… So, we return to the quest and turn shining eyes to the south.
Not that we ever left it, yet the churches had definitely ‘fallen off-line’…
Until one particular stained-glass window in Skipton.
It is tempting to think that later traditions lose much that is essential to preceding ones.
In magical traditions derived from the Hebrews, the Archangel Mikael is a guardian of the south quarter and if a ‘Michael Window’ is present in a church, it is a relatively safe bet that it will be found on a south wall of that church.
So, why were we charging around St Michael’s, Hathersage, looking at stained-glass windows on the north wall, with such singular precision?
Because we were desirous of another window.
This headlong, wilful charge, bugles blaring, could well have been our undoing, had we been alone.
There was no ‘Michael Window’ in St Michael’s, Hathersage.
But there was this…
So, what to say about this banner?
It is a work of art, certainly.
It is a work of art that transcends the medieval style of its composition, although, the ‘S’ as an ‘eight’ and the ‘M’ as an ‘omega’ are both remarkable.
The ‘lance’ too, as ‘Celtic crozier’, is a sublime touch.
Was the dragon always golden?
Does this hue, denote the beginning or even the end of a process?
Was the beast once much bigger?
Is this really how one earns one’s ‘spiritual wings’?
The spirals on the Saint’s shield are, to say the least, suggestive…
Psychologist, Maurice Nicoll studied under Fourth Way exponents G.I Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, and presented his own philosophy in a series of works published during the Mid Twentieth Century.
In his seminal work, Living Time… he makes no bones about insisting that the psychological states and concepts that he is expounding, and their utilisation, are ancient and stretch back through Christianity, Judaism, the Greek Philosophers and on into the mysterious climes of Pre-Dynastic Egypt…
In re-presenting these ideas as a series of poetic explorations, author and essayist, Stuart France uncovers a series of links with the Mediaeval Traditions of the Northmen, and the Matter of Britain!
What is the original story of our week? How does the moon harrow hell? Prepare to be enthralled, entertained, educated, and enlightened, as new light is shed on the enigmatic figures of Wotan, Merlin, and King Arthur.
They do not write books like this anymore, if indeed they ever did!
The young missionary – a peregrini, meaning one on a life-pilgrimage – wore two crosses; but not around his neck nor on his simple, woven robe. The Celtic designs were tattooed onto his eyelids so that, when he slept, the original Cross of Christ was projected from both his sleeping eyes into the world… Truth never sleeps.
A Christ that he had reached out and touched, as though it were his deepest friend…
It was hot, the day he came back to Tain. May was giving way to June, and the weather had changed for the better. For years, the discomfort of the monk’s robe – a white tunic covered by a cowl – had become a thing of the background, not allowed to intrude into his finely trained consciousness. A consciousness filled with the magic of refined thought and the devotion of a mind entirely turned to the good.
In addition to the Scriptures, the Brothers of Ireland had given him everything they had: well structured and beautifully crafted writing in the universal language of Latin; a deep understanding of music and the special numbers that made it harmonic; an observation of the sun and stars so acute that he, even alone, could calculate the correct dates in the cycle of the religious year.
The mind the Irish brothers had bestowed on him was full of ‘knowing’ – his to transform to wisdom – but it was not at the expense of the practical, the how to do…
Soon, if his mission was allowed to take root in this land of his fathers, he would be building a chapel. He had all the necessary skills to transform stone, metal and wood for that purpose; and, beyond that, strong hands as delicate as a feather, when needed.
First, he had to make his tools, but for that he needed the help of a local forge. If his childhood friend, the son of a blacksmith, had survived to adulthood, he hoped to trade an education of the man’s children for the strength of metal.
Ahead of him, now, was the last of the ridges that led to Tain. His leather sandals, made by his own hands, were wet with dew and dirty. His feet were sore from the weeks of walking across Scotland from its west coast fishing village where the tiny boat from Ireland had left him. But it was a joyous pain, and no match for the joy in his heart at smelling the sweet scents of home.
He crested the last rise and stopped, fighting back tears as he looked down on the place whose people he wanted to serve for the rest of his days. The small town of Tain was just waking, the sun climbing on the horizon and painting the calm sea with a line of shimmering gold. This way, it called, as it had a hundred times on his long walk. This way…
This is fiction, but as close to the spirit and facts of St Duthac’s early life as my research has been able to take me.
