Saturday morning, June 18, 2016
The sun warms the Eastern sky early this time of year. With the Summer Solstice just days away, residents of the Northern hemisphere have come to expect long days and short nights at the end of June. For the residents of Coll and, for that matter, any of the Earth’s northernmost people, the number of hours the sun stays above the horizon in late June is remarkable. Rising shortly after 4:30 am, not setting until a quarter past ten, people who rise at first light and hit the sack at dusk often find themselves sleep deprived as the calendar turns from spring to summer. Not that I needed another reason to be sleep deprived.
It wasn’t just because of the short night. Sleeping tonight would be a challenge for another reason. It looked like Arthur didn’t have a guest room inside his quaint little cottage. The way I figured it, he never needed one. I was probably his first overnight guest since the mid 6th century, ten generations before the reign of Charlemagne.
I had a choice, sleep on the floor or pitch the tent and sleep outside. Since I was prepared to camp, I opted for the tent. It wasn’t like I actually got a good night’s sleep out there. The foam rubber pad placed beneath my sleeping bag cushioned some of Coll’s granite hardness. I sure did miss the luxurious mattress aboard Poseidon’s Trident.
Today marked the beginning of my third day on Coll and my previously agreed check-in time with Eilidh was a day overdue. I tried to call her last night, before I went to sleep, but I wasn’t able to connect. I was diverted to voicemail. I tried again this morning. Same result. This time, I decided to leave a message.
Beep. “Hi Eilidh, this is Magnus. Just wanted to check in. Things are fine here on Coll, everything is OK. No sign of MacLean; that’s good. Haven’t met Donald Og yet, but I did meet a very interesting person who might help me find him. Too much detail to go into now but, hopefully, I’ll know more, later today. Give me a call when you get this. I should be in range of the cell tower all day. Talk to you later. I love you. Bye.”
Why wasn’t she answering? Why hadn’t she left a voicemail herself? Maybe she headed out to sea, like I advised, and she was out of cell range all this time. Or was something else going on, preventing her from making contact? I hadn’t even gotten a text from her. Damn. I’ll have to add this to my growing list of immediate concerns.
“Hello, Magnus; are you in there?” said Arthur, calling from outside the tent’s front flap.
“Yes, I’m here,” I said, moving the flap’s zippers, opening the tent to the outside world.
“Good,” said Arthur. “We have to get an early start today. Donald Og isn’t exactly the type of person who answers a phone. I’m not sure we’ll find him today. We’ll give it a try.”
“Where can we find him?” I asked as I began to load my backpack.
“Don’t know; that’s OK,” said Arthur. “It’s not like you find him. It’s more like he finds you. He’s a visionary, a taibhsear, someone with dà-shealladh. That means ‘second sight’ in Gaelic. My guess is, he already knows you’re looking for him.”
“When I mentioned his name a couple of days ago, you said, ‘there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.’ How long has it been? Did you actually meet him back then?” I asked.
“It was back in 1948,” said Arthur. “That’s almost seventy years ago. Anybody who met him back then is probably dead now. I doubt the island’s present population ever heard of him. If he’s still around, he’d be such a recluse; nobody would know who he is or where to look.”
“What happened back in ’48 that compelled you two to meet?”
“I can’t remember why we met; I do remember the significance of the day. It was this time of year, June, the last time the summer solstice and full moon happened on the same day.”
“Isn’t THAT interesting,” I said. “That’s a pretty big deal, astrologically speaking. A big enough event to get our reclusive hermit, Donald Og, to peek out from under his rock and greet the world.”
Maybe it was because I just left a message on Eilidh’s voice mail and my cell phone was lying there on my sleeping bag, in full view, ready to be packed for our long hike. I grabbed it before putting it in the pack and did a quick internet search, just out of curiosity.
“So, my 6th century friend, here’s my question to you. If 1948 was the last time the summer solstice and a full moon happened on the same day, when will that same alignment happen the next time?”
“I have no idea,” said Arthur.
But he was quick to pick up where I was headed with this line of thought and he quickly said, “but I bet that little magic box of yours just gave you the answer, didn’t it?”
“It did, O Timeless One. The day after tomorrow: June 20, 2016.”
“Well, well, well,” said the King, “isn’t THAT interesting.”
After finishing a quick breakfast of local eggs and warm muffins, we filled our water bottles with Arthur’s “good” water, shouldered our backpacks and headed south, along the single track road which runs down the west side of Coll.
