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 email@example.com
“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…
Between Rosemarkie and Fortrose, on the shores of the Black Isle, north of Inverness, there is a promontory named Channonry Point. It projects out into the Moray Firth in such a way that the local population of some sixty bottlenose dolphins take delight in swimming in the rapid tidal races just off its rocky shore.
We had just missed them (wrong state of the tide) when I spotted the notice board describing Pale Kenneth…. Suddenly there was something more interesting than the disappointment of missing the bottlenoses.
His name was Coinneach Odhar which means ‘Pale Kenneth’. But the real meaning is ‘sallow’, an older and more historically charged description of a ‘fey’ person. Coinneach Odhar, then, is Kenneth the Sallow.
Kenneth was a 17th century seer from the Hebridean island of Lewis who came to work at Brahan (Bra’an) Castle near Dingwall, about ten miles from where the dolphins swim though the tidal races at Channonary Point.
He is portrayed in a slightly comic fashion on the information board, but, having looked into this, I suspect this carries some cultural sarcasm…
The ‘seer’, literally ‘see-er’ had possession of a ‘second sight’ – whereby the holder could see two worlds at once; the normal and the inner, more supernatural. The second sight was viewed in Scottish history as more of a curse than a blessing.
Local legends say that Kenneth the Sallow’s mother was responsible for his second sight. She was passing through a graveyard one night when the ghost of a Danish princess appeared before her, intent on returning to her grave. Kenneth’s mother demanded that, in return for her free passage, she should pay her a tribute. She asked that her son be given the magical sight. Later that day, Kenneth the Sallow found a small stone with a hole in – through which he would look and see the ‘second world’.
“Ah, take patience with the lad for he has the Sight and it is a terrible affliction.”
Exercising this ability, the man known by then as the Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar saw visions that came unbidden by day or night. His prophesies were viewed as impressive and accurate, and his fame spread… Some of these prophesies are still quoted to this day
The Brahan estate, where Kenneth worked, was the seat of the Seaforth chieftains, from somewhere around 1675. These became powerful families with great authority and wealth.
Some of Kenneth’s prophetic visions that came true in the years following his death include the Battle of Culloden (1745), which he uttered at the site, and his words were recorded. “Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see the day, for it will be a fearful period; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy shall be shown or quarter given on either side.”
Kenneth the Sallow’s other prophesies include:
⁃ The joining of the lochs in the Great Glen. This was accomplished by the construction of the Caledonian Canal in the 19th Century.
⁃ He talked of great black, bridleless horses, belching fire and steam, drawing lines of carriages through the glens. More than 200 years later, railways were built through the Highlands.
⁃ North Sea oil was foretold : “A black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen”
⁃ He even told of the day when Scotland would again have its own parliament. He said this would come when men could walk ‘dry shod’ from England to France. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 was followed by the opening of the first Scottish Parliament since 1707
⁃ He said that “Streams of fire and water would run beneath the streets of Inverness and into every house… Gas and water pipes were laid in the 19th century.
⁃ Pointing to a field far from seashore, loch or river, he said that a ship would anchor there one day. “A village with four churches will get another spire,” said Coinneach, “and a ship will come from the sky and moor at it.” This happened in 1932 when an airship made an emergency landing and was tied up to the spire of the new church.
⁃ “The sheep shall eat the men” During the Highland Clearances, families were driven from the Highlands by the landowners and the land they farmed was given over to the grazing of sheep.
At the height of his fame and powers, Odhar made a fateful prediction which would ultimately cost him his life. Isabella, wife of the Earl of Seaforth, asked for his advice. It appears she wanted assurances of the true nature of her husband’s visit to Paris. Sallow Kenneth reassured her that the Earl was in good health but would not be drawn further.
The enraged Countess Isabella demanded that he tell her everything or she would have him killed. Kenneth said that her husband was with another woman, fairer than herself, and then he foretold the end of the Seaforth line, with the last heir being deaf and dumb…
The truth is written in Scotland’s history.
