I am near the junction of the Findhorn and the Divie. This particular spot is known as Randolph’s Leap. Thomas Randolph was the 1st Earl of Moray, nephew to Robert the Bruce and a leading commander in Robert’s army. Naturally, because of the quirkiness inherent in the archaic and inscrutable formulae that govern the genesis of historical place names, it was not Randolph who leapt. Tradition has it that in the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Alistair Cunningham and his men, intent on avoiding capture, jumped this narrow, very rocky stretch of the Findhorn River to escape Randolph’s pursuit.
Clouds linger in the sky, relics of the rain that fell earlier this morning. The atmosphere is clear, not much wind. Multicoloured leaves and the occasional gorgeous moss-shrouded stick cover the uneven ground. I breathe in the sweet, musty smell of autumn. A curvilinear, twisting tracery marks the frontier zone, the “line” where the Findhorn’s muddy brown stream meets the Divie’s dark, almost black waters. I am looking out from a craggy promontory jutting into and over this confluence. The Findhorn’s waters are rolling and raging. They swirl around in a large circular pool just upstream from the “leap”, then madly tumble and cartwheel as they pass through this constriction. Someone remarks that floods last century had raised water levels by fifteen metres.
Downstream, walking along the riverside, the trees seem gentle. I sense this is a place where nature spirits freely reign. I do not expect to encounter any. A companion ahead points excitedly at a tall tree growing on the edge of a ledge above the river. “Four branches up on the right or seven up on the left,” he cries. I stare but see nothing remarkable. I look again and again. Two or three times I seek details of the precise location. Everyone else is seeing something I can’t. On the verge of giving up, I gaze once more. At last in harmony with the tree, I am able to see its spirit in the bark - a face with slanting eyes (apparently shut), a downturned mouth and the suggestion of a beard.
The immediate topography makes it difficult to get right up close. My vantage point is a little way off, maybe six or seven metres from the tree; the face in the trunk is about the same distance above the ground. From this range, the lines, grooves and patterns in the areas of bark surrounding the vision seem quite indistinct. Significantly, the spirit’s facial features, though still somewhat blurred, appear more definite in their resolution than the rest of the bark’s patterning.
This nature spirit is seemingly asleep, or else regarding his watchers with a kind of benign, yet whimsically glum countenance. I am unable to distinguish ears or hair, but the nose is small and stubby, like a cat’s. Though it is a somewhat coarsely resolved apparition, I feel sure it is not simply imaginary - that I am in reality deludedly misconstruing random shapes and patterns in the bark, spellbound by some species of group hallucination.
Four days later, I am once more at Randolph’s Leap. The water level has subsided by four or five metres. The gap at the “leap” is now a deeply cleft ‘V’ rather than a shallow ‘U’. The chaotic whirlpool upstream has vanished, revealing the sort of place where you could fish for trout - a chasm of thin air above a swiftly flowing stream punctuated by smooth boulders in assorted sizes, a dry pebbled beach on the left.
The river has lost a lot of its power. I return to the nature spirit’s tree. The “face” is no longer evident. There are just markings in the bark. For a moment, I feel deep disappointment. Then I realise that the spirit is not going to put itself on display twenty-four hours a day - just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean that its presence does not permeate the tree. Perhaps my senses are not so finely attuned today. Anyway, the markings now revealed in the patch of bark where the face’s apparition had manifested are, like those that were in the face’s bark surrounds four days earlier, quite indistinct. When this spot had been inhabited by the tree spirit, the delineation had been more pronounced. I particularly recall the nose being readily discernible. Once again, I feel sure that I saw something.
It is now many years later. I have grown to love the beauty, elegance and creative power of science - but not its dark side, manifest in the cheerless antipathetic hubris of narrowly-focussed technogogues. Wittgenstein felt that “when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched”. I remain unsure of the precise nature of my highland experience all those years ago. I have yet to meet up with another nature spirit. I do know though that living is most joyous when I am open to those fugitive, rapturous, almost unnoticed flashes that hint at life’s beautifully mysterious, hidden charms - echoes of Eugène Ionesco playfully posing that “only the ephemeral is of lasting value”.