Great expectations…

It had been a while. A long while, actually. And… if the bird would like to cover its ears… I was really fancying roast chicken. I don’t usually cook much for me, you see. I have cooked at my son’s house pretty much every day for the past decade or so anyway, so coming home to roast a chicken for one doesn’t really cut it.

The dog, of course, would disagree. In her eyes, I am not roasting a chicken ‘just for me’… it is mainly for her, but I might get leftovers. And, on the odd occasion that she has been ill, that has happened. This time it is me who is unwell and I fancied roast chicken.

So, I duly bought and roasted, smelling the enticing aroma as it filled the kitchen. Simply cooked with a little olive oil, seasoning and herbs… nothing fancy. A few potatoes and some carrots… my appetite is not what it should be, so why overface it? Even though the thought of making a nice , fluffy, Yorkshire pudding was tempting. It isn’t as if I am on a diet or anything. On the contrary… having eaten everything I have fancied and still lost fourteen pounds this week, I can not only afford to indulge, I am almost duty-bound to do so.

With apologies and profound gratitude to the bird on my plate, I have to say it looked wonderful. Smelled wonderful… and tasted like the contents of a chemical waste plant. About the same as pretty much everything else I have tried to eat this week. I was devastated. I had just so fancied a bit of chicken…

I expect it is the pills. I’m told it will get worse if I start chemotherapy. Maybe I should have made a curry.

But there was nothing wrong with the chicken… except, I’ll admit, from the chicken’s personal perspective, with which I can currently empathise. The expectation caused the disappointment. Yet why, after a week of such disappointments, should I have expected anything else?

Hope they say springs eternal… possibly, though, not from a roast chicken breast… but in more general terms at least. Maybe that is the problem? That while there is the possibility for things to go in a different direction from the one we expect, we always lean towards the more hopeful sde, rather than accepting that actually, we might not get the change we would prefer?

But maybe it is exactly those limitations that we need in order to truly appreciate what we have?  Did I, whilst volubly bemoaning the morphine-tainted chicken, once think to be grateful I was here and able to moan that the fowl tasted foul? That I was not only here to eat the stuff, but well enough to have bought it and cooked it myself too? And still had the breath, and the luxury of choice, with which to complain about the taste?

Even in the relatively wealthy Western society in which I live, there is poverty. There have been times in my life when any food at all would have been good… so to rail against how a bird tastes to me, when the dog and my friend both thoroughly enjoyed it, seems churlish… and yet the reasoning for that was all too easily forgotten.

It is only ever expectations that disappoint. And they are our own, painted on consciousness by hope and habit, perhaps, but constructed nonetheless out of the chimaera of a future yet to come into existence.

There is nothing wrong with hope… nothing at all. It is the carrot that draws us forward to attempt the impossible and without it, the world and our lives would be a very much poorer and bleaker place. But there is always another side to the blade… and we have to remember that the potential for disappointment goes hand in hand with the expectations raised by hope.

Even so, I really hope the chicken works better cold in a  sandwich…

The Laidley Wyrm…

*

I weird you a Laidly Worm,

Until the end-of-days,

And freed ne’er shall you be,

Until the king’s successor,

Approach the Heugh,

And give you kisses three…

*

Before a legend ‘goes national’ it will first have been local.

*

There are lots of ‘merlins’ and ‘arthurs’ in the land of Britain,

although not all of them are known by those names or titles.

*

There are too, lots of dragon slayers,

few of which are called George.

*

Before George became our Patron Saint,

our Patron Saint was called Edmund.

*

Edmund was shot full of arrows then decapitated,

and his decapitated head was stolen, by a wolf…

Which is, perhaps, not very heroic.

Not heroic enough for some, certainly.

*

Before George became our Patron Saint

there was a ‘dragon slayer’ in Northumbria,

here is his tale…

*

“And so to Bamburgh castle, the king a new wife did bring.

But his queen took an instant dislike to her husband’s daughter, Margaret,

And transformed her into a Laidly Wyrm which coiled itself about a Great Stone,

And laid waste the land for seven miles around.

