Hunting the Unicorn: Heading north…

I hit the road after work for the first leg of what would prove to be a very long journey and one full of unexpected adventures. From my home in the south, I drove to Yorkshire to collect Stuart. Next morning, we left for Scotland, choosing, as always, a route that would avoid the oppressive and insistent clamour of motorways. It undoubtedly takes much longer, but if you are going to work with the landscape, there is no better way to begin to connect with it than by experiencing it… even if only through the windscreen of a car.

We were heading into the Highlands to attend The Silent Unicorn workshop, a joint venture with our own school and a magical Lodge. The weekend would be presented by Dean Powell, who now lives in the area and who would guide us to sites ranging from the ancient, to the historic, to the simply beautiful. The weekend would be an opportunity to connect with old friends we see too seldom as well as, we hoped, enabling us to meet up with friends who live in the far north. But not all plans work out the way we have envisaged…

Passing through the Derbyshire and Yorkshire Dales, we skirted the peaks of Cumbria and, around lunchtime, paused in Penrith. One of the tyres appeared to have a slow puncture and, given the miles and terrain we were planning on covering, a dodgy tyre was the last thing we would need. The mechanic removed the tyre, duly checked it and, in spite of its previous and persistent loss of air, pronounced it to be fine. We paid the bill and resumed our journey.

The Scottish Borders flew by, with memories of previous journeys into the north coming back as we drove. It was getting late by the time we arrived at Kinross, and there was just time to stretch travel-weary legs with a wander around Loch Leven before settling for the night.

In the evening light, the loch was beautiful. It has long been protected as a nature reserve and abounds with wildlife. Its banks starred with wildflowers, its waters silver and home to many waterfowl. The squat, solid remains of Loch Leven Castle occupy one of the seven islands in the lake and it was here that Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567 and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son. A silver and ivory sceptre engraved with her name was found when the loch was partially drained in the nineteenth century. Whether it was dropped or discarded during her arrival, or when she escaped the castle with the help of her gaoler’s family, we will never know. A poignant illustration, perhaps, of how easily the trappings of worldly success can be lost.

Beside the loch, a graveyard reinforces the point, with the tombs of both the great and the small of the world weathering side by side. As with many Scottish cemeteries, the Kirkgate burial ground stands at the edge of the town and was guarded against graverobbers. Many of the tombstones are carved with skulls and bones, others bear witness to Masonic allegiances. Names, achievements and stories fade together into the shadows as memory and history replace them with newer tales.

In many ways, it was the perfect place to begin considering the weekend ahead. We would be delving into our own psyche, seeking out elements of our own nature and how we are affected by events, fears and reactions. All of which, could we but realise it, are as insignificant against the vast backdrop of history as a butterfly against the panorama of the Lomond hills.

Such considerations, however, were driven from our minds by our first encounter with a true Scottish legend… the midge. Larger than their southerly counterpart and prone to forming vast, voracious clouds, we did not linger and hurried back to the car, glad that the Highlands awaited… at a latitude where the midges do not venture.