The Mermaid and the Moine Thrust


Between the carpark at Inchdnadamph and the start of the Traligill Glen is a tourist marker explaining the geological significance of the area. I found these markers that dot the Highlands incredibly informative, but this one had an interesting story. In one section is spoke of geologist, Charles Lapworth whose first called attention to the dramatic Moine Thrust in Assynt back in 1882. According to the sign, Lapworth wrote about having nightmares about being “bodily caught up in the Moine Thrust” and crushed between the tectonic plates that meet near there. Now, I have an uncle who is a geologist, and for a second I tried to imagine him having nightmares about plate tectonics. It made Lapworth seem a bit hyperbolic.

I didn’t think much more of it until Eric and I were further up the trail. We walked up the trail of beside the Traligill River until the slope became super steep. There you can see what Lapworth and all the geologists who came after him saw in all its drama. The river bed runs right where the two plates meet and the sides of the valley soar above it. This is the point where you find the Uamh an Tartair (The Cave or Roaring). Further along and up one of the thrusting plates are the Inchnadamph Bone Caves. Now, I’ll admit that I am afraid of heights, and standing on the side of this glen looking down at the plates meeting and the adjoining cave mouths I could see how this would have given Lapworth nightmares, and possibly anyone else who happened along this particular spot.

Caves on the Traligill River

Caves on the Traligill River

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I was researching legends for Thrice to Thine to learn that the rock formations at Inchnadamph were locally rumored to have been made by the devil himself. I have seen a couple of versions of the legend where the Moine Thrust is concerned. But they all start with an ambitious MacLeod (No, not Eilidh). The MacLeod wanted to build a formidable castle on a peninsula jutting into Loch Assynt. We know that castle now, as Ardvreck Castle which can be seen from Inchnadamph. This MacLeod was impatient to have his castle finished and establish his dominion over the land around the loch.

Ardvreck Castle.jpg

In his impatience he made a deal with the devil, or Clootie as he is sometimes called in Scotland. Their deal was that the devil would see the MacLeod’s castle built in record time in exchange for the hand of his daughter Eimhir. Of course, no one asked Eimhir her opinion on the matter. When the day came that she was supposed to marry old Clootie, Eimhir decided that she would rather leap out of a castle window into the loch. Some versions say that she drowned, others that she turned into a mermaid. Either way, she didn’t have to marry the devil.

And the Devil was not pleased. According to legend he was so enraged that he stomped his cloven hoof into the ground with such force that it broke and created the Moine Thrust. Another version has him calling down great rocks from the heavens which smashed into the earth and made the Thrust. Either way, even before there were geologists to explain it, this formation is so dramatic that the people of the area had to create their own explanation.

When Auld Clootie heard what had happened, he was gey angry. He stomped his hoof into the ground so hard that the earth cracked from here to Skye and it drove one side under the other. It also made caves under the loch that trapped poor Eimhir. They say that when the water in the loch rises, it’s from her crying in her prison in the caves. Ye can still see that crack in the earth today along the river in Inchnadamph.
— Thrice to Thine

Naturally, I had to include that part of the legend in Thrice to Thine. Between unwanted betrothals, ancient caves, and getting crushed by unstoppable forces, it was just too perfect not to be included. You’ll find it in Chapter 23 delivered by Mrs. Baird who comes to talk with Sarah and the team from her home in Elphin.

I have no idea whether Lapworth heard that legend when he was having his nightmares about the Moine Thrust, but having seen it myself I can understand now how terrifying this meeting of plates can be.