The distinctive smell of tortured gears wafted into the car. It was not surprising. The lane we had chosen after the road closure, was not only so narrow we could not have passed an oncoming rabbit, it was also climbing at an alarming angle and had thrown in a hairpin bend with an adverse camber, just for good measure. Had there been anywhere to turn around at that point, I might have considered it, except for the irrational fear that any loss of traction would send us sliding back down the slope. Then there was a break in the wall to our left and…
To hell with the gears… the car has been needing a new clutch for a while anyway. The incredible view over the valley was worth it. We were already high and still climbing. Thoughts of other impossible roads crossed my mind. If the narrow track over Ben Lawers had been out of the question, how come we were now climbing just as high? The road, I later found, is listed as eleven miles of officially dangerous road, linking Kenmore with Amulree, climbing steeply up to well over seventeen hundred feet and full of hairpin switchbacks. And it is glorious.
Not that we cared… We had driven through the Cairngorms just the day before, but somehow, following the valley roads and looking up at majesty, does not really give you a true sense of place. There is a feeling of security in the glens, as if the earth hold you in the hollow of its hands. Here, in the wild, high places, where the land spreads out far below and around you, eye to eye with the mountain-tops, you begin to understand just how small we are and how vast and beautiful our home.
The road, little more than a tarmac footpath just a car’s width wide, snaked across the high moorland. The air sparkled; what few clouds there were in the azure sky seemed intimate and playful, as if only there to dance for our delight. We could see for miles, picking out distant cairns and once again wishing we had more time.
A few miles later, we stopped after yet another hairpin bend as the road began to descend. The silvery gleam of the River Quaich glittered below us and small pools mirrored the sky. The river leads into Glen Quaich and adds its waters to Loch Freuchie, the ‘heathery loch’. Once upon a time, there were more settlements around the loch than there are today, but in the 1800s, many families took ship to Canada, naming their new Ontario homes of Amulree and Glen Quaich after their old home by the loch.
The river’s name and the shape of the Glen echo the two-handled cup of friendship that is traditional in the Highlands. I remembered that wood from the Yew at Fortingall, where we had begun the morning, had been used to make these shallow, ceremonial cups, used to offer a welcome or farewell draught of whisky to guests. We too were nearing our farewell to Scotland. Although the road would carry us into evening before we finally crossed the border, we would be leaving the mountains behind… and that was a hard thought.
Loch Freuchie, calm and blue beneath the early afternoon skies, fills the valley. We recognised the remains of a crannog, a man-made island where thousands of years ago our forefathers built their homes. These tree-ringed islands can be found in many lochs… but not all of them were once home to a dragon. A young man named Fraoch was in love with the Lady Maidh. Seeking to please her, he did as she bade him when she desired rowan berries that carry the gift of vision, from the island of the crannog. Fraoch, stealthy as a mouse, gathered the berries while the dragon who lived on the crannog was sleeping and returned to his lady. She was not content, though, with his gift and demanded that he return once more to bring back the whole rowan tree. Sadly, the dragon, disturbed by his previous visit, was awake and waiting. In a bitter fight, the dragon bit off Fraoch’s arms and his legs, yet the dragon was no more the victor than the man… and Maidh found them both dead on the crannog’s shore.
The dragon would have been welcome to my limbs too, if we could have stayed there. But the hills of the Borders still waited… and so did the Yorkshire Dales and a road we had travelled on our very first outing together years before, the day I had kidnapped my companion and begun a journey that has taken us through many strange and wonderful landscapes, both in reality and in thought. And, did we but know it, a dragon was awaiting us there too…