Keys of Heaven (10): A Final Resting Place

continued from Part 9

The village of Lastingham, of the southern edge of the North York Moors, was a fitting place to end our weekend – both for its mysterious wells and also on the basis that the crypt of St Mary’s Church marks the final resting place of St Cedd. Following the fateful Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Bishop Cedd returned to his beloved Lastingham, the place where he had founded his originally monastery; but tragically caught the plague and died, bequeathing the care of Lastingham to his brother, Bishop Chad – later St Chad. Chad became bishop of Lichfield shortly thereafter and had to manage his brother’s bequest from afar.

(Above: St Mary’s Church, Lastingham, in all its simple beauty…)

We have to wonder at the irony and sadness of this: first to lose (in the service of his king, Oswiu) the Celtic Christian tradition in which he had been raised since a boy; then to lose his life in one final visit to his beloved Lastingham.

Cedd was buried here, and the place of his burial in AD664 became the ground on which all the layers of the present church were constructed.

(Above: The unusual semi-circular apse of St Mary’s church contains the entire history of the building and its ancient foundations)

St Mary’s church attracts visitors from all over the world. Christian and non-Christian ‘pilgrims’ are welcomed here in a warm spirit of spiritual openness. Though not formally a Christian, I am entirely happy with the scriptural idea of Christ as the ideal and perfected ‘inner man’. I am at home in most temples of the spirit, but seldom have I felt the kind of harmonic energies that are present in St Mary’s.

There is, in the words of one of our companions of the weekend ‘Something very special here…’ And you can feel its presence in the air around you.

(Above: Ancient Celtic designs in the crypt)

The original monastery was wooden, and nothing remains of it. But the present church of St Mary’s is built upon its site, and specifically, upon the original crypt that was constructed over the location of St Cedd’s grave two hundred years after his death. This region (of what was then Northumbria) was a wild place, and lawless – possibly one reason why Cedd devoted so much of his time establishing the original monastery as a spiritual refuge for the local people and their hard lives.

(Above: St Mary’s extraordinary crypt)

After the Synod of 664, the seat of religious power moved south from Lindisfarne to York, though Whitby survived for a while, in the form of the influential Abbey whose abbecy passed from Hild to Eanflæd, the wife of King Oswiu, upon his death. A royal princess and later queen to Oswiu, she brought grace and dedication to the abbey in the town that would later become Whitby.

(Above: the Benedictine Abbey at Whitby)

But, the age of the Vikings was upon the land and the northern Saxon kingdoms were eventually overrun. Little is known of life here during that period and the former monastery was left to decay.

Over four hundred years later, in 1078, Stephen, abbot of the recently rebuilt monastery at Whitby, obtained permission from no less a person than William the Conqueror to take a team of skilled monks to restore the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house.

Stephen designed the crypt we see today and built it over the place where Cedd had been buried. Above this crypt he began to build a new abbey church, but work was abandoned in 1088 when Stephen and his monks moved from Whitby to the all-powerful York; there to build St Mary’s Abbey… This may have been due to the increasing lawlessness of life within the hills making things impossible for the monks.

The Lastingham Crypt deserves a post in itself, but our story of the Keys of Heaven weekend (now ten posts) has to be brought to a close.

There was a communion service on that Sunday morning. We took care to arrive after it had finished, but I hoped we would be able to meet one or two of the local team. Historic places are fascinating, but the ‘now’ contains some miracles, too. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, one of the church wardens greeted us and we were welcomed into the ‘coffee area’ of the church and urged to join the larger than expected residual group of parishioners.

(Above: The main floor of St Mary’s interior – above the crypt, but the shape of the apse walls reveals the upwards continuity of the structure)

This was my third visit to St Mary’s. The main floor of the building is special in its own right, but I knew the ‘attracting power’ of what lay beneath. Most of our companions drank their coffees then melted quietly away down the stone staircase and into the crypt. But, by that time, as leader of our group, I had not only been given ample coffee and biscuits, but introduced to a cleric in a splendid set of robes… somewhat grander than I had expected for a small village.

