When my husband Philip and I travelled to Scotland in the summer of 2019, it was important to both of us to visit places in which our respective ancestors made their presence known to history. Not least of these places was Struy, an area in the Scottish Highlands not too far from Loch Ness, where Clan Chisholm stakes their claim of the ancient land. In fact, the Chisholms once had possession of Urquhart Castle, the famous stony ruin on the shores of that infamous loch. But that’s another story for a different time. This story is about when we visited the Chisholm lands near their stronghold Erchless Castle, and the secretive and solemn graveyard in the lush forest nearby.
That sultry morning in July promised another record-breaking day of scorching heat, but we had gotten an early start ahead of the swarms of tourists at the usual stops along Loch Ness, and the afternoon was full of promise. We decided to meander in our rental car towards the ancient Chisholm grounds, hoping to add yet another castle to our list of explorations, having seen Urquhart earlier in the day. Enjoying the verdant surroundings as we navigated twisting narrow roads through soaring trees, we finally arrived in the drive of Erchless Castle, a bit crestfallen to discover that the castle was well-hidden behind high closed gates. A large antiquated building which may have once been a coachhouse or stables, but now looked to be used as apartments and workshops, offered the only opportunity to see Erchless grounds. Not to be defeated, we stopped in front of one open doorway and asked about the area. A kind gentleman told us the castle was currently off-limits, but that the graveyard was nearby. We had known about it from our research, so we happily drove a bit down the road and stopped at the rusted gate and unmarked trail we somehow knew was the one for us.
The path was lined with fragrant greenery such as lacy fern, hardy pine, delicate clover, a plethora of mosses, and fancy rhododendron, and it lead up a tree-lined slope to a destination yet unrevealed. I took my time hiking along, stopping to photograph delightful details in the woodland surroundings. At the summit of the hill, the path turns sharply left to avoid a sheer escarpment ahead, and curves up another slope and finally under a massive ancient cedar trunk. What lay beyond took my breath away.
We were standing within the 19th-century burial ground of the local Chisholm clan, with towering Celtic crosses standing watch over other precious gravestones and memorials. The welcoming feeling that crept over us was one of calm and serenity. Not speaking, we both moved amongst the sacred markers, reading the inscriptions, spending time acknowledging those who have lived before us. I am not a religious person, but I am still spiritual and honour those who have passed, and I spoke a bit to each Chisholm buried in that beautiful resting place. We left interesting coins and small earthly tokens on each grave, as others have done before. I was relieved to see all of the offerings left on the stones were made of elements such as wood, clay, or simple metal. Bright colours and plastic flowers would be far too tacky in this sombre and natural environment. The stunning and intricately-carved crosses were covered in vibrantly-hued lichen and moss, and I loved photographing the huge pillars as well as the tiny organisms that made them their home. The surrounding trees had huge trunks and large arching branches, and made excellent subjects as well.
Trinity In The Highlands
Restful Serenity Among The Trees
After some time, when I glanced down, I noticed many of my shots were showing up misty, or had white streaks through them. It wasn’t happening in the photos in sequence, rather every so often at random. It was very humid that day, and at first I thought my lens must be fogging up. But I soon determined that was not the case. It wasn’t “operator error”; I know my way around a camera after all these years! I’m also not someone who notices some dust motes in her pictures and exclaims to all who will listen that’s it’s “mysterious orbs”. I can usually determine what is going wrong. But this was genuinely unexplainable. Smoky mist and white ribbons were showing up in random photos around the graveyard. I called to Phil, “I think I’ve caught something a bit strange!”
Fairy Smoke & Scottish Fungi
We both peered over the back of the camera, shuffling through images, and he saw the phenomenon as eerie, as I did. The air was close and the weight of years of history seemed to loom closer still, and we shivered despite the heat. A bird called out loudly, breaking the spell, and we decided to descend back down the path in search of dinner. We ducked under the cedar branches and started on our way. But that was only the beginning of our adventures in the Chisholm lands.
