Hunting the Unicorn: “…of whirling air…”

The first stop of the afternoon was a familiar one; we had made a point of visiting the magnificent Sueno Stone on our last trip to the area. It is the tallest carved Pictish stone in Scotland and shows scenes of war and conquest… with the usual Pictish wholesale hacking off of heads. In this case, not one of our pet theories about the symbolic ‘removing the head’ psychologically in order to access the higher self, but the more graphic depiction of the slaughter and decapitation of the conquered. Not for nothing is Sueno’s Stone also known as the Battle Stone.

The Battle Stone is also one of the places reputed to be where Macbeth met the witches at the crossroads. Behind it, on Cluny Hill, is Nelson’s Tower, commemorating a sea battle from a later time… the Admiral’s victory at Trafalgar. But the hill is better known for a darker period in its history, when it was the site of the examination of witches.

Witches Stone, Forres, truehighlands.com

During the witch trials that would execute an estimated fifteen hundred midwives, healers and herbalists in Scotland for being in league with the devil, those accused of witchcraft in Forres deprived of sleep for three days and nights until they were vulnerable and would confess (a little odd, given what was to come…). One they had done so, they were put to death by packing them, still living, into spike-lined barrels and rolling them down Cluny Hill. Where the barrels came to rest, they were burned… a grisly echo of the Burning of the Clavie.

When the Macbeth witches were reputedly burned in this way, stones marked the spot of their incineration…and one of these stones, split into three and stapled together again, still sits directly outside Forres police station. Local legend says the stone was once broken up and used for building a house in which all the occupants fell ill. The house was demolished and the stone returned, such was the superstitious fear in which witchcraft was still held. It didn’t bode well for our pentagrams… not all things are what they may seem.

A brief comfort break at Logie Steading allowed us to walk through the gardens where rhododendrons line the paths. Beautiful as they are, one species is becoming a ‘weed’ in the woodlands, suppressing the habitat of native wildlife. Then it was on to our next symbolic location.

A green lane led us onto a viaduct, where the element of air was perfectly symbolised. Air beneath us, wind farms harvesting its power on the horizon, wind catching hair and garments as we worked… so much so that the ribbons were abandoned Instead, we marked out the pentagrams with stone, conscious that any walkers or bikers would be looking askance and glad the witchcraft laws were no longer enforced…

It was a perfect choice for the element of air, but as far as I was concerned, at least, the best location of the afternoon was the last. Dean had found a ‘blasted heath’… a stretch of moorland where the heather had been burned, presumably as part of its management. Here we had a fabulous rendition of another scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, illustrating the elements as psychological components. But it was the land itself that got to me…

A narrow, silver river snaked below us, flowing through a loch that mirrored the sky, holding  Lochindorb Castle on a man-made island at its heart. Tiny wildflowers starred the earth, great banks of sweet-scented golden gorse and the purple of early heather promising summer magic…and in the distance, mountains. I would have happily stayed there much longer.

But, with evening drawing in and a table booked for dinner, there was just enough time to take the ’long’ way back to Grantown, traversing the most beautiful of roads across the moors and between the hills… touching the heart of the deepest enchantment of all.

22 thoughts on “Hunting the Unicorn: “…of whirling air…”

    1. I wouldn’t be keen on it myself I have to say… Though I am no more a witch than most of those who were burned, I doubt if I’d have convinced the witchfinders of that.

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  1. I loved this! You took me on a wonderful and beautiful journey. And America thinks we were terrible with witches. They haven’t read the history of Scotland.

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  2. Such beautiful landscapes. Amazing to think it has changed little in centuries.
    It was shocking to read of the treatment of ‘witches.’ The killing of healers, herbalists and midwives was sheer insanity!

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  3. Gosh, I knew about the Salem Witch Trials, but I guessed I never realized that they were going on in Scotland as well. How terrible. I wonder at what point people became so superstitious or afraid of other people who they believed to be witches, etc. Certainly they weren’t like this in the beginning . . .

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    1. There has always been fear of the different, the unknown, the apparent power of wisdom… and accusing someone of witchcraft was also a good way of getting rid of them for most of the past five hundred years.

      The Catholic Church, which held sway over Europe, had, for centuries, condemned the crimes of those suspected of witchcraft, when such crimes included murder etc, but officially refused to believe in witchcraft itself. The shift to persecution and the mass murder of suspected witches came along with the rise of the more Puritancial strain of the Protestant perspective…which condemned many things.

      If I remember rightly, around 200 were accused at Salem and 20 executed. In Europe, the figures may run to hundreds of thousands…. Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder, had eighteen executed in a single day here in England, and around 300 died during the couple of years he was at the height of his control.

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