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The Bothy

A dark fairy tale in the Highlands of Scotland

By Wilkie StewartPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 8 min read
highland loch

Mick came down from the mountain later than he intended and decided to cut his losses, forego his night in the bunkhouse, and find the Craigfalloch bothy instead. On the brow of a hill he caught a signal on his phone and quickly contacted the bunkhouse owner and let them know he wouldn't be back this evening after all. That done, he trudged down the path towards the stone cottage which sat perched on a hillock beside a black lochan.

He'd stayed in a few bothies over the years, some were more comfortable than others, but most had a grate for lighting a fire, and were a welcome respite from the wind and the rain. And the midges.

The midge is well known throughout Scotland as a scourge for campers, hill walkers and tourists alike. The conditions were just right for them that day. Little wind, no bright sunshine. Sweating from his descent, Mike felt the creatures zing and tickle around his ears, and wiping his hand across his brow and beard he saw the remains of half a dozen in his palm. He quickened his pace to the bothy door.

"Hello," he called. "Anybody here?" With no answer he pulled the door shut behind him and dumped his haversack on the floor.

A match was struck and someone in the corner lit a pipe. In the gloom Mick could only glimpse a face, beardless with a sharp nose, a dark hat on his head.

"Oh sorry," Mick said. "I didn't realise you were there."

"No need to apologise," the person said. "I was only dozing."

Mick stepped forward and held out his hand. "I'm Mick. I've just been up the Munro. Hope to do some of the Corbetts tomorrow."

"How do," the man said only lightly taking his hand. It was cold as ice.

"I'll get this fire going, will I?" Mick didn't wait for an answer, but took the dry kindling set aside by a previous visitor and got to work. Soon there was a healthy blaze, casting heat and light around the room. Bothies are typically one single long room with stone floors and walls. This one had wooden platforms on each of the long side walls, which gave a little more comfort than the cold stone. Mick unrolled his bed-roll and sleeping bag opposite the other man who seemed to have little more than rough clothes. Not a climber perhaps.

Mick then set up his primus stove and brought a small can of beans and sausages from his bag. "Have you eaten?" he asked. "I've another tin if you're hungry."

"No thanks," the man said. "I don't eat much."

Mick felt guilty once he had heated the food but the man just glared at him when he tried to offer it again. He ate up with relish. He hadn't eaten anything since reaching the summit at midday.

He used a little water from the lochan outside to rinse out his mess tin and spoon and tidied them back into the bag.

The other man smoked his pipe in silence staring at the fire. Mick tried to guess his age. He looked to be in his sixties, his skin ravaged and lined but there was something about the eyes that made him look younger. Perhaps he'd spent a long time out-of-doors.

Mick slapped a midge on the back of his neck. "Sorry I must have brought some of the wee bastards in," he said. "You'd think with all the science we know, they'd have found a way of getting rid of the midgie. The politicians would pay a fortune."

"Politicians are not to be trusted," the man said. "Especially with secrets." For a second the fire blazed higher and Mick saw the flames reflected in the stranger's eyes. Then they dropped to normal again.

"You mean there is a way already?"

"Oh yes," the man said. He sat up from his slouching position and reached into his coat. He brought out his hand and opened his fist. A small metal pipe with intricate carving lay in his palm. In the firelight Mick couldn't be sure but it certainly looked like gold or silver.

Mick reached over to touch it but the man closed his fist and sat back. "What is it?" Mick asked hoping he would get another glimpse.

The man grinned although in the firelight the facial expression looked more menacing than friendly. "It's a tiny flute that plays a tune only the midge can hear." He eyes twinkled. "I call it a midgeridoo."

Mick couldn't help but laugh. The whole idea was ridiculous and the name conjured images of Australians with huge wind instruments not small objects like the one he had just seen.

The man did not laugh back but looked at Mick with a steady gaze. "You don't believe me?" he asked.

"Frankly?" Mick replied. "No I don't."

"Let me show you," the man said. He got up and went to the door of the bothy. Opening it he gestured for Mick to go outside with him. Mick laughed again then got up and joined the man outside careful to close the door and keep the heat of the fire inside.

The early evening light was gloomy but it was not yet dark and the hilltops were catching some of the late sun. The lochan was dark and still. Very quickly the midges were buzzing around attracted to the heat coming off their bodies and clothes. As the first began to bite, the man raised the flute to his lips and appeared to blow. There was no sound that Mick could hear.

