Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

Posts tagged ‘Scotland’

Man, Mountain

Mountains clear my mind. They provide solace and solitude, asking nothing in return. I give them offerings, though: blood and sweat. My respect for wilderness is infinite, as is my love for the beasts who inhabit it.

Big Tony and I have scaled Scotland’s highest peaks together. His son Cal first accompanied us on a climb when he was eight. Cal summited two snow-topped Munros that day, in sub-zero conditions, without a single complaint. The wind was relentless but so was Cal’s resolve. On a knife-edge ridge between two peaks he learned something important about himself: rather than feeling afraid of the exposure or the height, he felt purified by them. They brought him to a state of clarity. He found Home in high places. In the twelve years since then, mountains have played their part in transforming Cal from eager boychild into a man of Zen nature. A mountain man. Like me. Like his father.

Coffee Break on the Loch

Tony missed our first climb of 2015. Cal and I set off early to beat the traffic. We stopped beside Loch Lomond for coffee, as has become tradition on our trips north. As we sat in silence watching puffs of cloud blow across the cobalt sky, a heavily muscled dog with orange and black tiger stripes padded across to us. I offered him my hand. He sniffed it and showed his approval with a lick. I scratched his head. He rolled onto his back. I rubbed his belly. Back legs twitched as he let out grunts of enjoyment. Cal took over the dog-pampering while I spoke to the dog’s keeper – an Essex man called Rob – about the creature’s unusual markings. He explained that a mixture of Bullmastiff and Staffordshire bull terrier were responsible for the muscular physique. The markings and colouring were an enigma. When Rob strolled back to his Winnebago motorhome, the dog made no attempt to follow. Happy with his two new pals, he had decided to stay put. Rob shouted on the dog, who steadfastly ignored him. Irritated, the Essex man walked over to our table, grabbed the animal by his collar, and pulled him back to the Winnebago. The dog growled all the way there. Cal and I were sad to see the tigerdog go. He was a magnificent beast and our time together had been too short.

We continued north on the A82, skirting Loch Lomond’s shoreline as familiar mountains came into view, their contours as familiar to us as those of our own faces. It was a quintessential Scottish spring morning – endless blue sky and blazing sunshine: the sort of day that looks warm in pictures but in reality chills the flesh. I find those days invigorating. Many Scots don’t agree. They’re highly suspicious that the yellow sphere in the sky is taunting them, like a celestial exhibitionist saying, “Behold my naked splendour. Every day I will reveal myself to you, making you long to feel the warmth of my touch. But I will leave you waiting in frozen yearning until summer. Then, when at last my rays warm your skin, they will feel like long-lost friends.”

Cal and I stopped in Crianlarich for the customary cup of tea that should always precede a climb. The locals were dressed for the weather, with thermal layers covering all but their faces. I was in shorts, T-shirt, hiking socks and climbing boots. A long day of exertion lay ahead, so I had dressed for ease of movement and maximum cooling. As I walked into a shop, the woman behind the counter looked me up and down, then up and down again – more slowly – as if sure her eyes had deceived her the first time. Pointing at my bare arms, she said, “Is someone feelin’ the cold?” Her sarcasm stirred up the appropriate response from me. (“Shut it. Is someone makin’ me a cup o’ tea?”) Giggling, she led me to the back of the shop, where she invited me to make my own tea while she located a waterproof climber’s map of the area. As I prepared tea, the woman said, “OS maps don’t have enough detail for these mountains. And they fall apart in the rain. My waterproof climbin’ maps have much more detail and they’ll stand up to the wildest storm. Come back here after your climb. Maybe I’ll make you a cup o’ tea then.”

Cal and I drank our tea outside. The sky was a deep unbroken blue. A good sign. With any luck we would scale Cruach Ardrain – our chosen mountain for the day – then descend in clear weather conditions. The forecast was good on all climbing websites and the sky seemed to be in agreement.

On the edge of a forest near Crianlarich, we pulled on rucksacks loaded with maps, compasses, camera equipment, water, fruit juice, coffee and nuts. No sooner had we embarked than a grisly sight met us: a mountain sheep had been ripped apart by some predator. Her picked-clean bones were scattered like jigsaw pieces that would never fit together again.

Bones

A cold sensation shot through me. I said to Cal, “Ah hope this isnae an omen for the day.” He nodded. Shaking off the jitters, I said, “Superstition’s for the weak. We make oor own luck. Let’s climb.” Again, Cal nodded.

