The last habitable cottage before you come to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the Scottish mainland if not the whole of the ancient island of Britain, used to nestle to the southern side of an old, square tower. This tower may have once been a fortified block-house, such as one sees throughout the wilder parts of Scotland, where clan once fought against clan down through the years, until King fought against King for the final time and there were no more clans.
Time, or maybe the actions of a crofter taking away the squared stones from its highest courses to build the cottage which had long abutted it, had reduced the old tower in height, but its presence had given the croft itself a grander aspect than many another shielding nestling in crooks of the hills on the road to Acharacle. It stood proud upon a promontory, and looked out upon the sunset, the Isles, and over the vast, old Atlantic Ocean, with its profound, unknowable secrets.
For some time the cottage stood empty, after the last crofter had rolled his meagre belongings into his plaid, and tearfully set out on the road to Glasgow and beyond. But at last it was bruited about that it was taken, and by people somewhat approaching gentry, even. Alasdair and Eilidh MacAskill, brother and sister, bachelor and spinster, had made an offer to the laird’s man of business, and it had been accepted. They were to move into it at the end of the summer, but first the keys had been sent to Rab MacRae the joiner and handyman, who lived by the slipway of the Tobermory ferry. He was to enter the house, and work to the strict plans given him by the factor, to make it habitable for townsfolk. Rab worked with a will, indeed, but there was something, he said later, which made him unwilling to stay beyond sunset, and to be well gone from the house before the shadow of the old tower made a patch of darkness upon the road home. Old houses, long unoccupied, have that effect on simple folk, and the dour, old minister at the grey kirk chided Rab, and bade him attend to his prayers rather than superstitious fancy.
It was Rab himself who eventually conveyed the brother and sister from the ferry to their new house. They had come by train to Oban, then had taken a scenic route along the eastern coast of the Isle of Mull, before crossing the sound again to Ardnamurchan. They were a sere couple, bringing few possessions with them, except for a heavy trunk which Alasdair guarded.
“My books,” he said – and little else – by way of explanation.
It gradually came to be known that Alasdair had been a dealer in antiquarian books, having run a small shop in Fort William. A keen eye, a talent for driving a hard bargain, and an unwillingness to spend his money on “fripperies”, had enabled him to retire in middle age, to buy a retreat, and to take his only relative, his sister, into retirement with him.
For a while they were looked up to, for they were staid as well as sere, and seemed to embody those stoic, Presbyterian virtues that once were respected in the far west of Scotland. But soon folk’s looks darkened. For all their staidness, they never appeared at the kirk, and once, when asked about this, Alasdair had curled his lip in downright scorn. What is more, there were rumours of correspondence with a man of dubious and unsavoury reputation who lived on the shores of Loch Ness, and Alasdair’s not infrequent absences were thought to be trips up that way. He returned often red-eyed and haggard from these journeys. If anyone did venture up the road to their cottage when daylight was failing, there were stories of strange lights’ being seen along the walls and through the ancient musket-slits of the tower.
Apart from Alasdair’s times away, the brother and sister hardly seemed to venture forth from their home. Rab delivered their provisions in a cart. The sister, Eilidh, was more civil, and better regarded than her brother. She was often to be seen, by such people who did go by there, sitting at the door of the cottage on a fine day, looking at the low sunlight redden the sea, or at the window on a day less clement, watching the play of the breakers and the rolling of the clouds.
The dour minister himself braved that road on his pony, picking a day when Alasdair was absent, and found Eilidh to be “an hospitable woman, for all her disregard of the Sabbath”. He had accepted a cup of tea, and a sit in a comfortable armchair for a while, in the pleasant if largely unlit sitting room of the cottage.
“I see you have many books,” he mentioned, nodding over to a bookshelf, clearly of Rab’s handiwork. “Though not the Word of God, I notice.”
“My brother’s,” said Eilidh, by way of the briefest explanation. “And no, I do not believe he has a Bible amongst them. Perhaps that is a pity.”
The last remark did warm the granite of the minister’s heart a little towards the sister, imagining her to be, in some way, a prisoner of her brother’s heathenish reclusion. He took an opportunity, while Eilidh took his emptied teacup into the kitchen, of standing and peering more closely at the books. Now, narrow and strait he may have been, but the minister was not an ignorant man, having been in Edinburgh at the University in his youth. The first book his eyes lit upon gave him pause. Its bindings were clearly late seventeenth century, and unless he was mistaken it was an unknown work on Alchemy by Isaac Newton. Quite a find, if a little suspect! There was more disquieting stuff further along the shelf. The minister recognised the works of Albertus Magnus, to begin with, and amongst some tomes whose spines were worn beyond interpreting the once-gilt lettering on them, he saw with a start Von Junzt’s “Unaussprechlichen Kulten”, and – oh horror – an early Latin translation of the dreaded “Necronomicon” of the mad arab Abdul Alhazred. He was frowning darkly when Eilidh re-entered the room.