Slowly a cloud of midges formed a yard from the man's face. The more he played the larger the cloud became. To Mick it was mesmerising and frightening. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of the flies were hovering in the air now.

The man lowered the flute but the cloud stayed poised. "Do you believe me now?" he asked.

Mick nodded unable to speak, his eyes still watching the swarming insects.

The man raised the flute again but this time he blew sharply through it. Again there was no sound. The cloud was gone.

"Where did they go?" Mick asked. The man merely tapped his nose with the flute and then shoved it into his inside pocket before going back into the bothy.

Back inside Mick tried to engage the man in a conversation about the flute but the stranger was less interested now he had proved the object's use.

"How much would a thing like that cost?" Mick asked.

The man was laying on his back wrapped in his coat. "More than you could afford," he said.

"I would give you a hundred pounds for it," Mick said surprised at his eagerness to own the flute.

The man turned his head towards Mick and looked him straight in the eye. "Not even a hundred times that is enough." He then turned towards the wall and soon Mick could hear him gently snoring.

Mick passed a fitful night. Sometimes he was unsure where he was, at other times he was running towards a cloud of midges that were flying away, and at others he glanced at the other man only just visible from the light of the dying fire.

In the grey morning he sat up. Light was inching through the dirty panes of the single window of the bothy. Mick gathered his things, pulled on his boots, and was about to write a short entry in the visitor's book when something glinting in a stream of sunlight caught his notice.

The man was sleeping, still snoring. His arm lay outstretched on the wooden ledge. His palm was open and the flute sat there, lying tantalizingly within Mick's reach. He put down the visitor book without signing it, delicately picked up the flute pinched between thumb and forefinger, and taking his rucksack left the cabin.

He walked around the lochan to the path leading to the nearest hill and started the climb to the summit. Occasionally he would look back, the bothy quiet, the waters still, no sign of any pursuit. With each step he felt more justified in the theft. He had offered the man money hadn't he? He wanted to use it to rid the countryside of the mosquito pest, didn't he? Who was the man anyway, just an old tramp?

Three quarters of the way up, the path reached a flattened marshy area. A group of boulders created a natural barrier between the safety of the boggy meadow and a steeper face of the hill. Hungry, Mick sat on a rock and pulled a chocolate bar from his sack. He now missed the hot breakfast he had planned to cook in the bothy. Looking down he could just see the cottage beside the dark lochan, a tiny man-made mark in the wild landscape.

As he ate the midges started to fly around him, zipping past his ear, crawling through his beard, nipping his skin. Exasperated he pulled the flute from his pocket. It's silver design was more ornate than he had imagined. Scores of lizards and birds and fish writhed on its surface, each with the tail of another creature in its mouth. More Celtic than Aboriginal he thought.

Another midge landed on his nose and crawled towards his nostril. He brought the flute to his lips and gently blew. The midges lifted instantly from his face and hovered in the air before him. He blew again and the little crowd moved further away and was joined by a thousand others. Mick laughed. Standing up he blew gently again. The cloud swelled until it was bigger than the one the man had controlled last night. As he blew once more he swayed from side to side. The cloud also mimicked his movement, dancing in the weak sunshine.

Something flickered. Mick glanced back down the hillside. The man was standing beside the lochan, his arms held high above him. His hands gleamed with something like mirrors, catching and bouncing the sunlight off the lochan in Mick's direction.

Mick looked back at the host of insects. They were closer now surely. He blew once more, this time a short blast just as he had seen the man use to dismiss them the night before. Nothing moved. Again and again he tried. Nothing. No movement. He lifted his pack and moved onto the path. The insects followed. He quickened his pace towards the summit. The midges trailed him, their ranks still growing. As he climbed Mick began to panic. He looked behind but he could no longer see the cottage or the lochan or even the boggy hill meadow he had just left. All he saw were millions and millions of black stinging insects.

He ran towards the top. Something landed on his neck and then his ear and then his face. The insects swarmed all around him, crawling into his clothes, buzzing around his eyes. Blind, he dropped his haversack, tripped, and fell, and stumbled up again. He reached a flat area and ran wildly, failing to see the sheer drop. For a brief second he was relieved that the rush of air freed him from the swarm before he crashed onto the rocky hillside hundreds of feet below.

Short Story

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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