I’ve partly been inspired to write this story while on a trip to Glen Coe in the West Highlands of Scotland, and today in particular where many years ago I was fortunate enough to witness a rare and beautiful atmospheric phenomenon atop the summit of Leum Uilliem, a place that holds a special place in my heart as the following story and memoire will make clear.
The other part of today’s inspiration stems from one of the AtoZchallenge posts from yesterday which stressed the importance of connecting with and really feeling what you’re writing, and my memories and feelings for this particular place I’m sure will bear witness to that.
Today was the first time I’ve returned to that particular spot in twenty years…
Those experienced in outdoor pursuits or simply possessing a love of the mountains and countryside will no doubt immediately recognise the phenomenon it for what it is from the photographs, but otherwise, the phenomenon becomes clearer towards the end of the story…
It had been three years since his mum died; Liam was seven now and of an age when simply telling him his mum was in heaven really didn’t cut it anymore. It wasn’t just curiosity though that was spurring his questions, but fear – afraid that he was forgetting her just a little bit more with each passing day, and more so the fear that she might be forgetting him.
I tried explaining that memories weren’t like that, that you didn’t remember loved ones in the same way you remember the route to school or what you saw in a film, that memories were something much more special, that you felt them in your heart and at special times when you were feeling either sad or very happy. I could see in his eyes he was puzzling over what I was saying but not really understanding enough to allay the sadness I knew he was feeling. At that moment I would rather have been facing my most frightening and dangerous enemy than those questions to which I had no answers for, at least not for now…
It was the school holidays, a couple of weeks before the start of the Scottish deer stalking season, and I’d rented a small cottage for the two of us just a few miles from Corrour Station on the West Highland line, and ideal for taking Liam on his first ever proper climb up Leum Uilliem in the Glen Coe region of Scotland and home to the majestic Ben Nevis, highest mountain in the UK.
Needless to say that was the one Liam said we should tackle but the more interesting and difficult routes would have been too much for him, and as for the tourist path, it would have been chocked with ill-equipped day trippers trundling up in their flimsy trainers and even on occasion, flip-flops, hardly the example I wanted for Liam on his first climb; besides which, it’s really quite a boring trek going that way.
I had it in mind that taking him to some of the places me and his mum had spent so many happy times walking and climbing together might make him feel closer to her and generally cheer him up; actually telling him that he was almost certainly conceived in one of those places was probably a little more than even his inquiring young mind was quite ready for so perhaps another time for that little revelation. Beyond that I really didn’t know what else I could do.
We began our ascent of Leum Uilliem, one of the easier Corbetts at a shade under 3000ft, from Corrour Station, itself positioned at a height of 1,340ft, thus making the ascent a not too difficult one, though still quite a challenge for a seven year old given some of the terrain.
At the start, a corner of the Moor of Rannoch, we began our journey westwards across the moorland towards the northern ridge of the hill, crossing the Allt Coir’ a’ Bhric Beag along the deer stalking-path as we approached the crest of the ridge and then upwards to the south west, over Tom an Eoin while I explained about such paths and the deer stalking season of the following month. He didn’t seem to approve of deer stalking but I was pleased to note that his initial disappointment at not being able to tell all his mates when he returned to school had climbed the ‘Ben’ had all but disappeared.
His disapproval of deer stalking was so much like his mum’s, I thought at the time, as she too hated anything like that no matter how many time you explained its necessity; perhaps Liam would understand better…
“I think mum was right,” Liam proudly declared, “it’s wrong killing the deer.”
Obviously not! Well that told me in no uncertain terms, I couldn’t help thinking. I needn’t have worried about his dwelling on it though as soon enough, he was firing more and different questions about our trek at every juncture:
“What’s… Alt.. Coy.. a.. brick?” He asked, trying to interpret the pronunciation while looking at the map I had given him to hold.
“Well, let’s take a look at the book shall we?” I replied, taking out a small local guidebook from my rucksack.
“Allt means stream, and Bhric Beag means speckled and small, and Coir’.. It’s not here but It means corrie, and altogether it roughly means stream of the speckled corrie.. You’ll soon get used to seeing words and names like these as you do more map reading”
“And what about that one… Tom an E..oin?”
“Ahh, that’s an easy one,” I said, “it means knoll of the bird.. or eagle maybe.”
“And what’s… Lee.. Um… Oo.. Illiem.. ?” I couldn’t help but chuckle at his struggle with the spelling, and Liam chuckled too…
“It means William’s Leap.” Liam looked at me, not even trying to hide his puzzled frown…
“And before you ask, no one really knows who William was, or why he leapt, it’s something that’s long since been forgotten.”
“Okay.” Was his short and accepting reply; perhaps I had been was wrong, and he really wasn’t bothered who William was or why he might have leapt. And on that note we continued our trek, slowly gaining height as we turned eastwards across the saddle of and up the broad ridge towards the spacious summit of Leum Uilliem, or ‘William’s Leap’ as I had previously and as it seemed, unnecessarily explained.