Bishop Godfrey is well known throughout the North York area. He has served the Christian cause all his life and is now part-retired with a special attachment to Lastingham; a place in which he feels very much at home. He asked about our group and I was honest about our affiliations and goals. He seemed delighted with our attempts at local scholarship and offered to solve my one remaining problem of the weekend…

(Above: the kindly Bishop Godfrey with Briony, one of our companions of the weekend)

Ten minutes later, happy to pose for a photo as long as someone else was in it, Bishop Godfrey waved us with his blessing down into Lastingham’s very special crypt – the final resting place of St Cedd. As I walked down the stone steps I couldn’t help but feel just a little ‘blessed’ as we finally entered the place where the mortal remains of another very special bishop were interred.

(Above: a peaceful figure in meditation…)

Most of the group had already found their bearings, and were quietly exploring the beautiful crypt. But, one figure sat in the middle of a stone pew locked in total inner and outer silence. His back was to us, and he later described how the crypt had both embraced and entranced him… exactly the effect it had always had on me.

(Above: the vaults of the crypt are filled with priceless history)

The meeting with Bishop Godfrey had made me late into the crypt and we had two important things to do. With an inner certainty, I knew that this visit was for my companions. I had done my part in bringing them here and the magical place was doing the rest. Snapping a few photographs to supplement the ones I had taken in October, I sat quietly, giving thanks that the weekend had gone well; and that we had largely achieved what we set out to do.

(Above: just across from the church – the Blacksmiths Arms)

I could see that the group were tired and in need of some lunch. Across the road from the church is the Blacksmith’s Arms, a lovely and traditional Yorkshire pub with a fine Sunday lunch menu. There are no ‘facilities’ in St Mary’s church, but Bishop Godfrey and the landlord have reached an amicable agreement. The pub displays a sign saying that those attending or visiting the church may use the pub toilets but are asked to leave a donation towards the upkeep of the church. The bishop had smiled as he told us of the monthly cheque the landlord brought him…

The lunch was wonderful… An hour later, with the afternoon upon us and time running out, we set out on the last trek – a last walk around the village to visit Lastingham’s celebrated wells.

(Above: the first well is on private property)

Space does not permit too much description, but, briefly, there are four of them. Two are set into the walls of local properties and one is in the garden of a private house near the church. None of these are currently flowing… but the fourth one – St Mary Magdelene’s well – is. The problem is that it’s well outside the village and very hard to locate. On our recce trip in October, Bernie and I had failed to discover its location, despite directions from the Blacksmith Pub’s landlord.

(Above: St Cedd’s well)

But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.

(Above: St Cadmon’s well)

I explained to our companions that we had the chance to discover St Mary’s well in a very real way. We drove to a where the place where I had given up looking in October and I pointed out the sloping bank to which Bishop Godfrey had directed us.

(Above: Finally found! St Mary Magdalene’s well)

Within seconds, Gary – the figure in a peaceful trance in the crypt – had found it…

We stood around it in an arc and I explained the final purpose of the small empty jars given out to everyone on our opening trip to the beach, so long ago on the late Friday afternoon.

St Mary’s well is a small arch of stonework set into a stream-filled bank that leads down to the small river that flows through Lastingham. And now, as the only person with wellingtons, I needed to fill each of the jars. The only way to do it was to stretch my legs over the small valley of the spring and lean towards the stone arch, reaching down (thank you, Pilates) to fill each jar. I could hear the mental bets being taken that I would end up in the water, but reached the last jar still vertical, albeit locked into the muddy banks on either side…

(Now to try to fill the small jars…)

A set of friendly hands were outstretched in case I lost my footing, but, with one last push and the weekend’s second sound of a mired boot breaking free, I managed to reunite my legs and scramble away from the water and mud. Everyone now had a Christmas candle and a small jar of very rare St Mary’s well water to take away.

Moments later, with jars tucked safely into travel bags, we hugged and said our goodbyes. The Keys of Heaven workshop was over; and it had been a success. In silence, I drove back to Runswick Bay to collect Bernie for our promised beach walk for Tess and our extra night in the location to unwind.

Later, we would walk through the darkness to the Cod and Lobster and reflect on the weekend. But that is where our story began…

End of Series

Other parts in this series of posts: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine This is Part Ten, the final part.

©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.

Whitby Weekend: Lastingham’s Holy Wells

The weekend was almost over, but before we reached a parting of the ways, there was lunch in the seventeenth century Blacksmith’s Arms opposite the church and a wander around the village of Lastingham to visit the holy wells.

