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.

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.

Two journeys, one destination (2) – Inverness

It begins in Inverness, that beautiful confluence of water, road and mountain. Like any journey through northern Scotland, it will be dominated by water…

The year 2020 will be etched in all our memories. It was not a good year to try to hold the kind of workshop we run: three days of shared travel, feeling the landscape, and thoughts about the nature of consciousness; that most precious jewel every human carries. Add to that the possible extension to visit the archipelago of Orkney, and we had something very difficult to achieve.

Covid had caused us to cancel three of the planned workshops of the year. We hung out for the September one, hoping that the physical heartbeat of the Silent Eye could endure for at least one annual pulse in these challenging times. Bad news after bad news threatened it, but the core bookings had been made and we intended to honour them – even if it meant a small group.

Finally, it was time to get in the car and begin what was to be a vast journey… Inverness would be the point where those able to attend were going to meet up. For most of them, it was a journey of hundreds of miles even before they began the weekend.

(Above: one of the Pictish slab crosses in Inverness museum)

The workshop was to be in two parts: the first, centred in Inverness, would follow Historic Scotland’s Pictish Trail; the second would take advantage of the fact that we were already near the top of Scotland and could easily board the ferry to Orkney. Bernie and I had visited Orkney in 2018. We were keen to return with the others, and even more eager to share the wonders of this magical place.

(Above: the fine lines of Pictish art display the high culture of its people)

The mysterious Picts have long held a fascination for me; ever since I first saw their art, and was struck with an inner sense of wonder at what I can only describe as its ‘quality’. The only other time this had happened was when I saw an Egyptology exhibition in London, and gazed on that ancient civilisation’s wonders.

Decades on, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with a mystically-oriented group and finally see the relief figures on their beautiful temples. Later in the trip, we were to encounter traces of a people even older than those Egyptians, and much closer to home…

(Inverness’ beautiful and formidable River Ness, with its set of islands connected by walkways. What looks like the far bank, here, is actually the largest of these)

But first, we wanted to have a beginning that would ‘wash away’ the miles that most of us had endured to get here. Inverness offers the perfect answer: a walk by the River Ness.

The River Ness is the channel that connects Loch Ness with the North Sea by way of the vast Moray Firth. It is one of the most powerful rivers in Britain… and yet, to my mind, one of the most peaceful. Near the city, it is criss-crossed by several pedestrian bridges, three of which link both sides of the river to a set of islands in the middle of its flow; effectively creating a set of natural wild gardens in the middle of the river.

Using these, we were able to take a circular walk and finish at a coffee stop that reminds me of something you might see in Paris. The bright and unexpected sunshine helped, and you could feel that the tired spirits were rising.

(Above: A Parisian-style coffee hut on the bank of the River Ness)

The coffee hut was a colourful place, and clearly popular with seasoned local folk – one of whom agreed to pose with ‘his’ seagull for this shot…

I had wanted the walking tour to finish here because of its proximity to one of Inverness’ hidden gems: the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, a Scottish Episcopal Church situated by the River Ness a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness – a vast geography.

(Above: the exterior of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew)

It is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (but, later, we will encounter another, magnificent one in Orkney…).

Inverness Cathedral was the first new Protestant cathedral to be constructed in Britain since the reformation. The cathedral was built during the years 1866-1869. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, in 1866. The architect was a local man, Alexander Ross.

(Above: the graceful lines of the Cathedral of St Andrew, created in the Gothic Revival style)
(Above and below: the eye is drawn to the high, wooden ceiling)

I had wanted to see inside this building because, since a visit to the Belgian city of Ghent, two years ago, I have developed an interest in religious icons, and I knew that the Cathedral of St Andrews contained a very special set.

(Above: The icons are located on the north wall of the nave)

The central figure is that of Christ. The inscription reads:

“These icons were presented by the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, to the Right Reverend Robert Eden, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, on the occasion of is pastoral visit to the country in 1866’

A detailed review of the Cathedral is not the point of this post, but it is worth drawing attention to two more unusual features of the building, The first is the magnificent pulpit, rendered in marble and local sandstone.

