There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule,
and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.
~Leigh Hunt, 1784 – 1859
My visit to Randolphs Leap was happenstance, made on a whim after the place came up in conversation during my visit to Findhorn, a spiritual and learning community located in northeast Scotland on the Moray Firth coast. In talking with Findhorn resident Bettina Jespers, she spoke about what made this remote stretch of Scottish countryside call to her and in doing so made mention of Randolph’s Leap.
“I come from Sao Paulo, Brazil with 17 million inhabitants, so here to drive for hours and see only a cottage here, a cottage there, is an amazing experience,” she explained. “At Randolph’s Leap, there’s a lot of lichen, which shows how pure, how clean the air is, it’s quite an unspoiled area.”
“The experience that people have at Randolphs Leap is that the veil or the edge between the seen and the unseen is very thin,” she said. “There is a greater possibility of someone having an experience of the unseen realm, and encountering nature spirits, fairies, and elves, whatever–if they are open to that. I personally never have. I’ve twice had inklings but not something that I could concretely describe.”
While I’m not quite sure I believe in fairies or elves, I do have an affinity for landscapes believed to be imbued with sacred possibilities. As luck would have it, after a week of travelling by train, the next day I was being picked up guides Johanna Campbell and Gilbert Summers to begin driving west across the Highlands. They seemed a flexible and adventurous pair and readily agreed to make a detour to Randolph’s Leap before we set off westward.
After a short drive of a couple of kilometers, we turned down a country road, passing a farmer’s field where I beheld my first Highland cow with its distinctive shaggy red coat and upward-pointing horns. Gilbert recognized the pull-off for Randolph’s Leap and soon we were trudging down a well-worn path lined with birch, beech trees and evergreens, breathing in the fresh scent of pine. I noticed trees sprouting spindly branches at the base of their trunks–the growth looked like skinny arms reaching for the sky; the Germans call these stalks “Root Ghosts.” The lichen Bettina had spoken about was in abundance and we stopped to admire different varieties that flourished in the dampness—some thick and luxurious, others sparse and delicate.
“Scotland’s lichen communities are of international importance,” Johanna told me. “Lichens are good indicators of air pollution. In the 19th century, sulphur was the main air pollutant, but now nitrogen from agriculture and vehicle exhausts as well as global warming may threaten certain species of lichen in the Scotland according to Scottish Natural Heritage.”
“Lichens in Scotland were used for dyeing, first as a cottage industry and later on a larger scale,” she continued. “The tradition is still carried on by hobby crafters and some textile designers. Crottle is a member of the lichen family–the browns and fawns of the famous cloth called Harris tweed were produced from crottle. It is said these lichens are the origin of the distinctive scent of older Harris Tweed. I remember that smell from an old jacket I used to have – it did smell strange when it got damp!”
“I love knitting with various Scottish wools–and one day I may have a go at dying some wool, as I also have my great grandmother’s spinning wheel which is thought to be at least 150 years old,” she added. “I will try with onion skins and perhaps some bog myrtle but I won’t touch these fragile and beautiful lichens.”
We passed a flood stone commemorating the Moray floods of 1829 when three days and nights of rain in August caused the River Findhorn to rise by over 50 feet, with devastating results. We followed the path as it wound along a steep cliff, the sides of which were unprotected–I was both drawn and repelled by the precipice and the swollen river gushing below it. The twin sensations of fear and awe made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, proving to be as close as I got to an otherworldly encounter at Randolph’s Leap. The dark brown waters were moving fast, spilling over huge boulders into foaming pools and then raging onward. The water’s color comes from the peat in the Monadhliath Mountains from where it flows; this pure water is one of the staple ingredients in the Speyside whiskies.
Continuing on, just before a bend in the river, we reached Randolph’s Leap—a spot where the River Findhorn is squeezed through narrow rock ledges. There was a steep ladder down to the river intended for fishermen only. I had never considered the sport to come with any danger and had a newfound respect for anyone willing to brave these torrents for their catch of the day.
Near Dunphail House there stand, high above the ravine of the River Divie, the remains of an old castle. In the 14th century Dunphail Castle was held by an old warrior, Sir Alexander Cumming, who lived there with his six sons. They were a branch of the great Comyn family, which has had intimate connection with Scottish history, notably the Red Comyn, who was the rival of Robert the Bruce for the Scottish throne. With the triumph of Bruce the power of the Comyns was broken.