In September 2017, we went north for our autumn workshop, placing ourselves in the hands of our friend, Running Elk, for the weekend. Knowing the area intimately, knowing the stones and the landscape, we knew he would present a superb weekend. We could not know quite how magical the time would be… nor how far down the road its effects would still be being felt…
A Flying Visit
There was absolutely no way we were going to drive to our destination without getting sidetracked. Where would be the fun in that? So we decided that the first place that would take us from the main road north would be the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
There were a number of reasons for that. It is a very beautiful place with a long history, a place of pilgrimage still today. The pilgrim route is still marked by poles across the shifting sands, although most visitors now take the causeway that is revealed at low tide.
On our last trip this far north, in the depths of a deserted January, we had experienced the strange and unearthly atmosphere of the island when the tide cuts it off from the mainland. There is a very different feeling between an island that is always and predictably sea-locked and one that seems to withdraw from the world when the tides come in. Leaving the island had been a surreal and unforgettable experience, driving through the receding waters in pitch darkness, with one headlamp out. ‘Civilisation’ seems a remote and unlikely chimaera when the sea glitters around the wheels of the car.
This visit, though, would be in daylight and with hours to spare before the next tide, no chance of finding ourselves lost once more in that other world. That was a pity… but there was another reason too for our visit… they make the best mead on the island… and it was my birthday, after all…
Duly supplied with mead for the evening, we wandered around the tiny village. It had been closed for winter on our last visit and I have also seen it in the throes of high season, thronged with bustling tourists. This time the island was open and yet there were few people about. It is odd how the place changes with the shifting tides of human presence.
We went in search of refreshments. The pub near the Abbey was closed and up for sale. Last time, we had watched a glorious sunset, then retired to the warm pub to finish writing Mister Fox as we waited for the turning tide. Instead, we headed for a little place I had visited with a friend some years before.
The island itself is a sanctuary for birds and they have inevitably found their way into the little garden tea shops where there are easy pickings. We watched them as we entered, tiny sparrows helping themselves without fear to a free lunch… and clearing the crumbs from every abandoned table.
The sun was pleasant, so armed with coffee and a scone, we found a table in the sheltered warmth of a wall… and attracted immediate interest…
What happened next was sheer delight…
The sparrows were far more important than playing the tourist… and I can think of few better surprises for a birthday than this brief encounter. Not until every crumb had gone did we leave… and, back on the mainland, there was something else we really hoped we could find…
Click the highlighted links in the text to read more about the beauty and history we found on Holy Island on our previous visit.
The Singing Stones of Duddo…
It was a little further out of our way than we expected… and a little farther off the road too. When we parked the car, there was no sign of the stones, just a sign saying we would need to allow at least an hour. With a long journey still ahead, we almost didn’t go… but then, we didn’t know what we might miss. Donning the boots for a tramp across damp fields, we set out, hoping the projected hour was an overestimation. When the land shifted and we saw the stones crowning the hilltop, two things were immediately obvious. An hour was a gross underestimation… and it was going to be well worth the walk.
The Four Stones of Duddo are actually five… and were once seven. There were six stones standing in 1811, but by 1852, two had fallen, with one of them finally breaking. Two sockets were found in the west of the circle during an excavation in 1890, when only four of the stones were still standing. One of the fallen stones was re-erected in its original position around a hundred years ago. It seems a little sad that the circle, which has stood here for 4200 years should suffer so much in modern times.
The hill upon which the stones stand rises alone, like an island in a ploughed sea, in the centre of a wide basin. You could imagine it appearing to float above the morning mists. In the distance are the hills of Scotland and the view from within the circle is wide.
As we walked up to the stones, we thought we could discern the last vestiges of a henge in the green circle the farmer had left unploughed. Doubtless, his predecessors had not been so gentle with the land. Later research threw up a report by the antiquarian Canon James Raine in 1852 that suggests there was also an outer circle, now lost. He recorded that the circle is “36 feet in diameter. Four stones alone are standing, the tallest of which measures 6 feet 9 inches in height, by 13 feet in girth.”
Figures alone do not and cannot give a true idea of the scale and the presence of these stones. It is not until you walk amongst them and are dwarfed by them that you begin to realise just how big they are.
They are shaped stones, tapering towards the base, which is unusual. It had been suggested that it is this form that gave rise to one of their names… The Ladies… which seemed most appropriate as the subject of the workshop we were on our way to attend was ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone‘.To me, they looked like ancient teeth crowning the hill.
Made of a local sandstone, they have weathered into fantastic shapes, fluted from top to bottom after thousands of years of rain and snow.
Curiously, though, and not to this extent, we see this type of fluting on many standing stones. It may be explicable in terms of erosion alone on soft sandstone, but when you see it on pillars of adamantine millstone grit, you have to wonder if, perhaps, some carving or shaping of the stones did not help the process along.
We have seen many such stones where the fluting leaves a bowl or notch in the top of a stone, perfect for leaving offerings… and in which we often find them still today… or, as in this one, perfect for catching the sun. At the time we were there, the great orb seemed to fit perfectly into the rounded notch on the top of one stone.
Each stone has its own character and it seems as if you need only spend enough time in their silence to begin to hear them whisper. Some seem alive in a way we can almost understand, others seem far beyond our reach. One stone gazes out across the land…another looks like hands clasped and raised in prayer or supplication.
In spite of the weathering, at least two of the stones seem to have their vertical faces still adorned with simple cup-marks, those strange, mysterious depressions whose meaning is still unknown. It is thought that it is the extent of the weathering that may have given the stones their other name…the singing stones. No-one appears to have heard it, yet it is suggested that the wind on this exposed hill, playing through the fluting, might create an eldritch song. It is possible, but is, I think, more likely that this name has an older meaning. Research at Stonehenge indicates that the great stones there may have been used to create and amplify sound. Or perhaps the stones themselves once held some acoustic quality that sent the song of its priesthood across the land.
Robert Carr found and explored a pit in the centre of the circle in 1890. The pit, around eight feet in diameter, was found to contain charcoal and bone fragments, which see to indicate a cremation burial. This too we find at many sites, though unless modern archaeological dating techniques are used, it is impossible to say for certain whether the circle marks the site of the burial or whether the stones came first.
There are so many mysteries, so many questions and so few definitive answers. Sometimes that can be frustrating, yet on the whole, I like the idea that there is so much we cannot know for certain. Certainty only closes the doors of the mind. I have a feeling that these circles were meant to open them…
Photographs: Stuart France and Sue Vincent.
Where Paths Converge…
It had been a wonderful day, in spite of the long drive, with the delight of the sparrows on Holy Island and the magnificent stone circle at Duddo as its highlights. By the time we reached the outskirts of Edinburgh, the light was already beginning to fade.
The hotel where we really wanted to stay was full. We couldn’t book in at the second choice either… so I just booked the cheapest available guest house with a beach in the area. Other than a good breakfast, we only needed a brief stopover, so I didn’t really look. It was not until just before leaving that I printed off the booking confirmation and glimpsed the cropped picture that the cogs began to turn.
“I am sure it is that place we tried last time…” We had been unable to find a hotel on our way back from our last Scottish excursion where we didn’t quite make it as far north as we had hoped… and, for some reason, I was sure that this was one of the places we had tried in vain. It had been January, and getting late. My companion pointed out that such a coincidence would be far too random, even for us, and that the tiny sliver of the building that was visible on the photo was nowhere near enough to identify anything anyway. But, sure enough, it was… the self-same guest house, the first we had tried that night. This time, however, our booking was assured.
My birthday dinner, in another echo of that previous trip, was fish and chips… but this time, we did it right, eating them from the paper on the seafront, watching a sunset and watched by a hopeful seagull. Next morning, we had the car packed with time for a walk on the beach before breakfast. We were just starting to eat when two other guests came down… and we knew straight away there would be no early start.
There is neither logic nor reason to such meetings, just a kind of recognition. The two women who greeted us were very much on our wavelength and, by the time we left, we were leaving friends behind us. The meeting put a sparkle on the morning and was to be instrumental in putting the flesh on the bare bones of our next workshop weekend.
It would be easy to miss these moments that stand at the crossroads of possibility, but as soon as you begin to pay attention to the small synchronicities and oblique nudges from the universe, life takes on a new depth and connectedness. You simply do not know where any path or meeting might lead, but unless you are open to what they might hold and ready to follow their silent beckoning, you can go nowhere.
We were heading up to Inverurie for a weekend workshop that was being run by an old friend. I have known Running Elk a very long time. We ‘met’ a decade or so ago, also in rather odd circumstances and that strangeness has never really abated. It has always been a sadness that he and his family live so far away. They are people I would love to spend much more time with… but it is also one of those friendships where distance and time matter little in the greater scheme of things.
The first time we actually met in person, he and his womenfolk came south, from Scotland and over from Canada. We visited Stonehenge, in spite of the horrendous crowds and barriers. I had stood with those stones when they were not so bounded by bureaucracy and it was a very different experience. West Kennet, Silbury, Avebury and the Rollrights had followed, healing some of the distress we had all felt at Stonehenge. By the time we parted, they were even more firmly ensconced in my heart.
One of the delights of working with the Silent Eye has been meeting them all again. They were all there for the Birthing of the School and we had seen at least one of them every year since then, often taking time after the events to wander the landscape and explore its ancient places, if only for a few hours. There is never enough time for all that needs to be said, yet there is also the certainty that nothing needs to be said.
It was, therefore, a very personal joy when Running Elk agreed to guide us around some of the sacred sites in Scotland. The recumbent circles have long been on the list of places I really wanted to see, but the chance to spend a little time with him and his wife was the best thing of all.
There would be other friends too, old and new, as well as one I have long wanted to meet, accompanied by her gorgeous dog. What I did not expect was a fierce hug from the ‘Canadian contingent’ when we would finally arrive for the workshop… she usually visits in June, but what with one thing and another, ‘just happened’ to have arrived in time for the weekend. That was a truly wonderful surprise! And, it seemed, an instance of another very odd connection with one of our party…
It was, therefore, to be an unexpected party of twelve souls that Running Elk would shepherd around the ancient stones of the Don Valley. We had little idea of what he intended to show us… but that too was a gift. Normally, the itinerary is in our hands or known. This time, all we would have to do was experience and enjoy… and revel in the wonders we were shown. But there was still a long way to go and I was planning on taking a short-cut…
The High Way of the Fairies
We…well, okay, I… decided to take a shortcut from our stopover to our destination. ‘Shortcut’ may not be entirely accurate. Taking the main roads would be nine miles shorter in distance, the roads would undoubtedly be faster and with less likelihood of being further sidetracked… but we would have to drive on fast roads that show little of the countryside and navigate towns along the way. The alternative was to meander through the hills on narrow and winding roads. Either way, we had a good four-hour drive ahead. Knowing the beauty of the Cairngorms, there really was no contest.
Our road was to lead us through Glen Shee, now famous for its winter skiing, but it was its older stories that drew us there. Its name comes from the Gaelic word shith, which means ‘fairies’… and the Glen of the Fairies is a beautiful place. Until the old language fell out of use in the 1800s the inhabitants were known as the Elves of Glenshee, Sithichean a’ Ghlinnshith. Coire Shith, the Fairy Burn tumbles down the slopes of Ben Gulabin and a Bronze Age standing stone still marks the ancient gathering place at the Hill of the Fairies.
There are many legends about the Fairy Glen. One of the earliest is the tale of Diarmid, a famous warrior and Grainne, who fell in love with him. Grainne was the wife of the local chieftain, Fingal, and when he realised the state of affairs, Fingal arranged for Diarmid to hunt the enormous wild boar that had been terrorising the glen, hoping thereby to rid himself of the warrior. Diarmid tracked and fought the boar and his might prevailed. Fingal demanded that the boar be measured to prove the feat, but in doing so, Diarmid was poisoned by the beasts bristles. Fingal refused to allow his healers to help the young warrior and Diarmid weakened and died. Grainne, unable to live without her love, threw herself on an arrow. The two were buried, side by side. Legend says they sleep in the four-poster stone circle known as Diarmid’s Grave.
It is told that the Fairies of the glen are both faithful and fickle, choosing those whom they like and hounding those they do not. Those they accept are given the gift of returning to the magical glen, over and over, until their life’s end. Those who offend them will undoubtedly be made aware of the fact. In the early years of the nineteenth century, an ancient chapel at the Spittal of Glenshee had to be rebuilt. A new site was chosen, at some distance from the old chapel, and the fairies did not approve. Each morning the builders found their tools in disarray and the previous day’s work undone. The locals shook their heads and waited. It was not until the work was returned to the original site of the ancient place of worship that the building was able to be raised. Having driven through these hills many times, I was hopeful that we would be accepted and waited to see what would happen.
We had barely left the towns behind when we spotted a pair of huge birds soaring above the ridge of the hills. They were not kites… we could tell by the shape of the tail feathers. They looked way too big for buzzards… and the only time I have seen golden eagles it had been in these hills. That time, there was absolutely no doubt… the pair of them were feasting on a carcass in the middle of the lane as I turned the corner. They had looked at me with utter unconcern before taking flight, leaving me wide-eyed and awed. We watched the birds riding the air… unable to get a close enough shot to identify them. Maybe they were buzzards… but they were so very big that I hope not.
We were pretty much bouncing after that as we drove through the winding pass to Braemar and beyond. Deep shadows and drifts of pale mist vied with the sun, each striving, it seemed, to show the hills at their most magical. There may have been a certain amount of squeaking from the driver’s seat as each bend in the road offered a gift of beauty. It is time, always time, that is the problem. We had left later than intended and expected to arrive with no more than minutes to spare before the appointed rendezvous., There was no time to explore the ancient sites or visit the stones… yet I would not have missed that road for the world.
As in life itself, it is always simpler to take the highway. But the easiest route is not always the best… you never know what you might find when you take the road less travelled. The main road would have been wide and straight, well signposted, with few surprises save roadworks and traffic. Taking the high road over the mountains led us into unknown territory, where nothing was predictable. The twists and turns threatened danger and the going was, of necessity, much slower. Yet, for all that, we did arrive on time and we arrived replete with beauty, having seen things that the easy road could never have offered.
Did the Fairies of the Glen approve? Will we be able to return and explore one day? Given their parting gift, I think we may…
The Field of Prayer
There were many merry meetings in Inverurie, bringing a golden glow to the afternoon that belied the grisaille of rain and wet stone. We were greeted outside our meeting place with fierce hugs from a lady we love dearly and who has been much missed over the past couple of years. Inside, there was the wonderful surprise of finding the Canadian contingent, and we had soon filled a fair proportion of the tea-room with laughter and conversation… there was a lot of catching up to do.
When all members of the party were assembled or accounted for, we set off for the short drive to our first destination. The circle sits on a hillside above the town with a small parking area a few minutes’ walk from the stones. By the time we arrived the steady rain had turned into a lashing downpour. I stowed my camera in an allegedly waterproof pocket for safety, where it promptly and irrevocably drowned. But that circle alone was worth it… and the weekend was only just beginning.
Easter Aquhorthies is one of the rare ‘recumbent circles’ found only in this small area of Scotland, and in the far south-west of Ireland. ‘Aquhorthies’ comes from the Gaelic; it may come from ‘auch’ or ‘achd’ meaning ‘field’, and ‘ortha’ meaning ‘prayer’ giving ‘field of prayer’, or be derived from ‘achadh choirthe’, ‘field of pillar stone’. If the sanctity of the site is preserved in its name, which is of a much later date than the circle’s creation, it would suggest that a recognition of its importance as a sacred centre long survived its builders. So too would its state of preservation…as if all later peoples understood or perhaps feared the magic of the place.
And it is magical. That first sight drew gasps from many of us. It is a truly beautiful site, even in the rain and even at first glance, appeared to be remarkably complete. Running Elk ushered us into the circle with instructions to find ‘our’ place within it. A place where we felt comfortable…or uncomfortable… and to consider why that might be. Two stones had stood out for me, even on the approach. I wandered around to the almost polished back of the huge recumbent and by the time I had finished exploring it, everyone seemed to have found their places. I stood by one of the flanking stones, hopeful that, even in the rain, I would be able to hear what Running Elk might tell us. I need not have worried on that score… not in this circle.
