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.

DRIVING west, back through Crianlarich, they entered Strathfillan. It’s named after Saint Fillan and the healing pool associated with him was their next destination. Izzy pulled Bess into a minor road and found a parking place.

“It’s not far,” she said, pointing to a sign that said Holy Pool.

Finn raised his eyebrows, giving her a sceptical look; her concept of not far was different to his!

“No, really, this time it isn’t,” she assured him. “The pool is just over there, a very short walk through the trees.”

The morning was lifting and Izzy wandered to a nearby small hillock to take in the view. The mountain tops were still mostly hidden under blankets of mist, but small breaks in the cloud were giving tantalising glimpses of Ben More and Ben Lui.

Finn joined his aunt.

She spoke to her nephew while looking out to the landscape: “A strath is a river valley, Finn, and the river here flows to Loch Dochart. This is Strathfillan, it’s named after the saint of that name who came and settled here to preach his religion, before Scotland even existed.”

“You mean the saint whose magic healing stones we saw at the mill in Killin?”

Izzy nodded with a very pleased smile, happy he’d remembered.

“Yes, that’s him. This part of the river is called Fillan’s Water, it’s where the healing pool is.”

Finn was impatient: “Let’s go there now, I want to swim in it!”

They walked through a small wood of twisted birch trees, their leaves lightly touched by the yellow of autumn. The moment Finn entered the wood, he could sense the place had a mysterious air to it. The path zigzagged down to the river and within a couple of minutes they reached the edge of the pool.

It wasn’t quite what he had expected: a bulge in the river, where the flow of the peaty water slowed, making a deep and calm natural basin. Finn stared at the deep brown water, it was too dark to see anything underneath the surface. It had an almost eerie feeling to it, yet at the same time was quietly inviting.

“This is a place of myth making and history,” Izzy said as she sat by the riverbank to set up her stove. Soon its hissing filled the air. She sipped her coffee, waiting for Finn to join her. He took an apple from her rucksack and sat next to her. He wanted to know about this place.

“It was probably a sacred place even before St Fillan and Christianity came here,” she said. She explained how the early Celts venerated water and places such as this were associated with their gods and of the spirituality within nature itself.

Then she told him stories about St Fillan; of how his ox was killed by a wolf, but that afterwards the wolf returned. The saint forgave the creature and to make amends it agreed to be yoked and pull the plough that had been the job of the ox.

Finn spoke up: “But the wolf didn’t do anything wrong, surely? It was a wolf after all and the ox was prey, it’s what wolves do.”

“That’s true, Finn, but it is a tale made to show how miraculous his god was. There were many of them. Another was that St Fillan had a bell that could magically fly and also his left arm could shine in the dark, giving him light to read and write at night.”

“He sounds more like a superhero,” remarked Finn.

Izzy chuckled: “Yeah, I suppose that was the idea, it was a way of showing people the power of god and of course people at the time really believed these stories. St Fillan’s arm bone became a relic called the Mayne, and there is a story that it was taken to Bannockburn on the orders of Robert the Bruce to help him win the battle.”

Finn knew about Robert the Bruce and wanted to hear the tale of the Mayne. Izzy told it with humour, how the arm bone appeared miraculously, to the surprise of the abbot, who had been afraid to bring it in case it got lost.

Finn looked at the pool: “So according to these stories, he used his powers to make the water here magical?”

“Yep,” said Izzy, drinking the last of her coffee. “It’s mostly forgotten now, but for hundreds of years this was a place of pilgrimage where people came to be cured. The water was said to cure people of mental health problems.” She explained the bizarre ritual of how people were submerged in the pool and given the task of finding stones from the river bed, then spent a night tied up in the nearby priory.

Finn laughed out loud at the image of it all.

Well, I don’t believe the stories,” said Finn, “but I’d still like to swim in the pool and see if I can find some stones.”

Izzy knew she would have to go in with him. She had brought their swimming gear and towels just in case, and soon they were howling and shrieking as they lowered themselves into the cold water. Within a minute, their bodies numbed to it and they began to swim.

Trees lined both banks and they got a good view of the modern bridge further up the river. Finn watched as cars, tour buses and campervans sped over it, passing without a glance.

He stayed in the water longer than his aunt, swimming in circles, then exploring the far side of the river. He managed to get three pebbles from the shallower section of the pool on its eastern edge. As he emerged shivering, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, giving welcome and timely warmth as he dried himself.

