It was harder than he remembered and it took him longer than he expected, but at last he reached the highest point of the island. Panting and sweating, he made a conscious effort to slow his breathing and his heart rate, and when he felt himself sufficiently recovered he made confession: Dear God, I am perhaps too old for this.
Indeed, he was old. He was aged enough to feel as much a part of the island as the ancient oak woodlands, part of its geology and archaeology. Yet, squinting northwards against the sunlight at the expanse of the loch, he felt equally that he could just have arrived, could have been gazing at the sight for the very first time.
His very first time had been, in truth, so long ago not even he could recall the date. His arrival on this island had been unforeseen and unintentional – or apparently so, for of course it had been part of a divine plan. He had accepted the invitation as witlessly as he had accepted the description of “glorious confessor”, as a servant of God and instrument of his will.
He reckoned they must have built the chapel around 620 or so: certainly Kessog had already done the spadework and established the new order, no-one could deny him that. And really it had all been plain sailing – barring the odd political problem – until 1260 or thereabouts, when the fiendish Magnus had marauded the loch, devastating all that had been peacefully established and nurtured for a good five centuries, give or take. The old man sighed deeply as he recalled the image of the longships, strangely beautiful as they went about raiding and destroying the length and breadth of the sacred water.
They named the island after him: Inchmurrin. He accepted the honour with humility, embarrassment and gratitude, mindful that pride was a deadly sin. He gave thanks to the accident of his noble birth, and to his patron, Comgall of Bangor. He was already a venerable figure when he built the chapel on this, the largest of the Loch Lomond islands.
Inchmurrin lies at the southern end of the loch, right on the Highland fault line. Of course, he knew nothing of this: continental drift, seismic shift – these were quite beyond his ken. What he did know was the faint trace of earlier, higher shorelines; the contours and colours of the soft sedimentary rocks on the beaches – red sandstone, mudstone, limestone and lavas; the lush spread of heath, birch, pine, hazel and oak.
He knew and loved Inchmurrin, in all its seasons, in all lights and in the absence of light: he was there to bear witness to the ebb and flow of settlers, raiders, the exiled, the entitled, and the dispossessed.
He had been there when Lennox built the castle and escaped the mainland plague, and when The Bruce there took refuge. He saw the deer park grow to house around two hundred fallow deer: James IV used Castle Lennox as his hunting lodge. He recalled the black sorrow of the Lady Isabella, exiled to the island after the battle of Stirling where she lost father, husband and both sons in one day. She remained on Inchmurrin until her death some forty years later. And the benighted Mary, Queen of Scots had been briefly, secretly incarcerated in the silence of the grey walls.
He had witnessed the brutal murder of Colquhoun of Luss, shocking enough, but somehow rendered more abominable for its having been committed in the ruins of his chapel. Then there had been the infamous Rob Roy and MacGregors, who stole the cattle and the deer – and every boat on the loch in order to prevent pursuit.
More recently, the island had been used as an asylum for the deranged, and for unmarried mothers. Mirrin’s heart grew heaviest when he thought of the sights he’d seen during this time: the mad tearing at themselves and each other; the women drowning their babies, or burying them alive rather than relinquish them to the cruelties of others.
Now, Mirrin felt a change, a stirring of something different beyond the meadow and the alder and holly; a force hitherto unknown on the island. Slowly, for he was very old and so fatigued these days, he made his way northwards, following his instinct. Sure enough, a cluster of wooden cabins had sprouted on the north eastern shore and to his astonishment a group of men, women and children were peaceably, nakedly, going about their day: they sat in the sunshine, they collected driftwood; some were washing clothes, others were swimming, eating, chatting, kicking a ball, laughing. Mirrin, suddenly aware of the heft of his cassock, could not repress a twinge of envy. He looked upon the scene as upon the garden of Eden, for surely these people, in their unfettered happiness, had somehow returned to a state of grace?
This was new to Inchmurrin indeed, this liberation, this celebration of the natural, this sense of community. Mirrin bore witness, as was his duty. He examined his conscience. Dear God, he prayed, I am perhaps too old for this. Then he peeled off the rough hessian, joined the group and gave thanks for the heat of the sun on his skin.