Some places we visit take a strange and unexpected hold of the imagination. They seem endowed with a sense of mystery, of the nearness of a world parallel with our own, experienced as if they are within our reach.
Places where we stand on a beach or a hilltop, feel the sun and the wind on our skin, hear the trees rustle in the spring, the snow crackle as we walk. Stand in places resonant with history and legend, now bereft of people yet, in palimpsests of fields and villages, still evoking human hopes and resilience against storm, hunger, and danger.
Such places are never just places. As travel writer Philip Marsden tells us, in his book, The Summer Isles
(Granta Books, 2019): 'they are story and myth and belief'. We feel we come close to an other-world there, wondering if the reality we know is the only one if the gulls have souls, if the cliffs were split by giants.
Most visitors to islands on the west coast of Ireland and Scotland speak about this. Pilgrims to Iona say they feel changed afterwards. Historians and archaeologists, poets and artists are drawn to them for their elegiac past and aesthetic present. In them, past lives alongside present, grinding poverty alongside human hope, isolation alongside freedom to feel and think. They are places where crops fail, storms sink ships, fish are fickle, doctors few, even on islands reputed to be blest like the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland, the focus of Tomas O Crohan's hauntingly unique record, The Islandman
It is no surprise, even in an age of urbanisation and pragmatic rationalism like our own, and even as sceptical adults, that we find ourselves drawn to stories about myth and magic. It is human to tell stories: they entertain and inform, explore and explain, helping us make sense of the world, even worlds not seen, not yet known, perhaps not there though we want them to be. Places where we can see the future, fly through the sky, move without casting shadows, live young forever, be happy and grow rich. Places where we can think, respond to the natural world, and be truly ourselves.
Often these are stories told and re-told to children – we think of Perrault and Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang and Oscar Wilde – but many draw on folk and folklore traditions going back centuries – think of John Francis Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands
(1860). Folklorists can readily cite many more. Tales we all learn as children and tell our own, like Cinderella
. If not handed down, we invent our own – The Little Prince
, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
, Where the Wild Things Are
, Lord of the Flies
, Fahrenheit 451
, Kafka's Metamorphosis
, Saramago's Elephant's Journey
Whatever form the imaginative takes – from nonsense to science fantasy to allegory – we tell ourselves these stories and they allay our fears and feed our hopes and dreams. These, then, are places that exist in geographical reality and in our imagination. We want to believe they could exist, and accept that they might.
Cultural and anthropological theories can be, and have been, constructed around the folklore of particular places. Iceland, the land of fire and ice, has its sagas and Ireland and Scotland their rich traditions of fairy and folk tale. Nations resurrect or invent tales to support the integrity of national identity, like the Kalevala
in Finland and Lebor Gabála érenn
(The Book of Invasions
) in Ireland. Putting Ossian
(aka James Macperson) aside, we in Scotland have at least Walter Scott. Stuart Kelly's Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation
(Birlinn, 2010) opens up thoughts about how we ourselves came to think of as Scottish culture – a metaphor of heart and head, history and mythology, a nation not a heritage museum.
However, devised and exploited, many celebrate the ingenuity and courage of men and women long ago, able to face dangers both natural and supernatural. Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons
, they are equipped with various skills and devices to help them come through their ordeals – a magic ring, perhaps, or a stone with a hole through which a seer might tell the future. Such rings or stones act as talismans on the heroic journeys the characters make, protecting them against evil magic or, as often, bringing them unexpected misfortune.
Bringing some of these strands together – that of places that are more than just places, the perennial appeal of the folk tale, and the ways magic can express itself with great immediacy – are books such as A Telling of Stones
. Written by Neil Rackham and illustrated by Alisdair Wiseman (Acair, 2019), this beautiful book tells the tale of the folk magic that exists, like the sidhe or little people of Celtic mythology, in that world parallel to our own, that implies that our ideas about reality are far more porous than we know. It is not by accident that both authors know the Isle of Lewis well, nor that publisher Acair is well-known for its bilingual Gaelic-English publications.
The magic of the stones weaves its mysterious way throughout the lives of several generations. Like a Celtic knot, the storyline is cyclical: in its end is its beginning. The dead princess on the beach could not escape her destiny. The seer who foretold the tragedy of the Seaforths could not foretell his own gruesome death from burning tar.
Seeing the shoreline clear through the hole in the stone failed to save the navigator from the mermen of the Minch. The talisman carefully hidden in the well was carried there by chance and found by accident. The stone, like Tolkien's ring, brings a fatal power for all its promise of forecasting love discovered and wealth acquired.
Here we have folklore and legend, history and cultural history. It is a mature blend of telling folk tales that chimes with modern sentiment and lifestyles by avoiding histrionics and being naively fey. It captures the culture of countries of the north, what Peter Davidson called 'the idea of north' in his evocative book of that name.
It builds on, adapts and reinterprets long-established literary ideas within Scottish culture, above all that of the seer. Ian Crofton's Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable
helpfully reminds us of three such seers in Scotland – Thomas the Rhymer (about whom Scott wrote ballads), the Lady of Lawers (on Loch Tay near a very climbable mountain), and the Brahan Seer.
In A Telling of Stones
, it is the Brahan Seer we meet, gifted with second sight but fatally destined for tragedy and death. A quasi-historical character, he exists in that multi-universe between our own and the world of magic, between historical record and human imagination.
Never for one moment is the (adult) reader treated as gullible: this could be true, it might be untrue, it might once have been true, wouldn't it be good if it could be true? As an explanation of the mysteries of the natural world (which we only partially know), it might be as good as any. An intermediate world, then, between folklore and scepticism, legend and history.
It may well be that all this fairy- and folklore is mere cultural curiosity, that attempts to study and conserve it is an amalgam of heritage opportunism, literary nostalgia, and spiritualised gullibility. The anthropologist Edwin Hartland, broadly tolerant about folk tales as he was, drew the line back in 1891 with his book, The Science of Fairy Tales
And we know how much scorn Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes (the ultimate empiricist) attracted once he said he believed in fairies. Not far away is Richard Dawkins's study of the divine watchmaker, but that is another story.
Yet we have to trust our senses when we feel as we do on islands and in the mountains, and as Nan Shepherd says in her book, A Living Mountain
, accept the possibility that we live in them as well as walk on them. For her, the full immersive experience – which is, after all, something that might well impel us towards places that are not just places in the first place.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School