The second is a beautiful reproduction of a Pictish Christian cross, located in a special chamber near the entrance. I know nothing of its origin, but spent a full ten minutes at the end of our visit just staring at it…

The magnificent Pictish-style cross

We had met well. The rest of our afternoon was to be spent in the wonderful Inverness Museum, deepening our knowledge of the Picts. We had much to learn…

To be continued…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

The mysterious Picts… and beyond

Three questions are asked about the mysterious Picts of the Easter Ross coast of north-east Scotland: Where did they come from? What was the meaning of their wonderful art – miraculously preserved in stone for us to explore, today; and where did they go?

For more than six hundred years, between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E., the Picts – literally ‘The Painted Ones’, sustained a kingdom running from a southern line between what is now Glasgow and Edinburgh – then known as the Antonine Wall, and the coastline of Easter Ross, north of Inverness in the Highlands.

For centuries, popular history viewed them as ‘half-crazed savages’. But these ‘wild painted men’ fought back the might of Rome’s legions before vanishing from history. They left no written records, but their culture and beliefs are etched into Scotland’s history.

(Above: a tiled mosaic of a Pictish design, outside the Pictish museum, Rosemarkie)

The Picts created intricate and sophisticated designs, which surpassed any other native art in Britain at the time. The subjects of their art varied from animals and mythical beasts to Pagan and Christian symbols; they appear to have easily synthesised the old and the new religions, and made it their own.

(Above: the beautiful beaches of Easter-Ross)

Although there are no written texts, the Picts left behind a wealth of spectacular standing stones, elaborate carvings and intricate sculptures for future generations to discover. We plan to explore several of these – and their stunning landscapes, during our weekend. We will also look at the nature of their art, and, possibly recreate something of our own using the Pictish symbol system.

(Above: Pictish Queen at Portmahomack)

The Easter Ross Pictish trail is has been established by Historic Scotland and offers a spectacular journey through a landscape which has been inhabited since the dawn of civilisation.

“Mysterious and often beautiful, Pictish sculpture presents one of the great puzzles of Dark Age archaeology” (Joanna Close-Brooks 1989) 

The Silent Eye had a series of workshops planned for this year. Due to the Covid-19 situation, these have, so far, been moved to the corresponding months of 2021.

The coming September Workshop: ‘The Pictish Trail’ presents us with an opportunity to resume our celebrated weekends of wandering and learning from the landscape…and each other.

As of the date of writing this, (22 July 2020) The Scottish government rules on travel and groups have been relaxed to a degree that will permit the Pictish Trail workshop to go ahead. Outdoor sites were never a problem. However, as of this week, Historic Scotland are relaxing their restrictions, and an increasing number of indoor locations are being re-opened.

(Above: the ferry across the Cromarty Firth will be one of the features of the weekend)

Administration of the weekend

Inverness will be our base location, due to its facilities, though much of the weekend will be spent on the coast to the north of here. We will convene on the Friday afternoon (or evening) for a visit to the first of the Pictish Stones and a shared meal. If time permits, we can enjoy a walk around the town.

Saturday and Sunday morning will be spent further north, following the official Pictish Trail along the beautiful coast of Easter Ross, and the nearby hills. We will return to Inverness for Saturday evening.

The dates are: Friday 11 September 2020 to Sunday (lunch) 13 September.

Transportation, accommodation and meals are not included in the £75.00 per person fee. Please make your own arrangements for the above, though meals are usually taken as a group, in local pubs, and the costs divided.

Should the event be cancelled due to Covid-19 issues, a full refund of the monies paid to the Silent Eye will be made.

A mainline train service runs to Inverness from Edinburgh. A small number of car places will be available from Inverness from those driving to the event. If you are travelling on foot, please ensure you have checked this availability before your departure.

To confirm your interest, please send an email to rivingtide@gmail.com, attention Steve Tanham

Optional Extension to Orkney

A small group of us are intending to continue on the Sunday northwards to Orkney, via car and passenger ferry from Scrabster – Thurso’s port. We will sail to Stromness, returning to the mainland on the morning of the 17th September. As of the time of writing, some of the previously closed centres of interest are being re-opened to limited number of visitors. Orkney sites such as the wonderful Ring of Brodgar, have continued to be available during the Covid restrictions. Further updates will be given to anyone interested in joining this. Orkney is beautiful, spiritual and unique. This is rare chance to combine two events and visit it.

©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.

Mimir’s Bubbling Head…

*

We seem to have finally lost the Hawks.

The day feels somehow empty.