The unceasing wind is your constant companion on this treeless island. One quickly learns to ignore the blustery turbulence coming off the ocean, its steadfast roar soon becoming just another bit of white noise the brain easily discounts. If you are without a windbreaker to stop the piercing breeze from stealing your warmth, a day hike along Coll’s lone western thoroughfare would be most uncomfortable. But Arthur and I were well prepared, like a couple of good Boy Scouts, and we hit the road with a decided quickstep to our gait.
“Can you do nine miles?” asked Arthur, full of energy, clearly not acting his age. “It’s not totally flat, but it’s not mountainous.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “Where are we going? What’s your best guess where we might find Donald Og?”
“I figured we’d go to the same place I saw him the last time, back in 1948. It was near the little settlement of Totronald. It’s along this road at a place you’ll find two ancient, megalithic standing stones. They’re imbedded in the middle of a meadow. They are called Na Sgeulachan, Gaelic for “teller of tales.” It’s kind of like the Stonehenge of Coll. Where they’ve got 93 visible stones, we’ve got two. We’re small fish compared to them. But those stones have been there a long time, before anyone can remember. They were there when I first got here, that’s how old they are.”
Prehistoric stones. Once in a lifetime astrological coincidences. A Gaelic speaking tour guide from the Middle Ages. What was happening to me? In just 72 hours my world turned upside down, from living aboard a multi-million dollar luxury yacht, sipping Scotland’s finest single malt scotch, to sleeping on a rock, worrying if the drinking water was “good.” What was next on this journey back in time? Passing a few druids on their way to market?
We reached the megalithic site by mid-afternoon. Donald Og was not there to greet us. Nor anyone else.
“We made better time than I thought,” said Arthur. “Donald Og won’t come out until after sundown. We’ve got some time to kill.”
“Oh, a nocturnal being is he? Why does that NOT surprise me? That’s fine. What do we do for the next six hours?” I asked.
“If you’re up to it, another couple of miles, easy walk, there’s a place I’d like to show you,” Arthur said. “It’s near the island’s aerodrome.”
“Go for it!” I said. “I’ve been here three days. Haven’t seen more than rocks and pasture. Whatever you can show me, it’s got to be more interesting than what I’ve seen so far.”
“Oh,” said Arthur, newly wary of disappointing me. “What I was going to show you was more rocks and machair. It comes with a story you’ll want to hear. Still interested?”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” I said with a smile.
“Not really,” said Arthur, slapping me on the back. “We’ll head to Struthan nan Ceann.”
“There you go with the Gaelic again. What’s that mean?” I asked innocently enough.
“The stream of the heads,” said Arthur.
“Aw, shit,” I replied, “I should have kept my big mouth shut.”
We walked south, past the end of the runway at the island’s aerodrome’s, exiting the road and climbing to the top of a nearby dune. From the top, we could see the whole of the surrounding countryside. To the east, the iconic Breachacha castle, perhaps the finest example of an unaltered medieval stronghold in all of Scotland, home of McLean of Coll, the chief of this portion of Clan MacLean for hundreds of years, but now abandoned. Between them, an open plain, now fully in bloom with spring wildflowers.
I got the feeling this was another one of those times when Arthur needed to talk it out, to vent, to put a miniscule portion of his amazing story into words. Since my arrival three days ago, I had become his designated listener. I was OK with that. I’m sure I would feel the same way if I was in his shoes, full of stories and well-reasoned insights which needed to be told to a world desperate for well-reasoned solutions.
“You know what the fairies used to call me?” he said, sitting down on the top of the dune while the unspoiled, empty, white sand beach of Crossapol Bay argued for our attention.
“What was that,” I said, sitting next to him, giving my weary legs a much needed respite from the day long hike.
“Caecus Rex,” he said, a slight chuckle in his voice. “It’s Latin; means, Invisible King.”
“That’s where that name came from. I wondered about that. Seems appropriate,” I said. “Can we add Latin to the list of languages you speak?”
“I guess,” he said, tiredly. “But let’s not make too much of that. When you’ve got 15 hundred years to study for the test, it’s not a problem. But I’d give all of it away, in a heartbeat, if I could just escape this pristine prison, regain my freedom and get back to civilization.”
“I get that,” I said. “But you’ve done well, I think, under the circumstances.”
“What’s a King to do?” he said. “Anyway. I didn’t bring you hear to make you listen to the complaints of an old, invisible man. I wasn’t always invisible, you know.”
“Really,” I said, surprised. “And when was that?”
