Donald MacKinnon was dying.
The last of his bloodline, one of the last remaining members of his clan, he felt the surging thrust of death pulse into his veins as he staggered from the blood-soaked field of Drumossie Moor. The dying embers of the day’s battle, or more aptly the day’s slaughter, rang in his ears as he lurched towards the woods, blood dripping all the while from the gaping bayonet wound carved grotesquely into his flesh just above the waist.
His failing eyes, bloodshot and heavy, fixed on the collection of trees spread out before him. Soaring high above him, above the moor. To Donald they offered sanctuary. Respite. A place to reconcile. To reconcile his thoughts. His wishes. His dreams. The dreams of all the Jacobites, lifeless and extinguished, trodden beneath the boots of Cumberland’s army on that dreary and most fateful of days in April, 1746. He stumbled, one leg giving way beneath him, and fell to his knee. The bunnet he had unsuccessfully been deploying against his wound in an effort to stem the bleeding fell to the sodden ground beside him. Drenched in blood. Soaked in defeat. Pain raced through him. His body screamed at him, begged of him, to surrender to the agony. To lie down, there on the lost battlefield, there were his dreams had withered to the soil, and let death take him. To die a hero. Valiantly. With his Jacobite brothers. With his kith and kin. He allowed his other leg to give way beneath him, kneeling now by the edge of Culloden Woods. He looked up to the heavens, his eyes peering through disparate strands of filthy, unwashed hair. A flock of crows suddenly burst into the air from their perches in the upper reaches of the trees, their sudden evacuation prompted by a blast of gunfire emanating from the battlefield. They launched into the air as a collective, climbing, climbing, searing into the skies. Donald MacKinnon, clutching hold of his broadsword, heaved a tired, agonising sigh. And allowed his eyes to close.
When his eyes opened again, he found himself sprawled, face-down in the unkempt woods, amidst the towering trees, so recently and apparently outwith the bounds of his grasp. The general dreariness of the day has dissipated somewhat, the air seeming less gloomy, lighter even. He raised his head, spitting out the dead grass and dirt that accumulated on his lips. And then he remembered. His place. His condition. The battle. A thousand painful memories colliding into one another. He scrambled to his feet, turned and looked back beyond the trees to the scene of defeat. Flags, hunched and heavy upon their drooping flagpoles, still fluttered gently, silently, in the cooling breeze but it seemed, at least from his vantage point, that both armies had vacated the field. The dead would certainly still be lying there, he thought to himself solemnly, but the living looked to have departed. For the time being at least.
Donald winced as pain, less ferocious than before his spell of unconsciousness yet imbued with its own ferocity nonetheless, flared up from his wound once again. He clasped at it instinctively with both hands. The blood seemed to have clotted. But it was still a horrendous, gaping wound all the same. And one he needed to dress as soon as he could. He peered around him, his eyes weaving and darting between the pine, the spruce, the fir trees, searching for anything that could help temper the wound. And then he heard a noise. It shot through him. He froze. His blood ran cold. It could have been a branch falling. A twig snapping perhaps. A dead leaf fluttering to the ground. The work of a bird. The work of the breeze. Nature in any of its forms. Anything. No. A redcoat, he thought. It’s a redcoat. Those bastards are relentless. Cumberland wouldn’t allow for anything else. He’ll have them hunting us down. He won’t rest until each and everyone of us are laid out in a shallow grave. With this thought poisoning his mind, and with as much energy and strength as his wounded bones could muster, Donald MacKinnon ran.
He ran, lurched, staggered deeper and deeper into the woods. The trees closed in around him, their branches curling like comforting hands, enclosing him within the woods. Convinced he’d put enough distance and time between him and any potential pursuer, Donald halted, gasping for air as he leaned against the harsh, ridged bark of a colossal oak tree. He scanned his surroundings as he felt each breath thud against his rib cage. Each one burned as they exited his throat, crystalising as steam in the, once again, dank and humid air. Clear. Safe. For now at least, he thought. He pushed himself back against the base of the oak tree, preparing to shimmy down to a sitting position, when a slight flickering amidst the branches in the distance arrested his gaze. He unsheathed his broadsword, thrusting it before him in an offensive stance, and crept forward delicately. One hand always held against his wound. The soil and bracken crunched lightly beneath his feet as he advanced. Further. Further. Quietly. Timidly. Until the object of his attention edged fully into sight. Clothing. Hung from a branch and flapping in the breeze. His eyes leapt from branch to branch as he spotted another piece of clothing. And another. And another. Many items of clothing. Tens. Dozens. All hanging from an assortment of branches, of various heights and lengths, all frittering in the breeze. Donald quickly came to a realisation as his gaze was eventually drawn to the cylindrical stone structure hidden among the foliage below the branches. A clootie well. More accurately, it was St Mary’s Well. Of course. A place of pilgrimage to some, the cloth, the rags were tied to the branches as part of a ritual. One of healing, of spiritual affirmation.
