Outside the porch of the kirk at Fortingall stands an ancient font. Local legend states that Coeddi himself may have used it to baptise some of the first Christians in the area when the monks of Iona founded a sister house. The present church is not an old one. It was built in 1902 to replace the much older building that was in a dilapidated state by the end of the nineteenth century, but the site itself has been a place of Christian worship for at least thirteen hundred years. The area is rich in archaeology and the nature of the sites, with stone circles, standing stones and burial mounds, suggests that the land here has been seen as sacred for at least five thousand years.
The church was rebuilt in the Arts and Crafts style to a design by William Dunn and Robert Watson, who worked with James Marjoribanks McLaren, an architect engaged to transform the village of Fortingall for the philanthropist, Sir Donald Currie. Currie (1825 – 1909) was a wealthy shipowner, who purchased much land in the area and did much to improve the lot of his tenants and their environment.
His family name features often on the stones of the cemetery, but nowhere more poignantly than on the memorial within the church. We had seen the Black Watch memorial in Aberfeldy only an hour or two before, and here, in this small, country church, we saw the mark of tragedy that touches every regiment that is called to war.
There is something very moving about seeing the cycle of life, death and renewal illustrated by fragments of history. Near the gate to the churchyard, we had seen the old bellcote from the previous church. Inside the church, we found the bell it had once held, cast in Rotterdam in 1765 by Johannes Sprecht. There is also an earlier bell, a hand-bell in the Irish style, made of bronze-coated iron. Dating back perhaps fourteen hundred years, who knows whence it came? perhaps from Iona with those very first monks to bring their form of worship to the area.
The old font at the door, like the bellcote, once stood within the church but was replaced by a new one when the kirk was rebuilt. Like human experience, the forms may change but their essence and their purpose remains constant and continues to be served.
There are many fragments of early cross-slabs from the older place of worship housed within the church too. They were found when the old church was demolished prior to reconstruction and form one of the largest collections of such fragments in the area.
Most show the beautifully intricate designs associated with what we now call the Celtic Cross… a design now repeated in the gilded embroidery of the modern altar cloths.
Everywhere in the church there are items that seem to take what has been valued in the past and carry it forward into present and future, from the old communion plate from 1740, now framed and conserved above the pulpit, to the furnishings made from the old wooden pews that were removed from the rear of the church to create a Fellowship area for the village. It is a simple and peaceful little church, yet it seemed to have a great deal to say.
Outside once more, we were greeted with sunshine breaking through the mist. The village itself may rightly be called picturesque, with its white walls and thatch, but its setting is just glorious. I would have liked to linger, but we had already spent all the time we could spare from the day. Or so we thought.
We were about to be proved wrong on that… as always seems to be the case when we try and plan sensibly. A notice in the church had mentioned Glen Lyon, known to us through dear friends who spend much time there and because of the ancient shrine high up the glen… and where we had, at one point, considered holding this particular weekend workshop in the first place. It was a crying shame we would not have time to visit, but Fortingall had so many stories to tell… and we had thought only to visit its ancient yew.
There was one final story waiting for us as we drove away from the church… a burial mound and standing stone in the field opposite the cottages. Like the church, it told a continuing tale of the old being put to use again in more modern times. Càrn na Marbh, the ‘mound of the dead’, is a Bronze Age burial cairn. For centuries, until a hundred years ago, it was the focus of the Samhain celebrations for the village. A bonefire was lit on the mound and the whole village joined hands to dance both deosil and widdershins around the flames. Youths took flaming brands and danced over them, finally leaping across the embers of the fire.
On top of the mound is a standing stone, possibly of the same age as the mound. It bears witness to the darkness brought to the village by the Black Death seven hundred years ago. It is known as Clach a’ Phlàigh, ‘the Plague Stone’ and an inscription says that the victims were, “…taken here on a sledge drawn by a white horse led by an old woman.” It is said that the village was so decimated by the plague, that she was the only one able to bury the dead.
I wondered about the message this tiny village was sharing with those who come to gaze upon its venerable tree. We are so often told not to live in the past, to let it go and move forward. I do not think that is wrong, we cannot dwell in a place or a time that no longer exists. But we can and should take the gifts and the lessons that the past has given us and carry their essence forward as a foundation for the future. Whether they teach us what to do or what not to do, they all contribute to teaching us how to live and be human. I am human and have learned from past experience the futility of resisting when we are being led. It was therefore inevitable, in spite of good intentions, that I should turn the car down the misty lane when I saw the sign pointing towards Glen Lyon…