A Journey through Myth and Memory

The Bone Cave is a hybrid piece of contemporary Scottish writing. It is part memoir, dirt-track Road Movie, a deep-dive into folk talks and mythology and a meditation on place, landscape and loss. It combines the mundane workings of tents trangia torches and hitch-hiking with the glorious wonders of mythology and gaelic lore. In rain-soaked and midge-infested glens and cold bothy floors the author has as much of an eye and an ear for the Cailleach, the fabled target of the books quest, as he does for the birdlife and wildlife that inhabit our fragile world. That fragility is matched in the enduring sense of both the ecological crisis and social crisis of the highlands, and the relationship between ‘our world’ and another. The destruction of wells, sacred places, the loss of namescape and meaning is a recurrent theme as the writer both rediscovers ancient places and finds them broken or disappeared. This is not a romance.

Discovering the Cailleach’s Well beneath the ‘Speckled Mountain’ Beinn a a’Bhric, Strang rolls up his sleeves and clears some of the silt that had built up around the outflow. This task – or similar – are repeated throughout the book. Clearing silt, re-establishing placenames, checking stories and lost locations, unearthing mislaid histories and tracing faulty memories is the task at hand. The implication is that this is a shared task for all of us, and particularly here in Scotland, a place that straddles the tension between dislocation and cultural self-hatred with outstanding beauty, between a sometimes overwhelming sense of loss and an occasional glimpse of the possible, between brokenness and repair.

This sense of the fragile is replicated in the author’s backpacking trail, his sore and blistered feet, wrong-turns and loch-diving as he reflects on his own life-journey. This traverse between autobiographical reflection and mythology has the effect of grounding the myth and folk-lore in the personal and heightening the sense of personal reflection as mythological.

These are like shards of memory and story half-remembered from whisky-fuelled bothy nights as the writer makes his way from Beinn a’Bhric to Beinn Dòrain, to Ben Cruachan to the isle of Mull, from Rubh’ Arisaig to Fort William and on to Dalwhinnie, Fort Augustus, Glen Affric, Ben Loyal and northern bothies at Glendhu and Strathbeg before, ultimately, Cranstackie.

The journey is in two long solo walks at different times of year which are extended bouts of isolation with basic supplies, though resisting the tendency for heroism or treatise of the idolised ‘man in nature’. There proceeds revelations about ancient cults and shape-shifting deer-women, earth-goddess figures and surviving pre-Christian traditions.

There will be no spoilers here, you will need to buy the book. But if ‘the Cailleach is everywhere in the Highlands’ – ‘a supple, ambiguous, composite figure’ she is also absent. This story will become a rich and standard source for considerable further research. Each chapter brims-over with glimpses of possibility and further investigation. This is a journey that deserves being followed over, Strang’s steps re-traced. If deer-lore is your thing then Strang’s gralloching of the stories and traditions will sate your appetite. But there’s a parallel track. This is also a series of reflections on masculinity, fatherhood, family and friendship as well as folklore and landscape. We’re led to believe this is a quest for the Cailleach but it’s as much a personal journey through myth and memory and all the better for that.

If this is a genre-defying work combining (but transcending) ‘nature writing’ it is also a coming of age book, with the ‘coming of age’ having been shifted from its normal cultural location. That is fitting as time-shifts are one of the recurrent themes of the book as the author gets lost, travelling not just west and far-north but back and far-out, from the Bone Cave of the title to the Ballachulish Goddess.

If the Bone Cave serves up ancient lore it also is a meditation on what happens to people who are dislocated and disempowered. It is as much about post-industrial Scotland as it is about the pre-agricultural one. Although the book shines with folk tales and quirky lore, it doesn’t shy away from the real tragedy of the Highlands, where people remain dispossessed and land-ownership and ecological destruction remain a brutal fact of life and source for a restrained anger between the lines.


Dougie Strang’s The Bone Cave, a Journey Through Myth and Memory is published by Birlinn Books.

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  1. P. Kerr says:

    A wonderful writer.

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