Duthac was a real figure, yet the details of his life can be elusive. He was born in AD 1000 and died in 1065. Despite devoting his life to Tain, he did not die there. In his final years, something pulled him back to Ireland, presumably to the school of God and Selfless Love that had given him his spiritual wings. In 1253, long after his death, his ‘relics’ – mainly bones – were returned from Ireland by unknown benefactors, to the same tiny chapel he built in Tain.
Much later, the relics were transferred from the abandoned chapel to what is now the St Duthac Memorial Church. Much of St Duthac’s published story is based on the same potted text, some of which is incorrect. It’s an important fact that the ‘relics’ of the saint came back to the original chapel that he had built by hand and where he worked and taught.
St Duthac was one of Scotland’s most revered and well-known saints. The Scottish Reformation, in 1535, brutally erased the saints and their worship, removing all ritual and replacing decoration with plainness. Music was also banned, replaced only with the chanting of psalms.
The memory of St Duthac was removed from history… To the victors, the spoils. The truth of the long human story is constantly altered in this way. Curiously, unlike other saints – such as Columba or St Andrew – Duthac’s name was only ever preserved in Tain, the town he served and loved, and which hosts his name and his works to this day. St Duthac’s relics were later moved within Tain to the first of two churches built in his name. The relics were mysteriously ‘lost’ during the reformation, and never seen again…
Most of his life is lost to history, but much of Duthac’s appeal and status can be inferred from the folk tales that come down to us from ‘his people’. Two of his ‘miracles’ are illustrative of this.
In the first, when a young child, he was asked to transport some ‘blazing coals’ to start another fire. He did so with his bare skin, remaining unburnt. Here we have to look beyond the literal for the meaning. Certain parts of the detail stand out, in the way of such stories:
He was a child – a young soul. His life lay ahead of him, the blazing coals are symbolic of a ‘fire’ that would burn others, yet were not a danger to him. Through the gift of a ‘high nature’ – earned or by birth – he was able to hold and transport that fire. The fire can be read as deep spiritual knowledge; the transportation as teaching. It was a power that was his to transform so that it would inspire, but not burn others. He was the higher vessel. His duty was to use it wisely and to teach those ready to receive.
St Duthac is said to have been of noble birth, yet no records remain to support this. Perhaps this, too, is symbolic, and fits with the above interpretation.
In another of the ‘miracles’, a man asks one of Duthac’s younger disciples to carry a gift of some meat and a gold ring to the saint. The disciple is careless and lets a bird of prey steal them. Arriving, crestfallen, at the chapel, the young man recounts his sorry tale. St Duthac forgives him and summons the eagle. He lets the bird keep the meat, but takes the ring.
The lesson is to cherish the true and perfect ‘gold’ of the ring and let the ‘lower’ – the meat – be left to nature’s cycles of birth, maturity and decay. Duthac’s status (of ‘noble birth’) is one of mastery of nature, i.e. working completely with it. Nature is then content to conform to this ‘noble’ human will. The Creator is recognised; reflected in the Man, but governed by the degree that the man conforms to ‘God’s will’, i.e. the Good.
History tells that Duthac became Bishop of Tain, but we might want to examine this. His training in Ireland was entirely within the Celtic Christian tradition – one that would send missionaries out across Europe to found some of the most important centre of learning in history. It may have been that the Roman church tradition that drove Celtic Christianity back to Ireland, made Duthac, posthumously, into a bishop to show his historical conversion to the standard faith.
‘I saw the Holy City coming down from God out of Heaven, and he said unto me write’
In the three previous posts, (see list at end of post) we have considered each of the buildings associated with St Duthac. The history of the later Memorial Church warrants further attention. During its time as the main church of Tain, it was a more complex building.
The black and white drawing, above, shows how the interior of the church once looked. Note the elevated ‘stalls’ on the left.
The construction and use of the north wall is curious. The above plan of 1815 shows separate exterior gallery stairs into the building. These gave direct entry to ‘lofts’ or galleries belonging to Tain’s trade guilds. The guilds oversaw apprenticeships and were the guarantor of the quality of work done by their craftsmen. They were a key part of the orderly government of the town, and linked strongly with the authority of the local church.
