a hebridean diary (5) when power is unchecked

(Above: the beautiful monument at Reef to the displaced people who lived and worked there..)

From the road that curls around the small hills on the way to the beach at Reef, in the Uig district of Bhaltos, it looks like a large cairn. The second time we drove by we saw the noticeboard and stopped to take a closer look.

We climbed up the path to find a beautiful and touching monument on the hilltop, whose design was not visible from below. It was surrounded by views on all sides. Two things strike you, immediately: The isolation of the hill, itself; and the ancient connectedness of the people to this place – suggested by what looks like a giant tau-cross, but is based upon a stone construction method used in Neolithic times.

(Above: Literally ‘In Memory of those who were, by force, displaced…’ reads the central panel. Details are provided in Gaelic and English)
(Above: although the monument’s hill was modest, the views were spectacular)

The curse of constant rain seemed finally behind us. We had become more relaxed and able to take in the beauty of the lochs, as in the view from the monument’s hill, above.

The Highland Clearances are well known as a dark period in Scotland’s history. They were the evictions of a significant number of tenants, many of them small-holding crofters, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, mostly in two phases from 1750 to 1860.

The goal of the rich landlords was to replace humans with sheep, which were more profitable than the small rents charges to the farmers, whose only real assets were their culture, small-scale farming skills and love of the land. The crofters had lives, jobs, songs, families and folklore… and this was the only landscape they’d ever known.

A group of them refused to leave.

The notice board reads:

“To the memory of the men and women who resisted eviction from Reef before being forcibly removed in 1850-51…”

For three years, ending in 1850, 28 Reef families peaceably resisted all attempts by the estate of Sir James Matheson to remove them:

We had no arrears of rent and therefore we refused in a body to do this and stood out against it for three years, when Mr Scobie’s (the factor) term of office expired…”

The ‘factor’ was the man who enforced the land management and the will of the landowner. The following entry shows both the honesty and the naivety of the crofters:

We naturally expected justice from the next factor but, on the contrary, he took up at once the work his predecessor had begun and at last got us forcibly evicted”

(Above: the ‘dispossessed; of Reef)

In 1850, they were dispossessed of their homes and removed from the land of their ancestors. Some were scattered throughout the Isle of Lewis and others sent as far as America.

The following year a further fourteen families were evicted from Bhaltos and Cnip. By the late 19th century, the remaining population of this peninsula, in the district known as “fourteen penny lands” were crowded together in two villages with no access to the land surrounding them, which had been deliberately added to large farms. Those crowded onto the single village included 31 squatter families, who owned nothing.

The resolute resistance continued and, in 1884, HMS Assistance, with a force of up to 100 Marines, arrived in Loch Roag to arrest eight Bhaltos men accused of placing animals on the offshore islands for grazing, not paying rents and ‘deforcing’ Sheriff’s Officers.

The men were sent for trial to Edinburgh and served time in prison. The following year ten men and seven women were fined for separate but similar actions. The women were charged with “mobbing and rioting and breach of the peace” and their fines, 5/- (shillings) each, were paid by the London branch of the Highland Land Law Reform Association, an influential organisation that was fighting for fairer land rights to reflect usage as well as ownership.

In 1891 and again in 1896, the Deer Forest Commission recommended that Reef should be scheduled for re-settlement…but no action was taken.

On 28th November 1913, 15 landless squatters from Bhaltos and nip drove the farmer’s stock fromReef to Timsgarry Farm. Alasdair MacKay, one of the raiders, told the parish Policeman:

“You can have plenty of prisoners now. We’ve waited too long. Reef was promised us long ago and now we have made up our minds to take it, whatever may happen to us.”

Interdicts were issued against them in February 1914 and when these were defied the raiders were cited to appear for trial in Edinburgh where the Court of Session sentenced them to six weeks imprisonment. This gave rise to much indignation throughout Scotland and a campaign led to them leaving prison after two weeks. Most of the raiders went off to fight in the Great War and those who survived came back more determined than ever to claim their own “land fit for heroes.”