But for Wen the day is still young and she is keen to introduce me to another chalk figure. This one is much later than the Uffington Dragon and, I have to say, a lot less impressive. The chalk does not even appear particularly white just a sort of dirty grey colour.  It now seems to depict an equal armed cross surmounting an upward pointing triangle but Wen thinks it may have been a phallus and keitis in its earlier days. One thing is for sure it is clearly visible from the road. When we get up onto the top of the hill the sky has darkened with cloud cover and the earlier highs on Hawk Hill are beginning to feel like a hallucinatory lapse in time. Happily there are a couple of burial mounds on the hill which reinforces Wen’s contention about the antiquity of the place if not the figure. It is a nice enough spot, if a tad exposed, and Wen finds a landscape feature which could well be a naval. It seems beyond doubt that the ancients did this type of thing. Seeing bodies in the earth or seeing the earth as a series of sleeping bodies needful of awakening to animation. Two ravens land simultaneously on the top of the barrow which reminds me of Castle Rigg when two ravens did something similar as we approached the entrance stones and that in turn reminds me that Wotan’s birds were ravens known has ‘Memory’ and ‘Mind’… Nine nights he hung there and he sacrificed an eye in order to comprehend occult wisdom… I wonder if it was pecked out by the ravens… or whether that is merely a clever blind for spiritual insight and make a mental note to re-read the story and meditate on it. I wander out to the edge of the hill just past the scouring poles and my heart leaps. On the plain below walking across a field two figures are discernable and just above them quite close to their heads a Red Kite circles, although the figures themselves appear to be totally oblivious of the bird above them.

“It’s not only us they follow,” I point out to Wen with some satisfaction.

“It probably thinks they are us” says Wen as the hawk keens, wheels, turns and heads directly for our position on the hill.  They do appear to have phenomenal hearing as well as their legendary eyesight.

“It cannot know we are here,” I say with total conviction as the hawk labours to climb towards our position.

“It cannot know we are here” I say with less conviction as the hawk showing no inclination to alter its course is now two thirds the way to our position and is still working terribly hard to reach us.

“It cannot know…”

“Wound round the hanging tree…I sacrifice… myself… to myself… and now seek wisdom’s word from the breach in Mimir’s bubbling head,” says Wen as the hawk flies directly above our standing position on the hill-top and then screeches, loudly.

The ravens cackle in unison fly up and off from the barrow and head into the tree cover, their wings moving in lazy unison.

“How do you do that?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

That’s a reference to Yggdrasil, who is an eight-legged horse but also a tree spanning the three worlds and I was just thinking about that very story how do you know all this stuff?”

“I didn’t know I knew it until a moment ago, it just sort of emerged,” Wen smiles apologetically.

“It’s only the same as you and the birds, how do you do that?”

“I don’t do anything, it happens naturally.”

“We must be chosen ones,” says Wen as an icy blast of wind gusts over the hilltop.

“… or frozen ones,” I reply, zipping up my jacket and heading back to the car.

*

Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

Found Mounds: Silbury’s Little Brother…

*

‘…One of the stops we did manage to make on the way to our second ‘official sojourn’ in Glastonbury was, Merlin’s Mound.

Now, Merlin’s Mound you might have thought would be a well-known tourist attraction boasting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year just like its Big-Sister Mound of Sil-Bury Hill, so called because late legend has a king called Sil buried there along with his treasure, a golden horse.

Not so.

Quite why this is not the case it is difficult to fathom although one possible reason is that Merlin’s Mound is hidden within the grounds of Marlborough College which is a private school.

Of course, there is nothing actually buried in Silbury Hill because it isn’t a burial mound at all and the Golden Horse is far more likely to refer to the sun which, knowing the folk responsible for its construction, probably set behind the hill when viewed from one of the other sites in the area, or seemingly rose from it, and I did not learn that at any school, private or otherwise…

“Which would make it Sol-Bury Hill, anyway,” says Wen.

…Now, I was lucky enough to come across Merlin’s Mound because I attended a conference in the grounds of the college and I have to say I was astonished to learn of its existence but not half as astonished as I was to learn of its size.

In fact for a long time I was fairly sure that although Silbury Hill was regarded as Merlin’s Bigger Sister, size wise, there was not an awful lot in it.

“Silbury Hill is much bigger,” says Wen.

“I’m not so sure.”

“Much bigger, Merlin’s Mound only looks comparable because it dwarfs the buildings that currently hide it so effectively.”

“I don’t think there’s much in it.”

