Ten thousand raindrops Take their gray courses down the window pane, With gentle pulsings, With small music on the stones outside.
George Mackay Brown, Rain
Kirkwall: the torrent of waters slides at us horizontally and the winds with it. It’s not exactly April showers and so we look for shelter and for safer (drier) havens.
The crimson sandstone of St. Magnus Cathedral pierces the leaden skies and we make for the vaulted doorway beneath its mass of red.
The sheer size of the building is startling, even if Kirkwall is Orkney’s largest community (although I think it has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants).
Hanging from a pillar in the left aisle of the Nave is a 17th century Mort Brod, a wooden death notice commemorating Robert Nicholson, a Kirkwall glazier. This is noted to be one of the oldest of its kind in Scotland and shows the shrouded figure of Death holding an hourglass and spade.
A casket of bones, thought to be those of St. Magnus, murdered on the isle of Egilsay, were discovered here in 1911 during restoration works on the walls of the Choir.
In the Chapel at the eastern end of the cathedral are many commemorations of more recently departed Orkney souls.
George Mackay Brown’s requiem mass, on 16 April 1996, the feast day of St. Magnus, was the first Catholic service in the cathedral since the Reformation.
… It’s always the same / I’m running towards nothing
The Cure, A Forest (1980)
If the rain comes / They run and hide their heads …
The Beatles, Rain (1966)
For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with woods and forests and the sense of quiet and stasis they can offer. That moment of being alone in the trees, directionless; light and sound are different, muted, but at the same time amplified in subtle ways I’ve never been able to explain.
It’s both humbling and compelling to stand in the realm of these dwellers of the canopy. For these moments, we can become as nothing, unidentified in the midst of the grandeur.
Today, I wanted to get away from the city, from people and cars, from the unkindnesses of strangers. I braved the weather and went to walk for the first time in the woods in the lee of Dechmont Law. It rained.
It rained a lot.
The rain came in sheets and Dechmont Law was a spectre in the mist, the sky above it a wet-on-wet grouping of greys. I didn’t climb the hill, though; I had come here for the trees and whatever they contained, the seen and the unseen.
Winter is almost over but not the rain. It falls and falls in a seemingly infinite haze. There would have been more people here, probably, had it not been for the weather; I’m grateful, albeit soaked. My feet are tiny boats in the undulating waterway of the path.
The wood is waking, gradually, but the signs are there. A slow reveille sounds in the trickle of the burn. The black and white and indigo blur of a magpie c(r)ackles in the distance.
I can’t help but be drawn in by an avenue of trees like the one here. I find them so mesmeric and powerful. A similar scene features on the cover of my 2008 CD Supernaturalist, the sun breaking through the uprights.
That cover picture was taken a hundred or so miles north of Dechmont Woods, and here, today, there is no sun.
But other things choose to break through, signs and signifiers of a visitation of one sort or another.
Things decay but the woods, as a single unity, as an entity, do not decay. Fallen trunks are the separators between passages of time in the book of this moment.
And of course, within the woodland I feel an aura of the uncanny. That green, the colour of safety and permission (“go now, quickly, before the red returns”), the chlorophyll mantle that swathes the ground and the treebark: it creates for me a sense of unreality. Haunted by trees, by the spaces between them and by the vacuum they create. A kind of Stendhal Syndrome in response to the natural world. My mind swoons a little at nature’s painterly strokes on a never-drying canvas.
Go back more than four decades: it’s 9 November 1979, around the time perhaps that The Cure are recording their seminal song A Forest in a studio hundreds of miles from here. Robert Taylor, a forestry worker with the local Livingston Development Corporation, is walking his dog in the woods at Dechmont. These woods. He has an experience, an encounter with what he described as “a flying dome” constructed of “a dark metallic material with a rough texture like sandpaper” featuring an outer rim “set with small propellers”. According to Taylor, it was about 20 feet in diameter and there was an odour like burning car brakes. He maintained that two smaller spheres, something like sea mines with protrusions on their surface, grasped him and dragged him towards the main object. He had a period of unconsciousness and apparently came to 20 minutes later, by which point the objects were gone, and he walked home with minor injuries and his clothes torn, his truck having failed to start.
Bob Taylor died in 2007, but he maintained up to his death that he saw what he saw. No one seems to doubt that conviction. There are a number of theories as to what happened but no real conclusions. Because of his injuries, the matter was investigated by the police who, it’s reported, found unexplained indentations in the ground where the incident is said to have occurred. Many have speculated that what Taylor thought he experienced was the effect of a seizure brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain the burning smell and the hallucinations, as well as the period of unconsciousness.
The area where the encounter apparently took place is marked with a metal plaque (above) and by this information board, installed by the local council.
Whatever the explanation for what happened, I can’t shake the feeling that the presence of these lurid information boards, with their declamatory Top Secret! trappings, only detract from the sense of alien wonderment I get from being here.
UFO or not, these are beautiful woods, woods to get lost in, to lose yourself in, to become unidentified amid the leaves and the greys (not the Greys) of the February or November rain.
Perhaps that’s what happened to Bob Taylor.
There’s no need for visitations when we can all experience these small incursions of the extraordinary amid the unwelcome clamour of the everyday.