“Woman,” he said, all courtesy and friendliness gone. “Do you read these things?”
“No, indeed,” she said, and he relaxed a little. “Since I was a child my favourite reading has been only fairy tales. I do not understand Alasdair sometimes, and his love for those dusty volumes. I have seen some of them with their pages open, and have seen his notes in the margins, and notes which must have been made a long time ago in hands which are beyond deciphering. And indeed I worry about the way he sometimes commits things from them to memory, and circles the cottage and the tower chanting them. He comes indoors so tired, as if he has been carrying some great burden. Often I fancy I hear his chanting answered, but then I think – no, a seagull, the wind perhaps.”
“Lassie,” said the minister, more softened than he could have thought possible. “I fear that your brother is beyond salvation. But yourself – oh, if you would only fall to your prayers!”
The minister left the cottage, remembering, as his pony trotted down the loaning, the wan smile and the far-away look that Eilidh had when he spoke of her prayers. It was no more than half a mile along the road that he encountered Rab’s cart coming in the opposite direction. Rab was driving, uneasy at having Alasdair sitting beside him. When the latter saw the minister his face became red with fury. His scowl was full of hatred, and he tugged at Rab’s sleeve, urging the poor jack-of-all-trades to whip up his horse. Later Rab told whomever would listen, in his precise, Highland English:
“Now, I could not tell whether Mister MacAskill was angry at the minister, or feared of him. But he alighted even before I had stopped my cart at the cottage, and rushed in shouting wildly at his sister. I was troubled for her life, thinking to myself that he was in a murderous rage, but from what I could hear, he seemed to be more feared for her safety. ‘What has he said to you? What has he done to you? Has he harmed you? Has he touched anything? My books – has he touched my books?’ that was what I heard, and then his sister consoling him. But his voice was so demented as to sound almost inhuman, so I turned my cart and whipped my poor beast into a lather to get home!”
That night saw the first fierce storm of the autumn. Those who braved it said they saw eldritch lights at the tower, saw strange shapes in the air above it, and heard screams and howlings as if from a great, tortured beast. Others, who had not been out, called them bairns and dafties to be frightened of wind, clouds, and ball-lightning, and to be imagining bogles in the half-dark.
But in the calm and grey light of the next morning Rab, who had an errand up at the cottage, brought back the news that Alasdair MacAskill had perished, and was now in some world other than this one.
“His sister said to me, that he had been out in the wind and rain for most of the night,” he said to any who would hear him. “And that he came in at first light, wild and staring. ‘You shall be safe!’ were the only words he had spoken to her, before collapsing and dying at her feet.”
Of course the minister would not let Alasdair be buried at the kirk, but that was not relevant, for a casket of dark wood was sent by the man from by Loch Ness, and Alasdair’s cadaver was taken away in it.
Eilidh MacAskill lived alone for two quiet years. It was as though some enchantment had indeed been laid around the cottage which leant against the tower. Only Rab came to call at the cottage, as ever. Others with any errand at the lighthouse, or at the sheep pastures on the headland, passed by. Eilidh would be sitting at the door or window, according to the day, gazing seaward, and would smile and wave briefly at each passer-by. Sometimes she would accompany Rab as far as Acharacle, and on those occasions the minister’s granite exterior would soften, and he would ask after her.
“I’m fine. I’m safe in my cottage,” she would say.
No more lights, no more shapes, no more sounds were reported for a long time. It seemed as though such things had died along with Alasdair. It was only with Rab, however, that Eilidh would converse, and the handyman became the sole source of information to the curious folk of the neighbourhood.
“Och, she’s like a little child, not at all like her brother,” Rab would say. “She smiles, and tells me that she watches the seal-folk sporting in the waves, and sunning themselves upon the rocks, and she calls them ‘silkies’, and says that they are the enchanted people of the sea. She says that the gulls are the souls reborn of drowned sailors, and that she understands their cries, which call of nothing but peace, fair winds, and plain sailing, far from the hardness of any wooden deck. She says she sees the kelpie-folk peeking shyly at her through the machair. And she says that she watches the clouds at sunset, and the rolling mist-banks, as they make the shapes of castles and cities for the fairy folk to live in! She has the imagination of a shanachie!”
