The Grey Man




It has been said that a man is three things.
What he thinks he is, what others think he is, and what he really is.

The Cauldron

Land of brown heath and shaggy wood
Land of the mountain and the flood...

It's difficult to read the weather worn inscription cut into the stone. Moonwatcher turns around, sits on the wall of the old stone bridge spanning the Buchan Burn, and enjoys the coolness of the spray on his back as the waterfall cascades down over the rocks.
It's late morning. Warm; stiflingly warm. Even the trees of the ancient Buchan Wood offer little relief from the oppressive atmosphere.
The heat wave has evolved into an uncomfortable, humid, steam bath. People struggle in the swelter. Clothes are pasted to clammy skin, regardless the degree of effort. Brows are constantly moist and being mopped by tissues, hankies, or forearms. Flies are a nuisance.
Above and to his right, Moonwatcher hears a child crying up at the Bruce's Stone. An irritable cry; the girning of an infant unable to cope with these conditions.
Few tourists venture down to the bridge. After only a few steps down the incline, the prospect of struggling back up the steep hill in the tropical heat, turns them back. Overhead, the sky is grey and heavy. Everyone wishes for rain.
Moonwatcher stands up and heaves the backpack on to his shoulders, then adjusts the straps. He picks up the tent poles; the four steel tube sections bound together in a tight two foot long bundle. It's easier to carry the poles than try to cram them into the small rucksack already bulging with tent, sleeping bag, and rations.
He walks away from the bridge, away from the cool water, away from the wailing child, away from human contact.

The wooden stile is to his left, a short distance along the road, and he clambers over it. A clearly defined path soon leads on to the rising slopes of Buchan Hill.
In different conditions the walk would be faster, easier, but the effort of climbing the path in the sticky heat, drains the stamina, and necessitates the need for frequent stops and drinks of water. His water bottle soon empties and requires continuous filling from the small burns trickling down the mountainside.
He expected company today; banter, perhaps even the striking up of partnerships with like-minded individuals, keen to camp in the mountains and accompany him on his exploration.
On previous trips, when he's cycled as far as the stile, he's watched distant groups and individuals on this very path. But today he's alone.
Looking back and down, he eagerly scans the line of the path already trodden for signs of someone following. But it remains empty. He suspects anyone looking at him from below, a distant dot plodding up the diagonal scar across the side of Buchan Hill in the heat, will consider him mad.

The Midburn Camp - Craiglee

Ahead, the path, still gaining height, disappears around the shoulder of the hill, up into the Gairland Glen. On reaching the point of the turn, Moonwatcher drops the backpack to the ground and looks back. Breathing hard, shirt soaked in sweat, he stands, poles canted to his shoulder, gazing out the way he's come. Far below, the panorama of Glentrool stretches out before him. Loch Trool, Mulldonach, and, in the far distance, almost obscured by heat haze, the Caldons Wood.
It's with some reluctance that he turns his back on the view, dons his backpack again, and sets out around the curve. The dark mountains immediately close in, as though a door has been slammed shut behind him. Sandwiched between the towering bulk of the Buchan on his left, and the rocky face of White Brae Top across the gap to the right, he looks down on the Gairland Burn. This stream is responsible for cutting out this channel from the mountain lochs above.
As he continues upwards towards the head of the gulley and the distant Pass above, formed by Buchan Hill and the Rig of the Jarkness, he becomes increasingly aware of the silence and diminishing light. Apart from the faint sound of the Gairland far below and the occasional bird, the quietness is palpable and unnerving. The sky is darker now, not a breath of wind, the landscape taking on the hue of an old sepia photograph. It's eerie, and the thought of turning back is never far from his mind.
As he trudges upward towards the Pass, he draws level with the Gairland, as it tumbles down from the high ground ahead. The path across a ford takes him over its gurgling water - a mistake he'll regret later!
By the time he reaches the top, and rests on a convenient rock, the heavens have turned black and threatening. It's still only mid afternoon, but the gathering storm has virtually eliminated daylight. A drop of rain splashes on his bare arm. A heavy drop. Not a little teardrop heralding some passing shower, nor that of the common drizzle so taken for granted, by inhabitants of Scotland. This droplet is big, laden with water ... and cold. Moonwatcher looks in surprise at the area of wetness on his arm; much greater than he'd expect from a single raindrop. A second splash has him pulling the yellow oilskin cycling cape from the top of the backpack.
Flipping the cape over his head, smelling it's musty damp odour from many previous drenchings, he pulls it down so that it covers his upper body and the backpack. He leaves the hood down, enjoying the coolness of the raindrops on his head and face.
Making his way over the top he looks down into a great, desolate bowl. His first view of the Cauldron of the Dungeon.

North to Neldricken and Dungeon

The Rev. C. H. Dick, in his 1916 book 'Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick' wrote of this place...

