A short winter walk – Doon Hill Fairy Trail, Aberfoyle
Shortly before Christmas we got a little stir crazy at home and despite a forecast of heavy rain we decided to venture to The Trossachs in search of adventure on Doon Hill in Aberfoyle.
We arrived in Aberfoyle, clad head to toe in waterproof clothing we were undeterred by the 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.”
Aberfoyle lies nestled between craggy hills, woodland and loch – it’s a classically Trossachs town.
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.
A kirkyard with otherworldly links
We set off towards Doon Hill and soon came to a ruined church sitting in an overgrown kirkyard. I love old tombstones so we stopped for a look. Inside the kirkyard were a couple of 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 known from digging up the recently deceased to sell to anatomy schools.
Grave robbing was once a common, 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.
In search of the little people of Doon Hill
Anyway, I digress as this post is about fairies – although this little church has a fascinating link to the fairy folk which I’ll come back to.
Further into our walk we reached a wooded hill known as Doon Hill or the Fairy Hill. There’s a circular walking trail on the hill which climbs up into fairy territory, before winding back down to ground level again.
As we headed uphill we found evidence confirming the existence of fairies in these parts. Tiny houses were carved into trees. They must have wanted us to see them though, or they’d have used powerful concealing magic to hide their homes from us.
The Wee White Dug peered inside tiny windows, and waited patiently outside tint doors, hopeful of an invite inside for tea. Knowing Scottish fairies aren’t the sweet natured types found in Enid Blyton stories I was glad we didn’t meet any.
Wishing trees and clootie trees
We stopped for a while 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 reached 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 top of Doon Hill 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 appearance which seemed fitting.
The sad tale of Reverend Robert Kirk
So, what does the old ruined kirk we explored earlier have to do with Doon Hill? Well, in the 17th century the Reverend Robert Kirk was the minister there. He’s buried in the kirkyard, although there are some who’d laugh at that suggestion. The Reverend was a folklorist who was fascinated by the faerie folk. He was writing a book called ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ and the faeries were furious he was about to expose their secrets.
Reverend Kirk used to enjoy a nightly stroll up Doon Hill in his nightgown during the warmer summer months. It’s possible he was gathering material for his book. On the 14th May 1692 he was found dead on the summit of Doon Hill. 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 the body on Doon Hill was 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 spare a thought for poor Reverend Kirk. And whatever you do, don’t go writing a book about faeries or you may suffer a similar fate yourself.
Until next time …