“Mid to late 1500’s. At the time, I was still being kept at Avalon, the place on the Somerset Levels I’d been since the fairies first rescued me. A few Time Pilots came to visit. Asked if I wanted to help them with a project. They said they were working on opening up a new location here on Coll. They needed to know if it would work. But they didn’t want to risk any of their own people with this experiment and they wondered if I’d volunteer to test the site since I had a lot of the same DNA sequences they had. Of course, they didn’t phrase it like that back then. I didn’t know about DNA, like I do now. But that was the reason behind their request.
“That’s incredible,” I said. “I never heard anything about a project like that. Late 1500’s you said? I think I was in Time Keeper Central then. This is all news to me.”
“The guy said it was all hush-hush, I was supposed to keep it a secret. I was OK with that. Anything to get out of Avalon. Any change was a good change.
There were two guys, actually. The first was your friend and mine, the muscle, Gordon Graham MacLean. The second guy was the brains, Jameson Black. Does that name ring a bell?”
“Yes, Yes.” I said, both thrilled and dismayed. “It’s all falling into place. They’ve been planning this for years, those two. Yes, Jameson Black. Mr. Hissy-Fit as I call him. I did something to piss him off a long time ago. He still holds a grudge. Seems he has it in for you, too, Arthur. Is that right?”
“It would seem so. I became invisible shortly after the events which took place here, in the year 1593. That’s why I wanted you to come here. To get a feel for the land and the times. It might help as you move forward.”
“I appreciate that, Arthur; I really do. What’s the story you want me to hear?”
“It’s the late 1500’s. They bring me here, tell me I can’t leave. I knew that already. It was OK. It felt so good to get out of that Somerset swamp and all the noise the fairies made in Avalon. The cool breezes, the island quiet. Such a welcome change. It was wonderful those first few years.
“Do you know what this project was?” I asked.
“No, they didn’t tell me. But maybe you can help me here, Magnus. From what little information I got from them, it seems Coll and Avalon, or Glastonbury, if you want to call it that, Camelot, Iona, a few other places, they all have something in common. It’s why they wanted me to come here. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, it does.” I said, impressed by his power to reason through to the correct assumption. “Here’s the science. People like you and me, and MacLean and Jameson Black for that matter, and the fairies, all share similar DNA sequences. They aren’t exactly the same, close enough. Three groups: Time Pilots; Spiritualists, that would be the fairies, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindu’s Buddhists, you get the idea. And the third group: Capacitists. Don’t ask me to explain it; that would be your group.”
“Capacitists, you say? Who came up with that dumb name? But go ahead,” said the King.
“You said they wanted you to come here as an experiment? They didn’t want to risk their own people? What happened when you first got here?” I asked.
“Nothing. Maybe that was the test,” said Arthur. “Maybe they were just learning about Coll’s unique attributes and they didn’t know enough about it yet. Maybe I was their canary in the coal mine. If I lived, then their plan was probably on the right track. If I died or got sick, no big loss. So here I am, all these years later. I guess their plan worked.”
“I guess so; ethics be damned. That’s one hell of a way to test the landscape,” I said.
“Who ever said MacLean and Black were ethical?” said Arthur.
“What happened in 1593?” I asked, getting to the point of the story.
“I had been on the island for about ten years. Settled in to the community. Got to know the people. That’s when I started going by Caecus. Nobody knew my real identity. On one occasion, I shared I had some military experience. They remembered.
Let me back up a moment. Remember when I talked about Mordred and me, the family fight we had? How that kind of deep personal conflict was so common, and so sad?”
“Yes, I do,” I said, recalling the difficult time Arthur had and the terrible pain he felt when he told me the story.
“The MacLean clan had a similar fight. I got caught up in it.
After Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn, the people who supported him were given lands. The MacLean’s were part of that group. The MacLeans of Duart received holdings on the Isle of Mull, MacLaine of Lochbuie received his holdings over there, McLean of Coll’s grant was here, etc. They were all cousins or brothers, something like that. But there was always tension between them, even though they were all part of the same family. You can see it in the different ways they spell the name. Even today. McLeans from Coll insist the proper way to spell the last name is McLean, without the “a.” The family on Mull, the MacLeans of Duart, insist the “a” in Mac always gets included.”
“How did you get involved,” I asked.
“After ten years living on Coll, I was healthy and happy, not dead. Their little experiment was a success. Time to move on to the next phase. There was one problem. Even though the plan they had in mind was technically possible, the MacLeans of Mull didn’t own the island, the McLeans of Coll did. And since Jameson Black and his associate, Gordon Graham MacLean, were allied with the Mull side of the family, they decided to take matters into their own hands.”
