Peaceable Kingdom, Part One: Seek and You Will Find

We headed toward Lochbuie through miles and miles of mountain laurel just past bloom. Everywhere, sheep. Sheep in varying stages of undress. Lambs with tight white curls and molting ewes trailing wool behind them like clumsy bridal trains. Everywhere, lambs racing to their mothers to kneel and drink. Everywhere, lambs passed out on their sides from the milk-binge. Scotland in June is an ovine orgy.

The drive made me think of the art movement called Anticipated Ruins that was popular with painters in the eighteenth century. Take a landscape such as this and depict within it a famous building gone to ruin. This prompted writings and lectures and reflections on “Future in the Past.” Here in Scotland, it’s hard to drive a mile without seeing the ghost of a barn or croft house. Some of these stone remains are isolated but more often than not, at least on the Isle of Mull, they are dignified by a modern structure alongside. There is no escaping the past, and no need to anticipate the ruins of the future, because the landscape itself offers a rich and fulfilling meditation on time.

We parked at the head of the bay, next to a few other cars. Down the beach people were camping. We walked to the post office. The post office is a shed with a red postal box outside. The shed would be unmanned and unlocked, we were told. Inside, we found local goods for sale: in the refrigerator, salmon, meat, haggis, a sampling of cheeses, and cans of soda and water for the hikers; on shelves, baked goods and cards and art projects and a basket of knit items made from local wool by local hands. By the door, an Honor System Box filled with cash.

I’d been to Moy Castle fifteen years earlier, and nothing much was different about the landscape or the number of visitors on Lochbuie. The tide was receding, and I’d remembered there was a wide, wide beach ahead. This time I knew the name: Laggan Sands. We were disappointed to find the Castle roped off with tape and gates. Even the scaffolding around the tower was in ruins.

“Let’s go back,” I said.
He said, “Let’s keep going.”
Tired and disappointed, if left by myself I might not have continued on the path to the MacLaine mausoleum. He held my hand the whole way. We were by now perhaps a mile from the car.

We followed the path to the wide arc of the Sands. A Highland cow stood still on the beach. Sheep, again, everywhere. We climbed the rocks and kept going toward the other side of the bay, past the manor house set well back. From the far end of the beach rose a little knoll, with a large shade tree at the foot and one or two at the top. It would have been easy to miss. As we neared, we saw the stone chapel under the cover of the leaves; it was built onto the knoll and ringed, as are most buildings in Scotland, by a stone wall.

The MacLaine chapel was built in the 16th century and converted into a mausoleum in the 19th. There was no one else for miles. Except for the cows. Around the stone wall stood a dozen Highland cows, as large as small elephants, with red hair hanging sometimes to the ground. The Highland cow has huge and respectable horns. I felt unsure about moving toward the chapel with the cows standing guard. I mentally asked their permission to enter.

He opened the gate first, to show me that we belonged.

Many of the gravestones in the small yard around the chapel are set flat into the ground; many are broken and hard to read. The gate to the chapel itself was unlocked, which surprised me, because although most gates in Scotland are unlocked, I’d been stymied by the No Entry at Moy.

“Shall I get the flashlight,” I asked. It was pitch black inside.
“No. You have to see this.” And he held the gate for me. “Look up.”

Cut into the pitched wooden roof gleamed patterns of small stained-glass stars, colors varied. As the eyes adjusted, the stars seemed to shine brighter. Soon I saw purple, red, and yellow stars reflected on the walls. It was extraordinary and wondrous. My heart beat faster. Under our feet crunched dry gravel and shards of gravestones. People had stacked little piles of these fragments in the corners of the room and on top of one of the slabs. At the far end, the sealed mortuary, carved with loving attributes.

It was an emotional moment. I’d had no plans to visit the mausoleum, and I am not struck with the nationalistic longing that many displaced Scots express. I feel at home in the Scottish landscape, however, and more peaceful than I feel anywhere else on earth. Especially here, in this beloved and loving room. The room was full of love, fresh and peaceful. The dead with the living, the remembrances as palpable in the moment to me as they must have been when carved 150 years ago.

The love and devotion carved into the stone summoned in my heart my own love and devotion for my mother and father. I welcomed that familiar and timeless ache of love again. I was grateful for the tears running down my face. My mother left her body 30 years ago; my father, last year. I felt so alive among the beloveds. They were holding me. I was, well, beheld and beholden.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

I wrote a note for my father, folded it into a square, and left it against the wall secured under a rock.

Outside, the sentries were gone. They had wandered off to the beach, with the sheep. At some point they had left us alone in the chapel. I thought of the Japanese warrior statues that typically protect the four cardinal gates of Buddhist temples. The warriors are meant to protect the Buddha within the temple. They stand at the ready to keep out those who are not meant for the wisdom or who would do harm or even mock the tradition. But more important, maybe, the warriors lead the seeker to the treasure of timeless Wisdom inside.

Judy McClain