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lunasdal

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lairig ghru

It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonnie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie:
The time flew by wi’ tentless heed,
‘Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.

Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs,
An’ corn rigs are bonnie:
I’ll ne’er forget that happy night,
Amang the rigs wi’ Annie.

Robert Burns

Going north on the first day of my holidays I sat in the long queue of traffic at the roadworks at Bankfoot a few miles north of Perth for almost an hour, singing along with the Jayhawks. It was mid afternoon and I was noticing again how the light in August fails, how it is corrupted by a kind of blackness, a sort of sootiness that isn’t there in midsummer. This same darkness shortens the days. I was wondering why I always go on holiday in August, rather than earlier in the summer.  Part of it is because I don’t want summer to be over, I think, and once I’ve had my holiday it always feels like it is in some way. But part of it is that I actually really love the August light despite the way it has shades of winter and death about it – probably because it has, I guess. The light of August has a dreadful sadness about it.

The things you notice, of course, are the tired heavy greens of the trees, the bleached and spent yellows of the grasses, the closing down of the shadows, the new palette of late summer flowers, the slow insinuation of the brown and purple of autumn. I was singing along to The Man Who Loved Life watching another batch of caravans and 4×4’s coming through, when I noticed two or three crows flitting between the verge and the fence posts, probably in search of road kill. I remembered Van Gogh’s Crows in the Cornfield, one of his final paintings. It was painted shortly before his suicide. Van Gogh killed himself on 29th July. I began to wonder whether the failing inflection of the light was a factor, whether he saw a darkness coming that he couldn’t face. Or maybe for a moment he saw too clearly the darkness he had always loved too much.  Oh, but there’s been too much mythologizing about Van Gogh already. Ignore my musings.

It was Lammas, a Christian feast meaning ‘loaf mass’, but one which is really a colonisation of an earlier pagan feast day, in much the same way as Christmas and Easter are. In the Irish Celtic tradition it is Lughnasadh, the festival of the god Lugh. Lughnasadh falls midway between Beltaine in May and Samhain in November and marks the beginning of the third quarter of the year. It is called Lunasdal by the Scots Celts, which is also their name for the month of August. It’s the time when the harvest first begins and the berries begin to ripen. And it’s a grand time to be in Scotland.

On 13th August I made an early start from Coylumbridge down through the Rothiemurchus Forest towards the Lairig Ghru. It was a fine day.  Rothiemurchus is a very special and beautiful place, one of the last and largest remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Highlands.  I particularly love the way the gnarly Scots Pines seem to somehow sit each in its own specially allotted space among the tangled acres of heather, bilberry, bog willow and juniper. This place is home to wildcats and pine martens, red squirrels and red deer, capercaillie, osprey, eagles, siskins, crossbills and who knows what else. The heather was coming into bloom and from time to time I was caught by the sweet honeyed scent as I walked south towards the mountains.

As I was descending the long track towards the Iron Bridge, I met a very tall man – a man at least three inches taller than me, probably about six foot five, maybe even taller –  walking briskly towards me. He was dressed all in green, had wispy red hair and was as thin as a beanpole. He was carrying a full pack, including a tent and sleeping mat. I guessed he had spent the night in the mountains, and it turned out I was right: he had camped high in the Lairig Ghru. The man’s name was David Alexander Cucumber, and he told me was a local doctor. He told me he was hurrying back down because he was sure his surgery would be especially busy that afternoon.

‘Swine Flu?’ I said.

‘No,’ Dr Cucumber replied, in a tight, raspy Highland accent. ‘Nothing quite so straightforward as that.’

‘Measles?’

‘No, not that either.’

‘Insect bites?’

‘No.’

Dr Cucumber looked at me quizzically, as if trying to decide my nature.

‘You’re not from these parts, are you?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m from Northumberland.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s what I thought. But you seem an intelligent enough man all the same. Tell me, did you notice the meteors last night?’

‘I didn’t see any myself,’ I replied. ‘No. But I’ve heard about them. The Perseids.’

‘Yes, yes, they’re the ones. Well, there are ancient beliefs about those meteors that many folk around these parts still hold to be true. The August meteors are known in the Celtic tradition as The Games of Lugh. Did you ever hear that expression?’

I said I had, and that I knew that Lugh was a sort of god of the first harvest and said by some to be associated in some way with the sun.

‘Aren’t the games supposed to commemorate the death of Lugh’s foster mother?’ I said.

‘Yes, they are,’ Dr Cucumber replied, stooping slightly towards me, like a twig tottering momentarily under the weight of its burden. He looked at me with narrowed eyes and smiled slyly. There was a moment’s pause, allowing us to scrutinise one another a little more closely.