The walk-in to the base of Cruach Ardrain was long and muddy. We kept to stony ground, as that allowed quicker progress than wading through marsh. The stream to our right was a mass of frogspawn, which spilled over onto the banks. We stopped upstream for a spell, to watch frogs swim in a crystal-clear pool. An hour later, as we neared the base of Cruach Ardrain, a sky-spanning stormcloud blew in and engulfed the mountaintop. It settled there as if held by magnetic attraction. Looking up into the storm, I willed it to blow over. The stubborn bastard stayed put.

Cal crossed the River Falloch by leaping onto stones that jutted above the water’s surface. We began parallel climbs, one on each side of the river. My ascent brought me to a young ewe who had fallen down the mountain and bashed her head on a rock. She was dead, freshly so. Bloodtrails from her mouth and eyes hadn’t yet congealed. Cal looked on helplessly from the far side of the water while I stood equally helpless next to the beautiful animal. Her fleece was thick and brilliant white, her face black with delicate features: one of the Scottish Blackface breed, also known as the Mountain Sheep. These surefooted beasts are excellent climbers, yet one lay dead at my feet – a reminder that in the high places one wrong step can have severe consequences. With an aching heart I spoke to the ewe. “Sorry Ah wasnae here tae catch you when you fell, little one.” Tears pricked my eyes. The bad-omen jitters returned. I pushed onwards.

As Cal and I continued our parallel ascent, we saw a mountain sheep in the river. Drowned. Powerful currents had swept her downstream, bouncing her off rocks until she became trapped between two stones. Fast-flowing water surged over the ewe, causing her head to bob as if nodding in time to nature’s symphony. But there was no life left in her. Body broken, head caved in, she gazed unseeingly through dead eyes. Three dead mountain sheep in as many hours. In hundreds of climbs, I had never experienced that. It felt wrong. With each dead animal I encountered, my unease grew. I carried on, though.

An hour later both Cal and I were on the right of the river. The temperature dropped, so we covered our top halves with additional layers. Just beneath the storm shelf that concealed Cruach Ardrain’s summit, we spotted another ewe in the river. This one was alive. Exhausted, terrified, in shock, and up to her neck in numbingly cold water, but alive. Cal reckoned she’d injured her front legs, which repeatedly buckled under her as she struggled to stand upright. She was near the opposite bank, with a steep slope to her left and thundering waters to her right. Too exhausted or injured to scramble back onto dry land, and aware of the danger just a few inches away, she was in a state of panic. She’d had a lucky landing in a sheep-sized pool of relatively still water. Had she fallen higher or lower, she’d have been dashed on rocks. If the fall had taken her farther horizontally, she’d have been swept away by fast-moving torrents. The coming of spring, longer days and increasing temperatures had resulted in vast snowmelt on Cruach Ardrain’s higher slopes, turning the river into a falling flood of ice-cold water. The ewe could have been in the water for hours already – scared, freezing, circulation dwindling, shock setting in, exhaustion taking over, muscles failing. I’d encountered three dead ewes that day and had felt the bite of helplessness each time. I was too late to save those fallen animals but I’d arrived in time to help this one. And nothing in this Universe could have stopped me from doing exactly that.

Cal and I exchanged looks that conveyed the urgency of the situation. We spoke the same words at the same moment: “We cannae leave her.” (Like me, Cal is an animal lover whom wild things instinctively trust. During our last climb of 2014, we crested a lowland mountain peak and found ourselves face to face with feral mountain goats. These solitary beasts usually keep their distance from humans, and wisely so, but they were different with us. When we saw the goats, Cal and I stood completely still, barely even breathing, our body language a silent acknowledgement that this was their domain. The goats dipped their heads, long horns pointed skywards, and spent a minute gazing at us: getting the measure of us. Then, satisfied with what they had perceived, they went back to their grazing. Cal and I walked among those amazing beasts, our horned kindred spirits, and they didn’t flinch. They’d seen into our souls and were happy with what they’d found there. This is the way of it with wild things. They know only truth.)

We needed to help the ewe immediately. This presented a quandary. By drawing closer we might startle her, causing her to move into the torrent and be swept downriver, but if we didn’t act quickly she would die from exhaustion, shock, hypothermia or drowning – a situation that was becoming more likely with each subsequent collapse of her legs. My brain went into emergency mode. In my mind’s eye I saw the only way of making a sure save. There was no room for error. I would go into the river below the ewe. That way I could catch her if the torrent took her. Cal would go up the right bank then close in from above, staying on dry land, while I approached from the water below. If I didn’t counterbalance the river’s movement I’d be swept away. An image flashed into my mind: rushing waters toppling the sheep, me catching her and the momentum bowling me over, sending both of us hurtling downriver, pinballing off rocks until the waters ran red. I let go of that image, refusing to accept it as a possibility. No harm could come to this ewe. I wouldn’t let it. Couldn’t let it.