*

Daily, the milk of seven cows was brought the Wyrm but all to no avail,

For the enchantment could only be lifted by Childy Wynd,

Margaret’s brother, but he lived far away over the sea.

*

Word of the dark doings in his homeland eventually reached Childy,

Who built a ship with a rowan-tree mast and silken sails,

And set out to rid Bamburgh of its blight.

*

The queen, she spied the ship and sent out ‘witch-wives’ to sink it,

But they were powerless ‘gainst the magical mast.

As the ship came into land, the Wyrm leapt up,

The Wyrm leapt down, and plaiting ’round the stane,

Banged it out to sea again.

*

Undaunted, Childy put in on Budle Sand and waded ashore.

Finally encountering the Wyrm, Childy laid his sword upon its head,

Yet gave it kisses three,

And though it crept back into its hole a Wyrm,

It stepped out, a Lady.

*

Together, brother and sister returned to Bamburgh,

To be greeted by their joyful father, the king.

The queen was transformed, by Childy, into a toad,

Which to this day spits venom on young girls out walking.”

Duncan Frasier  AD 1270

*

 

Two journeys, one destination (4) – two sides of the hill

On the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend, we are beginning in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Portmahomack is a small fishing village on the north side of the Tarbat Peninsula. It’s an hours drive north from Inverness.

I’m at the end of the pier, gazing out across the deep blue sea towards highland mountains in the distance. Low in the line of dense green forest and near the sandy line of that far shore is a white fairytale castle. It could be a dream but it’s not. It’s real, and we will be visiting it on our way to the archipelago of Orkney, tomorrow. It’s called Dunrobin Castle, and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.

The museum at Dunrobin has some fine Pictish stones, and the castle marks the most northerly point of the Pictish trail. But the real historic trail points further north to Orkney, and that is a very different land and one-time kingdom.

No-one in the group has been to Dunrobin, before. Having glimpsed its pale spires glinting in the morning sun, we can’t wait…but our Saturday has more than enough for now.

Today’s explorations begin with the sight of an ancient church just over the rise of the hill at my back. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel its presence. I want the others to feel it in a different way to how I first discovered it. I want them to feel its ancientness before they see it. To do this I have to enter a state which is crisp and clear with anticipation, then share it – without words.

It’s one of the things we do – Sue Stuart and I. There aren’t always words for how it works, in fact it’s more powerful when there are no words at all.

There are no words from either of them here, Because they are not with us. They are hundreds of miles south in a hospital, where Sue is being tested for something serious. Where there are usually three of the Silent Eye Directors on our ‘landscape’ weekends, here, there is one, and the workshop needs to continue. We have a duty to each other – and to those who have travelled so far.

I’ve held the emotions back so far, but here they are overwhelming. Sue loves beaches, and this is one of the best… So this is for her.

We return to our vehicles and I lead the way from the bay and over the small hill to the other side of the Tarbat peninsula. In front of us, at the entrance to what looks like an old church, is a striking statue of a Pictish Priestess.

We gather around her and I describe a visualisation in which we are approaching this place, not by car, but in a boat, cutting its way through the choppy blue sea as it nears the sixth-century harbour of the old Portmahomack.

As the boat turns to make its landing, we look up at the large stones that pattern the spine of the peninsula – and mark it as sacred ground… In our vision, we can see them all, though some are miles away.

These large marker stones will form the basis of the rest of the morning. They will lead down the Tarbat peninsula and across its sister; the Fearn Peninsula. By the time we have travelled their length, we will be at Nigg, from where we can look out south, across the waters of the Cromarty Firth towards the Black Isle, our afternoon destination.

The boat nears the shore. We can pick out the outlines of the harbour, a farm, and, at the highest point, a church. Ahead of us is an entire Pictish village on the shore. It’s a large settlement for this age. At its heart is a monastery as influential as the (Irish-derived) Celtic Christian monastery at Iona, and founded at much the same time. This is 6th century Portmahomack, and the monastery is one of a chain of such institutions tasked with nothing less than keeping civilisation alive… in the face of barbarism. This village houses the central spiritual authority of the Picts.

