From Yorkshire to Cumbria, through Scotland to the Western Isles…
I hit the road after work for the first leg of what would prove to be a very long journey and one full of unexpected adventures. From my home in the south, I drove to Yorkshire to collect Stuart. Next morning, we left for Scotland, choosing, as always, a route that would avoid the oppressive and insistent clamour of motorways. It undoubtedly takes much longer, but if you are going to work with the landscape, there is no better way to begin to connect with it than by experiencing it… even if only through the windscreen of a car.
We were heading into the Highlands to attend a workshop, a joint venture with our own school and a magical Lodge. The weekend would take us to sites ranging from the ancient, to the historic, to the simply beautiful. It would be an opportunity to connect with old friends we see too seldom as well as, we hoped, enabling us to meet up with friends who live in the far north, before heading off on adventures of our own. But not all plans work out the way we have envisaged…
Passing through the Derbyshire and Yorkshire Dales, we skirted the peaks of Cumbria and, around lunchtime, paused in Penrith. One of the tyres appeared to have a slow puncture and, given the miles and terrain we were planning on covering, a dodgy tyre was the last thing we would need. The mechanic removed the tyre, duly checked it and, in spite of its previous and persistent loss of air, pronounced it to be fine. We paid the bill and resumed our journey.
The Scottish Borders flew by, with memories of previous journeys into the north coming back as we drove. It was getting late by the time we arrived at Kinross, and there was just time to stretch travel-weary legs with a wander around Loch Leven before settling for the night.
In the evening light, the loch was beautiful. It has long been protected as a nature reserve and abounds with wildlife. Its banks starred with wildflowers, its waters silver and home to many waterfowl. The squat, solid remains of Loch Leven Castle occupy one of the seven islands in the lake and it was here that Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567 and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son. A silver and ivory sceptre engraved with her name was found when the loch was partially drained in the nineteenth century. Whether it was dropped or discarded during her arrival, or when she escaped the castle with the help of her gaoler’s family, we will never know. A poignant illustration, perhaps, of how easily the trappings of worldly success can be lost.
Beside the loch, a graveyard reinforces the point, with the tombs of both the great and the small of the world weathering side by side. As with many Scottish cemeteries, the Kirkgate burial ground stands at the edge of the town and was guarded against graverobbers. Many of the tombstones are carved with skulls and bones, others bear witness to Masonic allegiances. Names, achievements and stories fade together into the shadows as memory and history replace them with newer tales.
In many ways, it was the perfect place to begin considering the weekend ahead. We would be delving into our own psyche, seeking out elements of our own nature and how we are affected by events, fears and reactions. All of which, could we but realise it, are as insignificant against the vast backdrop of history as a butterfly against the panorama of the Lomond hills.
Such considerations, however, were driven from our minds by our first encounter with a true Scottish legend… the midge. Larger than their southerly counterpart and prone to forming vast, voracious clouds, we did not linger and hurried back to the car, glad that the Highlands awaited… at a latitude where the midges do not venture.
Into the Highlands…
We had pumped up the still-deflating tyre once again before leaving Kinross. In spite of all assurances by the mechanic, there was obviously some kind of problem and the winding roads of the Highlands are unforgiving. It was to be the second day of our journey and my third behind the wheel… and I couldn’t wait to get started. I love the Highland roads.
There are only a couple of roads that snake their way through the Cairngorms and most of our journey would follow a route we had taken for a previous workshop. Although the contours of the hills were familiar, the land was as breathtakingly beautiful as if it were new-made for our eyes. We did not stop to take many photographs… we know from experience that the camera cannot capture the grandeur and presence of the landscape here, offering but a pale ghost of the reality. And some things just need to be seen and felt.
Left to my own devices, I would have dawdled on that road all day, driving from layby to layby, just watching the ever-changing land as it played with the clouds. As it was, we were on our way to Grantown-on-Spey for a workshop weekend and we had a deadline to meet. Even so, between the majesty of the hills and the soaring wings of a lone eagle, there was a lot of squeaking coming from the driver’s seat…
As things turned out, and largely because I had reined in my desire to meander, we arrived in the area earlier than expected. There was just time to pay a short visit to Elgin, about forty miles east of Inverness and around the same distance from our destination. We had passed that way once before and been unable to stop, so this was our chance to pay a flying visit to the cathedral…but not before being waylaid by the Biblical Garden.
The garden opened in 2006 and grew from an idea put forward by Donald McBean, a Senior Horticultural Officer with the local council.
Nestling close to the medieval cathedral, it contains well over a hundred of the plants mentioned within the books of the Bible, along with statuary and artwork to illustrate biblical verses.
From the shackled Samson bringing down the pillars of the Temple, to the Shepherd seeking a lost sheep, many familiar stories are illustrated in art, trees and flowers.
There was even Noah’s rainbow… the first of so many we would see over the following days and a very familiar sight since we had worked with the rainbow colours and the story of the Flood at the April workshop, Lord of the Deep.
Getting so easily sidetracked left us even less time to see the ruined cathedral, but it was enough to be able to pay our respects to the remains of a building first established in 1224 to replace the smaller, earlier cathedral at Spynie.
The land for the new cathedral was a gift from King Alexander II and, by 1242 it was important enough to support twenty-three canons who cared for its congregation.
The building was devastated by fire less than thirty years later and the opportunity was taken during the rebuilding to enlarge it still further, including the addition of the octagonal Chapter House, which still stands, almost whole, amid the ruins.
The cathedral suffered major damage from the flames throughout its history. In in 1390 the Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan and brother to the king, fired the building. Just twelve years later, the Lord of the Isles again set the cathedral burning.
In spite of its violent story, the cathedral remained in use until the Scottish Reformation. In 1560 services were transferred to St Giles’ church and the ornate and beautiful building was left to decay.
Many details remain, from the remnants of delicate tracery and graceful arches to the detailed carving held frozen in time. It takes little to rebuild the towers in imagination, reinstating its erstwhile glory.
Within the nave, the effigies of bishops and knights still sleep and ancient symbols are carved in stone, but we did not pass the gates on this visit.
The once great cathedral is no more than a shell, holding the echoes of memories. In spite of its beauty, there is a sadness in its decay. The prejudice of factions warring within a single core belief wrote its history and, as with all things discarded by humankind, Nature began to take back her own.
Seven years after the cathedral was abandoned in favour of the parish church, the lead was removed from the roof, assuring the building’s demise. In 1637, a storm severely damaged the remnants of the roof and in 1711, the steeple collapsed. It was not until the nineteenth century that work was begun to conserve what remained for future generations.
The cathedral was once surrounded by the homes of the clergy and officials of the church. Few of these now remain, though one gate in the curtain wall of the precinct and the precentor’s manse survive.
We sat for a while in the sun before the ghost of the great rose window. For us, it was a brief pause on a long journey… time to catch our breath and stretch our legs before the start of the workshop weekend. Such a long history deserves more than that, perhaps, but it was all we had to give.
Our next stop would be Grantown-on-Spey, a reunion with old friends and the opening of a magical doorway to the inner realms of heart and mind. We had no idea what the weekend would bring… and even less idea about what would happen after that. Sometimes, you just have to wait and see…
Dusk in the kirkyard…
We gathered for the first evening of the weekend workshop. On the banks of the River Spey, we were introduced to some of the concepts we would be working with over the weekend before we were led into Inverallan burial ground. It is an interesting place in its own right, with a fair amount of history and home, as we would soon find out, to a voluble, nesting oyster-catcher.
There is no longer a church at the cemetery, although one was recorded on the site as far back as 1230. It is believed to have been dedicated to St Futach, an Irish saint whose name is derived from ‘fiachra’ which means, appropriately enough, ‘raven’ and which can be found in the ancient Irish tales like that of the Children of Lir.
The walls of the lost church were uncovered and destroyed in 1888, when the graveyard was being extended and no trace now remains of them… though there are clues to be discovered that a kirk once stood there and who knows how much further back the site was held in reverence.
An upright stone, known as the Priest’s Stone, bears a simple, incised Roman cross on both its faces. The stone on the Canmore photograph, looks like a gravestone, or even a standing stone, and it would not be the first time we have seen a pagan stone ‘rebranded’ and ‘purified’ for Christian use. There was also an ancient holy well on the site too… and a huge stone basin that was, we are officially told, ‘probably’ a baptismal font.
Is it pure speculation to wonder whether the sanctity of the site might pre-date Christianity? Not entirely… the well, the ‘raven’ and the basin would be enough to raise possible questions, and the presence of a weathered, Pictish symbol stone, found when the walls of the kirk were uncovered, confirms that the site was seen as important.
Pictish symbol stones are generally dated as being carved between the sixth and ninth centuries, with the earlier ones bearing no Cross, while the later ones may be Christianised. The meaning and purpose of the symbols remains a subject of debate, but the worn designs were familiar as we had met them before at a previous workshop in Scotland.
The Inverallan stone is a very early one, bearing an undecorated crescent, V-rod, two-legged rectangle and Z-rod. It was, principally, for the V-rod that overlays the lunar crescent that we had congregated in the graveyard. Its angle relates both to the movements of the planets and to the internal angle of the pentagram, a symbol we would be using during a personal and psychological exploration throughout the weekend.
While Dean explained how this journey would be undertaken, using a magical symbol, Steve explained why the pentagram is such a perfect symbol to use when seeking inner harmony. Many minds will glaze over at the mere thought of mathematics, but there is more to the subject than ’just’ the numbers and Steve gave a very clear explanation of how mathematics can illustrate the cosmic and natural laws that apply equally to a flower, a universe or a human being.
We would also be working with the symbol of the Unicorn… the spirit animal of Scotland. There are many interpretations of the symbolism of the unicorn, some obvious, some perhaps less so. From its single-pointed horn, to its associations with innocence and purity, to its place at the heart of the magical menagerie, it is a symbol worth contemplating in meditation and one we have used before for a similar purpose but in a different way from the one that was planned for this workshop. The Unicorn too was a perfect choice of symbol.
But, perfect or not, we can only imagine what it might have looked like had anyone come into the graveyard to find five large pentagrams being laid out on the ground in rainbow-coloured ribbons as daylight began to fade…
“Upon the earth…”
Our morning began with an early meditation upon the hillside, turning our attention to the light, both in literal and symbolic terms. It was a moment to drink in the beauty of the land as a ‘false dawn’ opened a window in the clouds and we placed the work of the weekend under the aegis of Spirit. Each of us brings our own peculiar interpretation to that word and concept… and that is how it should be; the relationship between each of us and whatever we conceive of as spirit, divinity or a guiding presence is both unique and personal.
In simple rituals and in spite of a multitude of perspectives, we can set differences easily aside, colouring the symbols we use with our own interpretations in order to work together towards a common goal. That is one of the ever-present joys of such workshop weekends. We were using a five-pointed star, but there is always a hidden point to any symbol and, magically, that always operates on a different level to the symbol itself. The opalescent horn of the Unicorn would be both the guardian of the threshold and would point the way for us.
Having established the Unicorn as a symbol of Spirit the night before, we were about to begin a more personal journey into the elements of our own nature. Using imagination, knowledge, memory and the senses, we would map that journey onto the five points of the pentagram. Dean had carefully chosen passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to illustrate the psychological aspects of the elements as they are played out within the human psyche. He had chosen stones with different colours, patterns and textures to represent the physical elements with which we would weight down the ribbon paths we were to walk around the pentagram and chosen sites for us to visit that reflected the elemental principles too. In other words, he had tied the journey together beautifully on all levels.
Our next stop would be Duffus Castle, built around 1140 and abandoned in the eighteenth century. But the visit was not about the details of its construction and historical ownership, but was to take a more personal perspective.
The castle is surrounded by the remains of a moat, now a pure, clear stream, teeming with wildflowers and small creatures. It was here that we began to get an inkling of Dean’s deep love and knowledge of the natural environment of his adoptive home, much of which he would share with us over the weekend. It is a very beautiful site, an island in a green land. Rising from the Laich of Moray, it dominates the landscape and, from a distance, seems to epitomise our idea of a ‘proper’ castle.
The mound upon which the fortifications are built is imposing. Both the motte that holds the castle keep and the bailey… the lower enclosure that once protected the stables, people and day-to-day practicalities of castle life… are intact.
It is only as you come closer that you see that the castle has not only suffered the depredations of time, but is gradually slipping down the slope of the motte to be swallowed by the hill. Windows have broken, whole sections of the structure seem to be sailing away. It is almost as if the most solid-looking part of the castle is the most fragile… and what a good analogy for our own masks that might be.
It has a very different ‘feel’ from its Norman counterparts in England. So often these were built by the conquerors on sites already important to the community, thus both wresting position and imposing authority on the land and its people in one fell swoop. There is a lot of research ongoing at the moment, looking into the age of motte and bailey-type earthworks that were once Norman castles… and had, we now know, sometimes origins and uses of a much earlier date.
Here though, the castle mound was purpose-built. There was none of the underlying trauma or conflict felt at many other such sites. Sadly, though, it may be this very fact that has proven to be its downfall; the ancients were pretty good at building earthworks. Apparently, the castle-builders had needed to learn a bit more about foundations…
And that carried us neatly into the next part of our work, for the foundations of our own personalities need to be firmly built and deeply rooted before we can build upon them.
We were looking at ourselves from a magical perspective and the spiritual journey of each of us has to start somewhere. We all start at the beginning, knowing nothing, and build gradually from that point. How you build will determine how you will develop.
Most of us start by devouring information… books, articles, courses… whatever we can find, like newly-hatched chicks in need of nourishment. Some will believe that is enough and will construct an impressive-looking façade from what they have learned. You can carry on adding knowledge for decades… but unless you do the ‘spade-work’, the spiritual edifice you are building will one day crumble and swallow itself.
You may even find that, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘power’ you think you have attained demands more and more of you in order to maintain its illusion. The real ‘spade-work’ of a spiritual system tends to include getting to know yourself… and that may mean digging into areas of the mind, heart and memory that can be as unpleasant as a blocked sewer.
It also means finding ways to put into practice what you have learned. That’s where this type of workshop can be useful. The written word can only teach knowledge and report experience… it cannot teach understanding, though it may show a way towards it.
But maybe, too, this broken castle might symbolise the freedom that comes when we can cast down the walls behind which we so often feel the need to hide, opening ourselves to light and life. Either way, it was a great place to start our day.
“…and under the earth…”
Sharp tang of woodsmoke, tall shadows climb stone walls, reflected flames dance in a black pool. Deep in the belly of earth, the symbols of the rite painted on pale skin, I wait as the torches come…
I could not say where or when the scene unfolded, nor what was the rite, only that to find yourself unexpectedly standing in a landscape familiar from an old, recurring dream is very strange. The soft echoes of the chamber brought back one missing detail.
“We need to chant…”
We had arrived in Burghead knowing that we would take a look at an ancient fort and a holy well. For once, that was about the limit of my knowledge. We had been given a detailed itinerary, but I had deliberately not researched any of the places on the list. As I was not one of those responsible for guiding the weekend, I would be able to come at each site fresh and free from preconceptions.
Burghead has all the solidity and cleanliness typical of the area, but although most of the town has stood for just a couple of centuries, its history goes back into the earliest of times. At low tide, you can still see the peat beds and remains of trees that stood, where the sea now flows, some seven thousand years ago. The earthworks of the Pictish fort were unmistakeable as soon as we had parked… and incredibly well sited on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by the sea. But, when the Picts first came to the area and began work on the earliest phase of the ‘promontory fort’, the promontory had become an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of sea.
Was the site of the new fort first chosen simply for defensive reasons, which is entirely possible, or was there some deeper significance for the choice? So many times we have seen the lands of the living and the lands of the dead… the landscape of ritual… divided by water. There is even the old magical tradition that flowing water contains or prevents the passage of otherworldly beings and forces to strengthen the idea. Maybe there was more than just tactical planning by the founders?
Most of the fort was buried beneath the new town in the nineteenth century, but radiocarbon dating has shown the site was already occupied as far back as the third century. At the height of its strength, the fort had walls up to twenty feet high and twenty-six feet thick, dotted with around thirty Bull carvings, only six of which have as yet been located.
Was the Bull the symbol of the tribe, its spirit animal… or both? Is it an earth-bull, association with strength and fertility, or one of the mythical water-bulls of Scottish folklore, who were shapeshifters and could not be killed by drowning?
The information boards at the holy well spoke of executions by drowning, such as that of Talorgen, son of the king of Atholl in 739, could not resist the idea of possible beheadings and mentioned the Celtic carved head found there as being a ritual object such as we see at so many ancient wells. Bearing in mind that the well would once have stood within the walls of a fort surrounded by sea, I would not have thought that contaminating a source of drinking water with messy executions would have been the norm. Not with the sea below the walls.
On the other hand, having a shrine to water deities within the fort, to whom appeals and offerings might be made and where rituals might take place, that does make sense. The idea that the Picts saw ritual significance in both caves and water is reinforced at a site not far away.
In a nearby cliff, the walls of the Sculptor’s Cave are decorated, curiously enough, with pentagrams and other Pictish symbols. Deep within the cave, many human bones were found. Some were cut through the neck as if deliberately decapitated. Others show clear evidence of having been deliberately defleshed. Some heads, mainly those of adolescents, appear to have been placed around the entrance to the cavern.
The majority of reports focus on the apparent brutality, sensationalising ghastly rituals and barbaric sacrifices. One, rather more considered report is that of ScARF, the Scottish Archaeological Framework, who suggest that the caves would have been a liminal place, between land and sea, where “rites of passage – transforming children to adults or the living to the dead – may have taken place” and where it was thought that you could reach out to “the gods or spirits of the underworld”. We know that bones held meaning for our ancestors and that the cleaning of the bones for burial was seen as a respectful funerary rite. We also know that initiatory rites of passage, such as that marking the transition from child to warrior, priest or shaman, often held an element of real risk. What we do not know is the story behind the bones in the cave and it seems unfair to paint their people as barbaric, by our standards, without that knowledge.
That the ritual significance of water persisted into the Christian era we also know, with baptism forming the central rite of all who embraced that religion. There is another well in Burghead, dedicated to St Aidan… a name we have come across many times before on our travels… where the water is still clear and vessels are still provided for travellers… and their dogs. This is not something we have come across before in this health-and-safety dominated age… but oddly, it was not the last time we would see a holy and healing well still in service on this trip.
But the rock-cut well before us was unlike anything we had ever seen outside of dream. It felt forlorn, forgotten… but the spirit of place was not without power. Had it been a baptismal chamber? Quite possibly, with its steps leading down into the clear water and its ledge, either seat or walkway, running around the outside. Had it been used for Christian baptisms, like many another holy well that predates Christianity? Probably… but only later in its history.
The well reminded me of a painting I made many years ago, trying to catch the essence of a fleeting dream, with the shaft of light illuminating a priestess who stands within a well, her robe floating around her on the water. It was not a good painting, but I saved it and called it Chalice… for when I inverted the colours and the image, the priestess became the stem of a grail-like cup.
And it was dream that brought me to ask for the chant. We gathered once again at the entrance to the chamber. With a health issue, my own voice was meagre, so I was able to listen and feel the growing resonance as we filled the chamber with sound, cleansing, illuminating, reverberating… and, at the last, lifted to the sublime by the voice of a tawny-haired priestess whose favourite robe is red.
It was a quieter company that walked along the earthworks to stand looking out across the sea, the mood only lightening when we found a complete ‘fairy ring’ of toadstools on the way back to the car. There was once more visit before lunch… down to the shore in ritual mode, to once more walk our pentagrams. The tide had come in, as if sea had come close to watch and, after the well, there was a rightness in that.