The first well, St Ovin’s Well, we did not see. It is tucked away on the road that leads towards Pickering and all that remains is the eighteenth century well housing… neither spout not basin have survived. The well’s origins, however, are much older… as are those of the other wells in the village. St Ovin was a Fenland Bailiff of Queen Eltherdreda who turned his back on the life of the nobility to serve his God with his hands. Perhaps that is a true nobility after all.

St Ovin’s Well, Lastingham, ©hiddenteesdale.co.uk

The next well is dedicated to St Chad, brother of St Cedd and Bishop of Lichfield. The well housing sits beside the road and, Steve told us, used to flow until very recently when the owners of the property found out they were being charged for the water. There is a legend that says the remorseful Mercian king, Wulfhere, converted to Christianity, acceding to the wishes of his wife, Queen Ermenilda, after punishing his sons for worshipping at the well… though there is no guarantee it was this St Chad’s Well and the story may be linked to the well of the same name at Lichfield.

The grandest of the wells sits beside Hole Beck and is dedicated to St Cedd himself. It is believed that some of the stones may have come from nearby Rosedale Abbey. Like the other wells, the origins of this holy well is far older than its current appearance would suggest.

The most interesting of the Holy Wells, however, lies just outside the village and issues from a grassy bank. The well is dedicated to Mary Magdalene… and there was once a chapel to that Lady in a nearby village. A spring of clear water issues from the well to be collected in a stone basin sunk into the earth and surrounded by water mint. When it was cleared and excavated in the ‘sixties, fragments of medieval and Saxon or Roman pottery were found, suggesting the well has been in use for at least fifteen hundred years and very possibly longer. There were ribbons left as offerings when we visited and this well in particular has the feel of a sacred place… though to what god may be open to debate. Local legend says it is haunted by a white Lady… The Holy Wells that now bear the names and legends of the saints have, very often, an allegiance to the spirits of earth and water that predate the Christian story.

Here we filled the empty vessels we had carried throughout the weekend with the pure water of the spring. It was the final act of the Silent Eye weekend… though, for some of us, there was still a little time to share. With hugs all round and thanks to Steve for organising the weekend, we went our separate ways… knowing that it may not be too long before we meet again.

Whitby Weekend: Moorland stone…

On the Sunday morning, we met at the Lion Inn, perched some thirteen hundred feet above sea level and high on the North Yorkshire moors. The sixteenth-century inn is an isolated spot above Rosedale, in an area fair littered with archaeology that demands further exploration. It is also a warm and welcoming place, with a fire in the hearth and, at this time of year, full of Christmas greenery. We met there for coffee but could have happily stayed there for hours.

Outside, though, within just a few yards of the inn, was the first of three standing stones that Steve wanted to show us. We had already passed Young Ralph’s Cross on the way and another couple of intriguing stones. Had the weather been a little less wild, we would have stopped to explore… but it was truly blowing a gale, with nothing in that exposed spot to mitigate the winds.

But out we went anyway, with me battling a gale that mistook my wide skirts and cloak for sails and seemed convinced that, with just a little more effort on its part, I could be persuaded to fly. Held earthbound by Steve’s firm grasp, and with the wind whipping all sound but its own from my ears, I set my back to the first standing stone, perched on the bank above a hollowed cairn.  I caught only fragments of what Steve told us about Blakey Howe, or Cockpit Howe as it is sometimes called, after the so-called ‘sport’ that used to take place within the hollow. The standing stone itself is an eighteenth-century boundary stone, though it may have once been a true standing stone, later re-used.

The area is rich in history. At Loose Howe not far away,  excavation had found a boat burial, where the deceased was sent on his final journey with a hollowed log resembling a canoe. A number of these have been found on the North Yorkshire moors, with radiocarbon dating suggesting the burials are around four thousand years old. At Loose Howe, hazelnuts and a dagger were also buried and a later cremation interred above the boat.

Behind the inn is another stone that has both the look and feel of a more modern construction, though possibly reusing an older stone. It does not appear to be marked on the map-catalogue of ancient sites, but it is impressive enough as it stands. That, however, was as far as I could go.

Straining stand against the wind had set off the pain again and I was obliged to go back to the car and wait while the others walked to the final of the three stones in the area, another eighteenth-century boundary marker placed upon a Bronze Age round barrow. As it turned out, I had made a wise decision as, by the time the others returned, they were drenched, having been caught by a sudden change in the weather. I think we were all thankful that the final sites of the day would be a little more sheltered…

Only a Horse and a Sword

We become habitual in our thinking. It’s a good idea (and fun) to play little games with our mind to help us look at things differently.