Tain is unique in Scotland in having an intact set of Guild ‘coats of arms’. These are displayed on the north wall of the St Duthac Memorial Church, just beneath the high window (below) containing the stained glass rendering of St Duthac, gazing up at the Citadel and the four letter of the Tetragrammaton (below). To my mind, a link is implied…
It would be appropriate to bring this series of posts to an end with a return to the mysterious stained glass window high in the north wall of the Memorial Church, (see images above and below) to consider if any of these last threads of mystery can be unified.
At the very top of the mysterious window over the Guild plaques, on the the dome of the ‘Citadel’ is written (left to right) something very special in Hebrew: Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. It derives from ancient Hebrew wisdom and is an integral part of Kabbalistic teaching.
Its name of Tetragrammaton is the Hebrew ‘highest name of God’. Jewish scholars will not speak this name, as it is taken to be sacred, even though formed of four of the standard Hebrew letters of the alphabet.
We can safely assume that this is not a legacy of the Scottish Reformation. What, then, is it doing high on the north wall of the Memorial Church of St Duthac?
Western mysticism is not so silent on the subject, though the sanctity of the inner meaning of Tetragrammaton is preserved. In Kabbalistic teaching there are four ‘worlds’ of continuous creation which result in the ever unfolding ‘now’. Each of these worlds is represented by one of the four letters of Tetragrammaton.
This mysterious stained glass window was part of the 1870-1882 restoration of the church. The design and creation were carried out by James Ballantine and Sons, Edinburgh. Ballantine was a brilliant artist and, to me, it looks like he was given particular freeway with the style of this, window, which is nothing like the others.
There are other examples of the Tetragrammaton used in highly ceremonial church and cathedral buildings, such as Winchester Cathedral. Its use in so small a building as the St Duthac Memorial Church is extremely rare. I could be completely wrong, but I sense the presence of another protector of Duthac’s legacy, here – one that arose from the chasm of the Scottish Reformation that did everything possible to destroy the saint’s legacy – the Freemasons.
The Freemasons arose, mysteriously, after the Reformation. Early records were not kept in order to protect their members. They modelled themselves on a stonemason’s guild, but added their own origin myth. They prosper today and benefit from their own carefully-crafted rituals, and progressive degrees of learning. Their higher degrees contain detailed references to Kabbalistic learning, and the Tetragrammaton is an important symbol in this. I can only suggest that they may have been the sponsors of this very different window, and, by this act, ensured that the spirit of Duthac’s work was honoured into modern times and its potentially mystical nature not lost to history.
To this day, they are well known for their generosity in preserving key aspects of history in their respective Lodges.
There is no suggestion, here, that the spiritual world of St Duthac was related to that of the Freemasons. Duthac’s world was based on a teaching in Latin, not Hebrew. The ‘Celtic’ Christians of Ireland had a rich and sophisticated teaching method, based on an individual’s ‘sense of belonging’ with Christ. The Freemasons have a broader ‘church’, in which a man is urged to better himself through application and dedication to the highest principles ‘he’ can discover within himself. In that, they are related, but the Celtic Christian oath of having no luxury, not even that of travelling by anything other than foot, is very different from our modern notions of piety.
I am not a Freemason, but have admiration for their work.
Esoteric history is full of different, but related, systems of thought, each showing us a part of the inner wisdom in a form we can remember and use. There is no single system of teaching that has all the answers. Each has its own emphasis, based upon the teaching preferences of its founder(s).
The spiritual journey is personal. Others can help, but the excitement is in discovering that everything of real importance belongs to each of us, alone.
And that is a paradox… but the most beautiful one we will ever encounter.
The Silent Eye will return to the world of St Duthac via a modern ‘pilgrimage’ to be offered sometime in 2022, subject to possible Covid restrictions. We will follow a route (part walking, part driving, in stages) from the Black Isle, across the Cromarty Firth, and explore the Tarbat Peninsula, before finishing in Tain at the Pilgrimage Centre.
If you would like to be kept up to date with plans for this, you can register your interest at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Saints don’t just disappear!” Bernie was getting a little exasperated with my poor attempt at stringing together a viable theory to account for the cultural disappearance of St Duthac. “There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation… we just have to find it.”
I’d already found it, But I wasn’t letting on. It’s not that I’m cleverer than she is, but one of the sources I’d been studying on the iPhone, overnight, had given the game away.
We were driving back to Tain the day after our first encounter with the abandoned Chapel of St Duthac. Our short holiday was coming to an end. Returning for a second look at Tain’s clues showed how much we had become fascinated with our mystery.