This circle is one of around ninety recumbents in this area and one of only a few to have retained all of its stones. There are nine single standing stones in the circle and the recumbent stone itself, flanked by a pair of uprights. The recumbent appears to be chocked with further perpendicular stones, but closer inspection shows that they were not, in fact, designed as supports. Perhaps they have more to do with the acoustics of the circle… from where he was seated between the perpendicular stones, everyone in the circle could hear Running Elk perfectly. Yet, when he stood, his voice was lost in the rain. Later, we would discover that the voice could not carry outside the circle… one step beyond, and it disappeared into the breeze.
Somebody knew what they were doing with these stones. Yet Easter Aquhorthies has been dated to the Neolithic period, around six thousand years ago. Within its central space a child was carefully buried in a cyst. We have seen this before. Running Elk suggested that the burial may have predated the circle, hallowing the space. We wondered why it always seems to be a boy-child and Stuart signalled that special bond between mother and son. With our daughters, we share our skills and experience of life; sons we raise to manhood and watch them leave our world for their own. And this circle was a place of priestesses.
The circle is slightly flattened in shape and has a diameter of around sixty feet. It sits within a banked ditch that may have been added at a later date, perhaps when the overgrown circle was cleaned and restored in the early nineteenth century. The stones vary in size. The tallest are the two flanking stones in the SSW quarter are over seven feet tall, and the rest of the stones descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent in the NNE which is five and a half feet tall. The recumbent itself is some twelve and a half feet long and weighs around nine tons.
The stones themselves are unusual, being of different colours and composition. The recumbent is red granite, through which are scattered crystals and lines of quartz. It was probably brought from Bennachie, a nearby hill with a history all of its own. Its most visible height, Mither Tap, was a ghost against the horizon through the rain. ‘Beinn na Ciche’ means ‘hill of the breast’. White quartz seems to have played an important role at these circles and seems associated with the ‘male’ stones. It may also have been important in reflecting or capturing the moonlight. Some things we may never know, but what is obvious with this circle and its surroundings is the role of the divine feminine… and the need for balance, rather than supremacy, between male and female, both symbolic and physical.
It is worth remembering that ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not necessarily refer just to gender. They can also be symbolic of more abstract concepts, like the positive and negative poles of a battery, dynamic or receptive force…or the sun and moon. While the sun is usually considered a dynamic force and the moon receptive, it is interesting that in many ancient cultures, there was, in addition to the obvious solar and lunar deities, a sun goddess and a moon god.
The rest of the stones are of pink porphyry. One stone, however, is completely different… a great point of rich, red jasper, polished on one side by the touch of those seeking its blessing over thousands of years. With the red stones and grey, in view of what we were to learn of the purpose of the circle, I have to wonder at the significance of the colour choices in solar and lunar terms, for it seems that here, few details were left to chance.
‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ was the subtitle of the weekend. The Maiden Stone in a circle, Running Elk told us, is always triangular. The Mother Stone is always red. The Crone always the most gnarled. The symbolism of those attributes is evident in terms of female development. In this circle, one stone was Maiden, Mother and Crone all in one… the point of red jasper. Symbol of a triune deity, perhaps… or the seasons of birth, growth and harvest?… or something we had yet to learn?
It might be thought that all this is too complex for the mind of Stone Age Man… yet the precision with which these recumbent circles are constructed proves that is not so. This circle was built with a clear knowledge of the movement of the heavenly bodies and their relationship with the Earth. There are many astronomical alignments within the circle and the recumbent and the flanking stone against which I stood marks the major lunar standstill, which takes place every 18.6 years.
There was so much to learn that we could never have covered it in one visit…especially in the rain. Thankfully, we would be returning to the circle…and in better weather too, we hoped. For now, we were all soaked through, so it was back to the hotel to change for dinner… at least into dry clothes. Oddly though, no-one seemed to be in a hurry to leave…
Circle of Peace
Our first stop next day was a place where mysterious stones, a Celtic saint and a link to one of the best-known legends of the British Isles all come together in a village churchyard. It took a bit of finding, but at least the weather was a little less vicious than the day before. We were still going to undergo the ritual cleansing of the rain-gods though. We had no idea what we were about to see. We could have done a bit of research and snooping, but I, for one, was enjoying this mystery tour and was happy to go where we were led, enjoying the surprise of revelation.
Walking into the neat and well-kept graveyard of Midmar Church, I glimpsed a suspicious looking standing stone around the back and wondered if it was an outlier of a stone circle. We tried the door of the little church, but found it locked. It is of no great age, being built in 1787 to replace the now-ruined Old Kirk lower down the hill, beside the earth mound that is said to be the site of a Norman Castle…as are so many of these ancient mounds near the old churches. The Old Kirk too was a replacement, built on the site of the first church in Midmar and dedicated to St Nidan, a cousin of St Kentigern, who keeps cropping up on our travels. The two had set out together to bring Celtic Christianity to the Picts around 574 AD and Nidan himself had founded the little church that later bore his name.
Kentigern is an interesting saint. His story is a colourful mixture of myth and legend, with a little fact sprinkled in almost reluctantly, it seems. He is also known as St Mungo, a name he was given by St Serf, who was his guardian and teacher as a child. We have stumbled across his legends in places as far apart as St Asaph‘s in Wales, Aspatria in Cumbria as well as elsewhere in England. In Scotland, he is Glasgow’s patron saint, but more intriguingly, his life story records that he came into conflict with Lailoken, a wild prophet who foretold the death of King Rhydderch Hael. Lailoken, of whom “…some say he was called Merlynum“, is often equated with Myrddin Wyllt, an earlier form of the Arthurian wizard Merlin.
So even without what we had come to see, I would have been glad to visit this little church…another link in a nameless chain that leads us to a destination as yet unrevealed. But as we turned the corner, expecting to be led beyond the church grounds, we were greeted with a most unusual sight. A stone circle, fairly intact and very well kept, right behind the church.
And what a circle it must have been! Midmar recumbent circle, also known as Christchurch circle, is nearly 57 feet in diameter and the recumbent stone itself is huge, weighing around twenty tons and being over fourteen feet long. The two eight feet tall flankers have their flat edges facing inwards and look rather like sharp teeth. Running Elk had explained that the flat edges of standing stones such as these were the parts that marked, or indicated something. With a recumbent and its uprights, the mark the rising, passage and setting of the major standstill moon.
I would love to be able to go into vast detail about the precision of these circles… but it needs someone who really understands the technical niceties to explain it. Like Running Elk.* Basically, these circles allow observers within the circle to chart the movements of sun and moon at significant moments of the year, marking the seasons… and at the longer intervals such as the major standstill that occurs every 18.6 years. We can easily understand how important seasonal changes would be to our ancestors with regard to crops and animals, but there were other reasons that we discussed… and which some of us were to experience later for ourselves… and perhaps others still at which we can only guess. One thing is certain though, these stone circles, raised in the Stone Age and Bronze Age, were not the work of uncivilised ‘cavemen’ but a complex technology in stone.
The circle is not quite complete… nor has it been left untouched. One stone seems to face the wrong way, others may have been moved during the building of the church or the ‘tidying’ of the circle that may have removed a central cairn that was added long after the building of the circle. What does remain unsullied though, is a sense of continuous worship going back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. Many of our older churches are built on ancient sacred sites. The infamous letter of Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus in the sixth century gave clear instructions on that point. We do not know what the motivation was for moving the new church to his particular spot. Was it simply an antiquarian passion of the local minister? Was there a desire to illustrate the power of the Church over paganism? Perhaps local superstition engendered a need to keep the stones and their powers ‘within the fold’… that is another thing we will never know. Whatever the reason, the two religions, old and new sit serenely together within their guardian trees… and there is a lesson of peace in that.
There was one last thing we were shown before we left the churchyard… and that too was unusual. The gravestone of artist Anne Rochford. The story, as Running Elk told it, is that knowing that she was dying, she created her own headstone, melding a piece of rough red and grey stone with a metal sculpture.** Not only is it a beautiful memorial, but it says a great deal beyond the name and dates it incorporates.
The tree seems full of fire-flowers… all but one empty bud. Creatures… a mouse, a lizard, a spider… climb in its branches; it is a living thing, a Tree of Life that still blooms after its maker has laid down her tools. Perhaps it is no more than a symbol of her faith, her love of beauty and a memorial to her art. I see in it her love of the living land and a symbol of harmonious growth and hope. In place where a stone circle shares the space with a church, there can be no better symbol of peace.
“Lunar Standstill”… from Running Elk
This may seem an odd place to start, but I’ll start here anyway:
Solstice, from Latin solstitium: sol- (sun) + -stitium (a stoppage).
The Solstices are marked by the Northernmost and Southernmost positions of the sun. Considering only the point of his rising on the Eastern horizon – it changes every day: INCREDIBLY quickly at this time of year (around the equinoxes). As he approaches each Solstice, however, he appears to slow down, and “stand still”, before slowly heading in the opposite direction and gradually speeding up towards the equinox. It takes him a full year to go from his most Northerly position, all the way to his most Southerly position, and back again. Creature of habit, he always returns to exactly the same position on the horizon at the Solstice (during our limited lifetimes, at least). The most observable difference on his wandering, is that the further North he rises the longer he is in the sky.
The Moon moves along the horizon in the same way, but she only takes a month to go from her most Northern position of rising to her most Southern position of rising and back again. Unlike the Sun, she wanders off a bit, due to a 5° tilt of her orbit relative to the equator. This means that at the end of each month she does not return to the same position on the horizon when she reaches “standstill”.
In effect, her most Northerly point of rising on the horizon moves each month between two extremes: the Major Standstill (the most Northerly of her most Northerly rising points – which coincides with her most Southerly of Southern rising points in the same month), and the Minor Standstill (the most Southerly of her most Northerly rising points – which coincides with her most Northerly of her Southern rising points in the same month) – hmm… could hardly be more confusing… 😉 It takes a full 28.6 years for her to go from Major Standstill to her Major Standstill – preferring instead to rush about somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
Like the Sun, when she rises far North she is in the sky for longer than when she rises far South. Considerably so, the further North you are. On top of all that, the phase of her rising changes every day of the month, so it becomes quite important, to a hunter / gatherer society, to understand when she is Full, and where she will rise in her fullness.
The important Standstill, then, for the peoples who built the circles, is when she is Full. What you REALLY don’t want is the Full Moon rising in the South at Major Standstill – it will mean that (in this area at least) you will have a very short burst of Moon light by which to hunt… Luckily enough, as chance will have it, the Full Moons in the North occur nearer her Northern Standstill during the Winter months (when the hours of Sun light are shortest, the hours of Moon light are longest).
Works vice-versa South of the Equator, with the most Southerly Full Moons occurring in their Winter too! giving them the longest periods of Moon light when their Sun light is shortest. It’s almost like they arranged it especially for hunter gathering tribesmen… 😊
(The term “standstill” to define the turning point of the Moon was coined by archaeologist Alexander Thom in his 1971 book “Megalithic Lunar Observatories”. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_standstill, at least; and who are we to, even consider, arguing with Wikipedia? 😀 )
The full and correct story of Anne’s gravestone, written by her son, can be found on Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian website:
“Midmar is where my Mother Anne was buried in 1991 and the gravestone was added a couple of years later. My mother had a deep connection with stone circles and during my childhood we were taken to scores of sites all over Scotland. When she died my father thought of Midmar and had remembered visiting it with her. The sculpture, based on the Indian/Celtic/Universal Tree of Life was commissioned by a local artist and took a long time to get and “feel” right (you can’t rush the creative process).”
Circles of Pain
The weather was beginning to regain its composure, but it was still being temperamental enough to lustrate the companions exploring the mysteries of an ancient landscape. Our next site was not far distant and it was not long before we gathered at the entrance to Cullerlie Stone Circle, the Standing Stones of Echt. We were greeted by the guardian collie, who was evidently torn between the innate need to herd the wandering group of humans and the sure and certain olfactory knowledge that at least half of them had treats in their pockets and the hope that a fair percentage could be induced to throw sticks.
Even so, there was a ‘rightness’ about his presence as he crouched, poised, between us and the stones. About the only thing that did feel right. And that was odd. The wide, open valley gives clear views for miles, broken only by the trees and a few farm buildings. A green lawn leads up the neat avenue of trees to the stone circle, just a short walk from the lane. It is a beautiful prospect. Yet, even from that distance, it didn’t have the right ‘feel’.
The most obvious reason for that was clearly visible on the information board… the circle looked like a pizza, pockmarked with cairns. These cairns would once have been mounds of stone, quite tightly packed into the enclosing ring of the original circle, effectively preventing it for being used in the manner for which it was intended. We may not know all the uses to which these circles were put, nor how rituals were conducted there, nor how they were used as part of the daily life of the community… but we do know that the central space was crucial to at least some of their purpose.
The University of Adelaide reported last year that it had conclusive proof of what many less officially erudite people have known for a very long time… that the stone circles are constructed with astronomy and planetary alignments as part of their design. The majority of these alignments can only be used from within the circle… so why would anyone destroy that purpose? It was something to ponder…
Another reason for the strangeness of the place may have to do with the landscape itself. All the other circles we had visited were just below the horizon of a hill. These circles never stand alone in the landscape and cannot be seen as separate from it…they are one with it and use its contours as part of the design. Distant hills that form shapes suggesting the body of the Earth Mother… the goddess… even their relationship with the horizon itself, are all part of the way they work. We have often seen the effect referred to as ‘mirroring’, but which we call shadowing…for a mirror reverses the image and the stones do not… where the standing stones themselves echo the shape of the hills. We believe that, in the true tradition of sympathetic magic, those who worked within the circle sought to affect conditions in the wider, macrocosmic landscape by working within their constructed microcosm.
The circles themselves seem to shadow reality. When you lie on your back in an empty landscape and look up at the sky… especially when the stars wheel overhead… you see a circular horizon, as if the arch of heaven is an upturned chalice. It must be remembered that we, in this small and overworked landscape, seldom see the land untouched by the hand of man. Plantations of trees, contours flatted by centuries of ploughing or five minutes with a bulldozer, quarried hills and constructed mounds… let alone our town and cities… none of these would have been there for our ancestors. The chalice of heaven cupped an unsullied land, where only small clusters of dwellings and the great standing stones attested to Man’s presence.
Another possible factor in the feeling of oddness may be the bedrock… there isn’t any. The other stones circles were built on ground underpinned by solid rock while Cullerlie lies on gravel. Stone is a crystalline substance and, leaving aside such things as their healing properties for a moment, like everything else in this world, they have a unique vibratory signature. When speaking of the properties of stone and crystal, our language often uses terms more readily associated with music. I have a pet theory that when we are born, we are ‘tuned’ to the specific vibratory frequencies of the bedrock and that is one of the reasons for feeling at home in a place… because we are on bedrock with a similar or harmonious frequency to that of our birth. I am no expert with either crystals or music, but it would make logical sense of crystal healing too, if the different types of stone act as ‘tuning forks’ or add their note to dissonance to create harmony. If gravel is made up of many types of fragmented rock, I can imagine cacophony.
It was noticeable that most of us hung back. In stark contrast to the previous circles, there was a distinct lack of eagerness to enter the circle. I, for one, did not wish to amplify the unease by standing with a stone and chose, instead, a space on the perimeter.
Cullerlie is a Bronze Age circle with eight smallish standing stones, the tallest being less than six feet high, and forming a circle thirty-three feet in diameter. Within, there are eight circular cairns in which cremation burials have been found. In 1820, James Logan recorded nine satellite cairns, but by the excavations of 1934, no trace of them remained.
It would appear that the main stone circle came first, with the cairns being of much later date. There are cup marks on some of the standing stones…and again, looking incongruous as if the stones had been repurposed from an older construction, on the kerbstones of the cairns. Oak, hazel and willow charcoal have been found… all three of them ancient sacred woods… where the land was levelled and burned before construction began. Were the fires merely intended to clear the vegetation, or was this some form of ritual purification? And why did they fill a sacred space with burials?
