Monday, 16 August 2010

(14) Saint Fillan's Hill

‘Men ask me the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail

In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here’.

Han Shan, ‘Cold Mountain’ (6), tr. Gary Snyder

Our Shirakawa is Saint Fillan’s Hill

Our Tokyu is Margaret Bennett


People ask us
the way to Shirakawa Barrier?

our reply: take it easy
there are Shirakawa Barriers


It follows that Edo and Oku are states of mind too; the A9 cutting a swathe through remoteness.

The signs tell us we have crossed into Perthshire; later signs say we've crossed into Highland; but where are the signs marking Highland Perthshire?

The lovers' beeches are Shirakawas too – close enough to settlement to be reached, to be more or less safe, but remote enough for privacy, for intimacy.

Comrie's confluence of Lednock, Earn and Ruchill, is Shirakawa too; east is Edo by way of Crieff's Hydro, delis, bistrots; west is Oku by way of Dunira's wooden sign, pheasants and deer, tumbledown gardens.

Saint Fillan's Hill

14 Saint Fillan's hill

Ken Cockburn, 2010

14 hokku-label, gean, Saint Fillan's Hill
Alec Finlay, 2010

Another hill fort and Saint’s seat: what’s this, the Caledonian geo-anti-syzygy?

Saint Fillan’s Hill, for gazing, or Dundurn, ‘Hill of the Fist’, for fighting. Once seen an outline has to be given meaning, by clambering up and bringing down the memory.

Attempting the hill, small as it is, was my wager against my muscle fatigue; 20 years of journeys to special places where my excitement takes me too far, and I end up in a lactic pain cycle – which only makes the beautiful place strange and worriesome. The Saint’s Hill just about worked; if the fist clunked down for a day or so of extreme wabbitness, it was worth it, O yes.

When the winding path through the bracken opened, we each chose our way, it seemed, by a different wildflower.

14 foxgloves marking the oku
Alec Finlay, 2010

My oku was marked by foxgloves, nodding at the edge of the scree field. Ken’s by English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum), a stranger – like Fillan – fitting right in to the vein of the rock.

We took turns to rest on the hard chair – more of a bed – and took in a Saint’s conspectus, to pair with Adamnan’s Stone and Dunadd. The airts and glens were set out from this natural outlook tower, a compass centuries before the Gospels reached this glen. I sketched this response.

Then we named the view from the map: from Glen Artney (‘Glen of Pebbles’) under Beinn Dearg, beyond the screen ridge pegged between Beinn Fuath and Mor Bheinn; along the ridge of Bealach Ruadh, Meall Remhar, imagining the hidden western peaks of Beinn Domhnuill and Ben Vorlich (‘Hill of the Kingfisher’?). Then East: to Dunira and Comrie (‘Confluence’), where Lednock, Earn and Ruchill meet, with Melville’s needle hung over.

14 Skjolden
Guy Moreton, 2005

It reminded me of Wittgenstein’s house at Skolden, perched on a shelf ridge over the lake, among rowans and birks; near enough to the village to be away from people; and at just the right height to set the landscape out as a series of thought-paths. All that the Saint was missing was the pulley mechanism Ludwig devised to bring up buckets of water.

14 Mor Bheinn
Ken Cockburn, 2010

T t R r E e E e

This was the day we kept finding trees within trees, saplings growing in the little dust and moss in the bole crack: rowan within gean (Dunira); rowan within ash, (Saint Fillan’s Hill).

14 rowan out of ash, Saint Fillan's Hill
Ken Cockburn, 2010

I climbed down a wee cliff, to hang a wish and pin a poem on one of the lovely geans on the northern cliffs.

14 wish, gean (Saint Fillan's Hill)
Alec Finlay, 2010

14 leaning gean, Saint Fillans Hill
Alec Finlay, 2010

14 mirror-gean
Alec Finlay, 2010


‘The rest is all a walk in silence, on the oku of
the tombs of meaning. Or is this all still the highest seat?

AF, after Clark Coolidge, ‘A Note’

Seton Gordon wonders if there may have been two Fillans, but Gilbert Markus says ‘there was only one 'Scottish' Fillan, with a medieval cult-area stretching from Tyndrum and Glen Lochy in the west to Killin and St Fillans in the east. Our Fillan, feast on 20 June, is recorded in early Gaelic matryrologies (ninth century). Was he dumb? – 'Fáelán ... in t-amlabar ánsin' (‘Fillan ... that splendid mute’); or had he taken a vow of silence?’

a Saint’s blessing
on the breeze

that wafts
the midgies

14 wordrawing (Saint Fillan)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Shirakawa, Gradh geal mo chridh

14 Sora’s Libation (Saint Fillan's Chair)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

14 Basho’s seat (Saint Fillan's Hill)
Alec Finlay, 2010

As this was the hill we climbed together, Ken kindly agreed it could be our No. 1 Shirakawa. We’d already decided that, like Basho, we would mark the crossing in song.

natural grace’s
beginning found in Oku's
rice-planting singing

Basho had not long left Saigyo’s willow (our Birks o’ Aberfeldy, station 13), where he watched or imagined a summer scene of country-women. Ueda: ‘a celebration of the graceful, willow-waisted maidens who are planting the rice fields’. His moment of transition, beyond the capital, through Shirakawa and on into the hills, is our moment to hear an old Gaelic song. We asked Margaret Bennett to choose the most appropriate, and she made this beautiful recording for us: ‘Gradh geal mo chridh’, ‘Dear love of my heart, I would plough with you and reap’.

14 wordrawing (mntns)
Alec Finlay, 2010



Margaret Bennett is a singer, storyteller, and part-time teacher. Her prize-winning books include Oatmeal and the Catechism (1999), The Last Stronghold: Scottish Gaelic Traditions in Newfoundland, (1989), and Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, (2004).


this is a guide to 14; take the minor road east of the village of St Fillans past the golf club and park by the Sewage Works. Cross the field and follow the rough footpath uphill through bracken.

the completed journey will be realised as an audio-visual word-map, published online and in print, May 16, 2011. If you would like more information about the project email

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