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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Isle of the Cowled Woman

Updated: Oct 26, 2019


The ferry Margaret to Inchcailloch

Perhaps part of the reason for the difficult hours wandering from Balmaha to Rowardennan was the 2-hour diversion our merry band took at the start of the day.


On the recommendation of our innkeeper, we filed across the rickety dock at Balmaha Boatyard and hopped onto the tiny ferry Margaret to the island of Inchcailloch.


The island, we were told, was once the home of the hermit widow St. Kentigerna and we would feel a dramatic change in the spiritual field once we stepped foot on that hallowed ground. The island's name can be translated in gaelic to "Isle of the cowled woman" which refers to the cowl head coverings that the saint and her nuns wore.


We'd been talking quite a bit about how our walk was a right of passage for all of us, although each of us with our own beginning and end. Rights of passage involve three phases: separation from the known world (beginning), moving through liminal space ("the time between") which is the rite itself and in which literal time often feels suspended or surreal, and then re-assimilation, or return to the world. Change, if a rite of passage does indeed incur change, happens in the liminal space. (For a fascinating and informative overview check out the website Liminality.com.


The rickety (and green) dock at Balmaha Boatyard

What the innkeeper described was an island that seemed suspended in time, covered by the thin veil that floats between this world and the world of spirit. On a technical note, Inchcailloch is the center of the line that divides highland from lowland Scotland.


Kentigerna, the holy woman, settled 734 AD and created a small convent. She lived as an anchoress -- that is, a woman hermit walled away in a convent cell and dedicated to nearly full-time prayer.


As we walked the island, the presence of the saint felt clear and strong. As if the air where itself her breath. This was, of course, my imagination, but among the ruins and beneath the oak filled canopy, a presence outside of this time and space was palpable. Kentigerna's family must have had particularly close contact with the godhead: Her brother Comgan and her son Fillan are also Catholic saints.


The island became a character in several of the stories that flowed from the prompt of choosing two colors of green and integrating them into a fictional story (others can be found in the previous post).


These two pieces by Cynthia Henon and Mary Murfin-Bayley took the energy of that tiny island and brought in far more of Scottish lore:

 

A Fools Errand: Inspired by the colors Dew Mist Green and Oak Apple Green


I

They say there are only a small number of stories to be told, and doubtless, ye've heared another, better version of this one told by some wizened wizard of words. Likely ye thought it a foolish fairytale, but I'm here to tell it ye again, though I may not do so as craftily. As we all know, ye can't do anything well until ye've first done it poorly.


I'd got it into me head that I would be the one to prove that the wee folk truly exist. After making me rounds from pub to pub, buying drams of Glengoyne whisky for the local codgers, I'd heared enough to know that me best bet for spotting these faeries would be on the island known as Inchcailloch.


Seamus, an old regular at the fabled Clachen Inn in Drymen told me that the isle was a gathering place for the wee folk. The island is cleaved doon the middle by a fault line which runs the breadth of Scotland, making the island one half Scottish Lowlands and one half Scottish Highlands. So the wee folk from each area consider the island neutral and sacred ground where they meet to confer about wee matters.


I started from the village of Balmaha where a'body can catch the ferry to Inchcailloch. I was a blithe young thing, bold as a bright day in May. But it was October, and the dew mist hung over the loch, and ye could nae see far from where ye stood. The ferryman took me over Loch Lomond in a spry wooden craft which went by the name of Margaret.


He asked me what ma purpose was in going to the island on such a dreich day. I ventured to tell him and his face turned as dark as the sky.


"There's nae one should be bothering in the wee folks' bizness. Dinnae be a daft numpty!"


But I laughed as I swung ma pack onto me back and hopped out upon the dock. The ferryman shook his head dourly as he pulled the Margaret back through the mist and disappeared toward the mainland.


II

Wandering and wondering how to go about seeking the wee folk, I took to following a narrow path through the oaken woods made by the Fallow Deer who inhabit the isle. A gale from the evening before left the ground soft and the deer's two pronged prints could easily be seen in the muck. Following this trail, the path narrowed further, and the oak trees gave way to a field of faded bluebells surrounded by a young stand of birch. Soon I found myself in a clearing and felt invited to sit on a grassy knoll covered with tiny perfect toadstools all in a ring.


