David Lintern makes a personal journey to the oldest surviving Celtic ritual site in Europe, and bags a few Munros on the way.
Why go in to the so-called ‘Bridge of Orchy 5’ from the east, down a single-track road via the longest glen in Scotland? For me, at least 3 reasons. Because via Glasgow from Edinburgh is a long way round on tedious roads. To scout the beautiful River Lyon for a future boating trip. And the most important reason of all, to pay my respects to the Tigh Nam Bodach.
This was why I’d driven the length of beautiful Glen Lyon, in Gaelic, the crooked glen of the stones, once a Pictish stronghold and a fascinating place in it’s own right. I can’t remember the first time I heard about the little shrine, but I do remember hearing about an addition to the already extensive hydro works in the glens around Lyon, which threatened to surround it with access roads and pylons. Thankfully that scheme had been put on the back burner, but I was keen to see this special place for myself.
Barely a metre square, the unassuming shrine sits beyond the track that leads west from Pubil along the north shore of Loch Lyon, and this was where my brand new, second hand mountain bike came into play. It got me round the dull reservoir track in about a third of the time and effort it would have taken otherwise, justifying the purchase in a single trip. Perfect for accessing remote hills from the ‘wrong side’. If you can’t go your own way in the hills, where can you?
I left the bike tucked away in a sheep fank, and followed the track on for a while. Just as I was beginning to wonder if I’d missed it, there it was, quite obviously the place. It doesn’t look like much if I’m honest, but this is the real thing. A few small-ish stones, smoothed by sitting for centuries in a riverbed, sit outside a little stone shelter, with a wooden roof, along with one or two apples and a hard-boiled sweet left by previous visitors.
The Tigh Nam Bodach translates as the House of the Father, or Old Man, and it sits in Gleann Cailliche, the Glen of the Old Woman. There they both sit, mum and dad, keeping watch, accompanied by their brown-haired daughter, Nighean. Folk music fans may know of a beautiful traditional tune that takes her name. This tiny monument of wood and stone is still looked after by local people – in fact not so long ago, a Perthshire stonemason rebuilt the house and gave it a new wood and turf top hat. In accordance with the Celtic festivals of Beltane and Samhain, the locals still tuck away the stone family into the house for winter, and bring them out in the spring, making sure they face down into the glen.
Forget for a minute about the father figure – the main player in Celtic mythology is a woman. Sometimes cast as a ‘hag’ or ‘witch’, the Cailleach was the divine feminine being responsible for the creation of landscape and wild nature for non-Christian clans, migrating with their cattle twice a year in sync with those same seasonal shifts marked roughly by our current day bonfire night and mayday. There were many stories of Cailleachs across Ireland and Scotland, all of whom were powerful, shape shifting forces of nature that might need to be placated with offerings and tributes.
It’s important to note that for those who believed, the Cailleach was not immortal – care was required. Whilst those who offended her could be punished, they in their turn could also symbolically maim or kill this spirit of nature, through the taming of wild landscape. Hamish Brown in his ‘Mountain Walk’ quotes Duncan Fraser’s Highland Perthshire ‘’Tigh-nam-Bodach, living all her lone, Born of water, turned to stone’ (Paladin, 1980, p66). Then as now, the relationship between human beings and elemental, unpredictable nature was symbiotic.
I spent some time with mum, dad and daughter there. It didn’t feel lonely, more like homely – quite ordinary and underwhelming, in a way. I’m not sure what I expected, but I’ll confess that for me this was also a very personal pilgrimage. I had just discovered I was to become a father to a daughter, a year or so after returning north to Scotland from a very modest family exile on my mother’s side, a story that begins with World War Two and a migration to an RAF airbase at Biggin Hill. As sentimental as it may sound, I won’t deny there was something in my visit around wanting to ‘plug back in’ after escaping the flatlands of the London suburbs. This location seemed even more appropriate given the news of a child we always suspected would be a girl.
I don’t believe in magic and I’m not religious, but I do believe that rituals can sometimes be useful in constructing our own personal narratives. As plain as it is, the Tigh nam Bodach remains one of the centres of the Celtic universe, the navel in the belly of the highlands. For me, it’s a symbolic telephone line to our mountain forebears, a place of rare and unadulterated connection to our past. And given that this place is still standing, and that the little ceremony is still performed by locals, I’m clearly not alone.
