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Schiehallion, the Mystical Mountain

Schiehallion from Loch Rannoch

IT was a dour day for the high tops but it wasn’t windy and it wasn’t wet. The stillness and silence of the day was exacerbated by the low clouds that shrouded the hill, mists that could well have been the frozen breath of the Cailleach Bheur, the blue hag who according to Rannoch legend rides the wings of the storms to deal out her icy death to the unfortunate traveller.

The mist didn’t perturb me too much. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve climbed Perthshire’s Schiehallion and I knew there was a good footpath, built some years ago by the John Muir Trust, which would carry me up to the hill’s long eastern ridge. Once I reached the ridge it was a simple case of following a compass bearing more or less due west to the rocky summit.

That navigational confidence was important today though, because I was actually ‘guiding’ a guest up the mountain, a man I had known for some years by repute, a man whose interest in Schiehallion went way beyond peak-bagging.

Although its name has the cut and thrust of a battle-cry and its conical shape was once used to help calculate the weight of the Earth, Schiehallion, 1083m/3553ft, translates into something much less macho - Sidh Chailleann, the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians. Others scholars have suggested the name might mean 'the maiden's pap', or 'constant storm' and that latter interpretation certainly fits with the legend of the Cailleach Bheur.

According to AD Cunningham’s excellent book Tales of Rannoch this old witch was once a familiar sight on Schiehallion: “Her face was blue with cold, her hair white with frost and the plaid that wrapped her bony shoulders was grey as the winter fields.”

The old hag’s presence was clearly evident as my companion and I climbed onto the mountain’s long whaleback ridge. The air was still, visibility was down to a few metres and ice crystals decorated every boulder. There was little temptation to linger in the Cailleach Bheur’s cold grasp. You don’t have to believe in faeries to experience the chilling fingers of winter reach out to you…

I’ve had the pleasure of climbing hills in Scotland with all kinds of people – famous mountaineers, television celebrities, pop singers, musicians, artists – but few have been as intriguing as my guest on Schiehallion. But before I introduce him to you let me set the scene, particularly for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the more mystical aspects of this Perthshire mountain.

Clambering on the summit rocks

I’ve already mentioned that Schiehallion was used in experiments to try and ascertain the density of the Earth. In 1774 the Astronomer Royal Neville Maskelyne chose Schiehallion for his measurements because of the hill’s relatively isolated position and conical shape.

The experiment was based on the way the mountain’s own mass caused a pendulum to pull away from the vertical. The deflection of the pendulum provided Maskelyne with the information to allow him to calculate the mean density of the Earth, from which its mass and a value for Newton’s Gravitational constant could be worked out.

I’m afraid I have no idea what that actually means, but I do know this. One of the assistants on the project, Charles Hutton, worked out a graphical system that measured areas of equal height. The system later became known as contour lines, and all of us who go to the hills have reason to be grateful for that particular discovery.

But it was discovery of a more mystical nature I hoped for today. In his book AD Cunningham leaves a tantalising message: “The adventurer who lingers in the secret places of the mountains senses that the cailleach and the spirit life are still there, and he is aware that enchantment has not vanished from the world.”

Enchantment has certainly not vanished from Schiehallion. Climb her slopes on a sunny summer’s evening and you will most certainly be enchanted by views across the rolling hills of Highland Perthshire to where Loch Rannoch stretches out towards the pocked mattress of the Rannoch Moor. Descend the hill at nightfall and hear the curious summer sounds of drumming snipe and roding woodcock or listen to the roars of rutting stags during the chilled days of late autumn. But Schiehallion has an allure that is not always comfortable. Shrouded in the snows of winter her cold charm is compelling, as she tempts you like a harlot, or a blue hag…

The mountain and its immediate area are rich in superstition and legend and it’s at Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of Gleann Mor on the south side of the mountain, that Schiehallion’s faeries are supposed to dwell. I’ve never come across much evidence of faeries in the glen but years ago I did climb the hill with old friend Hamish Brown who pointed out to me a rock with ancient cup-and-saucer ring markings, evidence of old hut circles and the remains of shielings, reminders of an earlier way of life when glens like this were used for grazing cattle.

Another old pal of the hills, the late Irvine Butterfield, once scolded me for making fun of the faery stories. “There are things on Schiehallion that shouldn’t be mocked,” he warned. And he was serious…

In his book, A Highland Parish, published in 1928, Alexander Stewart suggests the Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir cave is in fact part of a huge cave system: “It has a fairly wide opening which extends for three or four yards. It then contracts and slants into total darkness in the bowels of the earth. Some miles to the east of this there is another opening, which tradition holds to be the other end of the cave. According to the traditional accounts, this cave was regarded as an abode of fairies and other supernatural beings, rather than a hiding place of mortals. The only men who were supposed to have lived there were individuals who were believed to have been in league with supernatural powers.”

There are no cattle today and very little evidence of faery folk but you might well see, and indeed smell, Schiehallion’s feral goats, although I must confess I haven’t seen any goats here for years. But if you do spot some wild goats look out for the Ghobhar Bacach, the lame goat, who according to legend still limps about Schiehallion, always in milk, with a yield enough to supply the Fingalians, the fair-haired warrior giants under the command of Fionn MacCumhail, when they return from Ireland to take Scotland once again.