As I took stock of what was around me, I noticed a tree which had fallen about twenty paces away. The tree was a large one and I could tell it had fallen recently by the turned up earth still fresh by its roots. The trunk, covered in moss lay at an odd angle as if it were an arrow pointing up toward the light. What faced me was a giant root system maybe twelve feet in diameter.


It was a moment before my eyes fully comprehended what was before me. When they did I realized that about a thousand tiny beings were sitting on the roots and trunk of the tree. There were wee people with tiny fern frond head dresses and others with long flowing locks which reached down past their midge sized toes. They were a colorful lot, dressed as they were in rainbow-dew covered flower petals and oak leaves which represented the whole array of autumn hues.


The five principals of the scene sat upon oak apple thrones at the center of the root circle and wore tiny acorn crowns. It was a solemn and spiritual scene.


By the time I'd taken all this in, it became clear to me that the wee folks eyes were all trained upon me. Before I could move meself away, a wee'un with a thorny cap upon his head took a warrior's stance and aimed a miniature bow and arrow made of pine needles directly at me.


I felt a tiny pin prick in my hand and instantly my vision went all a blur. The forest seemed to melt all around me in a swirl of color. I felt as if I were sinking deep into the rust red waters of Loch Lomond. That was the last thing I remembered until I slowly awakened, still on the grass covered knoll.


My body was stiff and cold like it was made of wood. I struggled to stand, my calves as sore as if I'd walked a hundred miles. My hair, which I'd always kept short, grew down to me knees, and as I reached up to touch my face I felt a long beard at the end of me hard, narrow chin. This was a most astonishing thing, as I am a woman.


In a stupor, I made me way back to the ferry dock and waited until the Margaret came back with a group of tourists who were dressed in clothing of the strangest material with words printed right on their jackets. As the ferry docked, they stared at me with the same puzzled expression which I expect I had on me own face. They filed off the boat and I climbed aboard.


The poor old Margaret looked like she'd been through a hurricane since I'd last seen her. "Where's the old ferryman?" I asked.


"Old ferryman?" the pilot queried, "I've been sailing this route since me Da was lost. He was the last ferryman. Went looking for a lassie he'd dropped off on the isle. Drowned we supposed. Left Margaret tied here to the dock and was never seen again. I've been the ferryman these past twenty-five years."


I hope, me friends, ye'll tak this story for what it is: a warning. Keep yer eyes in front of ye, yer nose to yer bizness, and never, never veer far from the well walked path.


Cynthia Henon, West Highland Way, 2019

 

St. Kentigerna


She watches the wake of the Margaret, an obsidian green ripple growing smaller. The

sigh of the island’s solitude embraces her, sloughing off her past. She wants to cal it back

again. Too late. The shiver and ripple of the leaves, the winds bending the oaks and brushing

through the fine high branches, the island itself has already taken her voice.


All through the long ride on her palfrey, the weary days guarded by the band of her

husband’s best knights, she has longed for this moment. Now she can be alone until the dory

arrives to take her to the convent. She will not return to the island again until she is carried

here to be buried in the small graveyard up the the hill.


Now she is a virgin again married to God.


But that is all the men’s stories. She knows she is the sound of the leaves, shushing

her, the livid green of the breeze that follows her and touches her skin, soft as sin. Her people

see her as old and wise and calm. But they have not heard her screaming the rages of that

other life, the keening for her sister and child buried far away in the Lowlands, her husband

retreating back as he leaves her, have not seen her naked under the tapestries broken with

grief and desire. Have not seen her broken at the death of her son. Oh, the baby’s wet mouth.


Her people, the congregants, see her as the wise woman, the sweet smile, the calm self

control worthy of the name of saint. But she sees now only the gravestone and altar, black and covered with lichen and moss, and sees herself as she will be brought here, stripped naked of life and of flesh, the soft white grave cowl no longer caressing her cheek. Gone this living, vibrant, leaf-rustling island, all turned to stone.


Mary Murfin-Bayley, West Highland Way, 2019

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