I don’t know what made me leave the path and start winding my way at random through the woods. It would set a more eerie tone for my tale if a beckoning voice whispered on the wind, or trails of mist led us deeper into the trees, or wisps of smoke caught our senses, but nothing so preternatural occurred. Rather the forest just beyond the graveyard was bright and sun-dappled and vivid with green life. In all likelihood, I was called by the light beams, and the scent of dry pine needles and earthy peat, and the soft and bouncy footfalls made possible by the buoyant moss floor under a canopy of glittering leaves. Forever the fairy tale character straying unaware deeper into the dark woods, I’m always becoming distracted by all the little details in nature, losing my awareness of time and reality. Luckily my husband is never far behind, so I’ve got someone to keep me from being stranded in the faerie lands for all time! So instead of back at the car, we found ourselves far from the road and the trail to the graveyard, standing amongst tall and ancient trees, breathing in Scotland. If I close my eyes I can go there now; feel the summer air on my skin, hear the twinkling of the distant stream, smell the sunshine-warmed conifer bark. It was a perfect moment.
I could have stayed into the blue hour and beyond, but we really did have to return to civilization. I savoured a few more moments seemingly alone in the forest as Phil scouted ahead out of sight beyond a natural wall formed by logs, evergreen hedges, and twisted vines. I opened my eyes and scanned the forest, committing the scene to mind, knowing this memory would last my lifetime. How much more memorable did it need to be?
Beams Over Moss
Raising my camera to my eye once again, as I had spent enough moments before just enjoying my surroundings instead of attempting to capture them, I noted that the only ethereal streaks appearing in this set of images came from filtered sunbeams, without a hint of ominous and otherworldly happenings. I scrolled through photographs with the camera pointed at my feet. That’s when the distinct scent of smoke pricked my instincts; not unpleasant, almost reminiscent of old traditional kitchen baking, or the promise of warmth on a cold winter’s day. I raised my eyebrows at the sudden invasion of my perceived sacred space. Who would be burning peat out in the tinder-dry woods in a record-breaking heat wave? Then my blood ran cold, for directly at my feet, between the toes of my boots, a distinct and very real plume of smoke was rising out of the ground itself, as if the ghost of a fire had been burning beneath my place of earthly worship. I gasped and blinked, thinking I must be seeing things now in real life as I had been on camera before. But unmistakably, no, this was real smoke, and it was getting stronger, rising in a nightmarish coil from the depths of the forest floor.
How could this be happening? We certainly hadn’t been smoking and we definitely hadn’t created any flame or heat ourselves. I wondered if I’d stumbled onto, disturbed some campfire irresponsibly still burning from the previous night? It was a decent explanation, but there was absolutely no sign of a contrived fire or any human activity about the area. It didn’t matter the source. A fire has been created in this irreplaceable wonderland! I started to panic. I had no water left in my backpack, and neither did Phil. What if there was an unexplained fire, and we somehow got blamed for burning down the Chisholm forest? What kind of foreign witches would we be labelled? Would we be put in jail? How could we go on living if the ancestral lands burned down around us? My anxious mind raced. We had to put out this smoking pit of hell. I called loudly for my partner in crime. He replied that he was on his way back to me. I inelegantly screamed at him to hurry. Then, right before my eyes, the unthinkable happened. A searing burst of flame popped up from the underworld, and a bright fire began to spread menacingly toward me and sickeningly outward to my flora and fauna friends. Oh, no. Please no. The earth had spontaneously combusted, and all of this glorious history was about to burn.
The flames that had materialized like an otherworldly apparition nonetheless radiated an unmistakably real heat. This was no summer dream from which I could wake. With little hesitation and purely by instinct, I began stomping the ground in my tall leather boots, putting an end to several small fires escaping from a deeper scorching pit in the forest floor. My husband arrived at my side, and I think I remember hurriedly requesting that he micturate on the situation. Unable to comply, he searched both of our packs for any traces of extinguishing liquid while I continued to thwart the enterprising flames trying to alight surrounding tufts of dry pine needle and moss. No luck - we’d finished all of our water, and had left any containers in the car. We checked our phones - no service. We called out for help, knowing there wasn’t really anyone around in earshot. The smouldering fire smoked and thrived despite our efforts.
