Mist hangs low, clinging to my face like my own tears, my own moist breath. It is empty, as far as I can see. A barren place. No hills, no mountains, no lochs. Rows of soaking grass. Rocks and stones mounded high in great piles, carved with names lost in time. And one loan house with a roof still thatched.
It is dark and quiet, but I am not alone. Fires burn and the scents carry through the air. I make my way through the grass for the footpath has vanished, and I feel more lost in this quiet place. But I find the fire, and the fire reveals to me those who tend it. A group of men all dressed in Highland best. Ancient words cross their lips, words not entirely unfamiliar, but still unknown. I try with what little I have.
“Gabh mo leisgeul,” I beg their pardon, “ach càite a bheil mi?”
“Càite a bheil thu?” I hear repeated. Confusion. How could I be here, but not know where I was? “Tha thusa anns a’ Chùil Lodair.”
Cùil Lodair. I turn and look into the expanse which is harder to see now. When had night stolen my vision? How could I not realize where I was? I’d been here before. I knew this land.
What’s more, I know what happens. What befell this moor so many centuries ago.
Even the tired eyes of men who had been too long away from home, too long fighting a war for a king they wished to see, speak the story without words. Was this the night? Was there time to warn of what would come to pass? Could I convince them to pick up and move before the attack came? Would it be enough warning for them to act quickly? I could change something. I could regain what the future had lost.
But I hadn’t the words. Not in Gaelic anyway. I had some, but not enough for all they needed.
“A bheil Beurla agaibh?” Of course, they’d prefer their own tongue; what proud nation wouldn’t?
“Aye,” the answer comes, simple and sweet.
“You wait here tonight, wanting to return home after so long of fighting. Fighting for something very dear and true to your hearts. I know this. But what you may not know is that the cause dies, as do many of those sitting here on this field now.”
Their eyes narrow, judging my words as I alone present a threat.
“I come from a time beyond today when Scotland is past this battle, still locked in a union. The future sees Scotland buried. Smothered in a blanket, trapped and hidden away, while the hand that rocks it insists it’s been swaddled, cuddled, and loved. The dream dies, but perhaps you in your actions now can change it.”
“Why should we believe ye?”
There was a point. Why should anyone believe me? Here I stood on a marker in history, attempting to change the future, and I could not even speak their tongue to them. I, with a foreign accent, telling brave warriors to run and hide. What did I truly have to offer?
But a voice chirped in my head. One that would always come when anyone asked if my love of this nation was true. I had something to show. I did have proof, and I could clear my name and declare my saltire blood. I pulled up my sleeve to reveal upon my left wrist, the hand that led up to my heart, words that held sway in my time and theirs.
Alba gu bràth.
They knew the words and they knew their meaning, but they looked at me through questioning eyes. An outsider donning their own words upon her body? Words that, try as they might, would not be washed away.
“Your cause is my own, though we do not share the same accent.”
“Speak then. What dae ye need tae say?”
“You’ve done well up until now. You’ve seen many successes and victories, and I can say even in my own life, my own time, I’m proud to see that. The fighting spirit of the Scots never ceases to fill me with pride even though I was born an ocean away.
“But it is here, today, that it all falls. Cùil Lodair. They come early, and there is no place to hide. They come quick with all their force and arms. And they’re ready for you now. They know what to expect, and how to react.”
“If we’ve beaten them time and time again, than we kin dae it again.”
“Not on this field, not in your condition, and not on this day.” I should be calm, but I haven’t the time, and though my love for this country and these people is deep, I know how stubborn they can be too, and I do not have the precious minutes to spare. “You’ve fought valiantly. You’ve had more victories than many would’ve guessed. Today, that changes. Today, Scotland falls.”
They don’t like the words, and I could not blame them. I did not like the words. But they must be spoken if I am able to heal some of those ancient wounds that reside in the soil of that battlefield in my time. If I find it in me, I can change history.
“How many men fall?”
“One thousand. Two thousand. All.”
The men all look to each other, speaking with eyes rather than words. They would listen, I tell myself. They would heed, and from this my beloved nation would see a better life in my time.
But they do not budge.
“As ye’ve said, the victories have been on our side. How could we stop now?”
“But history says you’re doomed. The lessons teach of lives lost, of culture destroyed. This great nation falters today and still sees the effects of that centuries later.” It is quiet. Is it real, those footsteps of fate approaching, or is it just my own imagination tormenting me in this dark night? “They come,” I say in a whisper, not necessarily meaning to, “and they are without mercy.”
“Then we dae what we were born tae dae. We fight.”
“Gods, do I admire that fighting spirit,” I say, falling to the ground. “There is nothing more fierce, more brave than a Highland warrior, no story that should be sung more. But I cannot bear a future where this great nation, this wondrous people, are trampled. Voices unheard. Mocked and chided and told its place.”
The words shock. They sit back in their places, not able to imagine the world of which I speak. To them, there is still hope. There is still time. There is still opportunity for change and revolution in their eyes. I can still see it there even after all I’ve said.
“The Highland way never returns. Clans are gone. Gaelic still has not recovered.” I realize the rain is blending with my own tears and I shiver at both. “Please, go now. Go home and be with your families. Live to fight another day. Do not let the Gaeltachtd fall.”
The man closest to me takes my hand and grips it tight. There are no words in this, but I hear them anyway. I feel the comfort, the assurance, in just the feel of his hand. He leans towards me.
“But, lass,” the whisper in the wind comes, “if we were tae run, we would no be those warriors of which ye sing.”
Tears eat my vision and I realize I am alone. Still in that field of grass and plains, the flatlands rolling out before me. The sun beams down on me like it does not know what tragedy fell on these lands.
I step over to a stone marked with the words “Mixed Clans”. Bright flowers have been laid to rest for those who sleep unnamed. A bit of tartan cloth is tied to a branch next to it. Wallace, I think it is. I smile at all these little tokens and thoughts. Time may have passed, but there is still memory, still honor. I touch the stone, feeling its roughness, its age, worn with lichens. At this stone, I offer all my sorrow of the pain of the fallen and all my hopes for rest and peace. Other stones have names dedicated to families, but this one, where I stand alone now, harkens to all.
You can feel the energy of this place. Somber and morose, for it is both a battlefield and a mass grave. A place where men, strong, brave, and daring, were forced to die alone without the mercy of a swift blade. Did they know their own families and loved ones would also be hunted down, branded as traitors against the crown? Did they mourn the loss of, not just their king and cause, but of their entire way of life?
Did they know how close they were to victory? Would it have made a difference?
Their voices cry out, beseeching, hoping someone—anyone—will hear, but they are only echoes now, so easily carried with the wind and rain and mist. If I can feel this presence in the air alone, then the earth herself must be crying out, needing to be heard and healed. I dip down to the ground, let my fingers drift across the ancient soil, digging my nails into the hard earth. She resonates with the pain, still carrying it all these years later, as mothers so often hold the suffering of their own children, hoping somehow it will alleviate the stress.
I exhale, holding her myself, giving myself to her and to all those souls left to die on this field, slowly without mercy. I must bear some of the pain myself. It is only right. I can feel it pour from this field. Perhaps not like a waterfall itself, but like the mists that drift across your face as you stand near. The power is behind it, but we can only feel its remnants.
I stand and turn, ready to be on my way again, but a collection has grown. I had thought myself alone here on this empty field, but now I see many. Those in clothes of yesteryears, others donning the proud plaids, and still more carrying that white cross against the blue sky.
And through my tears, I smile at the reminder that sometimes remnants are all we need.