The Bodach/The Walking Stones by Mollie Hunter

1976 Target Books PB

Some more Scottish YA folk-fantasy… First published in the UK in 1970 as The Bodach, and in the US in the same year as The Walking Stones, this was then re-released in paperback in the UK under the more Earth-mysteries-friendly US title in 1976.

“Bodach” is Gaelic for “old man”, and the Bodach of the title lives in a Scottish glen, a storyteller and possessor of the Second Sight. Living close by are the Campbell family — shepherd Ian, his wife Kitty, and their ten-year-old son Donald — and one evening when the Bodach is visiting, the old man foretells that, the next day, three men will come to the valley, one with a forest on his back, one with lightning in his hand, and the third bringing death. Sure enough, the next day, three men — all called Rory — turn up. One has a sack of seeds for planting a forest, the other has the plans for a new hydro-electric dam to be built in the glen, and the third has the responsibility of turning on the dam and flooding the glen (thus bringing death to it). They offer the Campbells and the Bodach modern, new houses in the nearby town (with “electric light, hot and cold running water, an electric stove, a refrigerator and washing-machine — everything, in fact, that a modern house should have”), and while the Campbells accept (Ian is to get a new job, too, working as a forester under the first Rory), the Bodach says, politely but firmly: “you will never flood this glen until I give you leave to do so.”

1970 Blackie HB

Work progresses for two years. The day the dam is due to be turned on (by Royalty, no less), the Bodach stands as one of the crowd — but suddenly, he’s there in the glen. Knowing they can’t turn on the dam till he’s safe, men are sent to get him, but every time he’s about to be caught, he reappears somewhere else. Things continue like this till the end of the day, and the dam hasn’t been turned on. That evening, the Bodach tells the now twelve-year-old Donald why he’s using this skill of creating a “Co-Walker”, a double, in this way. There’s a circle of thirteen standing stones in the glen, and:

“Once every hundred years, they say, these stones move from their places. They walk to the river and dip their heads in it, then they go back to their places and stand fast there for another hundred years.”

The Bodach wants to see this wonderful event. But before he can, the two of them encounter a creature from the Otherworld, the Bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford, whose appearance foretells death. The old man saves the boy from becoming its victim, but only at his own expense. Now knowing he’s going to die, and so maybe not to get to see the stones walk, he asks Donald to see them, and passes on his gift of the Second Sight to the boy (which he’d always meant to do anyway). The Bodach falls ill and is taken to hospital, so Donald must use his new abilities (creating his own “Co-Walker”) to keep the dam from opening, then gets to see (I hope this isn’t a plot spoiler, as it’s in the title of the book) the stones move.

1986 Magnet Books PB

There are already connections between this book and two other Scottish YA novels I’ve covered on this blog. The Washer at the Ford appeared in Winifred Finlay’s Beadbonny Ash — though there she didn’t portend death — and The Grey Dancer was also about a glen being flooded due to the creation of a hydro-electric dam (and there was also a cyclical supernatural occurrence, too). The Walking Stones is a lighter book than either, aimed at a slightly younger audience. The threat level is low, and none of the characters is really villainous (one of the Rories is clearly tempted to flood the valley even with the Bodach in it, but is persuaded otherwise). Usually I find books aimed at pre-teens to be too light for my tastes, but The Walking Stones has a bit of an edge (with the death of the old man), plus a genuine scene of wonder and weirdness when Donald gets to see the walking of the stones. It’s an evocative and mystical moment, very nicely written, with strands of wreathing mists gathering about the stones, then becoming the long white hair and flowing beards of old men.

1998 PB from Magic Carpet Books

For Donald, the protagonist, it’s basically a tale of initiation, as he’s granted the power of Second Sight. Any modern book of this type (or even The Dark is Rising, from a few years later) would use the idea to be the first in a long series, with Donald going on to fight all sorts of Otherworld perils, but here, there’s no sense that’s going to happen. Donald, we can be sure, is going to live just as quiet a life as the Bodach did, telling tales of wonder and mystery, and providing a little Second Sight and Otherworldly wisdom to his local community. (Will it be a strange and lonely life? We’re not told, though Donald does rather sensibly express some doubts as to whether he wants the gift of the Second Sight.)

1973 PB from Harper Trophy

Like so many similar books of the era, there’s a sense of old ways — along with both their faerie dangers, and their supernatural sense of wonder — being erased by the encroachment of modern technology — with its greater ease of life, but paucity of wonders. Compared to the Bodach, we’re told, “there was no one on the television who knew stories as strange as the ones he told, or who could tell them half so well”. But Donald is handed the baton, and becomes just such a storyteller for the next generation, ensuring the old ways, wisdom, and stories aren’t quite going to die out just yet.


The Spring on the Mountain by Judy Allen

Children’s Book Club edition, art by Kay Wilson

The Spring on the Mountain, first published in 1973, was Judy Allen’s first novel. It evidently had some success because, after being published by Jonathan Cape, it was brought out by the Children’s Book Club (run by Foyles) in 1974, and then as a Puffin paperback in 1977. Like her second novel, The Stones of the Moon (which I looked at a few mewsings back), it takes some traditional YA elements (city kids spending their holidays in the country get tangled up in a mystery) and brings them in contact with early-70s concerns, such as Earth-mysteries, sacred sites, and the oppressive influence of the past.