On entering the water I barely noticed its chill, thanks to the adrenaline that my body was pumping out. I achieved a state of equilibrium by leaning against the river’s flow. Equilibrium was a start, but to reach the ewe I’d have to move upriver, pushing against the water’s elemental force then finding a new state of balance after every step. Each upwards step was accomplished through brute force and will. As soon as I was within reach of the ewe, I grabbed her horns and did a handstand of sorts, flinging my feet out of the river and landing upside down with toes dug into the mountainside as anchors. Cal sprinted towards the river’s right bank and launched himself into the air. He landed with immaculate balance on a rock behind the sheep. An exquisite jump. A perfect landing. As I lifted the ewe by her horns, Cal pushed her hindquarters. An instant later she was on dry land beside me. I lay there, heart pounding, relief infinite, maintaining eye contact with the sheep as I stroked her fleece and spoke words of comfort to her. The way she looked at me is something words can’t adequately describe. Her gaze transmitted waves of trust, gratitude, friendship, love and more. It transcended words. Cal climbed up to join us. He spoke his own words of comfort to the sheep. He, too, received that look.

I checked the ewe’s legs and determined that she had no injuries. The unsteadiness we’d witnessed must have been caused by exhaustion and numbness from the icy water. We couldn’t leave her on that river bank. The gradient was dangerously steep and she had already fallen once. Cal asked what I was going to do. I told him there was only one thing to do. Eyes wide, he said, “You cannae carry her up the slope!”

“Ah have tae. It’s too dangerous for her here.” Wrapping my arms around the ewe’s body, I picked her up and ascended the mountainside. (Sheep are heavier than they look, especially when they have a full fleece which has just been submerged in a river. Waterlogged climbing boots and sodden clothes didn’t make my load any lighter.) I lost my footing a few times but made sure my knees – not the sheep in my arms – took each impact against the mountain. Upon reaching a flattish clearing of bracken, I laid the ewe down and collapsed beside her. Cal sat on her other side. As he stroked her head and spoke more words of comfort into her ear, I dried her fleece. Her pulse was weak and her temperature worryingly low, so I used a technique I’d learned from a Reiki master to channel energy through my palms and into the ewe. I kept this up until her pulse was booming and her body temperature toasty.

Transferring Energy

Cal and I rose to head up the mountain. Panicking, the ewe scrambled to her feet and tried to follow us. “We cannae go yet,” I said. “She isnae ready.”

Cal looked up at the dark stormcloud. A frown appeared on his brow. “If we don’t go noo we might no’ make the summit and back before dark.”

“The mountain isnae goin’ anywhere, Cal. It’ll be here another day. This gorgeous creature might not be if we leave too early. We have tae stay wi’ her.”

Cal looked at the ewe. She gazed back at him. “Aye,” he said. “We stay wi’ her until she lets us go. When she’s ready.”

Happy Mountain Beasts

And so it was that in the first days of April 2015, on the icy slopes of Cruach Ardrain, two climbers flanked a mountain sheep who had melted their hearts. The ewe gazed at her new friends with such pure affection – such love – that they felt no desire to ever leave that place. They gazed back with admiration for her hardiness, and also, yes, with love.

Cal and I did leave that place. Eventually. But only when the ewe let us go.

Storm over Cruach Ardrain

Under the Stormcloud

Above us the storm shelf loomed, turning the ground below into a land of shadow. We ascended into the storm. From that moment on, our climb became a semi-blind journey through a realm of ice, snow and biting wind. On reaching the upper peaks, we didn’t hang about as we usually do at summits. No drinking coffee from flasks or munching high-calorie snacks to replace spent energy. No sitting at the cairn to enjoy the view. There was no view – just a whiteout. Wind chill dragged the temperature far below zero. Soaked from the river, my clothes began to freeze. Boots became blocks of ice. My beard froze solid, bringing on a bastard of a headache. Extremities turned numb. Due to lack of visibility, our usual rapid descent wasn’t possible. We knew what could happen if a foot is put wrong in the mountains. We’d seen brutal reminders of it just hours earlier. So our movements remained measured and meticulous.

