Hiking up a Scottish Holy Mountain with Count Nikolai Tolstoy
A spiritual and historical expedition in Southern Scotland
I’m pretty dazzled by the strange chain of syncronicities that led to me being a part of the team that took author Ct. Nikolai Tolstoy and his wife Georgina up to Hart Fell spring in the Autumn of 2015. The 80 year old author last went up to the spring in the early 1980’s while researching his now famous book The Quest for Merlin. During my Heart of Merlin quest, I had been trying to get ahold of Count Tolstoy for months with no luck. I was successfully able to track down every other author that I wanted to interview for my research but Tolstoy had been a dead end. It seemed that no publisher or author knew how to reach him. I had found out that he lives near Oxford but that’s all the information I could get. Until I got into Scotland.
I knew that Tolstoy had given a lecture the previous summer in a small Scottish town called Moffat about Merlin’s historical connection with the region of Dumfries and Galloway. I wanted to find someone who had been to that lecture in hopes that they might be able to tell me what it was about and maybe reveal a video that someone had shot. I was having an extravagant homemade dinner with my couchsurfing host Luke and his friend Craig in Dumfries, telling them my plan. They both immediately said, “You need to meet Niamh!” (Pronounced Neve)
After dinner, Craig told me he was going to the town of Moffat the next morning and if I wanted, he would introduce me to this Druid woman Niamh that seemed to have some sort of Merlin connection. Since I needed to go to Moffat anyway, I happily accepted the ride. I had some other spots on my itinerary that I had planned to visit before Moffat but I couldn’t refuse a new Merlin connection.
The next morning we got up and left Dumfries. I had only arrived the previous evening but I had no business in the town, so I didn’t think twice about leaving before I saw anything. We were soon cruising up the motorway in a teal convertible with the top down. I giggled at the lucky luxury I was finding myself in when compared to the stone circles and sacred sites I had been hiking to in the last few months. We arrived in Moffat in front of a beautiful old house that I was later to find out was the second oldest house in Moffat.
We were greeted at the door by Niamh. She was sweet and unassuming with her simple woolen dress and cane. We had a lots of conversations about her house renovation, spiritual path, and Merlin. I asked her if she knew anything about Tolstoy and the lecture he had given. She told me that she had met Tolstoy once before but hadn’t attended his lecture. She gave me the phone number of a woman named Elizabeth Roberts who organized the previous years’ talk. I called Elizabeth but she was busy and couldn’t talk. She told me that Tolstoy was coming back to Moffat in a month and I should talk to Jan Hogarth about it. I went online and sent Jan a message and friend request on Facebook.
From there I went up to the top of the Hart Fell mountain. This was the pinnacle moment of my four month spiritual and literary quest and I was prepared for magic. I fasted exclusively on apples and water from the spring on top of the mountain for 3 days. The water is said to have magical, prophetic, and healing properties. I went into a sort of altered state on my third day of singing and praying. I had a revelation about myself and the nature of Merlin. That’s the subject of another story though…
A few phone calls on the day I met Niamh changed my whole life. Jan came and met me at the Hart Fell spring the following day and after an excited first meeting, I was invited to be part of the Environmental Arts Festival (EAFS) that was happening a few weeks later. I was completely welcomed into the world of artists and healers that live in Dumfries and I later fell in love with the town.
Jan had indeed known about Tolstoy’s return to Moffat. There was a Russian Literature conference coming up and Nikolai Tolstoy, distant cousin of the author Leo Tolstoy, was the opening speaker. On the Sunday of the conference, Jan had organized an expedition up to Hart Fell Spring for Tolstoy and his wife along with about five other locals and I.
Let me explain why all this makes sense: In the mid 80’s, Tolstoy wrote a book called The Quest for Merlin, in which he made the connection between the Scottish Merlin Lailoken legends and a little known hill and spring north of Moffat called Hart Fell. He decoded a poem called The Romance of Fergus which had surprisingly detailed instructions on how to get to Merlin’s “Black Mountain” and the spring it holds that had given the mad Merlin his sanity back. By analyzing the descriptions in the poems with the help of ordinance survey maps, he discovered the hill and the spring that would have once been in the middle of the Caledonian Forest.
