open country

I am not sure if it was the rain and the cloud or something dreich within me that stopped me getting out the car while up north in the middle of March. I watched David walk down to the place where a cairn on a knoll shows you the path that leads up to Meall Corranaich west of Ben Lawers.

I had a struggle with myself, then turned the car and started driving down the road.

After a short distance I noticed what looked like jewels under a rock overhang. I pulled over and walked to the small purple-pink clump – purple saxifrage. This is one of our earliest mountain plants to flower, usually from April to May. The early sun, now eclipsed, must have brought forth early flowers. This flower grows in limited areas in Britain. In the Highlands it is found in damp places on lime-rich mountains.

I continued on the road to Aberfeldy after my moment with the wild flowers. After stopping by a farm steading I found the track up to St Mary’s Chapel. I had a small snack in the Historic Scotland car park where a sign points up a path that leads you to the chapel.

The building is a plain affair. It looks like a long cottage. The plastered external stone walls are painted a clotted cream colour. When I walked through the iron gate in its perimeter wall I changed. My personal turmoil subsided. My fingers tingled as I turned the metal handle of a low oak door. It was dark inside.

I took a breath of cold musty air. When I found the light switch, I gasped at what it illuminated. A painted timber ceiling arches above bare stone walls – crude figures looked blankly down on me.

The church was probably built in 1533 when Alexander Stewart, resident of Grandtully castle, provided endowments for a priest to serve here.

In medieval times churches were often built in a simple rectangular shape. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was created in 1636 when the building was extended. The style of artwork had been out of fashion for about 50 years. The revival may have occurred because Charles I wished to make Christian architecture in Scotland resemble the Church of England edifices.

Paddles in a tray in the opposite corner from the door explained the images above my head in detail. Being alone in this special space allowed me that wee bit of intellectual time to read about each depiction in turn. The muted colours that make up the central image and the accompanying 28 smaller images were largely painted with natural pigments, using a paint called tempera.

However, my reading was soon subsumed in a daze as I walked round to find the images of the evangelists. Something from my youth stirred in my memory. Long before Colin Firth was well known, I chanced upon a film one day called A Month in the Country. A quiet artist was travelling on a train to a rural village in England. His purpose was to clean white paint off a church wall to uncover a medieval mural.

The film played back in my head. The artist had a speech impediment and each day the minister’s wife came to the church to see the old painting being revealed, section by section. Suffering from post-traumatic stress after serving in the First World War, he was consigned to sleep in the belfry while undertaking the work. Outside, the dimly lit church it was summer and green grass and flowers bend and glint in the sun light.

The lifeless eyes of the people on the ceiling watched me go out the door alone. The pain-stricken faces of the naked people in the Last Judgement panel were once again obscured by the darkness within.

Before I left I visited the graveyard. Hundreds of daffodils brightened the dark spaces between the headstones. Many small stones, only six inches high, only had the initial of the deceased; I wondered who they were. Nobody else visited while I was there.