“I get it now,” said Finn, laughing. “You actually have to be mad to go in there in the first place!”

He studied the stones in his hand, then looked up: “I know a story about Robert the Bruce.”

He told his story wrapped in a large towel, his hair still wet and dripping. It was the story of Bruce and the spider, and he told it beautifully, under the shade of the birch trees next to the ancient healing pool. The only interruption was birdsong. Now Izzy was the listener and Finn the storyteller. It was an incredibly special moment.

“It’s a story about not giving up,” explained Finn after he’d finished telling it. “Maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it’s still got truth in it.” He gave his aunt a big smile.

His words spoke directly to her, in a way he wouldn’t understand. She glanced towards the trees for a moment, then returned Finn’s big smile.

“Fantastic telling, Finn. And you know what? One of the battles he was defeated in took place just over there, at a place called Dalrigh, the field of the king.” She pointed to beyond the bridge. “He was being hunted by his enemies and nearly got killed in the battle. At least he escaped with his life to later meet the spider! According to legend, he threw his sword into a small loch as he fled. His followers did the same and it’s been called Lochan nam Arm ever since, which means loch of the weapons. Some say Bruce’s sword still lies in the mud there, which is why people also call it the Loch of the Sword.”

Finn was excited by this connection. He wanted to see the loch, maybe he could even find the sword! He’d once been to Bannockburn visitor centre, it had been a fun day out. But here, history felt so much closer, more real, although he couldn’t put into words why.

Izzy agreed they could have lunch at Lochan nam Arm. As she packed up, Finn stood by the water’s edge and dropped one of the pebbles back into the pool. He watched as the circular ripples expanded on the calm surface, finally vanishing. He did the same with the second pebble, again watching the ripples the splash had made.

Then he spoke, while still studying the water.

“My dad once told me that life is a stone thrown into the water: it leaves ripples long after it has vanished.”

Izzy froze, saying nothing in case she chose the wrong words.

Finn looked at the third stone still in his hand. Instead of throwing it into the water, he hurled it into the wood. It bounced off the trunk of a birch tree, then fell into the undergrowth.

“But he was wrong because some stones just vanish, like that one, that’s all they do, because they are not worth anything.” Finn’s mood had suddenly changed.

“I hated that stone,” he said with anger in his voice.

Izzy stood up. “Finn,” she said softly, holding out her arms, offering a hug.

He just turned and walked up the path towards the car, picking up a stick and hitting the trees with it.

“I hate him, I hate him,” he screamed.

Izzy’s stomach sank. Her mind raced over what had happened, what had been the trigger, was it something she had said?

Then she realised.

She walked up the path and found Finn by the car, looking out to the mountains which now framed the near horizon all around them.

“You OK, sweetie? You want to talk?”

Finn shook his head.

“I want to phone my mum,” he eventually replied.

“Of course, there’s a phone at Tyndrum, just down the road. Let’s see if we can get hold of her, it will be nearly lunchtime where she is, so maybe she will be free.”

Finn noticed the sign for Dalrigh, then minutes later they arrived at Tyndrum.

Luckily, Finn’s mum was able to come to the phone.

As Finn spoke with his mum, Izzy saw Ewen pull up at the petrol station. He was in a different car and wearing a jacket with a hood half pulled over his face, but she knew it was him. He was being very careful, as she’d asked him to be. She didn’t know how much he’d seen and heard by the pool.

How to tell him she’d decided it may be best to abandon the whole trip, take Finn back home and wait there for his mum and stepdad to return. It just felt too risky and she was worried about Finn. She knew Ewen would be devastated.

Finn hung up and seemed happier after the call.

“I was thinking we might head back to your home today, Finn. You know, with lights and TV and normal stuff,” said Izzy with a smile and a wink.

Finn’s reaction wasn’t what she expected.

“Why, aunty? I’m sorry I got angry, but I’m OK now. You promised me an adventure to Loch Ness, why are you giving up and breaking your promise?”

So they walked to Lochan nam Arm. Izzy told the story of Bruce’s escape from the MacDougalls and they both made lunch together by a patch of late flowering foxgloves. Some walkers on the West Highland Way passed them, but mostly they had the loch side to themselves.

Finn didn’t find the sword of Robert the Bruce, of course. But he did find something else.

Here are the links to chapters one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12.