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Finding Coinneach Odhar

(winner of 2nd prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition, 2007).

Oh Coinneach, why do you live in the shadows so? Come out into the sunlight with the rest of us, or even… -Maraidh lifts her hand to the half-moon rising behind her, …into the moonlight?

He says nothing, but looks down at his feet.

Come on, it is late, I will give you a ride back to Ord, since I see you have no horse, jump up.

As they ride back under the treetops then out over the twilight moor he feels her body close to his and knows that this is what she wants him to feel. Unlike him, Maraidh can only guess at the thoughts of others but senses that the taste of her long brown hair blowing into his face must be something as sacred to a man as any spell or prayer, as bewitching as a dream.

This knowledge is in her body, Coinneach thinks, like the grace that makes women move so much more fluidly than men, the grace of horses and birds in flight. He notices her earrings and bracelets such as women must have worn since the dawn of time; and thinks how they are celebrations of themselves, as needful and revelatory to the world as flowers, while dumb impoverished men scuttle over the earth like crabs, hard and avid, bent on war.

What are you thinking?–she asks very gently, as they draw near to the cottages and dismount, hoping not to be heard.

Suddenly a gust of wind goes through Coinneach’s head and takes everything clever or guarded right out of it and he is alarmed to find himself leaning close to her, to smell her face and hair again, saying sadly: how very beautiful you are…

He listens to the words left on the air and is quite surprised to recognise them as his own voice and they suddenly cut him. He sobs, and she runs a hand down his cheek and a huge tear rolls to meet it there and they kiss in the darkness, her breath moving into his.

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Maraidh and her father pull up outside the cottages in a horse and cart. Andrew Grant greets them, already dressed in black and they confer for a moment, looking up towards the window from where Coinneach looks out.

Irritated, Maraidh leaves the men there and hurries up to the house, her long black dress brushing over the wild flowers that line the flagstone pathway. She knocks on the door and leans in, almost whispering; Coinneach, good day to you. Will you not come to the burial of those two poor souls who perished at Fairburn, it is a sign of respect?

Maraidh… he says, -please let no one be offended, least of all yourself, but I try to avoid burials as oft I can. I cannot recall ever exchanging a word with either of these men so my farewell would only perplex them…

Is there more behind this? –she asks.

Graveyards trouble me Maraidh, to you they may be quiet places but to me they are full of voices.

Och Coinneach! –she raises her gloved hands to her head in exasperation, -can you not be ordinary even for a morning?!

She flutters away like a black bird from the doorway, and Coinneach follows to stand and wave after them, as Andrew and Jamie and some of the other labourers jump up onto the back of the cart.

Coinneach sits down on the doorstep, and takes his divining stone out, turning it over in his hand, his brow troubled, peering into its centre.

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Maraidh, Andrew and Coinneach, well-dressed, leave the Kirk together, and take their Sunday afternoon walk, across the open moors, occasionally passing others whom they know, or stopping to admire the view.

Coinneach, I spoke to Helen MacPherson last week before she left. She has set off with her son for Oban, to visit her niece Flora. She has warned everyone in her village about your dream. Now the accident cannot happen. We have changed the future, you and I, are you not glad?

He stops and sighs and looks at her: I am glad that these things bring you happiness Maraidh, but I fear that fate is not so easily re-negotiated as Mrs MacPherson’s summer itinerary.

You have been morose of late, my friend, -Andrew says, -you spend too much time meditating with that stone of yours, what has it told you?

Coinneach sits down on a boulder, to look out across the moors towards the clear water of the Cromarty Firth, waves tinged grey-brown where they melt into the mudflats of Dingwall.

I have seen that men will invent carriages of metal that move at great speed, powered by invisible flames, that require no horses. (Cars speed past behind them on a tarmac road, silver and red blurs, snatches of music blowing from their stereos).Maraidh turns her head, and the dirt track is quiet again, her hair blowing across her eyes.