“…of whirling air and of rushing fire…”
The first stop of the afternoon was a familiar one; we had made a point of visiting the magnificent Sueno Stone on our last trip to the area. It is the tallest carved Pictish stone in Scotland and shows scenes of war and conquest… with the usual Pictish wholesale hacking off of heads. In this case, not one of our pet theories about the symbolic ‘removing the head’ psychologically in order to access the higher self, but the more graphic depiction of the slaughter and decapitation of the conquered. Not for nothing is Sueno’s Stone also known as the Battle Stone.
The Battle Stone is also one of the places reputed to be where Macbeth met the witches at the crossroads. Behind it, on Cluny Hill, is Nelson’s Tower, commemorating a sea battle from a later time… the Admiral’s victory at Trafalgar. But the hill is better known for a darker period in its history, when it was the site of the examination of witches.
During the witch trials that would execute an estimated fifteen hundred midwives, healers and herbalists in Scotland for being ‘in league with the devil’, those accused of witchcraft in Forres were deprived of sleep for three days and nights until they were vulnerable and would confess (a little odd, given what was to come…). One they had done so, they were put to death by packing them, still living, into spike-lined barrels and rolling them down Cluny Hill. Where the barrels came to rest, they were burned… a grisly echo of the Burning of the Clavie.
When the Macbeth witches were reputedly burned in this way, stones marked the spot of their incineration. One of these stones, split into three and stapled together again, still sits directly outside Forres police station. Local legend says the stone was once broken up and used for building a house in which all the occupants fell ill. The house was demolished and the stone returned, such was the superstitious fear in which witchcraft was still held. It didn’t bode well for our pentagrams… but not all things are what they may seem.
A brief comfort break at Logie Steading allowed us to walk through the gardens where rhododendrons line the paths. Beautiful as they are, one species is becoming a ‘weed’ in the woodlands, suppressing the habitat of native wildlife. Then it was on to our next symbolic location.
A green lane led us onto a viaduct, where the element of air was perfectly symbolised. Air beneath us, wind farms harvesting its power on the horizon, wind catching hair and garments as we worked… so much so that the ribbons were abandoned. Instead, we marked out the pentagrams with stone, conscious that any walkers or bikers would be looking askance and glad the witchcraft laws were no longer enforced…
It was a perfect choice for the element of air, but as far as I was concerned, at least, the best location of the afternoon was the last. Dean had found a ‘blasted heath’… a stretch of moorland where the heather had been burned, presumably as part of its management. Here we had a fabulous rendition of another scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, illustrating the elements as psychological components. But it was the land itself that got to me…
A narrow, silver river snaked below us, flowing through a loch that mirrored the sky, holding Lochindorb Castle on a man-made island at its heart. Tiny wildflowers starred the earth, great banks of sweet-scented golden gorse and the purple of early heather promising summer magic… and in the distance, mountains. I would have happily stayed there much longer.
But, with evening drawing in and a table booked for dinner, there was just enough time to take the ’long’ way back to Grantown, traversing the most beautiful of roads across the moors and between the hills… touching the heart of the deepest enchantment of all.
The Fairy Circle
Sunday morning already… the weekend was slipping by incredibly fast, but we knew Dean had a lot planned for the final morning of the workshop. Our day began by packing the car, necessarily skipping breakfast… which was to prove a bit disastrous as things turned out… and re-inflating the dodgy tyre yet again. It was definitely getting worse, but it was still manageable as long as we had access to an air pump. There was no prospect of getting it dealt with on a Scottish Sunday so far from a large town anyway.
But all practical considerations would fade away as we drove to our rendezvous at Dean’s home in Glenlivet. The morning was beautiful, the landscape incredible with wide valleys fringed with the blue of snow-kissed mountains. We glimpsed rabbits, deer and scurrying weasels and, quite magically, there were huge hares on the road.
While hares may well be a common sight in that area, for us they are a real and exciting rarity and we saw three… as many in a few minutes as we have seen in all our travels together. Hares are symbolically associated with the moon, as are many of Scotland’s ancient sites… and with the realms of the Fae. They represent rebirth and regeneration and, in our experience, they always herald something special.
We would have to wait and see… and had not long to wait. Our first stop was a place close to Dean’s home, with a name that sounds as beautiful as the site proved to be… the Doune of Dalmore. We parked beneath the hill that leads up to Drumin Castle, where we would be heading next, crossed the whisky-coloured river, where, to my delight, we found healthy elm trees, and walked into wonderland.
A mound rises up from a ridge at the top of the field… an emerald carpet scattered with white flowers, pale rocks and the silvery bark of the trees. It seems to be a man-made structure but, ‘Doune’ means ‘fort’ and that’s what it looks like, a fairy fort. It is what it feels like too… a magical place.
Close by is the stone circle, with four remaining standing stones surrounding a ruined cairn of the Clava type, like the amazing structures we had seen on our last trip to the area and Clava Cairns.
The rocks that scatter the base of the hillock wear strange shapes and seem to be arranged in patterns, as if, did we but have the key, they would still speak for us with stories that have slept there for millennia.
We were here, though, to work, not wander off exploring… which I think we would all have been happy to do had we had the time to spare. It was the most beautiful of places.
Unfurling our ribbons and stones once again, we contemplated yet another aspect of the magical personality. As we worked, we were watched… a young deer patrolling the fences, though whether we were being guarded or guarded against, we will never know.
Some places have a ‘rightness’ to them that is impossible to explain. Across the river, the medieval walls of Drumin Castle looked almost complete above the trees. You could have been centuries ago, just looking at them… and yet, they were insubstantial, ephemeral, against the ancient spirit of this sacred hill.
In itself, that was another beautiful illustration of how well and how much the land itself can teach us. Beneath all our acquired habits, hang-ups, fears and triumphs, there is something much older and more real than we tend to realise as we go about our daily lives. No matter what we build for ourselves, all of which may decay or be torn down, there is a bedrock of beauty within each of us, a bastion of the otherworld, to remind us that we are more than our worldly form and of whence and what we come.
Shells and Fruits
Sometimes, on these workshops, the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there in order to remind us that we are not simply here as sightseers… we are here engaged on spiritual work. As we climbed the winding path up the mound, Drumin Castle gave the illusion of being almost complete. The walls of the medieval tower house made a perfect illustration of the ego-illusion of wholeness we present to our world… and to ourselves… with, we were to find, the facade hiding only memory and time-ruined hollowness within.
Empty windows look out across the confluence of the Livet and Avon rivers, making this a perfectly sited defensive tower. Every approach can be watched across three valleys and it is, itself, an imposing structure. Like the walls raised by the ego to keep the kernel of individuality safe and isolated within its shell, the exterior of Drumin is designed to say, ‘this far and no further’… at least, not without permission and watchful eyes. Some of those eyes belong to Nature, though, especially these days. The defensive portals now hold only great nests and jackdaws chittered and fussed as we disturbed their younglings.
Drumin was built in the 1370s by Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch who had once attacked Elgin cathedral. It was almost certainly built on the site of an Iron Age fort and, with the cairn and stone circle of Doune of Dalmore just across the Livet, may have been part of yet another of those prehistoric sites where the lands of the living and those of the ancestors were separated by water.
As we entered the tower, I was struck by the resemblance to the Red Tower at Penrith Castle which we had visited on a previous workshop. The great supporting arch had sheltered us there from the bitter December wind and rain. This weekend, we had been far luckier with the weather, but the arch was almost identical.
Above it, one floor allowed a glimpse through vacant windows and thick walls, with a wonderful view over the river valleys below. It has a solid feel… a castle built to last… and yet, the apparently strong fortress had a lifespan little more than our own, falling into disuse around a century after it was built.
Below the castle, however, is a walled garden. Almost an orchard. ‘Almost’ because the trees of the community orchard are still very young. It is a beautiful and peaceful place… sheltered, protected and yet very much a part of its landscape.
The contrast between the defunct, isolated tower and the vibrant green life of the communal garden is quite striking, both visually and symbolically, especially given their relationship and dependence on each other. So it made a perfect place to construct our pentagrams once again and walk the pattern of our own psyche on their lines.
When we had finished our work at the Castle, Dean took us to his new home. It is a project he and his partner have been working on for several years, building a sustainable home within the trees and hills just a few hundred yards from the Castle. It will be beautiful when it is finished and part of its landscape, not apart from it or imposed upon it. Already, even with the stark lines of newness still exposed, you can see how it will look when it is loved and lived in.
As I said… sometimes the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there to remind us…
The Place of the Heather Priests
Our final visit of the workshop was to be a silent, withdrawn location that owes much of its history to its very isolation. Hidden amongst the hills of the Braes of Glenlivet, the buildings of Scalan remain invisible until you are almost upon them… even when you know they are there. Dean had chosen Scalan for its peace and solitude as much as any other reason. It was a place where it was rare to see another living soul and the land wraps itself around the low buildings.
Unfortunately for us, we had chosen the one day of the year, it seemed, where an event was to be held there. The Annual Mass, a pilgrimage to Scalan which is normally held in July, had been quietly moved forward to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of a Bishop at the site.
For us, it meant that the silent buildings Dean had chosen for their solitude…and to allow us to be undercover if the weather were wet… were about to be thronging with hundreds of people sharing a religious rite. Not only would our work not share the space well with their worship, but there was also a fair chance that they would not understand five pentagrams laid out on a place they consider holy ground. Discretion, respect for their beliefs and the herding of a guardian encouraged us to move a little deeper into the hills for our work… but not before we had looked around Scalan itself.
The buildings look like the remains of farm, and for a part of its life, that is exactly what it was. Traces of that part of its story abound, from the shreds of faded wallpaper clinging to the walls, to the remains of the waterwheel.
But Scalan’s history is both darker and brighter than that. Originally established in 1717, at a time when Catholicism was effectively outlawed, Scalan was the last seminary in Scotland where Catholic priests could be trained in secret. The old chapel now stands roofless beside the newer, two-storey building erected fifty years later. Because of the isolation and secrecy, at a time when code-words were used to describe anything pertaining to Catholicism, the soldiers charged with eradicating the worship found the place difficult to find… and the priests who trained there were known as the ‘heather priests’.
It was not only a place of spiritual induction, but a place where some rather radical views were occasionally aired, including those of Alexander Geddes, who trained at Scalan and in Paris, and wrote in praise of the French Revolution, earning him the censure of the Church and his suspension from ecclesiastical duty.
Scalan continued its work as a seminary until 1799, when the repeal of the Penal Laws allowed a new and more open site to be established. On the face of things, you would think that a place that had once been holy ground might welcome seekers of Light, even if they walk other paths. After all, the residents of Scalan were no strangers to persecution and misunderstanding because of their beliefs. But, it has to be said that while most, though not all, of the men seemed okay with the place, the women got a really uncomfortable ‘feel’ from it. We felt we were definitely not wanted… understandable, perhaps, in a place designed to train those vowed to celibacy and the doctrine of original sin… and were picking up both antipathy and the echo of something unpleasant. Even though, as a location, it was both perfect and beautiful, I don’t think the women of the party could have comfortably worked there even had there been no-one else in sight.
Oddly enough, the feeling dissipated as soon as we crossed the stream. On the outer side, away from the seminary, there is a well, now known as the Bishop’s Well. It is curious, as a well right next to a stream is unusual, to say the least… and was probably once Bride’s Well and sacred to the Goddess.
We walked a little further into the hills where we would disturb no-one except the birds and butterflies and where we would have peace to work. We stopped within the curve of a hollow shaped like the crescent moon, where a clear stream flowed and heartsease grows wild. We had worked within the land all weekend… and somehow, it seemed fitting that we should complete the process surrounded by the elements as Dean guided us through the final sequences of the elemental matrix.
And then we were done. It had been a fabulous weekend, into which an enormous amount of thought and detail had been poured… and one we had thoroughly enjoyed.
There remained only the long walk back to the cars through the oncoming and incongruous crowds gathering for the Mass. We had taken longer than anticipated and, with many having a very long way to go, lunch plans changed. Dean offered hospitality to those who could accept it, while others hugged and took their leave of one another. We were amongst the latter, though not because we were facing the long drive home… we had a day’s grace before we needed to head back so we were heading north…
Dreaming Stones: Incipient weirdness…
It was later than anticipated when we left the rest of our Companions on the Sunday afternoon at the end of the workshop. We hadn’t eaten, needed a garage for the damnable deflating tyre and we were a long, long way from home. Even with motorways and optimal speeds every foot of the way, home would still be a solid ten hour drive south. But then, who was heading south?
It may look as if we are always gallivanting, but Stuart and I both work, taking holidays for workshops and meetings. As I work seven days a week, even weekends have to come out of the holiday entitlement and, as we live a couple of hundred miles apart, no matter where we go, there is driving time to be added which eats it away even more. While we are wandering the country, we try to spend time meeting friends or with visiting Companions of the school too, often tacking a day onto the end of a workshop so that those who have travelled long distances, and who we too seldom see, can see a little more of the area with us. With luck, we manage to squeeze a day either side of a workshop so we can meander a bit on the journey for our holiday. This time, however, we had the luxury of three whole days before I had to be back in the south and, although much of that would have to be on the road, we had, eventually, come to the realisation that we needed a plan.
Right up until a couple of days before I left on the first leg of the journey, we had no idea what we would do with the time. We had tried to get hold of old friends we wanted to visit on the east coast of Scotland… but in spite of sort of doing so, had not been able to arrange anything. We hoped to hook up with three friends from the blogosphere too, as we travelled down the western side of the country but we couldn’t make any arrangements till we knew what we were doing. And we hadn’t a clue. There is just too much we want to be able to explore in the far north… and nowhere near enough time.
We needed a plan. Stuart felt we needed to get onto one of the Scottish islands if we could. They have been calling for a while now. I also came across a site I thought we should visit on the way home… Cairn Holy… and that was about it. But it was about here that the first hints of oddness started to creep in. We had not been able to sort out a rendezvous with our friends on the east coast, even though we had been in contact… and that was weird. We had arranged to meet Adele Marie Park during the weekend… though she had sadly been unable to make it in the end. Mary Smith had, bizarrely, suggested we meet up at Cairn Holy and that we might be joined by Barb Taub… who lives on Arran, a Scottish island we really want to visit. That, at least, we should be able to manage.
Meanwhile, I had been looking at just which islands we might, with practicality in mind, be able to get to, vaguely remembering that Skye now has a bridge between it and the mainland. That would work. We had both long wanted to visit the island. I looked up what archaeological sites there might be on the island but my normally trusty sources came back with only three, and none of them seemed particularly interesting. Even so, we thought, we could see a little of Skye and get down to meet Mary and Barb at Cairn Holy.
I was going to be happy enough just driving through the Highlands, but I extended my search for ancient sites close to Skye, hoping to get some ideas for the journey in between. One name jumped off the map… Callanish. But… it was on another island, beyond Skye, in the Outer Hebrides. We would need a car ferry as it is a long way from the little port. It really didn’t look feasible, not with the small amount of time we had… but it hung in the air like Christmas, tantalising and magical… a place we have both dreamed of visiting for decades and never thought we would see.
Well, at least we would get to see the beauty of Skye. We could call it a recce… for a nebulous ‘one day’. So, after the workshop, on Sunday afternoon, instead of sensibly heading south to begin the long journey home, we turned the car towards Inverness and headed north instead.
Now, I live in the rural ‘soft south’, forty miles from London. Stuart lives in a city… we are never far from anything we need and pretty much everything is open all the time. Scotland, on the other hand, closes on Sunday and is comprised, at least where we were, of miles and miles of wonderfully empty roads snaking through incredible beauty. Not only did we need a garage for the deflating tyre, we needed food… and, we thought, a garage might have sandwiches at least. We saw not a one… passing through Inverness and over the Firth, we knew that the roads would become even more isolated. We turned off the A9 at Dingwall, hoping…
Dingwall too was closed… it was getting on, to be fair. But we found a Wimpy. I thought they had all gone decades ago… I haven’t seen one for years… but, unless we had fallen through a temporal wormhole, there is a Wimpy in Dingwall. And it was open. We retired to the car to break our fast, eagerly watched by a seagull who had spotted bounty through the glass roof of the car and who insisted, very vocally, on being invited to dine.
Had there been time, Dingwall would have been a good place to explore, with a vitrified fort on a nearby hill and a good bit of archaeology to delve into, but time was the one thing we did not have. Trusting to luck with the tyre, we set off once again to cross the hills and the country, heading towards Skye, watched by a great bird of prey that was circling the tower of the MacDonald Monument on the hill…
A Stroke of Luck
Below us there was a loch ringed with hills. In the distance, mountains. Before us, a road that led to the shore. We hadn’t a clue where we were… unless heaven has a place on the map. All we knew was that coming over the crest of the hill we were faced with unbelievable beauty and a light that reached into the very depths of the heart.
We were not map reading. The road we had taken, through the Highlands from Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh, was a simple one to follow; the hills, lochs and forests were not really opening many side roads… It was not until we came down to the water’s edge at Balmacara that we realised that we had reached what was to be our destination for the night. We were looking across Loch Alsh to the Isle of Skye.
That was as far as our planning had managed to get. We had nowhere booked for the night and evening had long since drawn in. We had planned on sorting something out earlier, but leaving late, that had taken second place to finding food and getting across the country. However, as luck would have it, where we had parked there were a couple of guest houses and a hotel.
The hotel turned out to be expensive and fully booked to boot. But one of the guest houses had a vacancy sign for ‘one room tonight’… and we’d probably have taken it, at that point, regardless. It turned out to be a welcoming, spotless, comfortable place, with Pictish artwork on the walls and real coffee on the welcome tray… and all at a very reasonable price too, with a cooked breakfast thrown it. With a shower to die for, every tiny attention to comfort provided for and the most amazing view from our windows, we really fell on our feet with Christine and Paul at the Old Post Office House.
Revivified with that most welcome coffee, we took the plunge. We would book the ferry to the Isle of Harris. How often would we be this far north again? And anyway, we had both waited so many decades already, hoping to see this one special place…
But… dithering about whether we should or could had cost us our chance. The ferry was fully booked for the following day, which was the Monday. By Wednesday night, we had to be back in Sheffield, so I could be back at work on Thursday almost six hundred miles away. It wasn’t going to be possible… not with a drive like that ahead of us. Ah well, at least we could see a little of Skye.
If we had just one more day, we might have been able to get an early ferry. If the timing had been better… if I hadn’t been needed at home because of all the work going on at Nick’s… all the ifs came into play. Just one more day. I wandered down to the loch to call my boss. There are advantages to being employed by one’s son after all…
We had one more day! I dived back to the room and booked the ferry before we could lose the opportunity again. We were going to the Outer Hebrides and nothing was going to stop us. Except that, from that point on, pretty much everything seemed determined to do so…
Tides of Light
With the decision made, the ferry booked and the light changing as the sun went down, we took the cameras out to play, leaving the mainland behind for a little while. Not intentionally… but the road through Kyle of Lochalsh, the ‘strait of the foaming loch’, becomes the Skye Bridge and, once on it, what else could we do but cross?
The bridge was opened in 1995 and connects the old ferry port to the Isle of Skye. Beneath the bridge, the loch plunges three hundred feet, almost vertically, to a rich landscape of strange creatures and plants that remain hidden from the eyes of the curious. Also beneath the first part of the bridge is the tiny island of Eilean Bàn, the White Isle. The island was once home only to wildlife and lighthouse keepers. It later became the home of Gavin Maxwell, the author of ‘Ring of Bright Water’. The otters of which he wrote are only one of the many creatures you can find there, but passing over the island was as close as we were going to get on this trip.
Across the water, the remains of the fifteenth century Caisteal Maol at Kyleakin rise like jagged teeth from a mound. Legend has it that the ruined seat of the Mackinnon clan stands on the site of a much older fortification, acquired by the clan around eleven hundred years ago, when Findanus, the fourth MacKinnon chieftain, married a Norwegian princess who earned the name of Saucy Mary.