‘In these parts,’ he went on, ‘it is believed by some that if a woman lies out in loose fitting garments on a clear night under the August meteors then she may conceive, that in effect a meteor may impregnate her. You’d be surprised how many women still do that around here, unbeknown to their husbands, of course. It tends to be women of a certain age, you see. Often they have already had children and those children are now growing up and no longer need them so much. At the same time their marriages may have lost their spark. Their husbands hardly seem to notice them any more, and spend most nights watching satellite TV or just reading again the novels of Scott or Robert Louis Stephenson. A woman of a certain age can, in those circumstances, begin to brood and become prey to an ancient loneliness and a strange longing. I looked at the sky yesterday afternoon and saw it was clear. I knew then that today’s surgery would be a busy one and that it would be a night in the hills for me. I could name you now no fewer than thirty women who I know for certain will in no more than summer frocks and petticoats have lain alone in their gardens all last night waiting as like golden arrows the meteors pierced the sky above them. And I know that I’ll see every single one of those women this afternoon at my surgery.’

I laughed gently. ‘They don’t want pregnancy tests, do they?’

‘No, they don’t. On the contrary. As they prepare breakfast for their menfolk and bairns, the utter foolishness of their actions always dawns on them. They begin to rue that, as if unwed, they have lain all night beneath falling meteors.  They begin to fear the consequences and they know they’ll have to come to me for the remedy.’

‘The remedy?’ I asked. ‘The remedy for what? Time cannot be undone. You cannot undo a night beneath the stars.’

‘No, you’re right: they can’t do that. But they can ensure there are no unwelcome consequences. Can you imagine what would happen if one of them were to become pregnant because of that night? How would they ever explain that to their husbands?  You must remember that these women are by definition in relationships which no longer have the physical dimensions they once did. Whose baby would they say they were now carrying?  You see their predicament, don’t you?’

I nodded slowly, allowing myself to imagine for a moment the sense of betrayal and hurt a good Highland man might suffer to discover his wife was carrying a child that could not be his.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I can.’

‘And then you can see why they will all come and see me this afternoon, because there is a remedy and it never fails to help.’

‘A remedy for what?’ I said again, a little perplexed. ‘A woman cannot become pregnant from a falling meteor.’

‘Can’t she?’ Dr Cucumber said, a little sharply, knocking a wisp of red hair from his brow. ‘Are you absolutely sure of that? If you were a woman and you’d lain out all night as they have, would you want to take the chance?’

‘Of course I would,’ I said. ‘Who ever became pregnant from a meteor? No-one.’

‘Exactly,’ Dr Cucumber said, as if I’d finally seen the light. ‘No-one ever has because no-one has ever not taken the remedy. To my knowledge not one woman has ever taken that chance. Not one. And why on earth would they? They’d be a fool to do so when they know there is an absolutely one hundred percent reliable remedy.’

‘But this is just superstition,’ I said. ‘And a waste of medical resources. You are prescribing them a remedy they do not need.’

Dr Cucumber knitted his brows and looked down at me in a schoolmasterly sort of way. ‘How can you be so certain of that?’ he said. ‘Don’t the facts speak for themselves on this matter? Every woman who has ever lain beneath the meteors has applied the remedy and not one of them has ever suffered an unwelcome pregnancy. I’d say that was strong evidence, wouldn’t you?’

I shook my head with some disbelief. ‘So there’s a remedy for this meteor condition, a sort of morning after the meteors pill, is there? And this has been fully tested by scientists using randomised controlled trials and all that and found to be truly effective?’

‘Oh, no, the remedy isn’t one any pharmaceutical company would – or could – ever manufacture. No, it’s a remedy that has its roots in knowledge of a completely different order – the wisdom of the universe as passed down through the generations.’

‘So do you as a rational man believe in that sort of knowledge?’ I asked. I was becoming increasingly curious about the medical credentials of our Dr Cucumber.

‘It has its place,’ he replied, emphatically. ‘It isn’t the be all and end all, and I’m not pretending it is. But as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than some people are prepared to admit. Don’t you agree?’

I nodded. ‘And so what is the remedy for this meteor predicament?’ I asked. ‘Is it something you find in the mountains?’

‘Yes, that’s part of it. Yes, now you’re on the right track.  The remedy depends upon the application of what is called Meteor Balm, and this balm is made in accordance with a secret recipe originating it is believed with a certain Miss McTavish.  The exact constituents of Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm are known only to a handful of people and I happen to be one of those people, having been entrusted with the recipe by my grandmother shortly before her death.’