There was little evidence of the Ghobhar Bacach as we crunched across the snows of the hill’s eastern ridge but the cold mists that clung to us suggested the Cailleach Bheur was keen to make her presence felt. Her attention was made even more credible because my companion was infinitely more in tune with these curios than I was.

Lawrence Main was in the second week of a length-of-Britain pilgrimage visiting ancient, sacred sites. He had started his mammoth walk at the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis and had worked his way south via Culloden’s Clava Cairns and Aberdeenshire’s Bennachie. I had collected him from his lonely camp at the head of Glen Lyon where he had been visiting the old yew tree at Fortingall (Pontius Pilate is said to have born in the area) and the Praying Hands of Mary, a curious set of split standing stones in the upper reaches of the glen.

A bronzed and bearded Lawrence Main

Lawrence writes walking guides for a living, and lectures on Earth Mysteries. He is a druid and the purpose of his long walk was to raise publicity for the Vegan Society. “If we were all vegans we would only need 10 million acres of agricultural land to supply our needs,“ he told me, “That’s a quarter of all the agricultural land in England and Wales alone.”

I must confess my ham sandwiches tasted no less fine and I sipped hot coffee from my flask while Lawrence nibbled organic chocolate and drank water. He had asked me to accompany him on Schiehallion and while I was happy to do that it was obvious Lawrence’s interests were in the hill’s legends rather than her status as a Munro.

As we crossed the exposed summit ridge, I became a little concerned about Lawrence for he had insisted on wearing shorts. The middle of March may be mild in his home territory of mid-Wales but here in Highland Perthshire at three thousand feet the weather was bitter and Lawrence’s non-leather vegan boots didn’t appear to be coping with the iced-up rocks. However, he struggled on manfully, and managed to gasp out the reasons why he had been so keen to climb Schiehallion.

“This is one of the world’s Holy hills,” he told me between deep gulps of frigid air. “Druids believe there are three primary Holy Mountains - Mount Moriah in Palestine, Mount Sinai in Egypt, and Mount Heredom, although there is no hard evidence to show where that is.

“Schiehallion has always been known as a mystical mountain by Gaelic-speaking highlanders – a source of inspiration and revelation to prophets and saints. Other hills in the UK with similar associations are Uisneach, situated at the geographical centre of Celtic Ireland, and Plinlimmon, close to the centre of Celtic Wales. Here Schiehallion lies at the centre of Celtic Scotland. Could that be mere coincidence?”

“And what’s more there are those who believe Schiehallion was visited by Jesus Christ himself. In between his presentation to the Temple as a child and taking up his ministry at the age of 30, Jesus travelled extensively in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, a tin trader and merchant.

“What we now know as Britain was once the tin-manufacturing centre of the world, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that Joseph came here. It’s entirely possible the young Jesus came with him. It’s also ironic that Christ’s judge, Pontius Pilate was allegedly born just over the hill in Fortingall, the son of a Roman officer.”

A frozen Lawrence on Schiehallion's summit

I listened to Lawrence with a degree of scepticism but it’s also been suggested that after the disastrous Battle of Methven Robert the Bruce took refuge in a small castle on the north slopes of Schiehallion where he established the masonic ‘Sublime and Royal Chapter of Heredom,’ a chapter of the freemasons that had originally been constituted on the Holy top of Mount Moriah in the Kingdom of Judea. But why did the Bruce choose Schiehallion? Apparently because like Mount Moriah Schiehallion was thought to be a Holy Mountain, the “Mount Zion in the far north” as recorded in Psalm 48 in the Hebrew Old Testament.

In his book, The Holy Land of Scotland, author Barry Dunford quotes the eighteenth century writings of the Chevalier de Berage on the origins of Freemasonry: “Their Metropolitan Lodge is situated on the Mountain of Heredom where the first Lodge was held in Europe and which exists in all its splendour. The General Council is still held there and it is the seal of the Sovereign Grand Master in office. This mountain is situated between the West and North of Scotland at sixty miles from Edinburgh.”

Could Schiehallion be the Mount Heredom of the ancient scriptures?

Lawrence and I originally planned to descend the rocky flanks to the west of the summit, a route that would take us to the head of Gleann Mor and the Tom a’Mhor-fhir cave but he looked half frozen. His long beard was tangled in ice and his knees were blue. He had grazed his leg on a sharp rock and blood poured from the injury. He would have to forsake the delights of Gleann Mor, the cup-and-saucer ring markings, the old shielings and the fairy cave at Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir for a direct descent back to the warmth of the car. We parted on the promise that he would return and enjoy the spiritual aspects of Schiehallion when the Cailleach Bheur had departed for the summer. I went off to reconsider my initial scepticism and recall the words of an old Perthshire cleric:

“I love to view Schiehallion all aglow,

In blaze of beauty 'gainst the eastern sky,

Like a huge pyramid exalted high

O'er woodland fringing round its base below;

The Bible tells of Hebrew mountains grand,

Where such great deeds were done in days of old,

As render them more precious far than gold
in our conception of the Holy Land;

But every soul that seeks the heavenly road

May in Schiehallion, too, behold a Mount of God.

From Schiehallion by Rev. John Sinclair

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