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  • Michael

#0055: The Stone Maids' Tale

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

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The heavy mist of the frosty morning has cleared from the low ground, and loosened its cold, wet grip on the treetops. It leaves the sun hanging low and fat in the limpid southern sky, where it grazes the top of a rocky outcrop on the northwestern shore of the Isle of Bute.

The steep, uneven slope dances between golden glow and deep shadow as sunlight pours in shining rivulets down the crevices in its craggy rock face.

It gets tangled in cobwebs gilded with silver.

It explodes in tiny flashes as it washes over heavy droplets of water hanging from the broken, copper fronds of dying bracken.

It rolls down to the ragged shore, where it crashes over slick, greasy rocks hidden beneath a thick carpet of olive coloured wrack.

And there, on the lonely, barren hillside, it comes to rest on a perfect round eye, its stony gaze cast wistfully out over the water.

Local legend tells of the Maids of Bute, the wives of fishermen lost at sea, whose patient wait for their husbands’ return lasted so long that the life drained from them and they turned to stone, biding eternity in vigil, for a homecoming never to be.

Centuries slipped by as the maids kept their silent watch, unnoticed by the outside world until the Kyles of Bute became a favoured route for the Clyde paddle steamers and, from his vantage point on the bridge, they caught the attention of the captain of the PS Inveraray Castle.

Fascinated by their appearance, he would point the stones out to passengers on the way to Tighnabruaich. But it seems that few shared the captain’s imagination so, growing increasingly frustrated that only he saw their resemblance to a pair of old women, he put a deckhand off at Tighnabruaich with a small boat, two tins of paint, and a mission to bring the maids back to life.

From that day on, the maids would gaze, unblinkingly, in red dresses and bonnets, at the passing vessels, waiting for a familiar fishing boat to return. The years sailed by as swiftly as the steamers ploughing down the West Kyle bringing with them the latest fashions, which quickly made their way onto the maids.

At first glance, the fishermen might struggle to recognise their long suffering wives now. Innumerable coats of paint have faded and cracked under the relentless assault of the elements. Baking sun, drenching rain and bitter frosts drawing a veil of patina over their grotesque, psychedelic faces, leering out from the bracken, heather and moss.

But beneath the peeling paint, the same old maids wait patiently, serenely. Unflustered by the passing of time.

This year has offered an opportunity to view the story of the maids through fresh, sympathetic eyes. For the first time in generations, every person on Earth has been brought together by a shared sense of separation.

From the places we yearn to be.

From the adventures we long to take.

From the people we care for most deeply.

Through loss, and isolation, and the darkest of moments, it’s been a long and difficult journey, and it’s not over yet.

But it will be.

The low winter sun slips behind the craggy summit of Beinn Capuill, and dusk settles over the Kyles as I bid farewell to the maids and carry home the lesson they have taught me. Whether you’re separated from your loved ones by a few kilometres or by thousands, hold strong and keep watch.

A brighter day is coming, and it will bring us together again.

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