Despite unbroken focus, we found out first hand how easy it is to fall when conditions take a turn for the worse. Traversing a vertical snowbank, Cal lost his grip and dropped like a stone. Heart in mouth, I watched as he vanished into the mist. He could have been shattered on rock, but he landed on a bed of bouncy heather. Lucky.

My ice-encased feet became numb. When they could no longer feel the ground beneath them, I plummeted off a ledge and fell head first through cloud. A rock column shot up towards me. I reached out to break my fall. My left palm took most of the impact, splitting open and spraying nearby snow crimson. The palm had what looked like a flesh catflap on it. Pulling open the skin, I plunged my hands into snow to clean the wound and stem the bleeding. My hands-first landing could have been a head-on collision. Lucky.

When Cal and I emerged from the base of the storm, a welcome vista opened up. On the horizon sunbeams streamed through a hole in the clouds and flickered over the countryside below like celestial fingers massaging the land. Keeping our eyes fixed on the jostling columns of light, we breezed down the mountain.

The Way Back

Soon we were back on the lower slopes where thousands of frogs were fornicating, frolicking, jumping, swimming and croaking with the pure joy of being alive. We knew how they felt.

The day’s last shafts of sunlight danced over lush green land. With those golden beacons lighting our way, Cal and I lit cigars for the walk-out. Relaxing more with every step, we agreed that our experiences in the storm had been some of the least enjoyable ever. We also agreed that the real reason we were there – unknown at the outset but obvious with hindsight – was to save one spectacular sheep. That lucky ewe had passed on some of her luck to us. Luck be a lady, some say. I disagree. Luck is a brave mountain ewe who inhabits the wild landscape of Cruach Ardrain. I love her.

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Life Imitating Art

Life and art borrow from each other. I’ve written some characters whose personalities and idiosyncrasies were based on real people. Art often imitates life but recently I experienced the converse in a way that was nothing short of spooky.

While working on a story that revolves around witchcraft in Scotland and the horrific fates once dealt to alleged witches here, I created a character in the image of one of my primary-school teachers. I’ll abbreviate his name to Mr C. He was an excellent educator: a perfect combination of wisdom, savvy, knowledge, compassion and inspiration, all rounded off by a temper that could, when necessary, explode with enough ferocity to bring transgressions under control. Also, he had a ridiculous amount of coolness for a teacher. Aged ten, when I became immersed in rock and metal music, I scrawled intricate band logos on the covers of my school jotters. Rather than making a fuss about this, Mr C gave me leads to follow, such as, “I see you have an ELP logo on there. If you don’t have their Tarkus album, save up your pocket money and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.” My respect for Mr C grew as he nodded his approval of my rock artwork and I gave him my feedback on the music he had recommended. The only time he ever seemed worried by my direction was when, for one art project, I created a bust of Motörhead’s Lemmy with cigarette hanging from his mouth and Ace-of-Spades-shaped badge (featuring the words With Dope You Hope, With Booze You Lose) on his jacket. Mr C took me aside and said, “You haven’t started smoking dope, have you?” I explained that I’d seen the slogan graffitied on a wall and thought it possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, adding that I’d never dabbled in dope. Happy with my explanation, Mr C nodded.

A few years later Mr C left his job without warning, apparently under a cloud. He left town and wasn’t heard from again. There were rumours, but I never paid attention to the Chinese-whispered gossip. I looked for definitive evidence of his whereabouts. Nothing. Not so much as a whiff. Like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, Mr C seemed to have disappeared into thin air. With the advent of the Internet, I looked for details of the disappearing man. Nada. Not a phone-book entry, employment history or link of any kind.

The mystery of Mr C had long troubled me, which explains how his alter ego found his way into my fiction. I created that character to highlight the fragility of the human psyche. In the story a teacher is fired from his job. Devastated by the loss of the career he found so rewarding, the man shuts himself off from the outside world and drinks himself into oblivion, pissing away self-worth and lifeforce. In real life Mr C had enjoyed a drink but hadn’t been an alcoholic (unless he was a functional alky whose daytime activities didn’t suffer as a result). In my story of Scottish witchcraft, his character’s self-destructive arc was something I felt. So I wrote it. This proved to be a double-edged sword: my intuition had sensed the answer to a nagging question, but this made me all the more determined to find out what had really happened to Mr C. He was impulsive and had been known to wade into dangerous situations with questionable people, but he was also streetwise enough to have extricated himself from those scenarios before things went south. Although the mystery remained officially unsolved, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had tapped into some universal consciousness and that Mr C was, somewhere, drinking himself senseless.

