We…well, okay, I… decided to take a shortcut from our stopover to our destination. ‘Shortcut’ may not be entirely accurate. Taking the main roads would be nine miles shorter in distance, the roads would undoubtedly be faster and with less likelihood of being further sidetracked… but we would have to drive on fast roads that show little of the countryside and navigate towns along the way. The alternative was to meander through the hills on narrow and winding roads. Either way, we had a good four-hour drive ahead. Knowing the beauty of the Cairngorms, there really was no contest.
Our road was to lead us through Glen Shee, now famous for its winter skiing, but it was its older stories that drew us there. Its name comes from the Gaelic word shith, which means ‘fairies’… and the Glen of the Fairies is a beautiful place. Until the old language fell out of use in the 1800s the inhabitants were known as the Elves of Glenshee, Sithichean a’ Ghlinnshith. Coire Shith, the Fairy Burn tumbles down the slopes of Ben Gulabin and a Bronze Age standing stone still marks the ancient gathering place at the Hill of the Fairies.
There are many legends about the Fairy Glen. One of the earliest is the tale of Diarmid, a famous warrior and Grainne, who fell in love with him. Grainne was the wife of the local chieftain, Fingal, and when he realised the state of affairs, Fingal arranged for Diarmid to hunt the enormous wild boar that had been terrorising the glen, hoping thereby to rid himself of the warrior. Diarmid tracked and fought the boar and his might prevailed. Fingal demanded that the boar be measured to prove the feat, but in doing so, Diarmid was poisoned by the beasts bristles. Fingal refused to allow his healers to help the young warrior and Diarmid weakened and died. Grainne, unable to live without her love, threw herself on an arrow. The two were buried, side by side. Legend says they sleep in the four-poster stone circle known as Diarmid’s Grave.
It is told that the Fairies of the glen are both faithful and fickle, choosing those whom they like and hounding those they do not. Those they accept are given the gift of returning to the magical glen, over and over, until their life’s end. Those who offend them will undoubtedly be made aware of the fact. In the early years of the nineteenth century, an ancient chapel at the Spittal of Glenshee had to be rebuilt. A new site was chosen, at some distance from the old chapel, and the fairies did not approve. Each morning the builders found their tools in disarray and the previous day’s work undone. The locals shook their heads and waited. It was not until the work was returned to the original site of the ancient place of worship that the building was able to be raised. Having driven through these hills many times, I was hopeful that we would be accepted and waited to see what would happen.
We had barely left the towns behind when we spotted a pair of huge birds soaring above the ridge of the hills. They were not kites… we could tell by the shape of the tail feathers. They looked way too big for buzzards… and the only time I have seen golden eagles it had been in these hills. That time, there was absolutely no doubt… the pair of them were feasting on a carcass in the middle of the lane as I turned the corner. They had looked at me with utter unconcern before taking flight, leaving me wide-eyed and awed. We watched the birds riding the air… unable to get a close enough shot to identify them. Maybe they were buzzards… but they were so very big that I hope not.
We were pretty much bouncing after that as we drove through the winding pass to Braemar and beyond. Deep shadows and drifts of pale mist vied with the sun, each striving, it seemed, to show the hills at their most magical. There may have been a certain amount of squeaking from the driver’s seat as each bend in the road offered a gift of beauty. It is time, always time, that is the problem. We had left later than intended and expected to arrive with no more than minutes to spare before the appointed rendezvous., There was no time to explore the ancient sites or visit the stones… yet I would not have missed that road for the world.
As in life itself, it is always simpler to take the highway. But the easiest route is not always the best… you never know what you might find when you take the road less travelled. The main road would have been wide and straight, well signposted, with few surprises save roadworks and traffic. Taking the high road over the mountains led us into unknown territory, where nothing was predictable. The twists and turns threatened danger and the going was, of necessity, much slower. Yet, for all that, we did arrive on time and we arrived replete with beauty, having seen things that the easy road could never have offered.
Did the Fairies of the Glen approve? Will we be able to return and explore one day? Given their parting gift, I think we may…