Working together, the chieftain and his bride prevented shipping from traversing the channel by means of a heavy chain, allowing them to charge a toll for any ship that passed… for which they would be thanked by Saucy Mary, who showed them her bared breasts. When Mary died, it is said, she was buried beneath Beinn na Caillich, ‘the mountain of the old woman’.
Now the ‘old woman’ in question had been cropping up a lot over the workshop weekend. The Cailleach is an ancient winter deity, the complement… or darker face… of the goddess Brìghde. Dean had told us of the custom of greeting her at the snow line in the Highlands and snippets of folklore had crept in throughout the trip. It is the Cailleach who is credited with creating many of the mountains. She brings in winter by washing her Great Plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, not far to the south of where we were, and is behind most of the inclement weather, especially storms. We were going to get to know her well on Skye…
But for the moment, we were being eaten by midges on the fastest photo-shoot in history. We did not remain long by the water, but headed back to the mainland, having found a garage for the next morning and the chemist we would need when I owned up to having always been seasick. I have not travelled by sea at all for over thirty years, but my memories of previous crossings were not good. I was taking no risks and wanted appropriate pills, just in case.
We woke to rain-battered windows, a half-empty loch where the receding tides had exposed the seaweed and the disappearance of Skye behind the mists. Not for nothing is the Cailleach named ‘the veiled one’.
A good night’s sleep, a hot shower and breakfast, though, was enough to make the morning good… and we were on our way back to the now-invisible island. As we left, the mists lifted on a perfect morning. The first touches of heather were showing purple on the cliffs and wild roses lined the road. You would have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be a beautiful day…
We had a day to play on the Isle of Skye… there are undoubtedly many worse things to do with a Monday morning. Crossing the Skye Bridge in brilliant sunshine, we were certain of a lovely day’s exploration. Across the water, tantalising islands rose from the mist. Blue peaks gave us shy glimpses and there may have been squeaking from the driver’s seat.
Ten minutes later, as we pumped up the ever-deflating tyre yet again, the heavens opened. Serious clouds, heavy with rain, emptied themselves upon the landscape, filling countless streams to overflowing, nourishing the waterfalls and silvering the morning.
It didn’t matter… we had decided to drive first to the little ferry port of Uig so we could see how long it would take and know the way for our early start the next day. Meanwhile, we were keeping our eyes open for a bed and breakfast with a ‘vacancies’ sign as we had booked nowhere for the night. Somewhere close to Uig would be handy. Mind you, we were making slow progress, as every turn in the very twisty road opened new and magical vistas and, wherever possible, I wanted to stop and look. Overwhelmed by wild beauty, I didn’t think it could get much more magical… until the sea became a rainbow.
Had we not realised before that ‘stuff’ was afoot, we should have been left in no doubt at that point, but, with the curious blindness that descends when the land has things to teach, it would only be afterwards that we would see the patterns forming. For the most part, we wandered through the day oblivious, except to occasional small nudges that tugged at attention and made themselves felt.
For a start, ‘only three ancient sites on Skye, according to the usual sources’ should really have rung alarm bells. The archaeological record goes back to Neolithic times and, we found later, the island is fair littered with prehistoric artefacts, not to mention sites that go back to the times of saints and legends, a huge amount of fairy lore and with the Norse history thrown in for good measure. Three sites? And we did not question this at all, except to say how odd it seemed?
An island with such a long and rich history had to have more than the three, rather uninteresting sites my sources had suggested. For a start, we passed two huge standing stones on the way to Uig, just casually hanging there beside the shore. Both of the Kensaleyre stones are man-height and substantial… and turned out to be where, according to legend, Fingal, the King of the Isles… who might just be the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill… had erected the stones, on a hunting trip, to hang a cooking pot large enough to hold a stag. We couldn’t find anywhere safe to park, though, so the stones… although we were to pass them several times… remained just out of reach. And that seemed to be a bit of a theme when I started researching later.
We made it to Uig in a sensible amount of time. We parked by the Norman-style tower known as Captain Fraser’s Folly, built around 1860 by the landowner, Major William Fraser. Like many others at the time, he was heavily involved in the cruel Highland Clearances which evicted tenant farmers from their land to turn vast swathes of it over to more profitable sheep-farming. In a rough sort of justice, his home was washed away by floods in 1877. You really shouldn’t mess with the folk of a fairy isle…
Just above us, had we but known it, was another standing stone and a stone circle. A stone’s throw away, an ancient settlement, a couple of early stone towers, the odd chambered cairn and the beauties of the Fairy Glen… Quite what the fae-folk were playing at by throwing so many blinds in our way was open to question, but something was definitely going on… even though we were still not entirely aware of it.
Instead of wandering through beauty, though, we sensibly headed down into the little port to collect our ferry tickets for the next morning. There was a handy garage with a fuel pump and airline next to the pier… we could fill up both tank and tyre again in the morning. Perfect! Well, we thought so… but the Old Ones must have been laughing up their sleeves…
The roads on the Isle of Skye are my kind of road… narrow, winding and green. I was loving driving around the island, but when presented with an even narrower road that climbs a steep hill and throws in a hairpin bend or two, the only thing to do is to take it.
The road led us up the headland above Uig, and we were already eyeing up possible parking spots. Any accommodation we had found for the night online was exorbitantly expensive… there was no way we would pay over a week’s wages for a night’s lodging, even if we could… and so far, we had seen no ‘vacancy’ signs either. Skye seemed to be closed on Mondays; for a holiday destination, this did seem rather odd.
Following the headland, we had magnificent views across the sea to the neighbouring isles whenever there was a break in the mist. We had not gone far, though, before I spotted a sign and pulled into a car-park. Kilvaxter souterrain, it said, and we’d had such a wonderful experience at Carn Euny on our trip to Cornwall, that we really did have to stop. Unfortunately, the rain was pelting down and there were people… we do prefer to have the ancient sites to ourselves where possible. We still had a few bits in the cooler for second breakfast, so we nibbled and watched as the latest visitors spent several minutes getting kitted out with professional-looking gear.
We had seen one ill-equipped family make the visit in just a matter of minutes as the rains came down with a vengeance, diving back to the car with soggy children. We gave the next couple ten minutes… they had donned full walking and rain gear after all. They even had an umbrella. We shouldn’t take bets on things like that, I know, but you can tell the genuinely interested from the casual tourist a mile off. And anyway, we were wrong… they only lasted five minutes. Either there was very little to see or it didn’t speak to them at all.
We, however, were immediately intrigued. The site had only been discovered in 2000, by a gentleman called Phillip James, when one of the lintels collapsed, revealing the underground void. Local people had excavated and restored the site with help and funding from various bodies. This living link to the ancient history of the community and its ancestors seems indefinably right.
The site consists of a hut circle and souterrain… an underground passageway. There is no clear explanation for these chambers… the most common theory, at least for the simple ones, is that they were used for food storage, although some, like Carn Euny, may have had ritual uses for their chambers too. Another theory is that they were a place of refuge in case of attack, but this seems ludicrous to me… unless the entrances were far enough away from the settlement and well enough hidden, they would be no safe place at all. No-one really knows, though the passages would undoubtedly have served as storage space, whatever else their purpose. They date from the late Iron Age, around two thousand years ago, and according to the information board, there are at least twenty of them on Skye alone. So much for our ‘three ancient sites’… not that we registered that at the time. We just thought it was odd that it hadn’t been included by our usual sources…
The hut circle is clearly marked, with many of the base stones remaining, but the souterrain is the most exciting part of the site. The entrance, recessed into the sloping ground, would have been covered by a wattle door made of woven branches. The passage is very low… the doorway around three feet high, the passage less than two and a half feet wide and over fifty-five feet long. It is pitch black inside and there is no lighting. But, mobile phones have torches… not that we would have used the battery thus had we known what lay ahead…
Stuart couldn’t get inside very far without light and bent double, especially as the tunnel was deeply flooded. Hobbits are better suited to such ventures, so, hitching up my flowing skirts and grateful that I’d donned the wellies, in I went. To the left, stabilised by modern sandbags, was a small alcove-passage, raised above the ground. In front of me, the tunnel roof rose and fell, while the pool of muddy water got deeper and deeper.
The silence within was complete and quite eerie… breath echoed and the dripping water beat out an arcane rhythm as I went deeper into the womb of earth. Above me, massive stone lintels held the roof in place… a quite extraordinary bit of construction. The camera flash refused to work, although it should have done so. The only light was the meagre glow from the phone. Within just a few feet of the entrance, I could have been miles from the surface. And I loved it… until, that is, the pool of water got so deep it was at the top of my boots and threatening ingress. I beat a reluctant retreat, disappointed not to have reached the end, but between the uneven, stepped floor and the pool that hid it, retreat was the only sensible option.
How can you fail to be moved by a place like this? It is not some grand temple or massive monument, but a bit of domestic architecture that has survived for two thousand years. Ordinary people, like you and me, once lived, laughed, struggled and loved here. The construction of this safe place, whatever its purpose, must have been of vital importance to them for them to have done such amazing and back-breaking work… and it stands as a testament to their lives still today, preserved now by the very people who may be their descendants.
The rain that had paused to allow us to explore began again as we made our way back to the car, wondering what else we might find as we drove the island roads… and hoping that lunch and a bed for the night would be amongst them.
Give Us a Break…
The single-track road was narrow and every few miles we would have to pull over into a passing space to let another vehicle through. And that was as busy as it got. To the left was the coast, with endless views of the sea and the blue smudge of distant islands. To our right, Skye revealed its constantly changing landscape as we drove through empty countryside dotted with the occasional house. We were pulled up short by a stone standing beside the road… though whether it was an erratic, an old gate post or something more interesting was impossible to say. Nowhere seems to mention the thing, in spite of its size, so we assume it is not an ancient artefact. Except that stone, by its very nature, is ancient and perhaps it still had something to say.
It had stopped us by the Museum of Island Life. The car park was busy and as we were not in tourist mode, we did not go inside. It was, however, good to see the old Black Houses, even from the road. Hunkered low against the gales and with their thatch weighted down by stones, these are a survival from earlier times, built with whatever materials were to hand and free locally… including, on an island with few trees, the timbers from wrecked shipping that washed up on the shore.
We had still not found a place to stay for the night, nor had we any better luck finding food. Although the A855 is undoubtedly a tourist route around the island, part of its beauty is that neither the road nor the settlements along it are particularly forthcoming with amenities. Rain poured down in torrents making driving tiring and we really did need to find coffee and somewhere to replenish our supplies.
We passed the sign for Kilt Rock, where the Mealt waterfall plummets into the sea down the basalt cliffs. And then, the rain stopped and the sun came out. A busy layby was marked ‘viewpoint’ and I pulled the car over so we could stretch our legs… and in the unstated hope of a tea-van.
Neither tea nor coffee were to be had, but refreshment of another nature was plentiful. Beneath us, Lealt Falls roared, pouring whisky coloured water into the gorge that leads to the sea.
The viewpoint, a platform jutting out above the gorge, was crowded, with tour buses unloading their passengers for a quick look at the waterfall, but it was worth the unaccustomed bustle just for the vantage point and the sight of a Highland tour guide in full dress, shepherding his flock, with his plaid billowing in the breeze.
We walked on to the end of the gorge, following the flow to where it became one with the sea. Strange, gnarled faces looked out across the water on one side of the bay. There is a real sense of presence and watchfulness here, and we were both feeling the effects of being within a landscape where the magic is never far from the surface.
On the other side of the bay, tall pinnacles seemed to gaze across the waves, looking very like the Moai, the stone watchers of Rapa Nui.
Below us, the ruins of the old diatomite works testified to a defunct industry. Diatomite, a whitish, clay-like substance, was used for many things, from insulation to paints and polishes, to the production of dynamite.
It was mined at a spot high above the falls and, to begin with, carried to the shore in baskets, before a man-powered railway was installed. Much of the machinery used at this spot came from Germany and, after the outbreak of war, it is rumoured that the connection with Germany continued with U-boats using the area to take on fresh water.
Had we felt like tackling the walk around the tricky shore, we might have visited another site that abounds with rumours… An Eaglais Bhrèige, a rock that has been hollowed by the waves to resemble a church… but where rather darker rituals are said to have taken place, involving the sacrifice of cats to summon oracular demons.
As it was, the clouds were once more gathering over the distant hills and we were pretty sure that rain would not be far away. We could just about see the needle of stone known as the Old Man of Storr, outlined against the crest of a ridge and watched as he gathered in the rain clouds, ready to wring them over us should we stray from our allotted path…whatever that was to be. We were heading his way and about to become a little better acquainted…
Meeting the Old Man
Something was taking a lot out of us. It wasn’t just the lack of lunch, as we’d had first and second breakfast, even if that had been hours earlier. It wasn’t the weather either… we’ve endured worse and at least we were in the car. But there came a point where we were obliged to pull up in a crowded car park beside a loch and, instead of raiding the food van that we had at last found… we fell asleep. Neither of us could stay awake and both of us fell to dreaming… the first of many vivid dreams we would have on that trip and since. Just to add a touch of irony to the situation, considering we might have felt better for coffee or food, when we woke from our short nap, the food van had closed its shutters. And that was that… we were back to square one.
That was a shame because if we’d been fed, we might have braved the weather and climbed up to greet the Old Man of Storr. He is an odd one… and no-one is even sure exactly which bit really is the venerable gentleman for which the hundred and sixty-foot pinnacle was named. Some say you can see him in the rock shard itself, others point out the profile seen in the Quiraing, the landslip that rises majestically behind the Old Man. Maybe it is both, for there is a clear face on the pinnacle and a perfect, reclining profile on the hills, especially, we were to find, when seen from off the island.
The basalt gives the hills a distinctly otherworldly look. It is a fabulous landscape, used in many films including the classic Wicker Man and, more recently, Stardust and Snow White and the Huntsman. The area is sparsely inhabited today, but it has seen all kinds of residents over the millennia, including the dinosaurs whose footprints were found at An Corran, not far away, and the Mesolithic peoples who later lived in the area.
The land around the Old Man is called the Sanctuary, and the approaching hills have a look of the ‘mangers’ we have seen at other ancient and sacred site. Here, it forms a natural amphitheatre down which sheer waterfalls tumble. There is no suggestion that this was revered in antiquity, at least, not according to the archaeological record, but there is no question that such a striking feature would have gathered about itself as many legends and beliefs as it does clouds… all of which it seemed intent on emptying on our heads… and would have undoubtedly played a part in the beliefs of the area in ancient times. It is not as if you can just ignore it…
One surviving legend says that the Old Man is the thumb of a giant, left protruding from the earth when he was buried. Another says the rocks were carved by a brownie who had formed a friendship with a human who had saved his life. When the man’s wife died, the brownie sculpted the pinnacles as a memorial. Another tale says the pinnacles are giants, fleeing from their enemies, who made the mistake of looking back and were thus turned to stone.
Still another tale says that they are a loving couple who had lived long together, walking nightly up to the Sanctuary. When the wife was too old and the man grieved, the faeries who had watched them through their lives offered him the gift of having his wife with him forever and, when he accepted, turned them both to stone. The fae-folk of such tales were not some Victorian fabrication, flitting like butterflies through the flowers… they were denizens of another level of reality, dark, mysterious and perilous by human standards.
Curiously, the area around the Old Man was the first place that the mineral gyrolite was first found. Gyrolite forms as spheres within volcanic bubbles in basalt and looks rather strange… like some kind of accumulation of magical eggs. While I have been unable to find any reference for its practical uses, it struck me as interesting that one of the metaphysical properties it has been assigned is that of giving insight into ancient civilisations. Perhaps sleeping with stones would be the way to go? And that turned out to be a prophetic idea…
We continued our tour of the sodden island, passing waterfall known as Bride’s Veil, and singularly failing to find anywhere open that served food and coffee, or offered a night’s lodging. We even failed to find a parking spot in the one place we would probably have found both… the town of Portree was full to the brim with not one parking space to be had.
Eventually, we had done a full circle of the island’s main roads and, finding ourselves back in Uig by late afternoon, finally managed a scone, a pot of tea and a shop to replenish the supplies in the cooler-box. All we needed was a place to stay for the night. Perhaps if we looked down one of the other roads we had passed? There had to be something… hadn’t we seen a castle signposted?
Dunvegan and the Fairy Flag
We followed the signs for Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan MacCleod. Even if we wanted to wander a managed castle, we knew it would be long closed by the time we got there, so instead we found ourselves a parking spot overlooking the calm waters of Loch Dunvegan and raided the cooler for our newly acquired sandwiches, yoghurt and honey.
We did drive down to the castle, hoping for a glimpse of medieval splendour, but the place was obscured by trees. Built on a promontory that looks over the loch, Dunvegan has probably been a fortress since the Norsemen settled here. There is no trace of ancient habitation now, though, for the site was chosen by the MacCleods to be their principal seat in the thirteenth century and the castle has evolved since that time.
The Clan descended from Leod, about whom little is known except that he lived from around 1200 to 1280 and was buried on Iona. The traditional story says he was a son of Olaf the Black, a Norse sea-king who ruled the Isle of Man and parts of the Hebrides. Another strand of the story suggests that his royalty came through the female line, via Helga of the Beautiful Hair. Be that as it may, two of Leod’s sons founded the twin branches of the Clan MacCleod that still exist… Tormod, from whom the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan are descended and Torquil, the source of the Lewis branch of the family tree.
One of the things we had noticed on Skye were the fences. They seemed to be saying, ‘this far and no further’ to anyone wanting to explore. It wasn’t just the fences either, there was a lack of helpful information… like signposts… and a closing off of tourists from the life of the island. That is understandable when you consider that it is a working island, not a pretty picture, but it gave an odd feel to the place… not unwelcoming, but guarded. We laid that at the door of the MacCleods, who still own much of the land and whose influence is still strong. Perhaps it has something to do with their motto, ‘Hold Fast’, that sprang from when Malcolm MacLeod, the third chieftain, wrestled a wild bull encountered in Glenelg in the fourteenth century.
The castle itself is magnificent. Begun when the promontory was enclosed within a curtain wall in the thirteenth century, successive buildings have been added and, in the nineteenth century, the design was homogenised, creating the archetypical medieval castle. It has been the home of the same family for eight hundred years and you can feel its influence right across Skye.
We don’t tend to go in for visiting castles all that much as most of them were built a few thousand years after the time that really interests us, but, like the churches, their influence upon a land and its people cannot be denied or ignored. On the other hand, there was something within Dunvegan’s walls that I would have liked to have seen… the Fairy Flag, which, along with the ancient Dunvegan Cup and Sir Rory Mor’s drinking horn, which all chieftains must drain to prove their worth, are treasures of the MacCleods.
According to the tests run by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the silk of the Fairy Flag, scattered with ‘elf dots’, originated in Syria or Rhodes in the fourth century. It was, they suggested, brought back from the Crusades by Harold Hardrada… the same King Harold famously killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and an early forebear of the Clan MacCleod. When the twenty-seventh chieftain was told of this, he simply said that he knew otherwise… the Flag had been given to his family by the faeries.
There are a number of stories about how the Flag came to be given to the Clan. One says that, on his way back from the Crusades in the Holy Land, the MacLeod met a hermit who warned him of a spirit that guarded a dangerous pass through the hills. The spirit was Nein a Phaipen… Daughter of Thunder… and, with the aid of a fragment of the Cross, MacCleod was able to subdue her. In exchange for secrets she wished to know, she gave him her girdle with which to make a banner that would protect the clan three times when it was unfurled.
Another tale tells how a MacCleod married a faery who could only stay with him for twenty years. The Flag was her parting gift, given at the Fairy Bridge near Dunvegan. Once again, the Flag would protect the Clan three times… though on the third, both the Flag and its bearer would disappear.
