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Gavin of the Highlands

EVERY year, at a certain time, an impatience with Lowland life comes over us and we head north, passing round Loch Lomond toward dawn, then on to Crianlarich. Beyond Tyndrum the mountains rise up and, like the guardian of the Rannoch Moor, there towers the great presence of the Buchaille Etive Mor. We have returned again and again, in midsummer when the last cuckoos call from the Mamore hills, or in October when the rowans ripen down Glen Etive and birches flame gold along the shores of Loch Linnhe. Here we found simplicity of living in a small croft with candlelight, fires of peat and pine cones, water drawn from the burn.

The first time we arrived we wondered who on earth this could be, this mountain of a man who stood at the door, glowering down at us. It was our landlord, Gavin, of the clan MacLean. As he grew used to us, he gave up calling us the foreigners and even forgave us for being Lowlanders.

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``So you're back!'' became his familiar greeting, then, before we had time to draw breath, he unfolded a tattered survey map. ``We'll be off on a ploy,'' he said. These ploys were tests of a kind, of himself and of us too. Was he still as agile and quick-witted as in his youth, could we ever walk as far or climb as high as he?

Around our third visit we became aware that Gavin had begun to enter other centuries, blurring time. In his mind literature and history were fused into one, so that as we walked around Appin Country or entered the Lands of Moidart, we went in company with Ossian, the Gaelic bard; with the Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward Stuart; along with characters from Walter Scott, with Boswell and Dr. Johnson, the little king of the drovers, Cameron of Corriechoillie, or went ``Taigling many a weary mile over the heather'' with Davie Balfour and Alan Breck.

If we demurred: ``But surely Alan Breck was the hero of Stevenson's `Kidnapped'?'' Gavin would brood darkly over our impertinence - ``Who daurs correct me?' - ``I knew him well,'' he said haughtily and punished us by refusing to talk in anything but the Gaelic. Then, all at once, he would relent. He had forgotten that we were only Lowlanders and knew no better.

Gavin's tangle of fact and fiction added to the enchantment of the landscape. Crossing the Rannoch we might at any moment stumble on a group of drovers of former days, sitting over a peat fire, porridge platters on their knees, with their collie dogs snuggled close, the Highland cattle from Skye grazing nearby. William and Dorothy Wordsworth might pass along, reciting poetry, Keats and de Quincey might come, or there went Coleridge, who thought nothing of tramping 50 miles in a day.

``I have my own conception of time,'' Gavin confided mysteriously. ``Why should it go in a straight line, tell me, past, present and future? I see it as birling round and round like the earth, with the past and future whiles meeting together. Anyway,'' he said, ``up here in the hills we live in the land of tomorrow.'' As we had adapted our pace to his steady, loping gait, likewise we accepted his theory of time.

We, too, recited as an incantation the names of the places we passed through - Cuil Bay, Duror of Appin, Benderloch, Glenfinnan. We had our island days when Gavin rowed us over to the bird sanctuary on the islet of Balnagowan, across to the isles of Shuna and Lismore. ``I may not be as strong as 20 years ago, but I can still hold an oar,'' he would mutter, offended, if we offered to row. Then, as we watched the shining heads of otters, heard the song of the seals, the shrill cry of oyster catchers, he forgot offense. ``If you are caring to row,'' he said loftily, refusing to admit to weariness, ``I shall give you some verses.''

That was our reward. Gavin's head was full of poetry, especially that of the man of his own clan, the poet of Raasay, Sorley MacLean. The boat drifted in waves and wind and driving rain, while Gavin declaimed: ``And if we were together on Calgary shore in Mull, Between Scotland and Tiree, Between the world and eternity, I would stay there till doom, Measuring sand grain by grain ... I would wait there for ever, For the sea draining drop by drop,'' until we thought we had entered timelessness.

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Along with our island days went those of moorland and mountain. We walked through the heart of the hills from Glen Nevis over to Kinlochleven, came down the Devil's Staircase and across the Rannoch. There mists might shroud us, innocent-looking marshes might suck us down into their emerald-green depths till we vanished forever. High on some snow-covered cornice of the Buchaille Etive we might slither, come pitching over, flying into space. How could this ancient Highlander, who wandered in past ages and who, to test us, took us into danger instead of out of it, ever lead us safely into present time? We hid our tremors, overcame a terror of heights. After all, in what better company to end our days!

With every visit Gavin had difficulties hearing and seeing. As he entered his world of silence and blurred vision, instead of setting off on some wild ploy, he taught us the secret of stillness. Through him we learned to sit so quietly that the roe deer passed near enough to touch, birds came to our feet as if we had been transformed into stones or branches, become part of heather and moorland. ``I am perhaps a little hard of hearing,'' Gavin would admit, ``but after all,'' he added, ``I have all the sweet sounds of Argyll in my head and the Lord has spared me great noise of our new world - planes and motor bikes, tractors and transistors.

``You may even have noticed,'' he went on, ``that my sight is not as sharp as it was. But all those pictures of the inner eye - the red deer crossing the Rannoch, the glint of sunshine on the blue waters of Loch Linnhe, cloud shadows on the mountains of Glencoe. What more do I want? There is no need to pity me.''

On our last visit we found that Gavin had been ordered to bed and was being tended by an elderly cousin. ``He is very far through,'' she whispered to us. He must have guessed what she was saying. ``That auld loon may be of the clan MacLean but she knows nothing of my health,'' he said with his familiar loftiness. ``We'll soon be off on a ploy.''

Outside there came a swirling flurry of early snow that darkened the window. ``A dispensation of Providence,'' he murmured. ``I can lie back for a while - we could not be climbing the Buchaille Etive in such a blizzard. We'll go tomorrow.''

``It will be a miracle if he sees tomorrow,'' the old cousin said with doleful certainty at the door of the croft as we left. The man himself was a miracle; his time was tomorrow. With his pride in clan and country, the severe expectations he laid on himself and others, he could have stepped straight from the pages of Scott or Stevenson.

With him we had rubbed shoulders with the past and looked into the future, had learned the wonders of the inner eye and ear. With increased sensitivity we half-believed we could hear the softly falling snow and gathering mist, the reddening of rowan berries, the bracken taking on its autumn gold. We sensed the air stirred by the soaring flight of an eagle, the muffled wings of an owl.

We had loved his exasperated patience with our Lowland inadequacy, his passion for poetry. ``If you were in Clachan, or on Cnoc an Ra, You would be among half your kin,'' he recited. ``Among the straight generous people, choice MacLeans and MacLeods. The dust is not weak.''

We had known with him the White Nights of July, the shooting stars and Northern Lights of the fall when we stood together in the wide solitude of the hills. The landscape mirrored the man. Ever after we would see him in the strength of the Buchaille Etive Mor, would hear his voice in the rustling of the river Etive, in the waves of Kentallen.

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