Francis Humberston Mackenzie, deaf and dumb from scarlet fever as a child, inherited the title in 1783. He had four children who died prematurely.The line, indeed, came to an end.
Countess Isabella was so incensed by this, she had Kenneth the Sallow seized and thrown head-first into a barrel of boiling tar.
But the actual history may have been different, though the legend of Sallow Kenneth is a firm part of Scotlands traditions. There is no record of a Coinneach Odhar ever having existed in the Highlands during the the 17th century.
But there is in the 16th century…
Parliamentary records from 1577 show that two writs were issued for the arrest of a ‘principle enchanter’ known as Coinneach Odhar. He was reputedly a gypsy known to supply poison. His skills were purchased by a Catherine Ross, who sought to remove the rivals to the inheritance she wanted for her sons. It was said she had already paid for the skills of over twenty witches, each of whom had each failed.
The records show that many of the witches were caught and burnt – Scotland had a terrible reputation for witchcraft, something that terrified many of its kings. What happened to Coinneach remains a mystery. If he was caught it is likely that he too would have been burnt, which reflects the later legend that he was killed in a spiked tar barrel.
Was this legend transplanted a hundred years into the future?
But what is the link with the lighthouse and the dolphins at Chanonry Point, near Fortrose, the place where our story began?
There is a stone slab at Chanonry Point that is said to mark the spot where Sallow Kenneth died. The inscription reads: “This stone commemorates the legend of Coinneach Odhar better known as the BRAHAN SEER – Many of his prophesies were fulfilled and tradition holds that his untimely death by burning in tar followed his final prophecy of the doom of the House of Seaforth.”
Were these two different people or the same? Perhaps the 16th century Coinneach was the grandfather of the Brahan Seer?
Whatever the truth, these legends, and the prophesies they bear, are set as stone in Scottish lore. One prophesy carries particular resonance.
An important Pictish stone, the Eagle Stone, stands in Strathpeffer, Ross-shire. The Seer predicted that if the stone fell down three times, then Loch Ussie would flood the valley below so that ships could sail to Strathpeffer.
The stone has fallen down twice: apparently it is now set in concrete, indicating that the legend of Sallow Kenneth continues to hold sway in these parts…
“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…
The plan was to base our inaugural public ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and thus it seemed natural to book a room at the Public House which is situated in the centre of the Stone Circle…
Only, The Red Lion no longer provides B&B so we ended up instead at a hotel some ten miles away in Ogbourne St George.
Now, Ogbourne St George is a curious name and one redolent of both mystery and intrigue, and given our literary proclivities, we thought it might be possible to find something of interest in the village to occupy our Companions for at least one of our allotted slots over the weekend.
We had stayed in Ogbourne… before and had a visual memory of a strange mound-like structure in one of the fields lying adjacent to the hotel and had pinned to it an accompanying mental note which ran, ‘…must have a closer look at some point.’
A little research in the form of flick through the ley-line dowsers’ classic, The Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, confirmed both the visual memory and our hunch that the structure would hold some interest for us.
It was not a prehistoric construction at all but a ‘folly’ built sometime during the Second World War by a local farmer but somewhat amazingly it had, according to our venerable authors, been constructed over a node which marked the crossing of the Michael and Mary currents.
This, it seemed to us, was very curious…
The mound now looked like nothing so much as an overgrown hillock with its spiral causeway, rising twenty feet in height, all but obliterated by trees, bushes, and shrubs and there was a picture of it in the aforementioned tome which approximated with the mental image which had been stored in my mind for future reference all those years ago.
It was in this respect reminiscent of another of the mounds we planned to visit over the weekend.
The now slightly more famous, but equally tree-infested Merlin’s Mound stands in the middle of the private grounds of Marlborough College beset by houses of learning and no doubt deliberately dwarfed by both the sheer bulk and the lofty spires of the College Chapel.
This mound is a prehistoric structure and has recently been given a date of construction commensurate with Silbury.
