy admiring his boots to notice Izzy’s expression of concern.

She distracted him: “Let’s keep your trainers in the shoe box, we can clean them properly when they dry out and just wear your boots so the trainers don’t get muddy again.

Finn smiled: “Aye, good idea. I love these boots, getting them muddy is what they’re for,” he laughed, “thanks aunty.”

With Izzy’s music playing, they took to the road again. Finn caught a fleeting view of the falls between the trees below the road. He was glad he’d asked to stop; now he hadn’t just glimpsed them but had experienced them and he was now part of their story.

The pass opened up and mountains appeared before them; not as dramatic as Finn had hoped, but even so he could feel he’d entered a different part of the world.

Highland cows grazed lazily in an overgrown field like a clichéd image from a postcard he once had.

“The Highlands,” said Izzy, feeling emotional. She told Finn to look out for the tall Scots pine which grew from the ancient McKinlay burial ground close to the road.

Another Scots pine grew nearby; descendants of the once-great Caledonian forest. Within the walls, hidden under grassy mounds of time, lie the remains of a chapel to St Bride and the bones of generations lost to memory. Yet their legacy remains: in the names they gave to the landscape and the stories they handed down.

The road twisted and turned, then Loch Lubnaig came into view and Izzy’s soul lifted. This beautiful loch had always been her place of ritual on her return to the Highlands.

They pulled into a parking area at the loch’s beginning. Izzy just smiled at Finn, then got out and wandered to the loch’s edge. Finn joined her.

“It’s called Loch Lubnaig,” she explained, “which comes from the Gaelic for crooked loch, because of its shape.” She pointed to where the loch curved out of sight further north, as if it was being swallowed by the hills. The water was calm and mirror like. Wisps of mist were spun around the tops of the trees which clung onto the steep west side of the loch. Beams of dying sunlight lit up the summits of distant hills, although where they stood was now in shadow.

“Come see,” said Izzy. They walked a short distance by the water’s edge along a pebbly beach. Then Izzy veered up a slope into the undergrowth and under some birch trees. Finn followed her. They were in a natural dip in the ground. His aunt turned and peered at the loch through the branches.

“The Gaelic name for this spot is Sloc nan Sitheanach,” she said, “which means the hollow of the faeries. It’s beautiful but I suspect faeries don’t gather here anymore, with the car park so close.”

Izzy picked up a broken glass bottle that someone had thrown into the undergrowth, saying something under her breath.

Finn furrowed his brow. His aunt was talking as if she actually believed in faeries! He knew this must just be her way of making things magical for him.

“You don’t have to pretend aunty, I know faeries aren’t real, just like Father Christmas. It’s all made up stuff, isn’t it?”

Izzy smiled: “Well there are lots of stories about the faeries and hundreds of places are named after them in the Highlands. They weren’t the cute fairies in some young children’s stories, though. The faeries here are a bit like people, some are kind-hearted, some cruel or bad-tempered. Some use their powers for good, others do malevolent or spiteful things. But most are a mixture of all these things depending on what happens to them and how they are treated by others.”

Finn realised his aunt hadn’t answered his question. But he humoured her with an interested nod and let it pass.

“What’s malevolent?” he asked.

“Erm, when you behave really mean, in a cruel, unkind way.”

“Like a bully?”

Izzy nodded.

Finn looked down at his feet for a moment, then peered at the loch. It did feel like a special place. Secretly, he wanted faeries to be real so he could leave them a wish.

“Is this where we are sleeping?” he asked.

“No, but we are going to sleep by a hill where I think faeries do still live.”

Finn just gave his aunt a wry smile.

“It’s called the Mountain of the Faeries in Gaelic. Let’s get going, so we get there before dark.” She looked up at the sky: “It’s going to be a clear night, perfect for a campfire.”

“And stories about malevolent faeries?” joked Finn.

“Hmm, maybe,” she said, tantalisingly.

Here are the links to chapters one, two and three.