It may be as simple as an evolution in their practices, in much the same way as we see in our ancient churches, where the needs of the community have brought playgroups and kitchens into the nave to sit side by side with Elizabethan tombs and medieval wall paintings. Somehow, I don’t think so. Stone circles are never graveyards. There may be the occasional burial within them, but these seem to have another purpose, perhaps sanctifying the ground,or maybe honouring a person important to the site and its clan. Here, it seems as if the circle was deliberately closed. Had some catastrophe so decimated the community that, in a short-lived time, knowledge of the circle’s true purpose had been lost and only its sanctity remained? Were the dead placed within the circle to guard the stones? Or for the stones to guard them? For it is curious that so many stone circles survived, unharmed over the millennia by invaders and a changing religious landscape. Maybe the answer we choose depends upon whether we stand outside, looking in… or inside, looking out.
It is raining again and about to get worse. You are in a suburban green space between neat-gardened houses, the last place you would expect to find an ancient treasure… and you are confronted with something both so alien and so hauntingly familiar, that it stops you in your tracks. A carved stone, covered in symbols, strange incisions and fantastic creatures. You have absolutely no idea what it may mean… no frame of reference… no starting point for comprehension. Yet somehow, it is not only familiar from all those pictures in books, but it feels as if you really should know how to read it.
The stone is one of the many Pictish symbol stones that dot the landscape. It is far from the best example, being both broken and weathered. The Brandsbutt Stone was found in pieces, used as part of the construction of a farm dyke and wall. Close by are two large stones, thought to be from a stone circle that stood there until it was levelled a couple of hundred years ago, before we began to value our ancient heritage and after it had lost the respect and awe it had once inspired. It is worth noting that even today there are ancient monuments that are being destroyed through lack of care, inept officialdom and the worship of the great god Mammon.
The Brandsbutt Stone may once have been part of that ancient complex, though that is far from certain. While the now-missing stone circle would have dated back four to six thousand years, the carvings date back a mere fifteen to twelve hundred years. The Picts, the ‘painted people’, inhabited this area in the Late Iron Age through to the early medieval period and, although they themselves left no written record of their lives, they did leave many carved stones from which we can learn a good deal about them. Not all of them are as enigmatic as this one; some have scenes of battles, some tell stories, and some marry the symbols of an older time with those of the new religion of Celtic Christianity.
We had come across a few Pictish stones on our last foray into Scotland, most notably the carvings and the Cross at Brechin with its ‘indeterminate figures’, its eight-legged horse and unfortunate explanations… There too, the marriage of old and new was still apparent, even though the stone is thought to be only a thousand years old.
The human figures are easier to understand, even though we may argue over the interpretation of the stories they represent. The Symbol Stones, though, are another matter. To even begin to have a hope of understanding them, we must leave the familiar thought processes of a literate society behind and go back to our earliest ancestral forms of written communication.
How can you write before there is standardised written language or when regional dialects differ? Or when no-one knows how to write… or read? The only way is to draw a picture. That works for a while. A snake is a snake. Then it gets more complicated and two things happen. The pictures may become simplified, almost symbolic… like the curving snake of a ‘S’. Early forms of writing began as pictograms. But how do you draw a river, sliding silver through a valley? Or the passage of time? How do you communicate abstract concepts like ‘wisdom’, ‘renewal’ or ‘immortality’? You might look at the curve of a river and see a snake. You might find the flow of water reminds you of the passage of time. If the tales of your people attribute wisdom, renewal or immortality to the serpent, you might just draw a snake…
If, on the other hand, you were a leader renowned for your cunning or wisdom, or if your lands were bounded by a river, you might take the serpent as your emblem and carve it on your boundary stones. Perhaps the ‘painted people’ wore their clan symbols painted or tattooed on their skin too? It is for this reason, I believe, that the incomprehensible symbols seem to hover with vague familiarity on the edge of understanding. The pictorial language of symbols speaks across both space and time in a way we can almost grasp, even if we no longer hold the keys to its unlocking.
There are some symbols, though, that are yet to be deciphered; symbols quite specific to a culture long gone. The Brandsbutt Stone bears an incised ‘crescent and V-rod’ and the ‘serpent and Z-rod’ symbol. Are the spear and the arrow, as Helen suggested, male and female weapons? The crescent of the moon and the obvious symbolism of the serpent, as well the relative appropriateness of the weapons’ ease of use, might bear that out. Do they refer to the male and female lines of a heritage or clan? Are the angles reminiscent of those used in the construction of the stone circles, millennia before? And why are the weapons apparently broken? It is an ancient practice to ritually break that which is offered to the gods, as we had explored at the Druid Lake on the isle of Anglesey. The breaks in these carved, symbolic weapons, if breaks they are, appear to be both deliberate and supported in some way. What significance might that be hinting at?
Thankfully, we do have a transliteration of the final symbol on the stone. The vertical line crossed with many horizontal lines is not an untidy decoration, but an inscription in Ogham, which we had last seen at Nevern. This early medieval alphabet is almost always used to inscribe just a personal name. The groups of dashes are placed in specific positions and at distinct angles, across a straight line… usually the vertical corner of a stone. Here, as the corner of the stone would have been too uneven to be suitable, the vertical line was simply inscribed. It can be read as IRATADDOARENS, which has been linked with Eddarrnonn, which may refer to St. Ethernanus, a Columban saint, and founder of a number of churches on the east coast Scotland.
Intrigued and thoroughly drenched one more, we regained the shelter of our vehicles and set off behind Running Elk for our next location. Following his lead, I wondered about the odd hand signals coming from his car, often in direct contradiction to his indicator lights. The ‘up’ was confusing. It took a moment to work out that he was pointing to various other sites of interest along the way… ones we would not have time to visit, like Balquhain recumbent circle, also known as the Chapel of Garioch, on the slopes below Mither Tap; a circle which has lunar alignments.
The circle is no longer complete and is missing several stones, but what remain are large and impressive, even from the road. The ten tonne recumbent stone is twelve feet wide and over five and a half feet tall, I read later. It is a white granite that seems to have been carried to the site from some distance. Once again, the stones are polychrome. The eastern flanker, six and a half feet wide, is of grey basalt, while the western flanker, over seven feet wide, is of red quartzite with white quartz inclusions. The outlier is the one I would most like to have met, though… a ten foot tall pillar of pink-seamed white quartz, which, even from a distance, appears to have an interesting face… Me, I’d have happily foregone lunch to get a closer look… but I would not have wanted to miss our next stop…
Stone of the Maiden
Once upon a time… twelve or thirteen hundred years ago… there lived a fair maiden. She was, it is told, the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain. She was betrothed and very soon to be married. On the eve of her wedding, she went down to the kitchens, rolled up her sleeves and set about making bannocks to serve to the wedding guests who would be arriving from far and wide.
As she worked, a dark stranger came into the kitchen and, seeing the mountain of flour, said that he could build a road to the top of Bennachie before she would finish her task. Now, Bennachie was sixteen hundred feet high and two miles distant. The maiden laughed and the dark stranger made her a wager… if he could build his road before the bannocks were baked, she would marry him instead of her betrothed. The maiden, certain of victory, laughingly agreed, but to her dismay, the stranger soon returned… the road was built and her forfeit must be paid. In horror, she ran, towards the wood of Pittodrie, seeking to escape. As she ran, she prayed for salvation, for she now realised that her pursuer was the devil in disguise. But her prayers were heard and as the devil seized her shoulder, she was turned to stone.
Unlike most legends, this must be a true story, for there was a paved road up Bennachie, of which parts still remain. It is still called the Maiden Road, and from the Maiden Stone a piece has disappeared, the same that was held in the grasp of the devil when the maiden’s prayer was answered.
I have known about the Maiden Stone for a long time. It is one of those things you would really like to see, but never expect to actually see, so I was over the moon when I realised that it would be our next stop. Even though it was about to rain yet again, we had a little blue sky and a hint of sunshine… a little ironic when the worn designs would show up best in black and white on the photographs.
The Cross may once have been brightly painted and the quality and detail of the carving, even after thirteen hundred years of Scottish weather, are remarkable. The two sides of the Cross are carved with knotwork and keywork, even into the uneven contours of the edges. On the western face is a weathered Cross, suggesting that this was a Preaching Cross…a place where the evangelising brothers would come to teach the message of the Gospels. At the base is a roundel, framed within a square, intricately carved with interlacing and spirals. I have to wonder if this represents the Earth and its energies, surmounted by a Celtic Cross, symbolising the way to Heaven.
Above the head of the Cross is a figure with outstretched arms, in a pose similar to that of the crucified Christ. He appears to be holding on to two ‘fish-beasts’. I take issue with the official idea that this depicts Jonah and the Whale. There was, I believe, only one whale in that story and the idea that they carved two ‘to make the design symmetrical’ seems a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, a fish has long been a symbol of Christianity, and Jesus, if it is indeed He who is depicted, was called a ‘fisher of men’. Perhaps, too, they are the twin forces of the dragon, the earth energies… To go by some of the carvings we see, Celtic Christianity was too close to the old religious symbolism to be unaware of such things and seemed less inclined to dismiss the shadow of the old ways.
The red granite pillar stands almost ten feet high, and was once a little taller… you can see how erosion has destroyed the top edge of the design on the eastern face. This is a great shame, as one centaur is odd enough in Britain, let alone the three that are thought to have been there before the rains came. That is, if they are centaurs. They certainly look like the Greek combination of man and horse, and have been found painted in contemporary manuscripts. In the Mysteries, the centaur has its own symbolism, as the higher human virtues transcending the nature of the beast within. But this is Scotland, where legends abound and even horses may not be what they seem.
There is the nuckelavee from the Orkneys, a half man, half horse beast that retains both heads. Its breath wilts crops and brings epidemics and the stories of its terrible effect paint it as the worst of the equine demons. It is a sea creature, though, and will never come ashore when it rains, so we were safe on that count. Then there are the kelpies, shape shifting creatures that may appear as humans or as beautiful black horses that will carry their riders into deep waters…where they drown. In Aberdeenshire, some are said to have manes of serpents… but we were far from the lochs in which they live. The dullahan is a not a horse, but rides one, carrying its own head and whip made of a human spine. It is a bringer of death and the only thing that will drive it away is gold. We were probably safe on that score too, if only for the nature of the company.
Below the centaurs is a “notched rectangle and Z-rod” symbol. No one seems to be venturing a guess on the meaning of this symbol. It looks, though, like some kind of gateway or portal and reminds me, for some reason, of the great pylon gates of Egypt. The ‘Z rod’, which has been seen as a spear, seems to go through the body of the design, rather than be overlaid.
Below that is the Pictish Beast, a strange and sinuous creature, sometimes called the Pictish Dragon, that looks unlike any known animal. It looks a little like a seahorse, so it has been suggested that it could be a kelpie… or even a dolphin. It is a very common symbol on these carved stones, though, so must have been important to be so widespread. Did it relate to some forgotten story or legend, or did it have significance in clan heraldry? Or was it purely symbolic of something too abstract for a figurative artistic representation?
The lowest panel contains the two clearest carvings…a mirror and comb. We all agreed that although they appear, on the surface, to be far too ordinary to be immortalised in stone, they must have a far deeper meaning than as simple accoutrements of beauty. They would certainly have been objects of value, given their materials and the work involved in creating them, but did they have a value beyond their price? One of our companions suggested that they were the symbols of office, or the power of the priestess. Did she work with the mirror to capture the moon or direct its light? Was it a scrying glass or a portal through which other realities could be reached? Modern magical techniques still use such practices to access those other realities which lie buried in the layers of our own consciousness.
One of our companions had a story to tell of an experience he had at Easter Aquhorthies that seemed to shed light on both mirror and comb. I will not share it here without his permission, but hope he will do so himself in due course. Stuart, who has a gift for interpreting symbols and seeing their deeper implications and ramifications, suggested that the whole face of the pillar could be read as a process… directions for the spiritual journey.
“The mirror,” he said, “fixes and allows focus on the moon so that it could be scryed or seen beyond.” The moon is often used in magical systems as a symbol for the subconscious mind. “The comb is in this context a meditative tool or process to symbolically clear the head or still the mind in order to facilitate communication… Success in this process gives access to the animate soul, perhaps depicted here as a ‘water’ beast.” Water is symbolically associated with the flow of emotions and, by extension, a heart-centred consciousness.
“In other traditions, this would the White Horse or Sleipnir…” Otherworldly creatures that may carry the seeking soul onwards. “By raising this aspect of consciousness entry is gained through the portal to the otherworld of spirit where we see shamanic type figures… ” And onwards transcending the physical world to reach the spiritual realms… symbolised, perhaps, by the centaur… the beast transcended by the higher human consciousness. As an on-the-spot interpretation, that made perfect sense, especially if the top two centaurs were embracing… not ‘wrestling’… bringing the physical and spiritual natures of Man together as One.
We may not have solved the riddle of the stones, but with ideas and input from almost everyone present, we had certainly come up with some workable hypotheses. One mystery remained untouched, though. The legend of the maiden’s marriage must have come into being after the stone was erected. Was that why it was called the Maiden Stone, or was the name referring back to the priestesses or a pre-Christian religion that still held the faith and respect of the people of the area? Or was it simpler than that… and the stone been named for what I and others may have seen in the shape of the stone itself…*
*Look again at the third picture from the top…
Switching the Lights On
We had returned to Easter Aquhorthies for a second visit. It was still raining, but this time the sky was much brighter than the iron-grey deluge of the day before and there was already a sense of revisiting an old friend as we each returned to our stones. For myself, I was pondering some of the things we had learned here the day before… beginning with a rather obvious question from Running Elk.
“Where does the sun rise?” He was answered by silence. Twelve intelligent, fairly well-educated people had all apparently reached the same conclusion. The answer was so obvious that stating it was obviously going to turn out badly. Only the dog grinned. The sun rises in the east… that’s what we learn in school and that’s exactly what we think we see whenever we watch a dawn. Only, apparently, it isn’t. Who knew?
Well actually, I did. Except I didn’t know that I knew. It is one of those things simply taken for granted. Sunrise. East. Yet, my garden doors face east and I watch the sunrise most days. But thinking about it, I realised that while the winter sun rises directly opposite my doors, I only see the summer sunrise by looking across the garden next door. At a guess, maybe forty-or-so degrees difference. So the sun does not rise due east, but in the eastern skies, or ‘east of centre’.
As an opening gambit, it was a masterstroke. I cannot have been the only one wondering what else I was simply taking for granted… and that one question opened the mind to considering possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked.
We had learned about the solar and lunar alignments in the circle and we had also talked about the value of the elders in the community. Running Elk had started that with a question too, asking how old we thought the average life expectancy would be for those who had constructed this astronomical circle. The consensus seemed to be around thirty years… but averages take in the extremes and seldom reflect reality. Infant mortality was high, and perhaps few would live to what we would call a ripe old age. That alters the figures. It also means that those who had lived long enough, say, to remember the preceding major lunar standstills, over eighteen years before, would have unique knowledge, precious to the community. …and would be valued accordingly. Something our own society might remember…
But why, we were asked to consider, was the moon so important to these people? While we discussed the agricultural necessities of growing seasons, my mind wandered back to childhood and Old Moore’s Almanack. This was a fascinating seventeenth century publication, updated yearly and still on sale today. Optimum planting times are listed along with predictions, astronomical and tidal observations and a really intriguing collection of advertisements for strange and wonderful things. As a child, I found the little booklet fascinating. I always wondered why people planted by the lunar tides, believing that by respecting the lunar cycle, the crops would grow more abundantly. My mother dismissed it as old superstition. My horticultural great-uncle John looked up from his prize-winning dahlias, winked, tapped the side of his nose and said, “Think abaht it, lass.”
So I thought about it. I knew that the moon ruled the tides, its gravitational pull drawing the oceans up and letting them fall as it orbits the earth… and maybe that had something to do with the waxing and waning of the moon too. Maybe, I thought, the same thing happens with the sap in the plants? So if you could understand and predict how the moon tides, maybe you could encourage the plants to grow better? The sun quite obligingly rises and sets daily, and the extremities of its yearly journey are marked by the solstices when the sun ‘stands still’. The longest and the shortest days. The moon then, must also have a solstice… and I was back in the present, listening to Running Elk explain about the major lunar standstill… Light dawned. Solstice of the Moon.