Ah well, thought Donald as he continued to creep forward, they won’t miss one rag will they, surely not, as he stared down at his pulsing wound. As he reached up to one of the lower hanging rags, feeling a burning shard of pain rake against his innards as he stretched, a shadow crept into the corner of his vision. He corrected his stance, and held his weapon forward, staring toward St Mary’s Well. He saw a woman. An old, crooked woman, huddled above a bundle of clothing.
‘Excuse me, miss…’ uttered Donald tentatively.
No reply was forthcoming. The woman remained hunched over the bundle.
‘I said excuse me, miss? I’m sorry tae trouble ye…’ louder this time.
Still no acknowledgment.
‘EXCUSE ME!’ shouted Donald, as loud as his awareness of his condition and current predicament would allow.
The woman turned her head. One eye peered towards the injured Jacobite. The other eye, and the other half of her face in fact, obscured by long scraggly locks of greasy black hair, trickling down her face and settling on the lower portions of her back.
‘Ah, thank you miss,’ he gasped, happy with the eventual acknowledgement, ‘I wonder if ye could be o some assistance. I’m in a fair amount ae distress here an…’
The woman turned her head back towards the bundle of clothing. Donald felt his face flush with anger. Anger at this strange woman’s apparent ignorance. A British sympathiser possibly, he thought. In league with the Hanoverians. It’d be wise to move on. The pain from his wound urged otherwise.
‘Could I at least trouble ye for one o yer rags, miss? As ye can see I’m injured an I’ve lost a good amount ae blood an I’m in need o a…’
Again the woman turned, again one eye peered at him. Only this time her gaze seemed to throb with anger, with malevolence, piercing his already-fragile skin. An uneasiness slithered through him. He sheathed his broadsword and held his hands up in apology. An unspoken agreement passing between the two that they both should part and that he would be on his way. As she turned back toward her bundle of clothes, Donald began to shuffle forward. He cast one final rapid glance towards the silent washer woman, nonchalantly snatched a rag from the branch above him, tearing it in the process, and ran. Faster than previously. Spurred on by a hideous, blood-curdling screech that he took to be from the woman he had only just relieved of said rag. The sound, the scream, chilled his blood.
As he staggered through the trees he clumsily tied the rag around his waist as a makeshift tourniquet, stumbling to his knees on more than one occasion, finding the action nigh on impossible whilst running at speed. Hurtling through the woods once again, he felt his energy suddenly sap. Every inch of his body ached. Every blood cell burned as exhaustion took hold. Donald stumbled through a clearing in the trees and was startled by the sudden appearance of a bridge ahead of him. The combination of the sudden appearance of the bridge and his rapidly failing faculties sent Donald tumbling towards the ground only a matter of feet from the bridge. The full weight of his body, bones, broadsword, kilt and all, slammed against the ground. He let out a scream as his wound ripped against the crudely applied tourniquet. He thrust himself up onto his palms shakily, blowing the hair out of his face as he took in the scene around him. It was one of serene beauty. To his left, across the bridge, on the opposite bank, streamed a small but vibrant waterfall, gorgeously cascading down the green and vivacious hill-edge. Water, he thought. Water! The bringer of life. Of salvation. To ease my thirst. Yes. This will stay my suffering. His thoughts and eyes turned to the small arched stone bridge only a handful of feet in front of him. And then he saw him. The soldier. The redcoat. Standing on the bridge before him.
Donald took in the figure standing before him. A redcoat. A Brit. Like any other. And yet, this one seemed somewhat on the short side. Very short. Too short, in fact, would have been his guess. Too short for Cumberland’s rabble at least. Certainly in all his 39 years on the Lord’s earth, in all his time spent dedicated to the cause, dedicated to the rightful restoration of the Stuart dynasty on the throne of Scotland, Donald had never seen one as short. The soldier sneered down at the Jacobite. Arrogance framing a face that also seemed to contain a hint of utter disdain and belittlement. This soldier thought this rebel beneath him. An insect to be squatted aside. A piece of shit to be scraped off a boot and tossed into a ditch. Donald glanced from side to side, scouting for reinforcements, for any accompanying enemy soldiers. He could see none. The only sound peppering the clearing was the gentle drips of the waterfall on the opposite bank of the stream. With every reserve of strength, with every sinew of courage and effort left in his wholly-drained body, Donald MacKinnon pushed himself to his feet and unsheathed his broadsword one more time. Shaking, wavering, he held it out before him in his practiced offensive stance and awaited the redcoat’s onslaught.
