Prize-winning Heelun Coo

Earlier this year I entered an international travel writing contest presented by British heritage and travel magazine, REALM ( As fate would have it I was runner-up out of hundreds of entries and won a two-night stay at the luxury Auchrannie Resort and Spa on the beautiful Isle of Arran in Scotland. The magazine also published my story, along with the other winners, in its August issue.
The challenge was to recount, in 500 words or less, an experience involving a British heritage site. I called upon memory and wrote the following from our trip to Scotland in 2008.
* * *

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! –


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