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.

“THE first metropolis of the Highlands!” joked Izzy as they approached the village of Strathyre. “The name means sheltered river valley. I thought it’d be a cosy place to spend the first night.”

Finn had a wry smile at his aunt’s humour; the metropolis was a row of houses along one side of the street. Izzy turned left at the beginning of the village for a promised toilet stop.

Afterwards, they joined each other outside.

“There,” said Izzy, pointing to a conical hill silhouetted above them. “That’s Beinn an t-Sidhein, the mountain of the faeries, and just below is An Sidhean, where they live.”

Finn studied the hill. His aunt’s talk about faeries amused him. They drove a short way to the end of the parking area, away from the houses and under trees.

“Here is where we sleep, in Bess,” said Izzy. She got out of the car and took her rucksack from the roof box.

“Come see where we will have the campfire, it’s by a river over there.”

Finn stayed in his seat. He had waves of anxiety washing over his body. Bedtime was always the worst time for it, even when at home. Right now he wanted to be with his mum and all the reassuring comforts of his bedroom, not in a strange place as it got dark, sleeping in a hippy camper car.

“Why can’t we stay in a B&B or hotel like mum, you know, where there are TVs and lights, normal stuff, and comfy beds?” asked Finn.

Izzy understood. She had known Finn would be out of his comfort zone but she had hoped the sense of adventure would help him overcome his fears. She realised she was asking too much of him and felt guilty. She put her rucksack down and gave Finn an understanding smile. “Of course sweetie, there are places to stay here and it’s not high season or too late to ask, so let’s see what’s available.”

She returned the rucksack to the roof box and joined Finn in the car. “Can I first see the river?” he asked, “you know, where we were going to have the campfire?”

“Sure, it’s just over there, it’s called the Balvag, let’s go see.”

Finn followed her as she led him under the trees towards the river. Daylight had given way to twilight but it was not yet dark. They arrived at a small beach of white pebbles where a river with peaty brown water was framed by heavily wooded banks on the far side.

“Here,” said Izzy, “I have a fire dish which would have made it safe, and enough dry wood for maybe an hour or so.”

Finn walked onto the beach and looked around. He had hoped the river would be boisterous but it flowed with a soft gurgling sound. He looked up at the sky; the stars were beginning to appear. Midges were out in the cool September evening air, but so far not biting.

“Can we have the campfire first, then go find a hotel?”

Izzy hesitated to reply. That wasn’t really practical, but this was a vital moment.

“OK, let’s do that then,” she said, “we’d better get it going as soon as possible.”

Within 10 minutes they were sitting round the fire. Izzy had placed the fire dish in a gap between trees next to the pebbly beach. They sat on small foldable chairs.

“That roof box of yours is like Dr Who’s Tardis, what else have you got in there?”

Izzy chuckled: “Och, just essentials.”

The fire crackled and Finn stared at the dancing flames. Darkness was falling now but a nearly full moon was appearing in the sky. The trees transformed into giant dark silhouettes in the moonlight. Finn and his aunt were in a protective circle of yellow flickering primeval light and warmth.

“More essentials,” said Izzy as she took out some snacks from her rucksack. Finn opened a packet of crisps.

Izzy pointed at the tree closest to them: “That’s an oak tree.”

“How can you tell in the dark?”

“I know this tree, but you can tell a type of tree by the leaves,” said Izzy, “it’s not so old for an oak, but it’s older than me, and it might live hundreds more years if it’s allowed to survive.”

Finn briefly peered up at the tree, then turned his attention to the crisps. He squeezed the packet, crunching the crisps inside until they were small crumbs, then tipped them into his mouth. He noticed Izzy watching him.

“I think they taste better this way,” he explained.

“I’m sure they do,” replied his aunt. Finn finished the crisps, then, as if it was a sacred ritual, he carefully folded the packet until it was a small square. Izzy held out the rubbish bag and he dropped it in. He returned his concentration to the flames.

“I’ve loved this tree since I first met it,” said Izzy.

“You love all trees, aunty.”

“You’re right, Finn, I do. But I can’t know all of them, but I do know this one.”

Finn looked at the tree: “How can you get to know a tree, I mean it’s just a tree, not a person?”

“You get to know a tree just like you get to know a person: by noticing and caring about it, spending time with it, listening and talking and sharing stories. This is a story tree for me.”

“Trees can’t listen or talk or tell stories, aunty, that much I do know for sure.”

Izzy looked at Finn and smiled. She held her peace on what she believed. Finn needed to experience it for himself to understand.

“OK, we have firewood to last long enough for some stories,” said Izzy in her cheerful voice, “let’s each tell a tale and see if we have time for another.”

Finn protested: “I don’t want to tell a story, I’m no good at that, you’re the storyteller.”

“Well I’ll start then,” said Izzy. “A tale about the faeries?”

