Heelun Coo … A Scottish Mystery


A couple of years ago I entered an international travel writing contest sponsored by a British travel and history magazine. The challenge was to write in 500 words or less about an experience at a national historic site somewhere in the United Kingdom.

I grew up in London and have been back to visit the UK several times since so figured I should have at least one story to share, and to do it in 500 words or less … well, that was a challenge I relished. The possibility of winning a trip to bonny Scotland was a pleasant incentive too.

Fortunately I didn’t need to dig too deep into the memory bank to find my material.

What follows is my contest entry entitled “Heelun Coo.” I’m happy to say it was runner-up and garnered me a two-night stay for two at the lovely Auchrannie Spa and Resort on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, as well as publication in the magazine.

Fortunately we were able to append this unexpected jaunt to our already planned trip to Holland and Germany in spring 2010.

As I was unable to capture an image of the subject of my story, (and you’ll read why), I offer up these classic Scottish images instead.

In the spring, the Scottish countryside is resplendent with gorse — a thorny evergreen shrub with bright yellow flowers that emit the sweet, heady fragrance of coconut. It seemed to me, as I captured images of the Arran landscape, that the cast of light couldn’t help but be tinted by the golden glow of this prolific growing shrub.

Every time I look at an image of gorse I can still smell the coconut.

And now, here it is, my prize-winning …

Heelun Coo 

“Heelun coos? Did he just say keep an eye open for ‘heelun coos’?”

I turned to look at my partner – he just shrugged. We were on a day trip by bus from Edinburgh into the Scottish Highlands and Will, our tour guide, had an extraordinarily thick accent. What the heck was a ‘heelun coo?’

As we travelled the high roads and low roads to our ultimate destination, Glen Coe, I fixed my gaze upon the wondrously ancient rolling hills, carved into sections by low stone walls that seemed to go on forever. The fields were punctuated by myriad cotton ball lambs bouncing around their tired mothers. But I’ll be darned if I could spot the elusive ‘heelun coo.’

By the time we reached Glen Coe, Will had regaled us with epic tales of political intrigue and battles won and lost, and my mind had drifted over the rising hills picturing the murder and mayhem of centuries of tortured Scottish history. Along the way we stopped for delicious hot chocolate in Pitlochrie and a bumpy boat ride on Loch Ness. The monster proved to be as elusive as the ever mysterious ‘heelun coo!’

But it was at Glen Coe, with its dramatic landscape scooping below and towering above, that the heart of my imagination really began to beat.

Will had been preparing us for this moment the entire trip, offering up the Reader’s Digest version of the famous massacre of the sleeping Clan MacDonald by the light of a frosty moon.

“Th’ Campbells ‘old a spee…cial place in Scottish ‘istory,” he explained, and proceeded to mock spit to demonstrate the universal contempt felt for their dirty deed.

And it wasn’t that the MacDonalds were particularly saintly that made this such a heinous event. No, the Campbells had dissed “the code” of Highland hospitality by murdering their hosts in cold blood. As aptly shown by Will’s demonstration of disdain the Campbells had yet to live this moment down!

He told us that some of the MacDonalds had managed to escape that terrible night. As I sat upon a welcoming boulder and breathed in the heathered air of this storied corner of bonny Scotland I looked to the hilltops and imagined how those terrified souls might have scrambled their way to liberty on that cold February night in 1692. I wondered how far they had to go to feel safe. My ruminations were interrupted by the loping of three majestic Roe Deer through the valley floor. This led me to wonder if ‘heelun coos’ – whatever they were – had existed then too?

All too soon Will beckoned us to the bus. As we wended our way back to Edinburgh another traveller as perplexed as I finally asked the definitive question:

“What’s a heelun coo?”

Will laughed. He pointed out the bus window. As fate would have it there appeared, in that moment, our very first sighting of a mighty hairy beast with horns … the Highland cow!

Copyright Aimwell Enterprises 2012

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