Stuart chanted from the recumbent stone, ancient syllables born of the land itself, and we gathered at the Priestess’s stone to listen. Outside the circle, the sound simply died… within it, a matter of inches away, the acoustics were incredible. We stood by our stones and Steve came to the stone, using its amazing acoustics to lead us in a chant. Syllables, symbolising the masculine and feminine potencies of the universe, the sound reverberating through the space. Next, men and women chanted in counterpoint… and for those moments, each of us was priest and priestess of that formless light that owns no name, weaving sound and breath, in homage and celebration of its Presence and our own presence within it.
And when we had done, as if in response, the rain stopped and the sky was lit by rainbows. Right on cue. It was a truly magical moment. You can spend months on research and planning for these weekends, right down to the last detail. But it is these unexpected gifts that light up the days.
Circle of Timeless Light
A few stars twinkled above Inverurie as our group gathered for dinner. It wasn’t even raining much. That probably explains why, some time after nine o’clock, when the moonless night had well and truly fallen, four people would once again walk the path up to the stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies…
We arrive first and, switching off the lights of the car, allow our eyes to gradually become accustomed to the complete lack of artificial light. We have torches, but they seem an intrusion somehow and will only be used to navigate the potholed track. There is no moon tonight and the little town is far enough distant, and set low enough in the landscape, to be invisible. Even the lights of Aberdeen make only a smudge of sickly ochre on the far horizon. We can see very little… only the ink-black silhouettes of the trees against the lightless sky.
The silence is profound, yet it is not a silence created by the absence of sound, only by the absence of Man. There is a rustling in the leaves, the breath of a breeze, ghostly fingers caressing the night. It is not emptiness, but a living silence… and we are part of it.
We wait, watching for our companions’ arrival. Gradually we realise that the darkness is receding. After a while, we can see almost as clearly as in daylight. Not as far, it is true, but we stand within a circle of vision, painted in silver, black and grey. Between the dancing leaves of the trees, we can see a thousand stars with unparalleled clarity. It is astonishing how quickly our eyes accept the darkness, painting detail upon its canvas with ancient and remembered skill. We will not really need the torches… but our companions’ eyes will not have time to adjust.
Two specks of approaching light rob the night of its completeness. A few minutes later four of us leave the cars and the modern world behind. We speak softly; voices are louder in the darkness, hearing more acute. In fact, it seems as if all the senses awaken in the night, remembering a purpose the everyday world forgets. There is nothing to remind us of when we are… only the torchlight that dances ahead of us on the earth. I am acutely conscious of distance… the noise of a Saturday night is centuries away… Extinguishing the torches, four souls step out of time and into the circle.
Without a word, we know what to do. We each seek our stone and stand before it in silence. My stone is the Elder, carved long before the others. I feel its presence, warm and enduring, against my spine. I think of my own garden and how the moon in its fullness casts shadows there. Tonight, the moon is absent. I look up… and the world falls away…
Above, the sky is cloudless and clear. A million, trillion stars sparkle, flashing colours. What I see is little different from what they would have seen here thousands of years ago… though there would have been no light save a few distant hearthfires to rob the darkness of beauty.
Three steps to my right and I am laying on the stone. It is warm in the circle, there is neither wind nor chill. ‘My’ stone looms over me, a dark void against the stars. Stone accepts my body… my view is unobstructed; the vastness of space draws me into that living silence and I hear its song. An endless time, that is no time, playing in the stars. The Milky Way arcs across the vault of night. The heavens are an upturned chalice to which the stones of the circle are reaching. Constellations that once shone white on black are drowning in a sea of diamond dust… and so am I…
After a few minutes, I sit up. Vision has embraced the night and I can see right across the circle; the stones glow white in the starlight. I can see my companions, silhouetted against their brightness. It looks as if they are held within the folds of snowy wings. It reminds me of something we had found in a little country church… and as my mind returns to earth, my companions stir and leave their stones.
Reluctantly, I stand… I wish we could stay longer, but we are all aware that it is time to leave. We close the circle and leave quietly. There is no need for words… nor is there really any need for the torchlight. The temperature drops noticeably as we step beyond the stones. For safety’s sake, we switch on the lamps and the night recedes by thousands of years.
We say goodnight and head our separate ways. When we realise the time, we are incredulous. It feels as if we had been there no time at all… but it is not far from midnight…
The weather was looking none too promising for the final day of the workshop, but at least it wasn’t really raining. It seemed incredible, under the heavy grey of the sky, that we’d had the clear weather-window the night before, just long enough to show us a starlit sky above the stone circle.
We had another visit to a stone circle after breakfast, but this one was quite a bit different…and suburban. I want to state here and now, that to have quite so much archaeology concentrated in Abereenshire seems a little unfair, when the place where I live has virtually nothing for miles. North or south yes, but not here. Oh, it is probably all there under the surface… ploughed and sown by centuries of farmers, but little of it is visible. It can be rather frustrating at times.
And yet, there is a lesson for me in that too. Whether there are standing stones, cairns and circles aplenty, or nothing visible at all, the land itself remains. The earth knows neither boundary nor barrier, nor is it sacred simply because it is marked by some prehistoric monument or fascinating legend. The ancients saw the goddess in the earth that gave them life… virgin in her unsown fields, blushing dawns and laughing brooks, maternally fruitful and nurturing, ancient and wise with her intimacy with the cycles of life and death. It matters little how our beliefs and perceptions have changed over the millennia… the earth is still all of that and more.
The threads of life are interwoven. Now, more than at any other time in our history, we are able to scientifically prove the interdependency of the species and the need to maintain balance in our environment. Our forefathers seem to have understood that without the need for any other proof than that of their eyes and hearts. I wonder which of us is the most advanced in that respect?
We parked behind a filling station on the edge of town, on a road that seemed to lead to an industrial estate or similar. A couple remained in the cars as the ground was rough. The high, overgrown grasses and fireweed did not look a promising sight… a far cry from the emerald and gold of the autumn foothills… but you cannot judge a site by how it is presented by urban planners, and at least this one, unlike so many others, has been recognised and protected.
Broomend of Crichie is a curious place and the last thing you would expect to find in the urban environment. It is a huge site, yet very little can be seen, unless you know what you are looking for, beyond the three standing stones in the centre. It would be easy to miss the concentric ditches and banks of the henge and no visible trace now remains of the great processional avenue of stones, a mile long, that once led to Crichie from Kintore… save only a solitary stone, half-buried in the grass. Today, this is a protected place, although it looks like a patch of wasteland awaiting the bulldozers of the developers. Yet the scale of this site, the work involved in its creation and its continued use over such a long period of time… all mark it as a place that must have held enormous significance for our ancestors.
The site was built in stages, from the Neolithic period onwards, and was first excavated a hundred and fifty years ago. A number of cremation burials were found, along with a cist containing an inhumation. Curiously, small animal, probably bird, bones were mixed with the ashes of the cremations and you have to wonder about their significance. Artefacts were also unearthed, including a decorated stone hammer and the burial urns which appear to be Late Bronze Age. Several other burials were also found in the area dating back around four thousand years to the Beaker culture, so named after the distinctive decorated vessels they created and traded.
In one burial, a small beaker and a child’s skull was found. In another, two men were interred, in a third, a man with girl-child, all covered with oxhide. In the latter, a beaker and a small spoon carved from horn were found…the equivalent of simple, everyday items in our society, but probably prized possessions back then; not only a gift to the departed, but a glimpse into a common human life for us.
It is thought that there was once a timber circle, as well as a circle of six standing stones, of which two now remain. A third stone has been added to the central space. It was erected there after it was found when a nearby embankment was dug up to be taken away to build a railroad line. It may well be one of the original stones of the complex, reused by the Picts in later years and inscribed with the Beast and the crescent and V-rod symbols. It is certainly out of place within the henge, but it does not feel entirely alien. Only lost.
I think I would like to spend a week or two there with a lawnmower, to unveil the true immensity of this site. It would be the only way to appreciate it for what it is… and was. We have seen many stone circles, from those small, almost domestic circles to te great, grand marvels in stone such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Castlerigg, to name but three. All are constructed with regard to alignments, with the land or the season shifts of the heavens. I have often wondered if a comparison could be made between the differing roles of the great and small stone circles and the visible power of the medieval Church. The great Gothic cathedrals, with their rituals and complex beauty, were built to impress, showing both their religious and secular power. In contrast, the simple parish churches, where that same power was stepped down to a more accessible level, was where the real, human work of living in faith was done. If there is any truth to that comparison, then Broomend of Crichie is the ghost of a forgotten ‘cathedral’, veiled in fire-flowers, and yet… it somehow still remembers itself.
Circles Out of Time
It looked, for a while, as if we might escape being rained on at our second site of the morning, but no… that would have been too much to ask The ritual cleansing would continue. We were heading for another recumbent circle, with a few unusual features… Loanhead of Daviot.
The car park was full so I parked the car at a little distance and we walked back, arriving to find the group listening to a ghost story about the lady seen in the woods through which we would walk to the circle. The trees could not have been there when the circle was constructed, or they would have blocked the view of the moon and made the recumbent redundant, but they do provide a beautiful approach and backdrop to the stones. The green lawn opens out beyond the shadows of the trees on a spectacular site.
There are two circles at Loanhead. One is a circle of standing stones, the other, a low-kerbed enclosure which is an ancient cemetery. The earliest construction at the site seems to date back to the Neolithic period, with later use, changes of use and additions. Making sense of the place means looking at perhaps six thousand years of history, as well as the way we view and use our buildings.
In one of the villages where I grew up, there was a lovely old chapel. It had belonged to a small Christian sect and had long-since fallen into disuse. Over the few years that I was there, attempts were made to use the building. It served as a community centre, office space, a dance hall, a cinema and was eventually converted into residential apartments. Each function saw changes to the structure and decor and, by the time the new residents moved in, its original builders would not have recognised the place. They would certainly not have approved of many of the roles it had assumed.
With these truly ancient sites, I think we have to look at a similar shift over millennia, with later folk adapting the site for their own needs and traditions. In a time without written records, it is easy to see how knowledge could be lost as peoples move and shift across the face of the land, yet in a landscape where nothing other than homesteads were built, these enigmatic circles must always have commanded awe.
Then, thousands of years later, the archaeologists who restore and reconstruct them must find a formula that seems to fit all the facts, but which may not be entirely correct or inclusive of all a site’s history. Especially when we know nothing for certain about their original function within the community, exactly how they were used or what form the rituals performed there may have taken. It is, I think, for this reason that the interior of the circle was infilled with the stones of the much later cairn when it was restored.
What we do know is that these circles are in alignment with the movements of heavenly bodies and the seasonal changes. They forge or celebrate the relationship between the earth and the heavens and, in that respect, have something in common with our modern places of worship. It is no surprise, then, that many of these sites have burials attached to them, though this one has more than most.
The main circle is sixty-four feet in diameter. There are eight single standing stones, plus the two flankers and the huge recumbent which, says the official report, has been split vertically in two by the frost. The stones, as always, descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent. The two flankers, one of which is carved with cupmarks, lean in towards the recumbent and you are left in no doubt of which of them represents the masculine, fecundating forces of nature.
Within the circle, at some later date, a cairn was raised over a cremation where shards of adult and children’s bones were found, with worked flints, potsherds and charcoal. Around the base of each of the standing stones a small cairn had been raised, where cremation burials were also found. Four shallow holes within the centre of the circle have given rise to the suggestion that a wooden mortuary house may once have stood there.
I had initially been drawn to the smaller, less impressive circle, curious as to its purpose, but in no doubt as I approached. During excavations in 1935, a shallow pit had been found in which were the half-cremated remains of a forty year old man who seemed to have been clutching a pendant. The pyre had been built over the body and, instead of collecting the remains, the area had been used to inter another thirty or so cremations. Close by is a pit in which, it is thought, bodies may have been stored before burning and another eleven burials in urns and yet more in pits.
The burials seem to date from the Bronze Age, and took place over a relatively short period of time. “Whereas the great stone circle had required the co-operation of a whole community (and their neighbours) to build it, and while its use for the rituals of life, fertility and magic extended over many centuries, the cremation cemetery is an altogether slighter, more transient creation, concerned with the relationships in death within an individual family or two over a short time.” ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Grampian’, (1986).
On the edge of the next field are the remnants of yet another recumbent circle. We can only imagine the awe and wonder in which such sites, already remnants of an ancestral past, must have been held. That same awe still touches those who visit these ancient, mysterious sites still today. We may not always understand, but we can still feel the magic in the stones and see the spirits of the earth in the forms that linger in their shapes. There are sinuous dancers, great hands reaching for the sky, faces and animals, a shaman’s headdress… all there for the eye to find and the heart to comprehend. For all our veneer of modernity and our vaunted civilisation, we are not so far removed from our roots as we might care to think.
Our last visit of a weekend that seemed to have flown by all too quickly was to a little church on the edge of Aberdeen. The sun finally decided to show its face… though it still managed to rain anyway, but at least we had blue skies through the roofless ruins of St Fergus’ Church.
Originally built around eight hundred years ago, the old parish church of Dyce sits high above a bend in the river Don. It was a place of Christian worship long before the present church was built…and possibly already a sacred or significant site in the pre-Christian era. Little now remains of the church apart from its shell, with the curious doorway to the east, where the altar would normally be situated.
Fergus the Pict was an Irish bishop, responsible for bringing Christianity to many in this area of Scotland. He may be the same Fergus who took part in the council of Rome in 721AD that condemned ‘irregular marriages, sorcerers and clerics who grew their hair long’.
Outside the door is a pedestal carved into a bowl that looks like the remains of an ancient font. Local legend says that it is a penitent’s seat, in which the lawbreakers of the community were obliged to sit as the congregation filed past. Within the church, there is nothing much left of interest except a few carved stones.
Some of them are much older than the church and have been reused as part of its fabric. On one of them, visitors have left a small white stone. The reason for this is unknown to me. Is it a pagan or Christian practice? Does it relate to the presence of the Commonwealth graves within the churchyard? The only parallel I can think of is one Barb had mentioned, the Jewish custom of placing a stone on a grave, though we too had been placing stones at sacred sites as a symbol and prayer for peace.
The other carved stones, though, are what we had primarily come to see…and they were rather spectacular. Some of them are relatively small, simple grave markers, probably carved around thirteen hundred years ago, found close to the church, others carry a mixture of Christian symbolism and the elaborate and enigmatic Pictish symbols.
One is a huge cross slab, dating back to the mid 800s, which, in addition to the ‘Celtic’ interlacing on the cross itself, carries a number a length of Ogham script down one side. The beautifully carved symbols include a ‘mirror case’, the ‘crescent and V-rod’ that we had already seen once that morning in the stone circle, and a ‘double disc and Z-rod’. That symbol, less ornately carved, also features on the second of the two large stones. This one dates back a further three hundred years to around 500AD and once again, we came face to face with the Pictish Beast. The information boards, which really only offer dates and questions, show coloured impressions of how the stones may have looked when they were painted, based upon illuminations from later manuscripts and the beautiful jewels that have been found.
And that was it… we gathered above the river where our companions shared their final readings of the weekend and where Running Elk was presented with a hat and the ceremonial Order of the Brolly… a moment I missed as I sat with Mrs Elk in the churchyard, speaking of what has been and what is yet to come. All that remained was a last hour to talk over lunch and some very fond farewells. Scotland and Running Elk had done us proud. By way of showing our gratitude, I am rather hoping we may convince him to show us those ‘other places we should have visited’ one of these days…though Stuart and I did accidentally find one of them on our way back to the hotel… and England was a long way and much beauty away… with plenty of places to get sidetracked and a genuine adventure yet to come…
What on Earth…
I immediately went into ‘there has to be somewhere to park’ mode. You don’t just drive past a humungous mound without stopping…not when it is so very obviously man-made. And especially not when there are two of them. And in an urban cemetery, of all places! We have had a bit of trouble with mounds in the past, especially on workshops. They have a tendency to go missing. But here, we found ourselves with a brace of the things and completely unexpectedly too.
We had just said farewell to our companions after a fabulous weekend and were simply planning on getting back to the hotel, relaxing for a while and starting to process what we had seen. We wanted a fairly early start the next morning as we had a long way to go… and were fully intending on being sidetracked several times. I also had a road through the Scottish Highlands in mind that I have not driven in many a year and which is just too glorious to miss. So, instead of sensibly heading south towards home, we would first be heading north to Inverness. An early night was in order.