One of these is to look at things in a ‘zero-sum’ way: that is, to consider life as a vast journey of ‘bought and sold’: acquisition, usage and disposal…

Saladin, (Salah ad-Din) the legendary first Sultan of the combined lands of Egypt and Syria, and scourge of the western Crusaders, is recorded as having given away most of his belongings before his death.

At the end, his only possessions were his horse and a sword.

But that’s ‘just’ end-of-life, stuff. How about if we lived our lives such that everything we ‘took in’ to our lives had to be used, valued and then disposed of in a positive way as we went along?

What might this include? Well, our possessions of every kind would have to be acquired alongside the sentiment: ‘I want this, but I will ensure that others benefit from it, too…’. Then, when the thing ceased to be of use to us, we would look for others to whom it would be useful.

Not too much to ask, or too onerous?

Our home would be open to others, as long as they honoured its ‘foundations’. Those would include a certain attitude to looking after it and respecting its conventions. Our family – something not acquired in the same way, but given to us – would need to be considered, too. At the end of our days, how would our balance sheet look? Did we leave others ‘richer’ than we found them? Did our presence bring some joy, along the way. There are always struggles with family, which is often the most difficult ‘school’ of our lives, but, overall, did we try?

Our careers would be an important part of this, too. We work in increasingly ‘compressive’ environments, where we are expected to conform to behaviours that are not native to our higher natures. How do we manage this? There may be few choices – externally. But we can always project an inner air of integrity, even if what is around us is ruthless, uncaring or downright cruel.

Examining our lives across these broader timescales will bring us back to much shorter ones. One consideration will be that we will look for things that we did not earn in any way, short of being present. Our food and other means of sustenance is a vital part of our lives. The ‘Maslow’ approach to this was that we cannot hope to lead a higher personal life until our basic needs have been fulfilled; and we should be examining others’ lives on this basis, too, before we judge them.

On an even smaller scale, how about breathing? We take in air whose creation and preparation has nothing to do with our own effort. At this smallest scale, we are literally given life every few seconds. There is no bill at the end of this most basic of meals.

In such situations, perhaps we can think of it as a debt. We owe…

And, maybe that sense of owing would begin to renew both our ‘selves’ and the planet, replacing the viciousness of entitlement so prevalent among those who ‘rule’ us. It seems that, as the world’s wealth comes to belong to fewer and fewer people, civilisation goes back in time to a more feudal basis. It’s a frightening thought that our ‘democracies’ have become so feeble that even the most educated feel powerless to stop the erosion of what were – not so long ago- shared values.

But we are not the first to live in troubled times. It may be that they are there to teach us to act responsibly and collectively. Unless we can do so, we are powerless to change things.

We may conclude that, as an individual, we can do nothing to change the politics of our ‘world’; in which case we live in an age where only our personal behaviour can make a difference: good examples of light in darkness can catch the spirit of the times and become visible flames.

Saladin was a great warrior and is said to have been a fair and just ruler. He had a vast kingdom and ended the power of the Crusading forces.

Our true kingdom is our lives, not how much we possess. Will we be able to look back on our lives from our single horse, and kiss the keen blade of thoughts and feeling that brought us through? And then will we have the grace to leave both behind, in a final act of giving, before surrendering our physical existence to the drifting sands beneath our feet…

©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.

‘Aye’ of the Unicorn: Circle…

*

As the weekened progressed

we were to work our way around ‘the limbs’

of an elemental pentagram.

*

Two sites from the region

were given over to each element.

*

In the first we would consider the element in question

with the help of a conducive environment and our core text.

*

In the second we would construct and walk our pentagrams,

again in a conducive environment,

whilst examining notions of our magical self

in relation to the element and its inner psychology.

*

Mid and late Saturday morning,

we considered and worked with the element of water.

*

Which all turned a bit weird.

*

For one thing we abandoned our core text

and instead considered the information board

to the Holy Well at Burghead.

*

There was no disputing that the place

was ancient and held to be sacred,

but some of the uses to which it had been put

caused rumblings in the assembled ranks of the Companions.

*

These only increased as the steep steps

down to the cavernous well head were traversed.

*

There seems to have long been an ancient connection

between skulls and sacred waters.