Here, there is also a metalworking foundry and scholarly building where sacred texts are painstakingly copied or created by hand, in all their ‘illuminated’ brilliance. These would rival the works produced at Lindisfarne, many miles south, though all will be lost to history – and the attacks of the Vikings… but the evidence will remain in their unmatched stonework.

Scriptoria is the scholarly name for the historical creation of holy texts. The map, above, shows the location of monasteries with scriptoria that existed at the same time as that at Portmahomack.

(Above: the tools of scriptoria. The writing instruments were found in the foundations of the church)

Each monastery would have had a library of books for copying by hand; the work carried out by a hierarchy of skilled artists and calligraphers. This was the ancient science of sacred communication – as vital to the Pictish people as the internet is to us. The holy books taught that mankind was both beast and something more. Sacred texts fed the higher.

Everyone spoke, few people read and wrote… when the writers spoke everyone listened.

The books were loaned and gifted by monasteries to each other. They travelled long distances and the art they contained came to have a great effect on sculpture and metalwork. Strong examples of this can be seen at nearby Nigg and Rosemarkie. We intend to visit both, today.

Aided by this vision of the landing of our ancient boat, our day begins here; around and within the white building ahead. This is the Tarbat Discovery Centre, and they are expecting us…

The Portmahomack Discovery Centre is one of the best places to ‘immerse’ yourself in the world of the Picts, their culture and their civilisation.

The Discovery Centre is unique in that the main subject of its work is itself. In a very real sense, the church remains a partly Pictish building. No less than six churches have stood on this site, and the earliest construction – part of a stone wall that still forms a side of the recovered crypt – is as it was constructed by the Pictish builders of the 9th century.

(Above: the Discovery Centre is housed in the old church of St Colman. Bishop Colman led the ‘Celtic Christian’ contingent, centred in Lindisfarne, during the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Under the jurisdiction of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswiu, the church of Rome prevailed, steering Britain’s history away from the more mystically-inclined and nature-facing Celtic tradition that had travelled with St Columba from Ireland. Bishop Colman – St Colman – is remembered in the name of the old church, though there are no records to show if he spent time here, as he and his monks from Lindisfarne departed into exile… It is likely that here, as in Iona, Celtic Christianity continued for a while after)

You can plan a weekend workshop like this, and have it go mainly to plan, but the exceptions will often form the best bits. The lady who runs the Tarbat Centre is a Portmahomack local and very welcoming. We are lucky. It’s still early and we have the place to ourselves.

She is in the middle of explaining the layout when a rather wild shout comes from above: “Margaret, I’ve done it!”

She smiles. “That’s Robert, one of our best volunteers…” she leaves it there… but you know there’s more to the story, as we’ll find out later. After watching a short introductory video, we wander… and it’s amazing.

The upper floor is the education centre where talks are given. The centre owes its existence to the results of the major excavation carried out by York University between 1997 and 2004.

(Above: the archeological work at Portmahomack, carried out by York University during 1997-2004. St Colman’s church is top right)

The centre has three levels. The main, middle floor is divided into exhibition sections. The crypt – the lowest level – dates all the way back to medieval times. It has lots of history and two skeletons…

On our first pass around the centre, we concentrate on the societal aspects revealed by the Tarbat discoveries – the importance of the Portmahomack monastery to the lives of all the Pictish people. There is one important aspect of this to consider before we can progress to the archeological relics: the question of how central the monastery was to the economy of the region. Two information boards describe this well:

‘The Tarbat peninsula contains some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain, But when the monastery was founded in the 6th century CE, the landscape was very different. The valley behind the church was marshland, which has been radiocarbon dated to the 1st millennium BCE.

Several Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads have been found close to the area suggesting that wild fowl on the marsh attracted prehistoric hunters. This wild marshland was tamed by the monastic community of Portmahomack, who drained it to create grazing for cattle and plough lands for grain.

Vast quantities of animal bones have been found during excavation which show that plenty of pasture must have been available for grazing cattle and sheep. Pigs were also eaten and may have been let loose to forage for food nearby. More rarely, deer bones have been found which shows that the land surrounding the monastery was home to wild herds.

