Journey Competition - Winner

Jeannie Mackenzie

A Rocking Stone, a Water Horse and a Gyrfalcon
Journey Competition


Jeannie is a retired education manager and a full time carer. Having previously published a biography and an academic book about family learning, she now enjoys writing fiction. She lives in a converted weavers’ cottage in Scotland where she creates magical tales for her grandchildren. She’s currently looking for a publisher for her first young adult novel and is working on an adult war-time novel.

A Rocking Stone, a Water Horse and a Gyrfalcon By Jeannie Mackenzie

There is a room in your house you haven’t yet explored, one that opens only in your dreams. One night you may turn a corner on the stair and find a door that beckons into the unknown. Another time you may open a hall cupboard to find a playroom resounding with the happy chatter of your unborn children. The narrow corridor you have walked along for years widens to become a sunlit artist’s studio, with your latest masterpiece drying on the easel.
It’s a familiar dream to many, and those who interpret dreams suggest it hints at unexplored possibility in our lives, the opportunities we overlook. We regard the familiar as mundane something causes us to look again. In my case it was the lockdown during the pandemic of 2020-21 that caused me to see the familiar in a new light.
When I first set out on a regular solitary walk during the lockdown, I felt imprisoned - resentful of the isolation from friends and family, annoyed at the cancellation of a walking tour in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, and irritated at not being able to explore places nearer to home - the Trossachs, the Arrochar Alps and Loch Lomondside. With gritted teeth, I set out to walk daily on a four-mile circuit of farm roads at the edge of our village. It’s known locally as The Loop. If you set off in one direction you just keep turning left at every junction, if you go the other way, you turn right. It’s impossible to be lost, and it’s unremarkable, even boring, or so I thought. For over a year, I walked it almost every day and to my grudging admiration, every circuit offered something new.
We find our motivation in odd places in these troubled times. Mine came from posting my walk on social media, illustrating it with a different photo every day.
Searching for the image of the day made me look, and when looking, wonder.
What seemed like a solitary walk was rarely without passing company, some folks walked with children, some with dogs, some in twos or larger groups and many on their own. One man had a hooded gyrfalcon resting on his right left arm, while a brace of pheasants dangled from his left. I naively took the bird for a kestrel, and was tutored for some minutes on how to train and fly a falcon, and urged not to tell anyone about the poached pheasants.
Some of these people were strangers, some neighbours who’d never exchanged more than a few words before. I suspect that all of us welcomed the passing chat, the chance to feel fully human again in the company of others. I developed a practice of admiring dogs - the sure route into a dog owner’s heart. I’d stop to pat the dog, and be rewarded by a longer conversation. I learned from one couple that their gorgeous golden retriever was a Therapet, a dog trained to bring comfort and joy to care home residents. Unemployed due to COVID, she now eased the heart of lonely walkers.
And then, there was the old man, even older than me, that I met tacking uphill in a howling blizzard, clutching his hat against the marauding wind.
‘We must be mad to be out in this weather!’ I cried as we passed, with just an edge of worry about his welfare in the cold wind and on the icy road,  ‘Ach, it’s better than no’ being here at all!’ came his robust reply.
He was right, better to be alive, alive to the fact that even a blizzard doesn’t last forever — alive to the joy as we greet old friends arriving with the ever-shifting seasons. Take that stand of larches, for example, dark and forbidding in the nakedness of winter, turning fresh and bright and green in the spring, as though the elves had sensed the longer day length and were hanging out their fairy garments to dry in the wind See how that solitary tree in the barren field slowly gains buds and then a canopy of leaves, widening out to shade the first crop of hay. Note how the ugliness of the electricity substation takes a back seat as it shrugs on its summer coat of tangled vines.
The trees change slowly, but the hedgerows are the speedy second hand of the seasonal clock — each day in spring they are carpeted with new flowers — celandine, spring beauty, wood sorrel, early purple orchid, gentians, clover, wood anemones and poor man’s peas.
In winter, the copses change character. In summer they form an unobtrusive backcloth, clustering together, occupying the odd bits of land that were too tough to plough and forming wide borders on the edges of fields. In winter they grow bold, their skeleton shapes thrusting their naked spiky arms and defiant fingers into the sky.
There is history and poetry in the names of the farms, and in the shapes of their buildings, as form follows function round half enclosed yards, labourers’ cottages and outer barns. They are named Forehouse, Wardhouse, Dampton, Law, Lawmarnock, Burntshields, Meikle Burntshields, Overton (High and Low) and best of all, Clochodrick, with its great basalt stone, a glacial erratic carried here by the ice sheet that formed this valley; the stone that in ancient times rocked one way to declare the accused witch innocent and the other way to condemn her to death.
At the top of the first steep rise, at a spot known locally as Blaeberry Mountain, there is a welcome bench dedicated to the people who lived here and loved the place. It’s tempting to sit here, out of breath, the first mile out from home, taking in a fine view across central Scotland, and munching the delicious blueberries, but just beyond the bench lies the first of many splendid bends, corners that beckon, and tempt you to go just a little further. And that is just as well, for next there are stables, fields of horses, copses where pheasants call and hen harriers patrol the gentle hillsides. In one corner, field drains create a piece of wetland, making a home for king cups, ragged robin and dragonflies.
After the stables, there is a sudden, very steep dip and an even steeper rise. It’s the turning point of the walk, when the knees buckle and the breath is labored until, with relief, an even greater height is reached and the view opens up on a different valley, On either side of the road cattle cluster round the ponds that deepen and grow shallow as the rainfall fluctuates. On still days, the reflection is so clear it’s hard to tell which are the real cattle, the right way up ones, or those that are upside down.
The route gets gradually easier, passing more farm steadings, stepping aside and holding noses as the muck spreaders pass, or scrambling up the bank when a massive combine harvester goes by. There’s a low lying pond where a pair of swans are nesting and then the last slight pull uphill, past the one-time farm house that betrays its gentrification with a plastic, life sized Friesian cow. I make a habit of stopping at the next farm to bow to the herd of placid Ayrshires with their meltingly beautiful eyelashes and thank them for the fresh bottles of milk delivered regularly to my doorstep.
The way is downhill now, on a narrow, twisting ribbon of road that cuts through the heart of the woodland of a private estate, alive with squirrels and roe deer, and bright with bluebells in May. There’s a deep, dark sinister pond in these woods that I’m sure is home to an each-uisge (a Gaelic water horse) who might vault the high stone wall to drink from the stone water trough at the roadside. I always pass here quietly, hoping not to disturb him, lest he drag me back with him, down into those gloomy depths.
At the bottom of this hill, the road skirts the estate and reaches the village. There is a plaque in the wall to a local poet and a sign on a garden gate, proclaiming that it was in this house, that first village scout troop was established. The final left turn could easily be overlooked, for it leads into a narrow wynd, past the old laundry and under outdoor stairs that lead from upper floors to hanging gardens, and finally to the centre of the village, with its welcome coffee shop and steeple. I’m home again.
I could tell you how to find this walk, maybe even walk it with you, but perhaps, just as in the dream, you have to find that door you hardly knew was there, and step out into your own familiar surroundings with an awakened sensibility and joy.