*

Symbolically, this combination relates

to accessing the pool of ancestral wisdom.

*

A ‘baptism’ in these waters would be an acceptance

of this higher source of being which reaches beyond the circle of time…

*

As if in confirmation of such a notion

when we reached our second site

for the element of water

the tide had come in!

 

 

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 5) – Stone in the Sky

A Pictish stone so large, it needs its own ‘hangar’.

You can’t miss Sueno’s stone. It sits on its own plateau, just off the old main road between Findhorn and Forres; now bypassed. You see its ‘hangar’ first, then realise that this glass and steel monolith contains something special…

Sueno’s stone is massive – 7 metres tall. Sadly, the type of glass used to protect stones of this nature makes it difficult to capture images through the reflections on its surface.

Sueno’s stone was thought to be named after Swenson Forkbeard, but this is disputed. There is also a folk-link to King Duffus, whose castle we visited earlier in the day. The stone was mentioned in Scottish history as early as the 15th century, but accurate records date to the work of Lady Ann Campbell, the Countess of Moray, who, at her own expense, carried out maintenance work on it in the early 1700s in an attempt to stabilise the heavy stone. Stepped plinths around the base of the stone were the fruit of this dedicated work. We owe her a debt of gratitude.

Above: Image of Lady Ann Campbell’s preservation work of the 1700s. The red scribble (mine) shows the original Old Red Sandstone cross and base. The stepped plinths were added to protect and stabilise the Pictish masterpiece. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

There is archeological evidence that it was originally one of two stones, the other being smaller. Sueno’s stone is massive – seven metres (23 feet) tall. It was carved from Old Red Sandstone – a commonly used rock in this part of the Moray Firth’s coast. It is an upright cross slab bearing typical Pictish-style interwoven vine symbols on its edge panels. These were difficult to photograph so I have used the Historic Scotland noticeboard images to supplement the actual photos

Above: The front of the giant stone – a ringed cross

The front face is carved with a great ring-head cross. The shaft, base and background are filled with interlaced decoration. Beneath the base, two figures lean over a smaller figure. Two other attendants wait in the background.

A great battle scene is depicted in four panels on the back of the stone

Each narrow side is intricately decorated with interlace designs, which include spirals of foliage within which small human figures are perched. The reverse of the stone shows a great battle scene – covering four panels. This depicts cavalry, foot soldiers and the beheading of the defeated – the usual savagery of bitter wars…

The historic scope of the stone is considerable. From the arrival of one army in the top panel, to the main battle, and the resulting rout of the defeated in the middle panel, to the fleeing of the fallen army in the bottom panel, something of monumental importance is being shown.

But what?

The artistic style of the carving – a mixture of Pictish, Irish and Northumbrian techniques – suggests that was carved in the 9th or 10th century. This points to three possibilities:

Above: The Historic Scotland board features drawings to make the ancient carving clearer. Here, related work from Pictish Symbol Stones is shown. The first shows the cross-stand on display in nearby Elgin Cathedral. The second shows its reverse: an animated hawking scene.
A bull-head carving from nearby Burghead. The bull symbol was a key element of Burghead’s art and decoration.

One is that the stone commemorates the vanquishing of the Picts by the Scots, under the command of Kenneth MacAlpin, in the mid 9th century. A second is that the stone denotes a confrontation between a local Pictish and Scottish force and marauding Norsemen. This would tie in with the known date of the destruction of the headland settlement and fort at Burghead (see previous post).

The third possibility is the stone depicts a conflict between the Scottish king, Dubh, and the men of Moray. The oral records claimed that the body of the dead king lay beneath the famous bridge at Kinross, a short distance away. This bridge could be the curious arched object carved at the bottom of the battle scene.

There may never be an answer. There is no inscription on the stone and historical data is limited.

Difficult to photograph through the darkened glass, but magnificent.

Historic Scotland has a policy of protecting the larger Pictish stones by this method of enclosure within steel and glass. You can understand the need to do so, but it does make them less accessible. During our scouting visit with Dean, in March, we came across another stone of the ‘Pictish Trail’ just south of Portmahomack, an hour’s drive north of Forres.

Above: During March 2019, while scouting for the the Silent Unicorn weekend, we discovered this beautifully-located Pictish stone – the Shadwick Stone, on the peninsula south of Portmahomac; and close to the former Pictish monastery there.