Later stories tell of a faery wrapping an infant chieftain in the Flag, or of a faery lullaby sung to quiet the child. Whatever the truth of the stories, the Flag was unfurled twice in battle, leading to unexpected victory. Whether or not it has been unfurled a third time is a subject of debate. We were not to see the legendary banner on this trip, but we had spotted a couple of things in Dunvegan we did want to get a closer look at….
The Church and the Stone
We had spotted the ruined church as we drove down through Kilmuir and into Dunvegan, earmarking the place for a visit on the way back. Not only was there a church, but a standing stone behind it too… and a pair of very big birds of prey circling the hill.
Granted, these, at least, could have been buzzards… but the information board at the foot of the hill had pictures and descriptions of the local wildlife and included both sea eagles and their golden cousins. We had already seen eagles on the journey and these, if eagles they were, would not be the last… but each time was a thrill, especially now that England has no golden eagles of her own. And anyway, we know from experience that where the great birds of prey lead us, we will always find something extraordinary.
The church of St Mary, in spite of its appearance, is not all that old, being built only in 1694, according to the date over the north door. Like most Scottish cemeteries, it is situated on the edge of the village, away from the lands of the living, echoing what we believe to be an ancient tradition.
Christianity came to the islands in the sixth century, when St Columba left Ireland to found a monastery on Iona. The faith spread from there and monks serving the local community built round huts here to serve as their cells. The name of the village below the church, Kilmuir, or in Scottish Gaelic, Cille Mhoire, means the ‘cell’ or church of Mary.
The present building, now in ruins, would once have been thatched with heather. It was erected at the end of the seventeenth century and fell into disuse after a new church was built to replace it at Diurnish, in 1832, by the twenty-fourth Chieftain of the MacCleods.
Within the grounds and the shell of the old church are many memorials to the MacCleods, including the monuments of several clan chiefs. Beside them is a memorial to ten generations of the clan’s hereditary pipers, the MacCrimmons.
Many of the grave slabs are carved with memento mori motifs, such as skulls and crossed long bones. We see so many of these and there is a common misapprehension that all of them are either Templar or Masonic. These reminders of mortality and death as the ‘great leveller’ were quite common on many graves, especially in the 1600s. Templar graves are much rarer and usually less ornate than these simple reminders of our common destiny. Masonic graves generally have far more obvious and complex symbolism carved into their stones.
One feature we found curious was the prevalence of family enclosures, walled off from the rest of the burials. Doubtless this was for practical purposes, as much as anything, but it rather felt as if the fences and forbiddings we had sensed on the island were epitomised by this custom.
The most striking monument in the cemetery is the pyramidal obelisk of known as the Lovat Memorial. It was erected by Simon Fraser in memory of his father, Sir Thomas Fraser, the tenth Lord Lovat, who married into the Clan MacCleod, wedding Sybilla, daughter of the clan chief. Thomas and Sybilla had fourteen children, but it was Simon who caused them the most heartache and who was the reason Thomas was buried in 1699 at Dunvegan, rather than in his own clan’s ancestral burial grounds. Thomas had fled to exile at Dunvegan when he was placed under sentence of death for his son’s exploits.
Fans of Outlander will be wondering about the Fraser name and yes, this is the same family as is portrayed in Diana Gabaldon’s books, where Simon is Jamie’s grandfather. Simon, a highly intelligent and erudite young man, was also both politically inclined and violent. He changed sides depending upon which way the wind seemed to be blowing, supporting first the Jacobite cause, then William and Mary. He always had an eye for advancing his own interests. At one point he decided to wed young Amelia Murray, but she was already promised to Alexander Fraser. He dissuaded Alexander from marrying Amelia by the simple expedient of kidnapping him, building a gallows outside his window and offering to hang him.
There was a public outcry at this behaviour, which was as nothing compared to the scandal he caused when, unable to wed the young lady, he kidnapped, raped and married her mother instead. In later years, he ignored the marriage and wed two other wives. It is perhaps only fitting that he met a traitor’s end, beheaded after trial in London and interred at the Tower. It is said that the monument he raised to his father at the clan’s ancestral burial ground of Wardlaw was his way of making amends.
Climbing the cemetery wall, we walked up the hill towards the great standing stone, silhouetted against the clouds. To see bluebells in full flower mid-June was surprising and beautiful. The seasons run differently this far north. If nothing else, the hill would have served as a lookout across both the island and the sea, but it feels to have a more vibrant history than that. Perhaps it is the presence of the standing stone… though it has stood here for less than twenty years.
The stone itself was found on one of the island’s beaches. In form, it looks exactly right, unlike many a modern menhir, echoing the shape and aspect of stones familiar from ancient places. Many building projects now seem to be incorporating standing stones. Some even erect stone circles. But they are never quite ‘right’ and the feel of the place is always off-key. This stones feels right.
To celebrate the millennium, on Midsummer’s Day, the people of the parish of Diurnish manually dragged the five ton, seventeen feet tall stone up the hill and erected it, using the old ways, to honour the ancestors. I wonder what that says about the way the old ways are still respected in these islands?
It was a day of poetry, music and art, with bardic competitions. Beneath the stone, a time capsule was buried, relics of today for tomorrow. And, speaking of tomorrow, it was fast drawing close… and we still had to find a bed for the night…
The Fairy Rock Motel
We sensibly headed back towards Portree, guessing that, the later it got, the more visitors would have departed. There was every possibility of finding a parking space, dinner and lodgings. First though, we had to get there and, as we saw a sign for the first inn we had seen on the island, we reckoned a stop was in order. And anyway, why go into town if the inn might cater for our needs?
Another single track road wandered round sharp bends and down steep hills towards the shores of the Waternish Penninsula. Had we but realised, the bridge that we passed and admired was the famous Fairy Bridge. Around here, the legend runs that the Fae-woman who married the MacCleod could stay with him but one year and it was here she said her farewell, wrapping their infant son in a silken shawl… the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.
The inn sits long and low by the waterside, with zen rabbits meditating under the incongruous palm trees that dot the island’s shores. The date carved above the door, 1790, refers to the present construction, though there are parts of the inn that are older. It boasts accommodation, good food and a selection of a hundred and thirty whiskies. All I wanted was the first coffee of the day! Considering how far it is off the beaten track, it was exceedingly busy. We stood no chance at all of either a meal or a bed… but coffee was enough for now.
We passed a pleasant hour there before heading off, once again, to Portree. The evening was advancing rapidly, so we knew we would find a parking space, if nothing else. And we did, straight away. It was at this point that the heavens opened once again, tipping rain by the bucketful on the car. We tried to wait it out, but eventually got the message and gave up. We were obviously not supposed to be in Portree. But if not, where exactly were we supposed to be?
The rain stopped as soon as we drove away, heading back past Bride’s Veil waterfall and the Old Man of Storr, who was wreathed in clouds and emanating a rather self-satisfied vibe. There was a distinct impression that we were being herded and would get no peace until we went where we were guided. Bearing in mind that I had once again been driving all day and we had done the circuit of the island at least twice by now, we headed back, yet again, towards Uig. At least we would be handy for the ferry… and, if all else failed, we’d seen a parking spot on the cliff top and another in the village that might do for a couple of hours.
The space on the cliffs proved to be way too exposed. What had looked like a nice place to pull off the road was just a widening of it and right on a bend. Plus, the wind and rain would have battered the car all night. The one in the village was full and didn’t feel right anyway. We had no idea where to go… and then, suddenly, I did.
Taking the main road back out of Uig, the way we had arrived in the morning, I found a tiny turning I had noticed. We had no idea where it led… it could have been a farm entrance for all we knew. The track was tarmac, but had seen better days. It was barely wide enough for three sheep abreast… and there were far more than any three, causing the first traffic jam we had seen for days.
They were curious, unused to strange vehicles, and the lambs were delightful… you could actually see them ‘asking’ their mothers if we were safe and how to handle us and watch as Mum reassured them and told them to be cautious… but that we were okay. A couple of hundred yards down the track, we found a hollow with raised sides… a little amphitheatre by the side of the track and sheltered by a small rock face. It was perfect… private… quiet.
Thankful that we’d packed blankets and a sleeping bag, we snuggled down for the night. Not that I could get to sleep… I was quite happy and completely at peace, watching the clouds race and the rain fall. Late as it was, there is no true darkness that far north in summer and the curious little sheep, once we had reassured them that we were not going to move for a while, clambered over the rocks for a better look at the strange creatures in the glass cave.
It was an odd night. The rain lashed down upon us as if determined to veil the land from sight. Stuart woke at one point, sleepily convinced, after a vivid dream, that we were going to float away. Meanwhile, I watched the rocks come alive after midnight, with faces and forms moving, dancing and watching us as I finally fell into sleep and a vivid world of dreams. When I told Stuart about them, it appeared that we had both seen them… and the spot became the Fairy Rock for us. Next morning we were up early, strangely refreshed and heading towards Uig and the ferry. But that was not the end of the tale…
Researching this as I wrote, something prompted me to see if I could find the spot on Google Maps. It was almost reassuring to see it actually existed as it had seemed quite surreal, both at the time and in memory. The road even has a hamlet at the end of it called Cuidrach. And then the same something nudged me to check those capricious sources of mine… the ones that had erroneously told us there were only three ancient sites on Skye before we left, but which have since revealed hundreds of the things.
I tapped in Cuidrach and it came back with a map image… showing the position of a site we had known nothing about, a hundred yards from where we had parked. Cuidrach stone setting is ruined circle of stones with a cairn which was probably a prehistoric burial site. There is little to see now, but learning of its presence, so close to where we slept, was a rather strange feeling, especially with all the faery lore associated with the ancient sites in Scotland. It became even odder when I did a little more research on some of the other pertinent places on that trip… but they come later in the story. Odd, too that, long before the research, for the title of this narrative I should have chosen ‘Dreaming Stones‘…
Perhaps the faces in the Fairy Rock were not so fanciful after all? If so, they seemed to be watching over us… and, although we did not know it as we left, we were about to need all the help we could get…
Disaster, Panic and a Touch of Magic…
We were at the little port of Uig early… we were leaving nothing to chance. We knew there was a restroom we could use, a garage and, if it were open at that time of morning, a café where we could get a cup of coffee, all within yards of the queue for the ferry. Sorted.
Not knowing what the amenities were on Harris, and with a very soggy, self-deflating tyre, we decided to use the facilities, then fill up with fuel and air. The garage was still closed for fuel, but the air-pump was just around the side. I put the pound into the machine, attached the hose to the tyre and waited. Nothing happened. We tried again, another pound… still nothing. With the third pound, the pump did do something at last. Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing… and we were left with a totally flat tyre that was now taking us nowhere.
You can imagine how we felt. Miles from help, unable to move, with half an hour before the garage would open and forty-five minutes before the ferry queue closed… and we were right next to the queue and helpless!
It seemed we were not meant to go to Harris after all. And that is the problem with the way we work… it is okay to call in places as we pass. It is fine to have a general meander somewhere we fancy seeing… as long as it ties in with whatever we are working on at the time. But heaven help us if we try to force the issue and go somewhere just because we want to… we have to wait to be ‘called’. If not, we are either prevented by some strange occurrence… like exploding coffee pots and third degree burns… or we will ‘get’ very little beyond the surface stuff.
Now, I was pretty sure we had been called… all the signs and coincidences and general weirdness were there. But then, we really wanted to get across the sea to Harris and Lewis…
I usually carry an air pump, but had not repacked the car after clearing the boot to pack it with the stuff for the last workshop. After a night in the car, my phone was completely dead. That’ll teach me to forget the car-charger. Stuart’s was little better… but he did have a bit of battery left and so, feeling an idiot as I explained the problem, while sitting in a garage beside the offending air pump, the RAC were summoned.
They could, they said, get someone there in fifteen minutes and, as long as my spare was okay, which it was, we’d be on that ferry. Twenty minutes later, with no mechanic in sight, the phone rang. It was a garage in Portree. The job had only just reached their system. It would take a good half an hour to get someone across the island and then they would have to change the wheel while we watched the gates close on the ferry.
I explained the situation. The kind gentleman said he’d ring me back… and he did, very quickly, but not before we had hit an all-time low. To be so close… to have paid for the trip… ‘wasted’ a day wandering around Skye and a night in the car… and not to go? It didn’t bear thinking about.
The garage had one of their mechanics living locally. Did I have the tools to change the wheel? I did… not that I could have used them when the wheel had been put back on with a hydraulic gun in Penrith, or I’d have changed it myself by that point. Fair enough, said the kind gentleman. If the mechanic hadn’t left already for work, they would send him out to help… but he would have to get his children to school first.
We were in a touch and go situation… would the mechanic get there on time and be able to change the wheel, or would the ferry close the loading gates while we watched from the shore? We were counting minutes…
By this time, it was after eight and the loading gate closed at eight-fifteen. The battery on the phone was getting dangerously low, Stuart could see someone in the garage, but they weren’t opening the doors, there was no sign of our mechanic and I was cursing the tyre-place in Penrith where we’d had the damned thing professionally checked just a few days before… only to be told it was fine. Yeah, right.
Then Stuart reappeared. The woman from the garage would be out to look at the pump when she’d done opening up. We waited for what seemed like hours before she arrived. “Somebody,” she said in clipped, terse tones, glaring at me, “has been yanking the hose.” As she spoke, she opened the front, attached a hose with such ease and so little investigation that it must have happened countless times before, flipped a switch inside it and left. We scrabbled around for yet another pound, and within seconds, the tyre looked healthy again. We were on our way. But not before the mechanic turned up, his children still in the car, relieved we had found a solution. We were just grateful that he’d been willing to come out… even though he would probably have been too late. That little act of kindness had kept hope glimmering in what seemed an otherwise hopeless situation.
We got in the queue for the ferry just before the allotted time. I was on tenterhooks until the car was loaded, but then… standing at the window as the engines rumbled into life, there was elation.
I didn’t care whether or not I was going to be horribly seasick for the next couple of hours. Or whether the tyre was going to be flat as a pancake at the other end. Whatever happened, we would deal with it. After decades of waiting for ‘one day’, and barring stray icebergs, freak hurricanes or wandering whirlpools… we were actually going to Callanish!
Myth and Magic on the Minch…
We were finally leaving Skye. Not, as we had feared, attached to a tow truck or in the wrong direction. We were en route for the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides…and that really was a dream come true! Okay, we would have just a single day there, nowhere near enough time to see all that we might have wanted to see… but all being well, we would finally get to Callanish and that, after all, was the main reason for this adventure. We didn’t know it at the time, but as it turned out, we were going to see more than we could have imagined of the islands…
As the ferry pulled away from the jetty, I felt the all-too familiar queasiness… I had always been horribly sea-sick in the past and was expecting the worst, but I was hoping that time would have worked its magic. And, apparently, it had. It helped that the Minch was as calm as the proverbial mill-pond… and that, in spite of lashing rain for most of the journey, we could spend much of the crossing on deck once we had found a sheltered spot. It helped too that I was so excited at the prospect of finally getting to the Outer Hebrides… and that I love the salt spray and the wind in my face. After that first lurch, I was fine all the way. Mind you, I still won’t be booking a cruise if I ever win that lottery I don’t do…
We watched Skye disappear into the mists, remaining as just a hint of blue on the horizon. We glimpsed some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides peeping through the mist. One of them in particular caught our attention. It has long been uninhabited except by the seals and puffins, and later research revealed that it was called Fladaigh Chùain. Legend has it that the isle was once a sacred place, thought by many to be Tír na nÓg, the land of youth, where death may not enter. It is the Otherworld, inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann and ruled by Manannán mac Lir, the deity whose name means ‘son of the sea’. The stories say that people would visit the island after meeting Manannán in his guise as Trickster. Thinking about the antics of the Old Man of Storr, the amount of rain we had been hit with and all the other tiricksterish events, I have to wonder if we had been invited…
Perhaps its reputation as an Otherworldly place was why a chapel was built here in St Columba’s day, the ruins of which still remain, along with the grave of its founder. On its altar, a black stone was placed, known as the Weeping Stone because it was never dry. It was thought to have once been the altar stone of a very much older worship. Fishermen would visit the isle and pour a triple libation of seawater on it in return for favourable weather. But the stone has long since gone and few now visit the inaccessible isle. For the reasons outlined earlier, a boat has never been on my wish list, but I would love to explore these remote islands… and there are so many of them.
As if we were not already having a much better crossing than I had feared, an announcement on the tannoy sent us rushing astern… a pod of porpoises were playing in the ferry’s wake! Camera or presence? I aimed the camera at the sea in the hope it might capture something and clicked without looking… capturing very little, just the odd fin or tail. But it was far more important just to be there and watch them leaping and playing! That was a wonderful gift… something I have never seen before and will not forget in a hurry.
Mind you, although we were told they were porpoises or dolphins, they could have been the legendary Blue Men of the Minch, as they swim in a similar fashion. The Blue Men are storm kelpies and will approach a vessel at sea, shouting two lines of poetry to the captain… and unless he can complete the verse, the ship will drown. They are reputed to be one group of Fallen Angels who split into three tribes on Earth, with the other two becoming the Fae on land and the Merry Dancers of the air… the Aurora Borealis.
But thankfully, we heard no poetic challenge and the journey continued smoothly. It takes around two hours to cover the thirty miles of sea that separate Skye from the little port of Tarbert on Harris. It didn’t take long for the blue smudge of our destination to appear on the horizon.
Not that it stayed there, mind you… the closer we got, the more deeply wreathed in mist it became. As we entered the mists that shrouded the island, there was a real sense of crossing a threshold… and one from which you do not return… or at least not unchanged. It was not until we were just about to come into port that the mists thinned, allowing us our first look at a place that would leave its mark upon us and its presence in our hearts and dreams…
Our first job on disembarking was to look for an air pump for the ever-deflating tyre that had caused us so much trouble that morning. Granted, it looked fine, but as the pump we had used was dodgy and the gauge even dodgier, I really wanted to check the pressure to be safe.
No luck in Tarbert, the tiny ferry port. Fuel we would be okay for, at least for a while. The drive to Callanish was only about forty miles and we would not be far from Stornaway, where well over half the twenty thousand residents of the island live… there was bound to be somewhere to fill up.
So off we went, taking the A859 northwards, from the Isle of Harris to the Isle of Lewis… which, oddly, are both the same landmass. They are not even divided at the obvious isthmus near Tarbert, where only the narrowest strip of land holds the two together, but further north.
I haven’t been able to find out exactly why the Long Island has two names, though it probably has something to do with the two branches of the Clan MacCleod who hold it, though it is home to Clan Morrison too. What we weren’t expecting was the distinctly different character of the two parts of the island.
We were driving… there was little opportunity to stop and take photographs on the narrow, often tortuous roads through Harris, which was a crying shame as it is incredibly beautiful. High, cloud-wreathed hills encircle deep, clear lochs. It is wild, rugged and simply awesome in the true sense of the word. It was enough just to be there, drink in the utterly amazing landscape and let it heal the soul.
There were hills… many of them climbing to over a thousand feet. An Cliseam, the tallest, is over two and a half thousand feet… and, reflected in the clarity of the lochs, the sense of scale is only enhanced. There were waterfalls tumbling by the roadside or down distant slopes, wildflowers everywhere and you could see that when the heather is in bloom, the island would be purple.
Not that colour was missing… rhododendrons have colonised many places and whole islands in the lochs wore the distinctive pink of their flowers. The only things missing were trees, which are scarce and usually deliberately planted as windbreaks for the crops of crofters or in gardens.
There were once forests on the island, but many trees were felled by the Vikings to deny the islanders the chance to build ships. More were cleared to make way for grazing land in later centuries and few native trees remain. That, though, is about to change, as a project is underway to plant a hundred thousand native trees. Rowan, aspen, birch, willow, hazel and juniper are all native to the island and adapted to its often-harsh conditions, so seeds from surviving trees are being grown and planted to re-forest parts of the land.
