We know a lot about the man who was buried in Liff’s Low but nothing about himself as a person.
As one of the artists in the “Collection of the Artists” project, I worked with children from Biggin School: the school in the village below the hill where Liff’s Low lies. Two pieces of writing came out of our session: this one: a sort of Neolithic lullaby (Liff’s Low Night Charm, separate entry) and this story of who it is that is buried in the Low
This is not a big hill, not as high as the ridges east and west of us but the liffs on the back of it catch the wind as it comes down the dale, lifting the buzzards so that there always seem to be one or two, circling, marking the edge of the hill, the edge of the wind. The ravens don’t like this and shout and squawk and harass the buzzards whenever they are feeling bold or bored but it never seems to make any difference. The buzzards are there to greet us when we climb the hill.
We come here at the end of the day. It is a good place to stop. There is a rise on the hill, like the hump of a bear’s shoulder and our Dad would stop there. It is a good place to sit and work flint, or polish bone, or fletch arrows. Or do any of those quiet-evening-before-the-light-has-gone sort of jobs. We would join him there but we always talked too much and messed around and were too noisy and we knew that our Da needed the quiet of evening to listen to other voices.
So, we stayed down here mostly where could see him up there, sitting, watching. From there, he could see us in the sheiling*. We knew that if the winters go on easing the way they are, then we would be able to stay here in the hills all the year and turn our skin and wood summer sheilings into good stone biggin and our clachan would be a clachan that would last.
Da did not just watch us, because from there he could scan the ridges of the dales. Not obvious but well-placed, he could see right up the Stone Valley and down towards the deep caves and the stone-spikes of the darkwater dale. Or he could look down to the river. There is a pool where the deer would drink and rapids where the bears fish. There is another, a long deep pool among the alders below the birch and the hazel where the beavers lodge and there’s a ford where the wolves cross. We would see them come over the skyline early in the day. Like water, they rippled through the sunrise of half-light and silhouettes. If you didn’t catch just the right moment, you would miss them but you could watch for them again at the river, grey mist slipping between one thought and the next, maybe dry grass, maybe stone, maybe wolf, you could never be sure. Their old path runs on through the Beaversford and into Wolfscote Dale and they must surely see us. They know we are here. They can smell us anyway and they will hear us. But they never bother us. We are Bear People.
We built his stone bed there on the Bear Shoulder Hill. We tucked him in with his cloak around him, his fur to keep him warm on the cold stone. Wrapped him in love and buzzard feathers. Smallest Girl and Little Boy brought flowers. We filled our most beautiful bowl with heather-mead and set it beside him. We put his travelling stone in his hand and painted life into his bones with ochre. We gave him his weapons, and his flints and the bones and teeth that speak out of the darkness. We knew we would not do well without him, so we took all that was the best of him and bound it into stone and grass and the dark space under the hill.
Now we can go back and in the quiet as the blackbird sings to the setting sun, we will hear his voice in the bird’s song and in the wind through the grass and he will tell us. Where to go. When to go. How to work flints, to shape bone, to listen to the voices in the shadows.
Without him, we do not know if Sheiling will ever become Biggin but we do know that as long as we take the long spring path past the Stone Women Dancing and the Striding Man’s Step, he will be waiting for us and his warmth and laughter and love will meet us in the high hills and here we will be safe.
* No, we don’t know what words these people would have used but a mixture of old Scots and old English words and names has the right flavour for this storyteller!
Shieling (or setts): temporary summer shelters: huts or tents often used when people took their cattle up into the hills for the summer grazing
Biggin: an old word meaning “made of stone” – implies permanence
Clachan: another old Scots word meaning a settlement – the homes of an extended family
“Beaversford” would eventually become Beresford.
You can still walk from Liff’s Low to Biggin and on to Beresford and Wolfscote Dales
Liffs Low barrow itself is on private land, but you can see it from the roadside as you drive south from Biggin along Liffs Road.