The Story of the Heathery Knowes of Auchnafree

The Story of the Heathery Knowes of Auchnafree


This story is a combination of a personal encounter with a strange character on the summit of a Scottish mountain, and a friend’s superstitious beliefs that a visit from a raven was an omen of death. 

As part of my work as a police sergeant on a boat unit, I was doing a week long course on navigation at the Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde. As I plotted imaginary courses across large sea charts, countering the effects of wind and tide, my work was not made any easier by virtue of the glorious weather that afternoon. I kept looking out of the classroom window on that spectacular late summer afternoon, wishing I was climbing somewhere in the nearby mountains of the Arrochar Alps.

At 4:00pm, we packed up, and I headed for the hills. My plan was an evening assent of Scotland’s southern Ben Vorlich (there are two of them). I parked the car at Ardlui at the northern end of Loch Lomond and put my foot to the hill.

There are two tops on Ben Vorlich connected by a short ridge. I arrived at the southern top and then headed north along the ridge. Mist was rising swiftly and vertically on the updraft from Loch Sloy far below to my left. Through that curtain of mist the evening sun was sinking quickly towards the horizon. I knew I was going to have descend in darkness but I was looking forward to watching the sunset before heading back down the hill.

As I approached the northern summit I walked past a cluster a craggy rock with a cleft running through it. I had not seen anyone on my climb and as far as I was aware I had the mountain to myself. So it gave me quite a start when I spotted someone standing in the cleft amongst the rocks.

There were several odd things about this person that stopped me in my tracks. Whoever it was could not have been much more than 4 feet 8 inches in height. I am still undecided as to what gender this person was. If I had to guess, I would opt for male. But it would only be a guess.

He was wearing a coat that resembled a duffle coat. It was dingy fawn in colour and had a hood unlike anything I had seen, or have seen since. The hood was up and hiding the face of the wearer. It seemed ridiculously tall and rose to a sharp forward facing point. The overall effect was something that put me in mind of a hobgoblin or dwarf from a fairy tale.

In his hand he held what appeared to be a cardboard tube about 2 inches in diameter and about 18 inches in length. He seemed to be irritated and trying to extract something from the tube without success. I was confident that he had not heard me approach. So I guardedly said “Good evening!”. There was no response. Either he couldn’t hear me or he did not want to acknowledge me.

I tried again, “Good evening!”

Suddenly, I had this overwhelming desire to get away. It was a strange feeling, and not a nice feeling. I just needed to put some distance between this other worldly character and my self. Not quite running, I hurried along the ridge occasionally glancing back to see if I could spot him.

After covering a distance of about 300 yards I  stopped in my tracks. To my right a saw a most remarkable sight. It was my first sighting of the Brochan Specter. Hovering just above the ground in the mist was a perfectly circular rainbow, and in the centre of it, my shadow. I had never seen it’s like before. I put my arms out horizontally watching my shadow do likewise. I stood there watching my form combine with the circular rainbow to create a strange version of Leonardo de Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

And then it was gone, as suddenly as it arrived. The sun was dipping below the hills to the west and darkness would soon follow. I looked back along the ridge for any sign of the hobgoblin, but saw none. It had been an unusual evening on top of Ben Vorlich and I was more than happy to be on the way down and get back to the safety of my car.

Whilst I now know all about that rare and beautiful natural phenomenon, the Brochan Specter, I still have no explanation of who, or what, the diminutive person in the pointy duffle coat was. But that encounter came to mind one night when I was talking with a friend about superstitions. She had a total belief in the ability of crows and ravens to foretell death. A visitation from a black bird was a certain sign that someone was about to die. I took that fearful superstition and mixed it with my own spooky experience on Ben Vorlich to create the story that follows.

Whilst it is a blend of those two things, it is obviously a work of fiction. It was therefore an easy thing for me not to set it on Ben Vorlich but to move the action to a Perthshire mountain called Auchnafree. After all there are a lot more rhymes to Auchnafree than to Vorlich.


I wrote it initially as a ballad but subsequently found that it worked better as a spooky monologue.


The Heathery Knowes o’ Auchnafree

A shepherd lad set oot yin evening, his ain sweetheart all for tae see

And the path he took, it took him oot, o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

But the light that shone frae the setting sun, it glint sae bright in a raven’s ee

He was perched high up, on an auld peat hag, on the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

And the raven watched the shepherd lad, as he cam scramblin’ o’er the knowe

Wi’ his plaidie hingin’ loose around his shou’ders, and the sweat running free frae aff his brow

“Aw turn yer heid ye croakin’ hoodie, aw turn yer gaze awa frae me

For I’ve a sweetheart, who’s  waitin’ for me,  o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

Then o’er the riggin’ there cam a beggar, an auld fesh’t beggar wi eyes o’ green

And in his hand was the finest fiddle, that the shepherd lad had ever seen

“Oh Beggar! Beggar! Tak up yer fiddle, and play a tune of love tae me

As I gang aff tae see my sweetheart, o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

“I’ll play nae tune for a love-sick shepherd, tho’ mony’s the tune of love I know

For although my fiddle it is the finest, this very nicht I’ve broke my bow”

“But turn aroon ye love sick shepherd, and the broken-spectre ye will see

As the sun and mist dance aroon yer shadow, on the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

The shepherd turned to the broken-spectre, that summer’s night up on Auchnafree

But the shadow o’ a beggar’s knife, was the last thing that he e’r did see

The summer soon gave way tae autumn, then came the snaws sae cauld and white

And the raven ruffled up his auld black feathers, against the winter’s bitter bite

But when the spring came and the snaws had melt’d, o’er the knowes the raven’s flown

And he’s carried tae the auld fesh’t beggar, a shepherd’s white and weathered bone

The beggar sat doon amongst the heather, and frae this bone he’s carved a bow

And wi’ the raven perched upon his sho’der, around them baith the wind did blow

Then the beggar he’s tain up his fiddle, all in the blink o’ a raven’s ee

And he played a lament for a love-sick shepherd, ca’d “The Heathery Knowes O’ Auchnafree

He plays his fiddle as he walks the knowes, he plays in sun and mist and rain

With the raven flying close a’hint him, should ‘er he break his bow again.


Written by Duncan A. MacNab    2003

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