The landscape might not be to everyone’s taste. If you love rolling hills and green fields, the wild majesty of Harris is not for you, nor is the flat, heather-covered peat-land of much of Lewis. But if, like me, wild, rugged majesty feels like home, then like me, you would be in heaven.
I was missing my morning coffee… I hadn’t dared risk one on the ferry and we’d seen nowhere since. We had replenished our supplies though and had stopped for second breakfast above one of the lochs. But we were also getting very tired. I had already driven well over a thousand miles including the workshop weekend, and after the drama of the morning and a night of magical, but limited sleep in the car, I was flagging. We turned onto the A858 towards our destination and the long straight road did for me completely.
To be honest, I think there was more to it than that. For want of a better word, I’d have to call it ‘psychic fatigue’. There had been so much going on, so many emotions and responses to the land, let alone the work of the workshop itself, it was hardly surprising that we were so tired. With just five miles to go, I could safely drive no further. I daren’t even find a proper layby, just pulled into what was little more than a scrape at the roadside and, within a couple of minutes, we were asleep and dreaming.
“Oh good grief…”
“I can see it…”
The distant silhouette of the great stones of Callanish were unmistakeably outlined on the horizon. In spite of all the challenges, including fully-booked ferries, deflating tyres, a distinct lack of beds, food and coffee, we had made it… and made a dream come true. And, as if to reward our perseverance…
“There’s a café…”
My passenger cast his eyes to the heavens in mock-despair, but did not challenge the assertion. The first time I’d ‘found’ an unexpected llama in an unlikely place, he hadn’t believed me… until we got close enough to see and meet Lammas, the sheep-herding llama of the North Yorkshire moors, who had given us directions to a sacred site. This time, however, I was wrong… as we drove closer, we could see that they weren’t llamas after all. Just their smaller cousins, alpacas. Which was close enough for me. But coffee and creatures could wait. There were stones to meet first.
The official car park by the recently built visitor centre was full. There were even coaches. This did not bode well. We never expect to get the great ancient sites to ourselves… but we live in hopes that they will prove to be quiet. I tried a little side road, looking for somewhere to park, and we found ourselves face to face with the stones at last. And, in spite of the number of people milling around, it almost seemed quiet… the collective presence of the stones dwarfed the ephemeral presence of humankind.
And so it should. Around five thousand years ago, a ring was marked out as part of a ritual landscape. Over the next hundred years or so, a stone circle was erected, to which was added an avenue, three stone rows and a central monolith, creating the basic shape we know today…that of a slightly skewed Celtic Cross, a symbol that would be borrowed by Celtic Christianity over three thousand years later.
At the base of the monolith, which stands nearly sixteen feet tall, but only a foot thick, and in the centre of the circle, a burial chamber was added. This was not for a single, important interment, but would be used by the people of Tursachan Chalanais for several hundred years.
I always feel that I have to give a glimpse of both history and dimensions when I write about these ancient places, saying, for example, that the avenue is two hundred and seventy-three feet long, or that the central monolith weighs around fifteen and a half thousand pounds. You have to give things context and scale.
I could speak of how the stones, referred to by seventeenth century locals as ‘false men’ turned to stone by an enchanter, were set up so that the chief priest could address the tribes from their centre. Or how Toland identified the stones as the Hyperborean circle mentioned by Diodorus Siculus.
I could even tell how the stones were buried and lay sleeping beneath a layer of peat five feet deep until they were uncovered and their full height revealed once again in the nineteenth century.
But honestly? We were not thinking of dates, facts and figures. In spite of all the parked cars at the visitor centre, we had the place almost to ourselves… at least to begin with. We were not speculating on purposes and alignments. We were just bouncing with excitement… and overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the stones, both collectively and individually, and with their setting.
Like a fine jewel, the eye is drawn to the stone, but it is the setting that holds and presents the gem… and is itself a thing of beauty. Beyond the stones, the loch and the hills had their own stories to tell. There would be time to look closer… but for now, all we could do was marvel and, as the low, grey clouds scudded overhead, take advantage of the lack of rain to take photographs.
After decades of wondering if we would ever see the place, the unlikelihood of our ever getting back there again meant that, without discussing it at all, we were documenting the site as best we could. We learned a long time ago that, in the excitement of the moment, we miss a great deal… but the camera can pick up the slack.
We learned how best to document an ancient church, for example, knowing that if we never went back there, we would have every nook and cranny captured and anything the eye had missed, the camera would usually record as part of a process that leaves the mind free to wonder and the heart free to feel its way into a sacred place.
And so we wandered and wondered, taking photographs of every stone from several angles, gasping and drawing each other’s attention to stones shaped like figures and faces, animals and hands. Exclaiming at the crystalline structure and the patterns of flowing and folded stone.
It was too much. Overwhelming. There was no way we could process such a vast and incredible place all in one go… and especially not when another coachload of tourists was disgorged onto the grass. We retired to the strange hump outside the walls to sit, in apparent invisibility, until the place quietened down once again.
Invisibility and Other Weirdness…
Just beyond the standing stones of Callanish is a small hillock of boulders and green earth. It was here we sat, partly to contemplate the enormity of the site before us… a place we had both long wanted to visit and thought we might never see… but also to await the departure of the latest horde of tourists. While we are glad to see a resurgence of interest in these ancient places and understand the exigencies of the ubiquitous guided tour, it always feels wrong, somehow, to see crowds being disgorged from huge coaches, knowing visitors are obliged to ‘do’ the site in fifteen minutes, take a few pictures to prove they were there and leave without ever having a chance to feel the spirit of a place or contemplate its relationship with earth, hills and sky.
So, in the lee of a great stone, we waited. The hillock and its boulders may well be a natural feature… I have found no official reference to it being anything else… but if it is now as it was five thousand years ago when construction was begun at Callanish, there is no doubt in our minds that it would have been used and formed part of the ritual site. If we could see its ritual possibilities, our ancestors would not have missed them.
The odd thing was that, although we were in the open and in plain sight, we appeared to be completely invisible to the other visitors. No-one met our eyes or smiled, no-one acknowledged our presence. Several people almost stood on us. Indeed, one visitor stood so close, taking photographs, that our feet were almost touching… yet we might as well have been wearing elven cloaks and hidden from view.
It is not the first time we have encountered this at the old places, especially when something is afoot. But, while you can shrug off a couple on the high moors who do not acknowledge your presence, or the lone walker who will not meet your eyes, or a small party that ignores and does not greet you, it feels distinctly weird when you appear to be unseen amidst so large a throng.
Eventually, we gave up. As soon as one load of coaches had reclaimed their passengers, another load arrived. It was almost noon… a busy period for visitors. Our timing and our luck was out so we headed back to the car and in search of the first coffee of the day. We had not far to seek… the alpacas I had seen on the way to the stones proved, like their larger, and now legendary cousin, Lammas, to be great guides. Within minutes we had found both coffee and the best bread and butter pudding, served warm and with custard, at a little place rejoicing in the name of Alpacaccino’s.
It was odd enough to find that much-needed cuppa through the good offices of alpacas on a Hebridean island. It was quite a coincidence to find that the owner was a Lancashire lad who came from Stuart’s neck of the woods and who knew my childhood haunts in Yorkshire too. Given his roots on both sides of the Pennines, there was nothing strange about the welcome or the friendliness… but the earnestness with which he was trying to convince us to move to the Isles within minutes of meeting us seemed a tad on the strange side. As did his suggestion we buy the house up for sale a few doors away, even going so far as to tell us the minimum offer the owner would accept… and suggest the best ways of earning a living when we did!
And, all the while, Topaz, the resident peacock, maintained a determined and amorous serenade, in spite of all attempts to shush him by his owners. He rattled his tail feathers and displayed his multi-eyed glory as he called. Apparently, he thought me a suitable mate… For some reason, as Stuart pointed out, they always seem to display for me.
We learned a little more about how the stones of Callanish had been suppressed for centuries by religious bias and of the festival that would be held there at the summer solstice that was just days away. And that was enough to send us back up the hill again to spend time with the stones of Callanish and get to know the site better in the ever-changing light…
We had returned to the stones of Callanish for a second attempt at getting the feel of a place of which we had a little knowledge but no real understanding. Facts are not enough, you have to walk the land before you can begin to know it.
We knew, for example, that there are astronomical alignments at Callanish. And, for once, we did actually know that… it was not some weird theory thrown out by folk whose perception of reality seems skewed when seen through other eyes. At Callanish, Castlerigg and other stone circles throughout the realm, scientists are now able to offer incontrovertible proof that such alignments were part of the original design.
The University of Adelaide, bless them, decided to put the theories to the test and, through the use of statistical analysis, 3D imaging and a host of other modern and acceptably scientific methods, were able to determine that… as we and the rest of the ‘lunatic fringe’ have always maintained… the stones themselves stand in relationship with the sun, moon and stars, with their movements in the heavens, and with the topography of the surrounding landscape.
At Callanish, for example, just one of the astronomical events associated with the site is enough to illustrate the scale upon which the Old Ones worked. The moon at its major standstill, which only happens every 18.61 years, seems to rise and set from behind the distant hills, caressing the form of a gravid goddess. She is known as Sleeping Beauty, which seemed an odd coincidence given the theme we had chosen for our next ritual workshop.
Her other name is The Old Woman of the Moors, which in Gaelic is Cailleach na Mointeach… and we had encountered the Cailleach several times over the preceding few days, both during and after the workshop in the Highlands and on the Isle of Skye.
As the moon travels across the form of the sleeping Cailleach, anyone standing on the hillock where we had been sitting to ponder its significance, will be silhouetted against, and appear to emerge from, the full moon… which would have been an impressive and magical sight.
Who were these people, five thousand years ago, who had the knowledge, vision and skill to work on such a vast scale, not only on these islands but across the lands of Albion? We still, even knowing better from the archaeological record, tend to think of them as ‘primitive’ and yet, we have seen too many similarities in the ancient sites across the land to believe that each small community was building its temples in isolation.
Not only the forms of the monuments, their alignments and connections, but even the shapes of the stones, from the lozenge to the ‘hammer’, from the cowled figures to the cattle and horse heads, are repeated hundreds of miles apart.
One local folk tale says that a Priest-King came to the island with many ships carrying priests and ‘black men’… which may mean dark skinned or just dark haired and tanned, in contrast to the Viking heritage of the isle. The priests wore robes of fur and feathers and the Priest-King wore a white robe and a collar of mallard feathers. He was accompanied everywhere by wrens flying around him. The tale says that it was the ‘black men’ who erected the stones at his direction.
Another tale speaks of the giants who held council at the place where the stones now stand, but were turned to stone by St Kiaran when they refused a Christian baptism… a tale told in many forms about many of the stones associated with the old worship. It is also held locally that there are certain families on the island who are held in respect as ‘belonging to the stones’. For them, the mists that veil the stones’ secrets part.
As we explored and dodged the parties of sightseers, I noticed one man, probably in his thirties or early forties, and wearing a blue jacket. He seemed out of place and walked apart from his coach party, although it later seemed he was travelling with an elderly gentleman who had that see-through look of one who may not have much time left. I felt this was a last trip together for father and son.
The young man kept watching us and I felt drawn to him. I had the feeling that he would have liked more time and space to find a deeper connection with the site, but the coach would probably give them no more than half an hour at best. I kept expecting him to smile or speak, to make contact somehow. And, sure enough, he did, though in the least direct way…
As I stood in the centre of the circle, he was by the tallest stone. The elderly gentleman wandered over with a phone, passed it to the young man and asked him to take a picture of him standing by the stones. As he showed him the image, the young man said, in a voice loud enough to reach me and no-one else, “I wish there was someone who would take one of the two of us together…” I smiled and walked over, meeting his eyes and holding out my hand for the camera.
It was a very small thing… the kind of thing you would do for anyone if asked… but the smile that lit up his face got to me somehow. When, a few minutes later, Stuart sat by the stone and began to chant, the young man in the blue jacket walked to a spot outside the circle, watching and listening.
The chant fell curiously flat. The resonance that usually characterises Stuart’s voice when we experiment with sound was missing. We had experienced something similar once before on Anglesey at a site we named ‘the Chanteater’… a place so starved that it seemed to swallow sound as blotting paper takes up water. Then, I had put my hands to the stone in support. Here, I stood within the central tomb, the place of the Ancestors, with arms outstretched.
We wondered about that, later. How could a site so visited be so starved of energy? Partly, perhaps, because the ‘new’ Christian faith, when it had arrived in the isles, had condemned the stones and their veneration for centuries. And perhaps partly because so many who visit the stones come only to look at them… as ‘sights’ not sacred sites.
But that came later… it seemed that we had work to do. At such moments, it doesn’t matter if there is anyone around, or what they think, there is no self-consciousness at all. You are feeling your way. Working… serving at an unknown altar. All I could see was Stuart before me and, between the stones, the man in the blue jacket, seated cross-legged on the grass and with us.
He was called away a few moments after we had done… back to his coach and eventually back to America, to judge by his accent, leaving behind the knowledge of a shared and silent service, and the knowledge that we are unlikely to cross paths again… I really should carry my card…
Strange meetings, coincidences… synchronicities… they happen at these ancient sites. Some moments take a place in memory out of all proportion to the outward event, and leave their mark on your heart. It is of such fleeting moments that magic is made.
Line of Sight
The stones of Callanish were still busy. We were going to need supplies… and still needed to refuel the car and pump up the dratted tyre yet again. We thought it was time to leave the stones behind and drive into Stornoway, the largest town on the island, to do the needful. The trouble was, we would have to pass a couple of sites on the way… and it would take a fair bit of discipline to simply drive past without stopping.
In my memory, we went straight from Callanish to the next site, but according to the time-stamp on the photographs, we must have succeeded in resisting temptation. The facilities of civilisation were, by that point, very necessary, and we had already learned that twenty-four hour opening had not been adopted this far north. We didn’t want to miss our chance and be caught with another flat tyre and nothing to eat that evening. Stornoway, with its own history, ancient fortifications and doubtless many places to eat and sleep, somehow did not manage to register in consciousness although it did provide us with the first non-ovine traffic jam we had seen for nearly a week.
We drove around the town twice, finding our way and noting that it seemed a lovely little place… and, having thus damned Stornoway with such faint praise, headed back towards Callanish as fast as the roads would take us. Towns, apparently, were not where we were supposed to be. Instead, and sensibly, we headed back towards Alpacaccino’s for another cuppa and a brownie to die for. Not only that, there were plug sockets with an invitation to recharge phones and batteries… something else we didn’t want taking us unawares again… After a night in the car and a couple of hours with the stones, pretty much everything was without charge. And then we were back on the trail.
When it had not looked as if we would be able to plan our trip to take us to the islands, I had briefly glanced at what other ancient sites might be in the area. My sources got as far as ‘Callanish Eighteen’ before I doggedly stopped looking. After all, what was the point of knowing what we were going to miss? I hadn’t even looked to see what or where the sites were. To be honest, I half expected the other seventeen or so to be no more than odd stones or ruined cairns… interesting, but not worth a trip on their own. I still need to research most of them, but when we stumbled across them, ‘Two’ and ‘Three’ came as a bit of a shock…
Just a stone’s throw across the loch that surrounds the stones of Callanish on three sides, we found Callanish Two. There are actually a huge number of ancient remains around the pristine waters of the loch, from prehistoric quartz quarries to submerged jetties and stone alignments, most of which would be missed by any but the most ardent stone-hunter. Some are visible only as humps of earth or odd stones, some are not currently visible at all… but there was no missing Callanish Two…
We had seen the signs for Two and Three from the road, very close to the main site. We had even caught a glimpse… and shown admirable restraint by driving past. Now it was time to explore. The sites are so close to the main site that there is no way at all that they were separate ventures. They had to have been connected and part of a much wider sacred landscape… like the dials on a chronograph, each with their own function, but all related and part of the same technology. We have seen this at so many places in the past, but few sites illustrate this idea better than Callanish.
We turned up a narrow lane that stopped beside a ruined house, ending at a gate into the field. Before us rose the stones of Two. To the right, just across the loch, the main site crowned the hill. To the left, Callanish Three poked its head above the rise. As for us, we were fair bouncing…
Caught in the Middle
It was definitely a first… I have never stood within one distinct stone circle and been able to look at two others on the near horizon. The stone circle of Callanish II, otherwise known as Cnoc Ceann a’Gharaidh, stands just three hundred feet from the shore of Loch Roag, within sight of the Callanish Stones, and nine hundred feet west of Callanish III. And you can feel it.
You have to wonder at their alignment, especially when you later realise that they are just one small grouping amongst nine stone circles within a ten mile radius… with at least another six known on this one small island.
The stones themselves are arranged in an elliptical ‘circle’ around a central cairn almost twenty-eight feet in diameter, which was almost certainly a burial mound. Many of the stones of the cairn have been scattered and it could easily be missed by the casual visitor… but there is a presence at this place that makes itself felt, millennia after the site was built.
Antiquarians explored the site in the nineteenth century, noting that the space within the stones was ‘causewayed’. Small holes, lined with pebbles were also found which were probably post holes and may have supported a wooden structure within the stones.
The place reminds me of a circle on the moors in Yorkshire that is thought to have been a place where the dead were prepared for burial. If that were so, then perhaps the presence of water, so close and separating this circle from the main monument of Callanish might be significant… the lands of the living held apart from the lands of the dead… though which would be which?
In front of the cairn is a stone slab, laid in the grass. I wondered if it had ever been designed to stand or whether it was a place of preparation? The Old Ones cleaned the flesh from the bones of the dead as part of their funerary rites.
To modern minds, this may seem barbarous or disgusting, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense in an era when there was no way to preserve flesh from decay and when the presence of the ancestral bones at the heart of many rites was considered both necessary and sacred.
Cleaning the bones may even have represented part of the rite of passage for the deceased, helping them on their way to the Otherworld by hastening the process, aiding the spirit to detach itself from life. In which case, defleshing their remains would have been a gesture of both love and respect.
There are only five of the circle’s stones now standing. The smallest is six and a half feet tall, while the tallest is nearly eleven feet in height. Their presence matches their stature and each stone has a distinct character.
There are traditional attributions for the shapes of certain stones. The Maiden stone is usually the triangular stone in a circle. The Mother is red, the Crone heavily textured and gnarled… while the masculine force is often marked by a stone heavily veined with quartz. At least one stone from this circle was lost. Thought to have Ogham carvings on its side, it was removed to Stornoway for ‘safekeeping’ and placed by the gates of Lews Castle… where it was later ‘accidentally’ broken up and used as building material…
As with many of the ancient places on these isles, little official excavation has been done to date… so we were able to wander between the stones, taking time getting to know each of them without preconceptions… simply feeling our way to the spirit of the place. But we were far from done with another circle peeping at us from the crest of the hill…
The Circle of the Seers
We left Callanish II and turned our backs to the Callanish Stones that crown the hill over the loch, and walked up the slope towards the third stone circle. Callainish III stands atop a small hill and is actually two stone circles, one inside the other.
The two rings are not circular but elliptical. The outer ring, around forty-five feet in diameter, has thirteen stones still in place, of which eight are still standing. The inner ring is a more definite oval shape and thirty four feet at its longest axis.
Only four of the inner stones remain. Beneath the turf, other stones are still buried and around the site are other stone settings and the stump of a broken standing stone. The circle is an imposing sight, with the tallest stones over six feet and a view back to the main site and Callanish II.
Callanish III is also known as Cnoc Fillibhir Bheag, which could be rendered as the ‘little hill of the long-seers’. Interestingly, Google translates the Scottish Gaelic as the ‘hill of the fillies’, and, while I would never entirely trust Google’s expertise where translation is concerned, there is ample evidence that the horse was revered in ancient times.