In February 1920, 11 of the original raiders wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland:

“We are demobilised soldiers and sailors unemployed since September …. we are compelled to begin Spring work on Reef Farm. If you will send the Commissioners of Small Holdings to us for the purpose of dividing the farm into crofts and putting us in possession as we trust you will, we will delay our operation to the 1st of March. If they are not here by that time we will be under the necessity of beginning work as a means to our livelihood”

Finally, in 1921, the land was restored to crofting tenure. The fact there is a population here today and a future for this community is due to the struggles undertaken by those who secured a just outcome at that time. As so often happens, the right outcome is fragile and often hangs by a thread.

The monument ‘An Suileachan’ was commissioned by the Bhaltos Community Trust and designed by artists Will Maclean and Marian Leven. It was constructed by island craftsmen – the stone circles by John Crawford, the iron brazier by John Macleod and the woodwork by John Angus Macleod.

The An Suileachan memorial is only seen in its full extent when you are on the high level. There is a central path that links two separate areas. At the central point of the path is what we named the ‘Tau gate’. You have to pass through this to see both ‘faces’ of the structure.

(Above: what we called the Tau gate)

At the seaward end is a brazier, a beacon that gives off heat and the light of warning and preparedness.

At the landward end is a circular stone plaque around which are carved the names of all those brave souls who were evicted from Reef by the second ‘Factor’. In one sense, the light and heat of the brazier-beacon highlights and protects them. They did not know that the great wrong done to them was to be corrected by friends and relatives after their deaths – to the great benefit of their community.

Their only weapon was the sense of truth and rightness they felt in their cause. A rightness much like the Biblical story of David and Goliath, where the monstrous apparent power of the giant is overcome by the simple stone of truth…

(Above: the landward end with the marked circular stone)

We can only aspire to such courage. You can tell in the quality of the monument how precious the memory of those brave souls is…

(Above: the glorious coastline is never far away)

Part One: http://suningemini.blog/2022/05/24/a-poolewe-diary-1/

Part Two, http://suningemini.blog/2022/05/31/a-poolewe-diary-2/

Part Three, http://suningemini.blog/2022/06/06/a-poolewe-diary-3-the-loch-on-the-back-of-the-oats-box/

Part Four, http://suningemini.blog/2022/06/14/a-poolewe-diary-4-once-upon-a-time-in-the-far-north-west/

Part Five: http://suningemini.blog/2022/06/21/a-poolewe-diary-5-over-the-minch-to-lewis/

Continuation onto the Hebridean Island of Lewis:

A Hebridean Diary: Part One – Impressions of Lewis

A Hebridean Diary: Part Two – Long Road to Uig

A Hebridean Diary: Part Three – Of Coats and Kings

A Hebridean Diary: Part Four – The Drowned Lands

This is: A Hebridean Diary (5) When power is unchecked


©Stephen Tanham 2022

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

Orderly and aligned

(Image by author)

There’s an old aphorism in the field of teaching mysticism: that if you endeavour to do something of significance; something that requires careful planning and even more careful resourcing, then you will be surprised how ‘testing’ the ‘final approach to the event will be. Moreover, the difficulties thrown at one may- humorously – be taken as a reflection of the event’s importance.

(Above: Castlerigg Stone Circle in its magnificent north-Lakes setting)

The word’s ‘final approach’ are borrowed from the art of flying a plane. As a much younger man, I did have ‘private pilot’ flying lessons; about fourteen hours of them in total, nearly enough to do my first solo flight – a big moment in a trainee pilot’s life… Sadly, we set up a software company at that point, and I didn’t have the time to dedicate to anything other than commercial survival…

I remember those days of flight-training, well. I learned a lot about how focussed pilots have to be in those last few minutes – then seconds – before the wheels hit the ground, hopefully together and in an orderly and aligned way. My instructor had a great sense of humour and those words of his stuck in my memory.

The same is exactly true of running a mystical workshop – any workshop, in fact, that requires acres of planning and ‘what if?’ testing.

(Above: the town of Keswick, seen from the shores of Derwent Water)

In theory, the Silent Eye’s ‘Journey of the Hero’ workshop, centred around the beautiful town of Keswick in the northern part of the English Lake District, was ready to roll about a week, ago. All the proposed walks – along lakes, rivers, ridges and mountains, had already been rehearsed and timed. The written material for our opening and closing ceremonies at the wonderful stone circle of Castlerigg had been examined and fine-tuned.

