The Isle of the Dead

9 10 2010

[written by author, Alison J. Littlewood]


Eilean Munde


The dead have highways, said Clive Barker in The Books of Blood. And those highways have junctions, and crossroads, and sometimes, the lands of the living and the dead intersect.

Of course, we have places set aside for the dead in this world too: the graveyards so beloved of supernatural fiction, complete with ground mist, leaning gravestones and a sickly yellow moon.

I only know of one burial island, though. It lies in Loch Leven near the villages of Glencoe and Ballachulish, and the ruins of its tiny church can be seen from the mainland. Its name is Eilean Munde. Being an island, it doesn’t receive many visitors. But one day my partner Fergus and I hired a canoe and headed out.

The loch was perfectly still, not a breath of wind stirring the water. It reflected back the mountainous backdrop and the rocky walls of the island. We could only see one place to land, a tiny inlet just the right size to draw in with a small boat and step out onto the gently sloping sides.

I didn’t find out until later that this inlet is called the ‘Gate of the Dead’.

I remember walking towards the island’s church, listening to the sounds from the mainland. I heard distant traffic, the shouting of children. The island wasn’t cut off from those things. And yet, it was. It was as though the sounds came from a different world.

I had an overwhelming sense that I didn’t belong there; that I was intruding. I think Fergus felt it too, because we glanced at each other and headed off in different directions. It wasn’t what we’d normally do, and we didn’t discuss it. For me, the thought of chatting with someone would have seemed wrong. It didn’t matter if we could hear the mainland: Eilean Munde belonged to silence. It belonged to the dead.

I had an intense feeling of being watched as I explored the graves. I saw the final resting place of MacIain of the Macdonalds, the clan that was betrayed and butchered in the massacre of Glencoe in 1692. And I stepped over the ruined walls of the tiny church to find more graves inside, topped by stone slabs. The earth beneath them, though, had been hollowed out. Through a gap I saw the gleam of white bone.

Later I found out that those graves had been carved into solid rock. And over the years the wind tearing up the loch had carried away the infill, grain by grain. I hear that the graves have since been filled in again – at least for the time being. I have a feeling they will have begun the slow process once more, of emptying themselves little by little, until the bones emerge.

I listened for stories about the island after that. The graves emptied by the wind. The Gate of the Dead. The way the loch would fall deathly still on the day of a burial. I could picture it well: just as it had been on the day we visited.

One story has it that when someone is buried on the island, their soul is doomed to watch over it until the next arrives. But there hasn’t been a burial on the island for many a year. If there is a ghost on Eilean Munde it has had many years of watching, and will no doubt have a great many more.

Eilean Munde belongs to the dead. It is one of those places where the walls grow thin. I could feel it in the oppressive sense of being watched; of being watched tirelessly and constantly, ever since I first stepped onto its ground.

Strange, with such an abundance of stories about the isle, that Fergus and I didn’t talk about it at all. We rowed away without speaking. Even in the comfortable surroundings of the hotel, we didn’t speak of it further than to decide that, yes, the island had been weird.

And then we each took a sip of a warming single malt and sat, for a time, in silence…

[Tomorrow, it’s time for Lucy Huntzinger’s discussion about ghost photography]




5 responses

9 10 2010
Patrica Esposito

This is somehow beautifully scary. The silence you felt and carried with you feels like the weight of some deeper knowledge; I don’t know if it’s sadness so much as knowledge of the inevitable. It hangs there. And maybe that feeling of staying quiet so as not to be too noticed! Thanks for recreating it here; I want to go! Very quietly.

10 10 2010
Cassandra Curtis

Very haunting and yet serene. Thank you for a lovely article. Had I been on that trip, I know my fingers would have itched to pull out my recorder and do evp work or tried to see if I could sneak my thermal imager into a wide pocket. 🙂

10 10 2010
Alison Littlewood

Thanks Patricia. Yes, the silence did feel like that – bigger than we were, and impossible to pin down. I tried writing a story about it once, and never did feel like I’d captured it. But I suppose that was the reason it felt so powerful – the mystery in it. It would be interesting to go back and see if it felt the same way.

12 10 2010
Stephen Volk

Wonderful, Alison.

12 10 2010
Lee Thompson

Great post, Allison!

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