We have seen many standing stones that look like sculptures of horses, including one at the main site and, although the White Horse at Uffington, where Stuart and I began our adventures together several years ago now, is a mere baby at three thousand years old, it is a significant reminder of the cult of the horse, thought by many to represent the goddess Epona. (Unless the Horse is actually a dragon, but that’s another story…)
‘Long-seers’, though, that is an intriguing name. Were they seeing far across distance, time or levels of reality? Were they looking to the stars or into the hearts of men? That, perhaps, is a question to which we may never know the whole answer… unless we can spend time there and feel it for ourselves.
But we do know that there is something about this circle that uses time, space and the distant landscape to spectacular effect, and that every 18.6 years, at the major lunar standstill, magic happens; for the moon touches the most significant stones of the circle as it passes along the horizon, following the curves of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the Cailleach na Mointeach, or Old Woman of the Hills.
The moon, at this time, seems to appear above her legs, travelling over her body and breasts before disappearing. When it reappears, it can be seen within the Callanish Stones where, legend has it, a Shining One walks down the path formed by the avenue of stones. At such moments, were those who built the circles witnessing the rebirth of a god?
It may seem curious that the ‘sleeping beauty’ forming the recumbent and gravid figure of the goddess is also an ‘old woman’, until you realise that these are the Maiden, Mother and Crone, aspects of the Triple Goddess. The stones recognised as representing these three aspects… triangular, red and gnarled… as well as the phallic, quartz-veined stone that represents the Divine Masculine, are all clearly present within the circle of Calanish III.
We were not there, sadly, at the right time to see this particular magic for ourselves, but we were there just days before the summer solstice… and that allowed us to touch a different kind of magic, with the earth full of energy and a sky full of light, even in the hours of night.
So we wandered the stones, watching our step in a field the sheep had wandered before us. There was a sense of poised presence in the stones of the circle and nowhere more so than when we stood before the Crone Stone that represents the Cailleach. It was here that we paused, silently called to a communion with stone, earth and light, looking to the hills across the loch.
You know when the work is done and the time has come to leave. Paying our final respects, we turned away and headed back towards the car. Looking across towards the main site, we saw the light changing. By this time, it was getting late. The flow of tourists had ceased and we felt there was only one thing we could do… we headed back to Callanish.
Third Time Lucky…
The light was changing. Not that it had been doing anything else all day… the light in the Western Isles is amazing… but it was, by this time, almost eight thirty and we were rather expecting the light to fade as the sun sank below the horizon. It would not be summer solstice for another couple of days and the coachloads of tourists had long since departed… so we headed back to the Callanish Stones.
There were just a few campervans parked close by, securing their spots for the festival that would be held at the stones for the solstice. Not a big affair, we were told, but with music and megalithophiles like us choosing to celebrate the turning of the year at this remote and magical site. One woman, cross-legged in the door of her van, smiled and acknowledged us as we entered the stones. Apart from that, we had the place to ourselves.
The light changed, moment to moment, throwing the stones into relief as dark silhouettes against the low clouds and hills… or illuminating them with a golden glow. Long shadows stretched out across the turf and the stones danced for us as the shadows shifted and played in the dying day.
Every stone came to life. They are made of the oldest bones of the earth, Lewissian gneiss, formed in the Precambrian era. Layer upon layer, compressed under intense heat and pressure at their formation hundreds of millions of years ago… twisted, folded, interspersed with quartz until they look like petrified trees or stone-frozen water. Each stone holds the memory of flame and beginnings, each bears the colours of earth, sea and blood as they reach to the stars.
We walked in wonder through a forest of living stone, where faces and forms revealed themselves in the ever-changing light. Where figures, from between time and reality, seemed to watch as we watched, in kinship and recognition. Pure magic.
Even as we tried to capture at least some of the magic on camera, a tight ball of emotion caught at my breath. The entire landscape was complicit… misty hills, the sparkling silver of the loch, iron clouds parting to reveal a clear, blue sky, impossibly green turf playing with shadows and showing strange and wonderful patterns in the earth… it was an incredible experience that words cannot contain.
We didn’t have the place to ourselves for very long, though. One by one, others arrived. Not the hordes we had seen earlier, just a few, all quietly sharing the end of day at the stones. A couple of photographers, one excitedly pointing out to me the horse-stone I had photographed that morning… a stone that reminded me of the unicorn with which we had been working over the workshop weekend just two days, and somehow a lifetime, before.
Time does strange and generous things on these adventures. There are practical reasons for that… we waste no time on mundane pursuits when we have so little to spare, but it does seem to stretch itself around our needs in some inexplicable way. And never more than here…
One thing we had not ‘wasted’ any time on was finding somewhere to stay for the night. After spending the previous night in the car, we were obviously going to need a hotel, a bathroom and a decent breakfast. Except, we hadn’t booked anywhere.
In fact, it hadn’t occurred to either of us to look for anywhere. Somehow, it went without saying that we would be spending a second night in the car. Had we booked a room, we would probably have been ensconced there by this time, missing this amazing interplay of light, stone and artistry. We would still be there at nine next morning, finishing breakfast… and wasting time we did not have. Ferry to ferry, after all, we had only twenty-six hours on the island…
We left the stones, spotting a possible outlier in someone’s back garden on our way back to the car. It was still full daylight… we had seen no sunset… but we had seen a spot a few miles away where we might be able to park for the night. It wasn’t the Fairy Rock Motel, but it seemed a quiet enough place. We headed off, little knowing how much the night still had to offer…
Missed and Found…
We were heading out to a spot we had seen earlier where we might be able to park up for the night. It had looked perfect when we had first noticed it, almost as good as the Fairy Rock Motel, but, although it was getting on for nine o’clock, the light showed no intentions of fading and, on a second look, in broad daylight it seemed to lack the privacy we preferred.
Parking safely was not the easiest thing to do on the narrow island roads. Had it been easier, we would have undoubtedly explored the Callanish IV stone circle, Ceann Hulavig, that we could see as we passed, frustrated by our inability to do more than look from a distance. The stones, nine feet tall, form a circle around a central cairn and from it you can… if you can park… see the three circles we had already visited that day.
We would certainly have visited Callanish VIII, the Cleitir stone setting, just above the bridge that links the Isle of Lewis to the tiny island of Great Bernera. We crossed that bridge, looking for a place to park and following an intriguing sign that pointed towards an ancient dwelling.
But, once again, the blinkers were still firmly in place… and, had we but realised, were to remain so for a little while longer. We followed the trail we were given, going where the light and the long, winding road was leading. We didn’t even realise we had crossed from one isle to the next. We were using no maps, had no idea where we were… and didn’t really care. Wherever the journey had taken us so far had been magical… and this road was to be no exception. Especially as, all unknowing, we were travelling the path of the moon through the body of the goddess… Sleeping Beauty, the Cailleach.
The road ended at a small car park, with just one other empty vehicle. We had seen no further sign of the alleged ancient dwelling… to be fair, it could have been anywhere, including a long trek across the hills. There were no houses of any age, in fact, just curious sheep and a very welcome public toilet, spotlessly clean and open even at this late hour. Around us, green hills hid the wider landscape from view and below us a small cemetery was, quite literally, the end of the road. It was only when we got out of the car that we realised we had reached the sea.
The greenest grass, starred with a million white daises, rolled down to a pale, empty beach and a sea of turquoise crystal. Great drifts of flowing, folded stone bordered the path to a silence broken only by the waves. Tiny islands fringed the sheltered cove and the place was as near to paradise as I could imagine.
Just one thing looked out of place. Where the rocks rose above the waves, oyster-catchers perched and we could see a curious, man-made shape breaking the water. It was only later that we found out what it was… the Time and Tide Bell.
The Bell is the work of artist Marcus Vergette and there are a number of these bells around the country. This one was installed at Bosta Beach in 2010, “to create, celebrate, and reinforce connections; between different parts of the country, between the land and the sea, between ourselves and our environment.” The bells are designed to be rung by the rising and falling tides and, given the sea levels when we arrived and left, we must have just missed hearing it sound.
The bells are also designed to draw attention to rising sea levels and will doubtless, one day, fall silent. Against that day, each bell carries a unique inscription. At Bosta, it reads:
Gun mhuthadh gun truas
A’ sluaisreadh gainneim h na tràgh’d
An àtaireachd bhuan
Cluinn fuaim na h-àtairreachd àrd.
Mo leabaidh dean suas
Ri fuaim na h-àtaireachd àrd
Without change, without pity
Breaking on the sand of the beach
The ceaseless surge
Listen to the high surge of the sea
Make my resting place be
By the sound of the surge of the sea
We walked down towards the deserted shore. The light was opalescent, otherworldly… and still showed no inclination to depart although, by now, it was half-past nine. Which was just as well, really… because we finally stumbled across a sign for that ancient dwelling…
An Unexpected Hobbit-House
If you didn’t know the house was there, you would miss it… and we only knew it was there because of a helpful sign. Not just a house, but a small village. Only one of the houses is complete and it stands beside the clearest of streams. It is built of local stone, roofed with living turf and held within the embrace of the hills.
Odd artefacts had been found for many years at Bosta, suggesting that something important might be hidden beneath the shifting sands of the dunes. It was not until 1996 that storms moved the sands enough for the village to reveal itself.
Five houses were excavated, built so that they were half underground, protected by double walls and doorways facing south. With the living turf as their thatch, they would have been hidden from view and, being low to the ground, sheltered too from wind and storm.
Each house had small chambers opening from a central room with a stone hearth at its heart. Above one of these Iron Age, or perhaps Pictish homes, dating from around sixteen hundred years ago, the remains of a Norse house were also discovered with a midden… a rubbish dump… in which were found many small artefacts.
The nature of the terrain meant that all but one of the newly discovered homes had to be backfilled with sand to protect them and at least one of the houses was left completely untouched for future generations of archaeologists to study.
One house, though, has been recreated and can be entered… at least during reasonable hours. Being almost ten o’clock at night, we knew that we were not going to get inside! But we were still able to visit and fall in love with the place.
The padlocked door almost defeated the camera… the pictures I managed to get of the interior were too dark and grainy to share, but you could see that the interior was far more spacious than the outside suggested… and more comfortable too, with stone-lined walls and stone-built furnishings.
We had seen at other prehistoric dwellings that the technology used in these homes was far more sophisticated than it looked. Archaeologists studying the roundhouses of Castell Henllys in Wales, for example, had discovered that the thatch filtered the smoke without need for a chimney-hole in the ceiling.
The smoke rises to linger just above head height in the roundhouses, acting as a natural insecticide and preservative for the thatch… and the occupants might have been glad of that too, keeping bugs to a minimum both on their persons and in their food and clothing.
From our perspective, the place looked warm, cosy and inviting and we would have gladly taken up residence. With clean, running water outside the door, the sea to bathe in and the land and water to provide food, we would lack for little. Apart from anything else, a hobbit house would suit me fine.
Speaking of taking up residence, we wondered about staying the night in the deserted car park. Dawn by the sea would be wonderful and we would have access to both a toilet and a possible cold ‘bath’. Perfect!
So we wandered back along the shore, stopping to marvel at the crystal clarity of the water and the sheer variety and abundance of the types and colours of seaweed in the little stream where it met the sea. But we were not the only ones to have that idea and a rather noisy gathering of campers had parked right beside us. We would have to think again… and it was getting late, in spite of the blue sky still peeping through the clouds. But we did know one spot where we might be able to park for the night…
A Room with a View…
We might have been able to find a room in Stornoway, had we looked, but it had never entered our heads when we went there to pump up the tyre. After spending the previous night sleeping in the car, and given the choice between repeating the experience or a nice, warm room with a bathroom, comfy bed and a cooked breakfast in the morning, there really was no contest. It must have been after ten thirty by the time we arrived at where we had chosen to spend the night and the view through our windows was spectacular.
We tucked the car up for the night in a corner by a derelict building, just outside the enclosure of Callanish II stone circle and we could both see and feel the presence of the stones as we wrapped ourselves against the evening chill and snuggled down. Through the windscreen, the stones of Callanish were silhouetted against the sky, through the back window, I could just see Callanish III, the Circle of the Long-seers, peeping over the rise. Across the loch, the Cailleach slept, her form still visible in the dusk-blue hills. It was a perfect spot.
Solstice, the longest day, was almost upon us. There would be no darkness this far north… no starry skies, just those patches of darkening blue glimpsed through low, grey cloud. There was utter silence, complete stillness, and a sense of being held safe in a sacred space.
I have always wanted to spend a night sleeping and dreaming within a stone circle… and we were surrounded by them. Apart from the three we had already visited, and the two we had ‘missed’ but which also overlooked our sleeping spot from a distance, there were also the remnants of several other circles surrounding us: Druim na h’ Aon Chloich, Druirn nan Eun… the ridge of the birds… and the small stone circle close to the main site. And that is without the various standing stones scattered across the landscape in the area or the timber circle now lost beneath the waters of the loch.
Is it any wonder that I slept like a baby and dreamed the night through? Or that I have dreamed of the stones and the island every night since that one, waking with vague memories of strange lore and clear images of a place seen for just a few hours? Or even that, long before we would have even started breakfast in a hotel, we were back on the road next morning, heading to yet another stone circle? Though this one was to prove a little different….
After our second night sleeping in the cavernous car, we woke to a pale, opalescent sky over the stones of Callanish. Considering how many decades we had wanted to visit the site, it was a wonderful way to wake. It was also odd that neither of us felt the need to return to the stones. At least not on this trip. We felt that we had done what we had been called to do… whatever that was. At that point, we were still travelling blind and taking each moment on trust.
The café with the alpacas would not open for several hours, so there was no point in lingering… coffee would have to wait, we had enough supplies for a meagre breakfast and we had an island to explore before the afternoon ferry would carry us back over the sea to Skye.
We had seen the sign for another stone circle, not far along the road that leads back towards Stornoway and decided to take a look. I had noted a parking spot as we had passed the day before and a sign pointing up onto the peat. By now, my phone was completely dead and Stuart’s had just enough charge for emergencies, so we could have done no research, even if we had wanted to. We had no idea what to expect or how far we would have to walk… but that is part of the adventure.
The sign pointed vaguely up onto the moor and luckily, an unexpected bench gave us something to aim for so we chose the right path. As we crested the rise, we could see only a boggy peat-cut and a single standing stone. We had no way of knowing quite how much the scene at Achmore stone circle revealed about the history of the island and its people.
The peat on Lewis began its life as vegetation, some seven thousand years ago. As the plants, mostly sphagnum moss, began to decompose in waterlogged areas of land, the acidic conditions halted the process, preserving the plants and forming the peat. Each ten centimetres depth of peat represents around a century of formation… and the peat cuts here are deep.
Peat has been used as fuel on the islands for thousands of years and the traces of its harvesting are everywhere, even today. Neat lines of exposed peat show where it is still being cut, cut, dried, and taken home to be stacked against the winter chill. But that was not its only use in the Western Isles.
At Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist, a little further south of Lewis, a Bronze Age site was found that contained, amongst many other burials and cremations, two unique skeletons. Due to their state of preservation, it was some time before archaeologists realised that the male and female skeletons were composed of bones from numerous individuals, making two composite beings, using body parts from people who had died over a period of six hundred years. Not only that, the remains of the deceased individuals had been deliberately mummified immediately after death by immersing them in the peat bogs to prevent decomposition.
Were they representing all the ancestors who had passed over to the Otherworld, becoming a point of contact with them? Were they chieftains, seers or shamans? The male was the first to be preserved and placed on display, and he was joined three centuries later by the female. It was only towards the end of the Bronze Age that they were reverently buried and a new site built over their tomb, showing just how long the site was in use and how important a part of the local life these composite ancestors must have been.
It was the peat-cutting at Achmore that had revealed the stone circle where we were now standing. Crofters told Gerald Ponting and Margaret Curtis, two local amateur archaeologists, about the stones in 1981 and they went to have a look. What they found was a ruined but recognisable circle of twenty-two stones, of which only two remain standing, and almost a hundred and thirty-five feet in diameter, built five thousand years ago to mark major solar and lunar events and link them to the land.
In spite of the fact that most of the stones have fallen, it remains in a remarkable state of preservation, thanks to the peat, and allows you to see the way the stones were planted and supported in their sockets with smaller stones.
It still has a distinct presence too, looking out across the lochans and land towards the hills known as Sleeping Beauty, or the Cailleach na Mointeach, ‘the Old Woman of the Moors’; hills that resemble a woman laid on her back on the horizon and who, from Achmore… and only from here… is obviously pregnant. That the composite figure of Maiden, Mother and Crone can only be seen from this point must have given the site a very special place at the heart of the complex of circles, avenues and standing stones that spreads across this part of the island.
The morning mists veiled the distant hills, allowing us brief glimpses of the reclining goddess as we walked the circle. Stones rest against the peat banks and drown in the clear water that pools in every depression. The ground is a mass of miniature plant life and wildflowers, seeking shelter on the exposed moorland from the winter gales by clinging low to the earth. Only the deceptively fragile harebells and Scottish thistles raise their heads above the grass. Below us, lochs shimmered silver in the early light and around us pale, lichen-covered stone seemed to glow. It was a magical way to begin the day.
Rainbows in Paradise
Because we had risen so early and wasted no time getting back on the road, we had several hours left before the ferry was to sail from Tarbert. We decided to use them seeing a little more of the island and set off back towards the tiny port. The morning was still clad in grey mists, but that took nothing away from the beauty of the hills, moorlands and lochs through which we passed. There were few places where we could stop to get pictures on Lewis, but it was enough to just drive through the wild majesty and to be there.
Seeing a sign for a café, we turned off the man road towards Ravenspoint… a name at which we smiled, given our associations with these birds… hoping to find coffee. The road took us along the shores of Loch Èireasort, an eight mile long sea inlet whose name echoes a time when the land was home to invading Vikings. We saw no sign of coffee for miles, so sat beside the shore for second breakfast from our supplies, watching the clouds, before turning back to rejoin the main road south.
We eventually found a small shop where we replenished our foodstuff before continuing southwards. The bleak peat moors had already given way to more mountainous country and was now changing yet again as we moved from that part of the island known as Lewis to the Isle of Harris. The rocky terrain and narrow road that snakes between the hills effectively hid the landscape ahead from view. We had no expectations, no idea of what we would find… until we turned a corner and saw paradise laid out before us.
The clouds broke, leaving a sky full of both drama and sunshine. The sea was a rainbow set in turquoise crystal, ringed by dark hills, emerald lawns and silver-gilt sands. I have never seen a lovelier place… and it took my breath away.
I stopped the car and we got out, awestruck. Who knew? I might have believed my eyes had I seen the scene as a picture in a travel brochure for some tropical island… but here, so far north… and in the British Isles… No photograph does it justice. The clarity of the sea, the shimmering opalescence of the air, the contrasts and colours, brilliant… jewel-like… I was lost for words.
It was odd too… yet again the rainbows. We had worked with rainbows at the April workshop and they had been waiting for us around every corner, or so it seemed. Sometimes in places you might expect, like the spray from the ferry’s wake. Other times, they were most unexpected… like the rainbow seas we had been encountering. We shouldn’t have been surprised… It had been just a few weeks since the April workshop and, every year, the symbolism we work with at that event seems to play out visibly on our travels. At this point, though, we were just lost in wonder, little knowing how weird it was going to get the following day…
We drove on, stopping occasionally to just drink in the landscape. The water was pristine, glassy and deep… you could see the clear seabed and all I wanted to do was dive in and lose myself in the turquoise depths. There is magic in the air and the shores are bordered by machair, the fertile, grassy dunes, strewn with wildflowers. You can easily understand why so many legends have emerged from these waters.
Above one beach, overlooking the Sound of Taransay, we spotted the ten-foot tall standing stone called Clach Mhic Leoid, or MacLeod’s Stone. Little excavation has been done at the site, so there is no official interpretation of the stone. There are boulders clustered close around its base… it may be part of a burial place or sacred site. It may have been a clan marker or part of a stone row or alignment. All that is known is that it was erected five thousand years ago, around the same time as the stone circles of the island, and that a skull was found close by in the dunes of the shore.
