Scotland and Sacred Mountains
by Martin J. Goodman
For some years I lived in Glencoe, up in the Scottish Highlands. Famous for its massacre, when one Scottish clan slaughtered another, a translation for its name is "the valley of weeping". The road to Glencoe winds across Rannoch Moor, a ranging wilderness that has been swum, skied, and walked across in different seasons. Beyond such rare incursions, it is spectacularly unpeopled.
After miles of level moorland, the thin road streaks toward a mountain. Buchaille Etive Mor, which translates as the Great Shepherd of the Glen, bulks large and gray. To the left a single-track road twists down Glen Etive, the childhood home of Ian Fleming, the writer and creator of James Bond. The main road curves to the right of the mountain and enters Glencoe.
The topography has names here. To the right is Anvil Rock, a raised bluff of flat land where Queen Victoria once rode in a carriage to have a picnic. Beyond it the mountainside is scaled by a steep zigzag of a path known as The Devil's Staircase. Ranged to the left, largely green and defined by the mists and cloud that stream between them, are a trio of round-topped mountains that appear to be leaning into the valley. They are known as The Three Sisters.
Why are they called sisters and not brothers? How does a mountain come to be viewed as a shepherd of a whole landscape? Roots of an awareness of mountains, when we knew their gender and their purpose, are buried in the language.
People are pulled in many thousand to the mountains of Scotland, but they come with little sense of pilgrimage. There is talk about "the magic of the mountains", but little perception of their sacredness. Magic calls for entrancement, while holding mountains as sacred requires a different focus. It means opening to them, accepting that mountains have lessons on life they can teach us.
While I needed those lessons, I was no more open to learning them than anyone else. The Christian priest of this Highland area peddled around on his old bike, looking for a warm kitchen where he could pause over a mug of tea or dram of whisky and let the rain steam from his cassock. The parishioners he cared for were relatively few, and so they saw him regularly. He needed their sympathetic ears for his tales of the occult and black magic, the practice of which he saw as being the most active religion of the area. Dressed in black with a crucifix hanging around his neck, his crusade against paganism was solo and forlorn.
Pagan appreciation of mountains is not sacred. It is thralldom. People view the world as a competitive place, and want to side with what they perceive as the strongest party. They worship a mountain for the protection it can give them.
Every week a helicopter passed above my Glencoe home, on its way to pick up the body of a fallen climber. We speak of "conquering" mountains. Try and compete with them in this way and we face the consequences. Mountains have no interest in competition. A sacred approach requires respecting the mountains for the might and integrity they represent. When we learn to do that, mountains begin to hold us in mutual regard.
After years, I fled Glencoe. I had no way of matching those mountains. The sky was sealed in darkness as rains poured hour by hour, day by day, month by month, sixty inches already by the March of the year I left. I sat at my desk, looked out of the window on banks of cloud tumbling down a mountainside, and felt the same fear I would before an avalanche. A fear of being smothered to extinction.
The mountains the world holds sacred are approachable ones. Everybody has something to teach, but only some of us are teachers. Maybe these mountains of Glencoe are not teaching ones. They flank "the valley of weeping", swirled in the rain and mists of their own alternative activity. My presence was tolerated, but scarcely welcomed.
Perhaps Glencoe is where mountains grieve for the wounds we inflict on the Earth.
Glasgow gave me doses of human society while I was in Glencoe. From the Highlands, I moved my home to that city. My climbing legs were kept in shape by the stairs up to my fourth floor apartment. To meet with the world I took a walk each day out to my local park.
Queen's Park is essentially a hill. One side is tamed into steep lawns and flowerbeds, trees arranged along paths. The other side is wilder, with rocks and pines and high grasses. This side is one of Glasgow's gay cruising grounds, though for years I failed to notice this aspect. When I did, I kept to the tame side of the hill.
One summer's day I was sitting on the hill when a German Shepherd dog came and sat down beside me. I threw him a few sticks which he fetched. When I sat down again, he sat beside me. When I stood and walked, he walked to heel. We toured the park looking for his owner, and found none.
I walked home. The dog followed me up the stairs to my apartment, and into my life.
He needed a name. Because I knew we could not stay together, and dared not become too attached, I chose a name of little resonance. I called him "Dog".
Dog flinched when I made sudden movements, and cowered if I lifted my hand. It was clear he had come from a life of many beatings, and had been dumped in the park by his owner. Slowly, day by day, his level of fear was eased away. And me? He cured my solitude. If asked, I would have said I was a composed and balanced being with good friends. I never knew there was so much repressed love inside me. The love that flowed from me to this dog frightened me with its intensity. It made clear the inadequacy of my life as I had been living it.
I was working as an actor at the time. By day I walked Dog, and sometimes headed for the nearby mountains. In the evening I closed him into the house and headed for the theater. I returned each night to howls that cast sadness over the tenement streets, complaints from neighbors, and the ruins of objects shredded by teeth. Dog could not bear to be left alone.
It became clear that he needed a new home. I wrote his details on a card and took it to a newsagent's to be stuck in their window, "We've always had German Shepherds," the girl behind the counter said. "Not now, though. Our last dog died of cancer a couple of years ago. It left us too sad to have another."
"He needs walks," I explained, because I saw she was interested in taking the dog as her own. "And company. Constant company. He can't bear to be left alone."
"My Dad's retired," the girl replied. "He's at home all the time. A dog would be good for him. And our garden opens directly onto fields." I went home, collected Dog, and walked him to the shop. He jumped to rest his paws on the counter, the girl by his side, and watched me leave.
I walked to the park, climbed up the hill, sat on the grass, and wept.
Queen's Park Hill saw some more of my weeping on a summer's day. I prided myself on being honest, on being unable to tell a lie. Suddenly as I was walking on the hill I saw what a sham that pride was.
So much of my everyday was a lie. I lied in the clothes I wore, the language I used, the books I chose to read, the way I refused to turn my head to look at an attractive man. The heterosexual parts of my nature fit well into the world, so I let them be seen. The homosexual aspects I did my best to keep hidden, especially from myself. I gasped and tears flowed when I saw the truth of what I had done, the extremes of self-denial. Moving from the people that walked on the path I headed for the privacy of a space beneath a tree. I would sit down there and indulge in copious weeping. The life of shame I had just noticed would come pouring out of me.
I sat down, prepared to let my sorrow come up, and was surprised. Instead of sorrow rising within me, a blessing poured down. Some cleansing spirit washed through me from above. "Alright, you've been lying," this spirit agreed. "Lying to yourself and to others. Now you've admitted it. You're forgiven. No need to brood on the past anymore. Go out there and discover a more honest future."
I travelled the world to find that more honest life, visiting mountains revered as sacred to see what they could teach me. I would test their sacredness by seeing the change my visits effected in my own life. They were sacred to Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, native Americans, and sometimes personally sacred to me.
My tales of Queen's Park Hill, however, show that a sacred mountain or hill need never be far away. That simple green hill in the middle of a city gave a gift of love to myself, a dog, and a family. That act of healing was matched by a stream of forgiveness and self-acceptance I met while sitting on the hill's slopes.
It was no longer fitting to close myself away in my apartment. The events of this book were about to begin. It was a journey to mountains, but also a journey into the current of life, a voyage into the acceptance of love as the pulse of that life.
Often the sacredness of mountains is such that they are not supposed to be climbed. The respectful pilgrim will journey around the mountain's base. Sometimes though, on special days or in special company, the full ascent is achieved.
The travels ahead would lead me through warzones, through desert, through jungle, and into the company of the mad and the holy, before I even began to hear the lessons the mountains had to teach.