“Fiona, where have you been?”
Elspet took her hand and they walked towards the pine forest at the edge of
the village. “Callum and I have been looking for you all afternoon.”
“Mum and I were at
MacDunnie’s Tea Room. We went shopping afterwards. What do you two want to
do today? I have to be home about five.”
“I had an idea, if it’s all
right with the both of you. My dad isn’t using the boat today. Elspet and I
thought it would be great fun to row over to Castle Athdara. Have you ever
been there, Fiona?” Callum knew he and Elspet hadn’t.
“I’ve never been there. My
mum once told me that our ancestor lived there,” Fiona said.
“I’ve never heard of a
McAllister living in the castle.” Callum scratched his head in confusion.
Fiona jumped over a puddle.
“Not a McAllister ancestor, but someone on my mum’s side of the family, a
Ferguson. She was born in Inverdrochit, remember?” Fiona put her hand on
Callum’s shoulder and smiled.
“Fiona, why didn’t you and
your mum move back there after your dad died? Elspet asked too many
“I don’t know. I’ve never
asked. I guess she liked it here in Inveralba.”
“That makes sense. What do
you say? Do you want to go to the castle or not? The sky doesn’t look too
clear. I think it might start raining again soon. We need to make a
decision, Fiona.” Elspet wanted to go to the castle. “We could pick flowers
for my mum.”
Because they lived in the
highlands where trees, flowers and thick undergrowth grew wild, the three of
them enjoyed their time together exploring, fishing and caving. On rare days
when they found themselves bored, one of them would suggest teasing the
highland cows and sheep, or looking for flowers to help Elspet’s mum. She
used them to dye the wools she spun daily.
Fiona loved an adventure.
“Let’s go, even though Mum warned me never to go there. It will be more
exciting than picking flowers.”
They ran down to the loch,
winding their way through pines and yellow-leafed beech. “This looks like a
painting. Look at the shores. They’re lined with northern marsh orchids,
yellow broom, purple thistle and white, fluffy bog-cotton.” Elspet delighted
in nature’s autumn beauty.
Not paying much attention to
her, Fiona interrupted. “There’s the boat, just like you said, Callum.” She
looked out over the water. “It’s a bit choppy. Do you think we’ll be all
“Climb in and don’t worry.
Dad taught me how to row. It’s not too far. Besides that, I heard him
talking to auld Mr. Lamont. He told Dad hundreds of grouse lived on the
island near the castle. Maybe we’ll catch some. Your mum will be happy if
you bring her home supper.” Callum sat in the boat. The ten-year-old grabbed
Elspet and Fiona sat at the
other end, trying not to rock it too much. Each grabbed an oar and rowed
across the dark water.
“The water’s almost black.”
Fiona searched for her reflection. “It must be deeper than Loch Ness.” A
breeze picked up, blowing her long blonde hair in to her jade green eyes.
“It’s too choppy, Callum. I’ve heard stories about monsters in Loch Doon,
like the one in Loch Ness.”
“That’s nonsense, Fiona.
There’s no such thing as a monster. Stop whining. We’ve only got a few more
yards to go. Close your eyes if you’re scared,” Elspet said. “You’re 11
years old, Fiona. That’s much too old to be afraid of choppy water, or
“I’m not afraid,” Fiona said.
“I don’t believe in monsters either, but I don’t like the feeling in my
tummy when the water’s choppy.” Embarrassed, she gazed at the castle. The
only sounds they heard were the oars moving through the water. A chill ran
down her spine. Trying to distract her fears, she said, “I don’t see any
grouse, Callum. Are you sure you heard your dad right?”
The bottom of the boat grated
against the pebbly shore. Callum jumped out and pulled it onto the beach.
“It’s a good thing I wore my rubber boots today.”
“Why are you wearing them?”
Elspet looked down at the muddy boots.
“I had to help Dad this
morning with the dogs. With all the rain we’ve been having, they’re a right
mess in the mornings.”
Elspet and Fiona stepped onto
a large mossy stone, being very careful to not get their feet wet.
“My dad said there were
grouse here, so there must be.” He looked around and couldn’t see any.