It is certainly not an isolated site, as one of the houses by the roadside at nearby Horgabost has the remains of a chambered cairn in its garden. I don’t often get garden-envy, but…
It was almost noon by the time that we finally found our first coffee of the day… and the first comfort stop too. The Seallam visitor centre also has a bookshop… always fatal… and we came away with a book of Scottish folk tales sporting a unicorn on the cover… another of those symbols we had been working with over the weekend and which had kept putting in an appearance.
Considerably more comfortable, we hit the road once more. We were hoping to reach the southernmost point of the road, at Rodel, which had a medieval church that we wanted to see. By the time we arrived, we had driven the island from east coast to west and almost from top to bottom, meandering down small roads in a state of dazed wonder. The church would provide a grounding return to normality… or so we thought…
A Medieval Church…
The ‘end’ of the road we were travelling through Harris took us to Rodel. It is not exactly the end as the road carries on, circling the island, through the hills and back along the eastern seaboard towards Tarbert… but it narrows to little more than a single car width and, with a ferry to catch, driving it would have to wait for our next visit. We already knew there would be one, some day. But, for now, we had a church to visit… and the road seemed to follow a spiral path up the mound on which it was built.
The church of St Clement is, according to everything you read, considered to be the finest medieval building in the Western Isles. And, although there are doubtless many other places of worship scattered through the villages, it was the first church we had seen since our arrival that resembled the ones with which we are most familiar.
St Clements is built upon a rocky mound, probably on the site of a much older church…and possibly on an even older sacred site. While we saw no direct evidence for that here, it was a common practice in the early days of Christianity to adopt the ancient places of reverence… indeed, it was encouraged by Rome. There are, however, prehistoric rock carvings close by, a standing stone not far away, as well as a possible submerged stone circle a few yards out to sea.
The first thing that strikes you about St Clements is its position, high on the rocky mound, with graves cut into its slopes and the now-familiar burial enclosures. The next thing is that the rocks themselves form part of the fabric of the church, with the tower being built over and around a large outcrop.
The church is built in the shape of the Cross, using local Lewissian gneiss. Some details, like the wheel-headed window above the altar and, as we would see, the arches within the church, are of a darker stone, flecked with minerals that catch the light and sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight. The whole building seems ‘right’ within the landscape, with the stones themselves telling the story of humankind’s earthy life with its hints of something ‘beyond’ in the glimpses of illumination.
Work on the present church began around 1520, at the instigation of Alexander MacLeod, known as Crotach, referring to the hunched back acquired fighting with the MacDonalds of the Isle of Skye.
The church became a burial place for the MacCleods of the island for centuries, but we were also to see MacDonald memorials in the churchyard, including the tragic stone dedicated to eleven year old John MacDonald, who fell through the ice and drowned in 1917.
The church fell into disuse soon after its construction, when the Reformation changed the nature of worship in Scotland, yet the McCleod burials continued to take place at the site and the churchyard holds many graves bearing that name, while the church itself bears many of the family’s heraldic symbols.
Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray restored the church built by his ancestral namesake in the last years of the eighteenth century. Above the door, a plaque commemorates the further restoration of the building in 1873 by the Countess of Dunmore.
Beneath the plaque is a carved crucifix that looks, at first glance to be a weathered face. There are many carvings on the outside of the tower, with bull’s heads, a beast associated with the Clan MacCleod, set into the string-course.
There is also a carving of a man wearing the ‘big covering’ that eventually evolved into the kilt now associated with Scotland.
But the bulls and other heraldic beasts are the least surprising of the medieval carvings set into the walls. Two figures would seem out of place on a church to modern eyes… and downright offensive to many. An attempt was made to censor the gentleman when the Countess sent one of her men to the church, armed with a gun and instructions to shoot off the salient points of the carving that she evidently found salacious.
Another figure is the oddest Sheela-na-gig we have seen to date, with the perspective seeming off-kilter. Perhaps the carving was supposed to look as if the figure were reclining and facing the viewer, but the stonemason lacked the skill… or perhaps we have lost the art of reading these so-called ‘primitive’ works.
The Sheela also seems to be holding something… a child, perhaps? If so, she hardly fits the official line of being placed on the church to ward off evil and seems to be more a celebration of the function of Woman than a depiction of Original Sin.
It is a peaceful place, at one with its landscape… and its stones, mound and enclosures seem almost to echo the earlier landscape of prehistory. There is a familiarity about the place that has less to do with it being a medieval church than it has to do with the continuity of the human story. I was glad we had made the journey down to the southern edge of the island. And that was before we went inside…
Swords in Stone…
“Those bright ones? They ferry you over to the Feast.”
George Mackay Brown, Tryst on Egilsay
At first glance, the medieval church of St Clement at Rodel seems to be empty… apart from the art installation that fills the old stone interior with movement and colour. Seven Waves is a work by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson, inspired by Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. The waves and poem together tell a story nine centuries old, of the betrayal and murder of Earl Magnus Erlendsson… but the church, a little younger than the tale the poet recounts, has its own stories to tell.
Even the walls speak, with the sparkling, dark stone of the arches into the side chapels contrasting with the sturdy masonry of the body of the church. Built to withstand gales from the sea, the thick walls have withstood storm and fire for five hundred years.
In the deep window embrasure opposite the doorway that leads into the nave, there is a medieval cross, carved from local stone. On one face is a depiction of the Crucifixion, while the other shows the kind of interlacing usually called ‘Celtic’. Near the base of the cross, the interlacing terminates in what looks rather like a shamrock, a symbol long associated with Ireland. I wondered if it was alluding to the Irish saint, Columba, whose path we have crossed so many times before, and who had brought Christianity to the Isles in the sixth century, or whether it symbolised the Trinity.
In a corner near the door, there are a few fragments of masonry, probably rescued from previous restorations. These are a common sight at medieval churches and we have found some wonderful things amongst old and overlooked piles of stone that have been tucked in odd corners.
Sometimes these fragments are far older than the church itself. The stone basin caught my eye… too small for a font, it was probably a stoup for holy water… but did it belong to St Clements or the place of worship that stood here before the current church?
From here, an arch leads to a stairway that climbs the tower. It was only partly open, so we could not scale the wooden ladders that lead to the top, but we were able to see how the great outcrop of stone we had noted outside the church had been incorporated into the fabric of the building. The little room halfway up the tower has a curious feel about it, something we both noticed, and can only ascribe to the presence of the stone.
Thwarted by locked doors, we descended once again into the nave, vainly hoping a few of the visitors might have left so we could have the place to ourselves. The church is built to a cruciform plan and, after we had read the poems and studied the Waves, and before we even attempted to tackle the sleeping knights, we ventured into the side chapels, where a number of medieval grave slabs were leaning against the walls.
One slab bears the familiar memento mori symbols and dates to 1725. The older slabs are medieval and bear carvings of swords, mainly claymores, the blade most associated with Scotland. Each stone is different, with intricate interlacing, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be more than just decoration. One slab has carvings of animals, another seems to have twin serpents flanking the blade. But our eyes and minds were drawn to the swords and their symbolism… perhaps making associations not intended by their designers, who were probably thinking in terms of strength, nobility and lineage. I, for one, could not help thinking of the Arthurian legends of the sword in the stone, which was odd, because we were not really in traditional Arthurian country … and yet the symbols of the legend had kept on cropping up and would continue to do so.
And we were certainly not lacking knights. In the south transept is the tomb of an armoured knight, believed to be that of John MacLeod of Minigish, who was clan leader of the MacLeods until his death in 1557.
Beneath a triangular pediment surmounted by a carving is another MacCleod, probably Alasdair Crotach’s son, William, the ninth clan Chief. But it is the tomb of his father, Alexander Macleod, known as Alasdair Crotach, for which the church is best known.
The reclining figure of the knight is carved from the same sparkling black stone as other details in the church. An inscription says that the tomb was ‘prepared by Lord Alexander, son of William MacLeod, Lord of Dunvegan, in the year of our lord 1528’. The effigy is surrounded by a magnificent series of medieval carvings, depicting everything from hunting scenes with dogs and stags, to a galley, saints and bishops and biblical figures.
One of my favourite panels sowed an angel and demon weighing the souls of the dead. Not only for the subject matter, but because the artist chose his stone carefully and the natural hue colours the demon red.
Another was the carving of the enthroned Virgin and Child, so reminiscent of the more ancient carvings of Isis and Osiris… and the ‘inner’ counterpart of the Sheela-na-gig on the outside of the church, perhaps… symbolism that reflects, in Christian terms, what the stone of Callanish and the goddess of the hills had shown at the other end of the island. A fitting journey through time and space for the final hours of our time on the island.
Over the Sea to Skye…
We left the medieval church at Rodel rather reluctantly… not just because there was still so much we wanted to explore, but because it meant we were heading north once again towards Tarbert and the ferry. Our time on the island was fast running out, but what we had managed to see in the short time we had been there was quite incredible… even we could barely believe it… and we still had a little time to spare.
There was something we had seen on the drive south… a group of pillars in the machair. It was all the excuse we needed to stop again. They could have been standing stones, but, on closer inspection, turned out to be trees, bleached silver by wind and weather.
We wandered across the dunes for a little while, neither of us showing any enthusiasm for returning to the car or the port. The scale of the landscape, the soft sands, the sunlit, flower-strewn grass and the sense of latent possibility were enchanting, in the truest sense of the word. We had no desire to break the spell.
But the clock was ticking. We regained the car and did not stop again until we could see inlet, full of little islets and the ferry-port of Tarbert far below us. There we paused, because we had time, to drink in the magic and beauty, as if preparing for a drought.
A high, rocky plateau, scattered with small lochans, looks out across the sea. The air, crystal clear… the waters pristine and blue… and, in my heart, the weight of saying farewell, as if to a place I had loved all my life, not somewhere I had known for just twenty-four hours.
But, we still had a couple of hours left before the ferry was due to sail and, beyond Tarbert, the road crosses a bridge to the tiny island of Scalpay and I could not resist even so brief a visit.
Before the trip, we had hoped to be able to visit one of the Scottish islands… thinking it would probably ‘just’ be Skye, to which we could drive across the bridge. Almost accidentally, it seemed, we had done rather better than ‘one’… Scalpay was our fifth island. Having worked with the pentagram at the workshop weekend two days before, that seemed rather appropriate.
There was only time for a brief ‘raid’, not an exploration. All too soon we had to park the car in the queue for the ferry, with just enough time to restock the cooler with snacks for the road and then we were underway. Last to load was a hearse with a private numberplate reading MacCleod. It would be the first off the ferry on Skye… that too seemed appropriate as we had been following the clan since we first set foot on the islands.
There were no mists to veil the isles on the return journey, just a little distant haze against the brilliant blue of the sea. Nor was the sea as preternaturally calm as we crossed this time. We were able to get a better look at the island that had drawn our attention… and saw the recumbent profile of the Old Man of Storr smiling at us as we approached Skye, as if to say we had passed his test. But, although we did not realise it at the time, he hadn’t done with us yet.
As the ferry was docking in Uig, we watched, fascinated, as three great hawsers were cast from the ship to the shore, tying the vessel to the land. As we awaited our call to disembark, we noticed that all the glass doors were etched with huge swords that we had failed to see on the outbound journey, but which, after the church at Rodel, seemed somehow significant in a vague way we couldn’t really place. There was also an advert on the wall for really cheap accommodation on Lewis… which we could have seen, and booked, on the way out. If we had, we would not have spent that second night in the car. We would have had charge in our phones… ways to contact people… We would have made other plans.
As it was, we used the last shreds of charge on the phone to book and pay for a hotel in Ayr. We knew it was going to be a long drive south, but didn’t bother to check the map; the ‘blindfold’ was on once again. Docking much later than expected, we managed to drive across Skye without pause, until we reached the mainland again and caught sight of Eilean Donan, one of the most photographed castles in Scotland, familiar from so many movies. As the light began to fade, I pulled in, briefly, to get a shot or two of my own, before hitting the road through the Highlands. We still had a long drive ahead…
Lap of the Gods…
It was already well after eight and the light was beginning to fade as we left Eilean Donan. During the crossing, we had booked a hotel in Ayr and, after two nights of sleeping unprepared in the car, we were looking forward to a shower, a decent bed and a chance to recharge phones and cameras. Even though our plans had changed so dramatically from our expectations, we were still hoping to be able to meet Mary in Dumfries the next day… if we were lucky and could get hold of her… and if she wasn’t busy… even if it was just for a cuppa and a chat.
Usually, we would be rather more careful about the logistics of such a journey… but, still on a dazed high from what we had seen and experienced on the islands, logic had left the premises. I knew the way from the ferry to the main road that leads through the Highlands. Getting to Glasgow would be easy enough and then Ayr would probably be signposted. Mind you… we hadn’t even thought to make a note of the hotel’s address…
And, even though I know those roads and know that the road through the Highlands is a country road, all twists and turns, it never once entered my head that every mile would take longer than on a motorway.
The first part of the journey was accomplished in fast-fading daylight. We passed beside lochs, through forests and beneath the towering mass of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. The land here is breathtaking… and we were on a mission, so could not stop to take photographs. I really wanted to reach better roads before the light failed.
We had a last glow of golden light as we passed between the hills of Glen Coe, a place so full of history and legend that it would never fit on a single page… and whose beauty is so majestic and awe-inspiring that no photograph could do it justice. High hills border the narrow road that climbs between waterfalls to a wide plateau above. Here, the road runs straight for miles, punctuated only by the odd vicious bend that could send the unwary skittering down the slopes.
It was here that we finally lost the light. In the dim, grey of dusk, pale shapes and luminous eyes watch the road… it is easy to understand why the area abounds with sightings of ghosts, though the headlights revealed most of them to be small deer. The road seems endless… until it begins, finally, to descend once more.
It was here that we came face to face with a huge red deer that stepped out, ready to cross the road in front of us. Aware of the wildlife around us and the treacherous stretches of road, I was driving with caution and spotted the movement early enough to slow down as I turned a corner that led us beneath the trees. The deer startled a little, but seemed unafraid as it appeared to look us in the eye. Then, almost casually, it turned back into the shadows. It was no more than the briefest of encounters, yet we felt a sense of inter-species recognition that is hard to explain.
Not long after that encounter, the last shreds of light disappeared and the rain began in earnest, driving against the windscreen. Stuart had the map in hand and discovered that we still had much farther to drive than we had anticipated. When I later checked on the computer, we would find that it was two hundred and seventy country miles from Uig to Ayr… at least a six and a half hour drive on those roads… and I had been driving for most of the day since our early start at Callanish that morning. I was determined to get us to that hotel… but the gods had other plans…
Three Nights in the Tomb…
It was already midnight as we drove along the shores of Loch Lomond. The black, shimmering banks seemed far less than ‘bonny’ as the water lapped at the kerb, the rain blurring the lines between the loch and the road that runs right along its edge. The roads and visibility were terrible… we hadn’t stopped for hours… and seeing a lay-by at the water’s edge, the decision was made to pull in and get some sleep. So much for the hotel that had been paid for… and any plans we had for recharging our own and our technology’s batteries.
Oddly enough, when I looked up our route on Google Maps later, I found we had given in and parked just below Lochan Uiane, the Fairy Loch, a sacred spring so named because in certain lights geometrical shapes in blue and green appear in the water. Science attributes this magical rainbow effect to minerals, but legends say that the little folk are responsible. The old tales say that when a wish was made and a fleece left overnight, the fairies would dye it to the desired colour. So, instead of stones, we slept with rainbows and fairies… our third unplanned night in the car, all within the sphere of sacred sites.
We woke four hours later at first light and my priority was to find a restroom and a coffee… it had been a long, long time since the ferry… A few miles down the road we found a small town with a twenty-four-hour MacDonald’s. Not ideal… but as long as I could use the washroom and get coffee, I’d have raided Hell itself. I might as well have done so… the doors were locked and the staff unheeding. The air was blue with unladylike language as I drove away.
By this time we were very tired, on edge… and I swore when the sky-gods, with seeming irony, decided to shower us with rainbows. We stopped, hours later and with gratitude, in Sanquhar, but didn’t find anywhere for coffee. We were not, at that point, all that far from Dumfries, where we were going to get the ruddy tyre changed, come hell or high water… and whether they could find anything wrong with it this time or not. It was still early when Stuart called a halt once more and I pulled into a tree-lined layby. We had a bite to eat, appreciating the green tranquillity of the trees… and I was asleep in minutes.
I am told that I awoke, briefly, an hour later when Stuart surfaced. Apparently, after one look at my squished face, he told me to go back to sleep. Another hour passed before I finally woke, to find the layby spotless. All the overflowed and discarded trash had been picked up and binned by Stuart as a thank you for the sanctuary the sheltering trees had offered… and a posse of jackdaws were strutting around.
“Three nights in the tomb…” We were completely refreshed after this stop. Good humour was restored and we were eager to get the tyre sorted so we could risk faster roads home.
Later, once we were home, I would look up that layby… and find that we had slept, once more, just minutes away from a stone circle. The Twelve Apostles… a name we know well from its counterpart at Ilkley… is the largest stone circle in Scotland and one of the largest on mainland Britain. It is aligned with the midwinter sunset, and local legend says the twelve stones were erected by the Apostles themselves, with one being removed for Judas Iscariot. The legend is wildly inaccurate, as the circle is a few thousand years older than the Christian story. Three miles beyond the Apostles is yet another stone circle, Easthill, and, on top of that, we were in Merlin country too… with legends of Myrddin Wylt running hand in hand with history.
With dead phones and no way of contacting Mary, all we saw of Dumfries was the tyre place. We did not detour for Cairn Holy as we had originally planned… we could save that for our next trip north when we will hook up with Mary. We didn’t even stop to revisit the magnificent Ruthwell Cross… we just headed for the motorway, heading south… and expecting our adventures to be over. You never know how wrong you can be…
Pause for Thought?
With its new tyre, the car was flying south, but, after the marathon drive of the day before, we had decided that a brief stop every couple of hours, to stretch legs and refresh minds, would be a good idea. I had already driven over two thousand miles over the past few days and we still had a fair way to go, with yet another long drive to come the next day. Which is why, just after we crossed from Scotland into England, I pulled off the motorway, looking for a café.
Instead, we found a pub by a church in the pretty village of Crosby on Eden. We sat outside in the sunshine, supplied with a mug of instant coffee that nonetheless tasted like nectar to me… and a pint of Guinness. The fact that the pub was called The Stag, after the encounter of the night before, was not lost on us either.
We watched a group of people coming towards the pub in dribs and drabs, almost all of them pausing to look over the wall of the churchyard down the street. We could tell we were back in England by the fact that the graveyard was part of the village, not apart from it… but, in some indefinable way, you could simply feel the difference. Perhaps it is the changing geology… the fault-line across the Borders… or maybe it is the difference in the stories of the two lands, so intimately linked, yet so far apart, but you can feel the change.
As we sat talking, a woman came over and sat at our table. She proceeded to talk, telling us all about the walk she was doing with a tour group, in great and unnecessary detail. While she was obviously and justifiably proud of the distance she had walked, it was not clear to us whether she was enjoying herself… and I am not sure she was any clearer on that herself. They were walking Hadrian’s Wall over the course of a week… just long sections of it, with hotels in between… but seeing the ‘best bits’ along the way.
We barely got a word in at all… it was rather odd. She seemed determined to deliver the entire story of her walk along the Wall… then, when she had done so, quite suddenly, got up and left us. Decidedly odd… but it settled where we were heading next.
But we were going nowhere until we had wandered down to the church to see exactly what everyone had been looking at. It wasn’t difficult to find… a corner of the churchyard had been made into a memorial garden for a young girl who was obviously much loved. Her headstone is beautiful… a dove of peace in a tree of life, with a simple heart carved on the back of the stone. Her passing is of fairly recent date, so, out of respect for her loved ones, the photograph I took was from far enough away not to show her name.