And thus things went, in peace, until the second anniversary of the death of Alasdair MacAskill, when a storm greater than the one which attended that dreadful event crashed like a titan’s fist upon Ardnamurchan, and once more lights and shapes were seen around the tower, cries heard upon the wind.
All her life, Eilidh MacAskill had been a dreamer of dreams, a believer of tales in which butterfly-winged, acorn-capped elves darted in and out of dandelion stalks, conversing with mice and rabbits. She knew the tales of old Merlin, whose life ran backwards towards youth, to be true, and Tir nan Og – the land of perpetual youth – and Lyonesse, and even mystic Atlantis to be, or to have been, real places, within the reach of the galleys of mainland folk. She knew the true origin of the title ‘Lord of the Isles’, which had in later years been assumed by the chieftains of the Gaels, but which had belonged of yore to an older Jarl.
At first such things had merely come to her from books, but later she had no need of paper and printing – unlike her eldritch brother – and seemed to be informed of such things by the very earth itself and by the elements. Hence her smile.
The battering of the second great storm had not disturbed her peaceful sleep, during which she had dreamed of knights in armour, under a glamour, riding on some impossible quest which would take them far and forever from their home. For around her front door, there seemed to be a calm, as if the eye of the storm itself was there. And what woke her was a soft, insistent tapping.
As she struggled into increasing wakefulness, and recognised her surroundings, a thrill went through her entire being, which to a more prosaic soul would have been a tremor of fear. But not to Eilidh. There was some fear in it, but more that if she did not answer the tapping, something would go away, and be gone for ever!
“Who’s there?” she called, barely suppressing a tremor.
A voice replied, “You know full well who knocks at your door, Eilidh MacAskill, if I may for now use your mortal, earthbound name!” It was a sweet voice, contralto, feminine beyond measure, and Eilidh recognised it, though she had never heard it before.
“Then name yourself,” she said, rising from her bed, and taking a few steps towards the door. “Unless you be afeared to speak such a name before a mortal!”
“Bravely uttered!” came the reply. “As befits one such as you, Eilidh of the clann Mac Ascuill. It is I, none other that the Lady of Faerie who calls to you. You alone do not fear me, though the name I bear along these coasts terrifies those who are of small mind. They know me as the Fairy Woman – the Bean Sith – and all fear my voice, for they say that the banshee cries and moans around the houses of the soon-to-die! But you do not fear me, do you, Eilidh?”
“No indeed, I do not!” cried Eilidh, taking a few more steps towards the door, exultation in her heart. “I welcome you, I greet you, I embrace your coming, my Lady!”
“Then it is not death I bring to you,” said the fell Queen. “But a new name, and a life forever among the ever-youthful. For you are Eliye, a princess of the Fair Folk, of the race whose feet touched the rocks and grass of Alba before ever Pict or Gael did. The race of the tall people, high of cheek-bone, with eyes as pale as the moon, and hair that streams like a kelp forest in the deep of the ocean. That is your true race, Eliye. Your brother guessed it, but only part of the truth, and wove crude charms around this place, invoking both our protection and our forbearance. His eye was ever downwards on his books, and thus was forever earthbound, and spent himself of chants and sorceries, which wore him out. Who knows – if he had not, he might have had the invitation I now extend to you, Eliye. Will you come to me? Will you take your place by my side, and rule with me in Faerie-land of the ever-youthful?”
“With all my heart!” cried Eilidh, and wrenched open the door of her cottage.
For a hundred yards in each direction, the ground was bone dry, and the air was calm. Beyond that the tempest raged. Rain danced madly, gigantic shapes leaped in an insane Strathspey, Auroras and lightning crackled like a living, angry animal. Inside the calm, protected circle, all was peaceful. A grey, gentle light which cast no shadow spread everywhere. Though she wore only her nightgown, Eilidh felt nothing more than the warmth of a summer zephyr against her skin.
For a moment or two, Eilidh could see no one there. Then her gaze came round to the tower. It seemed to stand at three or four times the height of the ruin she had known. Up one side, to its full height, there ran a staircase, which appeared to be made of nothing more than a glittering mist. At the top, there stood a woman – tall, beautiful beyond the description of human wit, clad in a sheer, silver robe, which streamed out behind her. High were her cheekbones, pale as moonlight her eyes, long and dark as seaweed her hair. And Eilidh knew her at once for whom she had declared herself to be.
