#0048: Rock, Paper, Secrets
Updated: Sep 24
It’s early June, 1685, and, as the sun sets over the Kyles of Bute, three frigates head north, their full sails glowing in the evening light as they make their way past Glen Caladh and up Loch Riddon.
Moments later, the silence of the still evening is shattered by a cacophony of gunfire reverberating around the steep sided loch, as the flotilla opens fire on the small island of Eilean Dearg.
As fire rains down on the island and its small, earthen fort, its occupants, a rebel garrison under the orders of Archibald Campbell, Ninth Earl of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell, flee to the mainland and into the gathering dusk.
Almost eighteen kilometres northeast, a much smaller boat silently crosses Loch Eck. Not a stroke is wasted, nor a splash heard, as the vessel steals though the shadows, toward the western shore.
Upon landfall, its sole occupant drags the boat out of the water, rests a heavy sack on his back, and disappears into the undergrowth, starting his climb up the steep slope.
In the fading light, the hillside is a blotting board of inky shadows. The hooded figure, his stealth now crumbling under a swelling tide of panic, crashes through heather and bracken. He stumbles on rocks and slips on mud. His clothes and skin catch and snag on dense thickets of bramble.
As the hills over the eastern shore are consumed by the fiery light of sunset, he stops a moment and doubles over. His breath comes in ragged gasps from his burning chest. His back aches under the weight of his haul. His hands tremble.
But he must go on.
The legacy of the Campbells and, indeed, their very future, hangs in the balance.
And it’s all on him.
Three hundred and thirty-five years later, I find myself alone on a small beach, by an old, red boathouse on the shore of Loch Eck. I look up and I squint into the sky.
It’s late morning and, as the sun breaks through the cloud, golden light spills down the hillside in the east. It tumbles over the jagged peaks and grey, forbidding crags of the upper slopes, and crashes through the tree line, lighting up the forest like a green cloud floating over the loch.
I watch bubbles rise to the surface, forming ever-growing silver rings across water stained dark with tannins. I think of the ancient powan gliding silently beneath the surface then, as my gaze falls on a lone kayak cutting a path across the water, my mind turns to that shadowy figure crossing the loch under the cover of dusk, all those years ago. Another relic of Loch Eck’s past.
I turn away from the water and head north along a track lined with sycamore, ash and silver birch, as it hugs the pebbly western shore.
Bees flit diligently between fluffy white clouds of blossom on the brambles which run riot in the verges. The last of this years bloom promising a good crop of blackberries later in the summer.
Beyond them, the steep valley shelters the water so that it becomes a perfect mirror. I glimpse the hillside suspended upside down in the loch, caught in the reflection like flowers pressed between the pages of a book.
I step off the track.
And I head up.
What was bare hillside over three centuries ago is now alive with dense coniferous forest.
Golden sunlight filters down through low hanging branches heavy with pines needles. Beneath my feet, the gnarled fingers of tree roots claw their way out of the damp earth and run feral over its surface.
I follow a rough path as it winds its way up through the trees. It skirts around boulders bound tightly with moss. Clumps of ferns burst through an umber carpet of fallen needles, which turns dark as a heavy shadow falls over the forest floor.
As the sun slips behind a cloud, the air around me turns cold and my thoughts wander back to that lone man in the woods after sundown.
He pushes on up the hill, his load bearing down on him, growing heavier with every step. Overhead, the midsummer night sky is brushed with silver, but all around him is darkness.
I shiver at the thought.
And then, with the hillside still shrouded in gloom, the path turns a corner around a craggy outcrop, and, through the trees, I catch my first sight of what we both came here to find.
The Paper Caves.
Just a few weeks before that lone figure made his dash up the hill, the Earl of Argyll returned from exile in Holland, having fled a death sentence less than four years earlier.
But this was not to be a cordial homecoming.
Son of the First Marquis of Argyll, de facto head of Scotland's Government in his day, Argyll held considerable sway on Scotland’s political stage and, in allegiance with James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth, the eldest but illegitimate son of the late King Charles II, laid out a plan to overthrow the newly crowned King James II and VII of England and Scotland.
Passing through Orkney, Mull, Islay, Kintyre, and Bute, before landing at Eilean Dearg, Argyll was to gather troops and draw Government forces north of the border, whilst Monmouth led the rebellion in England.
With only modest support from his countrymen, however, and his estate at Inverary captured by a loyalist militia, Argyll’s chances of success began rapidly to fade.
Anticipating his imminent downfall, the Earl’s closest supporters smuggled his most valuable papers, including the titles to his estates, out of Inverary, and entrusted them with one of his most faithful servants, to be hidden in the caves, out of loyalist reach.
A crow caws overhead, snapping me back to the present day, just as the sun breaks through the cloud once more, sending pools of dappled light dancing across the forest floor.
It skitters across fronds of ferns, creating jagged black shadows on the ground beneath.
It falls on damp mounds of moss, and seams of rough quartz, making them glow like jewels set in a filigree of golden light.
It comes to rest on a jumble of rocks, stacked precariously on top of each other, and brings into sharp relief the inky black crevices peeping out from between them.
Beneath my feet, the hillside is riddled with an interconnected series of tunnels and chambers, some so tight as to be impassable, others large enough for a person to climb through, their way lit by thin shafts of light falling from cracks in the rocks above.
None of the openings I have found so far are big enough to clamber into so, instead, I call out into a small fracture in the rock face ahead of me, and hear myself distantly and half-heartedly reply.
I scramble over the rocks, climbing further up the slope.
And then I see it.
A gaping maw ripped out of the hillside, completely invisible until I’m right on top of it. At least ten metres tall, and a little more than a metre apart, the walls of the chasm, green and slick with algae and lichen, taper inward as the ground falls away toward a great obsidian slash through the rock, which leads beneath the earth, and into the eerie, silent darkness.
Argyll’s supporters were right; you could hide a world of secrets down here.
And so they did.
Down here in the darkness, the little wooden chest holding those precious papers was kept safe. Away from the harsh elements. Away from prying eyes. Away from the clutches of the loyalist militiae.
A Campbell family secret. Right here, in this cave.
A secret which would outlive Argyll himself.
I climb out of the crevasse, onto a narrow ridge carpeted with moss and clover, which ends abruptly in an overhang, to reveal the loch spread out beneath me. I search the surface until I find the lone kayak once more, then in my mind I turn the page a final time, to the failed rebellion.
On Saturday, 30th June, 1685, less than a month after the skirmish at Eilean Dearg, Archibald Campbell, Ninth Earl of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell, became the latest rebel to be executed. A warning to any tempted to champion his cause. As the blade of the Maiden fell, Argyll’s decapitated corpse went into spasm, leaping to its feet and showering the crowded onlookers with his blood. A macabre full stop on the pages of Argyll’s life.
But, thanks to the actions of his supporters, his legacy lived on.
Argyll was succeeded by his son, the Tenth Earl and First Duke of Argyll who, thanks in part to the secrets of the Paper Caves, reclaimed his late fathers estates, ensuring the future security of Clan Campbell, and another three hundred years of their history on and around the Secret Coast.
After all, around here, we know the value of keeping a secret.