“What any red blooded Scottish clan of that era did when they got pissed. They marshalled their forces and attacked. Came right across the strait out there, rowing in their galleys, swords and shields prepped for war. They had numerical superiority, too. That’s where they landed,” he said, pointing to the wide beach straight ahead.
“Arthur, you witnessed that whole thing? That must have been a very sobering sight, all those angry clansmen coming here to fight their cousins.”
“Magnus,” said Arthur, looking me in the eye, shaking his head. “I don’t think you understand. I didn’t just witness that fight. I was the general in charge that day. I stood right here, where we’re sitting now. I cast my lot with my neighbors. I fought for Coll that day.”
“Arthur, you’re blowing my mind,” I said. “Do you show up in any of the history books? Even though you went by another name, does anyone out there know it was you who was in charge? What happened. Who won?”
“Whoa there, Magnus. So many questions, so fast. The last question first. Who won? We did. Then, we didn’t. And then, we did again. It’s complicated, but, yes, we won that day.
Lachlan mor was the chief of MacLean of Duart. He was a very able commander, not the kind of guy to give up easily. They came back another day. That time they won. But their victory was short lived because it wasn’t much later when a political decision was made by the Privy Council and they gave the island back to the McLeans of Coll. It stayed in their hands until everything went away in the late 1800’s.
McLean of Coll was an independent clan for the better part of 500 years. Guess who Gordon Graham and Mr. Hissy-Fit blame for that debacle?”
“You?” I answered.
“That’s right,” said the warrior King. “And shortly after this all came to a head, people around here began to lose the ability to see me. Seemingly, I just went away.
We know who created Caecus Rex, don’t we?” said the King, visible only to me.
It was good to see Arthur’s righteous indignation flare. How hard it must have been to swallow all that anger these many centuries? He needed to get it out. Now, he had. I could tell. The steam coming out of his ears started to subside, the therapy session, helpful.
But there was one last scene to play out before we headed back to Totronald.
“Magnus, come with me,” said Arthur. “See that little stream down there to the right of the runway? That’s where we’re going.”
We walked down the side of the dune into the bottom of the little valley marked by the smallest of streams, colored brown by the weeping peat bogs which stretched far into the distance. It was the scene of that first conflict, the one where Arthur led his neighbors into battle.
“It started off as a sad day. It went downhill from there,” began Arthur, not relishing the thought of reliving the bloody scene. “A young boy from the north end of the island died a few days earlier. He was all of fourteen. Lost his footing, fell off a cliff. He was a good kid.
The funeral was scheduled for that day and since the cemetery for the island is right over there, most of the island people came here, for the funeral. News of the funeral got back to Lachlan mor MacLean. He figured a funeral was a good time to initiate an attack. He amassed his troops, boarded his ships and came here, looking to conquer the island. Some sharp eyed lookout spotted them, long before they got here, giving us enough time to prepare our defenses.”
“Which is when you got involved.”
“I had no choice. These were my friends, my neighbors. I was one of them. I showed them how to get good water; they showed me how to catch good fish. It all just worked. There was no way I was going to let them get slaughtered by those rascals from Mull, not when I had some military experience which could help them in this crisis.”
“What was your plan?” I asked. “It obviously worked.”
“We could see they were heading towards the south end of the island. It made sense. That’s where the castle’s located. They probably intended to lay siege to it. If we holed up there, behind its high walls, we were dead; they could just outwait us. I decided to draw them into the open, even though they had a numerical advantage.
As the ships got closer to the landing zone, I sent a fifth of our men right onto the beach. They cursed and screamed and cursed some more, daring the Duarts to land and fight. They lifted their kilts and showed them their bare arses, shook their swords, and shouted some more. It was all meant to piss off the Duarts and get them to engage on our terms.”
“Of course, they did,” I said, pushing the plotline forward.
“Yes, they did,” said Arthur. “As the Duarts moved forward, the Collachs retreated, drawing them up this little valley and into the mushy peat bogs you see here. Not a lot has changed in all these years. Except for the runway, it looks pretty much like it did back then.”
“If only 20% of your men were here,” I asked, “where were the rest?”
“Right over there, behind those dunes we were on,” he said, pointing up to the high place we just left. “And on the right, the other half of the hidden army laid low, on their bellies, hidden by the tall grasses on the machair, waiting for my word to attack.”
“How far did you let the Duarts go before you gave the word?”