But, ‘back to the hotel’ went out of the window as we parked the car and read the signs on the cemetery wall and gate.I was rather intrigued by the memorial to the wives of William Thom. The surname has a certain significance to those with an interest in ancient stone, but this Thom was a handloom weaver from Aberdeen who wrote poetry in the vernacular. He was born around 1800 and died of consumption aged forty-eight.
Then another sign caught my eye.
“Ooh, Pictish symbol stones too!”
“Bugger,” said my companion, reading a notice. “They’ve moved them.”
It was a shame. The information boards showed them to have been rather beautiful… especially the running horse. I would have liked to have seen them. The stones are around fifteen hundred years old and were found re-used as part of the building materials for the medieval church that had once stood here.
The information board showed the designs on the stones. Some of them we had just seen at Dyce, like the crescent and V-rod and the double circle and Z-rod, for which no known meaning has been found but which seem to be amongst the most common symbols. The double disc reminds me of a cloak clasp. Perhaps it was a symbol of lairdship? Were these stones boundary markers for the lands of the local chieftain, or perhaps grave markers for burials as the official line suggests? Or was there some deeper meaning behind them? Both could be true and the combination of symbols might also be a significant message to those who could read them.
Luckily, though, the mounds were still there…they are a bit too big to move. We wandered through the cemetery, to the path between the two mounds, watching squirrels play, seeing a dark shape dart across the grass and rather disconcertingly disappear and saying hello to an elderly gentleman who also promptly seemed to disappear. I have to say, it was a little odd. The graveyard occupies a the land bounded by the river, close to the confluence of the Don and the Ury. Two mounds, one huge, one about half its size, rise on either side of the path. We climbed the smaller one, now blanketed in moss, sporting trees and a good crop of toadstools. I had noticed a gate and a spiral path climbing the taller of the mounds, around the other side, so up we went.
The two mounds form the Bass of Inverurie, said to be a motte and bailey castle. The larger mound, the motte, would have held a timber fortification, while the other, lower mound, the bailey, held stores, stables and workshops. They were joined to by an oak walkway whose timbers were found in 1883. The site would have been well defended, rising above an encircling ditch in the marshy ground in the loop of the river. The design suggests the castle is around nine hundred years old and it was a seat of royal power, administered by the de Lesselyn family, Hereditary Constables of the Garioch. It may well be at the Bass that Robert the Bruce lay ill in 1308 after the Battle of Barra.
Not all these ‘Norman’ mounds though are Norman. Some that had been thought to date back only a thousand years have been found to be much, much older. They were centres for gathering, ritual and justice and may have been seen as sacred, like the great hill of Silbury itself. Not all have been dated by modern methods and it would not surprise me if this was one of those older hills, taken over by a later power. My reason lies on the horizon, where the two peaks of Bennachie, with its ancient presence and history, echo the shape of the hills.
It was still raining as we turned to descend from the mound, but the day had a final surprise. Once again we saw the double disc symbol, but this time, in a rather more modern and wholly unexpected form… World within worlds… and somehow, that seemed about right.
The Battle Stone
The road carried us towards Forres, on the way to Inverness. We were, fairly predictably, on the trail of a stone. Not just any stone, though, this one is rather special. It is also quite a large one…though quite how large we did not realise until we parked the car and stood looking up at the thing. At twenty-one feet, it is the tallest carved stone of its kind in Scotland.
Sueno’s Stone stands at a crossroads where three roads meet.Legends tell that it was on this spot that the infamous witches met Macbeth, and their spirits were imprisoned within the stone, waiting to be released should it ever be broken. The only problem is that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth many centuries after the stone was first raised, but it does give a good reason for the glass case in which the stone now sleeps.
Another and more plausible legend suggests that the stone marks the death of Dub mac Maíl Coluim, king of Alba, who was killed by the Scots in 967 and that the stone was erected by his brother, Cináed mac Maíl Coluim. No-one really knows for sure who is really represented here, but what is certain is that while one side depicts an interlaced Celtic Cross, the other depicts a battle scene in surprising and gory detail.
Archers, swordsmen and horses in serried ranks are accompanied by piles of severed heads, including one that seems to be singled out from the rest, beneath the arch of a structure and encased in a square frame as if it is of more importance than all the others. It has to be that of a battle chief or king, one would think. Dating back to the ninth or tenth century, it does make you wonder about its story. It must have been seen as a magnificent victory or a dire loss to warrant such a monument.
We were not, it seemed though, going to get a great deal of time to ponder the stone or its stories. Almost as soon as we arrived, so did a coach-load of tourists, all laughing and talking and just as intent on taking in this ancient wonder as we were. Outnumbered, we retreated to read the information panel and allow them to get their photographs… we, at least, were not time-constricted and could wait, and the stone has been waiting patiently for well over a thousand years.
But, as the group gathered around the stone, folk music began to play from the coach. It is, said the coach driver, traditional to dance around the stone… and dance they did, joining hands in what must be a far older dance than the Christian symbolism of at least some of the carvings… a simple joining in merriment around a standing stone.
Yet, it seemed they were gone almost as quickly as they had arrived. It was quite surreal to watch so many people arrive and depart with such haste, either side of a dance… almost as if we had witnessed something that had not really happened. Considering what would happen at our next stops, in hindsight it seems as if it were setting a pattern for the day…
The Butcher’s Stone…
““Culloden,” he said, the whispered word an evocation of tragedy.”
Outlander: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon
We had turned off the main road to Inverness, and were heading down the ‘B’ roads in search of an ancient site we wanted to visit. As we drove, a young stag leaped out into the road in front of us, his emerging antlers still rounded and covered with velvet. I was glad that I was not driving at speed as we followed the brown signs that said ‘Culloden’; there have been more than enough deaths there without adding to their number. But that was one place we were not going. The battlefield of Culloden has too many tales of horror and too many uneasy ghosts still haunt moor and memory. I had no desire to feel them again… and, as a sassenach myself, there is a lingering sense of shame for the actions of the Duke of Cumberland.
As it was, our road led us too close for comfort to the place where so many were slaughtered in battle and with cruel and merciless abandon in the aftermath. All unsuspecting, we pulled into a parking spot beside a huge boulder, over five feet high and over fifty-three feet in circumference… and just a few hundred yards from the battlefield of Culloden.
On the 16th of April, 1746, ten thousand English troops, met the Highlanders who fought for Charles Stuart… Bonnie Prince Charlie… at Culloden. The English foot soldiers and cavalry, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, were heavily armed with artillery. The Jacobite Highlanders were weary, weakened by sickness and hunger and numbered less than half the English force. The level ground at Culloden was unsuited to the Highlanders’ fighting style and their army was decimated.
Charles Stuart, his cause lost, managed to escape the field with a small band of followers. Few Highlanders escaped… on Cumberland’s orders, the wounded and those not slain in battle were shot in a sickening episode of brutality. Cumberland would follow the battle with the harrowing of the Glens, laying the Highlands bare and earning for himself the name of the ‘Butcher’.
The stone we had accidentally found is known as the Cumberland Stone. It is an erratic, a boulder deposited many miles from its place of origin by a melting glacier during the last Ice Age, sixteen thousand years ago. It stands close to the battlefield and legend has it that the Butcher Duke not only used the stone as a table upon which to break his fast, but also climbed upon it to watch the slaughter of the Highlanders.
It has another story, though, less dark than the one it is most famed for. A local youth, Duncan Forbes, was renowned for his wild, carousing ways. He and his friends are recorded as being so drunk at his mother’s funeral that they forgot to take her body with then to the burial ground. He fell in love with Mary Rose, the daughter of the baron, and she with him. Her father disapproved of the profligate young man and the lovers would meet by a great stone by the roadside, right on the edge of her father’s land.
Determined to win her father’s approval, Forbes became a changed man and trained in law. The couple married and Forbes dedicated himself to his wife for the ten years until her death. By the time of the Jacobite Rising, he had risen to the position of Lord President and, although he supported the government forces, did his best to convince some of the clan chiefs that the Rising was folly and could only bring ruin. The story goes that Forbes was so horrified at what happened at and after Culloden that he died the next year of a broken heart.
Over a hundred years later, in 1881, another Duncan Forbes would erect the landmark memorial cairn on the battlefield of Culloden and raise the stones to mark the mass graves of the clans.
We had no intention of visiting Culloden, but it seemed the land itself would not let us pass without at least acknowledging the massacre. Perhaps that is as it should be. Time and ever-changing political landscapes may heal many things, but the land remembers those things which should not be forgotten, and which our human minds can all too conveniently forget. We can achieve so much when we work together, both for good and for ill. We can create or encourage division or unity, we can cast blame on our leaders, or shift it to wherever seems politically appropriate, using as our defence that we were ‘only following orders’. In the end, though, it comes down to us, individuals with a conscience and a choice in how we face the world…. and whether we can each find the courage to stand up for what we believe to be right.
Circles Within Circles
“I don’t know how you have the temerity to even think about writing up Clava… The place is on a different planet… galaxy… something…” All true. I have no idea where to start… it is a place that needs more than words, but words are all I can bring to the page. It is beautiful too, with the white stones contrasting with the green of the grove of trees in which the cairns now stand. In many ways, I’d just like to forget all the factual stuff and wax lyrical about the place, but it does have to be seen in a historical context before the sheer awesomeness of the place can even be touched.
The problem with Balnuaran Of Clava, the Clava Cairns, was immediately obvious… in spite of the fact that it lies just outside of Inverness and therefore over five hundred miles from my home, we would need far more than one flying visit to even begin to get our heads around it. It is a big site, with a group of three principal cairns, all with circles of standing stones around them. Sounds simple enough… but that is far from the truth.
A cairn is a burial mound raised over the dead. Some have a central chamber, others are more in the nature of simple grave markers. They are made by piling up stones and some may then have been covered with earth or turf.
Most of the cairns we encounter these days are small; the larger cairns have all too often been robbed for building stone over the centuries, or are in such disarray that it is almost impossible to get a true sense of how they would once have looked. Here, there is no such difficulty… nor are they just simple piles of stone.
They are beautiful and complex feats of monumental architecture that date back to the Bronze Age. There are many similar cairns of this design still dotted around the landscape of the area. A central chamber, walled with carefully laid stones, held the remains of the dead. Where those remains have still been present when the tombs were excavated, it seems that these great cairns were designed to hold only one or two people.
The Neolithic passage graves which were their forerunners were places of communal burial and communion, where the bones were carefully stored and ritually revisited. Here, many of the surviving cairns seem to have been built with no entrance, reflecting a change, both in the way the dead were viewed and the way they were treated within the community.
Once the central chamber was created, stones were placed, not just piled, around it, often enclosed by a kerb. Older sacred stones were sometimes re-used… like the cup-marked stones we found both within the chambers and as part of the kerb on one of the cairns.
The design of the cairns reminded me forcibly of one of the Pictish symbols we had seen, the double disc, with its inner and outer circles and I wondered if there could be an ancestral link, even though these cairns date back to a far earlier time.
From the central chamber in each of these cairns, a passage runs towards the entrance which faces south-west towards midwinter sunset. The construction is meticulous and I find it quite beautiful. The builders of these cairns may have discovered the use of bronze, but their lingering reverence for stone is clear.
Outside of each cairn is a stone circle. Not just a simple construction of small boulders either, but great boulders and towering, majestic slivers, delicately balanced. In each circle, the tallest stone stands before the entrance and the smallest opposite, across the circle.
There were people milling around, some from the coaches, being given a well-practised tour by kilted guides. Although we usually avoid getting people in the photographs, sometimes they are a useful addition to give a sense of scale. Even so, we waited until they had moved away before we entered the first chamber. We stood in silence to the left of the entrance, in the inner chamber and were joined by a third person.
I only caught a glimpse across my companion, and assumed it was the lone gentleman who had been hovering close by. My companion got a better look… and it certainly wasn’t the man we had seen. In fact, seconds later, we realised there was no-one there at all. We checked the passageway and beyond… there was no-one anywhere near. Yet we had both seen that third person within the chamber…
Wide-eyed and not even speaking about it, we continued to explore. Two cairns are of the passage grave type with taller walls and chamber. The central cairn of the three that remain is of a different design. For some reason, I really liked the feel of this one. It has not had its passageway unblocked and you can see the care with which it was back-filled when the tomb was closed. But that is not its most astounding feature…
Raised ‘paths’ of stone, like the beams of the sun, radiate out from the cairn to at least three of the stones of its circle. There is no question of their importance, they are very carefully built. I wished we had more time… and Running Elk with us… and maybe a compass… and definitely not the next coach load of tourists… though we did hear one guide mention a further cairn close by.
We had already noted a stray standing stone we hoped to get a look at, but could find no entrance to its field. With so many people around, climbing walls was not really an option. There is at least one hut circle too, though I cannot imagine this was a permanent dwelling unless it was for the tender of the dead.
The third cairn, with its entrance facing away from the centre of the site, seemed more isolated. The trees cluster close around its stone circle and the acoustics, even in the unroofed space, respond with a gentle ‘warmth’ to chanting. I think we could have happily stayed there all day… and all night too… had we been able to do so.
But yet another group of visitors arrived, intent on selfies showing logos on shirts. Their guide was telling them about the portal stone… a great standing stone split vertically. It is the subject of local legend and sounds terribly similar to the portal in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. One tale he told was of a woman happily married and the wife of a local professional. Her car had been found abandoned here a few years ago… a huge search had, he said, been undertaken, with acres of land being dug for the body… but no sign of her was found. The consensus was that she had passed through the portal stone to who knows where…
I can well imagine it, in this place. In spite of the other visitors to the site, there is a strangeness and a presence in the stones. It takes very little of their silence to shift the nature of reality, so that somehow you feel apart from it… as if you are moving on another plane, yet able to see and interact with the one from which you came.
We were not the only ones to feel it. As we made our way reluctantly back to the car, an older gentleman with an odd, urgent look in his eyes approached us. “Did you speak to them in there?” Yes, we answered, we had spoken to them. He nodded, let out a deep sigh and walked off into the stones…
Mysteries on Loch Ness
After the incredible experience of Clava Cairns, it was probably just as well that our next destination was not far and would offer no more than beauty to bewitch us. I have camped on its shores and ‘showered’ in its icy waterfalls, but it is many years since I last saw Loch Ness. There is a geological fault in the land here that runs right across the north of Scotland. Aeons ago, glaciers found the weak point and carved the Great Glen out of the earth, almost separating north from south. Loch Ness is the most famous of the interconnected lochs that follow the faultline and, for size alone, the most impressive. It is around twenty-three miles long and 755 feet deep, holding more water than all the lakes in England and Wales together. It also holds a world famous mystery… the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps.
Stories of the monster go back a very long way. The earliest recorded sighting dates back fifteen hundred years to the Life of St. Columba by Adomnán. He records that the saint came upon Picts by the River Ness who were burying the body of a man slain by the monster. Columba sent Luigne moccu Min, one of his followers, to swim in the waters. When the monster emerged and was about to attack, the saint made the sign of the Cross and cried, “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” The beast obliged and the Picts hailed it as a miracle.
Stories, photographs… some spurious, others simply mysterious, have emerged over the years. Opinions are divided about what the monster might, or might not be… or if it exists at all. Scottish waters abound with kelpies, selkies and other magical creatures, after all. But regardless of the authenticity of the stories, ‘Nessie’ is now a major tourist attraction. Sceptical by nature, I am inclined to dismiss a good proportion of the tales, though some remain intriguing… but I defy anyone to stand on the banks of the loch and not scan the waters hopefully for some sign of the monster’s presence.
We looked out over the silky calm of the deserted loch, exploring the rocks, some a beautiful pink that seems to glow when the setting sun touches it, others folded, poured and streaked by the forces of planetary evolution. An incredible number of them seemed to echo the shape of the monster, even on our little patch of shore and it is very easy to see how some of them could be misinterpreted in the half-light. Especially when, out of nowhere, and for no reason at all, a long, high swell arises in the smooth, silken water… as if something very large were swimming just below the surface…
We scanned the loch for any sign of a boat, or anything else that could have created the unexpected swell… but there was nothing to be seen. As we watched, the swell rose again, as if a second ‘something’ had passed by, sending waves to disturb the serenity of the shoreline… There has to be some explanation for it… a perfectly rational one… doesn’t there?
