STONE SPECTRES

Words & Photos by Kelly Brenner

Ghosts. My mind is full of ghosts. I’m thoroughly convinced a wraith is going to materialize in the steely clouds that obscure the rugged stone walls and glide towards me across a grassy hillside punctuated with lichen splattered boulders. The wind has picked up and cold draughts blow down my neck, penetrating through my many layers sending chills down my back.

I’m not scared, but fascinated, eager even.

I find I want a portion of the misty clouds to break away and drift towards me through this monochromatic landscape that is the Quiraing. Then I realize the ghostly presence already surrounds me. The clouds, like vapor, embrace me, the wind passes like a specter through my body and the mist seeps into my hair and covers my glasses, turning my vision into a kaleidoscope. The already broken maze of cliffs and scattered rocks becomes fractured through the dewdrops on my lenses, further blurring the line between ghost and geology.

I find I want a portion of the misty clouds to break away and drift towards me through this monochromatic landscape that is the Quiraing.

The Scottish Highlands. The Isle of Skye. The Quiraing. Before I even took my first step onto the path, the names of this place where I find myself already hinted at a mysticism where folklore is not long gone, but still a living part of the landscape. I don’t yet know the stories or legends of this place, but I can feel it. And how could I not? Craggy towers rise abruptly out of the smooth, green hills straight into the ash colored clouds as though pushed up by unseen giants.

It’s summer and the whole of the Trotternish Ridge, as far as I can see, is cloaked in deliciously secretive clouds. I can’t imagine this landscape on a sunny, clear day. I don’t want to.

The mist continues to envelop me as I walk along the narrow path that slopes gently upwards. On my left, the vertical rock formations tower menacingly over the trail, a presence impossible to ignore. I spend more time standing than walking though because I can’t help stopping every dozen steps to take in each new perspective of the Quiraing, the lochs far below the clouds like mirrors nestled into the rolling green hills and the large boulders covered in miniature gardens of moss where I half expect to see the Sluagh Maith, or wee folk, dancing.

Somehow, despite my search for wraiths and unending stops, I find myself higher where the clouds are thicker and the fine mist gives way to larger drops that the wind drives straight at me. My glasses get so hopelessly wet I have to take them off and the front of my pants are quickly soaked, making each step increasingly uncomfortable.

The further I walk, the worse the conditions become. I feel like the specters are telling me I’ve crossed the line from being tolerated to being actively unwelcomed. Stubbornly, I push on until I reach a point where there’s a v-shaped gap in the cliff face, like it’s been sundered apart by a massive force. I could just as easily believe it was done by the hands of a giant as the slow work of a glacier. The grass likewise splits in front of the opening and is strewn with scattered rock, a forbidden pathway. In the abyss I can see more towering rock walls but what lies beyond is hidden from my view by an impenetrable, gray haze.

I feel like the specters are telling me I’ve crossed the line from being tolerated to being actively unwelcomed.

I finally relent and give up the Quiraing to the ghosts, turning my back on the pelting rain and wind and all too soon the back of my pants are as soaked as the front. Like invisible hands pushing me, making sure I don’t turn back, the wind ushers me back down the slopes. I look backwards over my shoulder once only to have my face instantly doused by the rain. I don’t look back again. The Quiraing will keep its secrets from me today.

As I get lower, the rain dissipates and the slopes of emerald glitter from the mist that seems perpetual. The lack of tall vegetation clearly shows every hummock and dip of the land between the stone formations jutting out of the ground. Here and there a handful of boulders are scattered downslope, as though they were marbles tossed by giants and then abandoned. This is the Quiraing landslip, part of the largest mass land movement in Britain.

Landslip. It’s such a gentle word, utterly unlike the violent ‘landslides’ that suddenly cascade downhill without warning taking trees and houses with them. Standing back and looking at the landscape as a whole, it’s easy to see how the land simply slid down from the basalt towers, like a tired person slowly sinking in a chair. Landslip and landslide are mostly interchangeable words, but here, I think landslip is the perfect descriptor. Although some of the nineteen mile long Trotternish landslip undoubtedly occurred suddenly and violently, other sections moved much slower. The Quiraing is still moving under my feet even as I walk. The evidence of this undetectable movement is the unending repairs on the road in Flodigarry, downhill from the Quiraing, next to the sea.

Far under my feet lies the reason for this large Quiraing land movement, one that covers three square miles, Jurassic sediment. The ghosts of an ancient era, from when the land I stand on was under a tropical sea, are now responsible for the Quiraing’s long, slow movement.

Although many come to the Isle of Skye for the dinosaurs, I prefer the specters of smaller life lying buried far beneath me. Prehistoric oysters and marine snails remain entombed in rocks underground and on the beaches. I found one myself on a nearby beach in a flat stone the size of my hand. I set the smooth rock on end on a boulder and inexpertly hit it with another rock. A thin piece split off revealing a dozen tiny shells inside, shells that had never been observed by hominid eyes before. Shells hidden away for millions of years.

In the misty land where I walk people have found other ghosts among the rocks that they called thunderbolts, long narrow objects thought to be thrown down to earth during thunderstorms. The Scots believed them to have medicinal powers to cure anything from rheumatism to preventing nightmares. Thunderbolts are the fossils of belemnites, extinct invertebrates similar to modern squid, but with long, pointed internal shells left behind when they vanished from the earth.

But my favorite stone specters are the ammonites. I spent hours scouring a Flodigarry beach for these extinct nautilus-like animals. They cruised around in the ancient oceans with their tentacles sprouting out from the spiral shell’s opening. Ammonites left behind more than their intricate shells, they left behind mysteries. In medieval times they were called snakestones because of the belief the circular forms were petrified snakes. In Scotland they were thought to have medicinal properties, for both humans and livestock, and were known as Crampstones. Despite my best efforts, I failed to find an ammonite fossil on Skye, but I accepted my defeat and bought one at the Staffin Dinosaur Museum to take home my own Trotternish ghost.

The Quiraing is still moving under my feet even as I walk.

From near the end of the Quiraing trail I dry and put my glasses back on to study the rugged cliffs. They are not sheer, but roughly sculpted. Tufts of green cover small ledges and a thread thin waterfall slithers down from a cleft in the rock. These basalt walls were formed by fire and sculpted by ice. Following the tropical Jurassic period, the Isle of Skye turned even hotter while magma flowed out of the newly formed Skye volcano off and on for an astonishing five million years.

But then the rocks born of fire were encased in ice as the island, and the whole of Scotland, was buried beneath a sheet of ice for several thousand years. Ghostly fingers of ice clung to the volcanic rocks until the climate finally warmed just under 12,000 years ago and the glaciers vanished for good.

The ice left behind a dramatically altered landscape. The stone walls and pinnacles of the Quiraing were scoured and sculpted by the glaciers, but when the ice melted, so did the support holding the landscape together. Without the glaciers buttressing the rock formations, they began to slip and underneath it all, the Jurassic sediment of thunderstones and snakestones holding it all up simply collapsed under all the weight, giving massive chunks of rock over to gravity and sending them careening downhill to create a chaotic ramble of rock amidst the fields of green.

When I look down on the landscape, it feels like a landscape that was caught frozen in motion, and has now been still so long that grass grew up the flanks of the stones while lichens and moss grew over the boulders. But it’s an illusion, the land is still very slowly moving, taking its ghosts with it, and maybe creating new ones along the way.

Copyright 2020 Kelly Brenner | All Rights Reserved