'You are here in the heart of the great Cauldron, on an expanse of moor and bog drained by many streams. Although it is almost completely encircled by hills, it gives a wonderful sense of spaciousness. The loneliness is profound ...
If you wander about, you have a feeling of constraint that prevents you from becoming absorbed. You are here on sufferance. Something in the wilderness is uneasy and resentful at your presence. It is patient, but has the latent possibility of capricious outbreaks, and you cannot tell when or how it may strike.
Tramping over the moors, you have, now and then, the sensation of being watched by an alien intelligence, and you turn round as if to face an indefinable threat.
Heaven help the man who is taken by a sudden rush! You are glad to hear the croak of a raven that tells you that you are not quite alone.
This is the effect of the place in fine weather. On a sunless day, when the clouds are low, you feel like a lost soul committed to some chill reach of Eternity. Time weighs on you ...
The final dwindling of the latest glacier might have taken place a week ago.'

'A lost soul!'
The words return to Moonwatcher as he moves slowly, tentatively, down the slope over the tussocky, ankle punishing grass. The path has all but disappeared and he must be careful of his footing. He wishes he'd bought a better pair of boots.
That's how he feels - like a lost soul. He's read the Reverend's account many times, and tried to imagine the scene, accepting the fact that when he finally experienced it for himself, it would likely be on one of those sunless days.
But this was unexpected, much worse and increasingly unsettling. The whole area seems to be brooding, warning him back, resenting his presence. The landscape seems alive, malevolent, and threatening.

The sudden bright flash stops him in his tracks, frozen mid-step, the sharp intake of breath the only indication of his shock. At the moment the sky and surrounding area lit up, his wide eyes caught a fleeting glimpse of a jagged fork of lightning, somewhere ahead of him. Before his brain can register the fact, the thunder clap overrides his senses, and sends him into fight or flight mode. It echoes off the surrounding mountains, shaking the very ground on which he stands.

'Heaven help the man who is taken by a sudden rush!'

Moonwatcher finds himself on the verge of panic. He'd run but - to where?
Out in the open, he can only cower as another flash sears across the sky, followed immediately by a crash of thunder, louder than the first. Rain starts to hammer down; torrential rain. He pulls the hood over his head.
About a hundred yards ahead of him, he spies a large boulder, perhaps three or four feet high; barely visible through the worsening downpour. As he hurries forward, another flash of lightning suddenly brings the realisation that he's carrying the steel poles in his hand! With no thought to direction or consequences of loss, he throws them as hard as he can. They disappear, in a high arc, into the gloom.
Reaching the boulder, he cowers down beside it, his hooded head tucked between his knees, arms held tight to his chest inside the cape, fists clenched. He's shaking, but not cold.
The flashes continue, still visible under the hood. The thunder is deafening, as it reverberates around the cauldron. The rain turns to hailstones, pounding the thick cape.
Moonwatcher wants out of here. He wants to run. Run back down the mountain, back to the Caldons, back to the caravan, all the way back to the city where he can hide indoors. He wants to be anywhere away from this dreadful place. Anywhere but here!

Time passes slowly.
It takes a few moments to realise there have been no more flashes, and that the thunder seems less loud, farther way, with longer interval between peels. The hailstones too have stopped, giving way to normal rain. He pulls back the edge of the hood and takes a tentative look around.
Mist obscures the surrounding mountains. The patter of rain off the cape is the only sound now, apart from intermittent distant rumblings of the passing storm. Occasionally the horizon flickers with the last throes of lightning. As he stands up, he finds the air cooler, fresher, but thick with the pungent odour of ozone.
His welcome to the Cauldron of the Dungeon has been an experience. One he'll never forget.

Loch Valley

After searching around, and finally retrieving the tent poles, he begins to orientate himself. From where he's standing he looks east down the slope to a stretch of water, readily identifiable as Loch Valley. To the left of it - his intended direction of travel - the slopes of Craignaw and the Dungeon disappear into the north; a stream with accompanying dry-stane dike clinging to their feet. The stream empties into Loch Valley, and he identifies it on the map as Mid Burn, connecting Loch Valley with Loch Neldricken. The high slopes behind him are hidden, shrouded in mist.
Recalling Davie Bell's account of camping on the shore of Neldricken, he settles on a plan: head down to Loch Valley, pick up the mouth of the stream, trace it back to Neldricken, then find a place to camp.
Seems a good plan. The only plan.
He resumes his way down the slope. Negotiating the tussock covered, pot-holed ground, is frustrating; made all the more difficult by the wet, slippery grass and squelchy bog underneath. By the time he reaches the loch, the rain has almost stopped, and he's glad to be rid of the hot stuffy cape.
Following it's western bank towards the tumbling outflow of the Mid Burn, it begins to dawn on him that he shouldn't have been so quick to cross the ford way back in the gully. For up ahead, the Gairland leaves the loch, and he's now on the wrong side of it.
To make matters worse the heavy rain has swollen the water level, turning the exiting stream into a torrent. He watches the fast moving water for some time, walking up and down, looking for a crossing point that's narrow, shallow and slow moving. Retracing his steps all the way back to the ford is out of the question, and he finally chooses a spot that he considers a reasonable compromise with his narrow, shallow, slow criteria.
Boots are removed, laces tied together and slung around neck, socks off and trousers off. The fast running water's icy cold, and comes up past his knees. The rocky bed's unstable and slippery. The force of the water almost takes the feet from him, a number of times, but he makes it across.

