Saturday, 28 June 2014

   In consequence of being granted to see the whole earth in a single ray of divine light, St Columba knew when certain people would arrive as visitors to the monastic community he founded on Iona, and could even divine their fate in later life, in extraordinary detail. Such miracles make up a significant part of those described in St Adomnan’s hagiographical Life, which of course was intended to be an instrument of evangelisation, written about a century after Columba’s death in 597. Many of the wonders being of a maritime nature, an associate of Columba is unperturbed by a close encounter with a fierce whale, knowing that they are both equally in the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Notable from a birder’s point of view was a touching account of Columba’s concern for an exhausted Irish heron, whose arrival he foresees; instructions are given that it be nursed back to health, “…because it is from my homeland.” The part I reached before turning in concerned his encounter with the Loch Ness monster:  

   ‘Columba raised his holy hand while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror. Invoking the name of God, he formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; return with all speed."

   'Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. 'Then the brethren, seeing that the monster had gone back and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man.’ Adomnan’s Life of Saint Columba, Book II Chapter 28. 

…the earliest known reference to that most elusive and mysterious possible dinosaur.

   On Wednesday 1st May, the feast of St Joseph the Worker, I came down from the mountainside above Craig Lodge, seeing a pretty wheatear or two, and attended Mass in the chapel. Columba was then supposed to take me in his car only a few miles down the road, but uncertainty over the exact whereabouts of the West Highland Way, combined with his generous inclination to give me a bit of a head-start, meant we came 25 miles or so to Inverarnan, and a renowned pub called the Drovers’ Inn. The interior is a riot of stuffed animals including a pine marten next to where I was sitting, birds, tartan, claymores, and a framed salmon, blackened by soot, hanging on the wall above an open fire – truly a smoked salmon, as Columba pointed out. Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, The Skye Boat Song and 1982 hit single Promised You a Miracle by Simple Minds were among the tunes on the gramophone playlist, and the staff (even those with English and Antipodean accents) were all wearing kilts, but none of this should detract from the quite dramatic and authentically Scottish history of the place. In 1715, with Scotland in the throes of an uprising in favour of the Old Pretender, son of the deposed King James II, notorious outlaw Rob Roy and his posse raided the Inn, leading to several fatalities. My only disappointment was that a full coat of armour, pictured on the menu, had apparently been the target of a failed bulglary some years before – later it was discovered in a crumpled state, a few hundred yards from where the misappropriation attempt had been made.
The West Highland Way - Loch Lomond
   The Drovers’ Inn is a popular stop on the West Highland Way, which I picked up without difficulty in glorious sunshine. My degree of certainty, that the sound I could hear at intervals that afternoon was the call of a cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) was 100%[1]. Descending to the eastern shoreline of Loch Lomond, tougher questions are asked of West Highland Wayfarers than I had anticipated, but the difficulty of the terrain is more than compensated for by breathtaking scenery. I saw a few warblers, a herd of picturesque goats, and was on the lookout for ospreys, which are known to frequent the loch in spring and summer. At about 5pm in broad daylight it was interesting to see bats, and I also clambered over some jagged rocks to inspect a place billed as one of Rob Roy’s hideouts, by the lakeshore.

   As Columba had explained to me earlier in the day, the original purpose of bothies, varying considerably in shape, size and facilities, but all offering rent-free short-term accommodation, was to provide lodging for junior attendants in stag-hunting or fishing expeditions, known as ‘gillies’. Just after dark it was a relief to track down the one I’d been looking for (they are dotted at intervals along the West Highland Way), aided in my quest by the sound of Seattle-based rock music wafting through the trees. Three guys of about my age from Newport Gwent had already taken up residence, but there was plenty of space for one more, and though their music was a bit on the loud side, I had effective earplugs. After a good sleep, in the morning I was given an invigorating cup of coffee, in return for which I left them with a packet of three Viennese chocolate truffles and a Mary’s Meals leaflet.

   Thursday 2nd May, dedicated to St Athanasius, saw me continue my loch-side lope in slightly duller conditions. I needed to reach a place called Balmaha, to catch a ferry to Luss on the opposite shore, where CoS minister Reverend Dane Sherrard of St Kessog tract-writing fame was expecting me. At about 3 o’clock I got a nasty jolt however, when I came to a ‘water-bus’ timetable. The last ferry would be at 3.30, not 4.30 as I had previously understood. I ran to the nearby road, rather than sticking to the official Way, and tried vainly to hitch-hike, but got up quite a sweat because no one was stopping – I just had to leg it to the best of my ability. Somehow reaching Balmaha and boarding the diminutive passenger craft with 3 minutes to spare, it scarcely even occurred to me to think about the strain this put on my knee, but there were no ill-effects, thanks be to God.

[1] In recent years research has been carried out on this species, because Scotland’s population has tended to fare better than their English counterparts, evidence suggesting that their respective migration routes to Africa, and their wintering grounds there, may be clearly distinct. Welsh birds reportedly take the Scots passage – a Celtic/Anglo-Saxon divide apparently – but of course this theory may be nothing more than four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked-in-a-pie-in-the-sky-land.

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