The description reads:

Shadwick Stone (near Tain)

“A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed about animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes and serpents. The designer of this and the other stones in the area were certainly not working alone. They must have known of the Christian decorated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Iona, as well as the metalwork and sculpture of Pictland, Northumbria and Ireland.”

The front view of the Shadwick Cross – rendered as best I could through the tinted glass

We left Sueno’s Stone feeling that we had only glimpsed the importance of its place in Scotland’s history. Our Saturday – which had begun a long time ago – was taking its toll and people were getting fatigued.

Dean at Logie Steading – a welcome cup of tea… and perhaps an afternoon scone with jam and cream…

Luckily, Dean had arranged a mid-afternoon detour to the wonderful Logie Steading… The old stables of the Logie estate, and a place of craft displays, food stalls and a very nice tea room….

The photos were taking during our scouting visit in March 2019 – hence the lack of resting attendees!

Beyond the refreshments at Logie Steading, we were headed for a location provided at the the last minute by two of our number, Michael and Eva. We had completed our assignments with the Element of Water. Now, we were going to explore the Element of Air in a rather different kind of location…

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright 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.

 

‘Aye’ of the Unicorn…

Stuart France

Image result for Alchemical unicorn

*

With almost prescient clarity

we commenced our summer workshop in a graveyard!

*

Except, not quite, for before we entered the graveyard,

we stood by the swiftly flowing waters of the river Spey

and entered into a guided meditation.

*

The Unicorn of Spirit

sailed down the Spey

disembarked from its boat,

and invited us all astride its back

for a tour of the elements…

*

Somewhat unsurprisingly then,

our first pentagram was that of Spirit,

which could be called the ‘parent’ of the elements.

*

Have the bodies buried in the earth,

hereabouts, had their constituent parts

returned to spirit?

*

One might well hope so!

*

In Macbeth, the Bard uses the three witches

to represent the spiritual realm.

*

As with a lot of things he wrote

this is simultaneously;

a joke,

a reflection of characterised psychology,

and can also allude to something far deeper…

*

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Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 4) – Sea and Stone

I didn’t want to leave Burghead… not even for Findhorn.

I didn’t want to leave Burghead, not even for Findhorn; a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time. Burghead had filled me (many of us, I think) with a sense of ancient mystery and that dreadful knowledge that the centre of the Pict civilisation had likely perished in the Viking raids of the 9th century, when the ‘fort’ was sacked and burned. Medieval history is thin for north-eastern Scotland, for example the all-important Celtic Christian monasteries at Iona and Lindisfarne have well-documented medieval histories, but the important monastery at Portmahomack (the ‘Iona of the East’) north of the Moray Firth, is not.

The statue of ‘The Queen of the Picts’ from the museum of Portmahomack monastery, an hour’s drive across the Moray Firth, via the A9 bridge at Inverness.

Given time, I’d have spent the rest of the day exploring the layers of Burghead… and sitting with a coffee or six gazing out at the splendour of the Moray Firth. The Pictish people fascinate me – and their art has the same effect on me as did that of Egypt when I first came across it.

Pictish high art from Inverurie – Celtic, certainly, but something ‘smoother’ lurks in these masterworks…

One of our future workshops will be “On the Trail of the Picts“. We will follow the established ‘Pictish Trail’ across three landscapes just north of the Moray Firth in The Black Isle and Easter Ross; with a possible onward option to visit Orkney by car ferry. Advance reservations are being taken. September 2020 is being considered… but that is to be confirmed.

The Pictish Trail is already established. We just need to turn it into a workshop weekend… .with some modern spirituality in the mix

But we were still in the morning of the Saturday, and, though we had experienced the Burghead Well in a very special way, our use of the ‘element’ of water had a deeper personal purpose in the system that Dean had devised.

The journey of ‘Alchemical Water’ was about to be ‘walked…’. In it, we would meet the ‘Limited Self’.

At our next destination, we would ‘walk’ the ‘watery’ pentagram in search of deeper, individual self-knowledge. Dean’s system called for each person to be paired up with another – ideally someone they didn’t routinely work with. One person would walk the pentagram for each element, the other would record their feelings and observations as the mental and emotional journey progressed. Our Friday evening by the River Spey had begun this with the element of Earth. Now it was time, with the help of Findhorn’s beautiful beach, to do it for water…

No beach, lots of sand dunes, two dogs… Findhorn: Dean did not deserve this…

Except, when we got there, there was no beach… The high tide had consumed it, leaving only sand dunes and pebbles where once there had been (we were assured) level sand, perfect for laying out geometrical ribbons!

