Walking meditation brings you back to your true home, the home of your spiritual ancestors—the present moment.—Thich Nhat Hanh
We were on an old coffin road. For centuries families had carried their dead along this route to be buried at Clachan Duich, safely inland. The narrow path that had started gently through the pastures and forested glens of West Affric quickly became steep and occasionally treacherous.
It didn’t help to have a pair of lungs so well abused in youth that the two of them now probably did the work of just one. Hiking uphill is a breeze for Chris. His lungs are made of iron, and he has the heart of a horse. My organs are more like overinflated balloons, ready to pop with one skyward step too many.
Chris disappeared over a hill, and I stopped to catch my breath. We were deep into the range now. To my left, a steep mountainside bore tufted grasses and scree. To my right, the earth yawned into a valley, then erupted into another pyramidal peak. This one dotted with stags and does.
The physical beauty of the Highlands is every bit as stunning as you might expect: jagged mountains glazed in green velvet, wrapped in mist, and then laced with bourns. The emptiness, though, is haunting.
It wasn’t always like this. There used to be people. A lot of them. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thousands were forced off these lands to make way for the promising profit of sheep farms. The Highland Clearances stripped away an ancient way of life, with its clan chiefs, subsistence farming, and collective townships. Their homes, patched together with clay and wattle, stones and thatch, have now all returned to the earth. Nothing much remains to say these people were here.
Before we left the States, I’d looked into my own ancestry. I wondered if I might have any family ties to this land of lochs and legends. It wasn’t easy. My family tree looks like a tornado came through and ripped off all the leaves and most of the branches. Still, I cobbled together enough family surnames—plus a DNA test with the National Geographic Genome Project—to establish that the United Kingdom is ground zero for most of my lineage. I also learned that I might be related to a Scottish clan whose chief in 1657 was recorded as Basken of Orde.
Had any of my kinfolk been routed from here during the Clearances? And just who were these distant relatives? Such a thought had never occurred to me when I was younger. But now, in my fifth decade, I’d grown hungry for information, some context for where and who I came from, some sort of family history beyond what little I’d been told about recent relatives. Why I don’t know. Maybe because ancient ancestors are easier to romanticize than, say, Great Uncle Buck, who was a bootlegger and a womanizer.
Personally, I’d rather think of my family relations as residing regally in Eilean Donan castle. They’d all be noble and beautiful. Honest and brave. Whip-smart. Kind and gentle (but not doormats, of course). And generous too. You know, just your run-of-the-mill genteel kind of folk.
“I think everyone would like to imagine their distant ancestors that way,” Chris said as he shrugged off his backpack. “But I don’t think many people were like that back then either. I mean look at the Outlanders. You wouldn’t even watch the second episode because you thought it was too violent.”
He spread his rain jacket on the ground. It was a pleasant spot for a picnic after four hours on foot—and it was quite possibly a turnaround point. For miles we’d watched two other hikers take a different fork in the path, and now we could see them cresting the spine of the mountain across the valley. At first we were pretty confident we’d gone the right way. Now, not so much. We hadn’t seen a single sign pointing the way to Glomach Falls, nor had we passed one hiker. All the hope we had was tied up in a gum wrapper Chris had found on the game trail.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said once I’d eaten enough to stop the shakes. “Maybe that’s why my Mema always liked to say we’re related to Mary, Queen of Scots. A queen sounds a lot more civilized than a sweaty clan chief with dreadlocks.”
“Well, maybe you are. Who knows.”
“Doubtful. White people from the south are always claiming to be descendants of nobility. Just ask anyone down there—especially the older ones. They’re all related to king or queen so-and-so seventeen generations back.”
It occurred to me now that the kind of aristocratic ancestors I was hoping to claim were probably more akin to the greedy hounds who’d forced the tenant farmers from the glens. Like my father often reminded me at chore time when I was young: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
“Let’s see what’s up around that bend,” I said and threw my apple core as far as I could down the mountainside. “I don’t want to come this far without seeing what we came here for.”
It took another two hours, but we found those falls. It was a crazy thing, too. Because, if there hadn’t been a sign nailed to a weathered wooden post, or the pounding thunder of rushing water, we might have walked right past them. Just like Mr. Beethoven at the B&B had warned, no guardrails or fences prevented a person from falling 370 feet into some serious hydropower.
Steep steps crudely fashioned from a flat stone face promised a better look. Chris stood back as I shimmied down them. “Please don’t,” he said.
“I have to. I have to see it all,” I replied.
He was right, of course. But the draw was intense. A rare peek into the machinery of Mother Nature. I’d been at the bottom of many a waterfall, but never the top. I felt around for a grip on the shiny, wet black rocks and descended as slowly and carefully as I could. Every cell in my body had its nose and tail in the air. Now, not only did the moss sing a brilliant green, but I could make out each individual fiber that formed its velveteen carpet. The smell of wet earth swept into my nostrils, and my heart banged like a kettledrum against my chest. The supersonic roar that had first come from below now bellowed within me. What was that muffled voice that slipped through it? Chris yelling to me? I didn’t dare look back. Instead, I inched toward the ledge and held my breath as I looked over.
At that moment, I knew it didn’t matter where I came from. Or from whom. All that really mattered was right here, right now.