As we had been unsuccessful in our request to the authorities concerned to climb the mound and as the third of our mounds, the aforementioned and world-famous Silbury Hill is now fenced off and no longer accessible to the public we were hoping that our unobtrusive poor relation in Ogbourne St George would afford our Companions the chance to scale its relatively modest sides and experience the dual currents of the Michael and Mary leys.
In this, though we were destined to be disappointed…
Not to be outdone by the recent discoveries on Orkney, Stonehenge – one of the world’s most famous stone circles – has thrown up a whole new story about its origins… and its original face.
(1100 words, a ten-minute read)
It was the end of the archeology ‘dig season’. Strong winds and heavy rain had blown for weeks across the exposed face of the hillside on the west coast of Wales. Everyone was ready to call it a day and go home – an action that would doom the last attempt by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London to show that there was a much deeper link between this saturated hillside and faraway Stonehenge than anything dreamt of, before…
One of the dig team called out – a large stone had been found, not far beneath the surface. Professor Parker Pearson set off across the mud, holding his breath…holding on to the possibility that it might be a Bluestone, or even better, a ‘socket that had held a known tooth’.
If you’ve visited the famous Stonehenge stone circle in Wiltshire, you may recall that the Neolithic monument, 5,000 years old, actually comprises two rings. The outer circle consists of 15 of the larger Sarsen stones, familiar to us from images of the site. Each of the Sarsen stones average 13 feet in height, and an astonishing 7 feet wide. The average weight is 25 tons, though the largest, the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons. The stones are connected with matching overhead lintels. Recent developments in geochemical techniques have placed the origin of the Sarsen stones at West Woods near Marlborough, 20 miles from the stone circle.
But within the mighty ring of Sarsen stones is a secondary circle of smaller ones – the focus of this post.
Within these, in the centre of both circles was originally a third group of free-standing trilithons, each comprising two vertical Sarsens joined by a lintel. The whole monument is oriented towards the sunrise on the Summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night, and a time of immense cultural importance for the people who constructed the stone circle, 5,000 years ago – using only stone tools.
The two different outer stone circles have long been a puzzle. The types of stone quarried for the Sarsen stones is quite different from that used for the inner circle. The latter has a blue hue and hence their name: Bluestones. Decades ago, geologists located similar stone outcrops in the Preseli Hills (see map) in the far west of Pembrokeshire, the last bit of Wales before the Irish Sea. But that’s a long way from Wiltshire, and the prospect of moving the massive stones 150 miles east begs the question: why on Earth would anyone do that? Wiltshire is not short of its own durable stone…
Professor Parker Pearson had a theory… actually, he had two, but he wasn’t telling many about the second, which was more of a slim possibility. His first theory was that the long-accepted origin of the Bluestones, whilst being the Preseli Hills, wasn’t the hilltop outcrop at Carn Menyn that had first been assumed. Part of his reasoning was that nothing else related to Neolithic ritual and burial activity was to be found nearby – yet Pembrokeshire is famous for such sites.
The professor is a world authority on the prehistory of Britain and Western Europe from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. He is also one of the authorities on the archeology of ‘death and burial’ during this period; a topic that unites and divides in seemingly equal measure. For the whole spring and summer of 2018, his team excavated two sites a few miles from the rejected Carn Menyn. At first, the work went well, with a high chance of success. But, as the season wore on, conflicting evidence suggested that nothing conclusive could be found – much to the dismay of the locals, who were great supporters of the work; and the potential revelations it would bring about the location’s link to the ancient past.
With the dig-season running out, Professor Parker Pearson turned his attention to a nearby boggy field, Waun Mawn, the site of four small monoliths and well known to the locals. But a full excavation, there, had never been carried out. It was the last possibility. Pearson’s exhausted team dug in for days, fighting the wind and rain… then the cry went up… a new and large stone had been found.
