As a child I spent many, happy summer Sundays sailing on my Dad’s boat at Loch Ard; a scenic forest-fringed loch, located in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park within the Trossachs region of Scotland. In 2002, this area became part of Scotland’s first National Park, Loch Lomand and the Trossachs, covering an area of 720 square miles and including over 20 Munros (mountains over 3000ft) and 22 fresh water lochs.
On our weekly pilgrimage to Loch Ard we used to pass by the small tourist village of Aberfoyle and the nearby unassuming, rounded summit of Doon Hill. At that time, I was unaware of the significance of Doon Hill or the legends attached to it. However, some years later, I was fascinated to come across the story of the Rev. Robert Kirk, a 17th Century church minister, who reputedly came upon a magical realm of fairies and supernatural beings living beneath the Hill. Kirk documented his experiences on Doon Hill in his book; “the Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies”. The book was unpublished for many years but was rediscovered by Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott and then published over 100 years after Kirk’s death in 1691.
Kirk was an educated and accomplished scholar, having obtained a degree and doctorate from Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities. He is also credited with producing the first translation of the Bible into his native Gaelic language, which was at one time spoken widely throughout the Region. Kirk was brought up amongst the old traditions of the Highlands where belief in the “Little People” was commonplace. He saw nothing incompatible between his Christian beliefs and the supernatural and was indeed credited with having the “second sight” (being the seventh son of the family).
In his book, Kirk produced graphic accounts of his encounters with the fairies based on his nightly wanderings alone on Doon Hill (otherwise known as the Fairy Knowe or “Dun Sithean” in Gaelic). He described in detail their customs, clothing, food and appearance.
Kirk’s corpse was found on the Hill following one of his night-time expeditions in 1692. It is most likely that he died of a heart attack, however the strange circumstances of his death helped to feed local speculation and gossip. Some believed that in exposing the faries’ secrets, Kirk had committed a great crime for which he was punished. Legends say that Kirk’s spirit is trapped forever within the trunk of the impressive, solitary Scots Pine tree which crowns the summit of Doon Hill.
On a recent expedition, we decided to explore Doon Hill; my daughter Zoe being especially keen to catch a glimpse of the Little People. An attractive, but low-key, “Fairy Trail” (with appropriate Fly Agaric mushroom logo) winds slowly around the flanks of the hill through beautiful birch and oak woodland to reach the summit where Kirk’s legendary Fairy Tree stands. Typical of Scottish Atlantic oak woods, there is a rich and diverse understorey of mosses, lichens and blaeberries. Gaps in the woodland provide tantalising views out across the surrounding landscape.
The summit of Doon Hill is a peaceful though somewhat mysterious place. Kirk’s old pine tree and many of the surrounding trees are draped in strips of coloured cloth or “clooties” which have been left by previous visitors to the Hill. The tradition of “clooties” goes back a long way in Scotland to pre-Christian times; around the Black Isle and the Moray Firth particularly, are several ancient clootie wells which are reputed to have healing properties. The strips of cloth or clothing bear wishes for the fairies or local deities and often include hand written notes bearing specific requests for help.
It’s quite fascinating and touching to read through the many hand written messages which include greetings for loved ones, friends or simply for the Little People themselves. Some messages are quite sad and beg for help for sick siblings or ill pets; others merely make requests for Christmas gifts from Santa or for nice summer holidays. One or two ask the fairies to pass specific messages on to departed loved ones including grannies, grandpas or cherished family pets.
There are also some more “new agey” style greetings composing of ribbons and Tibetan prayer flags with references to various meditation, holistic healing and Buddhist retreats. It struck me that perhaps this place is not too different from sacred trees or wells that I have seen in other parts of the world, including in Nepal, where local trees are often venerated and protected as the abode of resident spirits and deities. Dotted around the various tree stumps and behind stones, numerous small shrines have been established with cuddly toys and fairy memorabilia in various states of composition and return to nature.
Despite the enduring legend of Robert Kirk, “fairy tourism” on Doon Hill remains low-key and uncommercialised. The site is well managed and cared for. So far there are no “fairy” cafes, turnstiles, souvenir stalls or multi media interpretation centres to spoil the peace or rake in tourist revenue; hopefully things will remain this way.
And so, after our kids had left their own little gifts for the fairies (biodegradable materials only !), we headed back down the trail to return to the realm of the mere mortals. As for Robert Kirk and his fairy encounters; who will ever know the truth about what he really saw and experienced ? How much of this was a product of his own imagination or (fly agaric induced) delirium ?
…but then again who says there is no such thing as fairies ! (oh yes there are… !)