The Burn

It isn’t a river. It doesn’t need a name. It is The Burn, a word that means a small stream and describes it perfectly. It isn’t deep enough to be dangerous. In dry weather a child can cross it by jumping from one brown rock to the next.

Despite its short length and minimal depth it is crossed by three bridges, one on a secondary road and two on country lanes. These bridges, built over a hundred years ago to carry a horse and cart, stand up to cars, tractors and lorries. The men who built them probably couldn’t read or write but understood mathematics and engineering. They spanned the water with three arches using principles that go back to ancient Greece.

In the lowest bridge, on the quietest lane, there is an accessible arch. It can easily conceal a small girl, sitting on a dry ledge with her bare feet dangling into the cold, flowing water. The seaside, with its dangerous tides and currents, is out of bounds but I wasn’t going to come to any harm in a few inches of water. I could go alone and sit unseen by the odd person who might pass overhead on their way to check on cattle.

Bracken and other ferns grow along the bank, their curling fronds dipping into the water. School books tell me these are primitive plants, older than flowers or trees. They were here before humans or animals of any kind inhabited the earth. Those millions of years are incomprehensible to me for I can still count my own years on my fingers.

Hours are spent watching the water flow from its boggy origins to the wildness of the sea. I am always hoping to see a tiny fish but every possible sighting turns out to be a twig or a leaf. Like the sticks and little boats made from rushes I float from one side of the bridge to the other, the water carries them along until they eventually tumble over a small waterfall. It is another of my solitary haunts where I watch the water flow into a deep dark pool called Poll an Phúca.

My elderly neighbours, sitting beside an open fire, told tales of the little people. I said I didn’t believe those stories but perched above the pool I wasn’t so sure. Was there a spirit hiding in the water or among the rocks who could take the shape of a goat? My fear of seeing it is matched by my longing to have my own tale to tell.

All I ever saw was the fresh water of The Burn forced into the saltiness of Lough Swilly, where its identity is lost forever in the vast Atlantic Ocean.