At Culloden, the path leads to a little monument; a rough obelisk just 10 or 12 feet high. The entrance to the graves is on the left of it.
Each family has their own mass grave. They are all different sizes but similar in shape. They are long simple ovals, piled four feet high with loose stones from the hills. There is a slight overgrowth of tough grasses and gorse round the edges but it’s not invasive. Because of the lie of the land and the fact that they are different sizes, the row of graves is not straight, but follows a curve, more pronounced at the far end. Each has a rock headstone with the family name and the number of men. Our family is the first grave.
Even for Culloden, the weather was turning bad. It would neither rain nor snow nor even blow from a steady direction. We found spaces in the stones for our broom, setting them among a half dozen or so bunches already there, and anchored them in the loose cairn against the wind. We had just stepped back from doing this when two hikers appeared; walking from the far end of the row of graves.
They gave me the impression of a married couple in their thirties, hiking in the hills for an Easter break. They were certainly dressed for it. My uncle took the torch from me and put it in his other coat pocket and we stood off the path, backs to the wind, hands clasped in front of us like undertakers, watching them march towards us.
As they passed, my uncle smiled and cocked his head at them in greeting, as if to say, ‘Afternoon, fine day for a walk.’ which given the odd circumstances and his hat brim flapping in the gale, was very Uncle Charlie. They nodded back through the wind as if replying ‘Yes, a fine day, most bracing.’
“Give them a minute, then go and see if they get in that other car.”
“Whoever came up here in that car must be somewhere, go and see if it’s them.”
He moved off down to the end of the row looking for litter to pick up, as he always did. There was never any litter up here. Just once before, he had found a coke can on the path which he put it in a litter bin with great satisfaction. I went back the ten yards to the monument. It was well sheltered from the wind by a wall and I wondered about lighting a cigarette. I put my head round the entrance to look down to the carpark. The kids had gone and the hikers were putting wet cagoules and walking poles into the boot of the remaining car. I took the opportunity for a cigarette after all. I’d hardly got it lit when Charlie’s hat bobbed round the far curve of the path.
Waiting for him to come back up the line, for something to do, I scanned the other bunches of broom placed in the grave. There was one with a dried sprig of rowan complete with red berries, that caught my eye. I remembered the trees, one set in each corner of his garden, and I knew it to be Jack’s.
“It was their car.”
He took the torch out his pocket and circled our grave, shining it every now and then into the wider cracks between the big stones. I thought he was still looking for litter, perhaps cigarette ends, and thanked God that at the first sight of him coming back, I had flicked mine high into the air, to be carried off forever in the wind. He spoke to me over his shoulder.
“Are they still there?”
“Is what still there?”
“They were loading up.”
Next, he shone the light in the rough grass round the base of the pile, walking all the way round. Deciding he was happy with that, he switched the flashlight off and handed it back to me, to carry for him, - again.
He patted my shoulder.
“Let’s go, it’s bloody Baltic up here.”