I was about to ask him what the ingredients of this recipe were, fully expecting him to decline to tell me, when he went on.

‘One of the key ingredients,’ he said, ‘is bilberries. But there are only three places around these parts that these bilberries must be picked, two of which are at secret locations back there in the Lairig Ghru. Furthermore, the bilberries must be picked at dawn while the dew is still on them on the morning of the night of the August meteors. You can see now why I spent the night in the mountains, can you not?’

‘I can,’ I said. ‘So Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm is a sort of bilberry potion?’

‘Yes, but there are many other ingredients, of course, and the measures must be very exact. For example, fresh juniper leaves from the forest must be used, fresh thyme and onions boiled in water from Loch an Eilein.’

‘Onions, eh?’ I said.  ‘It doesn’t surprise me that they’re in the recipe. I share a house with a woman who believes onions have almost magical powers.’

‘They do,’ Dr Cucumber said, and for a moment a wild glint came into his eyes. He reminded me of the Doc in Back To The Future, a taller thinner ginger version. ‘There’s no question of that. The Balm would never work without onions, I can tell you that.’

‘And so what does the woman do with the balm in order to prevent meteor pregnancy? Does she drink it?’

‘Oh, no, that would be silly. She would die for certain if she did. No, the balm is applied to the face and belly every six hours and the woman must keep herself in a secluded place for at least twenty four hours, avoiding sunlight and refraining from any alcoholic drinks.  She must also sleep that night seated in an oak chair, preferably outdoors but if not then in front of an open window facing north. Although such an eventuality is of course only a remote possibility, they must also ensure that no physical intimacy occurs between themselves and their husbands.’

‘And this works every time, eh?’ I said.

‘As I’ve said already, it has never failed yet.’

At this point Dr Cucumber looked at his watch and bid me farewell. He had to get home, dig some onions and prepare the balm for his patients that afternoon. I walked on towards the Lairig Ghru, the warm sun on my face. I put my sunglasses on and quickened my pace. I was thinking about Bethlehem. I was thinking about David Hume. I was thinking about picking wild bilberries in the shadows beneath Lurcher’s Crag.

It rained on the following day and I decided to drive down to Pitlochry and have a look around the town. On the way down I stopped at the House of Bruar art gallery, which is very swish and shrewdly commercial and stocked with various recognisable representations of Scottishness, with a particular emphasis I thought on game animals and hunting. I drove on through Blair Atholl, where the Tilt finally hews and hacks its way out of the mountains, and on towards the Pass of Killiecrankie. The rain was falling on the fields of yellow grass and I stopped by the side of the old road for a while to look at them. This is where at the end of July in 1689 the great battle of the first Jacobite uprising took place and the Claymores of Dundee’s Highlanders slaughtered Mackay’s army as they came north to suppress them.

I parked near Pitlochry station. Eventually I made my way over the river to the Festival Theatre to look at the paintings there. The main exhibition was of mixed media landscape paintings by Iona Leishman. I hadn’t come across her work and I was quite taken with it. It has a complex layered texture and patterning that I found really engaging. A few days later I looked at her website. The same work there looks quite dull and uninteresting, oddly enough.

I spent the second week of my holidays at home painting and doing some walking and cycling. When I came in at teatime on Tuesday Margaret was about the leave the house.

‘I’m going to meet Brenda,’ she said, as if the matter was urgent.

‘Has something happened?’ I enquired.

‘Something certainly has happened. Brenda is extremely upset. She’s found a letter from the benefits people. Tristan’s claiming benefits. She can hardly believe it.’

‘He must need the money, I guess.’

‘Oh, yes, go on, make an excuse for him!  And the worst of it is, he hasn’t told her. He leaves the house every day and goes to work. Brenda will never cope with the shame of being in a relationship with a benefits cheat, I can tell you that.’

Margaret left. I put the Felice Brothers on the CD player and sat down on the sofa with De Kooning to listen. They have become one of my favourite bands and I was somehow just in the mood for their dark, doomed, ragged and vital concoction.  It was a nice evening. A succession of cyclists passed by. I watched them from the window. A teenage girl on a chestnut horse rode up the street just after seven. It struck me that this doesn’t happen too often. A couple of tracks later three camels passed, followed very shortly afterwards by two lads in turbans riding elephants. I began to wonder whether there was a circus on a field in Newsham, or maybe at the old waterworks/camp site in South Newsham.  However this theory was soon scotched. No sooner had the elephants gone than a huge herd of wildebeest came pounding by, their hooves clattering on the tarmac, a great cloud of dust behind them. They were being chased by a group of lionesses.

August’s a funny month. I think I’ll take my holiday a little earlier next year.

 .

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