Then, after an archery session in 2012, I went to a pub called The Crooked Lum with my coach and a fellow archer. As I stepped into the interior’s warmth I saw him. Mr C. He was seated alone, back to the wall, eyes glazed, staring over his pint of Guinness. If this had been a cartoon I’d have balled my fists and rubbed my eyes in astonishment, sure they were deceiving me. I stood rooted to the spot. My coach said, “What’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

Unable to tear my gaze away from Mr C, I replied, “Ah did. Ah still am. You two go and get your drinks. There’s somethin’ Ah have tae do.”

I approached Mr C’s table. He appeared not to have aged. Pickled, perhaps. Preserved by alcohol? His chestnut hair was brushed in the same wavy side shed I remembered from childhood. The granite jaw looked as resolute as ever, his expression drunken but determined. He looked up at me through dark eyes which – despite being coated with the glassy sheen of inebriation – sparkled with intelligence. My presence seemed to make him uneasy. I addressed him by his full name. That put him even more on edge. I didn’t understand why. Then I realised that I’d changed substantially since the last time he’d seen me: bigger, hairier, some would say scarier. He asked, “Who are you?” His body language told that he was ready to dash for the door.

When I replied, “Mark Rice,” the tension left Mr C’s body. Eyes like polished onyx gazed at me, seeing beyond my unshaven face and unkempt hair. I saw recognition in those eyes as they identified the boy within the man.

What Mr C said next was light years away from what I’d have predicted. “Mark Rice – you used to live on beans.” It seemed as though I’d wandered into a Douglas Adams novel, such was the preposterous nature of the proclamation. Then memories came flooding back. My father used to buy certain foods in bulk. Baked beans were one such commodity. I had developed a bean fetish (not a sexual one, I should stress), devouring them tirelessly, sometimes even running home to make beans on toast straight after eating lunch in school. Mr C had once paired off the children in his class and set us the task of making clay sculptures. I convinced my art partner Iain that we should create a sculpture of beans on toast. We threw ourselves into the task. Sculpting toast out of clay was easy but rolling individual beans was a fiddly job. Nevertheless, we hurtled onwards with our intricate project as if possessed, pouring thick orange paint over the finished article. It was a masterpiece. We thought so. Mr C thought so. The headmaster thought so too, so much so that he put our sculpture in a glass cabinet just inside the school’s main entrance. When visitors came to the school, the headmaster’s sweeping hand gestures would draw their attention to the cabinets full of gleaming sports trophies and…beans on toast. There was a wonderful eccentricity about my primary school. I loved the way teachers there encouraged creativity and free thinking, even wildly lateral thinking. Meanwhile in The Crooked Lum I experienced a chain reaction of memories, taking me back to a time when every day felt profound. As if sensing my temporal trip, Mr C said, “You were a great kid – a joy to teach.”

“You were an excellent teacher.”

“Really?”

“Aye, really. Surely you know that? You had the perfect blend o’ characteristics for someone whose job was tae teach a bunch o’ savages like me and ma classmates. You were intelligent enough tae gain oor admiration, compassionate enough tae earn oor trust, and terrifyin’ enough tae stop us from runnin’ riot in the classroom.”

“I’ve often wondered if I made any difference at all,” he said. “It’s good to hear that I did. I’m happy to see you wearing a Rush T-shirt. Do you remember who introduced you to Rush?”

“Of course. You did. Ah listened tae Rush more than any other band while Ah was writin’ ma first novel. How’s that for you makin’ a difference?”

Mr C tilted his head, weighing up what he’d just heard. “I knew you’d write a book. That was always going to happen. Let me guess – it’s full of otherworldly fantasy, heavy metal, women and beans?”

“Pretty close. Beans don’t feature in it, though.”

“Oh? Are you saving them for the sequel?”

I chuckled at Mr C’s quick wit. My archery coach brought over a mug of coffee then left me and my erstwhile teacher to our conversation.