We had a puzzle…
The most popular saint in Scotland had vanished from the records of its history; yet within three hundred years, three of Scotland’s kings were making visits to his grave; one of them, James IV, making more than ten pilgrimages, and travelling across land and water with a sophisticated entourage that was part scholarly, part circus… plus one unescorted dash on horseback and in disguise, taking less than two full days to journey from Edinburgh to Tain. Quite an achievement, and not one you would undertake lightly.
“It’s probably the Reformation… the Scottish Reformation, which was different to the English one.” Bernie looked pleased.
She’d got it, and without the help of the scholarly text on which I had been relying. The Scottish Reformation, like its English counterpart, broke the hold of the Catholic Church, which it accused of widespread corruption. Martin Luther’s Protestantism ushered in a long era of ‘plain-ness’ across Europe. No singing – except psalms; No decorated churches; few rights for women, many of whom were suspected of being behind Scotland’s widespread witchcraft problem – something that paralysed several of the kings with terror.
And no saints…
All of them bundled off to oblivion, their names written secretly by loyal families, who stored these treasures in decorated boxes as the ‘plain persecution’ swept the land, and dour Kirks replaced Chapels. It was not to last forever, of course, though Scotland went through its own equivalent of the English Civil War, with powerful factions fighting over the future of the country, and even executing rivals.
Now on the final leg of the car journey to Tain, we discussed the Scottish Reformation and its effects, concluding that St Duthac was lucky to have lived centuries before it…
We parked the car close to The Pilgrimage. We had been here the day before, but it was late in the afternoon and the church-like structure was closed. This was our last chance to tie up some of the loose ends about the life of St Duthac, the vanishing saint.
To our surprise it was open, though the visitor centre was still closed due to Covid restrictions. We had the entire complex to ourselves, including the interior of the building, which felt a little strange, as though they were carrying out repairs.
I’ve learned to ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ – in a purely photographic sense, when faced with this kind of opportunity. We knew this building held most, if not all, of the answers to our questions.
What had looked like an unremarkable and recent church, re-purposed to be a pilgrimage centre, turned out to be something far more remarkable and germane to our search.
St Duthac Memorial Church was built between the 14th and 15th centuries by William 5th Earl of Ross, a very powerful Scottish nobleman and Lord of the Isles. He owned Balnagown Castle, the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan Ross in Kildary, Easter Ross.
In 1457 a chaplaincy was endowed, associated with the church by King James II – something we had spotted on the ferry sign at Nigg, that had prompted the whole search for St Duthac. King James III continued the endowment, and by 1487 the the church had gained full collegiate status, meaning it was dedicated ‘to the singing of masses for the souls of the founders.’ – in this case, the King, his family and heirs.
A Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII confirmed the foundation charter for the church and town was issued in 1492. There was a copy in the nearby (closed) museum.
The notice board states that King James IV visited the church at least 18 times over a period of 20 years, before being killed at the battle of Flodden.
And then another reference that shocked us:
‘Alhough St Duthac was born a Scot in about the year 1000, nearly two hundred years later, in June 1253, his relics were returned to Tain from the site of his death in Ireland…’
We had some more answers… and a lot more questions.
We now knew that St Duthac had, at the end of his life and before his peaceful death, returned to Ireland, the place where he received his spiritual training – very likely in the traditions of the old Celtic Christian faith. That he did this, knowing he was leaving his beloved Tain for the last time, must have been prompted by deep feelings. What was this long-lasting relationship to whoever introduced him to the depth of spirituality that led to him being declared a saint?
We knew, now, that the various pilgrimages by King James II, III and IV were made to the place of his relics – where his bones were – in the ‘new’ church built to house them, St Duthac Memorial Church.
We had found out why the original chapel in which St Duthac had carried out his ministry and performed his miracles had been left to ruin. The newer memorial church had taken its place, and provided a more refined site for the Kings’ pilgrimages. Hopefully his spirit was unperturbed by this display of the grandiose…
We took advantage of the empty church to look around, The interior was empty of pews and furnishings. It was a place no longer used for its original purpose… but, we suspected, still an active place of pilgrimage. It still had some very fine stained glass windows.
