I like stories. Landscapes are full of them – lying one on top of another like the geological strata. Uncover one of them and you reveal the traces of many more below, but all add up to the rich narratives that make up the hills and rivers and mountains.
One such story concerns the Reverent Robert Kirk.
Born in Aberfoyle in 1644, he studied theology at the the University of St. Andrews and gained his masters at Edinburgh University before gaining his first ministry at Balquhidder in 1664. During his time at the chapel he was involved with the translation of the Bible into Irish. Then, as most locals couldn’t read the Irish Galic script he proceeded to rewrite the entire Irish Bible in Roman script.
However, it was his unorthodox interest in spirituality that he has become known for. While at Balquhidder he made frequent observations of the fairy knowle behind the church. He started to note all the different types of fairy and small folk, their customs and even their choice of weapons.
After his father died, he returned to Aberfoyle taking up the ministry there. He continued to research and write down his findings of fairy folklore and would often take night-time walks up the nearby fairy knowle of Doon Hill.
In 1691 he wrote a detailed pamphlet, rather catchingly titled ‘The Secret Commonwealth or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and for the most part) Invisible People heretofore going under the names of Fauns and Fairies, or the like, among the Low Country Scots as described by those who have second sight, 1691’. Now considered one of the most important works of fairy folklore, it wasn’t properly published until Walter Scott did so in 1815.
Shortly after releasing his pamphlet, on May 14th 1692, Robert Kirk took one of his customary night time walks up Doon Hill. However, the fairies were so aggrieved by the revealing of so many of their secrets that they stole him and encased him in a Scots pine tree and the Reverend was never seen again.
Following my own bit of history with the fairy folk around Loch Lomond, as my final full day staying in the park for my residency I thought I’d take a pilgrimage to Doon Hill. Trying to keep it simple I decided I’d only use the camera on my phone rather than lug big cameras around. It’s only a short walk after all.
First up on the walk from Aberfoyle is the old graveyard of Kirkton. Here is the restored remains of the old church where Robert Kirk preached overlooking Doon Hill.
It’s a fascinating little chapel ruin. Either side of the door are two full-sized cast iron coffins – used to be placed on top of new graves to stop body-snatchers digging up the grave. Around the back of the chapel, facing Doon Hill is the memorial to Robert Kirk himself.
What lies underneath the tombstone remains a mystery given that no body was ever found…
Further up the road it seems even the Forestry Commission takes the fairies seriously:
Beyond there the road becomes a track and finally a footpath heads up through the woods to the top of Doon Hill.
At the top of the hill stands a circle of trees – mostly Scots Pine and holly. The whole site has become a shrine to the ‘mostly invisible’ fairy folk – with every tree festooned with decoration – from the traditional clooties (rags and ribbons) to the rather unsettling little gifts and letters in sealed plastic bags.
Whatever you think, it’s still a very special and highly charged place, with the sun shining through the brightly coloured offerings.
Then my camera-phone stopped working…
and there ends my time in the park.