I have seen that a new loch will be made above Beauly, but that the water will overflow and flood the valley below. (In 1967 heavy rain causes the hydroelectric dam at Torachilty to overflow, flooding the village of Conon Bridge: a flash of blue and white foam seeps across a part of the view in front of Coinneach).

Oh yes, he says, pointing over his head, and giant grey geese, built of metal, will howl and roar across the sky. (a passenger jet begins its descent towards Inverness Airport, two RAF tornadoes hurtle by on their way out to manoeuvres over the Dornoch Firth). Andrew lifts his head, and only a squadron of living geese pass by, beginning their late summer departure for the south.

And all across the high moors of the Highlands I see plantations of turning white crosses, strange unmanned windmills higher than castles. (a windfarm appears on the right shoulder of Ben Wyvis, gleaming white as the snow-filled corries).

Who will you tell? –Maraidh asks. –You could have the ear of kings with such powers, become as wealthy as any laird…

He shakes his head and flicks his stone over in his hand. No, I have done the most difficult thing of all now. What happened at Fairburn gave me the strength to attempt it; I have turned the stone on myself and divined my own future… and now I know what needs to be done.

They both turn to look at him expectantly but Maraidh’s turn of her head brings into view a distant figure waving on the road, running to meet them. Wait a moment… -she says, and rises to walk towards the messenger.

Coinneach stares straight ahead, smiling sadly to himself and says: You had better go with her, Andrew…

Andrew picks himself up and catches a last phrase as he turns: …and take good care of her.

The phrase lodges in his head as he catches up with the small group and sees that Maraidh has tears in her eyes, saying something about a child trampled under a coach and horses, how a doctor has to be called, the woman is hysterical and breathless.

Returning to tell Coinneach, Andrew finds the whole wide moor mysteriously empty as if his friend had never existed. Some gulls wheel overhead, their cries mocking him as he calls out after Coinneach, as if they know, as if they’ve taken him. He throws a stone up at them in empty rage, then runs back towards the road.

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Even a Seer cannot achieve a dematerialisation. Coinneach is running now as fast as he can along a dried river bed, sweat and tears merging in his eyes, his heart racing as he pushes himself ever further, trying to vanish out of life, to become pure blood, only feeling, no thought, no past, no regret.

He will stop eventually and drink from a stream, but continue walking west until nightfall, then arise with daybreak and begin again.

He crosses the country, drawn to the rugged west coast, the stinging sea, the endless islands of his birth. He lifts his eyes to the sun and the sky and the glens, and lets the landscapes fall into him. The ever-changing cloudscapes wipe his mind clean, the cruel rocks and precipices cut and re-cut him; a diamond to refract the light. He falls on his back on moors, cushioned by heather, and light plays in his eyes, dazzling, hypnotic. Always he arises again, and keeps moving.

He remembers the loneliness of his childhood, his frequent flight from the jeers and accusations of others. Here he is always at one again: enfolded in the shapeless spirit that creates and destroys all things. He walks on its earth, he serves it, he worships it with his soul, honing himself like a knife. What do you want of me? –he asks of it, his heart open like a sacrifice, yelling into the wind.

Gaining the high slopes above Strathcarron he catches sight of the glittering sea lochs, the fortress of Applecross, the Cuillins melting like ice in the steaming ocean. And the landscape answers him: that this ever-receding horizon beckons and blossoms like a girl’s face, a beautiful alluring stranger always drawing him on.

It commands of him to live and love without hope of return, taking everything on trust, to burn in the sun until you are consumed by it and never to turn back.

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In Lochcarron, he finds the story of his Fairburn prophecy has already spread, carried by itinerant Gaels like himself, returning west, and shocked to see his wind-torn appearance; people give him fresh clothes and food. They ask him for his stories, but first he insists that they tell theirs. For hours he absorbs their local history of their clans, the legends they tell their children about nearby landmarks. He finds he is a celebrity now, and young and old reach out to touch him.

