“Stay off the cliff, now,” Mrs. Campbell warned me as I left her inn. “Try to climb that cliff and you’ll wind up on Virgin Rock.” Well, I hadn’t come to Scotland for the rock climbing. That was a peculiarly British fad. I took myself to the pub. A young man served my beer.
“Not busy,” I noted. I was his only customer.
“They’ll come in at dinner time. ‘Lunchtime’ for a Yank. My parents couldn’t afford to pay someone to tend bar for the solitary visitor, but our universities are off now, too.” I had been out of school for six years, but I let it pass. I wanted to be his peer.
“Dave,” I said.
“Brian. Are you staying with Mrs. Campbell, then?”
“Yes. She warned me off the cliff. Is there another way down to the beach.”
“A nice path not a mile north of here. She’s right about the cliff. Rocks fall off the cliff face into the water all the time, even without a climber pulling on them.”
“What are the virgin rocks she threatened me with?”
“Virgin Rock. It sticks out of the ocean under the cliff. So do many other rocks, but it’s thicker and much taller.”
“Well, you have your choice of derivations. All the other rocks are mostly covered at high tide. Never covered might translate as virgin. Then too, you can’t get a boat close to it nor reach it from the beach. And then, of course, there is the folk etymology.”
“What’s that?” The idea of a rock which nobody could reach sounded fascinating.
“Summer morning’s version: There was a girl courted by a swain. When he went to sea for a long voyage, she promised to be true to him until he returned. A local laird took a fancy to her. He pursued her until she jumped off the cliff and fell to death on that very rock. That’s the summer morning’s version. The winter evening’s version has names for the girl, the swain, and the laird. It has long speeches from all three and at least ten minutes for the chase across the top of the cliff.”
“Thanks for the drink, the directions, and the local legend.”
“Any time. Come back this evening, and -- summer or not -- you can hear other local legends from those who know them better. Some of them may even believe them more.”
I went back to my room to get my wet suit. I carried it and the breathing apparatus to the path down to the North Sea. The water began quite chilly. The water next to my body never circulated, though. As soon as it had absorbed some body heat, the chill wore away. I swan lazily back until I was near the rocks. Then the swimming was tricky, but I was more maneuverable than any boat. Tide was near high, and Virgin Rock was easily distinguished. After a few miscalculations, I found a path between the other rocks and to the landward of Virgin Rock. From there, I could climb it, even in my gear.
I turned off the air, took off the faceplate, and lay face-down on the rock. The black suit was warm in the sunlight. I’d pushed myself and still had a swim back. I rested. Indeed, I dozed.
“Did ye come back to me, Davy?” It was a woman’s voice -- or a girl’s -- soft and close. So much for no one’s ever climbed this rock before. I lay silent. The words were clear enough, for all that the accent seemed thicker than I’d heard from others. Nobody calls me “Davy,” but the correction wasn’t the most important issue. I hadn’t come back, much less come back for her. This was my first trip to the rock.
“It’s been such a long time,” she continued as if my silence had been an answer, “but I remained true to ye.” This sounded increasingly embarrassing to her when she discovered who I was. Still, it had to be done. I turned over, carefully. On a flat beach, this isn’t easy in a wet suit with air tanks; I was atop a curved rock. “No,” she said before I could see her. “Tonight.”
Sitting there, I couldn’t see her in the bright light. There didn’t seem anywhere for her to have gone. The sea was empty; the cliff face was empty. Virgin Rock was not large enough to have concealed a frog, let alone a woman. Well, it was time to get back.
This, too, was an adventure. The climb up from the beach and the walk back to the inn was a chore rather than an adventure. I ate a hearty tea -- having missed lunch (or dinner). I read until supper. After supper I went back to the pub. With the business that he had at that time, I didn’t think the landlord would feel he owed me an answer with a beer. Besides, I was pleasantly fatigued. I ordered a scotch.
“Here’s your whiskey, Yank,” he said setting my glass in front of me. I nodded to accept the correction and paid him. I sipped until he came back. Most of the others were grouped at tables, but I didn’t feel I’d be welcome at any of them. When the barkeep paused in his duties, I asked him a question.
“Brian was telling me about the legend of Virgin Rock,” I began. “Did the swain ever come back?”
“Now, that’s not something I’d know about.” He raised his voice. “Yawn, have ye heard whether Davy Campbell ever returned? Yank wants to know.”
“Well, there’s a couple of ways the story is told,” said the man I suddenly figured out was named Ian. I drained my glass.
“Two glasses of whatever Ian is drinking,” I ordered.
“Whiskey again.” He set the two glasses down, and I paid.