One of the stained glass windows caught my eye. It looked more modern than the rest and stood out, dramatically, high in the north wall of the church. It was a detailed image of St Duthac looking skywards to God and clutching a pen. The inscription reads:
‘I saw the Holy City coming down from God out of Heaven, and he said unto me write’
I had only the iPhone with me, so there was little chance of getting a clear telephoto shot of the very top of the glass, where I could see what looked like an inscription.
I was astonished when I looked at the picture and saw how well the phone had captured the detail. There, on the dome of the ‘Citadel’ was written something very special in Hebrew: Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. However, I had never seen the Tetragrammaton ‘name of God’ written on a church stained glass window, before.
But I knew of its deeper mystical significance. And I knew it was a frequent motif of another organisation that had also emerged from the ‘plain’ years of the Scottish Reformation, remaining strong, independent and supportive to this day. Perhaps another ‘protector’ of St Duthac lay close by…
“You’d have thought they would have looked after it, better!’
Bernie can be highly critical on these occasions. Mind you, we had trudged all the way around the small town of Tain to find it.
The original chapel of St Duthac. The priest to whose church three Scottish kings travelled to pay their respects, sits as an unmarked ruin in the middle of the town’s graveyard, not far from the main railway line, its station and the shore. Steel barriers, leaned casually against what’s left of the old walls, prevent any access to the interior, which, presumably, is dangerous.
What happened? Why has the original place of veneration of this remarkable man been left to such a fate? Money must be one reason… but there may be another.
To build a context for the saint’s strong links to the town of Tain, we had to establish something reliable from the different versions of his life-story. The ‘Tain through time’ centre in the heart of the town would have offered some help, but it was closed – due to Covid. Our only recourse was online, and overnight.. Back in the cottage on the Black Isle, we began our research before we paid our second visit to Tain the following day. Quite a challenge, given the quality of broadband in the Scottish Highlands… Thank goodness for the iPhone and the independence of its 4G!
Several hours of coffee-assisted digging brought up an academic paper on the life of St Duthac, written by an assistant lecturer at Stirling University. We finally had some reliable information… except, as with any good study, the first thing stressed by the researcher was the fact that many different versions of Duthac’s life existed in the ‘records’.
A broad brush of St Duthac’s life reveals a straightforward and pious ‘good man’ who lived in the 11th century. He is placed in the category of those saints who gave up riches and title for their faith, thereafter following a simple life of service. In the west, we have little time for the idea of a modern saint; a view caused by our more cynical outlook on power, society and manipulation. With few exceptions, we let our saints be ‘long ago’, while science is now. But the tradition of living saints continues in Asia and the East.
To believe that a spiritual person has a deeper connection with the essential nature of life is hard for us. Yet most of us believe that layer of the human exists – and by inference – exists in ourselves, if only in potential.
Reliable records state that Saint Duthac was a man of noble birth from northern Scotland who displayed signs of unusual holiness – ‘sanctity’, as a child. He performed his first miracle by apparently carrying hot coals without suffering burns. The skeptic in me wonders where his parents were?
Duthac trained in Ireland, then returned to Tain to take up his work as a priest. Later, he was made Bishop of Tain – a position he held until his death. At the end of his life, he returned to Ireland, where his relics lay for two hundred years before being returned to Tain.
Duthac was sent to Ireland for his religious education. This period is central to his story and shows his formative education in the Irish church; the former home of the original, Celtic version of the faith which had been the Christianity in Britain prior to the advance of the rival Roman faith.
These venerated men and women of older traditions and times shared common paths: they lived simply; they were content with what they had, and they sought no more than that – including fame. Their fame was created by others, not themselves, usually long after their death.
Saint Duthac fits this profile, well… His wider history begins long after his death, when a line of Scottish kings began to visit Tain in pilgrimage to him.
Tain, the area to the north of Inverness where Duthac lived, was remote from the rest of Scotland. It had more in common with its neighbours to the north and west than the seat of power in southern Scotland, and was thought of as belonging to an ‘Hibernio-Norse’ culture. This was to change as the growing legend of St Duthac became important political capital in centralising religious control.
Online, I stumbled on another reference to the life of Saint Duthac: the statement that he had been regarded by those in power as ‘The demi-God of the north’. Such utterances are not made lightly, and demonstrated both veneration and, possibly, fear…
Aside from ‘carrying the hot coals’, records show Duthac performed three further miracles during his lifetime. Here, we might begin to consider the symbolism in the wider context of the traditional and the mystical interpretations of miracles…
Let’s begin with the literal stories. We will consider the possible deeper meanings in the next post.