I had read Tolstoy’s book the previous summer and it had a huge impact on the research for my book and my trip. I really wanted to interview Tolstoy to see what he thought about the Merlin phenomenon thirty years later, but I had given up hope since it seemed I couldn’t reach him. Fate wanted to take me the long way around, I guess. While I was doing my research in San Francisco the previous year, Jan was in Dumfries reading the exact same book that I was. As she was conceptualizing an art project for the Environmental Art Fest, she discovered the reference to the healing spring which is only 30 miles north of her house. She proceeded to create a whole project around the sacred waters of the spring. She brought in a small team of people to help her execute the project and this same team would be the people that joined Tolstoy on his return to this holy mountain.
I met Jan for the first time at Hart Fell Spring. When she got my Facebook message, she saw the connection between our artistic and spiritual journeys and rushed up to meet me. I think it was important that we met there at the spring because it was the key to our whole connection. I had always had a feeling that something important was going happen up on that hill. I knew it was going to be the focal point of the trip as soon as I had learned about it. To discover that another artist was completely obsessed with the same spot at the same time was a bit mind blowing.
A month after our initial meeting and, the day had finally arrived to meet Tolstoy. We had an incredible team of people for the momentous occasion. Besides Jan and myself, we had Daniel who was a native of Moffat and had spent his whole life exploring, hiking, and camping on those hills and is also studying Geoscience in Edinburgh. I met Daniel on Hart Fell the day after I had met Jan and we had quickly formed a deep friendship. Next, we had Siân, who had grown up in a Buddhist monastery a few miles from Hart Fell called Samye Lang. She brought the local Buddhist tradition to the expedition and also brought the knowledge that the Buddhist masters who started the monetary had identified Hart Fell as a place of spiritual power back in the 70’s. A local adventurer and friend named Ross also came with us. Ross had just gotten back from the Caribbean and shared our interest in the Arthurian legends. Finally we had David and his 13 year old uber-hiking son. David teaches a masters degree course in Literature and the Natural World in Glasgow. He brought in a scholarly perspective and a lot of good information to the days discussion.
We all met up at 10am at the community hall that sits at the bottom of Hart Fell. Our plan was to have tea with Nikolai and his wife Georgina and then accompany them on the hour long hike up the hill. After introductions and tea, we started our trek. It was a great adventure and we had lots of interesting conversations as people paired off for the hike up the trail. Occasionally, we took breaks for rest and water and the conversational pairs naturally rotated so that by the time we got to the spring, everyone had talked to everyone else and we had all gotten to know each other pretty well.
We got up to Hart Fell spring just before noon. Nikolai was the first one to enter the little man-made cave that houses the well spring. He told me that this was the first time he’d been there in nearly 30 years. His wife had never been there so she went in second and then Jan and I both squeezed in. Jan, our water master, showed us which part of the cave held the clean, drinkable water. Everyone got a chance to go in and taste the mineral rich chalybeate waters. Some of us had been there before but some hadn’t so it was a joyous occasion.
We had a picnic lunch up on the hill and took some photos. Nikolai told us some stories of the first time he had come up there and I told him some stories about how I had spent three days up there fasting on apples and spring water. I managed to get a perfect photo of Nikolai sitting in front of the crag that leads up to the mountain top. The picture is almost the exact same shot that’s on the back of his book, only this time he’s in front of the camera instead of behind it.
After spending half an hour up there collecting water and exploring the space, we headed back down. The weather had gotten cold and we could see a rain cloud in the distance. We had considered going all the way to the top of Hart Fell to see the spectacular view but the rain made us change our mind. It started raining just as we got back to the community hall at the bottom of the hill. Perfect timing. We shed our raincoats and sat down around a large table that we had prepared for the days discussions. Joining us at this point were two members of the local artists’ collective, Debs and Ruardhi, and also Jan’s friend Sheila who was a local healer and vibrational medicine maker. Debs and Sheila had both read The Quest for Merlin and were eager to talk to Nikolai about his experiences today and also back when he wrote the book. About an hour later, the deer farmer that runs the farm at the bottom of Hart Fell hill joined us and brought a lot of local knowledge about the hill and its surrounding topography. He was also kind enough to give me some of the deer antlers from his shed. The deer is very special to the Merlin Lailoken story so I have overjoyed to get antlers from Hart Fell. I gifted one to Tolstoy, who also appreciated the special significance.