We watched until the water subsided and became once again a silent sheet of silk, looking across the loch and wondering where the notorious Boleskine House might be. Its notoriety comes largely from its association with the occultist and writer Aleister Crowley whose reputation meant that tales of orgiastic rites and sacrifices in the woods were inevitable, whether or not they were entirely deserved. He had bought the house from the Fraser family in 1899 to use as a retreat in which to undertake the Abramelin rituals, which require seclusion and a six month period of fasting, abstinence and celibacy, but which also require their practitioner to call up some dark forces. He never completed the rituals and tales of strange and unpleasant happenings began to emerge. His lodge-keeper there, who lost two of his children, was thought to be one victim of what Crowley later called experiments that had got out of hand.
Boleskine House, though, has had a dark reputation for far longer than the house itself has stood there. A thousand years ago a chapel that stood on the spot is said to have caught fire during one of the services, burning the entire congregation to death. Strange lights have been seen over the churchyard, which is reputedly connected to the House by a tunnel and the severed head of the executed Lord Lovat can be heard rolling around the floors of the rooms of Boleskine. Perhaps it is no surprise that its next owner committed suicide there in 1965. It was then bought by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page as a place to write songs, then sold on to become a hotel and finally a family home. In 2015, while the owner’s partner and daughter were out shopping, the empty house somehow caught fire and burned down, leaving nothing but an empty shell and a memory that will go into legend.
We drove on, stopping for the obligatory shot of Urquhart Castle and lunch in Invermoriston and resisting the temptation to stop once more at Drumnadrochit. We had already seen so much that morning and driven over a hundred miles… and we had another hundred miles to drive before dinner. But I knew the road I wanted to take, a beautiful road with a very special place along the way, if I remembered it rightly… and the view through the windscreen showed us that the distant slopes of the Cairngorms were waiting…
A very long time ago now, I had a wonderful job that took me, every weekend, driving around Britain. By the time I reached Scotland, I knew… barring disaster… whether I would have some time to spare before I needed to be back so that I could wander away from the planned route. On a couple of occasions, I had made the time to visit a magical spot I had seen many years before on holiday. That first time, I had only glimpsed it through the trees. On subsequent visits I had explored a little, but I had not felt it prudent, especially as I was technically at work, for a woman alone to go wandering the forest paths too far from the road.
I had never known what the place was called and, in the days before online mapping, it was not so easy to find out. Even so, it was this spot I was hoping to find once more after we had left Loch Ness. The trouble was, I had never approached it from this direction, nor could I recall the road numbers I had used so long ago; memory can be a fickle beast. On the other hand, I have a pretty good memory for roads and places and I was relying on that, and Stuart’s map-reading skills, to find this very special place.
Coming from the opposite direction than usual, and after a decade or so had passed since my last visit, my memories were vague at best, but a signpost for Kinloch Laggan seemed familiar. I remembered a long lake with a castle, perhaps, or a big house on its shores and a small beach. One thing was certain… with the distance that we still had to travel, once committed to a road, there would be no chance to go back and try another… and there are few to choose from in the Scottish Highlands.
We left Loch Ness behind and drove beside Loch Lochy for a while before turning off towards the Cairngorms. The landscape seemed almost familiar as we followed the course of the River Spean… and finally came to another of the great lochs, which Google now tells me is Loch Laggan. There, on the far bank, we saw the big house I had half-remembered and the spit of sand at the end of the loch.
I was trying not to be too excited… many things change over the course of a decade or so. It was entirely possible that this was not the road we needed. Or that the place had changed dramatically. Possible too that the memory of peace and solitude had painted the place I was looking for with a magic that bore little resemblance to reality. But I knew that if this was the right road, we would soon find out…
We drove on. The road seemed completely unfamiliar. I did not recall the village through which we drove, nor the dim tunnel of trees that arched over the road. I resigned myself to disappointment, yet I was loving every second of the long drive through such a beautiful land. Then a curve of road felt right, there was a glimpse of water… I almost missed the layby under the trees… almost, but not quite. I could barely wait to get out of the car… we had found it…
All That Glitters…
You could easily drive past and never know it was there. Even hoping that we were on the right road and might just find it, we almost missed it… almost, but not quite. I have never known the name of this place that I had stumbled on so long ago by accident, I just know it is beautiful in a way that has always sung to my heart.
Pushing through the green veil of leaves, what first appears to be no more than a russet stream reveals itself to be a little piece of heaven. Heather crowns the sheer cliffs that embrace the tumbling waters. Where the stream is shallow, it runs crystal clear but tinted with peat, the gold of the moors. Where it runs deep… and it does… the pools are dark, icy cold and yet inviting.
The flow is swift, channelled to the lower falls through a steep, rocky gorge. The sound is pervasive, the roar of red water as the lifeblood of earth. We climbed the cliffs to look down on the falls, then clambered down beyond them to explore.
Movement, sound, colour and light assault senses already heightened by the fragrance of pine and damp earth. Wood, stone and water are vibrant and alive and their presence feeds and revivifies, in some inexplicable way, as we immerse ourselves in the moment.
Later, I would trace our route on the map and learn that the place is called Pattack Falls. I would find that had we had the time to wander a mile or two farther up the stream, there are wide, isolated pools and falls some forty feet high. It gives me one more reason to return with time to spare for exploring… not that I need one.
There is a sense of magic about the place… everywhere. No photograph can capture its spirit, nor all its beauty. Even the stones sparkle; great boulders reflecting the shifting light with the silvery delicacy of diamond dust… and small pebbles, worn smooth by the churning waters, that somehow found their way into my pocket as a tangible memory of that wonder.
I, for one, could have happily spent the whole day there, playing on the glittering rocks, walking the paths beside the stream and seeking the icy intimacy of the waters.
But already it had been a long and eventful day, driving from Inverurie to Inverness, then down the length of Loch Ness. The light would soon begin to fail and we still had a long way to drive through the Highlands to our hotel somewhere just south of Pitlochry.
Even so, with my skirt hitched up out of the way and with nowhere near enough time to play, I was a very happy hobbit…
Tales of the Unexpected
Sadly, it was to be our last night in Scotland. We had found a place to stay just outside Pitlochry. The next morning we would begin the long drive to our next rendezvous… a meeting with a friend in Yorkshire. After the dousing we had enjoyed with the rain over the weekend, there was, it has to be said, a certain irony in the name of our hotel…
We booked in, then wandered into Pitlochry in search of supplies. Our needs were simple, which was just as well as, by that time, most of the town was already closed and evening was drawing in. I’ve always had a fondness for Pitlochry for some reason. Although the town dates back a thousand years or so, what now remains is largely Victorian, a reminder of Queen Victoria’s visit in 1842. The arrival of the railway in 1863 helped make Pitlochry a popular place to visit and, nestled between the mountains and the river, it remains a tourist centre to this day. Even so, it has a homely feel to it.
Duly resupplied, we retired to the hotel to get an early night. It had everything we would need… and definitely something extra too.
“I’m sure I closed that door.” My companion rattled the handle and shrugged; it was an old building, after all, perhaps it hadn’t quite closed.
We ate our supper and wandered down to the street, standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the only two rooms in that part of the building. The evening was pleasant but a chill was settling in so we did not linger above a few minutes.
“I know I locked that door,” said my companion in consternation. The door was unlocked and standing wide open… I knew he had locked it too… and as no-one could have passed us to climb the few stairs to the rooms, perhaps we were not the only ‘guests’ to be lodged in that part of the old inn…
Next morning we were away early. The day was grey, damp and dull as we headed towards a place we had long wanted to see. We thought we would take the opportunity to visit an ancient being, if we could find it, before meandering back to England. It was only supposed to be a flying visit… but we should have known better. We were going to get seriously sidetracked on our way south… though not as seriously as we would have liked, had there been time to spare. We could have taken the direct route… a mere two hundred and fifty miles of motorway… but where would be the fun in that? We would, instead, take the back roads and see where they led… adding another hundred miles to the journey but allowing us to really enjoy our last day in Scotland.
The first thing to catch our attention was the Black Watch memorial in Aberfeldy. The Black Watch are known for their gallantry and courage and have fought in many of the major battles of the nation’s history, from Waterloo to El Alamein, often when the odds have been weighted against them. The memorial stands near Wade’s Bridge on the banks of the River Tay. The bridge is named for General Wade who, in the eighteenth century, rebuilt many bridges and created the network of military roads that still form the basis of the road system through the Highlands. The monument itself is built to resemble a huge cairn and stands on earthen banks reminiscent of older burial mounds.
The statue at its crown shows Private Farquhar Shaw dressed in the original uniform of the Black Watch Regiment. That soldier’s story is a sad one; in 1743 the regiment was unusually ordered to march to England. They were destined to be sent to Flanders, but the unfounded rumour was that the unit was to be transported to the American plantations… and for Highlanders, this was considered a fate worse than death. Some of the soldiers chose not to wait unresisting for that fate to befall them and left London for home. They were intercepted and brought back. While most of the soldiers escaped with a reprimand, because of the misunderstanding, three, including Farquhar Shaw, were accused of desertion and shot as an example.
We stayed in Aberfeldy just long enough to pay our respects at the monument, then we crossed the general’s bridge and headed out into the morning. As we neared our destination, a red squirrel ran across the road. It is the first I have seen in many years, though in my childhood, most squirrels were still these native beauties. The introduction of the American grey squirrel, along with habitat loss, has decimated our native population and they are sadly at risk of extinction in Britain, though small colonies are slowly stabilising with help. It was only the briefest glimpse, but it brought a moment of hope to the morning. As the sun began to pierce the low-lying cloud that shrouded the hills, it looked like we might have a beautiful day for getting sidetracked…
Older than Time…
Imagine standing in the presence of a living being at whose feet Pontius Pilate played as a child. Local legend says that Pilate was born at Fortingall when his father visited the Roman Legions in the north. Imagine standing in the presence of a being already ancient long before Christianity came to its birth, perhaps long before Stonehenge was built. A being that may have already been old before Doggerland, the country that joined ancient Britain to Europe, sank beneath the waves… That is how it feels to stand in the presence of the Fortingall Yew.
We had wanted to visit the yew for what seems to us a very long time, but which, to the tree, must seem of no more account than a passing zephyr in its branches. Looking at the map the night before and seeing how close the village of Fortingall was, we had decided against the direct route south and instead, headed cross-country. The direct route would have been far quicker and taken us down the motorways… the back roads, we thought, would allow us to see a little more of Scotland. How much more, we had, at that point, no real idea.
With such a long drive ahead, we were trying to be good and not stop at every tantalising stone and circle… there are a lot in the area apparently, attesting to mankind’s presence here for over five thousand years. It was never going to work, though, not completely. Especially not when the morning was set against a backdrop of mountains just beginning to be revealed by the mists. We stopped whenever the narrow lanes allowed, even if it was only to look and take pictures from the roadside. Mounds, cairns, circles… just those few miles could easily have taken us all day, had we the time to spare.
But we were heading for Fortingall to see the ancient yew. There is no accurate way to date the tree… its heartwood is long gone, returned to the earth from whence it came… and estimates of its age vary, source to source. Some suggest it is three thousand years old.. Others believe it to be as much as nine thousand years old, but most sources give its age as somewhere in the middle, which means that the tree has watched over this valley for around five thousand years.
It is one of Britain’s oldest trees… perhaps the oldest. There is another five thousand year old yew at St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog in Wales. However, if the higher estimates are correct, the Fortingall yew may be one of the oldest living things on Earth. To stand in its presence, beneath the bright green of its branches, is to begin to understand how fleeting our own presence upon this planet truly is. I had to wonder if Douglas Adams had ever visited the yew and whether it had given him the seeds of an idea for the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhikers Guide.
Thomas Pennant, a traveller, left a record of his own visit to the tree in 1769. At that time the trunk of the tree measured 56½ft (17.5m) in diameter. He also mentioned that it had been damaged by the village youths lighting the Beltane fires at its base. Yews have long been held sacred in this land. It may well have been our only native evergreen tree at one time; to those who look to nature for their spiritual inspiration, its winter-green leaves, longevity and its ability to renew itself from its roots would have been deeply symbolic. To the Christian community that established itself in its shadow around 600 AD, the tree would have been a symbol of rebirth in Christ. To those who came before, perhaps it also symbolised rebirth or the renewal of reincarnation.
By 1833 parts of the trunk had been cut away to make quaiches, small, shallow cups, as souvenirs for visitors, though there was already new growth to a height of thirty feet. Today, the central trunk is gone, its erstwhile girth marked by a circle of small posts, showing the enormity of the original tree. ‘New’ growth forms what appears to be a small grove of trees, but they are still part of the original yew. The tree is now protected within a walled enclosure and its huge, gnarled branches supported on piers of stone.
Yews have distinct characteristics, with individual trees being male or female. The Fortingall yew is a male tree… and yet one small branch has changed to become female and begun to bear bright red berries. Seeds have been saved to help study the process. To preserve the biodiversity of these wonderful old trees, cuttings are being grown to form part of a mile long hedge of the scions of ancient yews in Edinburgh. It is an odd feeling to think those trees could, if they are allowed, stand for millennia after we, and all we have known as our world has passed beyond memory. In a secluded corner by the yew, the Reverend Duncan Macara, a minister who served the parish for fifty years in the nineteenth century is buried. Already the inscription fades and is overlaid with lichen as Nature reclaims her own.
The path that leads to the yew attempts, with incised inscriptions, to put its age in perspective, showing the story of the land and the people who have found shelter beneath the tree. While the intellect can accept the history thus told, the feeling mind cannot encompass a world and a time that existed so very long before anything with which we are familiar. Nor can the ego envision a living being that existed so long without us, and which may live for many centuries after we are dust. And yet, we walk the living earth, and by comparison,the yew itself is no more than a fleeting presence.
It is a far younger tree that serves best to illustrate the great age of the Fortingall yew. It stands just outside the protective wall, its branches covered in the bright red berries that now fall into the cupmarks on a neolithic stone found buried near the original tree. Our ancestors carved the cups; their meaning and purpose may be lost, but the marks are strangely familiar. We can recognise the hands of our distant kin in their work; a tangible link between then and now in which we can find a point of reference for our own lives. Between living tree and ancient stone, time is reduced to a scale more suited to human understanding and yet, somehow, that very diminution allows us a glimpse into the vastness of eternity.
We had driven to Fortingall to see the venerable yew, but it just happens to be in the grounds of a church, so it was inevitable that we would take a look around. We do seem to spend a lot of our holidays in cemeteries from one epoch or another, though the ones we generally favour tend to be as old as the yew itself.
We didn’t even get through the gate without a sense of wonder. We recognised the river-carved stones that topped the gateposts of both the churchyard and almost every gate we passed. They were of the same organic shapes as the family of sacred stones of Tigh na Cailleach, a mysterious shrine not too far away. Too far for us, sadly; we did not have time for a six hour walk through the hills, not this trip anyway, as we were booked for an even longer one the following day, over three hundred miles away.
Even so, it was with wonder that we looked on these stones. The shrine in its hidden glen holds a family of stones, brought out into the light every spring and resealed in their house of stone for the winter. No-one knows how long they have watched over the glen, but they are thought to be ancient, and may have watched for thousands of years. The stones are known as the Cailleach (old woman), the Bodach (old man), the Nighean (daughter) and her siblings, and one legend says the Cailleach gives birth to a new child every hundred years.
Time seems to dance to a different cadence here. The ancient bones of the land are carved by the waters, trees count the passing millennia as naught and ancient sacredness is still respected and revered. Even the sundial, in a place where we were informed there is only six hours of sunshine a year, seems to count time as inconsequential and seeks a deeper meaning.
Inside the gate the old eighteenth century belfry has been preserved. Rather confident-looking angels watch from tombstones and as you wander, you cannot help wondering about the lives of the people whose presence they remember.
There are tombstones both ancient and modern, many of which bear symbols that tell their own stories but which, not knowing those stories we cannot hear. They are familiar tales, all of them, yet we lack the keys to unravel them from the scant clues on the stones.
We may read the names, dates and honours of each individual or family, we may know who they married, how many children they had and occasionally, what they did for a living… but their real stories are silent. We do not know how they laughed, or how many tears they shed. We cannot know how they loved, or if they loved, or what brought them joy.
