Eilean Donan

There is a painting that hangs above the fireplace in my living room. It is perched just above the thick, wooden mantelpiece, which is home to a collection of family treasures. There’s a small piece of ancient pottery from Pompeii, picked up on my parents’ honeymoon, and a handmade vase from a market in my mother’s home-town. But the painting has always been my favourite. It has watched my family for years.

The heavy mahogany frame holds hundreds of brush strokes, all masterfully executed to depict a castle. Eilean Donan. A 13th century stronghold sitting at the confluence of three lochs. Nestled in the highlands of Scotland, Eilean Donan stands, rising from the water. Its imposing silhouette seems to hold dominion as far as the eye can see. The only thing anchoring the fortress to the land is a stone footbridge.

In person, Eilean Donan seems even more commanding. My parents love the castle as our ancestors, from Clan Mackenzie, were the original owners of the Scottish stronghold. I’m not sure why I feel such an affinity for Eilean Donan. When I stood in front of it for the first time, it was like the castle spoke to me. I could feel that its crumbling stone walls held so many stories. Each crack and crevice, each doorway and windowsill, had borne witness to events I could only imagine.

I remember the feeling of complete and utter awe as I stood on the stone bridge leading to the solitary island. The first time I saw it, it knocked my breath out of my lungs and filled me with something I hadn’t felt before. I wanted to know everything. Who had stared at these walls and what had they thought? Like a daughter of Clan Mackenzie who might have snuck out of bed in the middle of the night to watch her father with admiration as he made battle plans with Robert the Bruce. Or a soldier posted at the gates, watching for any threats to his master as the Mackenzie’s feuded with their neighbours, the MacDonalds. I wanted to know who else had stood here, who else had stared out the skinny windows of the tallest tower—who else might have felt the way I felt. 

***

Scotland was always dreary. Every time I was forced to visit the highlands it was the same. It was so cold I couldn’t feel my toes and the scar on my cheek started to pinch. But I had a job to do. I had convinced a Scottish fellow to take me out on the Loch, circle the castle a few times, and let me take photographs. He agreed. He was a nice enough chap, not very talkative though. Probably used to the solitude of the rolling hills this far north. It didn’t bother me. Being a struggling artist, I couldn’t be picky about these things. 

‘Stop here, please.’ I said, and the fisherman did, slowly bringing the small tin boat to a stop. Snow had dusted the few lumps of earth that formed very small islands that scattered the water, but it was nothing compared to the way the snow clung to the curves and crevices of Eilean Donan. It was awfully beautiful, romantic even. I could see why they’d asked me to paint it.

I brought my camera up to my eye and snapped, then brought it back down again. It hung limp from the strap around my neck. There were so many angles, so many different facets of the castle that deserved to be showcased. But I’d found the perfect one.

***

It was not long after our family trip to Scotland that the painting appeared on the wall. A man with thick brown curls and a small scar on his left cheek brought it to our home in London. He was happier this time. The last time he was here, my parents gave him a photograph and told him what they wanted. He gave them a tight-lipped smile and I could see his shoulders sag a little when he realised it would require a trip north. I loved how fresh the cold felt in Scotland; maybe he didn’t.

My parents wanted to show him the crackly home video my father filmed while we were there, but he said he didn’t have time. The photograph would be enough and of course he would do his own research. After shaking their hands, he went on his way. He looked nervous.

This time, he was smiling widely as he carried the large frame through our front door. My mother switched the television to mute, interrupting my viewing of the Sydney Olympics. The painter leant the canvas against the wall and pulled off the sheet, revealing Eilean Donan. He was proud, I could tell.

My parents were so happy with the result that they paid him extra for his trouble. As he thanked them and left our home, it looked like he was almost sad to leave the painting behind. I noticed that he didn’t return the photograph my parents gave him the first time he was here. 

***

I needed a break. The so-far silent fisherman hadn’t allowed me to bring anything but my camera onboard and I really wanted a spot of tea. But fair enough to the fellow, it was a small boat. I sat down where I could find room and gazed up at the monumental structure. The sun was beginning to drop, bathing the stark white snow with streaks of orange and red.

As the sun dipped behind one of the turrets, a strong breeze of frigid air permeated through my clothes. I sat up straight. It was like the cold had jolted me awake, and by gosh, I could see exactly what I wanted to paint. The sun created a glowing outline, making Eilean Donan look even more regal. I had to snap a few more pictures.

After a while, the camera began to feel heavy in my hands. I held it up to my eye, paused, then snapped another picture. The longer I spent here, the more beautiful the castle seemed to become. The cold wasn’t so bad anymore. I lifted the camera to my eye and with one last photo, tried to capture all the elegance the castle offered.

‘Alright, I think that’s me done. We can head back now, thank you, my good sir.’ I said to the fisherman, who started up the small engine, sending the boat into motion. While I was glad to be heading back home to the warmth of my flat, I was almost sad to be leaving the castle behind. Maybe the cold was worth it.

***

Each time I look at the painting, really look at it, I notice something new. 

When the painting first arrived in our home in London, it was the way the light filtered softly over the castle. The artist made it look like Eilean Donan was standing in a perpetual glow. He had painted a sunset, but not quite. Soft oranges and yellows bathed the painting in a way that made it look magical.

In Rockhampton, it was the subtle dusting of snow he had added to the edges of the rocky walls. The white acted almost as an outline for the castle, setting it apart from the stunning setting.

In Sydney, it was the way little pockets of light reflected off the water, creating patches of shine on the small waves.

As I look at it now, in Melbourne, I see something half-tucked behind the edge of the castle, just poking out around the corner on the water. I move closer, and I realise it’s a small fishing boat with a man standing in the bow. He’s holding a camera. I smile.

Every time I walk through my living room, the painting puts me at ease. It is a comfort, a familiar piece that follows me from house to house—the one piece of our family that comes with us everywhere.  

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