Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where do tour guides go in winter?

Well, the free spirits head for sunnier climes, but those of us with roots enjoy expanding our local horizons and knowledge.

So yesterday, along with others in the Highlands of Scotland Tour Guide Association, I was at Isle Maree, Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe, named after the 7th century Saint Maelrubha, who established his cell or chapel here.

A rainy November day may not sound the best way to enjoy Loch Maree and its many islands, but a flat calm and the autumn colours made for a memorable trip. Most islands are rocky and covered with pine and juniper, but Isle Maree,
above, has gravel shores, (incidentally the wooded far bank is accessible only on foot or by boat). Its trees are oak, alder, larch and impressive old hollies, quite strange on the windy west coast. In the centre we found an evocative druidic circle studded with the graves of a few whose families have burial rights there.

Like other disciples of the young Celtic Church, St Maelrubha may have deliberately sought continuity by adopting this druidic site for Christian purposes. Apparently he also allowed existing customs to continue: the sacrifice of bulls here would last for a further thousand years.

Within the circle are two prominent grave slabs, one of which seems to have a Viking battle axe motif engraved on it and may be that of a Viking prince. The other is said to be his Celtic princess; and thereby hangs a touching, but lengthy, story.

But Isle Maree is probably best known for its 'money tree'. Standing by a well (always a spiritual place for Celtic people) is an oak tree. Well, it was once a tree, but so much money has been forced into its trunk and branches that it is now dead. Only if a coin remains in the tree, so it is believed, will a wish be granted.

One last thing: nothing may be taken from the island. Stories of misadventure should this convention be flouted, stretch back into the mists of time. Just recently our guide had a stone sent by post from England with an impassioned request to return it to the island, in the hopes of stemming a catalogue of disasters.

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