Leaving me to attend the fire, Phil dashed off through the woods to find water. He’d have to find a decent container first. A few smoky moments later I heard him slam the car door shut from afar, and he called back to me that he was going further off to fill bottles with water. There was a stream across the road closer to the castle, but it seemed like gruelling miles away. I waited, stamping the intermittent flames, waving away pungent wisps of smoke - this was no unscented ghostly mist like back in the graveyard. I coughed and listened for anyone who might come along to help, tense for the moment Phil would return with water to save us all. An eternity went by before he came back, out of breath, with the only containers we’d had in the car - two flimsy water bottles, now full of cold water from a watercourse reached by climbing down an embankment full of trees; too far and arduous for another useful trip. This had to work. We doused the fiery hole with the contents of both bottles. Thick smoke rose as a faint hissing noise issued from the depths. Then all was quiet, and the smoke thinned and puffed out. We waited, holding hands and staring at the ground. I hoped the Chisholm ancestors were with us in some capacity, helping us to save this beloved forest. Finally I whispered, “I think it’s out”.
As if on cue, a flicker of flame popped up once more, seeming to do a happy dance as it celebrated our outrage. Phil grabbed a stick and poked at the infernal enemy, revealing that the earth beneath was still glowing with steady heat. Exasperated and exhausted, we knew we couldn’t battle this fire alone. Ensuring there were no open flames at least when we left, we ran back to the car together, climbed in, and sped back to Erchless castle, where we knew there would be people about. I knew I would remember the exact spot to return quickly - it was smoking, for one thing, and I can usually remember individual trees and plants when I need to find my way around in the woods. Roaring up the drive and to the place where we’d spoken to the caretaker before, we jumped out and asked for help. I made sure to mention it started spontaneously; we weren’t idiot tourists too bumbling not to burn the place down. Almost annoyingly nonchalant, he turned and calmly looked for a fire extinguisher, while we waited on tenterhooks. Finally he walked over and handed Phil an antiqued red metal tube, supposedly an extinguisher; it looked like it had been around since 1818 when its prototype was invented. I doubted this relic’s ability to make it back to the fire without rusting away, let alone being able to perform its intended duty.
“Don’t you want to come and see for yourself?” we asked. An unworried shrug accompanied the caretaker’s reply. “I’m sure you’ve got it under control”. This was somehow not reassuring. We said we’d return with the empty canister. “Keep it! Souvenir.”
The car was barely stopped before I threw myself out the door and crashed through the woods, my heroic husband following right behind. I haven’t run so fast since I was a teenager. We headed in a direct beeline to the remembered fire zone. My confidence in finding the spot again was merited, and as soon as we reached that black mar, Phil let loose with the extinguisher. Miraculously (I maintain), white clouds of foam issued from the antique, filling our vision and obscuring the environment around us. When the vaporous curtain lifted, we surveyed the scene.
The fire was out. The danger was over. The historic lands were saved. We kicked at the ashes, trying to put the natural elements back “in place” as they had been before the potential pyre. Content that we had made as minimal impact on the environment as possible (other than putting out a forest fire!), we left the woods and drove back to our accommodation. That evening, after returning to our room and settling in to watch the news, we learned that temperatures in Scotland broke records that day; that train tracks had actually been melting in some parts of the UK, it was so hot!
I have no doubt that the fire near the ancestral graveyard was caused by the harsh sun beating down on dry tinder. What I can’t really explain is how we encountered “smoke” well before the fire ever started, and so far from the source. Were we being forewarned of fiery danger to come? Were we led away to the very spot the flames would burst forth by some unseen force, working through us to protect the Chisholm grounds? Perhaps these happenstances were merely seemingly connected coincidences. Perhaps I’ll always wonder.
Making Molten Moss