With great skill and some ingenuity we worked out a technical system that prevented the ribbons from flying away in the strong sea-breeze (heavy pebbles), and carried out what everyone thought was an excellent exercise. One of my key thoughts about ‘water’ has always been the ‘wisdom’ of how it moves around obstacles, rather than offering outright resistance. In nature, few things are as powerful, nor as determined as free-flowing water. Related to the emotions, yes, but much more that that… We should also consider the way it divides itself, without hesitation, to carry out such a flow-around. The ‘self’ of water exists only in the whole….

The ever-present clipboard – used by each half of the pairings to record the on-the-spot feelings and observations of the partner at the points of the magical matrix pentagram. Suitably redacted to mask personal comments.

We were getting used to the ideas behind, and method of Dean’s ‘magical matrix’ system. It’s always surprising (and often a delight) to see what takes form beneath the pencil from spontaneous thought and emotion when we are free just to ‘be’ in the landscape… and that is the whole point of these workshops. The magical matrix was beginning to show each of us the polarity between our beliefs and how we lived our lives… and the two are not always the same thing. There are limitations – real and false – and the simple scribblings were to build up to a comprehensive picture of our selves. Also, the trust that one places in the partner in this type of working is a lesson in itself – and a delightful (and often humorous) process.

And then, mercifully, there was lunch… in one of the best cafes imaginable. Set in the beautiful and famous village of Findhorn, the creative centre of this part of the Scottish coast, the Bakehouse cafe is a delight…

And, in closing this part of the weekend’s story, I have to add this photo of Larissa, enjoying (at the Bakehouse) her ‘first decent coffee fix’ of the whole weekend; truly a memory in itself…

After lunch we were to be treated to a Pictish stone so large, they had to build a glass hangar to house it…

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, This is Part Four.

©Copyright 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.

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 3) – A Pictish Headland

The Moray Firth is vast, wild and beautiful. Examined on a map it resembles a child’s geometry exercise in triangles, with the coast between its ‘origin’ at Inverness and far-away Fraserburgh being a virtually flat west-east baseline. From Fraserburgh the great inlet of the Moray Firth reaches northwards into the North Sea. The final line in the triangle, from Inverness moving north-east, ends at the tip of Scotland: John o’ Groats.

Above: The vast Moray Firth, a small section of which formed the northern boundary of our Silent Unicorn weekend. Map Google Maps

Our huge geographic triangle pivots around Inverness -which is also the place where Loch Ness meets the sea. What we know as Loch Ness today is the result of the shearing of two vast tectonic plates four-hundred million years ago. This geological event produced a ‘line’ of fracture that is now the line of Loch Ness but runs further across the entire width of Scotland and beyond. The east-west depression is known as the Great Glen.

Above: The mighty Moray Firth, stretching northwards towards Scandinavia.

If you are sensitive to ancientness, when you stand on this, the south coast of the Moray Firth, you can feel the immense age of this beautiful place – and its importance in Scotland’s history.

Above: The Pictish Brandsbutt Symbol Stone from nearby Inverurie. Archeologists have painted-in part of the stone design to show how the original may have looked

The mysterious race known as the Picts, did just that… and they built what would be in our terms a mighty city. Today, the small town that grew in its ruins is known as Burghead.

Above: The scale of the original ‘fort’ can be seen by the fact that it took up the entire area of the Burghead headland – and jutted out boldly into the Moray Firth. Photographed from the Burghead Headland information board.

When we arrived we knew nothing of the above history. Dean (who had made a mysterious stop at one of the shops in the small high street) had arranged to take us through a warren of passageways to get to the famous and mysterious well.

Above: An unlikely route to a magical location.

Another turn and we approached our goal. It’s worth showing an edited copy of the Historic Scotland’s schematic. This pinpoints exactly where we now were in terms of the old fort…

Above: The location of the ancient well, though enshrouded, now, in the small town’s streets, was in Pictish times against the outer wall of the landward side of the city; shown here next to the blue dot.