“What does Silbury Hill have to give it scale?”

“No, there’s not a lot else in the vicinity is there.”

“This is one reason why accurate measurement is so important.”

But anyway, and more importantly than accurate measurement of any kind, work is currently ongoing in the renovation of Merlin’s Mound and we are able to walk two-thirds the way around its newly refurbished spiral path-way and I have to say although it was something of a disappointment not to be able to get all the way to top in other ways it was not such a bad thing after all for just getting two thirds the way up was giving me a rather ‘heady’ feeling.

“I know,” says Wen. “Me too. What’s the line in, ‘A House on the River’ when Aeth’s troop, in all their glory, is approaching the strong-hold of Aillil Silver-Tongue and Sweet-Mouthed Maeve?”

“My head may as well be in a vat full of wine…”

“My head may as well be a vat full of wine,” laughs Wen, and I laugh too.

Although, to be strictly accurate in our comparison, the experience is far, far better than drinking or indeed, being wine…

*

Hidden Avebury: Seeking the Unseen

Avebury, Wiltshire

12th – 14th June, 2020

*

A Living Land Workshop

Almost everyone knows of Avebury, the great stone circle within which a village was built. A World Heritage site and one of the most incredible sacred complexes of prehistory, it is justly famous for its beauty and mystery. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year but while most simply walk in awe amongst the majestic standing stones of the Circle and Avenue, there is far more to discover for those who will walk the paths less travelled.

Join us in June, 2020, as we explore some of the hidden corners of this amazing landscape, ranging beyond the boundaries of the Circle to seek a deeper understanding of what our ancestors hoped to touch by building this earthly temple to the stars.

Based in the landscape around Avebury and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking. There will be time during the weekend to explore Avebury and its stones.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

The Flickering Present

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(Above: Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria… and the mysterious ‘green flame’)

I’ve taken a lot of photographs during the past ten years, but none of them like the one above. Taken at Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick, in December 2018, it depicts what I’ve called the ‘green flame’.

The photo was part of a set taken during the ‘Full Circle’ Silent Eye weekend. Sue and Stuart had created the weekend and were doing the detailed write ups, so I just filed the photos away without really looking at them. Recently, I was searching for a photo of Castlerigg to use on a blog, when I came across this… and just stared.

First reactions. It reminds me of ‘Kirlian’ photography, where subtle electromagnetic fields around living things are photographed using special cameras. But this is a stone circle, not a living thing.

Castlerigg – one of the oldest stone circles in Europe – is a place of intense ‘spiritual’ focus, and has been so for thousands of years. The presence of the ‘green flames’ would immediately be seized on as evidence of the paranormal by some… I’m open to its vital connections, but I prefer to remain objective about what else it might be…

Many photographs taken in bright sunlight contain chromatic aberrations. These range from mists or fogs, through shadows that look like ghosts, to single or multiple ‘orbs’ that fill part or all of the image with bright and colourful spheres. There are many more types of photographic interference.

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(Above: The Hypostyle Hall of columns at Karnak, Egypt. Image Wikipedia, Licence Public Domain)

For one photo I took, years ago, in the Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temples of Egypt, I used a flash in total darkness. When I looked later at the image, it was packed with the most gloriously coloured ‘orbs’ filling the space of the columned temple in a 3D progression. The photo is long lost to a system crash on my old PC, but I remember it well. At the time, I dismissed it a pleasing set of orbs.

But when I saw the above photo from Castlerigg, I began to consider alternatives…

At first glance, the photo is so convincing that you wonder if it’s been manipulated in a computer application such as Adobe’s Photoshop. The green flames rising from the winter ground follow the basal contours of all the stones they appear to touch; even changing intensity from a white to green as they leave the earth and lick the stones. I can assure anyone reading this that the photo is completely unretouched, apart from my addition of the copyright to this low-resolution copy.

The green flames are transparent. They vary in ‘density’ and this allows us to see the stones and other features behind them. If I’d had the skills to do this in Photoshop, I’d be proud of the results…

Let’s consider the other side of the argument: that they are a satisfying chromatic aberration. The first thing to note is the position of the sun. It’s almost opposite the camera. It could be argued that this gives the potential for a mysterious accident of the light. But, in years of deliberately using too much sun to create background images, I’ve never seen any such ‘effect’ appear to wrap itself around a set of objects.