Crops were also cultivated and the first signs of this were visible in the earth as scratch marks made by a wooden plough. In order to toughen the board against wear and tear, it was studded with small pebbles known as ‘plough pebbles’. The pebbles sometimes fell out and many have been found during excavation. An ancient ditch found beneath the church dated to the 6th century, contained burnt grain identified as barley. A massive barn found in the farm area of the monastery would have been used to thresh, dry and store the barley following harvesting by hand using a sickle.

For centuries, grain was ground by hand, using either a trough quern or a rotary quern, but both methods were time-consuming and hard work, The 8th century monks introduced the horizontal water-powered mill, in which a fast moving stream turned the mill wheel, which turned a millstone.

The dam for a mill has been uncovered at Portmahomack, made of a massive retaining wall with a culvert feeding the mill race. The mill itself may lie under the modern road. Monasteries like Portmahomack eventually came to control grain processing and this was an important factor in controlling the size and economy of the local population.’

A very important ‘village’…

Now, Robert is shouting from the lecture room that he’s solved another of Margaret’s problems, and I’m wondering how I’m going to fit any more into a single blog… and suddenly everything goes quiet, outside and in, and I realise we don’t have to…

The Discovery Centre is too good to squash into a single post… so let’s give it two…

Besides, ahead of me at this point in the retelling is one of the most beautiful chalices I’ve ever seen… And I’m eager to fit it into our newly discovered cultural framework of the amazing Picts.

(Above: a beautiful and mysterious chalice awaits us…)

In the next post we will examine the legacy of the Pictish objects found within the excavated Portmahomack site, before moving on, down the spine of the peninsula, to a beautiful glass-protected cross-slab… and two surprises, one of which will test our ingenuity to the full!

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Out with the Old?

It is not my intention to talk non-stop about my current health problems. But, even just a few days into what promises to be a rather long haul, so many things have been brought to my attention that I feel need to be highlighted. I’ve already mentioned the hospital food, albeit briefly compared to what could have been said, but that… although nowhere near as minor as it might seem… is as nothing compared to some of the other concerns that were raised.

Let me say straight away that I am not blaming the grossly overworked nurses; the care from individual to individual was, in most cases, superb. I am questioning a shift in our attitude as a society that allows unnerving changes in the way we deal with older and more vulnerable people.

After spending time in the Rapid Response unit and then in Resuscitation, I was eventually wheeled into a private room for the night, which was most welcome. Next day, I found myself on a ward. There were several other patients whose stories I could relate, but the saddest case was the old lady in the bed opposite mine.

Scrunched up into a little ball, the old lady barely moved. She would not speak, would not eat or interact… or so it seemed. But, just after two, her husband came in… and she came to life. The two of them were as much in love as when they had first met, nearly half a century earlier. They had shared a bed for forty seven years and the separation now was almost killing them both.

He had walked into a village dance one evening, caught her eye and winked at her. She winked back… and they were both lost to a lifelong love.

We learned how close they had become when a car had ploughed around a corner, ripping into her legs…and killing their children in the pushchair. We learned how their lives had been lived for each other from that day onwards…and how very deep the love between them still ran.

It was beautiful to see them together. She, all girly, wearing the special earrings the nurses had been forbidden to remove, he, dapper and smart, dressed for a date, bullying and cajoling the girl he loves into swallowing a little water or lunch. Honestly? They glowed. Both of them.

But that brief hour together was all they had… not even that much at weekends, thanks to Covid. He hoped to take her home… we could see him making plans for holding her in that bed together… and were worried that her almost catatonic state would prevent that.

It was the care of one or two of the nursing staff that made all the difference. In particular, the ones who took the time to talk to her, treating her like a human being with hopes, emotions and memories… talking about her husband, the cruise they had shared, the things they had done and life they had built. It was all it took to turn the silent, closed-in mannequin into a shyly proud bride, flashing a cheeky eye at her love.

