I came across the bones of this story last summer whilst visiting Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Being a storyteller and collector of old bones I couldn’t resist the call of the museum. It was there that I chanced upon the story of ‘The Old Woman of Glen Imridh’ and here is my version of that tale.
The busskie-tailed Fox
I’ve never had a mind to write things down until now. And while an account of yesterday’s story compels me to put pen to paper, it also gives me reason to wonder. I was named Angus MacDonald after my great great grandfather – a fact that seems to have passed me by, until yesterday that is.
I was out checking the traps on the south west perimeter of the Benmore Estate where I am game keeper. In spite of sporadic culls foxes flourish in these hills.
The heather lingers in the glen and there was one last trap to check before heading home. While the late sun was hidden by the hulk of Benmore, I could see clouds of midges hugging the bog below. My feet were hot and my stomach complaining as I made my way up the slope.
The cage was wedged under an old wall of an ancient broch. I could just make out a bundle of soft reddish fur through the bars with feather whiskers. Squinting harder as I drew near, I saw a cub asleep at the back of the cage.
Easing the shotgun from its slip I pressed it firmly into my shoulder, flipped the safety and took aim. I could see the pigeon feathers stuck to it’s muzzle – the cub had clearly enjoyed it’s last meal. My finger began to squeeze the trigger as I breathed in what I knew would be the cub’s last breath.
Suddenly, a shadow moved across my sightline. I looked up and standing on the skyline of the drystone, hollow wall was the largest dog fox I have ever seen with a busskie tail. He was staring right at me. I say at me, but it felt more like his dark eyes were boring holes into my being. I can’t explain what happened next. I found myself in another, and that other was my namesake Angus MacDonald from way, way back …..
Heart pounding and breathing hard, I stopped. A winter landscape came into view and I scratched my chin, startled to feel prickles and even more to feel unexpected teenage pimples. It was cold, bitterly cold whilst I felt surprisingly warm. An expanse of snow stretched out in front of me, not a rock nor a tree could be seen. I glanced behind. Two scrawny lads were wading through snow using shovels as walking sticks.
“Angus, can you see anything, anything at all” gasped Fergus. He had lanky legs, a blaze o’locks and familiar sparkling green eyes.
I stopped, blinking in the dazzling light and scanned the horizon for signs of life. It was difficult to know where the bothy was in the flat white winter landscape.
After a fierce week of incessant snow, the blizzard had finally stopped. The people had gathered to see if everyone was safe and it was my mother who had asked about the old woman up the glen. In solitude since the summer Highland Clearance; the Old One had refused to leave her home. She was old, very old with no expectation of crossing the Atlantic with the others. And while thousands of the glen’s evicted had left for the boats, she alone was happy enough to stay and keep the company of one goat and a couple of hens.
“Where is she?” asked Andrew. His face was flushed from the hours of walking. He rubbed his ears with mittened-hands, the size of plates and groaned
“I can’t see anything. How will we see her hollow when all the world is one great white sheet o’ snow?”
I squinted peering across the frozen wasteland to where I imagined her hollow and the hut should be. And then I saw it.
“I see it! There! A whisp o’smoke. There’s a fire lighted, maybe she’s alive.”
We muscled our way through the thick drifts and down into the brak following the smoke. Digging an arctic passage to the sound of heavy breathing and shovels of crunchy snow, until at last, peering into a snowy bowl I saw the bothie’s opening in the roof and smoke rising from within.
Panting hard, our clouds of breath spiralled with peat smoke and rose into a clear blue sky where an eagle soared with piercing cry overhead.
The snow was high and there was no sign of walls, let alone a door.
Suddenly, from within the bothie below us there came a deep menacing growl. A large beast shot up and sprang away across the white glare. My heart leapt into my strangled throat as I nearly slipped out of my skin. It was a huge dog fox with a busskie tail.
I looked at Andrew and Fergus and they stared back at me with scared wild eyes. No-one spoke, we knew what we were thinking.
At last Andrew’s voice broke the silence. “Is there anybody alive?” he cried. I shuddered, wondering if the in-living would answer.
“Aye! A’m in ‘ere” called a woman’s voice.
Waves of relief, warmth and joy swept over us and we began to laugh. And the next thing I remember, we were inside her wee bothie.
“How are you woman?” I asked “And how is it that you are alive?”
She looked at us and smiled, her face breaking into a thousand lines and wrinkles, “I was fed well” she answered.
Exchanging looks with the others I wondered what she meant and if she had turned mad in her icy solitude.
“We saw a fox jumping out.” I said.
“That’s right” she told us, “N’a’m waantin na hunter tae put a shot intae that fox. For he is my good friend. Ever sin th’ snaw cam, every evening he haes visited me wi’ a hare or some doo or ither whilk ah plucked or skinned ‘n’ boiled ‘n’ ate. Ah hae ne’er eaten so well. Even mae hens ur healthy – Ah didn’t need tae murdurr any o’thaim.”
And then with no way to explain, only to wonder, there I was back again in myself again, standing beneath the dry stone wall of the old broch, staring up into the dark eyes of that big fox with a busskie tail.
Breathing deeply into my very being, I took my finger off the trigger and with trembling hands opened the cage of the trap.