Ceremony is all very well, but I’m not going to stand on it. So, having paid my respects, it was time to move on. Whilst there, I thought, I may as well climb a few hills. Usually, I’ll cast around for an interesting area to backpack consulting maps, books, going online, or all three. This time, I hadn’t set out to do the ‘Bridge of Orchy Five’ as a group – the visit to the shrine had taken priority. I then looked at the wider area on the map, saw a loop that looked satisfying, only later discovering online the more usual round from the A82. I’d argue there’s some adventure to be gained by leaving the Internet to last!
Another advantage of doing it ‘my way’ was escaping the tyranny of paths and letting the contours dictate how and where I went. I climbed Beinn a’ Chreachain, or hill of the bare summit straight up the side, dropping into a gully as a frosty shower passed and then up onto the conical summit. As I climbed, I looked back and noticed the fertile patch of grasses surrounding the little Celtic house, showing from afar where the sheilings had once stood. It was still freezing on top, and I had left the colder weather gear at home. Now I have the luxury of living closer to the hills, I also like to mark the changing of the seasons with a walk, and this was that trip for this season’s change.
Form here, it was a walk of broad grassy ridges, with huge, drafty views to the north over Rannoch Moor and beyond, to the Grey Corries and the Nevis range. Following a line west into a slowly setting sun. The best parts weren’t the bare and wind blasted summits, but the rocky cols and bealachs in-between, where water pooled and the wind dropped enough for me to pause for a while.
From Beinn Achaladair or the ‘field of hard water’, the line of the ridge turns slowly south. Together with the previous Munro this hill forms a good part of the Great Wall of Rannoch, a vast wall of rock which marked the boundary between the kingdoms of Pictish Alba in the East and Gaelic Dál Riata in the west. And as the ridge narrowed, the sun set in a riot of oranges, creams and golds, highlighting the Auch Corbetts ahead of me and Glen Lyon munros to my left, one shapely mound after another that I found it impossible not to compare to reclining bodies. Perhaps it was all that subconscious homage to fertility earlier in the day that put this in mind! We’re used to poets waxing romantically about nature’s delicate intricacies, but this was no holds barred theatrics – blackest cloud high above and grasses aglow below. High drama unfolded.
I camped on Beinn an Dothaidh, or Hill of the Streamlets overlooking Beinn Dorain or the Hill of the Otters, that conical summit that shouts the loudest after Tyndrum on the road to Fort William from Glasgow. It was just dark by the time I reached my pitch, and the winds from the moor fairly flew over that wall to the north, so I put up a few metres off the top. A heavy cloud veiled sunrise in the morning lasted for an hour or so, and meant a chilly, earthy start to the day, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow bored of waking up under a sheet of tent fabric and looking out over the hills with a breeze on my face. Time measured out in breaths and heartbeats, small tasks and changing light. The food is still rubbish though, isn’t it?!
The following day was left for the last two: Ascending the eroded twin tops of Dorain via a fun, slabby rock strewn path and then peeling away east along a lumpy arm to meet one of several Meall Garbh’s in the Highlands. Lower down, the hills are scarred by sheep grazing but along this spur feels fine and rugged, and it gives good views of the round. After a good deal of ankle threatening heather I met a wild and beautiful burn flowing steeply downwards over rock gardens, before contouring steeply under the previous day’s ridge to avoid losing too much height.
Finally I rejoined the track leading me to my final Munro of the Orchy Five, Beinn Mhanach or Monk’s Hill. I don’t collect Munros by necessity (although I don’t exactly ignore them either), but I’m glad I stumbled up this last one, because it’d make a dull trip to revisit for its own sake should I ever start to. It’s a round and featureless hump and was painful to get up, even with the aid of More Chocolate. I cut the corner a little too fine and ended up on some breezy and awkward terraces on the neighbouring Cairn Hill before topping out to sunshine and lunchtime. Sometimes straight up the side isn’t the best or easiest way!
The last part of the day was much more straightforward. Descending east above some crags overlooking the glen from whence we came gave me probably the best aspect to this otherwise uninteresting top, before dropping down beside a really wonderful burn cutting steeply through the rocks to the valley floor. Way off the beaten track, these quiet places are the ones I savour long after returning home. Just sitting and being still by wild water streamlets, dwarf birch and rowan clinging to the water’s edge too steep for grazing animals, before reluctantly heading down to find my bike and cycle out to the head of Glen Lyon. These are the moments to soak up.
The Tigh nam Bodach is not hard to find, but you have to want to. This is a walk that will repay your efforts with depth and context. However, I’d ask that you be mindful of local sensitivities and avoid the twice-yearly ceremony of the stones itself. That remains a private affair for the people of the Glen alone. So, if you do go to visit the house of the old man in the glen of the old woman, please go well, and go softly.
This article was originally published in The Great Outdoors Magazine and is repressed here with the permission of the author.