The results are astonishing. The original circle at Waun Mawn comprised a full stone circle of between 30 and 50 large stones. The circle is the third largest in the UK, even bigger than Long Meg, in Cumbria. The stones were of a blue hue… and one of them had a socket hole with no stone; and that socket matched one of the stones at Stonehenge, exactly. The socket had found its ‘tooth’ – 160 miles away. All of this had been protected by the Welsh peat for 5000 years.
The full story almost needs a stiff whisky to absorb… The Bluestone circle at Stonehenge was the original circle, transported by the tribe from Preseli who migrated to Wiltshire, taking their most treasured object with them. The massive, outer Sarsen stone circle was added, later, at a time when the makers had perfected their art… but they never abandoned their beloved original circle…. which is still there for us all to see and feel – the inner ring of Stonehenge…
All of this is the subject of an excellent BBC documentary, available for the next ten months on the BBC’s iPlayer service, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.
And there my narrative was due to end, but then, preparing the blog post from last Thursday on the new findings from Orkney, I saw footage of Professor Parker Pearson walking with Neil Oliver at the intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae.
Last week’s blog discussed the findings that Orkney was the place of origin of all the British stone circles, whose journey took them (predominantly) down the west coast of the British Isles… culminating at Stonehenge in what is now Wiltshire, where the last of their Bluestone masterworks was given its new and final home, set within the most magnificent stone circle ever created.
And you have to ask, assuming they survived, what did these remarkable people build next? But that’s for another day… not that I have the answer, mind you. But I’m watching the people who might have, very closely…
Professor Parker Pearson is the co-author of an interim report on the dig at Waun Mawn. The link to the PDF is here.
If you want to follow the Silent Eye’s workshop on the trail of the Picts and Sacred Orkney, here are the other parts of that series:
It’s a chilly, drab kind of morning at present, I wondered what it would bring once the sun came up to show us the day. The question was soon answered. Fog. The kind of heavy mist that lets through no light and paints the familiar landscape ghostly grey. Shrouding the distance in mystery it makes the mind question what it knows as looming giants that stretch grasping fingers towards unwary walkers resolve themselves into trees beside the lane.
My brain was a little on the foggy side too, it seemed. For me the day began, for some unknown reason, by waking to question the origins of the name ‘marzipan’. Strange things often linger when I wake up, so I am not in the slightest surprised… just curious. I like marzipan and I had been looking through my recipes yesterday so no doubt the source of the query lies there…
Marzipan has always seemed an Eastern confection to me, though it has become part of so many traditional treats these days across Europe. Between bedroom and coffee cup, however, I went back to the older English name for the confection… marchpane… and wondered if that refers to the month or the traveller’s gait …and does ‘pane’ come from the French ‘pain’… which would make it March-bread or waybread…
It would work as the latter… nuts, sugar or honey, sometimes eggs or oil…a high energy and protein food. Why March as in the month though? Something to do with Mars? God of war.. soldiers marching…the speculation goes all over the place at this point. But it does seem to suggest that a diet of lembas might not be so bad…
Does it actually matter and is it in any way relevant to the day? No, not a bit, though curiosity set me on an etymological search as my coffee cooled, only to find the origins more complex than I had supposed and rooted in ancient Persia… or Germany… or China… perhaps.
In what way was this a productive use of the time I have to spare in the morning? How did this tie in with the ante meridiem contemplations with which I am supposed to be occupied? I had to wonder myself for a minute, but it was staring me in the face from the start. Even the fog should have given me a clue.
How often have I used that word in varied languages without considering what it really means or where it comes from? And by blithely accepting the word on face value, associating that collection of syllables only with the definition first taught to me as a child… that marzipan is a paste made from almonds and found on Christmas cakes…how much had I missed of its real meaning, origins and possibilities?
By extension, just how much do we miss by accepting our habitual definition of the world and ceasing to explore further, finding out for ourselves what it might mean? Within the Silent Eye, we suggest that the student accept nothing they cannot verify for themselves, either through the objective experience of the outer world or the subjective understanding of the inner. Yet here was just such an example of the habit of blasé acceptance with which we define our reality.
The fog and the marzipan had given me food for thought.