Every touch is like a spark of flame: lighting up some strange black tree buried within him; he looks off into the shadows behind a child’s face and sees a whole cascade of generations reaching upward and away like sea cliffs, built on this foundation. He finds he is part of life, no longer alone, the hopes and fears of all his people move into him like the waves of the sea, nourished by their language and song.

In return he points to the long shore of the far side of the loch, and sketches with his hands and words the spectre of an iron horse, black and belching steam, howling like a banshee, drawing a long line of carriages behind it, all the way from London to Inverness then along their shore and on to the Isle of Skye.

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Around the headland at Kishorn, he senses something even stranger, and sits for many hours among the bracken on the hillside with his divining stone, staring in wonder out into the loch, trying to unravel the meaning of what he senses.

Finally he returns to the shore, and as the sun sets he dazzles the villagers with his surreal tale: a one-legged monster made of metal will rise here, and then go twice beneath the water, breathing fire, and the third time will spell disaster in the German Ocean (the Kishorn oil rig workers assemble the Ninian Central Platform behind him in the deep water, in the 1970s, the largest mobile structure on earth, the only one-legged oil-rig built, tested twice by full submersion in the water, its oil flare burning 24 hours a day, struck at sea by a submarine in March 1988, Piper Alpha explodes July 1988).

Children delight in the story of the fire-breathing monster, but there are other shapes he sees looming out of the darkness. There is a shadow falling soon over all of the Highlands he thinks, a foreign spectre of false hopes who will land in the west and march on Edinburgh and London. He senses disastrous defeat in battle, then a time of great trial, centuries of desolation, people driven from their homes. He wants to warn them, but knows he has not seen enough detail, the picture is incomplete. With a heavy heart, withholding this knowledge, he embraces them each in turn next morning, before setting out for the north.

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He travels again, across vast moorlands where life itself seems to falter, only occasional eagles circling overhead in their unfathomable orbits. For days the sun rises and re-animates his bones from cold stone, he rolls out of a sheepskin, and looks upon another infinite array of harsh rocks reaching into the bleak heart of his country. Every hamlet he passes, he sees the terrible future hand of exodus brush across, driving the people into the sea, westwards to far islands as yet unnamed in the western sea. The clans will become so effeminate as to flee from their native country before an army of sheep.

Behind them in his visions: the sheep advance, the deer also, then again the fields of giant white crosses turning in the wind, and something else; a terrible darkness moving over the sky, a rain of black ash that extinguishes all life.

Like fragments of a puzzle, the visions are still jumbled in his head sometimes, their order in time uncertain. He has much to study, to unravel, to divine the larger events that will give meaning to his vignettes.

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He walks down into Loch Eriboll, the wild northern coast opening up before him. At last he feels as if he has the measure of his country.

The walls of the glen have a dark uncanny quality to them. He sits among the strewn rocks on the shore and wonders at the mute high faces of the cliffs, why they refuse to talk to him. He gazes through his stone and senses that the secret on this place’s lips is hidden beneath the dark water.

In time, a villager on the opposite shore rows a small white boat towards him, and he raises a hand to greet him.

Crossing the water, the Seer nearly loses his stone from his hands: as German U-boats begin to erupt through the water’s surface on either side, rocking the small boat, dousing him in spray. The black conning towers with strange insignia come first, then the greater bulk of the submarines themselves. The Seer cries out in alarm, and the boatman tries to calm him lest his thrashing arms capsize the boat.

The loch becomes a mass of these devilish sea monsters, and uniformed men emerge from the backs of them, speaking a harsh language, arms raised clasped behind their heads, as English soldiers pour onto the shore to meet them from their wagons, rifles raised.

The boatman throws Coinneach onto the shore, and leans over him, pinning his arms: What ails you man? You nearly sank us, are you sick, possessed by devils?

A war will end here… -Coinneach gasps, spitting imaginary water from his lungs, -a great war that will sweep the whole earth, it will end here… and I have seen it.

Brahan