The green flame seems to be around the leftmost of the two portal stones – and the small stone on the ground next to it. The portal stones are the entrance to the circle and the place of alignment with the midwinter sunset. The honouring of the shortest day and longest night was a celebration of the initiation of the journey towards the light, rather than away from it, as at the summer solstice. It was a time of profound importance to the ancient priests.

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(Above: Sue Vincent’s photo, from the December 2018 Workshop, shows (bottom centre) the location of the portal stones which were aligned with the winter solstice.

I’ve gazed at the photo for a long time. When I first started to do this it suggested itself as a good illustration of a pet theory of mine: that of the flickering present.

Imagine that each of us is a lighthouse, and our beams of light rotate, not to be seen by ships at sea, but to light up a landscape that is our world. Our brains assemble the flickering images and create something apparently seamless – our lives – from what is seen. Things that are dangerous or very beautiful require us to spend time studying the landscape so that we can spot their patterns in the future.

The speed of rotation of our lighthouse and the brightness of our light determine how well we can see the ‘reality’ of our existence – our ‘out there’. Certain phenomena are rarely seen and appear to be in the ‘wrong’ place in our world. We may call these ‘psychic phenomena’ and they may be frightening – the unknown often is, especially when we are taught fear of it by our elders or forebears. But such things may simply ‘be there’, but not often seen in our ‘beams of light’.

If the green flame is real, then I may just have got lucky with the microsecond timing of pressing the shutter, aided by the brightness of the sun, opposite us in the sky. Certainly, I did not see the green flame at the time of taking the photograph. The green flame may be there all the time… or it may be present at periods of high energy related to its original use, during the Stone Age.

Or it may be an illusion, happily fitting into the contours of the stones in question.

Castlerigg is around 5,000 years old and is one of Britain’s earliest stone circles. Its 38 stones, some as high as three metres, have seen a lot of solstices… Whatever is in the photo, it’s in good company…

[For more information on the Silent Eye’s ‘landscape weekends’, click here]

©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.

Ancient stories

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One of the things that have struck home over the past few years, wandering around the churches of Britain, is just how much we learn and understand from stories and images. The record held in these ancient places goes back over a thousand years, with artefacts much, much older preserved in many of them. And these are not random old buildings, but all aligned with a single tradition, a single faith, a single story that the builders, artisans and holders of the lore saw as paramount.

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Painted walls, carved stone and wood, stained glass… these were marvels of media that recounted the biblical story for all with eyes to see. At a time when books were hand-drawn and precious, the masses untutored, unable to read or follow the Latin of the service, these images were the key to understanding. In many churches there are older, pre-Christian artefacts. Were they a remnant of the desire to convert almost through stealth or a genuine acknowledgement of the sacredness of the older pagan faith? That is not impossible given Pope Gregory’s instructions to Mellitus in the 6th century Mission, “Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” The whole letter is revealing.

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It is fascinating to see how the emphasis of the story has evolved and shifted to suit the needs of the prevalent authorities, secular and religious, and how thought has been subtly directed. Many of the oldest churches, particularly in areas where Celtic Christianity was prevalent, seem to focus simply on a gentle faith not dissimilar to some of the older tales, and we can trace many of the early stories of the saints back to pre-Christian deities, adopted and absorbed into the new story. Then comes the hellfire and brimstone, later still the break from Rome followed by the Puritanical obliteration of imagery in many places. Yet another thread winds through as the local barons and lords endow churches in a display of political power and wealth, matched in kind but surpassed in magnificence by the lords of the Church with the great cathedrals and abbeys. No matter who ruled the land, it was easy to see where the balance of true power resided.

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Yet away from the seat of power was the guy in the street… the you and me… and in spite of a constant bombardment of imagery quietly shaping thought, behaviour and morality, mankind has always had both imagination and questions. There have always been those who do not conform and who, while paying lip service to social necessity, have walked their own inner path of interpretation and discovery. While entry to the clergy was for many a true dedication of service to their God, there must have been many too for whom it was more a career move at a time when such choices were limited. The stories of many minds are preserved in the old churches and not all seem to hold to what would have been the prescribed line.

