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 mark 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…