Who is Merlin? Hmmm … difficult question; he’s been hauled over the coals, translated, written about, told stories of, made pictures of, and is the root of so many legends and myths that they fill up ancient library shelves by the score. I’ve read quite a few of them.
But none of this really helps, or at least it’s never helped me. I grew up with him. Dad was first telling me stories of Merlin from as early as I can remember, and certainly long before I could walk or read for myself, so he’s been a part of my life for all that long. He’s never seemed to me at all like the characters that appear in the stories by famous people like Tennyson, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Boron. In fact the nearest anyone ever got to the Merlin I know is Nicol Williamson’s version in the old film Excalibur, and that’s by no means close to the person I know.
Yes … know. His spirit is out there, out in the woods, sat on river banks (even doing a bit of fishing!), on tors on Dartmoor, in the wilds of Exmoor, on mountains I’ve climbed in Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland. He once scared the living daylights out of me, sneaking up to my tent when I camped alone by Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe. I really did think he was the Grey Man come down from the Am Bodach! But then he began to sing on the wind so I wondered if he was Ossian come down from his cave under Aonach Dubh, the first of the Three Sisters. Ye gods! That was a night, indeed. First there was the little rustling wind, not a lot, just a little, a wee rustle catching the sides of the tent and sounding them like tiny sails. I looked up and there was the cloud formation, the Grey Man walking the sky.
A bodach, in Scottish Gaelic, is an old man, a rustic and a trickster or bogeyman in Gaelic folklore and mythology. The bodach is paired with the cailleach, the hag or old woman who, for me, has always been Ceridwen because I was brought up in that tradition. They’re the Lord and Lady in another form. To be visited by the Trickster when you’re all alone in that wild place is scary. It’s a place where the veils between the worlds are very thin and as the dusk, the gloaming, comes down you absolutely know-in-your-bones that he’s there.
I ate my stew, and took a couple of wee drams for Dutch courage, and popped another into the stew – after all, three’s a lucky number, it couldn’t do any harm! Then I banked up the fire and crawled into my bivy bag inside the tent, with my nine-hour candle going, and soon dozed off as I’d been walking the last bit off Rannock Moor that day. Next thing, I’m wide awake and sat up. Stones, little ones by the sound of it, were rolling down and building up around my tent. Now, there’s an old story of climbers who’ve had just this experience so … and to add to the unnerving-ness my candle had somehow gone out! I peered out of the tent. The fire was still going, I reached out and stirred the embers, put on a bit of birch and got some flames going and, of course, I reached for the whiskey.
‘You don’t need that,’ said the voice. Fortunately, I’d not yet got the lid off so none of the magic liquid was spilled as I dropped the flask. A dark, shadowy figure was sat the other side of the fire and, somehow, I knew that scent. It was him. I swore! And I got the lid off the flask and had a sip. ‘What the hell …?’ I began. ‘Just thought I’d pop by and see how you’re doing,’ he replied. ‘You might have a wee bit of trouble packing up your tent in the morning, there seem to be a good few kilos of stones all round the edges.’
I peered out further. He was right. There was. ‘Bugger!’ I muttered. There was a chuckle from the other side of the fire. Obviously, there wasn’t going to be any more sleep for a while so I hauled myself around (still warm and snug in the bivy) to sit in the tent entrance and chat, since that’s what my visitor seemed to want. I did consider offering the flask but felt I needed it a lot more than he did.
He shifted a bit to one side so, now, I could see up the loch to Am Bodach. There was a soft butter-gold glow haloing the top of the mountain, the moon was rising. We watched as the full moon rose over the Grey Man’s shoulder.
And then the sound began, a purring noise and quite loud. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – was it, could it be, a Scottish wildcat? We both sat still as death, waiting, hearing the sound coming closer, and then I saw her. Yes, it was. I’d never seen one in the wild before and, beside her, two little ones jumped and frolicked. I don’t think I breathed at all for the next year or so – at least that’s what it felt like. The wildcat stalked past us, about twenty meters off, and then began to trot. She gave a loud yowl, calling the kits to hurry, and they all ran off around the south side of the loch, under the sheer sides of the Three Sisters.
‘Like it?’ asked the shadow from the other side of the fire. ‘I certainly did!’ I replied. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Thought you might sleep through it so I came to wake you. The Grey Man said she’d be around tonight. He was trying to wake you himself but it seemed you were out for the count … hence the stones!’ I grunted, but I had to grin too. I reached out and touched the stones lying along the edge of the tent, they really were there. ‘Well, I’ll be off now,’ he said.
I slithered my way back into the tent, after banking up the fire again for the morning brew, and snuggled back down into the bivy. The moonlight shivered and shimmered on the tent walls, doing lovely patterns and watching them lured me back to sleep.
In the morning, stretching my legs and cradling my warm brew in gloved hands, I saw a footprint in the earth a way out from the tent … it was a cat print and there, to either side, were smaller ones from where the kits had been playing.
Yes, thank you Merlin. This is the Merlin I know so well. He turns up at unexpected moments, and in the damnedest of places sometimes, and often comes just to make sure I see something incredible that I might otherwise have missed. Sometimes it’s as small as a flower, or a fly agaric mushroom, or a dipper diving into the river; others, it’s a big thing, like this.
He’s done it all my life. It’s hard to say if the happenings happen in this world or in otherworld and, usually, I don’t even bother about it. I mean, what’s the point? The point, surely, is that I have an experience, worrying about where it happened is really head-case stuff that actually takes away from the experience itself.
In my book, I write about some of the Merlin-experiences I’ve had throughout my life, including how he got me to live where I do. He’s incredible, powerful, a wizard … wyzeard … wise one, and he’s a trickster too, but all the best teachers are. He’s also a wonderful friend, and not just my friend, he wants to be friends with as many people as will have him. I talk about this in the book too and I hope others will feel like making contact with him. It’s not hard to do, all you need to do is ask but sometimes, to ask otherworld to come to you is the hardest thing imaginable. It means you have to climb out of your box. But do give it a go, ask him, make friends … it’s so very worthwhile.
PS – it took a good hour to get all the stones off the tent!
Merlin: Once and Future Wizard
This is very personal book on Merlin, about my own experiences with him throughout my life. There are journeys, adventures, how he’s got me to live in the special place I now do, and that it’s one of his places, which I didn’t know before I came here. I wrote the book in the hope to expand people’s vision of Merlin. He’s one of the most famous and charismatic figures in the British mythos and turns up all over the place, as well as the famous Arthurian connection. But he’s not just a figure from history, nor a wild myth, he’s real and always has been, and this is what I want folk to know. And anyone, everyone, can meet and become friends with him, all you have to do is ask him. Do have a read and give it a go for yourself.
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