For the more modern burials, there may still be family stories in the minds and hearts of the living. The great families have their records, biographies and their place in history, but these are only facts. Once the last person who remembers them is gone, even the most prolific diarist, artist or writer leaves only a reflection for the world to ponder. The warmth and depth of human presence flies with the departing soul.
The churchyard at Fortingall holds memorial stones from its fourteen hundred years of Christian presence. From the elaborate to the humble, from rich marble to worn and re-used stone, the life of the village and its people is brought at the end to a single place of peace.
I wondered what legacy each had left to the world. Doctors and masons, soldiers and farmers, how had they changed it by their presence… because we all do. Some worry about posterity and how they will be remembered… if they will be remembered. Perhaps that is an offshoot of the ego’s fear of annihilation. Biblical verses, poetry and quotations are carved by those who remain, either as a blessing or in a vain attempt to capture the achievements or the essence of the person who lies beneath the stone.
It should be enough that we have lived and been part of the human story… no matter how small a part we believe we play on the vast screen of history. Without our presence, that story would not, could not be the same. I got to wondering, as I read the epitaphs of the people of Fortingall, what I would like someone to carve on my tombstone, in the unlikely event that I will have one. With what phrase or epithet would I hope they might sum up my life?
Would I really want them to list worldly achievements or praise me for virtues I might only be endowed with in retrospect? I sought for something else, some phrase that had many meanings and told as many stories as a lifetime can hold. It all came down to two words. ‘She loved.’
Fragments of History
Outside the porch of the kirk at Fortingall stands an ancient font. Local legend states that Coeddi himself may have used it to baptise some of the first Christians in the area when the monks of Iona founded a sister house. The present church is not an old one. It was built in 1902 to replace the much older building that was in a dilapidated state by the end of the nineteenth century, but the site itself has been a place of Christian worship for at least thirteen hundred years. The area is rich in archaeology and the nature of the sites, with stone circles, standing stones and burial mounds, suggests that the land here has been seen as sacred for at least five thousand years.
The church was rebuilt in the Arts and Crafts style to a design by William Dunn and Robert Watson, who worked with James Marjoribanks McLaren, an architect engaged to transform the village of Fortingall for the philanthropist, Sir Donald Currie. Currie (1825 – 1909) was a wealthy shipowner, who purchased much land in the area and did much to improve the lot of his tenants and their environment.
His family name features often on the stones of the cemetery, but nowhere more poignantly than on the memorial within the church. We had seen the Black Watch memorial in Aberfeldy only an hour or two before, and here, in this small, country church, we saw the mark of tragedy that touches every regiment that is called to war.
There is something very moving about seeing the cycle of life, death and renewal illustrated by fragments of history. Near the gate to the churchyard, we had seen the old bellcote from the previous church. Inside the church, we found the bell it had once held, cast in Rotterdam in 1765 by Johannes Sprecht. There is also an earlier bell, a hand-bell in the Irish style, made of bronze-coated iron. Dating back perhaps fourteen hundred years, who knows whence it came? perhaps from Iona with those very first monks to bring their form of worship to the area.
The old font at the door, like the bellcote, once stood within the church but was replaced by a new one when the kirk was rebuilt. Like human experience, the forms may change but their essence and their purpose remains constant and continues to be served.
There are many fragments of early cross-slabs from the older place of worship housed within the church too. They were found when the old church was demolished prior to reconstruction and form one of the largest collections of such fragments in the area.
Most show the beautifully intricate designs associated with what we now call the Celtic Cross… a design now repeated in the gilded embroidery of the modern altar cloths.
Everywhere in the church there are items that seem to take what has been valued in the past and carry it forward into present and future, from the old communion plate from 1740, now framed and conserved above the pulpit, to the furnishings made from the old wooden pews that were removed from the rear of the church to create a Fellowship area for the village. It is a simple and peaceful little church, yet it seemed to have a great deal to say.
Outside once more, we were greeted with sunshine breaking through the mist. The village itself may rightly be called picturesque, with its white walls and thatch, but its setting is just glorious. I would have liked to linger, but we had already spent all the time we could spare from the day. Or so we thought.
We were about to be proved wrong on that… as always seems to be the case when we try and plan sensibly. A notice in the church had mentioned Glen Lyon, known to us through dear friends who spend much time there and because of the ancient shrine high up the glen… and where we had, at one point, considered holding this particular weekend workshop in the first place. It was a crying shame we would not have time to visit, but Fortingall had so many stories to tell… and we had thought only to visit its ancient yew.
There was one final story waiting for us as we drove away from the church… a burial mound and standing stone in the field opposite the cottages. Like the church, it told a continuing tale of the old being put to use again in more modern times. Càrn na Marbh, the ‘mound of the dead’, is a Bronze Age burial cairn. For centuries, until a hundred years ago, it was the focus of the Samhain celebrations for the village. A bonefire was lit on the mound and the whole village joined hands to dance both deosil and widdershins around the flames. Youths took flaming brands and danced over them, finally leaping across the embers of the fire.
On top of the mound is a standing stone, possibly of the same age as the mound. It bears witness to the darkness brought to the village by the Black Death seven hundred years ago. It is known as Clach a’ Phlàigh, ‘the Plague Stone’ and an inscription says that the victims were, “…taken here on a sledge drawn by a white horse led by an old woman.” It is said that the village was so decimated by the plague, that she was the only one able to bury the dead.
I wondered about the message this tiny village was sharing with those who come to gaze upon its venerable tree. We are so often told not to live in the past, to let it go and move forward. I do not think that is wrong, we cannot dwell in a place or a time that no longer exists. But we can and should take the gifts and the lessons that the past has given us and carry their essence forward as a foundation for the future. Whether they teach us what to do or what not to do, they all contribute to teaching us how to live and be human. I am human and have learned from past experience the futility of resisting when we are being led. It was therefore inevitable, in spite of good intentions, that I should turn the car down the misty lane when I saw the sign pointing towards Glen Lyon…
Sir Walter Scott called it the “…longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland…”, but to me, our all-too-brief foray into the outer reaches of Glen Lyon was pure frustration. It has absolutely everything you could possibly imagine or want in a Scottish glen… It also has a road just wide enough for a car in places, there are few places to stop and we had no time in which to explore. Even so, and with the little we were able to see, it is utterly breathtaking in its beauty.
Stuart has become a dab hand at drive-by shooting when there is nowhere to stop for pictures, but even he was unable to capture the scale of the land or the expanse of clear blue arcing above the valley. Trees and lack of a safe parking space prevented us from getting a shot of the white water in the valley as we turned into the glen. With all that road and silence, still inconvenient cars stopped us from stopping where we would have liked and we knew full well that the ancient shrine at the head of the glen was well out of our reach.
Unlike many of these valleys, Glen Lyon is not somewhere you can simply drive through on your way to somewhere else. You need to go on purpose, or perhaps with purpose. It seems to demand a dedication, a commitment from those it draws into its embrace. Later research revealed there are alternative routes out of the glen…one single track road that climbs eighteen hundred feet over Ben Lawers and another, crumbling memory of a track that is almost impassable. Whatever we did, we would have to turn around and go back the way we came. No-one in their right mind would attempt to take my little car up roads like those…would they?
Even so, the glen is compelling. That’s the only word I can think of to describe both the land and the pull of the place. It is hard to discern just what it is about the land that tugs at your heart. Its visible beauty is no greater than many other places. There are castles, chapels and churches in other glens… and while few may have vestiges of ancient forest held close within them, most have a tumbling river at their heart.
Glen Lyon does hold many ancient sites and seems to have been an important place in prehistoric times. There is so much history in this glen. It has been home to saints and holds the ruined chapel of St Brandon and the standing cross of St. Many great names that resonate through history have lived here, including Captain Robert Campbell, who led the government troops who massacred the Scots at Glencoe. But there is something more than human history here…
I cannot find the words to express the feeling of the place, save to say that the land seems to be aware, conscious of its own life and the lives within it. We felt we had been called and had responded, even though we had to turn back not far beyond Bridge of Balgie. The only thing I am certain of is that we will have to go back one day… and with much more time…
Halfway to Paradise…
The misty morning had turned into the most glorious autumn day as we left Glen Lyon and headed towards Loch Tay. We wanted to try and get a shot of the crannog that has been built on the lake at Kenmore. The crannog is a reconstruction of one of the lake dwellings that were built here two and a half thousand years ago. In design, they are very similar to the roundhouses we had seen in Wales at Castel Henllys, but these homes built on submerged islands would have been easily defended. There were once at least eighteen crannogs in the loch, four of them very close to the modern reconstruction that is based on the finds made by the underwater archaeology team.
We had decided to take the road along the side of the loch for a last meander before reluctantly joining the motorways around Glasgow; we really did need to get back to England, like it or not, as we were meeting a friend the following morning. The loch is almost fifteen miles long, nearly five hundred feet deep and up to a mile and a half wide. Fifteen miles wouldn’t take long, but would be a nice end to our wanderings before being devoured by modernity. But as the great Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, “ the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley…” and there was a ‘road closure’ sign.
The trouble was, the sign was positioned at the junction of two narrow roads, with no indication to which it was referring. One ran alongside the loch, the other, even narrower, appeared to climb the mountain almost vertically… and not the best idea with a little car built for city roads. The sign also had details of the times of the closures and we had plenty of time to get along the loch… or so we thought…even though we know that narrow country lanes and apparent distances on the map may bear little relation to reality. What we were unable to take into account was the nature of the lane we were about to travel…
“It’s about as close to Paradise as you could get…” My companion’s voice was hushed. I held my breath and blinked back tears, trying unsuccessfully not to squeak.
“The reflections…” You could barely tell where land and water met. The loch is ringed with hills and mountains, the sky was now a perfect blue scattered with fluffy, picture-postcard clouds. No matter which way you looked, it was perfection. Utterly breathtaking.
We had to stop. A number of times. And that was just to look and take photographs. We also had to squeeze into the side of the track many times to let oncoming cars past as there was room for only one. The cars were reassuring though…they must be coming from somewhere, so this road couldn’t be closed. We could take our time…
So we did, stopping wherever we could… even the smallest curve in the road. And as if the loch were not enough, we passed streams and waterfalls on the landward side, pretty hamlets and high hills… there was even a standing stone, alone in a field…
I think I could spend forever just walking this one road and not lose the sense of awe at the majesty and beauty of the landscape. Whenever there was a break in the trees, wherever we managed to pull the car over, there was a magical land of pure delight…
…until we saw the sign that said, ‘road closed’. Hmm. Luckily, however, the sign was close to an unexpected inn… and in we went for coffee and information. There was another road leading away from the inn and up into the hills, but the waitress assured us it led only to a village and no farther. We were going to have to turn back. What a dreadful hardship to have to drive all that way back through such a landscape…
First, though, we took time to stretch our legs, surprised to find what at first appeared to be a bevvy of roundhouses in the garden. Closer inspection revealed them to be luxury accommodation… far too expensive for hobbits… or the workshop we were already dreaming up…
We wandered off, following the sound of rushing water, to explore Ardeonaig Burn and watch the clear water tumble over the stones. It was already late morning…we still had the best part of three hundred miles to go… and we were suddenly in no hurry at all. We could easily have stayed until the road reopened…
…but if this road was closed, there was always another. It had been a wonderful lesson in how making the wrong decision can turn out beautifully. We might have lost an hour or so, but neither of us regretted the time… we wouldn’t have missed this road for the world. We could go back to Kenmore and take the main road south. Or, we could, possibly, take a look on the map for that impossible-looking lane and see where it led.
According to the map, the lane would take us… eventually… back to roads that would allow us to avoid both Edinburgh and Glasgow, joining the motorway far enough south of the latter to miss the worst of the traffic. That sounded a good idea… and we could maybe stop to get pictures of some of the things we had seen. The little road might even end up being a shortcut… and it couldn’t be any harder to navigate than this one… could it?
The distinctive smell of tortured gears wafted into the car. It was not surprising. The lane we had chosen after the road closure, was not only so narrow we could not have passed an oncoming rabbit, it was also climbing at an alarming angle and had thrown in a hairpin bend with an adverse camber, just for good measure. Had there been anywhere to turn around at that point, I might have considered it, except for the irrational fear that any loss of traction would send us sliding back down the slope. Then there was a break in the wall to our left and…
To hell with the gears… the car has been needing a new clutch for a while anyway. The incredible view over the valley was worth it. We were already high and still climbing. Thoughts of other impossible roads crossed my mind. If the narrow track over Ben Lawers had been out of the question, how come we were now climbing just as high? The road, I later found, is listed as eleven miles of officially dangerous road, linking Kenmore with Amulree, climbing steeply up to well over seventeen hundred feet and full of hairpin switchbacks. And it is glorious.
Not that we cared… We had driven through the Cairngorms just the day before, but somehow, following the valley roads and looking up at majesty, does not really give you a true sense of place. There is a feeling of security in the glens, as if the earth hold you in the hollow of its hands. Here, in the wild, high places, where the land spreads out far below and around you, eye to eye with the mountain-tops, you begin to understand just how small we are and how vast and beautiful our home.
The road, little more than a tarmac footpath just a car’s width wide, snaked across the high moorland. The air sparkled; what few clouds there were in the azure sky seemed intimate and playful, as if only there to dance for our delight. We could see for miles, picking out distant cairns and once again wishing we had more time.
A few miles later, we stopped after yet another hairpin bend as the road began to descend. The silvery gleam of the River Quaich glittered below us and small pools mirrored the sky. The river leads into Glen Quaich and adds its waters to Loch Freuchie, the ‘heathery loch’. Once upon a time, there were more settlements around the loch than there are today, but in the 1800s, many families took ship to Canada, naming their new Ontario homes of Amulree and Glen Quaich after their old home by the loch.
The river’s name and the shape of the Glen echo the two-handled cup of friendship that is traditional in the Highlands. I remembered that wood from the Yew at Fortingall, where we had begun the morning, had been used to make these shallow, ceremonial cups, used to offer a welcome or farewell draught of whisky to guests. We too were nearing our farewell to Scotland. Although the road would carry us into evening before we finally crossed the border, we would be leaving the mountains behind… and that was a hard thought.
Loch Freuchie, calm and blue beneath the early afternoon skies, fills the valley. We recognised the remains of a crannog, a man-made island where thousands of years ago our forefathers built their homes. These tree-ringed islands can be found in many lochs… but not all of them were once home to a dragon. A young man named Fraoch was in love with the Lady Maidh. Seeking to please her, he did as she bade him when she desired rowan berries that carry the gift of vision, from the island of the crannog. Fraoch, stealthy as a mouse, gathered the berries while the dragon who lived on the crannog was sleeping and returned to his lady. She was not content, though, with his gift and demanded that he return once more to bring back the whole rowan tree. Sadly, the dragon, disturbed by his previous visit, was awake and waiting. In a bitter fight, the dragon bit off Fraoch’s arms and his legs, yet the dragon was no more the victor than the man… and Maidh found them both dead on the crannog’s shore.
The dragon would have been welcome to my limbs too, if we could have stayed there. But the hills of the Borders still waited… and so did the Yorkshire Dales and a road we had travelled on our very first outing together years before, the day I had kidnapped my companion and begun a journey that has taken us through many strange and wonderful landscapes, both in reality and in thought. And, did we but know it, a dragon was awaiting us there too…
Desormais… henceforth… that is the motto over the gatehouse at Skipton Castle. It was probably the first word of French that I learned as a child and almost certainly the first I remember seeing written… even though it is written in stone. I had been there any number of times with my grandparents and, even though it is a castle and much younger than my normal preference, it does hold a fairly special place in my heart.
I had been looking forward to Skipton for a while, at least in some respects… it held the hotel where we would spend the last night of our journey. Not that I was in any hurry for the day to end. We had left the motorway in Cumbria and driven cross-country through the Yorkshire Dales, my home county. This was familiar territory and, although less majestic perhaps than Scotland, it is equally beautiful.
We had accidentally timed our journey to perfection… seeing a golden sunset over the Dales, but having just enough of the fading light to see us to our destination. From Pitlochry, through Aberfeldy to Fortingall and Glen Lyon, then on to Lochs Tay and Freuchie… it had been a very long and eventful day.
