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.

“WHAT did he remember?” asked Finn.

“You’ll find out in another story, I’ll tell you it when we’re on Rannoch Moor, the moor of broken men,” said Izzy.

“Broken men?”

“Outlaws, Finn, or people needing to hide for whatever reason.”

“Like the giant who killed Finn MacCoul, he fled to Rannoch Moor didn’t he?”

“He did, well remembered.”

Izzy pointed north, where the land rose in the distance above Loch Tulla.

“We have to climb to get there, it’s over a thousand feet above sea level.”

“Climb?” Finn retorted.

“Don’t worry, Bess will do the climbing for us, but I hope one day you will be willing to walk and climb with me, maybe we could even do the West Highland Way together.”

“How long is it?”

“Depends on how much you do, but in total 96 miles”.

Finn laughed with incredulity. “What?! Naw, no way ever, sorry aunty, your walks on this trip have been long enough!”

And so they set off for Rannoch Moor, which meant a return drive along the old road, back through the ancient Caledonian pinewood to Bridge of Orchy.

As Izzy approached the bridge, her stomach sank as she relived the events of an hour ago.

When Mary had made her first desperate cry to Finn, he had thankfully just closed his door so hadn’t heard; but Izzy had. She’d had no choice but to rapidly set off with music playing loudly. The heartbreaking image of Mary in her rear view mirror, begging her to stop, was something she would never forget. It made her feel sick with guilt.

Izzy was now desperate to speak to Ewen, to find out why the hell his mother was there in the first place after she’d been so clear she couldn’t cope with being involved. And leaving the scarf, that wasn’t part of the plan either.

Doubts and anxiety about the trip once again surfaced in Izzy’s mind. It had been so carefully planned to keep Finn safe, but now it seemed to be unravelling. The incident at Bridge of Orchy had unnerved Izzy to the extent she was no longer sure she could trust Ewen to keep to the arrangements they had painstakingly put together.

The more she thought about it, the more she began to realise that ending the trip and taking Finn home would be the safest thing to do.

But her mind was torn in a dilemma. She could see he was enjoying and benefitting from the adventure. As she’d hoped, the landscape, the stories and immersion in nature had created a new emotional space for Finn. The Highlands were working their magic and Finn was slowly opening up; his anxiety seemed less and he was managing his anger better. His regular calls to his mum were vital to maintain this, but there were signs that this trip, as Izzy had hoped, could be a seed for healing.

And, besides, Finn had already made it clear he didn’t want the journey cut short. If she did so now, how could she explain her decision to him? She would have to make something up and he would feel so let down, probably assume he was to blame.

As Izzy drove over the bridge, her mind swirled with indecision. She reached the junction with the main road, then hesitated. Head north to Rannoch Moor, or south and take Finn home? It was late afternoon now, with perhaps three hours of daylight left.

“Come on aunty, there are no cars, you can go.”

Izzy made her decision: she turned left and headed north.

A distant view of the Caledonian wood was suddenly blocked by a dense plantation of Sitka spruce by the road. Then Loch Tulla reappeared into view, its banks littered with nature’s debris, landed there during previous flooding by the loch.

Before they began their ascent to Rannoch Moor, they passed the ruined castle at Achallader. Its tower was clearly visible in the distance, a jagged tooth standing defiantly but dwarfed by the mountains beyond.

It was yet another fortress built by Black Duncan, this time on land taken from the Fletchers, so the story goes, by devious means. The conniving Campbell chief engineered a deadly confrontation between one of his servants and the head of the Fletchers. The sad result was the murder of the servant by the Fletcher, all part of Black Duncan’s plan. It was done in the heat of the moment, but murder it was, and Fletcher would hang for it if caught and tried. Duncan ensured he himself was witness to the incident, so he had Fletcher’s fate in his palm. So upon Duncan’s advice, the Fletchers fled, leaving the land to be acquired by the cunning Campbell chief, who promptly had a tower built by the farm to mark his possession of it.

“Just like a dog pees on lampposts to mark his territory,” commented Finn.

“What an image, but yes!” laughed Izzy. “And it guards the edge of his Campbell estate, as well as the drovers’ route. From here, we climb up to Rannoch Moor.”

The road curved as it climbed to give a spectacular view over Loch Tulla and the peaks of the great wall of Rannoch, a mountain boundary on the south of the moor. Izzy had travelled this way many times, but her anticipation was undiminished: Rannoch Moor is a wild place seeped in legend and history, not a few ghosts, and an unpredictable temper.

Izzy pulled up at a layby on the edge of the moor and turned to look at her nephew.

“We’re going on a walk, aren’t we?” he said despondently. He looked around. It was all empty moorland with distant mountains. “We are in the middle of nowhere, aunty, what are we going to see?”

“I will be honest, Finn, it’s not far but it may be boggy and wet underfoot. But it’s a place of special meaning for me and I really want to share it with you.”

He looked down at his boots, then gave her an affirmative smile.

“OK then, I suppose so far I haven’t regretted going on your ‘short’ walks… much!”

They set off onto the moor but kept not far from the road. They leapt between mounds of wispy grass and bog myrtle, trying with limited success to avoid boggy areas. Soon Finn could see what he guessed was their destination: a large boulder with a tree growing from the top of it.

It was a ‘giant’s stone’ but not as large as Samson’s Putting Stone. Izzy climbed to the top with an ease that suggested she’d done it before and gave Finn a hand up. They both sat under the branches of the tree, a small weather-beaten rowan, looking out to the mountains which they had passed on their journey. Cars whizzed by on the nearby road, but soon Finn became unaware of their fleeting presence as he listened to his aunt’s words.

“How it seeded in this unlikely place, I can’t say,” she said. “Perhaps a careless bird dropped a berry and couldn’t retrieve it. But however the seed arrived, it sprouted and grew from this small crack on the boulder’s summit. This tree survives on meagre ground and in an exposed position, howling winds have bent its spines. I’ve seen it in all seasons, resplendent with berries in autumn, battered by freezing winter gales, its naked branches turned white by frost, wearing a coat of blossom in spring. Its life here seems impossible, yet it survives. Each time I pass on tour, I slow my coach and say hello under my breath. But when I am on a personal journey, I often stop and keep it company for a while.”

“Keep it company aunty, really?”

“It’s alone, Finn. Trees connect with each other just as humans do, although in different ways of course. They crave the company of their kind, their roots intertwine as we might give each other hugs. But this beautiful tree is lonesome.”

“I don’t think trees get lonely, aunty, they don’t have feelings like we do.”

Izzy bent her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs, staying silent in thought for a moment before replying.

“Maybe you’re right, Finn, perhaps it’s that trees can help us recognise our own feelings. You know, when we see their struggles, they remind us of our own. They are living things too and I think they can understand.”

Finn peered up at the tree. A few red berries hung from its wilted branches. From a distance, it had looked defiant, but close up it looked, well, precarious; perhaps even anxious, clinging onto its almost bare rock for survival. He didn’t want to admit it out loud, but he did understand what his aunt was saying; he too could feel a connection to the rowan’s struggle.

As they sat either side of the tree squeezed on top of the boulder, Izzy told a story. Finn wasn’t sure if it was for him or the tree; probably both, he reckoned. It was a story he would long remember, more deeply than he could have imagined he would.

They walked back to the car silently, carefully re-treading their steps to avoid sinking ankle deep in bog. Midges buzzed in the air but didn’t bother. It was getting very cool and breezy; darkening clouds were making the sky seem angry.

“The mood of the moor is changing,” reflected Izzy out loud. “You ready to see what lies beyond that ridge?”

Here are the links to chapters one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.