In the first of the miracles, a man was struck down with a headache. In order to alleviate his pain he sent one of Duthac’s disciples to the saint with a gold ring and some meat. Because of the young cleric’s negligence, a kite stole the gifts, but the youth continued on his way and petitioned Duthac to forgive his failure. Duthac forgave the worried young man and summoned the bird, allowing it to keep the food and returning the ring to its owner.
The second miracle took place during a famine. The saint attended a feast at which a special cake was served. The saint performed a miraculous enlarging of the cake, so that it could feed the whole community. Its crumbs were seen to be bestowed with healing properties. The parallels with the Bible story of Christ feeding the five thousand are obvious.
In the third miracle the saint caused a footpath, on which a canon from Dornoch was carrying a gift of meat to Duthac, to illuminate itself through dangerous terrain, leading the young man to safety on a dark and stormy night.
Seven years after Duthac’s death, and following an exhumation of his body – found to be uncorrupted – his ‘sanctitiy’ was confirmed and he was made a Saint.
Duthac was described by scholars as leading a simple and austere lifestyle and having a reputation for the miraculous; something that surrounded him both in life and death. He was well known locally, but it took the later interests of Scottish kings to establish his wider reputation.
One historical tradition, which seems to have stemmed from the area close to the shrine, draws an important connection between the life of the saint and the establishment of Tain as a royal burgh. It places Duthac firmly in the eleventh century. This relationship between town and saint was the subject of the burgh seal. Duthac’s role as ‘guarantor’ of the burgh’s rights and privileges was emerging, which explains a lot about Duthac’s importance to the temporal and spiritual aspects of Tain’s history.
Later, King James IV was to make Duthac the subject of annual pilgrimages from Edinburgh, once even riding alone, in disguise, and arriving in two days. Historians consider James to have been a wise ruler, and a sincere follower of the spiritual life. He earned himself the name ‘The Pilgrim King’, but his life did not end well. He is said to have ‘consulted’ three of his favourite saints, including Duthac, for a decision on whether to ride south to make war with the English. Sadly, he chose to ignore their ‘oracular advice’ and King James IV died, butchered beyond recognition, at the battle of Flodden, in September 1513.
By the time of the death of King James IV, in 1513, Duthac was established as one of the three most important saints in Scotland. Yet, nowadays, He is unknown to most people. What happened? What rift created that chasm between the older and newer worlds of religious ‘sanctity’?
The answer lies in a movement that had both good and ill in it; one that shattered the papal grip on Scotland, yet, at the same time, established a regime that frequently demonised women. Singing and any other form of levity was banned or severely curtailed and the heavy hand of religious authoritarianism replaced the art and expression of the former act of worship.
And the saints were banished…
But one saint, once branded a demi-God, whose service and goodness had helped establish a town, found his legacy being protected by that town, in a form that grew more mysterious as time passed. And four ancient letters engraved in stained glass tell a story of inheritance and protection of something precious…
“There’s a little known saint with some strange royal connections…” mused Bernie, my wife.
“He has a pilgrimage centre near where we’re going today.” she said. “Want to see it?”
There was something in her tone – which is well tuned to what I really value – that suggested her words were precisely chosen. “And it’s on the same peninsula as Portmahomack… your favourite place in all the world.” she said, softly.
‘In all the world’ was a bit over the top… but not by much. ‘Royal’ had me both worried and enthused, but, sensing a triumph of hope over expectation, I pushed the button. “Yes… please… and thank you!”
And that’s how we came to be in Tain; a beautiful town at the point where the amazing Tarbat peninsula, home to some of the best Pictish artefacts in Scotland, joins the main geographic body of the Highlands between Inverness and John o’ Groats.
It wasn’t our first visit. To be honest, our first, two years ago, had been disappointing. None of the cafes we tried would allow our collie inside, so we ended up eating a cold pie and luke-warm take-away coffee in a small park whose main sign was ‘No dogs allowed’.
We were cold and hungry, Tain. I’m sorry…
It’s funny how fate will take you on very specific journeys; if you’re willing to let it lead you off into the unknown.
Two years (and two lockdowns) further on, we had returned to Tain. But only because Bernie had spotted the reference to the mysterious saint that neither of us had heard of.
“You said he was called Dufus?” I was, possibly, being picky.