Then things turned eerie. Mr C told me he was back in East Kilbride to visit his father, who was at death’s door. In between sups of Guinness, he revealed that his own health was in almost as bad a state as his dad’s. He had drunk his way to severe liver cirrhosis. Sitting across the table from this man I so admired, and looking into his mirror-reflective eyes, I felt the hair rise on my arms and neck. Pressure built in my eyes until tears pooled. I wondered what I had tapped into while writing my story about the witches. The infinite energy latticework known as the Zero Point Field? Jung’s Collective Unconscious? Or had I picked up a psychic distress call from this man who had been ever supportive of my childhood endeavours? A few months earlier I’d created a character based on Mr C and written about how he drank himself into oblivion. Now the real man sat before me, one step away from the oblivion I’d described. He didn’t seem sad or worried. In fact, his attitude was upbeat. He asked more questions about the years when he’d taught me. Do you think I made a difference to other children too? Have you carried any of my lessons with you into the world? What are your favourite memories of those years? Then more questions. Which is your favourite Rush album? What gigs have you attended since your first (Iron Maiden, Glasgow Apollo, the same year I was in Mr C’s primary-six class)? That one took a long time to answer. What’s the summarised plot of your novel? I guzzled coffee after coffee, answering every question Mr C threw at me, feeling that somehow my presence was providing him with a temporary lifeline to a time when he was an unshakable force of nature. Yet that momentary silver lining seemed destined to be engulfed by dark clouds. So I stayed longer, hoping to reinforce in Mr C that he had every reason to feel a sense of self-worth. I had to let him know he wasn’t just admired and respected as a teacher…he was loved.

His right hand began fiddling with a mobile phone while his left gripped a pint of Guinness as if it were a lifebuoy keeping him afloat at sea. “May I take your photo?” he asked. “I forget things sometimes. If I take your picture I’ll know this wasn’t a dream.”

Pondering the idea, I saw a hole in its logic and so suggested a better alternative. “You didnae recognise me at first tonight. If you wake up tomorrow and this whole night’s a blank, you might see a photo o’ me on your phone and wonder, ‘Who’s that hairy basturt and what’s he doin’ on ma phone?’ Tell me your number. Ah’ll send you a text that leaves no room for confusion.” The text I sent said that Mr C was a great teacher and an inspiration. It went on to say how happy I was to once again meet the man who had played such a pivotal role in my early development: the teacher whose belief in me had been unflinching. I put my name at the end of the message.

At closing time, as pub patrons filtered out into the darkness, a feeling of helplessness flooded into me. I wanted to take this man – who would have faced Hell for me all those years ago – under a protective wing to heal his hurt. The demon on my left shoulder growled, “You fuckin’ did this. You wrote it and it’s unfoldin’ as you described. Happy?” Perched on my opposite shoulder, a kilted Faerie chieftain said, “Don’t listen tae that infernal fuckwit’s far-fetched fiction. This has been happenin’ for decades. Your mind simply tuned in tae your teacher’s frequency and sensed what he was goin’ through.” I believed the Faerie warrior, as I always do, yet I couldn’t help feeling unnerved on a monumental scale.

Mr C and I shook hands under the night’s blue-black blanket of weeping clouds. My last words to him: “You were an amazin’ teacher. You still are a great man. Remember that.” As we parted, my heart boomed a collision of past, present and future. I felt in my soul the ripples that every action sends out into the world and wider Universe. An epiphany? That’d be an understatement. It was what Zen monks call a moment of satori. Even in his drunken state and on a seemingly inexorable journey of self-destruction, Mr C was still leading me to greater understanding. For that, and for every moment I was blessed to spend with this man, I feel gratitude.

Mr C, you were loved. You still are. You always will be. The difference you made will ripple forever.

A New Heid for a Deid Legend

Forensic experts at the University of Dundee created an accurate 3D depiction of Robert Burns’s head by using casts of his skull and contemporary portraits. I was lucky enough to look into his eyes, which seemed to look back with sentience. It was a profound experience.

A week before Burns night in 2013 I watched a documentary that told the head’s story, from the forensic team’s painstaking reconstruction through to the unveiling ceremony in Alloway, where Burns had set his supernatural Magnum Opus Tam O’ Shanter. Scottish actor David Hayman narrated the documentary, excitement audible in his voice as he waited for the head to be revealed. Something else was present in his speech too: awe. Would Burns look like the burly ploughman history tells us he was or would his appearance have an effeminate quality, as per some of the painted portraits? Would his face convey the Scottishness of his written work? Hayman was relieved upon seeing the results. Burns’s countenance – fleshed out using facial-reconstruction technology – had the characteristic look of a man o’ the land. More farmer than fop, he was beautiful in a hardy way.