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A language of symbolism evolved, one that would have been readily readable long ago but which we have lost the habit of reading in the same way we have lost the old languages. Yet it doesn’t take much to begin delving behind the appearances to the inner meaning, for symbols bypass the processes of the surface mind and speak to something deeper, a more archaic and instinctive level of understanding less coloured by the times in which we live. Many can be universally understood, some belong to a specific tradition… on the surface at least… but can be interpreted from the human perspective of emotions or from the viewpoint of the spiritual journey. While stories once widely known may have faded, and traditions are lost in the dust-covered recesses of history, it takes little to begin to glean the meaning behind them from the images that survive.

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Few of us now know the old legends of the pelican, for instance, but this common symbol can be readily understood in Christian terms simply by looking at the picture of the great bird restoring its young through her blood. Even traditional colours and geometrical shapes hold meaning, like the trifoliate leaves for the Trinity for example, and a little thought opens many possibilities to explore. Very quickly you begin to see that no part of the story written in images… or any story for that matter… stands alone, and there are many possible layers of meaning.

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What we read in these ancient symbols is less a reflection of the symbol itself than it is of the knowledge and understanding we bring to them and our openness to new ideas and interpretations. What the artist or the patron who commissioned any work intended should be encoded there may not be what we see… or not all that we see… as our own minds bring their own meaning. I have often wondered about some of the stranger symbols we have found whilst visiting these places to write The Initiate and its sequels… symbols that seem surreal or out of place within the churches. Maybe they were simply a bit of humour, or artistic licence… perhaps they hold the thoughts of another questioning mind touched across the centuries or maybe they were designed to be so surreal we would have to take notice and start thinking instead of blindly accepting.

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Whatever the case, we have found without doubt that there are more stories written in these ancient buildings than the laity would have ever seen or understood and few today do more than marvel at their beauty or antiquity. Yet the stories follow common themes, and the closer you look the more obvious it becomes that there is little difference except detail in these stories, through time and space mankind asks the same questions, seeks the same understanding, we simply do so from different starting points and in different clothes. Not just in our little churches, but in the ancient temples the world over, in fairytales and rhymes, in the stones and the very land itself, stories wait to unfold their mysteries, their revelations and their complex simplicity to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

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Whitby Weekend: The Crypt at Lastingham

A few of us made our way down the stone steps of St Mary’s in Lastingham, into the crypt where the bones of St Cedd are reputedly buried. To do so is to step back in history and be outside of time; it is a place of quiet reflection, hallowed, one would like to think, by many centuries of prayer… except that, at one point, the crypt was supposed to have also been used as a cock-fighting arena…

Nevertheless, it is the hallowing of space that strikes you… a place to which those of faith have made pilgrimage, when countless have prayed, whether to the God of the saint or to their own vision of divinity. There have always been many who can see beyond the labels of religion to the kernel of truth held in all.

The crypt is part of the original stone church mentioned by the Venerable Bede, built between 664 and 732,  and remains almost untouched since that time. Some believe the stone altar to be even older than the crypt and one single, carved oak beam remains from the early church.

Each of the pillars supporting the vault is carved differently, with a disregard for symmetry typical of the period; artistically, symmetry seems to be a relatively modern concept. From the pillars of the cathedrals at Dunfermline and Durham, to the tiny Saxon crypt at Repton, we have seen this so often. Perhaps the designs had a meaning now lost… or perhaps it was simply the stonemason’s art at play.

There are carved stones and relics of a millennium and more of history ranged around the edges of the crypt, from an old, wooden burial bier to fragments of standing crosses, including the Ana Cross that once stood along the road we had just taken from the moors, to the arms of the great Lastingham Cross, now resting beside the bier.

There are a selection of gravemarkers, carved with crosses or, on one curious stone, what appears to be a chalice and sword as one, which, in esoteric terms, is suggestive of a  melding of the ‘masculine’ and dynamic energies with those that are ‘feminine’ and receptive… the agent of force and the vessel of form as one.

Perhaps the most curious thing, though, was the preponderance of serpents and dragons, from those intertwining up the face of an ancient stone, to the serpentine carvings in the church above and the dragons tucked away in a corner with fragments of masonry. What were they intended to symbolise? The many leys that have been dowsed and reported as meeting in the crypt? Or perhaps the streams that feed the four holy wells in the village?

In spite of there being so much to see in the little crypt, though, its true invitation was to share its silence, in prayer or meditation. Whatever gods the stones now kept here may have served in the far distant past, all may be but fragmentary perceptions of the One, kindled by recognition and reverence to hold a spark of that something that shines in the depths of being.  Joined by the others, we lit our candles together and sent their warmth out into the world.