But it never came.
‘C’mon!!’ growled Donald, ‘get oan wi it! Be done wi it ya bastard ye!’
But still the redcoat would not step forward. He simply stared at his counterpart, sneering, gazing at every inch of his broken and weary foe.
‘C’mon ye bastard! C’mon!’ barked Donald once again to no avail.
Eventually the soldier, sighed calmly, and began to raise his right hand. At this Donald flinched, thrusting his sword forward, but he quickly realised his opponent’s hand was not armed. He froze as he saw the redcoat’s hand slowly rise before halting by his shoulder. The hand was coated in blood. Duncan reeled, confused, anxious. Unsure of the meaning, the symbolism, the point. Baffled, frustrated, angered even by the sequence of events. So angered that he lurched forward and made a scything swing at the redcoat. One that would have surely struck the soldier down, torn him in two, left him dying there on the bridge. Had the soldier not vanished before his very eyes, of course. Donald stumbled towards the ground thanks to the fresh air swipe. He quickly rolled onto his back and kept swiping his sword, swinging the blade from side to side in anticipation of the redcoat’s post-feint move. But the soldier never appeared. He was gone. Simply gone. Heavy, thudding breaths once again shuddering against his chest, Donald pulled himself up to his feet. His head, his gaze, darted from side to side. Unconvinced by the state of affairs presented before him. This frame of mind he continued to hold for another ten minutes or so before he relented. Whether satisfied with the now-relative safety of his surroundings or resigned to the ambushed fate awaiting him, he sheathed his sword once more and continued over the narrow bridge, limping down towards the waterfall.
The dripping of the falling water grew louder with each step as he approached the edge of the bank, gradually evolving into a thundering echo. Donald unfastened his scabbard and threw it to the ground by his side, broadsword and all. He stepped closer to the waterfall, cupping his hands in anticipation, set to fill his mouth, his lungs, with life. With the cool, crisp liquid taste of respite. To quench his fiery exhaustion. He felt the first faint drops of spray dance lightly across his hard, calloused skin and then he heard a voice from behind say his name. A male voice. An old, familiar male voice. He turned.
His father, Angus MacKinnon, stood before him. Long healthy grey hair hung down either side of his face, framing the equally as grey beard jutting out from his chin. Fitted in full MacKinnon clan regalia, he stood proud, noble. His eyes shimmered in the reflection of the waterfall as he stared towards the broken, brittle figure of his son before him.
‘Donald, my boy. Some state yer in are ye no?.’
‘Father…what…how…I dinna understand…?’
‘Hush son, hush. All shall reveal itsel’ in good time.’ came the placid reply.
‘But the redcoat, there’s a sodjer here somewhere…’
‘No Donald, that wisnae a sodjer. That wis a Ly Erg. A faerie. A forewarning. For yersel. It wis…’
‘Father…yer making no sense…’
‘Look son, like I says, all will become clear. Now here…who dressed this wound,’ he gestured toward the shabbily tied tourniquet around Donald’s waist, ‘that’ll dae mare harm than good!’
‘It wis masel Father, I goat the rag fae a, well borrowed it, fae some auld bitter wife back in the wids there but…’
‘Ah…the washer woman, aye. She can be fairly, shall we say, ‘short’ wi newcomers. Dinnae mind her though…’
‘Wit…wit dae ye mean Father? Look this is…this is aw…I don’t know wit this is truth be told. All I know is you died Father. Yer deid. You died in 1715 fighting at Sheriffmuir, when I wis but a laddie…’
‘…aye Donald. That I did.’
‘Well…well then how the hell are ye here?! Noo!?’
‘Come on Donald, son. I’ll tell ye the truth o it.’ Angus stepped forward and took Donald’s hand, leading his bemused son past the bridge and toward a dark, shadowed area of the woods, ‘come on m’boy, yer Mother’s dying to see ye again after aw these years…’
As the rain started to fall of Drumossie Moor, forever thereafter immortalised as Culloden Moor, on the evening of the 16th of April, 1746, the darkness crept out from behind the mountains, casting a shadow over the lifeless bodies that lay scattered across the battleground. The dead numbering in their thousands. Several hundred yards away from the field of battle, on the edge of Culloden Woods, the body of Donald MacKinnon lay face down in the soil, a pool of blood seeping from the mortal wound above his waist. His right hand clutched onto the hilt of his broadsword. A serenity etched upon his face.