“Well, maybe they flew away to look for something to eat. They must come
back at night to roost in the castle.”
“Sure, Callum, whatever you
say.” Elspet mocked her friend and looked across at the other islands. She
saw trees covered with needles. “What’s wrong with the pine trees? Where are
all the needles?” “The branches here are bare. They look dead.”
“It must be because of the
grouse.” Fiona giggled.
“Very funny, Fiona.” Callum
didn’t appreciate the joke.
“It smells of damp mustiness
and wet earth.” Fiona sniffed the air and turned to gaze at the castle. “The
wall around it is still standing. I like it. The stones are covered with
moss and lichen. They must be really old. See the patches of moldy green
everywhere. Maybe that has something to do with the pines, or maybe the
trees are haunted.”
“They aren’t haunted. It’s
probably something in the ground water,” Elspet said.
Callum ran up to the wall
surrounding the castle and touched the stones. “They’re made from granite,
but you’re right, they are dirty and pockmarked with holes, probably from an
attack on the castle a long time ago. I’ll bet some great battle took place
here. It must have. Why else would it have been abandoned so long ago?”
“Did your mum tell you the
history of this castle? Which ancestor lived here? I’m just curious,” Elspet
“I have no idea. I didn’t pay
any attention when Mum was telling me about it. I think history’s boring.
The castle’s very tall though. I count three stories high, with slots for
windows. Maybe they poured hot oil onto their attackers. You can tell there
used to be a moat, but its now just a small trench, overgrown with grass and
thistles.” Fiona pointed and the other two looked. “Look at the faces carved
into the wall. Ugly.” She walked up to one. Ivy entwined itself around the
gargoyle’s hideous features. Parting the leaves she saw the face. “Its
eyeballs are bulging and its cheeks are all puffed out like he’s going to
blow bubble gum.”
Elspet looked. “Gargoyles are
always ugly, Fiona. This one’s no different than any of the others. It does
give me the willies though.”
“Do you think they poured hot
oil through the slots in the castle towers, Fiona?” Callum gazed at the
“I’m not sure. They might
have. That would really hurt.”
“There was probably a big
gate here, between these two huge pillars. Someone had to stand here and
carve or chisel all this design on the stones. I wonder what the words and
symbols mean? It looks Celtic, but yet, different.” Elspet ran her fingers
over the linked circles. They walked through the open gateway. “Wow, look at
the yew hedges. This is cool.”
“I wonder if they had a yew
hedge maze?” Callum ran around to the side to have a look.
“Callum, what’s a yew hedge
maze?” Elspet ran after him.
Fiona followed. They found
him standing between two tall rows of hedges. “Is this a maze?”
“It was a maze. The bushes
are all over-grown now though. It’s full of thorns.” Ivy snaked its vines in
and out of each yew hedge, creating a roof of green. “Whoever lived here
must have had children. I’ll bet they made this for them,” Callum said.
“Do you want to go inside?”
Fiona bent her knees and looked under the overgrown trees.
“What if we get lost in it?
It is a maze!” Elspet hesitated.
“Come on, Elspet. It might be
fun. We can stick together so we don’t get lost. I’ll lead the way. Be
careful not to scratch your legs on all these thorns,” Fiona said. “If I
catch my jumper on one and snag it, my mum will be furious.”
They entered the maze. Dead
leaves and broken branches lay scattered over a dirt path. Some of the walls
were over fifteen feet high, canopied by the woven ivy. “Why would anyone
make yew hedges inside the castle walls?” Elspet held onto Fiona’s hand.
“They probably had a rose
garden and the yews protected the flowers from the wind,” Callum said.
“I saw a show on the telly
the other night and someone had cut yew hedges into the shapes of animals. I
wonder if whoever lived here did that for their children,” Fiona said.
They tiptoed up the path.
“It’s sort of spooky in here. Do you think there are creatures in the
bushes?” Elspet moved in the middle, steering clear of touching the
“There might be bird’s nests,
or mice, or maybe even a fox. Come on, stop being afraid,” Callum said.