“There are, apparently, many variants,” she said, reasonably. “Duthac is one of them.”
I nodded my head, looking at the strange and antique lettering on the information board before us…
Behind the sign, ‘Tain through time’ the exhibition was closed, as most things still are – doubly so if you have a dog.
But the dubious antique lettering drew me in, again, and I realised I had seen another faded and battered sign of the same format. But that one had only talked about a King’s ferry, not a route, not a road… not even a royal road.
So, to make sense of this journey, we need to go back to that moment…
Two years ago, when we first visited the Black Isle and various other points north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, we were standing one afternoon at the ferry point in Nigg, opposite Cromarty.
My attention was taken by a rusty notice board fixed to an industrial fence. Nigg became one of the main maintenance bases in the North Sea Oil boom of the 1970s onwards. There is little left of its former pastoral beauty. This sign was barely visible.
It had been a wonderful day of exploring, and I was busy photographing the late afternoon sun streaming through the darkening white clouds and illuminating the Cromarty Firth.
The last thing I wanted to look at was an old and rusting sign. But the presence of a small ferry here intrigued me. The information board promised some history – they often contain gems of local knowledge not easily found elsewhere, so I always photograph them for later reference in the blogs.
I studied it… Ferries have always been interesting. They are usually linked to the ancient folk-history of a place. Bernie, who is an historian by training, shares this love. When on holiday we’ll often take a local ferry just for the experience.
The notice board stated that the present ferry crossing (currently ten mins, two cars max) had been in place for well over a thousand years. King William (I) had used it to crush a local rebellion in 1179, establishing a castle on the shores of the loch in the process. The lands granted for the support of the castle had included the revenue from the ferry. It is likely that its name “The King’s Ferry” derived from this time.
The information board records that, three hundred years later, between 1488 and 1513, King James IV of Scotland used the ferry many times to visit and pay his devotions at the shrine of Saint Duthac at the nearby town of Tain, located at the neck of the Tarbat peninsula. His devotion to the saint was such that he switched the historic castle income from the ferry to pay for a chaplain in Tain.
It seems that at this point, the route across the Cromarty Firth and on into Ross became known as the ‘King’s Route’ I remember first reading this, and wondering if there might be a deeper meaning. Kings are certainly important, but there is an older and more spiritual meaning, exemplified in such phrases as the biblical ‘King of Kings’. Was this route simply a way taken by a particular king, or was this a reference to a path of devotion resulting in an ‘inner royal state’?
In the next post, we’ll return to the present moment in Tain and find that something linked to the mysterious St Duthac was open… two things, in fact, though one of them – despite being genuine – was an unmarked ruin…
In the film ‘No Country for Old Men’, there’s a famous opening scene at the site of a drugs shoot-out. Everyone’s dead when the local Sheriff and his deputy arrive and start wandering through the bodies as though they were in a Spaghetti Western.
The Deputy stays silent for a long time, then says excitedly, “Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!” Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks askance at his junior and replies, as only Tommy Lee Jones can, “Well, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till a real mess comes along…’
As you can tell, I think the scene is priceless. It somehow ‘enables’ the rest of what is, otherwise, a very dark movie–but brilliantly told.
I seldom revisit it, but sometimes, if I do something stupid enough, I can hear Sheriff Bell’s words in my head…
As I began to recount the story of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekends, I found the episodes were so full of detail that I had slipped over my target 1000-1300 words. When you write often, you can gauge, almost immediately, when you’ve overcooked something – and you are asking an unreasonable degree of reading from those wonderful souls who follow you.
After the third post, I had already written the next two. When I examined them, they were each twice as long as my new target of approximately 1000 words.
So I cut them in half…
That meant I had four posts lined up in the WordPress firing chamber.
Last Thursday, forgetting I’d halved them, I published the post of our triumphant arrival at Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, and missed out the post that should have preceded it.
So, by way of recompense, here it is…
It’s a fine mess, but hopefully, it’ll do till a real mess comes along..
The Shandwick and Nigg Pictish Crosses
I suspect there’s a certain amount of suspicion – quite justified as it turns out – about how smoothly our workshops go. A sense of ‘they couldn’t possibly have fitted all that into one day, for heavens sake…’
But, so far, on the Saturday of this Pictish Trial weekend, we had.