“Are you familiar with the term: salient?” asked Arthur. “It’s a military word.”
“No; I’m not,” I said. “I’m not a military guy. What does it mean?”
“It’s like a horseshoe or an arch that moves forward on its curved side,” he explained. “When an army moves into a salient, it becomes very vulnerable, surrounded by the enemy on three sides. That’s what I wanted to do, force the Duarts to move into a salient, walking further and further into this little valley. We were drawing them in.
When the men at the front, the ones who started on the beach, began to attack, the whole rear end of Duart’s forces rushed forward to join the fight at the front. They thought they had the advantage. They didn’t. After they got there, all excited to be in the thick of the fight, I gave the word for the hidden men on the right and left to attack and we had our salient. It wasn’t long before they had the Duarts surrounded, cut off from any way to retreat.
After that, it was just a slaughter. The Collachs had a three to one advantage around the outside of the circle. The Duarts, trapped in the middle of the circle, their manpower wasted, had no one to fight, surrounded by their own men.
It got pretty gruesome in this peat bog. After our men won the battle, they cut off the heads of the slain men from Mull and threw them into this stream. That’s how it got its name, struthan-nan-ceann, “stream of the heads.”
Nobody ever said Scottish history was clean or easy. It was messy at best, cruel and gruesome at worst. If that fight pits brother against brother, cousin against cousin, as was the case here at the Battle of Brechacha, then the pain within the family might linger for generations.
Arthur continued his painful story which now flowed freely from the living grave inside his gut, expelling crystallized memories locked deep within for centuries.
“From my position high on the dune,” he continued. “I saw my neighbors and friends succumb to the evil of revenge. These were good, reasonable men, farmers and fishermen, but they were overcome with mindless blood lust and they cut off the heads of their cousins.
I tried to stop them, yelling at my comrades from the top of the dune, ‘STOP! STOP!’ They didn’t hear me, so focused they were on earning Satan’s praise.
I ran down the dune’s flanks, ordering them to stop the butchery now that the battle was over. It was all in vain; I could not stop the unstoppable.
The Duarts surrendered their lives. Their skulls filled the stream and the peat stained water ran red with the blood of their abused cousins.
Evil staked its claim to Coll that day,” said Arthur his head hung low. “Evil surrounded by the best of God’s beauty.”
After all these centuries of imposed silence and invisibility, my new friend, a Pendragon by birth but a Collach at heart, relived the details of this seminal afternoon in his life. It affected him, physically. Though his hands trembled and a chill swept across his body, for the most part, he weathered the ugly recollection well.
It was true kingship, on display.
Arthur stands apart from all others, not because of his physical strength, not due to his lucky strands of DNA or superior intelligence. He has no wealth. No possessions. When Arthur gets hit, physically, mentally and, over these past centuries, emotionally, and falls to the ground, from somewhere deep within, he summons an inexhaustible source of spiritual strength. He rises to fight again. Like a boxer pummeled for 14 rounds, but not defeated, Arthur Pendragon learned how to take a punch.
He stands again, in 2016, to answer the bell at the start of the 15th round.
That…is virtue rising!
Unlike those who crown themselves, claiming credit for inherited trump cards well played, Arthur is a true King because of his unwavering strength of character.
Arthur Pendragon, the Right Wise King, born of all England, was becoming newly energized, finding his second wind. He was regaining his mettle, newly steeled, like the unbendable blade of Excalibur, ready to seek 21st century justice from his 16th century adversaries, or anyone else who dared to poo-poo the Spirit of the Round Table.
“C’mon, Arthur,” I said, picking up his small backpack, placing his wool cloak around his shoulders. “I’ve seen enough of this place; let’s go. The water here doesn’t look good.”
Arthur smiled, thankful for the warm cloak, thankful for the change of subject.
“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “The water here IS dreadful; not good at all.”
I’m sure more experienced caregivers would have done a better job in this situation, been more pastoral, provided better advise. But my untrained attempt at being a comforting presence while Arthur exorcised his demons seemed to work, despite what I surely didn’t do. It just looked like a great load had been lifted off his broad shoulders. I guess the medical profession’s base prescription, “Do no harm,” applies to all practitioners, especially neophyte wizards. Maybe I’ll get a tee shirt made up, saying, “Merlin says…Don’t just DO something…STAND THERE!”
We walked towards the road, our Spiritual burden lightened, our pace and direction, a meandering, slow saunter towards Totronald where we hoped to meet the mysterious Donald Og.