Following the stream and dike up the slope from Loch Valley and deeper into the Cauldron, he's surprised to see in the distance, a tree! As he gets closer he does a double take, as the outline of what, at first, appears to be the ruins of a house. The tree, situated at one end of the structure, turns out to be a Rowan.

The Rowan tree has great spiritual significance in Celtic culture. Believed to be a powerful source of protection, it's found in the gardens of many rural homes, farmhouses and old sheilings. In the past, cattle pens were protected by Rowan, and it was even reckoned to prevent against being struck by lightning!
A creepier piece of folklore tells of Rowan being planted in graveyards to prevent the dead rising, and 'walking out'. It's said that a flourishing Rowan found in a remote and desolate spot is a sure sign that someone of importance is buried in the ground below.

Moonwatcher's blissfully unaware of any of this, as he explores between the stones. It soon becomes clear that the structure is unlikely to have ever been a dwelling, more likely a large pen or 'sheep ree', common in the south-west.
It's actually part of the dike running between the two lochs, it's walls forming a rectangle. It's very old, the stones and boulders of its construction, worn and tumbled, covered in moss and lichen. The central area is strewn with rocks and carpeted with the same thick clumps of coarse grass as that outside it's perimeter. The rushing water of Mid Burn flows alongside, before tumbling down towards Loch Valley.
As Moonwatcher stands against the rough wall, under the leaves of the small tree, he decides to make this his camp. The walls will provide some degree of shelter, the burn a plentiful supply of water.
And the tree? Well, even without the benefit of folklore, he derives a feeling of comfort from sharing his camp with another living form. And if he had been aware of it's supposed protection properties? Given his recent experience with the storm, he'd probably have played down the burial ground factor in favour of the protection against lightning.

The Midburn Camp

The tent goes up quickly, the pins securing the guy-ropes to the soft, spongy ground, are reinforced by heavy rocks placed on top. The rain has stayed off but the sky remains heavy.
Once he's unrolled his sleeping bag, settled cross-legged at the entrance, and fired up the stove, he begins to relax a little. The water from the burn begins to bubble and steam in the tin mug. Tearing open the first of the packeted soups from his rations, he prepares his first meal. The soup is good, as is the chunk of cheese and crackers that follow. The can of beer, he was saving for the completion of his quest, but he punctures the top now, telling himself that he's earned it.
As he wanders around his camp, sipping from the can and swatting midges, he feels the loneliness spoken of by the Reverend. He glances repeatedly to the south, towards the point on the horizon between the Rig of the Jarkness and Buchan Hill, hoping to see movement, a sign of hikers - fellow campers even. But the landscape remains his alone.
He's reluctant to stray too far from the 'safety' of his camp, and finds himself sitting on a large stone beside the burn, where he can still see the Rowan tree and the top of his blue tent. The pipe smoke does indeed help keep the midges at bay, but it takes a lot of puffing, and he's soon driven into the tent with the flap securely zipped behind him.
The rain starts again and he moves everything away from the sides to prevent water soaking through, ever careful not to touch the canvas with his head, body or feet.
His beer finished, he turns the empty can over in his hands. Darkness is still a good way off, but he wants to preserve the battery power in the cycle-lamp he's brought with him. Taking the Swiss Army knife, he cuts a slot down the side of the can, then slices two further cuts horizontally one above and one below the original - forming an 'I' in the side of the can. Peeling back the two flaps formed by the cuts, reveals the shiny reflective interior. He rummages in his backpack and finds the candle he bought from the camp shop. Cutting a two-inch piece off the top, he lights the wick and dribbles some of the melting wax into the base of the can. Then secures the stump onto the solidifying wax. A loop of guy rope threaded through two pierced holes in the top, and some water poured into the base around the candle, and he has a serviceable lamp for when darkness falls.
He suspends it from a hook taped to the rear pole and sits back, chuffed with his creation. Should the lamp fall from the pole, the candle will be snuffed out by the water - that's the theory anyway.

The rain doesn't let up and, as darkness falls he sprawls out on his sleeping bag under the flickering light of his homemade lamp, reading 'The Highwayman' and listening to the patter of rain on the canvas.
Never has he been so isolated. Never so self-dependent. Never so lonely or frightened.

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Original story and material © 2005 Bob Wilson
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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