Eilidh put one foot upon the insubstantial staircase, then another, and with each step she climbed she gained courage. The stairs became more and more solid, until they seemed more like marble than mist, and when Eilidh at last gained the full height of the tower, there stood the Lady of Faerie, with open arms, with loving eyes, smiling at her. With joy filling her heart, Eilidh extended her own arms, and stepped forward to meet the Lady. As she drew nearer, she felt herself becoming more erect in stature, tall and slender. She knew that her hair had unwound from its habitual bun, and was streaming long and dark behind her. She knew that the same moonlight which was shining in the eyes of the Lady was reflected in hers.
The two women embraced, as a brilliant aurora danced around them. An innumerable host of kittiwakes and fulmars seemed to burst from the very stones of the tower, circling the couple, crying in an exultation that found echoes in Eilidh’s heart. The tower, once of dark grey, moss-greened granite, now seemed to be sparkling and faceted, like polished limestone reflecting the sheen of a billion stars. The storm outside ceased to be a maelstrom of chaos, and became a funnel of whirling light. Eilidh and the Lady of Faerie kissed. Eilidh, still partly mortal, felt a butterfly-touch upon her lips, and then a sensation as if she was taking a draught of cool water to slake a great thirst, as the Lady’s tongue entered her mouth. Eilidh drank deep of that draught and, being more and more of one race and one being with her, poured her own tongue deep into the Lady’s welcoming mouth. Their encircling arms drew them close to each other. Eilidh sensed, with something deeper, more heightened than mere touch, the Lady’s hands running all over her body. Taught as a harp-string, Eilidh seemed to leap to meet each caress, crying aloud as the Lady’s fingertips touched her breasts, generating sparks of high magic from her nipples. As if receiving instruction in her very soul, she matched each caress received with one given, and soon she and the great and terrible Queen had each sheathed a finger in the other, and touched each other’s deepest intimacy. For what seemed like an entire aeon – and indeed, who knows how long had passed in the world of mortals outside the realm of the Lady of Faerie – they writhed blissfully in each other’s arms, until they reached together a moment of utter ecstasy, and their cries of love were echoed by the whirling kittiwakes and fulmars.
A great peace came over Eilidh. The Lady released her embrace, and held her by the hands only, a look of sheer love in her eyes. The she turned and gestured seaward.
“Cone, Eliye my only true love,” she said. “Come with me over the bridge of sea mist, into our own realm. Ride with me to our palace, and rule the land of the ever-youthful for ever with me.”
Eilidh looked, and saw that a shimmering causeway was arching away from the top of the tower, over the raging of the waves as they hammered at the rocks. At the other side of the causeway there was no night, and no storm, only the everlasting summer light of Faerie. The silkie folk basked there undisturbed, and called to her. Kelpies stepped out from the emerald machair, beckoning. Two strong, white sea-steeds, with manes like the foams of the waves, stood ready to bear her and the Lady away. Hand in hand, they stepped onto the bridge of sea mist, and into Faerie.
It was, of course, Rab MacRae who came across the open door of the cottage, the following morning. There was no one inside, and he steeled himself to peek over the edge of the small cliff on which the ruined tower stood. Below, he could see a figure like a doll.
When eventually someone was able to climb down, they found that although Eilidh MacAskill’s body was broken, her face was untouched. Her eyes were shut, and she seemed as though she might merely be asleep, and for that matter, that she might be in some peaceful dream, for there was a smile on her lips. For all that she had never attended the kirk, the dour minister was moved to find a spot to bury her in a corner of the little kirk-yard, for, he said, “She was an innocent soul, foreby.”
It was the minister himself who oversaw the emptying of the cottage, and he who built a bonfire, and cast upon it all the old, unholy grimoires that Alasdair MacAskill had hoarded. They burned with a black and noisome smoke. One item he did not burn, but, strangely for a man of his calling, buried and placed under a small cairn of stones from the old tower. As he had removed Alasdair’s books, a single, loose sheet had fallen from between them, and fluttered to the floor of the cottage. When he had picked it up, he saw that it was, incongruously, a leaf torn from a child’s fairy-tale book – a faded illustration of a queenly figure, tall and beautiful, with high cheekbones, pale eyes, and flowing, dark hair. She stood with one foot upon an aetherial bridge, spanning an awful gulf, and at the other side, dimly drawn, was a land of enchantment.
These days, the cottage is a ruin, and the tower reduced, fallen into the sea. Nearby folk are no longer superstitious, and do not fear the howling of the storms which sometimes come to the western coast of Scotland. The dour minister has long since left his mortal ministry, and no doubt now knows more joy, in some world invisible to us, than he did in life. Only Rab MacRae is left, old and half-blind. When the wind howls, or the seabirds scream, he swears – to the derision of the wiser folk of today – that he can hear two women, calling out in joy to one another.