We had been at it for the best part of nearly three hours by now and the summit was in sight. It had been quite a hard slog what with the rain the previous day making much of the ground hard going, and I could tell the effort was beginning to tell a bit, but not once did he complain or appear to lose interest. Right at that moment I couldn’t have been prouder of my little trooper, and instead of denting his own pride in asking him if he needed to rest I discreetly slowed the pace right down before declaring I needed a quick rest before our final push to the summit…
“Okay dad, if you like…” he happily agreed.
“So son, how have you enjoyed our day so far?”
“It’s been great dad, and the map reading, that’s been fun too, but I still don’t get the compass and … bearings thingy yet.”
“Don’t you worry about that, we’ll do more of that another time.”
“Was mum good at… Maps and things?” He asked, quite out of the blue.
“Ermm, yes, sort of, but… Between you and me I think she was probably a lot better than she let on, but she preferred enjoying the scenery than doing the hard work and thinking bit.” Liam laughed out loud at that before munching into a sandwich.
“Shall we kick off again then matey?” I asked, hoisting my rucksack back on.
“Yep, let’s go!” He replied eagerly, lifting himself up to join me.
The extensive views from the top were simply stunning, embracing moors, lochs and innumerable summits…
“You’re right dad, it’s great up here,” Liam declared, “I reckon mum must have really loved it.”
His back and face slightly turned away from me as he stared across the landscape, some several feet away from me. I recognised that tone of voice, it was the one he had when he sometime got upset when thinking about his mum. I saw his hand raise up to wipe his face, no doubt rubbing away the tears he didn’t want me to see. Perhaps it was just as well he was turned away from me otherwise he might have seen me doing much the same thing a moment later.
“I know son…” I said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“I won’t forget her, I promise dad.”
“Of course you won’t, just as she won’t forget you either.. She’s out there.. Somewhere, watching us… And smiling no doubt at how muddy and dirty we are.”
Liam turned his head to look up at me: “You really think so?”
“You betcha’ son.” I said with all the conviction and certainty I could muster, and for that brief moment I believed it too.
And then I saw it, in the distance, pointing to draw Liam’s attention to it too…
“What’s that dad?” Liam asked excitedly, adding, “it looks like a rainbow, but not like the ones I’ve seen.”
I was about to explain but something stopped me as the germ of an idea began to take shape…
“Try moving to the side a bit and look it straight on.” I urged. He moved as I suggested and stared open mouthed in amazement…
“It’s… It’s like… An angel standing in the middle dad…”
“Not just an angel son, I told you mum was looking out as us from somewhere..”
“Maybe… Why not give her a wave, see if she doesn’t see and wave back?”
I stepped a few paces back and to the side as Liam gingerly raised an arm before waving at the figure in the circular rainbow, silently praying that the conditions were right for what I was hoping…
“Dad!” Liam shouted, “dad, dad, look… She waving back, look dad, she’s waving back at me…”
I had never gone much on religion and God, and even less so with the things and I’d seen and done in my past career, but I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’. By now of course, Liam was waving like a madman at the angelic figure, utterly mesmerised by its apparent responses, utterly convinced his mum was joining in the fun.
An elderly couple were looking on from a short distance away, they too probably there either to just enjoy the moment or perhaps reliving memories of their own.
I strolled towards them and briefly explained about Liam and his mum, and how he believed he was waving back at her in the rainbow.
They of course knew the truth, that it was just an optical illusion brought about by a unique set of weather conditions, of the sun shining from behind us as we stared down from the ridge into the mist below while the light projected shadows through the mist, and Liam’s movements seemingly reflected in that of the ghostly figure…
The old woman smiled and started to cry, just a little, but with a beaming smile across her face. Her husband put his arm around her, and gave her a gentle hug and thanked me for sharing the moment with them.
And in that moment we shared an unspoken understanding and so there was no need for them to promise not to shatter the illusion once the phenomenon passed…
I turned back towards where Liam was still waving and dancing at the shadowy figure and made my way over. By now the rainbow was starting to dissipate, and the angelic shadow was losing its form…
“Bye mum,” I heard Liam softly say… “Love you…”
I put my hand on his shoulder once again…
“Where did you go dad? Why didn’t you stay and wave with me?”
“It’s okay son, it was you she wanted to see and tell how much she loved and remembered. That was your special moment. It’s why I brought you here, I had a feeling mum would be somewhere about to say hello.”
I had no idea of course that we would see a ‘Brocken Spectre’ that day; I’d seen such phenomena several times on Mt. Snowden, and a few more times in Germany too, but never one quite so spectacular in this part of the world.
On those previous occasions I had often wondered what our ancestors might have thought, that maybe some peasant farmer on the hills of Macedonia might be thinking he’s staring down or across at the inhabitants of Mt Olympus, or even some Gaelic tribesman closer to home, truly believing himself to be staring into the very soul of some pagan god, but right now nothing could have been further from my mind, all I could see was my happy little boy who really believed me when I told him his mum was in heaven and still loved and remembered him.
I wouldn’t normally of lied to Liam, but seeing his face, seeing all his fears and tears disappear I thought I might reasonably be forgiven, just this once…