The hotel was an unexpected delight. We travel as economically as we can, but the old Georgian hotel with its chandeliers and gracious, curving staircase had been carefully modernised and I could barely wait to soak muscles stiffened by the long drive in the huge jacuzzi bath.
First, though, we needed to stretch our legs and Skipton is a market town, full of old and beautiful buildings and right on the doorstep of the moors. Because of that, it was once voted the best place to live in England. I like it too for its mix of ancient and modern, and the solidity and security of the architecture… much of it local stone.
We wandered up to the castle gate… long since closed for the night. It is about all you can see from the town, though beyond it I remembered the remains of the moat and the bridge across it. The rear of the castle stands on a precipice above Eller Beck and the stream and rock guard it well. Once again, I rather wished for more time… there would be none for us to visit the next day, as we were to meet a friend at Ilkley a few miles down the road. Even so, I remembered the great tree in the conduit court, the deserted chapel and the solar… the room with high windows that let in the light by which the ladies of the castle could sew and spin. Conduit court is so named because there is a cistern beneath it for collecting rainwater. Wooden pipes brought fresh, running water into the castle from beyond the gates, but in times of siege, the only water supply was the rainwater from the cistern.
Skipton Castle is a beautiful old place and possibly my favourite castle. It was first built in 1090 by Robert de Romille, one of the Norman barons who took part in the Conquest of 1066. The castle is one of the best-preserved of its kind and over nine hundred years of history can be traced within its walls. The original motte and bailey castle, constructed of earth and wood, was built initially to defend against incursions by the Scots, but was rebuilt in stone, little by little, to become a fortified home. The castle as it now stands is largely the work of Robert Clifford. He was granted the lands in 1310 and began rebuilding. He was killed four years later at the Battle of Bannockburn, but his family name is deeply entwined with Yorkshire’s history.
Desormais… henceforth… its suggests an eye to the future, an ambition to leave a mark on history. Yet to live for posterity is probably as futile as living in the past… the one unchangeable, the other unknown. and uncertain. If the word were set there by Robert Clifford, his ‘henceforth’ was but a short one.
As we wandered back to the hotel, I could not help thinking how many threads of history we had already seen interwoven on this trip alone. I wondered too how many of the people whose threads they were had known at the time the mark they would make on the stories of the land. None of us really know how, or even if, our own threads will be seen by future generations. Or if our memories will be no more than pale ghosts walking ancient paths unseen.
One thing was fairly certain, though… as the church is built right next door to the castle, it too probably had Norman origins. I must have been inside as a child, but I have no memory of the place… so a visit after breakfast was almost inevitable…
Colours of Faith
We were up early next morning and were cheerful about an email we’d had, telling us that the friends we had found over breakfast on our first morning in Scotland would be joining us for the December workshop in Derbyshire. We had talked about leys, geometry and dragons and left wishing we had more time to talk. And now, once again, we were ready to leave straight after breakfast… which just about left us time to wander up the through the marketplace to Holy Trinity church. It stands just outside the gates of Skipton Castle, looking down the length of the main street. We would have nowhere near long enough… as had been the case everywhere on this trip… but it would be enough to see what was hidden within the golden stone, still wearing the dark traces of Victorian industry.
There was always a close association between secular and religious power and it almost seems as if the positioning of the church sends a whole series of messages to those who approach the castle gates. Was the castle saying that the church was under its protection or was the church giving its blessing to the denizens of the castle? Or were they simply presenting a united front and saying, ‘here is power…’?
The church would have been a wooden affair to begin with, built to serve the early incarnation of the castle almost a thousand years ago. Around 1300, the present church was raised and later extended. As with so many of our ancient churches, the traces of time are still visible in altered doorways, rooflines, and the general evolution of a building at the heart of a community.
The church was damaged in the Civil War, losing much of its glass and, until then, its interior was decorated with medieval wall paintings, of which only the hand of Death now remains. Most of our wall paintings were lost to the dictates of Cromwell. As if that were not enough, the church was struck by lightning in 1853 and again in 1925. Yet, as you walk in through the doors, you are confronted with something that seems both curiously whole and just as it should be.
The first thing you see is the original font; plain, unadorned and as old as the church itself. Above it hands an ornate Jacobean cover, carved at around the time the first British colonies were founded in America. Behind it, the base of the tower has been opened up to create a memorial area, flying the colours of the Duke of Wellington’s regiment. A board commemorates the dead of the WWII, while the window pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great War.
In contrast to the communal service represented by the memorials, is a curious, recessed window in the wall of the north aisle. This is the only access to a cell once occupied by an anchorite, a hermit whose felt called to serve his God and community in a very different way. The anchorite would enter the cell and be voluntarily walled in, to spend the rest of his life in prayer and offering guidance to those who sought advice. Food and water would be passed in through this window once a day and through it the anchorite could see the altar. I liked the information panels, framed and discretely dotted around the church, each with a little history and a modern gift of advice, designed to bring a conscious spirituality to modern living, rather than requiring adherence to any given religious path.
It is a superb church, with far too much to see and contemplate in the meagre hour we had available. It is another to which we will definitely have to return. Very often, our first visits are little more than ‘reconnaissance’, noting whether or not we need to explore further. Sometimes, though, when distance is a factor, we know it is unlikely that we will get chance to revisit…and we prefer to visit each church or site several times in order to get to know how they feel. So we photograph everything, systematically, from the carved heads on the arches to the bosses on the ceiling. In Skipton, though, there was simply too much, even for that.
The most striking thing about the church is the colour. We have been lucky and seen some incredible places, from the simple village chapel to the most magnificent cathedrals… yet I don’t think I have ever seen a place so vibrant as this one.
The windows alone just glow with colour. So much so that it is difficult, when you stand in front of them, to see them as anything other than complex jewels. Focussing on the subject matter, the symbols or the artistry and maker, is almost impossible. Yet many of the subjects are unusual and some have acquired a special meaning for us on our travels, like the Simeon window, when Jesus is presented at the Temple as a babe.
The church was much restored, following the Civil War, by Lady Anne Clifford of Skipton Castle, in the middle of the seventeenth century. Her initials and other family motifs adorn some of the windows. One appears to say ‘follow reason’ and yet, with the armed fist and spear points, as well as the ambiguity of the French itself, it seems to be suggesting that ‘might is right’ … which would fit well with the origins of both castle and church, both begun by the conquering Normans.
Most of the glass, though, was replaced in the nineteenth century. There are some recognisable makers, including Kempe, but in all honesty, most of it seems to have been made for no more reason than as an excuse to play with light. The colours are brilliant and jostle with each other for supremacy, but even the colours have stories to tell.
In the Middle Ages, there was a language of colour…another of those symbolic, pictorial languages whose keys we have forgotten, or think we have. Much of that language was continued in both the liturgical colours and in the design of stained glass windows, where shapes, colours and geometry often convey more than meets the eye.
Green denoted fertility, growth, freedom and hope. White is the colour of purity, chastity and innocence, where black suggests fear and death. Brown was the colour of the earth and our closeness to it in humility. Courage, as well and its counterpart as flame, was orange, while yellow is the colour of renewal, a springtime colour that is used at Easter. Blue represents divine Grace and is worn by the Virgin, while purple is a royal shade. Red is the colour of blood and represents the martyrs. It also represents the power of God and the flame of the Holy Spirit and is used at Pentecost. Looking at windows with an eye to their colour can tell you as much as the lines of their pictures.
But it is not just the windows that are brilliantly coloured. The finely detailed rood screen, carved in 1533, was probably once painted as brightly as rest of the church. The bosses on the roof, also sixteenth century, were repainted in the twentieth century, making their details once again visible against the dark oak beams.
The reredos…the carvings behind the altar… have also been repainted. They should look garish and probably do if taken on their own, but taken in context with the rest of the painted church, they simply serve to recapture a vibrancy we seem to have lost with our love of plain marble and polished wood. While modern tastes may be more restrained, there is a real energy and life about a church where colour is embraced.
There is also a peculiar beauty. Especially when you think back to older times when the majority of the worshippers were people whose daily lives were touched with the greyness of poverty. The dyes that created such brilliant colours would have been beyond their means and those who wore them would be marked out as both noble and powerful.
You have to wonder if that is one reason why the churches employed colour. It must have engendered a sense of awe. But in an odd way, all it does is bring sunlight and nature into the church, for every colour thus employed is worn by the flowers of the fields.
To either side of the altar, there are tombs. These too are brilliantly painted, though have no effigies on their polished marble slabs. They are the tombs of the Cliffords and their story is displayed in photographs and documents on the black and white chequerboard of the floor. That floor also has stories to tell… During the renovations that followed the lightning strikes, gas was installed for lighting and heating and the raised temperatures raised the dead in a most unpleasant way; the stench was such that the floor was lifted and a concrete slab poured to seal the dead in their crypts.
Beside the Clifford tombs is one of the most glorious windows we have seen. St Michael is slaying a rather accepting and multihued Dragon… the best dragon we have seen depicted to date. It seemed like a rather-too-appropriate gift after the recent news about our friends. The window is a memorial to a local schoolmaster, J.B. Rayson. We do not yet know the maker. The symbolism of that window alone is going to take us a while to unravel…and if anyone knows what the Hebrew inscription is, I’m all out of ideas, unless it is the same as the Greek, which is, I believe, from Revelation 22:2: “…the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month…“.
The verse continues, ‘…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.’ Before we left, I looked at the Bible on the lectern, as is our wont, and it was open at Isaiah… “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace…” In light of recent world events and no matter what our path or faith, I think most of us would agree with that…
A Last Adventure
It is not every day that you can go on a real adventure to see a genuine, bona fide mystery, but that is exactly what we were going to do on the last day of our trip. We had been promising ourselves a bimble with our friend, James Elkington for a long time and finally, we had the chance to do so. The weather was windy and overcast, but at least it was dry as we set off…for the time being.
James is a fabulous photographer and a man who loves the moors around Ilkley as much as I do… and knows them far better than I. My knowledge goes back to childhood and is rooted in love and long-ago memories. James lives close to these moors and knows them intimately.
Which is just as well, because we were looking for something very small and very well hidden in a vast sea of heather and bracken that would seem featureless to many eyes. Even James, who knows where to look, would have trouble… But first, we had to get there and it was going to take a while.
We met on a blustery morning at the Cow and Calf rocks. This part of the moor is often busy, it is a popular place with climbers, tourists and casual walkers. It is also surrounded by ancient sites…rock carvings, cairns and stone circles, all within easy reach of the cafe and car park. The vast majority of visitors to these moors stay within sight of the road and seldom venture above the first ridge. We were going deep into the heart of the moors, far beyond anywhere I had walked since my youth.
‘A bimble’ sounds gentle enough, but don’t let it fool you… we walked for seven hours and a goodly number of miles, all told… and it was wonderful. We revisited many of the sites we have used during Silent Eye workshops on the moors over the past few years, but I also saw places I had not seen in decades.
It is a landscape I love with all my heart. I will not detail the route we took or the places we visited…because of the site we were heading for. I have written so much about these moors and their archaeology that I would be repeating myself for the umpteenth time.Suffice it to say that our route left the main path behind and headed off into the bracken.
The bracken was still high, the heather still held at least some of its colour and, where the old heather had been burned to manage it for the grouse shooting, new shoots were still flowering purple. I hate shooting for sport and had to curb my tongue when we were ‘shepherded’ away from the shoot by the gun-toting, bloody-handed young man. But it is possible that it is only the shooting rights that have preserved these ancient, magical and archaeologically important moorlands.
There is a greater concentration of neolithic carvings here than anywhere else in the country…there are literally hundreds of carved stones,as well as standing stones, stone circles, ancient tracks, settlements and burial mounds… it is all there…
It can take a bit of finding, though, especially when the bracken is high. One stone circle, unseen since my childhood, I was determined to find… and thanks to James, I did. It is one of the oddest places on the moors here and has a very strange feel to it, even though the bracken has now taken over its outline and the stones can barely be seen within the greenery, unless you get right in there with them.
You could spend a lifetime exploring these few square miles and never find everything they hold. One man who has done pretty much just that is writer and antiquarian, Paul Bennett. Paul, whom I am yet to meet, has an unparalleled knowledge of the ancient sites of the moors. It was he and his brother who first found the site many years ago…
We knew the story. Both James and Paul himself have told how it was found, when Paul and his brother, exploring the moors as children, had come upon the strange passageway…and how the smaller of the brothers had been ‘encouraged’ to crawl down the low tunnel, finding that it led deep within the hill. We knew of the subsequent explorations and of the very strange happenings when, on several occasions, the blocking stone had moved of its own accord.
No explanations have been found, nor have any of the very many archaeologists contacted by James and Paul been able to offer any suggestions as to what the tunnel might be. On this moor completely covered by more archaeology than you can imagine, it is an anomaly; a single, unexplained tunnel in one of the few patches of moorland where there are…apparently…no surviving remains of the ancient culture that revered the land. Finding it, though, even when James knew exactly where to look, was no easy feat with the bracken so high. On top of that, “Even if we are right next to it, if the blocking stone is in place, we’ll never find it,” said James.
We had almost given up when Stuart had the idea of taking bearings from one of James’ photographs. Even that didn’t seem to work. “Can’t you ask the fairies again?” he said, referring to our finding of the elusive ‘wood-stone’. Sure enough, the fairies obliged and a moment later I found the tunnel, complete with its blocking stone in place.
Flat out on the floor, a few minutes later, I am thankful for the added padding of the years otherwise, being the smallest, I know who would have been prodded to emulate Paul’s younger brother. As it was, we managed to see a fair distance into the hill by torchlight. The roots of bracken force their way between carefully laid stones…this is no rabbit warren or accident of nature. This is man-made.
Too narrow and far too deep to be a shelter or even a smuggler’s drop-off point left over from the days of evading the excise man, too narrow to allow a person to reach in and pass anything back…including the soil from its digging… It reminded me of the star-shafts in the pyramids. “It looks like the lightbox at Newgrange…” said Stuart. Later, as we walked away, I was struck by the shape of the hill itself… looking awfully like a long barrow where there are no long barrows. It would have to be a huge one…
James was back on the internet that evening, emailing every archaeologist he could find. Again. It is not as if the research has not been done. Old maps, aerial photos and old records have been pored over and knowledgeable folks consulted. And yet, once again, although he had some interested responses, none of the archaeologists accepted James’ offer to come and have a look.
Now, it must be said that if it were a lightbox or star shaft, which even we admit would be really unlikely, it could be as great a find as Newgrange. Or the Sutton Hoo burials. It could even rewrite part of history. You would think there would be one archaeologist prepared, for a free lunch, to leave the office and have a bimble, because, let’s face it…finding Tutankhamen’s tomb was unlikely too. And while there may be no gold, nothing more than bones at the end of the tunnel, it could be one hell of a find…
The long walk back to the Cow and Calf was enlivened by discussion and speculation. There was one more thing we were going to see though before we parted company with James. The Badger Stone is at some distance from where we were. It would have been good to walk there, but it was getting quite late in the day by this time and there is a track that leads fairly close. We took the cars, knowing we would part company after we had seen the stone.
The Badger stone is possibly the best carved stone on the moors. For its history and a discussion of the symbolism carved here, read Paul Bennett’s article here. I hadn’t seen it for years and was disconcerted by how much the erosion has been hastened by our modern, polluted air. Like the Swastika stone, close by on the edge of the moor, the carvings have been visibly diminished within my own short lifetime, carvings which had survived the assault of thousands of years of wind and rain. I wonder how much longer they will last and how many more such stones will now be lost before they are discovered… for ‘new’ carvings are being discovered on these moorlands all the time.
The stone changes with the shifting light and weather. Its colour is never stable and what you see depends on how the light hits the stone. Conditions were far from ideal, but even so, the plethora of carvings is mind-boggling… almost a hundred of them. There is an unfinished swastika… nothing to do with the later misappropriation of this ancient symbol… and many cup and ring marks that have been the subject of much discussion. Their true interpretation remains unknown and may always do so. I was struck, coming as we had from Scotland, by their resemblance to the aerial view of the tombs at Clava Cairns. But to do a bit of misappropriation of my own, our day in the hills had come to an end. Taking leave of James, all that remained was the final drive back to Sheffield, once again taking the back roads and high roads over the hills to arrive long after nightfall. We still had a day left before I had to head south again… but that was a different story. We had work to do…