Shortly before Christmas we became a little stir crazy at home, and despite a forecast of heavy rain we decided to venture outside in search of adventure.
We headed to the Trossachs where we spent three consecutive days exploring the region. Clad head to toe in our waterproof gear we were undeterred by a little (ok a lot) of rain. Billy Connolly once said “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.”
One of the places we visited during our travels was the town of Aberfoyle. Aberfoyle sits nestled between dramatic, craggy hills, woodland and loch – it’s classically Trossachs. I’d heard about the existence of a faerie hill on the fringes of town, so we headed off in search of the wee folk as soon as we arrived.
I’ve always been interested in Scotland’s myths and legends. It’s hard to imagine today, but Scots once believed unwaveringly in the existence of magical beings.
En route to find the faerie hill we passed a ruined church sitting in an overgrown kirkyard. I love old tombstones so we stopped to take a closer look. Inside the kirkyard were a couple of beautifully, well-preserved iron mortsafe weights – my macabre find had made my day! In the 19th century the weights would have been placed on top of fresh graves to stop grave robbers, or resurrectionists as they were quite aptly known from digging up the recently deceased to sell to anatomy schools.
Grave robbing was once a popular, if not unconventional little earner in Scotland. Watchtowers were built in the cemeteries of Scotland’s cities to deter the resurrectionists. Night watchmen would sit in the towers, watching over the dead so their eternal slumbers were not disturbed.
I found it fascinating that even in the quiet Trossachs town of Aberfoyle, measures had to be taken to prevent the dead from being spirited off into the night. The nearest medical school to Aberfoyle would have been around 30 miles away in Glasgow.
Anyway, I digress as this post is about faeries – although this little church turned out to have a fascinating link to the faerie folk.
A little further into our walk we reached a wooded hill known as Doon Hill or the Fairy Hill. There’s a lovely circular walk up the hill through woodland.
As we made our way uphill we found lots of evidence to confirm the existence of faerie folk in these parts. Tiny houses could be seen carved into trees. The faeries must have wanted us to see them though, or they’d have used magic to conceal their homes from us.
The wee dug peered inside tiny windows and waited patiently outside miniature doors, hopeful of an invite inside for tea. Knowing that Scottish faerie folk aren’t the sweet natured types found in Enid Blyton stories I was glad we didn’t meet any.
Loving a bit of folklore/tradition we stopped to place a coin in a tree-stump shaped like a toadstool, and made a wish. Wishing trees date back hundreds of years in Scotland – gifts would be left as offerings to the tree spirits. It’s bad luck to remove a coin and steal a wish.
At the top of the hill we came to a clearing with a large tree in the middle. The tree, and those surrounding it were covered in brightly coloured cloots.
Cloot is a Scots word for cloth. The tying of a cloot is another ancient tradition. It’s tied for a loved one who is sick or ailing. As the cloot rots away in the elements the loved one’s health starts to improve. I love that even in 21st century Scotland people still place faith and hope in old traditions and beliefs. It was sad to see just how many people were so obviously worried about the health of their loved ones.
As we were standing on the hilltop by the clootie tree the weak winter sun was beginning to set. It cast an orange glow through the trees, giving the place an eerie, otherworldly glow which seemed fitting.
So, what did the old ruined kirk we explored earlier have to do with Doon Hill? Well, the 17th century Reverend Robert Kirk was the minister there. He’s buried in the kirkyard, although there are some who would laugh at that suggestion. The Reverend was a folklorist who was fascinated by the faerie folk. He was writing a book about them – ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ and the faeries were absolutely furious that he was about to expose their secrets.
Reverend Kirk used to enjoy a nightly stroll up Doon Hill during the summer months – possibly to gather material for his book. On 14th May 1692 he was found dead at the summit. The cause of death was recorded as a heart attack, but the local people knew there was more to it than met the eye. It’s said that the body found on the hill wasn’t his at all, but that of a changeling the faeries had left in his place. Angry with him for prying into their affairs they imprisoned Reverend Kirk inside the big tree on top of the hill, now covered in cloots.
If you ever visit Doon Hill do spare a thought for poor Reverend Kirk, and whatever you do don’t go writing a book about the little people or you could suffer a similar fate.
Until next time ………..
(The keen eyed amongst you may wonder how the wood is looking so green, given that this is a winter tale. The original photos have since been replaced by newer ones, taken on an equally rainy summer day)!