Once, a very long time ago when the Highlands were younger and wilder, there was a crofter who lived in a remote cottage high above the head of Loch Duich. He lived with his seven daughters, and although their mother had died very young, they were happy together although they were poor and sometimes life was hard.
The daughters soon grew up and the crofter grew older. He could see that his eldest two daughters were now beautiful young women and he was sad, for they should be going out into the world, marrying and raising families of their own, but in their lonely cottage the only visitors were the deer who roamed from glen to glen.
One day the crofter saw an unusual sight, a ship on the loch, and it’s sails brought it safely to the little broken down pier at the head of the loch. The crofter went down to meet the ship and the merchant, whose ship it was, walked down the plank to meet him. He had come from a far off country where grapes grew on vines and the sun always shone and wanted to trade for whatever this land could offer.
The crofter could offer wool and tweed and carvings made from antlers at which the merchant was pleased and resolved to anchor here until the ships hold were full and in return he would leave exotic oils, fabrics and spices. He called back to the ship and two young men joined him, where he asked them to help the crofter with his goods from his cottage high above the loch. They were the merchants sons, they were tall, handsome and strong and the crofter smiled as he led the young men back to the cottage.
Sure enough, as time went by and the ship’s hold was filled, the crofters two eldest daughters fell in love with the handsome strangers from a far away land. When it came time to leave the crofter knew what was in his daughter’s hearts and he spared them the anguish of asking him or worse still, saying nothing at all. He said to them that they should go with the merchant’s sons, make lives for themselves and be happy. They were sad, but the merchant reassured them that they could return with him next year to visit, he would would need more cargo to sell at home and besides, he had a big family and would like to train them in the running of the business. Next year he would return with his five other sons.
The crofter was glad, perhaps his daughters’ future was assured, married to merchants who sailed the world seeing sights he couldn’t imagine, they would be happy and content, just as he’d promised their mother.
The ship sailed away with his two eldest daughters waving through tears of joy and sadness. “Next year!” cried the merchant, and they were gone.
The winter was hard, but the crofter and his girls worked hard and ate well using the unusual wares from the merchant and spring came again soon enough. Each morning the crofter gazed out to sea, looking for a sail but none came into view. Summer grew old and still no ship came into the loch. Perhaps the weather was bad and they’d turned back, perhaps his daughters had babies and couldn’t travel, oh that would be a joy worth a longer wait. It was these thoughts that kept spirits up as winter returned. It was hard again, and their goods from the far away land were all gone, but they looked forward, worked hard and spring came again.
Every morning the crofter looked for a sail, but no sail was even seen. Winter came again and so it was year after year and the merchants ship never returned. The crofter despaired, what had become of his daughters who had left and what would become of his daughters who remained. He was now old and so very tired. His daughters, now grown up but still young and beautiful women said nothing, they made the best of their life and loved their father and each other enough to carry on, but the crofter worried what would happen to them when he died, which he felt couldn’t be so far away. They shouldn’t have to live their lives in this barren solitude.
One morning the crofter could barely raise himself from his bed. His girls twirled around the little cottage laughing and helped him into his chair, he resolved to save them from their fate, they deserved so much more than this.
The sun was shining and the crofter found the strength to walk outside into the glen. His daughters fussed around as they always did, hanging a blanket out to dry, fetching water from the burn and as always laughing and singing.
The crofted turned away and walked down the glen. He crossed the bealach and descended into the forest, a wild place full of secrets, whispers and eyes in the darkness. He walked all day until he came upon the tiny cottage for where he’d been bound.
The old woman sat by her fire gazing into the flames and asked the crofter what he sought and the crofter told his story. The merchant was a good man, the crofter was sure he’d return when he could, but that he himself was too old and sick to watch over his daughters any more.
The old woman said that she could preserve his daughters youth and beauty, they would be as beautiful in a hundred years as they were today if it took the merchant that long to return. But would they be happy and safe pleaded the crofter, of course replied the old woman to what harm could ever befall them, I am a Cailleach, you know my powers, but you have to be sure, there will be no going back once it is done.
Then make it so said the crofter, at which the flames of the fire grew and the Cailleach ran her fingers through them whispering ancient words that only she and the spirits could understand.
It is done, your love is great and so is your sacrifice, now go. The flames died to embers and the crofter left, his heart troubled by the words the Cailleach had spoken and what he had done.
He walked through the night to reach the glen where their cottage stood and as he approached it the sun rose behind him. He didn’t recognise what he saw, there was the cottage, but he could no longer see the loch. Between the cottage and the loch now stood a chain of mountains, perfect in shape and complete in their beauty. Their shapely summits soared to the clouds, their slopes were purple with heather and burns ran in frothing white waterfalls down their sides. Five peaks hand in hand, a chain across the head of the loch gazing out to sea. The crofter knew what he’d done, the Cailleach’s spell had indeed preserved his daughters’ youth and beauty, but in the only way possible as no-one lives forever. He returned to the cottage and lived out the rest of his day in the shadow of the mountains, in the shadow of his daughters. For the Cailleach had turned the crofters five daughters into the most beautiful of mountains in the land, and to this day their beauty is preserved as they stand by the loch waiting for the day when the merchant will return with his sons to take them to a new life in a far away land. They have become legend and although their own names are long forgotten, they will forever be known as the Five Sisters of Kintail.
The story is based on a real folk tale, but this is very much my own version which I tell Holly most nights at bed time. Now I’ve written it down, hopefully I’ll be able to remember it better.