Part Three: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?

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Part 3: This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: So what happened while you were in Inverness? Anything special?

OD: I don’t remember much about my time in Inverness to be honest. It was just a very grey city.  The only definite plans I had were to continue north and see where it led me. I don’t think I was very fair to Inverness because I really wanted to be in the countryside and not in a city.

EH: You really had this trip planned out in detail, didn’t you?

OD: Sort of.  But, I never knew exactly where I was going to end up.  I just followed my instincts and got my money’s worth with my BritRail pass.

Wait a minute! Now I remember why I was heading north. I had worked for a wonderful architectural firm in Philadelphia called Baker Rothschild Horn and Blyth in 1977. One of the partners, Cecil Baker, had a beautiful wife named Fairley. Fairley was Canadian but her family originally came from Scotland and she had relatives in a small village called Scourie right on the north coast of Scotland.   So, I was making my way to Scourie, which is west of Thurso. Thurso is the largest town in the far northeast of Scotland.

EH: Did you know all these towns before you went to Scotland?

OD: Of course not! I only knew that Fairley had elderly relatives in Scourie and I had told her that I would look them up.   She said that they would be happy to meet me and spend time with me. I was young and fearless and didn’t think it was odd that I would stop in to meet someone’s elderly relatives.   And I had lots of maps so that I could find my way.

EH: You are brave! And how did it all work out?

OD: Well, from Inverness I decided to take the train to Thurso. The train stopped in a small town on the northeast coast called Helmsdale. I got off the train with my backpack and looked around the town. It was interesting to me for some reason, but I don’t remember why. With my BritRail pass I could get on and off trains as often as I liked without restriction.  My approach to traveling was that if I didn’t like a town I could hop on the next train and keep traveling.

I never made advance reservations. I am the eternal optimist and never worried that I wouldn’t find someplace to spend the night—even if it was in a train station or on the train platform. In Helmsdale I missed the last train to Thurso so I ended up staying in the youth hostel there for the night.  I do remember that the weather was nasty—cold and rainy.   After looking around the town I spent the evening studying my guidebooks and Ordnance Survey maps in order to plot out my route to Scourie. It was the next morning that I overheard two young French archaeology grad students having a lively discussion and poring over their own Ordnance Survey maps planning their day of exploration on the moors looking for something called “souterrains”. Back then my French was still pretty good and I could understand most of what they were saying.

I introduced myself and asked them what exactly they were looking going out to look for. They explained all about souterrains, or earth-houses, to me and that this was part of their graduate thesis project. They were looking for lesser known, unexplored earthhouses and were going to take measurements, do map plotting, etc. I thought this sounded fascinating and asked them if I could come along. They said that I could and I could help carry the measuring equipment. In other words, I served as their pack mule. That day, out on the empty moors in northern Scotland was magical. There’s no other way to describe it.

At one point we had settled onto a small mound and were having a bite to eat when we heard bagpipes somewhere off in the distance. We never saw who was playing the bagpipes but it was one of the strangest and most magical music I had ever heard. I didn’t realize that hiking across rough moorland with no landmarks was going to be such an arduous thing to do. At one point the two grad students stopped and consulted their map. They kept looking around and said that the souterrain they were looking for had to be somewhere nearby. We spread out and searched for it. I thought it would be a well-marked site and I really had no clear idea what it was supposed to look like.

Suddenly, one of the grad students yelled out that she had found it. The other grad student and I ran over and all that there was to see was a small, squarish hole in the ground. I was amazed that this is what they were looking for. They had brought flashlights and we had to get down on our stomachs and slither into the tight, narrow, dark stone-lined passage that led down to a corbeled stone chamber. Very small.   The three of us could barely fit into it.

This was the very first time I had ever experienced anything like this. We were in an undocumented prehistoric structure and I was thrilled! We found and documented a number of souterrains on the moors.   I found it all absolutely thrilling and exciting.   When we returned to the youth hostel at the end of the day wet, cold, and tired, all I could talk about was what we had seen and done. Over our simple dinner we made for ourselves at the youth hostel they told me that if I found this little bit of archaeology exciting I should visit the Grey Cairns of Camster a bit farther north and then take the ferry over to the Orkney Islands where there was a treasure trove of archaeological sites.

EH: That’s great! So meeting these two graduate archaeology students from France made you want to see more. Did you visit these cairns?

OD: I did! From Helmsdale I continued north to Wick, right on the east coast. From Wick I had to take a bus in order to get to the Grey Cairns of Camster. For me the most memorable event was when I visited the Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness. These were the first prehistoric burial mounds that I visited. I had never seen anything like it before and my imagination was set on fire!

My plan was to continue traveling north. I still planned to find Scourie, get to John O’Groats, take the ferry over to the Orkney Island and then hitchhike across the north coast of Scotland to Cape Wrath and down the west coast to Ullapool. And from Ullapool I would take the ferry out to the Outer Hebrides.

Meeting those two young grad students literally changed my life and gave me purpose for the rest of my stay in Scotland. I now had to find and visit some very specific prehistoric sites. EH: I remember your book Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric Village! Did you write and illustrate that book because of your having gone to the Orkney Islands that year? OD:   I did. But, that book didn’t happen right away. I didn’t work on that particular book until 1985, and it was published in 1986. At this point in time I hadn’t even gone to New York City yet to try and get published. I didn’t venture to New York City until 1979.

In 1978 I was at the beginning of my love affair with Scotland and all things prehistoric.   The magic and mystery of Scotland and its isles had captured my heart as well as my imagination.

EH: How do you remember all this in the order that it happened?   I mean, it seems like you did a lot during that first trip to Scotland in 1978.

OD: [laughs] Eric, I know that to you 1978 must seem like a long, long time ago. But, to me, 1978 was the year that literally changed my life and gave me a sense of direction. Focus, if you will.

My theory is that when you experience a life changing experience you remember it in great detail. It’s like remembering your first kiss or the first real love of your life. I have always said that people come into our lives for a reason. And leave our lives for a reason. Fate meant for me to meet those two young women. I don’t think they had any idea as to how much our meeting changed my life so drastically.

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