MR and RB

Photo by Sammy Psittacosaurus

As I gazed into the eyes of Burns, recognition bubbled to the surface: I know you. Perhaps the ubiquitous nature of Robert Burns in Scotland results in many Scots feeling that way. The Bard’s poems and their imagery became part of me as a child when I first experienced their magic. Standing face to face with the source of that magic, I recognised it as surely as I would my own reflection. Since my earliest memories, Burns’s words had been shaping my perception for the better. He and I share some characteristics: ancestry, culture and history; love of animals and countryside; refusal to accept hypocrisy; disdain for cruelty; an appreciation of short tartan skirts (“Weel done, Cutty-sark!”); a love of wild hochmagandy. Is it an accident that I grew up to embody many of the qualities that burned so passionately in Burns? Or did his ideas filter into the childhood me and find solace there, distilling until my soul – ever the stickler for truth – had weighed them up and invited the worthy ones to become part of my being? If I were a betting man I’d put my money on the latter.

The Bard

Photo by Mark Rice

Three days after sharing space with the head of Burns and spending time in the bedroom where he and Jean Armour conceived and birthed their ill-fated twins, I dreamed that I met the Bard walking across a meadow. We sat in the shade of a leafless oak tree. Burns pulled a silver hip flask from his pocket. After taking a few gulps, he offered me the container. I shook my head. The Bard shrugged then guzzled the remainder of the usquabae. His ponytail flapped in a rogue gust of wind. Gazing at the umber sunset, he said, “What do you think o’ humans?”

“The most destructive, despicable species on the planet,” I replied. “Ah’ve always known where Ah stand wi’ beasts. Not so wi’ folk. Horses relax in ma company and I in theirs. The same is true o’ camels, dogs, goats, wolves, pigs, cats, rabbits, coos, guinea pigs, hamsters…the list goes on. And for some reason moths come tae me as if Ah were a flame. A few years ago a friend’s eight-year-old daughter looked intae ma eyes and said, ‘You’re an animal soul in a human body.’ There was nae uncertainty in her voice. Maybe she was right. That would explain a lot. Ah love the company o’ wild things.”

“Aye,” said Burns, nodding. “Many a Clydesdale horse an’ moose an’ louse Ah looked in the eyes, an’ there Ah saw nowt but truth. In humans Ah e’er saw agendas.”

“Dear Bard, Ah learned much aboot honesty, integrity and compassion from you. Ah wish everyone had, but far too many folk are vessels o’ chaos, causin’ sufferin’ wherever they go. They’re strangers tae integrity.”

“Sounds like no’ much has changed,” mused the Bard.

“You’re right. Cowardice, cruelty and hypocrisy are as prevalent noo as when you were pennin’ poems that changed the literary landscape forever.”

“Are people treatin’ creatures better?”

“Some are, but idiotic humans still hunt and kill animals in the name o’ so-called sport. That’s murder, not sport. Something’s only a sport if both sides take part voluntarily and agree on the rules. Pullin’ a trigger and blowin’ a deer’s heid apart isnae sport – it’s deliberate murder of a gorgeous wild beast. Fishing’s no better. A human dunks a lure intae water as a Trojan-horse gift intended tae coax a poor fish tae its death. The one who’s unlucky enough tae bite has its mooth pierced by barbed metal, then the pain worsens as the creature’s yanked oot o’ water intae air, where the wee beauty begins tae asphyxiate. Overcome by panic and excruciatin’ agony, the beautiful bein’ flops aroon’ in a desperate attempt tae find its way back home tae the water. Then the creature’s gills collapse and it dies. Tae me, treatin’ any creature that way is unthinkable, compassionless, murderous, psychopathic. Fish are sentient beings wi’ feelings, instincts, families, social groups, intelligence, and a drive tae survive. Yet commercial trawlers net them in tens o’ thoosands, haulin’ them oot o’ the water tae an agonisin’ death.”

A tear trickled from the Bard’s left eye, catching the day’s last light. “Ah never thought much aboot the sufferin’ o’ sea creatures when Ah was tuckin’ intae them wi’ tatties and salt,” he said, his voice a breeze loaded with regret.

“Imagine other animals started treatin’ humans that way,” I said. “You’re walkin’ doon the street and a delicious-lookin’ scone wi’ jam and clotted cream materialises in front o’ your face. You take a bite, only tae find your cheek impaled by a hook. You’re pulled towards a river where a grizzly bear stands waist deep in water, reelin’ you in wi’ a fishin’ rod. When you’re within reach the beast grabs your heid and dunks it intae the river. You try tae free yoursel’ but it’s in vain – the grizzly’s strength is too much for you. Panickin’, you inhale. Water floods your lungs. Your body is starved of oxygen. Lactic acid burns intae your muscles. Above your heid the river explodes in a froth o’ bubbles then is still. You’re deid. If that were tae occur, you and I know that newspapers would run headlines like Bastard Bear Kills Bard. The media would shout, ‘Get a Gun, Gut a Grizzly.’ Oor ursine brothers and sisters would be hunted tae extinction. That has almost happened across the globe anyway. Back when you were writin’, bears, wolves and lynx roamed Scotland, but they were wiped oot by sociopathic numbskulls who disrupted the natural order. Too many humans are blind tae their own cruelty and tae that o’ their fellow man. Unawakened. Unenlightened. Unsentient. Unconscious. Not for all the money in the world would Ah cause sufferin’ tae a sentient creature. That’s ma way. Fuck it – that’s the way! You know it and Ah know it. What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world and forfeiteth his soul?