Judges Comments

Seeing through fresh eyes is a gift shared by writers and travellers alike, and Jeannie Mackenzie's 'A Rocking Stone, a Water Horse and a Gyrfalcon' – the winner of WM's Journey Competition – is life writing all about finding wonders in familiar places, if you know how to look.

As the intriguing title leads into the gloriously penned, intriguing opening paragraph, Jeannie's writing skills draw her reader immediately into her imaginative world. This piece proves that in the right hands, creative non-fiction offers as much scope for the imaginative writer as any fiction.

Jeannie creates a remarkable sense both of commonality – because everyone who reads it will recall the restrictions imposed even on local travel during the covid lockdowns – and the miracles that happen when ordinary things are seen in an out-of-the-ordinary way. Jeannie's daily walk becomes, in this telling, as eventful a journey as any expedition to far-flung places.

In a piece that has the heightened quality of a dream, Jeannie's use of detail – historical, mythical, geographical – is remarkable, as is the way she creates a sense that real and imaginative world exist in parallel, and that each are as worthy of attention. She conjures a very specific place in a way that draws together its elements and conveys all its layers of fascination. It's a beautiful piece of writing that proves the most significant journeys can take place just beyond our own front doors, if only we know how to give what at first glance seems ordinary the significance it deserves.


Runner up and shortlisted
The runner up in WM’s Journey competition was Cindy George, Coventry. You can read her story at
Also shortlisted were: Terry Baldock, Evesham, Worcs; Charlie Baudry; Dianne Bown-Wilson, Drewsteignton, Exeter; Phil Gilvin, Swindon; Patricia Griffin, Whistable, Kent; Oliver Hamlyn, Bishopsteignton, Devon; Barbara Hunt, Queensland, Australia; Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire; Julie Shackman; Milngavie, East Dumbartonshire; Martin Ross, Tonbridge, Kent; Sharon S Summervale, Bridgwater, Somerset.