We’d had the pleasure of seeing the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which time had not permitted on the prep visit, the previous year. Now, the amazed look on the faces of the visitors as we arrived at the glass-housed beauty that is the Shadwick Stone said it all…
Clach a’Charrridh (Shandwick stone) means stone of the grave plots, and was named so after the area was used as a burial-ground during the 1832 cholera epidermic. It’s on the Fearn Peninsula, about a mile from the Hilton Cadboll site, and sits on the crest of the ridge, visible from the sea.
The cross slab has stood majestically overlooking the Moray Firth for over 1000 years. Its present site is where it has always been. There is something wonderful about standing there and knowing that.
Here, I met the first problem: the smoked glass. For me, there is a joy in bringing back images that I know will generate interest. But, at Shandwick, every time I took a shot, all I could see was the reflection of me and the landscape in the glass.
(Above: the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas is the location for these famous Pictish stones)
I took myself off to one side to try with the editing tools to see if what I had taken was salvageable. As long as I could live with a little colour distortion they would be fine. I returned to snapping…
The thick glass serves a purpose, and it’s wonderful to see these precious artefacts so well protected. The glass and steel housing is locked. You can go inside, but only by appointment with a key holder. And not in the year of Covid-19.
The landward side of the slab is set out in eight panels. They contain a range of symbols. The top panel once had a finely decorated Pictish double disc on it. The central panel contains a hectic scene of Pictish life, with birds, beasts and human figures.
A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may also be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed above animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes or serpents. The designers 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 Northumbria and Ireland.
This Pictish sculptured stone was carved and erected about 1200 years ago. The stone was presumably quarried from the local cliffs in about 780 A.D. It was moved here using ropes, timber rollers and levers, or possibly a cart. The blocks of pattern were marked out and carved using a hammer and iron chisel.
Such a complicated design using a single motif is unusual. Yet it also occurs as a panel on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and fragments from Tarbat. It is speculated there was a school of sculpture in the area specialising in this style.
(Above: the ‘trinity’ symbol in a Pictish form. The often recurring ‘three as one’ glyph will be familiar to many, and shows the depth of spiritual thought possessed by the Picts)
Our afternoon was passing, fast. Our next stop, the small town of Nigg, is famous for its connection to the North Sea Oil business, which is now diminishing. Back up the hill from the oil terminals is a lovely old church which houses the famous Nigg Stone. It’s run by volunteers, but the website, checked that morning on my phone, said it would be open.
The Nigg Stone is displayed inside Nigg old church in a specially created exhibition area. Admired and studied by scholars from all over the world, its ornamental cross resembles a manuscript page. The fantastic intricacy of the carving, the whorls and spirals, and the heaped up knot of snakes, with tails and tongues endlessly intertwining, is said to be paralleled only in the illuminations of the Great Gospel book of Kells.
Unfortunately, when we got to the door, it was locked…
(Above: Nigg’s ancient and beautiful church… sadly closed)
However…. Sue Vincent is celebrated on the Silent Eye weekends for fearlessly reaching up on tip-toes and sticking her camera lens up against the glass, then pressing away, merrily, to see what she can capture. I thought of her as I jammed my iPhone as close as I dared and took a few exploratory shots. When the results looked interesting, I wiped a tissue on the grass to wet it, cleaned the promising spot on the windows and hit the shutter again.
(Above: the ‘stolen shot’ of the Nigg Stone. It’s long way from perfect, but, given the church was closed, it’s a lot better than nothing… The metal bracket is not vandalism, it was custom-made to fit into an eroded gap in the stone (see below), and also to hold the slab-cross in place in its tiny museum)
(Above: One we took earlier, thankfully! The high quality image of the Nigg Stone at the Tarbat Discovery Centre partly makes up for Nigg Church being closed)
The carvings include a unique illustration of a miracle: the first monks, Paul and Anthony, receiving bread in the desert from a raven sent by God, and David: King and Psalmist saving a sheep from the lion, his harp beside his shoulder.
We had completed our Tarbat Peninsula visits. We dashed down to the shore to show our visitors the dramatic Cromarty Firth, then headed off to the final assignment of the day – Rosemarkie, where one of the most wonderful surprises awaited…
Above: the ferocious Cromarty Firth. Majestic and fearsome. Across this, but not literally (as the ferry wasn’t running!) lies The Black Isle, our final destination for the Saturday, before returning to Inverness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.
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.
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…
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…
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.