We stood before the wooden fence reading the Historic Scotland information boards. The Burghead Well is kept locked but Dean had collected the key from one of buildings in the main street. About to enter, we were surprised when a visiting family arrived and said they believed that he had the key! Graciously, we stood back while they added to their holiday enjoyment. They soon returned and we entered the strange space in what looked like a large garden with a depression in the middle…

The Burghead Well. First impressions are of a garden lawn sunken in the middle.

” An old man suggested that they should dig in a certain spot, where, according to immemorial tradition, a well would be found”

Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1828

A strange descent to the well-chamber below….

The well-chamber is accessed by a descent of twenty rock-cut steps. The entire structure was hewn out of the local rock. The chamber is square, with rounded corners; and measures 5m by 5m. In the centre of the chamber is a pool surrounded by a narrow ledge 0.9m wide. The well pool is 1.3m deep. It was once emptied for maintenance and took six days to refill.

The information board shows a drawing from the 1800s describing the shape and the angle of access to the well chamber.

Burghead Well is described as a ‘Pictish puzzle’

It is not known when Burghead Well was constructed, nor why. As we have seen from the schematic, it lies on the rampart line of the inner Pictish fort – built between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The well may not have been part of the fort’s design. The well could have been added later or it could be even older than the ramparts themselves.

Even after millennia, the construction is still resilient.

The well could be considered as a water supply for the Pictish fort, but a shaft would be of more practical use. The rock-cut chamber is 5m wide and contains a 1m deep pool which is fed by a spring.

The act of descending into the earth is likely to have had spiritual significance – as mirrored in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hecate.

Different explanations have been put forward. These include a ritual drowning pool, a shrine to Celtic water deities or perhaps an early Christian baptistery.

Above: Note the beautifully rounded corners of the chamber. The dank-looking water was a shock… we had no right to expect anything better but felt helpless in the face of such a spiritually ‘unused’ place.
Then Sue suggested something profound….

After so much buildup, the actual water looked, for want of a better word, ‘sad’. Everyone spent a quiet moment taking in the age and cultural Pictish significance of this very special place. With a collective heavy heart, we began to move back up the rock steps… Then Sue stole the moment and suggested that we do some of our chants…

Music and chanting have been part of sacred practices for as long as man gazed in wonder at the stars and the sunrise. Over the years we have developed a set of chants that come under the general heading of ‘vowel sounds’. Stuart suggested a combination we had used before; one ending in the powerful ‘Awen’ sound.

Structures – particularly stone structures – have resonant frequencies. On a few notable occasions, such as when visiting the West Kennet barrow, just outside Avebury, we have been amazed and delighted when the artefact in which we were chanting ‘came alive’ and appeared to sing with us.

The Burghead Well did the same. In a second of incredible transformation the beautiful but neglected stone chamber began to ring with the human voice and to speak to us. It spoke of water, of the power of water, of the home of water. It spoke of the journey we were making from the element of earth to that of water, and everyone present left that beautiful and hallowed place in a state of deep reflection…

Above: Dean’s use of the mystical (and mathematical) Pentagram equated the ancient ‘Elements’ with (anti-clockwise from Air) The Boundary Self; the Potential Self; the Weak Self: the Limited Self and finally the Core and Shadow Selves. In this journey we travelled from Earth to Fire, from the Potential Self to the Limited Self.

We may not have ‘connected’ with the ancient Picts, but we certain did so with what they left behind…

The morning was still not finished. Before we had our long-awaited lunch at the Findhorn Bakery, another laying-out of our water-oriented pentagrams was to be made on Findhorn Beach… or was it?

In passing, though not part of our agenda, it is worth noting that Burghead connects with its past in a very special way. It is the only Scottish town that still carries out the ceremony of the ‘Burning of the Clavie’ – the origins of which are lost in history. This takes place on the ‘old new year’ date of January 11th, unless that is a Sunday, in which case the 12th is used, instead.

Elders of the town carry a flaming ‘Clavie’ – half of a cask filled with burning, inflammable materials and topped with tar – through the town. The procession ends at the ruins of an altar on the Pictish headland where the Clavie is made the centre of a ritual bonfire. When the originating Clavie finally falls apart, the people of the town rush forward to claim a piece of the still-burning material and take it back to ward evil from their homes…

The culmination of the fire ritual which takes place on 11th January each year. It might relate to the sacking of Burghead by the Vikings… or it might be part of something much older.
The burning of the Clavie
CC BY-SA 2.0
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_the_Clavie

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Copyright 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.