We sat there drinking tea and talking for nearly four hours. Nikolai told us all about how he had discovered the Fergus poem and obtained it’s secrets, enabling him to pinpoint where Merlin’s madness-curing spring could be found. He told us about the first time he had gone up there with his cousin and how impressed he was with its beauty and its view. It was a wonderful afternoon that we all enjoyed. I was able to record most of the talks for later reference.
We then decided to take a break and relocate. Jan took Ct. Tolstoy and his wife back to their hotel in Moffat. The rest of us cleaned up the community hall and left to go meet them an hour later. After the break, we were all refreshed and ready for more. A few members of our party had departed but the core group was still there. We switched from tea to ale. Nikolai drank the last bottle of the locally made Merlin Ale that the hotel had in stock. I thought that was especially fitting.
Nikolai then read us the entire Romance of Fergus poem. It was incredible. Having just done the exact same journey that the poet describes, it was very easy for us to conjure up mental images of every part of the story. The knight in the poem starts his quest in Carlisle and heads straight north across the Scottish border into Longtown. We had started our journey that morning at Siân’s house who lives a few miles from Longtown. We had nearly done the entire journey that the poem recounts and it perfectly described what we had seen, from the old Roman road which is now the motorway that we had driven in on, to the sloping sides of Hart Fell, and the incredible view that’s possible from the top. The only thing missing from our experience is the trees that once covered the hill and the evil Black Knight demon who lived on top. I guess he must have been slain when the forest was felled hundreds of years ago.
After the reading, we chatted for a bit longer about the amazing language the poem used to describe what we all had seen and done that day. We had another round of beers and said our good-byes. It had nearly been 12 hours since we met Georgina and Nikolai at the bottom of the Hart Fell mountain. We were still feeling very charged by the dynamic conversation and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nikolai was so inspired that he went home and started working on another Merlin book. He did hint to us that he had an idea for one.
We gave hugs and our last goodbyes and departed from the Tolstoy’s. They left us with an open invitation for any of the hiking party to come visit them near Oxford. That invitation starts the final chapter of my Tolstoy adventure. A month later, on my return journey home, I made a stop at the Tolstoy residence for dinner and I was instructed to invite John and Caitlín Matthews, heavyweight Arthurian authors and scholars who I had the joy of meeting earlier in my trip. The Matthews’ also live outside of Oxford, so we all met up at the Tolstoy’s charming farm house.
Dinner that night was surreal for me. Enjoying a delicious dinner with some of the most important authors that had helped inspire my own journey into the realm of Arthurian scholarship was almost unbelievable. We had a lovely conversations about all things Merlin, literature, and book writing. The highlight of the evening was when Nikolai offered to take us into his private library. In a converted coachhouse next to their main house sits the most impressive private collection of books I’ve ever see. The library was huge and books covered every wall and even bits of the ceiling. He had a whole wall of books on Celtic studies and a smaller wall that contained nearly every important Arthurian work and translation that exists. I would love to spend a weekend in there as I finish my book. His collection was incredible and even the Matthews’ who are serious book collectors themselves where in awe.
Just before the evening ended we snapped a photo in the library to commemorate our wonderful dinner and then we departed. I eventually returned to San Francisco to write my Heart of Merlin book and Nikolai went on to publish his 2016 tome The Mysteries of Stonehenge that contains a fair amount of Merlin material in it. John continued work on his current book exploring the mysteries of the Sangreal and both Caitlín and John continue their workshops and classes on the Celtic mysteries. All in all, it was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget. Thanks Merlin!
This article was adapted from material in my book The Heart of Merlin: Landscapes of the Arthurian Legend, which is currently looking for a publisher.