29 Jul 2009

Inside the limestone belly of Smoo Cave

For thousands of years, a snake-like inlet has allowed the sea to dig away at one side of a limestone cliff, while a burn has licked through from the other direction. The resulting gap resembles a frozen, malformed mouth, the kind your mother used to threaten you would end up with if you kept on pulling those ridiculous faces.

Approaching Smoo Cave at ground level, the rugged ring of masonry circles only blackness. Walking inside could mean being swallowed, taken through a veil into another, decidedly more dreadful world.
The small plants that clamour over the mounds of earth just inside the entrance seem to glow, a heavy undertone of yellow pulsing through the green like a greeting card from photosynthesis. The green on the inside walls casts a different, slightly sickly radiance, reminiscent of kind of damp underworld Gollum would call home.
Deeper inside, a waterfall collapses from a hole in the roof into a dark pool. Far from a sense of gentle reprieve, you feel a desperate urge to find a small boat and head as deep as possible into the cave. It doesn’t matter that others have been before. You are sure that there is something in there, something only you will be able to glimpse.
Taking history into account, this is the perfect place to haul up with a load of contraband whisky. The ideal spot to lure an enemy, to duck inside one of the smaller inner chambers and wait, breath held in your throat, for the footsteps that will tell you when to strike. A formidable place for a brave soul to endure a solitary standoff against the devil himself, the breaking dawn striking the final blow against evil. Imagine how such a story would relay to eager ears. After all, what gruesome tongue might loll between those stony lips?
And what would it say, if that great mouth could speak? Legend has it that a 16th century highwayman had a taste for throwing his victims down the blowhole of the cave. A good rain and a strong enough tide could have washed them away to sea. Today tourists stand near where he would have, a warning sign clarifying the dim prospects gravity.
Smoo cave welcomes thousands of visitors every year. There are practical information signboards and sturdy wooden walkways. On dry days it is even the possible to hop into a dingy and be toured past the waterfall into the darkest part of the chamber.

Despite these modern realities, the long passageway that the tide follows into the cave could be the aisle up which mermaid brides swim to meet their grooms. Each full moon, a ghostly cargo ship could appear on the horizon, barrels of liquid gold ready to be unloaded. And when the clouds sweep over and the storm takes hold, there is the highwayman, held by the wind a few feet below the cliff edge, forever falling.

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