Interesting Scottish places: the fairy mountain

Schiehallion. <em>Picture: Willow Herb</em>
Schiehallion. Picture: Willow Herb
Smack bang in the centre of Scotland is a Munro that dominates both the landscape and the imaginings of numerous scientists, walkers and searchers after the supernatural.

Ten miles north of Aberfeldy in Perthshire, Schiehallion, from the Gaelic Sidh Chailleann – “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” – is an isolated glacial monument described in 1901 by the Rev Hugh MacMillan as “a great icy tool … it is a residual, adamantine knob of pure quartz.”

This “icy tool” was, in 1774, the site of one of the most exciting scientific experiments of the 18th century. It was here that Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, conducted research which resulted in an accurate measurement of the density of the earth. Maskelyne was helped in this ground-breaking work by the mathematician Charles Hutton, who, in an aside to the important work of “weighing the world” also came up with the notion of contour lines.

Yet however interesting Schiehallion is, or was, to the world of science, it is with regard to darker matters that it is still discussed. The mountain was long been regarded as a sacred and mythical place where fairies roamed, with tales of long underground caves taking the unsuspecting to the underworld.

The Rev Robert MacDonald published his Statistical Account for Scotland in 1845. In it he wrote of a “remarkable cave … called Tom-a-mhorair [which is believed to be] full of chambers or separate apartments, and that, as soon as a person advances a few yards, he comes to a door, which, the moment he enters, closes, as it opened, of its own accord, and prevents his returning.”

This mysterious cave was also deemed worthy of note by Malcolm Ferguson, who, writing in 1891, describes a “long series of mysterious caves, extending from one side of the mountain to the other.”

According to tradition this cave was the haunt of Sidhs and fairies, which mankind entered at its peril. It is perhaps here that the “Cailleach Bheur” goes to rest – if rest she ever does. This terrifying blue-faced hag, the representation of winter, is reborn each Halloween, to smite the land with all kinds of terrible weather.

Other traditions hold that the magic caves are peopled by a powerful supernatural race. These “offspring of the Gods” enjoy extraordinary powers such as the ability to levitate and make themselves invisible (yes, OK, so some of this research came from David Icke’s website and this article was nearly left incomplete, so sidetracked was I by pictures of a reptile emerging from beneath Hilary Clinton’s face, and snakes appearing in Elizabethan portraits, and … that’s probably enough for now.)

More extensive is the body of writing which investigates whether Mount Schiehallion is a lost mystical Biblical mountain. Isaiah, 14:13, is to blame for this particular obsession, including as it does the passage: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north.”

According to Barry Dunford, in ancient times there were a trio of mystical mountains, including Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah and Mount Heredom – whose location remains a mystery. Heredom (“Mount of God”) can’t be found on any map, but is, according to Dunford “60 miles from Edinburgh” – ie Schiehallion, the “mount of assembly” mentioned in Isaiah. His book becomes slightly confusing unless you’re very versed in Freemasonry and can follow the Masonic allusions to Heredom. I sadly can’t – and struggle even to paraphrase, but, erm, he says there’s lots of evidence.

Excitingly for those still suffering from the withdrawal of all the splendid Templar, Rosslyn, Holy-Grail-Da-Vinci-Code stuff, there is apparently a possibility that Heredom could be Solomon’s Temple and therefore very probably the bolt-hole sought by fleeing Templars when they escaped France with all their fabulous treasure. Oh, yes.

Still, you don’t need to be a supernatural buff to love this mountain. It’s hugely popular with walkers. The east side was acquired by the John Muir Trust in 1999, who have worked to improve the path that leads to the summit.

It’s a good walk, with spectacular views, and, who knows, the possibility of meeting up with some extra-terrestrials when you stop for a breather.

  • Dave Hewitt

    I’ve climbed Schiehallion nine times and have encountered nothing untoward – apart from the time when a companion walked to the summit with a mysterious, cloth-covered object sticking out from the top of his rucksack. This transpired to be either a rifle or a shotgun (it was almost 30 years ago and I’ve forgotten the detail), which he employed to blast tin cans off the top of the trig point for reasons best known to himself.
    However, the late lamented Irvine Butterfield had a particular fondness for Schiehallion – he was instrumental in the John Muir Trust purchase in the late 1990s. Irvine once told me a long and complicated story, the gist of which was that a third party – a friend of Irvine’s – fell asleep one day in the sunshine on Schiehallion and woke to find strange little faery-like creatures cutting round his shadow. The third party chased them away in some manner, and came to regard the incident as an alarmingly close brush with death.
    Irvine, as one might imagine, expressed a degree of wry scepticism in telling this story. But I got the impression that his friend – reportedly a sober and generally rational man, as I recall – regarded it as an actual incident rather than as some concoction of his imagination. And that it was significant that it happened on Schiehallion – it wasn’t something that could have happened on Ben Lomond or Ben Nevis, for example.

  • Fairies? God? Nah…

    But, there is Firefox in Gaelic though! Math dha riribh!

  • Schiehallion for the clans who lived around its base and towards the moor of Rannoch their famous war cry ” ONE FOR THE BACK OF SCHIEHALLION ” Alba Gu Brath