Is there always time for this on our wards? No, of course not… but there should be. Perhaps with fewer managerial tiers and less red tape there would be more funding for sleeves-rolled-up nursing staff with time to help heal a patient through loving and personal care.

On Tuesday, I was told there was nothing they could do for me. That it would be a case of making me comfortable… no more. I could not speak to my family or see them. Could not comfort them. I could not be held. I could not cry on any shoulder or rail against the verdict. A lonely and impersonal death… separated from all I love…that was hard to deal with. I can’t even begin to imagine how it felt for that poor old lady.

I am so grateful that verdict seems to have changed for me at least, but this is the reality Covid is imposing in our hospitals. At a time when warmth, humanity and compassion are most needed, restrictions are pushing us further apart, and when hopelessness is added to despair, there can seem little left to live for. It does not seem right that policy is doing this to our oldest and most vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments.

It is from our elders that we learn… have always learned. It is from them we see how to treat others, how to cherish life and love and laughter, how to value toil and continuation and courage. It was, I believe, Gandhi who said that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. If that small cross-section of people is representative, I can only say that if we were to have been measured we would have been found wanting.

For many, especially older patients, technology is a mystery to be accessed only with the help of those visitors who are now banned. With no ability to leave the ward, thanks to Covid, no books or even television screens, there is nothing to do except sit and wither away. I felt it myself and I am lucky. I understand how to use technology. My granddaughters waved to me over the telephone, my email and messages were seldom quiet and although there would be no hugs, the voices I love were never more than a call away.

Surely, after all our older generations have done… the least we can do is warm their final days with a little love and compassion?

In brief…

As the majority of our friends and readers will now know, I was rushed into hospital last week in a very bad way. I would like to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has sent good wishes through all the various social media platforms, through the comments, by email, snail mail, text and phone. And to the friends wh have kept me company across the miles with tales of normality and laughter.

I am sorry if it has taken a while to respond to everyone individually, I am really rather unwell and my energy levels are a tad variable.

At a time when the Covid restrictions mean that even close family cannot visit, it has meant a very great deal to be touched by so much love, friendship and kindness. Trying to process the changes that serious illness has and will impose upon us as individuals and as families is always difficult. Just now, when we cannot even see our nearest and dearest, cannot give each other a hug, hold a hand… or even discuss the practicalities face to face, it is particularly harrowing. The feeling of utter isolation is terrible, and the care shown by family and friends, albeit remotely, matters more than ever.

This week has been a journey from looking death right in the eye as I failed to breathe at all, through relief as litres of fluid were drained from around my heart, to a sliver of hope.  I have had a series of tests and procedures, and some exceedingly unpleasant biopsies, for which I still await the definitive results. One thing that is clear, however, is that I do have a lung collapsed by cancer.

They let me come home last night, until the results are in. The dog thinks it is hilarious as I too am now being kept on a short leash, attached by tubes to the oxygen extractor occupying way too much of my living room and not letting me out the front door.

I am being well looked after, the small dog seems glad to have me home. I am being well fed and cared for now I am home… and all I need right now are answers.

Thank you to everyone who has held my hand through this first rather shocking stage of the journey. Especially my friend, Mary Smith, with whom I have a date in spring at Cairn Holy when hopefully both of us will be in a rather better state than we are now.

Freezing Brass Castles…

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Nuremberg_chronicles_f_124v_2.jpg

*

‘A fleet hoofed horse

moves swift as quick wit’

Old English Proverb

*

…’ After spiriting George away from his mother’s side,

Kalyb, the fell enchantress tended to him as the apple of her eye,

and appointed twelve Satyrs to attend his every whim.’

*

Twelve of anything usually refers to months of the year.

*

‘When he was fourteen years old George

demanded to know who were his parents.

Kalyb told him and showed him a castle of burnished brass

wherein she held captive the six bravest Knights of Christendom’…

*

The seven champions are the planetary bodies again.

George would naturally have to be the Sun,

which if they are given in correct order makes Mars

Spain which for this period in history works rather well!

*

There is also a salient point here, though.

