In the early spring of 2016, Folklore Tapes researcher Ian Humberstone and Island Review editor Jordan Ogg left Edinburgh for the grey mountains of the Cairngorms. At Inverness, they took the road west to Glen Docherty and from there gazed across the crystalline waters of Loch Maree. Sixty-four islands decorate the loch’s surface, and hidden among them is a jewel like no other, a verdant haven brimming with enough lore to fill the library of any old Highland mansion.
Their journey is now documented in Sacred Island: The Legend and Magic of Isle Maree, a text and audio publication which is now available for pre-order. It brings together little-known Victorian sources alongside contemporary interviews, film photography and hitherto unpublished archival images. A flexi-disc (with download code) features original music inspired by the expedition, and a chemically treated patina coin completes the set.
The following extract from the booklet finds the authors and their guide reaching Isle Maree for the first time.
The waves lulled and the sunlight brightened. Isle Maree unspooled from the backcloth, an emerald jewel set in heather-hues. The island is distinguished by colour alone, a quality caused by its unique woodland, a gathering of oak, alder, beech, mountain-ash, larch, holly, and even one horse chestnut, which contrast with the Scots pine, oak and juniper of nearby shores. In the morning light that green luxuriance beckoned us like a coiling finger. We marvelled from just beyond the ebb. To catch sight of Isle Maree is like witnessing the slow dance of the aurora borealis for the first time.
Our guide, Eoghain, cut the motor and we drifted a fine, slow arc into the bay at the island’s westernmost tip. Terra Firma announced its presence with the age-old jolt of bank against prow. Mercifully, neither of us lost our footing. We had followed a breadcrumb trail to these shores, through rumour and riddle, library and archive; it was hardly the time for pratfalls. We clambered ashore, digging our boots into one of the most mysterious holy islands in the British Isles.
A short traipse along the tideline brought us to the first of Isle Maree’s cultural marvels. The wish tree emerged suddenly from the verdure, catching our eyes like a familiar face in a room full of strangers.
The tree is a withered oak, shrivelled and dry as dust. Innumerable copper coins are plated across its length, marking the rough surface with smooth ridges. The present tradition is that a coin inserted into a bough of this ancient tree entitles its depositor to a silent wish. Each coin is stained a different shade of blue by oxidation, with a hue determined by the length of its exposure to the elements. Here and there are the odd nail and pin, which bear witness to the currency of a bygone age, but today it is hard cash that prevails.
We scrutinised the dates and denominations; hundreds of coins in as many shades, like walking into the cobalt dream of a deranged numismatist. Each represents an individual visitor to Isle Maree, with a singular name, life, and innermost wish. Some have been driven in with such conviction they are bent and misshapen, and seem to flop about the trunk like Dalí’s melted pocket watches. Others have been fixed to adjacent trees due to a lack of room on the original. Wishes are clearly still in demand.
Sacred Island: The Legend and Magic of Isle Maree is available for pre-order.
All photographs are copyright of Ian Humberstone.