“There’s no goblins, or brownies, or Cornish piskies, if that’s what you
The path wound back and
forth, taking strange curves. The three of them kept coming to dead ends and
had to retrace their steps. “What is that?” Fiona saw a deep hole in the
ground with a rotting wooden door on top of it. Behind it stood a marble
statue. “I love the statue. Who is it of?”
Callum brushed the dirt off.
“It says King Rolfin.”
“Who’s that?” Elspet squatted
down to see if anything else was carved in the stone base.
“I don’t know. It must be one
of the kings that lived in this castle. He has a nice face.” Callum looked
up at the man’s stone body. “I like his sword.”
“Remind me to ask my mum
about him.” Fiona stepped on the wood over the hole.
Elspet grabbed her arm when
it caved in.
“Whoa! Thanks, Elspet. That’s
dangerous.” Fiona struggled to catch her balance.
“It looks like an entrance to
something. Don’t step on it anymore.” Callum stood above it. He lay on his
tummy and looked down the hole Fiona had just made. “Hand me a stone.”
Elspet gave him one.
He dropped it into the hole.
They heard it echo below them. “That’s a deep hole. Be careful.”
“Why would someone put a
secret entrance in the middle of this maze?” Elspet stepped around it
carefully. “And right next to a statue”
“Who knows. Let’s get out of
here. It’s giving me the creeps with all these tall bushes. There’s hardly
any light. Fiona, why don’t you lead the way. I’m only getting us lost.”
Callum stepped aside so she could get in front of him.
“Thanks, Callum. Do you think
I know the way any better than you?” Fiona looked up at the sky. “I can’t
see anything but yew hedges and ivy, but the sun is in that direction. That
means it’s to the west. Let’s go this way.” She led them down a straight
path. They came upon a marble birdbath. “Oh look! What a pretty birdbath!
There’s no water in it, so it can’t help the birds now, but I like the
carvings on it.” She looked inside the bowl. “Nothing in here but leaves.
Let’s go. It might take us forever to get out of here.” Five minutes later
they were standing in front of the maze.
“That was fun. I’d like to go
in there again when there’s more time,” Elspet said, “and when it’s
They headed for the castle.
“There are a lot of old statues. Maybe later we can go and see them.” As
they neared the front, Callum said, “It’s shaped like an old Norman castle.
Look at the round towers at each corner. It’s even got a huge wooden
drawbridge, even though it’s fallen all over the ground.” Callum walked to
the broken bridge. “You can see they must have raised and lowered it with
these thick chains. Be careful not to trip on them. They’re rusty and gross
Fiona and Elspet followed
Callum, being careful not to trip on the rubble. “Should we go inside?”
Elspet wasn’t sure if she wanted to now that they stood directly in front of
“Come on, Elspet. It’s cold
and windy out here. I’m glad I put on my jumper.” Fiona rubbed her arms.
Elspet looked at her own
jumper. “My mum will kill me if I get this dirty. It’s brand new. She just
finished knitting it for me this morning.”
“My mum will too. She makes a
lot more jumpers and cardigans than your mum, Elspet. Your mum makes the
wool and my mum knits things.” Callum boasted.
“She doesn’t make the wool.
She just cards and spins and dyes it.” Elspet snapped at him. “The sheep
make the wool.”
“Okay. Okay. So both of your
mums knit. I wish my mum could spin wool and knit like your mums. Let’s save
this conversation for when we’re sitting in our rocking chairs like old men
and women sipping hot cocoa and eating chocolate biscuits. Come on, enough
talking. Let’s go inside. Who’s going to be first?” Fiona bent over and
peered into the darkness. Turning to Callum, she said, “Well?”
“Why are you looking at me?”
Callum stared back at the girls.
“You are the boy. Boys are
supposed to be the bravest, aren’t they?” Fiona scowled, trying to
intimidate him. “Unless you’re a chicken.” She and Elspet strutted around,
cackling and clucking like chickens.
“Oh all right. I’ll go in
first. Come right behind me though.” He hesitated, hearing noises from the
blowing wind and rustling leaves.
“Go on. We’re right behind
you,” Fiona said. They stepped through the arched door.