The energies of what the Hebrews used to call the Elohim

are ordinarily shut up, or banked, in the subconscious,

and can only be ‘set free’ by the Id at which point

they emerge to form a natural component of the Identity.

*

The Subconscious Mind could even be regarded,

for most people, as an Unseen Presence.

*

‘Kalyb promised that if only George stayed with her

she would equip him as a knight

and make him the leader of those in the castle.’

*

‘George tricked his knightly accoutrements from Kalyb,

tricked her into her own rock-hewn dungeon,

and freed the knights to go dragon slaying’…

*

Which pretty much means that George,

the Patron Saint of England, is a Trickster!

*

‘Hearing of a foul beast terrorising the country of Egypt,

George set his will, and charger, in that direction’…

*

Egypt, presumably, because ‘she’ is

the Old World exemplar for Christianity.

 

Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?

We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.

We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.

Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of the last ice age)

The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.

As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.

Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.

Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.

Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.

The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.

The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.

But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.

But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Rambling Rocks

(But what is it?)

I thought it might be interesting to take some of the less relevant episodes – the ‘out-takes’ – from the just-completed Scottish workshop (and subsequent journey to Orkney) and run them in reverse time-sequence. The Thursday blogs, here, will continue with the linear sequence of the Scottish and Orkney explorations.

That way the odd bits of the journey and the main storyline would meet somewhere in the middle – I have no idea where! Let’s see what happens…

The above image worked better than I thought it would. At face value, it could be a giant slide attached to a hotel on a headland, with a sandstone rock hitching a ride and about to decapitate the observer!

But it’s not, of course. It’s part of a sculptural installation on the headland at John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and a few sea miles from the archipelago of Orkney, from which we had just sailed… at 06:15 in the morning.

North of John O’ Groats – between the coast and Orkney – is the Pentland Firth, famous for its fast and ferocious tides and cross-currents. Dire-sounding weather and tidal warnings for Pentland Firth are regular features of BBC weather broadcasts.

The deadly tidal rapids on the surface of the Pentland Firth are common knowledge, but less well-known are the resulting activities beneath the sea. Recently, a new insight was gained when researchers, supporting the growing commercial interest in the harnessing of some of the Firth’s vast tidal power, began surveying the seabed with a view to locating permanent turbines on the ocean floor.

During this exercise, it was discovered that large rolling boulders of up to 1.5 tons in weight – similar to that of an average car – were regularly moved great distances across the seabed by forceful currents!

This fascinated local artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, whose work focusses on art and sculpture inspired by ecology and natural phenomena.

(Above: Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, creators of the Nomadic Boulders sculpture. Their website is here. Image taken from their website)

They put forward a proposal for a sculptural installation that mirrored their own delight at the thought of large deep-sea boulders wandering along the sea bed, powered by the stormy waves above. The result is what you see in the above photographs; something that puts John O’ Groats on the modern artistic map.

(Above: close-up you can see how heavy the boulders are. The ones used in the installation were washed up on a local beach during a violent storm)

The information board sets the context:

Across the world, boulders that defy the weightiness, their solid stability and static nature and hint instead at a more animated past are often celebrated. Small pilgrimages are made to visit them and share in their unusual power...

(Above: the ‘Nomadic Boulders’ information board)

… While the Nomadic Boulders of John O’Groats will forever remain shrouded in the deep and stormy depths of the sea, this monument serves to bring them to our consciousness, perhaps affording a tantalising glimpse of the world beneath the sea.’

Having sailed from Orkney on the early ferry, we were hoping to break the trip around the coast with a hot drink, before the long drive south. But at nine in the morning, on our first ever visit, John O’Groats was closed. We couldn’t even get a a cup of coffee. Scenic, though, and Larissa, one of our travelling companions and a skilled photographer, did gift us a fine portrait at the famous signpost.

To be fair, John O’ Groats is a fine and symbolic place, The harbour is lovely, and a pleasant place to wander around. The main view, though, is the sight of the Pentland Firth, and, beyond that, the outline of the Orkney archipelago.

(Above: John O’ Groats harbour)
(Above: The Pentland Firth and (distant right) the outline of Orkney)

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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