“Ah never could thole the hypocrisy o’ religious folk,” said Burns, “but that wee chunk o’ Bible text is unco wise. If Ah’m no’ mistaken, your biblical namesake penned it.”

“Aye, he did. Marks make the best prophets. That’s scientifically proven.” As a tip o’ the hat to my favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, I affected my best Irish (Oirish) accent and made fanny-tickling motions with my fingers. “Oi have the gift!”

“The jury’s oot on that one,” mumbled the Bard. “We’ll see.”

“We will, as you say, see.” A nod to Douglas Adams from me.

“You’ve soaked up ma compassion for creatures and filtered it through your cultural sieve,” observed Burns. “If Ah were aroon’ today Ah’d be a lot like you. Less quimthirsty, though.”

“What? Your shaggin’ exploits are legendary. And you didnae exactly dae it discreetly. You wrote poems and sonnets tae your lustiest lovethings then published them. At ma last count, you’d written odes tae eighty maidens! Ah figured if vagina-related recreation was the prime pastime o’ Scotland’s Bard, it must be worthy of exploration. In your words Ah found lucidity and on the Hochmagandy Highway Ah found carnal bliss. From Bard’s lips tae boy’s ears – joy can be found between the thighs of a warm, welcomin’ woman.”

“This is ma legacy?” moaned Burns. “Mount a lusty maiden and be happy?”

“Aye, but no’ just that. Your messages o’ brotherhood, compassion, wisdom and integrity are still resonatin’ across the land. You taught us it’s good tae feel, tae think, tae question, tae express. You also showed that fuckin’ can be fun.”

The Bard frowned. “You won’t find any mention o’ fuckin’ in ma written work. Ah wasnae uncouth in poetry or prose. Honest, raw and straight tae the point, but never coarse. Ah didnae just describe the mechanical aspects o’ fornication – Ah discovered that when carnality and love collide, the experience is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Ah discovered the same thing, Rab. Pure, intimate love is the ultimate truth. Did you have a favourite lover? Jean, presumably? Was she your one?”

“Are folk still bletherin’ aboot the one? For me, there was always one. Then came another, followed by the one after that. And so on, ad infinitum, in gloria vaginis. Every woman Ah had true intimacy wi’ – and that’s a function o’ soul more than body – was ma one in that moment. Moments are ephemeral, though. Jean was one lover. Ah had many. Ah loved each o’ them wi’ unbridled passion. Tae declare any woman ma one would lessen the importance o’ the others. Most history tells lies. Mine cannae. Ah loved fiercely and widely. Each lover brought me revelations.”

My Oirish accent returns. “Are you sayin’ you’re a lover, not a foighter?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

Still Oirish. “Oi’m a lover, a foighter and a wroiter.”

“You’re an eejit.”

“You t’ink Oi’m not roight in the head?”

“Definitely no’ right in the heid.”

“That’s pretty much the consensus.”

Burns smiled. “An honest eejit wi’ a hertful o’ love and a soulful o’ compassion is worth more than all the gemstones and gold in the world.”

“Thank you, Rab. This eejit will e’er the truth speak, ne’er bowin’ tae fear or folly.”

“Good man,” said Burns. “Go forth and write, ma big hairy eejit friend. The world is your fertile furrow. Call on me if e’er you need advice.”

“Thanks but no thanks. As some rogue Scottish writer said in Revelation Was Wrong, ‘Those who ride through life on the coattails of others are not worthy of admiration.’ Forever Ah’ll admire your literary coattails, and the rest o’ your coat…and your troosers…and, och, you get my metaphor. Ah have tae plough ma own literary fields, though. Fresh ones.”

“Plough awa’, compatriot,” said the Bard. He stood up and offered me his right hand. I gripped it in mine. As Burns pulled me to my feet, I felt the strength of ages flow in an ancestral circuit. In that moment my roots felt deeper than those of the oak which sheltered us.

Burns's Head and Portrait

Photo by Mark Rice

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