The rest of the churchyard holds older graves… and, of course, a church. St John the Evangelist is a Victorian church of unusual design, though it is most interesting as the site of a Saxon church and it still has a Norman font inside. We tried the door, only to find it locked, so we walked around it, looking at details and regretting that we were unable to go inside. Some of the windows were rather unusual, bearing six-pointed stars crafted from three-dimensional cut glass, with most of the stained glass just small vignettes encased within a vesica.
The vesica is a symbol we have worked with before, notably in Dorset at one of our workshops, where it was used in combination with the hexagram, a six-pointed star. The vesica is associated with the Divine Feminine, with which we had been working in various forms over the past few days, while the hexagram speaks of harmony and unity, ‘as above, so below’. Even though we took pictures of one of the windows from outside, we had no idea just how appropriate the images were going to be. We were still being led blindfold through the final day of our adventure.
Blithely unaware of what the rest of the day had in store for us, we headed back to the car. There was a nebulous sense of ‘something’ in the air, even though we had expected the adventures to be over and were supposed to be heading straight home. However, thanks to the strange woman at the Stag, we now knew that first, we were going to have to pay a flying visit to Hadrian’s Wall.
Hitting the Wall…
After the odd meeting with the woman at the pub, we now felt we had to visit Hadrian’s Wall. It had been on my mind for a while, for some reason, and had cropped up a lot in strange places as I read and researched various things. I admit that I felt that Stuart should one day see at least part of it… I have fond memories of time spent in the area and especially at the isolated Mithraeum on the moors. The trouble was, well… the Romans.
Now, it has to be said that, along with plumbing, central heating and a host of technological and educational innovations, the Romans brought a ‘civilising’ influence to the country that came to be known as Britain. But you have to take the word in a literal sense… they built cities. And with cities, you get administration, record-keeping, statutes and organisation… and control. In the case of the Romans, it was the control of the invader, imposing the will of its leadership on a foreign nation… and that seldom works out well, at least, not for the conquered nation.
Julius Caesar first invaded in 55BC, but he didn’t get far. The following year, he tried again and took a sneaky political control of a third of the country below what is now the Scottish border by installing client kings. Julius’ invasion was more a fact-finding mission than a full-scale invasion and, in AD43, when Aulus Plautius invaded with forty thousand men at his back, they were far better prepared and the Britons became part of Claudius’ empire. Those who lived beyond the border, a little way to the north of the wall in what is now Scotland, were a different matter.
In AD 60, Anglesey, the Holy Island of the Druids, was decimated and its shrines destroyed by the Roman general, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Britain was firmly under Roman rule. Sixty-two years later, the Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall to be built to mark the northernmost reach of his domain. Stretching across the land, east to west, from the Tyne to the Solway Firth, it ran unbroken for seventy-three miles. The wall was a stone structure, with an additional ditch, Roman road and vallum, a huge earthwork that runs almost coast to coast. It was punctuated by milecastles, forts and turrets, allowing the wall to be continually manned and ready for action along its entire length.
Much of the wall still remains and a great deal has been learned about the Roman way of life, public, military and personal, from what has been found along its length. The walls were up to twenty feet high and, on average, ten feet thick… and that is without the forts. Completed in around six years, it was, and is, a magnificent achievement… the largest Roman remains in the world. When new, it would not only have marked the extent of the empire, but with its white stone reflecting the light, it would have made an unmistakable statement about just who was in charge.
Given that our interest lies primarily with the earlier, indigenous culture of these isles… if, indeed, it was wholly indigenous… we don’t have a lot of time for the Romans. They are part of the story of this country, as they are of so many others across the globe, but their culture was not only superimposed upon our own, but marked the beginning of a misunderstanding of our native history that is only just beginning to be laid to rest.
There is a common misconception that ‘BC’… before Caesar… these islands were populated by uncouth, unsophisticated tribes, when in fact, the artefacts that have come to light over the years show that the people who lived here had a rich culture, full of poets, artists and colour… as well as the warriors and farmers. And five thousand years ago, millennia before the foundation of Rome, our ancestors were building complex astronomical alignments into vast stone temples that included and shaped entire landscapes.
The Romans held sway in Britain for four hundred years… and then they left, leaving Britain to face a new wave of invaders, which is the point in history where the legends of King Arthur begin to emerge. Some of their legacy was now so firmly entrenched in daily life that it remained. Other aspects of what was left behind we simply discarded, or recycled… like the stone from the wall, which was used as a ‘quarry’ and supplied the stone for many buildings, including the Norman Lanercost Priory, to which we nodded as we passed.
We did not see a great deal of the wall itself…at least, not compared to its length and history, but we touched base, visiting one of the ruined turrets, driving along a stretch of the wall to cast a glance at the crowded Birdoswald fort, where we decided against joining the throng. It was enough. Our hearts and minds were still processing what we had seen and experienced in the north… and there was still a long drive ahead. We turned the car, expecting to take our usual route home… but, even now, in the final hours of our journey, the road had some surprises in store.
Finding the Way…
I don’t mind driving on motorways but they are never my first choice of road. While they do, as long as there are no hold-ups, get you from A to B fast, they do not allow for adventures. You cannot stop to admire or explore the land… you can’t see an unknown road and turn down it on the spur of the moment, or head for that odd-shaped hill on the horizon. Once on a motorway, you are pretty much stuck until the appointed exit.
The stretch of motorway that runs between Carlisle and Kirby Lonsdale, though, is seldom busy and passes through such magnificent countryside that I am always glad to drive it. With the hills of the Lake District on one side and the Yorkshire Dales on the other, I know of few other bits of motorway that can compare. And I know it well; I used to drive it every weekend as I delivered the internal mail to a hotel chain around the country. I have driven it on business and for pleasure… and it was here that I kidnapped Stuart and our adventures together first began.
Therefore, although I was reluctant to leave the country lanes and our adventures behind, I dutifully obeyed common sense and got back on the motorway, heading south. I would come off at Kirby Lonsdale, and at least we would have the last hours of the day travelling through Yorkshire… something I am always glad to do.
So quite how I managed to leave at completely the wrong exit, I’ll never know.
I realised straight away and found somewhere to turn around. I supposed I was just still tired, even though I felt absolutely fine. I got back on the motorway and headed south again. And, yet again, inexplicably took the wrong exit. As I had already done that once when we had pulled off in search of a café, in spite of knowing the area so well, this made the third time… and three is a magical number and one that generally requires you to pay attention.
Oddly enough, we were on the same road that we had taken, all those years before, on our first unplanned expedition. That had to be significant. I knew I could get us to Kirby Lonsdale on the back roads… so this time, we did as we were being nudged to do, left the motorway behind and headed for the hills.
Although the roads were fairly familiar, I could not really remember exactly which way they went or where they would lead us. ‘Kirkoswald’, said Stuart, map in hand. The name was familiar… then we remembered that we’d had the place earmarked as a possible lunch stop for our Cumbria workshop last December. But I still couldn’t picture it, which is unusual for me… I usually have a very good memory for the places we have been.
It didn’t fall into place until we came to the top of a hill where we had turned the car around on one of our reconnaissance trips. We stopped at the village shop and noticed a pretty cottage for sale named for the Raven… and anything to do with ravens tends to make us start taking notice. There was a church there that we had also earmarked as a possible stop for the Cumbrian workshop, in case of inclement weather. It was not a church we had visited, though, as we had never found anywhere to park and had overshot the entry by miles.
Maybe, we thought, we could get there this time. So, off we went… and overshot the church yet again. This time though, I found a rather dodgy place to turn around and went back to the village, parking close to the Raven cottage. We knew there was something that had seemed worth seeing at the church, but could not remember what that might be. We had never even looked at pictures of the place. Hoping it would be worth the stop, we passed the odd, detached bell tower on its hill and opened the gate…
From the Depths…
We could see, as soon as we passed through the gate, that the church in Kirkoswald was going to be a good one. The village itself bears its name… Oswald’s church… and the dedication was given because the body of the sainted Northumbrian king had passed through the village after he was killed by Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia, at the Battle of Maserfield, fourteen hundred years ago.
We have crossed St Oswald’s path many times before. It was he whose relics had rested in Bamburgh Castle, which we had visited during the Northumbrian workshop, and he who had given the island of Lindisfarne to St Aidan, whose shrine we had also visited on that trip.
There are many tales of miracles associated with St Oswald, some of which have overtones more often associated with pagan, rather than Christian, myths. Perhaps the best known is that when he was slain, dismembered and beheaded on the battlefield, a raven lifted up his severed arm and took it high into a tree. The tree lived to be a venerable age, with all the vigour of youth… but, more importantly, for our adventure, where the arm finally fell to earth, a healing spring rose from the ground.
There are great yews guarding the churchyard, large enough to have stood watch for hundreds of years, and a collection of medieval grave slabs, similar to those we had seen the day before in the little church at Rodel… now over four hundred miles and almost a lifetime away. The Western Isles seemed almost to have retreated once more into the mists and yet they were very present in our hearts and minds as the adventure drew to its close.
We spent a while examining the details carved into the stones. One in particular caught my attention; covered in chevrons that looked almost like waves. Water, in all its forms, seemed to have played a rather prominent part in our adventures. The stones were arranged around the porch, whose massive timbers have sheltered the faithful since 1523. The church, though, is much older, and parts of the twelfth-century building still remain.
Before going inside, we took our usual wander around the church. As we rounded the corner, I remembered why we had thought this church might be a good place to bring the group at the December workshop had it rained; I had read that a sacred spring, dedicated to St Oswald, runs beneath the church and emerges by the west wall.
But we did not expect what we found… A well, straight out of legend, plunges deep into the roots of the church. Covered by a metal circle reminiscent of a shield, there are steps running down beside it to a small door at water-level. Above the well is a modern plaque, affirming the dedication of its water to the saintly king Oswald.
A hook holds a heavy, chained cup with which to draw water from the well. The waters of the well are clear and pure, its source unknown. Lowering the heavy cup on its chain to draw water seemed a magical act, a timeless connection to both the earth and its life-giving bounty and to our ancestors. In the old stories there is always a well-maiden, yet here was I, erstwhile maiden, now both mother and crone, engaged in an age-old task. I offered the cup to my companion, realising that this simple task drew together many threads of history, myth and legend, from the mundane to the arcane, from the quenching of thirst, through the hope of miracles, to the lore of the Grail.
We walked on, exploring the churchyard and were greeted by a grey-haired walker who looked like a modern-day Merlin, accompanied by his ever-curious dog. After the well, it felt right somehow.
Around the corner was another venerable yew tree and, just beyond it, a memorial in the shape of a Celtic Cross that drew our eye, not only for the stone itself, carved to commemorate a previous minister of the church, but for the fact that it bore the carving of a chalice. Nothing unusual there, not for the grave of a priest, but not a common motif… and an appropriate symbol for the moment.
Making our way back to the porch, we paused to wonder at the five-hundred year old beams from which it is made and wonder when the trees that made it had first grown. Beside the door were two weathered, unrecognisable heads. Would the interior hold any surprises? There was only one way to find out…
Filling the Cup…
We pushed open the door to St Oswald’s church. It is still with a feeling of anticipation that we cross the threshold of these ancient places of worship. Churches that look incredible from outside have sometimes been so unsympathetically restored and reordered over the centuries that they lack all character. Others, with unpromising exteriors, reveal wonderful things at their hearts… we never know what we might find.
St Oswald’s church in Kirkoswald is an old one. It is likely that there was an early church on the site before the current building was begun nine hundred years ago. Nothing now remains of the original building, which would probably have been made of wood, though a fragment of a wheel cross, inscribed with an eight-pointed star and around twelve hundred years old, still rests in a window embrasure.
In the nave, the Norman columns remain from the twelfth-century church, but most of the main body of the church dates to the thirteenth century, while the chancel was added later, in the sixteenth century.
The church has served the village and its people for hundreds of years. Although it was granted a market charter in the thirteenth century, the village never grew into a town. The Roll of Honour testifies to how many men and women from the village lost their lives in war and you can only imagine the effect such losses can have had in this small community.
The ends of the pews bear the shields of notable local families, carved or painted, and echoed in the heraldic stained glass windows of the chancel, created by John Scott of Carlisle. The area was once an important one, and the village still has the old moated enclosure, its castle and the ‘College’, a prestigious building from the time when St Oswald’s was a collegiate church, kept by twelve canons and a provost.
Part of the ‘College’ was once a Pele Tower, built in 1450 as a place of refuge and defence against the incursions of the Scottish Border Rievers. In 1547, after the Dissolution, the College became the home of the Fetherstonhaugh family, from Featherstone Castle in Northumberland. Given the details in the church, the history and connections, it was almost as if this old church were drawing together the threads of many workshops and adventures…
Some of the pews have wonderful ‘poppyhead’ carvings. The name does not relate to the flower, but comes via Old French, from the Latin word puppis, which was the poop or figurehead of a sailing ship. It had taken me a while to work that one out, as, although many of the church guides spoke of poppyheads on the ends of pews, none of them seemed to have any poppies on them… These particular pews are guarded by rather cheerful-looking winged beasts.
The font is a simple medieval bowl, almost unadorned apart from a later, wooden cover, remarkably similar to the one that covers the plain font at ‘our’ rainbow chapel in the south… one of the places that set us off adventuring.
You couldn’t help noticing the accumulating ‘coincidences’. It was no wonder the two ancient faces supporting the arches appeared to be amused…
We continued to explore, taking in and documenting the details, knowing that we would, inevitably, be back at some future date, when the things we were seeing might have fallen into place and make a little more sense.
The simplicity of the nave is left behind as you pass into the chancel through its high, narrow arch. Light streams in through the stained glass bearing the arms of local families, Celtic knotwork and, above the altar, Christ in Majesty amongst the saints… including a portrayal of St Oswald.
There are some rather grand memorials, although the one that caught my eye is a broken piece of alabaster dating to 1609, showing the deceased and his family flanked by symbols of time and death.
There is also a recumbent figure in medieval dress… and there was another on the pews as we took in the display in the south aisle. The wall is covered with pictures of chalices… which, after our visit to the holy well outside the church was both perfectly logical and somehow rather strange.
It is said that the Chalice used in esoteric work must be a gift and cannot simply be bought. After days in the ancient, sacred landscape, between the well, the carvings and the south aisle, we were suddenly ‘gifted’ with more chalices than you could possibly need to drive an idea into dense human minds… and we still had no idea what was going on. The blinkers were still firmly in place… but not for long…
Drawing in the Threads…
I turned the car down a narrow lane to greet Long Meg and her Daughters. Leaving Kirkoswald church, we had taken the route we have travelled so often towards Penrith. We had driven up and down this road, backwards and forwards, on previous visits, on the reconnaissance trip for the Cumbrian workshop and during the workshop itself. We know this road… every tiny turn-off, every place of interest… we even pointed out a few of them and reminisced. So it was rather disconcerting to find that the most important sites along it had been screened from consciousness until we were almost upon them and waved, in passing, to the circle known as Little Meg.
Between one fleeting glimpse of the stone circle in its isolated field and the next side-road is a mere matter of seconds to drive… just long enough for a quick ‘should we?’… for the expectation of the usual answer at the end of an adventure… ‘no, let’s just get back now’… and a mental ‘yes!’ when the answer that came back was that we really ought to pay our respects… it would be rude not to.
We both felt the now-familiar jolt as we passed the unseen boundary where we had first been ambushed by the stones of this ancient circle, built around the same time as the megalithic temples of Callanish where we had woken just thirty six hours earlier. Even then, it seemed incredible that we had seen and experienced so much in just a few days. Perhaps the ‘blindfold’ we had been wearing was simply due to an overdose of wonder, but we have experienced something akin to this before.
There are times when we have felt that we have been led by the hand, where we can do nothing more than heed silent inner promptings, taking each moment on trust and accepting the gifts they bring. And each time, when the blindfold has come off, the adventure has brought a final gift that seemed to open inner doors and lead us down new and unexplored pathways.
This time, we realised how close we had come to missing this final gift. Seconds later and we would have passed the turning for Long Meg and would have simply driven home. Instead, we greeted the tall presence, noticing that her ‘tattoos’ seemed sharper and more detailed than usual in the light. And realised that, by being here, we were ‘joining the dots’, drawing together lines of light from the sacred places we had visited and reconnecting them. Once realised, it was so obvious that we felt foolish for not having seen it before. But even the Fool must journey blind until experience opens his eyes.
“Wen to Blakey Topping.” There is a scene in one of our books where our characters are little more than chess pieces in a game played by the gods. Sometimes, that is just how it feels… “Stu and Sue to Long Meg…”
We really could have known earlier, though… or at least, that is what hindsight now says. All the signs had been there, all the coincidences, all the small, odd details that tied this adventure to previous ones in symbolism, stories and similarities… and tied the adventures to the themes of all our previous workshops too.
We had been working with correspondences, marrying colours, planets, geometries and myths. We had worked with stars, eight-pointed, six-pointed and, just days earlier, woven the five-pointed star from rainbow coloured ribbons. The rainbow had been a theme for a while too and we had closed the April workshop by creating a rainbow bridge with our veil-decked staffs.
All the threads were coming together, just as we draw them together with the Web of Light, a meditation we had introduced a few years ago. We have used it at all of our workshops since then, with an invitation for all to join us. It is a simple visualisation that draws a web of light between the sacred places of the world, joining them that they, and all of us, may work in harmony, healing and peace.
Such meditations, performed with intent, have a magical effect. Magic has been defined as the art of creating change. Many dismiss the whole idea of magic as they imagine some kind of Disney wand-wafting. But change always begins within, and all it takes to create such a change is for a dedicated intent to grow within your heart and soul… and that changes your life and in turn, changes the world.
Many other groups worldwide use a similar visualisation. The idea arises independently, illustrating the need to heal the rifts that keep humankind fragmented and, all too often, divorced from a sense of the sacred, however that may speak to each heart. The first time we had used it in a small group, working with stones as a symbol, we had found that two of our companions also used a very similar idea with their groups… one based in Glastonbury and the other had run the Scottish weekend that had brought us north on this adventure.
Some years ago, the Silent Eye had given a series of talks in Glastonbury and we had formed the habit, whenever we were in the south, of calling at Avebury to pay our respects and tie our work to that ancient and sacred place. This time, we had worked in the north… and apparently, we needed to tie or work to this ancient and sacred space. It all made sense… not the kind of sense that is easy to put into words, but that odd comprehension that knows that part of you understands what the conscious mind is yet to fully fathom. We had travelled the lines of the web of light, this time in person, and brought them back to a central node.
We know that we will be working with what we learned in these few days for a very long time to come; our first adventure took three years to filter through into conscious realisation… and yet, it was all there, already, when we wrote the story soon afterwards in The Initiate.
Perhaps we are learning, though, for we had pulled the threads together, and Long Meg had a final gift… one that even we found hard to believe. Leaning against one of the old trees that stand guard over the circle, there was a staff. Not just any staff either… its top was carved with Celtic interlacing and its length decked with a rainbow of ribbons.
Perhaps it was an offering to the spirit of place, perhaps it had been forgotten, but from the feather at its feet to the ever-present rainbow, it could not have been more appropriate, especially after the Chalice at the church we had just left. We both felt the staff was ‘ours’… but we took only a photograph, we did not take it from where it had been placed. “No-one will ever believe it…” but such moments do not require the belief of others… they are gifts, graces… and they leave their mark in the soul.
And that was it. We drove back to Sheffield… without another ‘wrong turn’… in a state of wonder, less than a week after we had left. Next morning, we would drive south, back to work for me, and where the wide-eyed processing would begin… and where we could look at the photographs and relive an adventure across two and a half thousand miles of road, beauty, history and magic.