At the top of a hill in Perthshire is a small cave. I can’t tell you where that cave is, but I should say that if you do find yourself at the top of a Perthshire hill please watch your step.
In films we see mysterious caves leading to caverns filled with treasure (or at the very least mystery). Most caves I encountered as a child were more like cracks in the hillside. We used our imaginations to make them seem bigger.
But there is one cave, one single cave that is very different. It has no name, no one ever thought to give it one. Even a child may have to duck to get in. So much wet, green, foliage surrounds the entrance that during the spring and summer you could walk past it without even noticing.
If you did notice. If you peeled back the moss and the bracken and slipped inside AND if you had a torch, you could walk to the back of the cave. That’s where the steps are.
There are legends about these steps but they are not our legends. These legends don’t lie hidden in the stories we tell our children, they aren’t part of our heritage.
They are someone else’s legends. A kind of people that would shock you if you met them. They are different from us, so very different.
One of their stories is often told around the campfire at the top of that hill. It’s an important story for their people; it’s about the second time they used those stairs. But, to understand it you need to know about the first time they used them.
Long ago. Long before the grass grew on Scottish hillsides. Long before we had great rivers. Even before we had a monster in Loch Ness. There was the ice.
The bigger folk (that’s what they call themselves) don’t do well in the cold. When the ice came they grew ill. Their food stopped growing. The cold bit them and they had no energy to bite back.
Then came Ey-Kan. He was the biggest and the strongest of the bigger folk. The largest there had ever been. He drew his strength from the earth itself and he made a fire that could fight the ice and warm their homes even when the logs were gone. He was their magic man.
Ey-Kan could only help so much and the ice grew thicker and colder every day. One morning he smashed through three feet of solid ice just so he could touch the ground. He asked it what to do and it’s answer left him colder on the inside than the ice ever could.
The earth told him that the ice would grow like this for many, many seasons to come. Soon food would not grow here, the water would stop flowing, and the few trees left growing would crumble and die. So full of ice that they would be useless even as firewood.
The bigger folk could not stay here. However, unlike the little people, they weren’t used to travel. Tribes of bigger-folk might visit one another but they always came home.
They were built for work. Ey-Kan was the last of his tribe to feel hunger and he used the energy he had left to do what he did best; make metal. The little people learned metal work from the bigger-folk but they could never master it. They were too feeble, too fragile, too flammable, to do what Ey-Kan could.
He ripped the ice away, then tore into the earth. He dug and dug with his huge, hard, hands. At last he found the ingredients he needed. A secret recipe of metal that is now lost from our world. One known only to Ey-Kan.
Ey-Kan took the ingredients to his forge and fuelled the fire. He grabbed his largest crucible (a huge stone pot almost as big as his leg). The ingredients were dropped in and Ey-Kan made a few more trips out to the hole, collecting as much material as he could. On his twelfth trip it was just right.
He held the crucible over the flames and waited. Once the chunks had melted together, glowing a dull brown colour, Ey-Kan changed the fuel underneath and bellowed air in. The flames grew.
The metal in the crucible changed colour over and over, from brown to purple, purple to blue, blue to red, then red to yellow. If Ey-Kan weren’t one of the bigger-folk this is where he might have stopped. Instead he took off his coat, added a special fuel and watched the other colours show (the ones only the bigger-folk could see).
His eyes were built for looking at fire. They relaxed in the glow. In the heat. A welcome change to the cold whiteness outside. He worked for hours, doing things that only someone with fireproof hands can achieve (and even then, only with practice).
As a new day’s sunlight trickled through his window, lighting the side of the forge bright orange, Ey-Kan lifted the object to inspect it.
Flattened out on one side, a spike as sharp as a needle on the other, and down the middle was a long, thick handle made entirely from the same metal. It was a pickaxe unlike anything the bigger-folk had ever made. It was the object that would save his people.
Digging was the wrong word for what Ey-Kan did that day. It was more like his pick-axe told the earth and the rocks where to move. It sliced through ice. Through soil. Through cold hard rock. Every swing the same. He pulled back, struck, and the material at his feet parted to let him through.
It took very little time to open the cave. The rock shifted aside with a noise like brick sliding on brick. Another step with each swing. At two-hundred swings Ey-Kan’s tribe wondered what he was doing and made their way to the cave. They stopped hearing him after the three-hundredth swing.
Their food was gone. Their water frozen. There was nothing left for them on the surface and so they followed the newly-formed steps cut ahead of them. As they went further they changed. Their bodies growing more used to the heat under the hill.
Ey-Kan’s steps kept going. So deep that the walls grew red with heat. The bigger-folk could take it. This was all energy to them.
Finally, after possibly a thousand steps their way opened up to reveal a huge cavern. A tunnel at the far end led back up to the surface. Ey-Kan had gone to find more of the bigger-folk.
In time these others found their way down to the cavern. It was here that they built their home. However, it was the last any of them would ever see of Ey-Kan or his pick-axe.
The second time
Years passed and the bigger-folk grew used to their home in the depths of the earth. However, two of them grew tired, and desperate to see the land of their ancestors. They walked up the thousand steps, coughing from the dust. These stairs hadn’t been used in centuries and in the world above, the bigger folk had become the stuff of stories.
There are many tales of their experiences up those stairs. I’ll tell you one of them next week. If you’d like these stories in your e-mail inbox (in an easy to print pdf document) click here.
Thank you for reading, John