Finn shrugged his shoulders and raised his bottom lip and gave a slight nod. Izzy interpreted this as agreement.

She told him the story of Robert Kirk, who had been minister of nearby Balquhidder in the late 1600s. It was said he had knowledge of the faerie folk, which is why he wrote a book describing in detail their appearance, society and underground world.

In an almost whispering voice, Izzy added: “People believed it was best to avoid disturbing or offending them, and the story of what happened to Robert Kirk was a warning to others not to give away their secrets.”

“What happened to him?”

“He died suddenly before he published his book while on a walk near a faerie hill, but according to legend he had actually been kidnapped and the body was a fake placed by the wee folk. They took him into the otherworld as a prisoner as punishment for betraying their secrets,” explained Izzy. She then told the tale of his failed attempt to escape.

“So he’s still trapped there,” Izzy concluded.

Sitting by the fire, surrounded by dark shadows, the idea of faeries or other mysterious creatures living hidden in the landscape seemed more believable to Finn.

There was movement and occasional sounds from the trees beyond them, probably a bird or small nocturnal animal, but darkness mixed with imagination played tricks on his senses.

“How many of these stories do you know?”

Izzy puffed her cheeks, then shrugged her shoulders. “There are literally hundreds of them,” she said. “I think they were for entertainment in dark evenings around the fire like this, but like all stories, they had their hidden truths.”

Finn asked for another, so Izzy told the tale of a faerie who tricked a young man. The faerie had fallen in love with the lass the young man was due to marry. She sang so sweetly even the birds would pause their songs to listen. The faerie realised she would go live with her new husband in another glen after the wedding and he would not hear her singing.

So on the morning of the wedding, while the young man was waiting for his bride, the faerie tricked him and trapped him in the otherworld. Nobody knew what had happened to him and the lass was heartbroken. People said he must have abandoned her and didn’t really love her. He was returned to this world after 50 years, when the lass was an old woman.

“That’s an evil thing to do,” Finn said angrily after the tale finished. “You’re right, faeries can be malicious. I hate that faerie.”

Izzy added some sticks to the fire before speaking: “Yep, but the thing is, love can be such a powerful emotion that sometimes you’ll do anything to keep the person. I don’t think the faerie in this story was evil, but his fear of losing the thing he loved most meant he did something very cruel, not just to the man but also to the lass he loved.”

Finn looked up to the moon, then turned his gaze to the fire. He began to poke it with his fingers, as if to deliberately burn himself. The truth in this tale was too exposed, too raw for him.

His aunt immediately understood and felt angry with herself for not realising this story would make him feel vulnerable. She decided to change the mood with an amusing story.

With outspread arms, Izzy declared: “Now for something completely different! I’m going to tell you a story about a time I camped near here, before you were born, and was given the fright of my life by a cat!”

She used all her storytelling skills to describe a disastrous camping trip when she had been a teenager: midges, rain, ruined clothes and a crazy cat who stalked them at night. It eventually worked in changing Finn’s mood and he laughed along with her at the funny images the story painted in his head.

Soon they had run out of wood for the fire, but Finn wanted to collect sticks and keep it going. So in the moonlight, with the help of a torch, they gathered firewood together. A twig snapped close by and something ran away into the darkness. “Probably a deer, but maybe a faerie,” Izzy joked. The wood fizzed with dampness when it was added to the fire, but eventually the flames returned.

It was a night of tales under the listening story tree, just as Izzy had hoped; Finn even told his own funny story. When the evening came to an end, it was too late to find accommodation. But they had Bess and Finn was less anxious now and willing to sleep in her. They were no longer in a strange place, the evening of stories and moonlit foraging had woven its magic; there was a connection here now.

Finn slept like a log and didn’t stir when Izzy briefly left the car.

In the morning, they awoke to glorious sunshine. Izzy was up first, making porridge under the oak tree with her camping stove. Finn soon joined her. They both watched hungrily as it bubbled in the pot and Finn couldn’t remember porridge tasting so good.

After breakfast, he stood by the river. It flowed with quiet determination towards Loch Lubnaig. He noticed that the water eddied as it flowed round the bend, making a permanent circle of white bubbles on the surface. Izzy explained that something was hidden underneath, its presence only noticed by those who understood the body language of the river.

“Let’s get going,” she said and checked the area to ensure they’d left only memories.

She stood and thought about the flow of the strath’s history: Celtic tribes, anxious Roman patrols, clan warriors, drovers, Redcoat soldiers, refugees from the clearances; they all came this way, as did writers, poets and tourists. The dismantled railway line, the old military road, the ancient drovers’ route all bear witness to past journeys undertaken. Now this place, and the evening under the story tree, was part of its lore, more than Finn could understand. But one day she hoped he would.

She packed the car and looked round for Finn. She found him standing by the oak tree.

“You OK, wee man?” she asked.

He looked at her, then up at the branches. Finn knew the tree now too.

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