A trio of twelve-year-olds, Emma, Michael and Peter, are spending the end of their school holidays at the cottage of Mr and Mrs Myers. Mr Myers has recently retired from a city job to live on the interest from his savings in “a large cottage in a high moorland valley”, and his wife has decided to earn a little extra (and, perhaps, stave off boredom) by taking in children for the holidays. Emma, Michael and Peter haven’t met before, and are, it seems, from quite different backgrounds (though we only learn about Peter’s, that I recall, and then only that he has a “blunt Yorkshire manner”), and at first they fail to gel. But they go for a walk, and soon get introduced to some local mysteries: there’s a lane with a sort of dark-feeling, maybe-haunted corner, and beyond that, over the moor, reached by a straight path, a single mountain that Peter instantly decides he wants to climb.

The trio are introduced to a local old woman, Mrs White, who provides some no-nonsense explanations about lingering energies and powers within the earth. For the haunted lane, there’s this:

“At some time… fear has been felt at that place, very, very strongly. No one knows what the cause of the fear was, and it doesn’t really matter. That’s gone long ago. But the emotion itself has become trapped and repeats itself in an endless cycle.”

And for the mountain, Mrs White says that its remarkably straight approach is known as:

“…Arthur’s Way. That’s because some people an exceedingly long time ago had the idea that the Holy Grail was hidden at the top and that Arthur’s knights would have come this way in search of it.”

HB from Jonathan Cape

But Mrs White, it turns out, has had her own direct experience of the strangeness of the mountain. Years ago, she climbed it and found a spring which had a magically rejuvenative effect (“I was refreshed beyond all possible expectation. I felt more alive, more awake.”), and since then she’s always meant to return and divert the spring so it joins the river flowing into the local village, so everyone can feel the benefit. She, though, has got old — or perhaps some force is preventing her from being able to climb the mountain — so when she learns Peter, Michael and Emma are interested in going up, she persuades them to have a go at finding the spring and diverting it at the source.

Michael is established early on as being a sceptic as far as earth-energies and the like go, saying “I believe what my eyes tell me” — whereupon Mrs White ridicules him for having to believe, then, that objects in the distance are smaller than those that are close by. Peter, on the other hand, is of a more mystical bent, and has already had a vision of sorts by gazing into a crystal ball (though the Myers say it’s only a fisherman’s weight). Michael thinks Peter has “no intellectual discrimination at all”. Emma, meanwhile, keeps out of the debate. (Though Peter says “You want to believe him [i.e., Michael] because it sounds safer. But really you believe me.”)

It sounds like a set-up for an interesting exploration of scepticism and belief with regards to the supernatural, but by the halfway point Peter is proved right in his belief that “There are forces on the earth, you know there are.” “Why,” he continues, “shouldn’t a sort of life-force flow in straight lines?”, and Allen is evidently on his side, as she concludes the book with an author’s note:

“There really are ancient tracks, like Arthur’s Way, all over Britain. If you would like to know more about them and about how to discover if there is such a track in your area, you will find information in The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins and The View of Atlantis by John Michell, both published by Garnstone Press, London.”

Alfred Watkins was the first to suggest the existence of “ley lines” linking ancient and modern sacred sites through a series of straight lines. The View Over Atlantis (1969), meanwhile — “the book which”, historian Ronald Hutton says “more than any other, defined and energized the earth mysteries movement” — links ley lines to UFOs and flows of earth-energies, like the lung-mei or “dragon paths” of ancient China. This, and other post-60s beliefs, led to an alternative archaeology movement throughout the 1970s, though it wasn’t till Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s Ley Lines in Question (1983) that the idea of ley-lines was subjected to more rigorous and academic interrogation, and found wanting.

None of this should detract from Allen’s book, but I have to admit I felt a slight C S Lewis-like sense that here the writer was, by making their own beliefs the justification for the fantastical elements in a story, going to skimp on giving their tale that deeper sense of reaching for the truly mysterious that a less dogmatic basis would have had.

Puffin PB, art by Jill Bennett

Michael, Peter and Emma climb the mountain, encounter some weirdness — including a Merlin-like figure called Aquarius who warns them away from diverting the spring, not because it shouldn’t be done but because it’s Mrs White’s Quest, not theirs — but the ending is a bit rushed. Why shouldn’t the kids divert the spring? Why should Mrs White be the one to do it, or attempt to do it? Why hasn’t she managed to do it? What would happen if she did? Or didn’t? These questions don’t get answered (nor the larger question of who’s deciding all this “meant to be” stuff), but we do at least glimpse the event that sparked off that haunted feeling in the lane (a hanged man, intense emotions, and a divergence in the straight track causing an energetic “whirlpool” where life-energies get trapped), thanks to Peter slipping briefly into the past.

There are similarities with other YA novels of the same era — William Mayne’s IT, for instance, with its need to rebalance some ancient boundaries in the land so as to lay a troublesome power — but Allen’s novel lacks the sense (in Mayne’s IT) of a redoubtable protagonist ultimately overcoming a supernatural difficulty in their own personal, if quirky, manner.

But I think that’s why it’s interesting to read the, as it were, second-rank offerings in a genre, just to find out what makes the top rank work. Garner, Mayne, John Gordon, and Penelope Lively bring in the supernatural but the focus is always on the characters first of all and, ultimately, the way they deal with these pervasive influences from the past, from myth, from the landscape: because, supernatural though they may be, they always tie in with the characters’ personalities and relationships, meaning they can be read without having to believe in anything but the story as a story. Allen’s, I think requires a measure of belief in earth-energies, and semi-human powers like Aquarius, who pop up to tell us that certain things are just meant to be this way or that way, but without any reason behind them. Not to believe means you can be left wondering what it was all for. (Though I am, of course, approaching these books as an adult. The top rank YA books can be re-read as an adult, less so the lesser works.)