Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Golden Key


“There was a boy who used to sit in the twilight and listen to his great-aunt’s stories.
She told him that if he could reach the place where the end of the rainbow stands he would find there a golden key.”

So begins the George MacDonald story, The Golden Key. As in McDonald’s story, our glen is often visited by rainbows, often complete arcs that contain two or three secondary rainbows. We can often see the end of the rainbow in the field. More about about finding the golden key in a moment.

A late nineteenth century writer, MacDonald was born near Huntly, a stone’s throw from our glen and Cottarton Cottage. He is best known for fantasy novels, Phantastes and Lilith, children's novels such as At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin. Many of his fairy stories are imbued with the windswept hills where little but heather grows, the babbling streams, occasional forests. During the long summer days you can read by daylight at 11 pm, but in winter the sun barely appears over the horizon before it sinks again and gives way to a long night.

Often the sunlight on the waving corn, or the dry grass makes the hill glow with an unearthly light. Snow clouds that charge up the glen swirl create so many shapes that you can see the entire army of the snow king on the move. You can watch the wind in the field, travelling as a series of corn waves. Mists roll in unexpectedly, as in the MacDonald story, The Carasoyn, where a girl is lost in the hills, discovers a stone cottage temporarily inhabited by a mysterious old woman who takes her in for the night, then disappears at sunrise. The constantly changing landscape evokes so many images that a writer is tempted to forget about the humdrum world of everyday life, take the golden key in hand and with it step into a world beyond ours, where magic is real.

Most local farmers no longer look at the landscape that way. They raise sheep, cattle, barley and animal feed. They all work hard. Life is a repetitive routine with little time left over to stop and look around. We exchange services with the locals, provide fruits and flowers from our garden. We can always count on their help with a tractor, or for a load of dung to fertilize our garden.

From our living room we have a full view of the valley and the opposite hill surmounted by a small protuberance. Many nearby hills have similar structures, the remains of Iron Age forts, or ancient burial sites. In those days people built their communities on hill tops for defensive reasons. Nowadays a constant wind blasts the hilltops; you wouldn’t want to build your house there but long ago climate may have been warmer and less windy. Across our landscape stone walls assembled without any cement mark the borders between fields. Over the past two hundred years not much has changed except the advent of power lines, telephone lines and asphalt surfaces. Farm hands lived on the land. Many were needed for ploughing, planting and harvesting. Today a five hundred acre farm is worked today by two people armed with an array of farm machinery and contains the same crop of barley, year after year.

What will the glen look like in a hundred years and who will live there? If the climate experts are right, the glen’s climate will be warmer than today, but still pleasant. It could become a home to refugees from countries whose climate no longer supports them. With the golden key you can open a door and see a small village at the bottom of our field, another colony on the hilltop near the ancient fort. People of many races live there, happy to have a home, but uneasy with the monocultural Scottish society. New forests cover the landscape, and the wolf that used to stalk those hills is back again. It’s the stuff of stories.

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