The only thing that remained was for me to design a new language…

(Above: the shores of Derwent Water)

J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of ancient languages, and once designed the whole Elvish language so that the books comprising the Lord of the Ring trilogy would be founded in an actual spoken tongue. My admiration for this knows no bounds, especially since I’ve spent the last several weeks attempting to create an infinitely simpler language of ‘gesture’ so that we can carry out part of the workshop in complete silence…

It’s part of a series of ‘triggers’ that, with the right sense of place can induce the ordinary rational mind to have a rest and let the whole of our being come out to play. For hundreds of years we have lived too much in one side of our minds, and much damage is being done by this. The high goal of the Journey of the Hero weekend is, in some small part, to extend this.

(Above: the man and his amazing digger)

And then the Fates began to have their sport…

On Sunday, Simon – a local contractor who has done wonderful things with a small digger to remodel what was once an old canal and now actually looks like a garden – called by in his pick-up truck to tell us that he was ready to start work on our new fence… the day after. The old fence having been storm-damaged some time ago. I swallowed hard. Part of the deal with Simon is that, when needed, I act as his labourer. It’s not exploitation; it’s just that he’s a one-man-band and wants to stay that way. It’s not even a money thing, it’s simply a question of time. He’s very good at what he does and works on the projects he likes and with the people he gets on with. The issue is that he’s always short of time to finish each project, and deeply appreciates my help fetching and carrying things and materials (like truckloads of earth) to his point of focus in the garden. We had waited three months to get him back, and the spring was in full riot… I had little choice…

(Above: Lakeland’s weather can change in an instant)

In the middle of his first day, with me a dirty and sweaty bundle, the phone rang, again. This time it was the company from whom we have just ordered two exterior doors to replace the low-budget ones we had to settle for when the ‘building fund’ ran out, ten years ago. This company came highly recommended and we were eagerly awaiting their arrival… just not this week. We said yes, of course, knowing that it was going to detract from the available time to ‘write that language’.

Fast forward to this morning, when, after the third 05:30 start in as many days, we were driving through a violent downpour on the M6 south, enroute to our annual checkup at our old dentists near Chorley. We liked the team there so much, we elected to stay on their books and put up with the hour’s travel when needed. I’d already allowed for this interruption to the week’s plan, but not in concert with the other two… My ‘light aircraft’ was fast becoming, in the immortal words of Johnny Depp in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, ‘full of ‘oles’. I was beginning to lose my presence of mind.

(Above: who knows… we might even have time for an evening sail on the lake)

And then, on the outskirts of our destination, the mobile rang in the car. It was the receptionist from the dentist… frantic. She’d just arrived in, to find a phone message from her boss (the dental surgeon) to report that he’d been up most of the night with food poisoning – possible Norovirus. She knew we had driven down from Kendal through torrential rain… for nothing.

It was then that the magic happened. My wife and I looked at each other and burst out laughing; assuring the lady that it was okay; just another link in the testing chain of the week and something that could be re-arranged.

So here I am… typing away, having lost three days of my ‘finals’ week and hoping my remaining energy reserves will pull off a small miracle and deliver that ‘language of gesture’ before we leave for Castlerigg on Friday.

It’s not the first ‘final approach’ to an event that has been bumpy like this. Hitherto, they have gone well. I think I can see that small strip of safe landing space in the far distance. It’s starting to look orderly and aligned… I just hope my wheels are, too. Wish us luck!

©Stephen Tanham 2022

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

Lakeland in Winter (1) Bowness-on-Windermere

I thought you might like a walk through Bowness-on-Windermere. It’s the place that most people think of as ‘Windermere’, but the actual town of Windermere is a 45 min walk up the hill from the lake: the final station on the rail line from Kendal, and as close as the Victorian engineers could get to the lake from the surrounding hills.

Holidaymakers arrive in droves from Easter onwards, so it’s nice for us ‘locals’ to make the most of the Winter quietness. We’re driving to the outskirts of Bowness so that our stroll into the town can incorporate a dog walk and ‘frisbee chuck’ on the hilly pitch-and-put course that wends its way to the ferry point.

We were expecting it to rain the whole day – as it has for the previous two; but the skies are brightening. My trusty iPhone 12 is in hand and I’ll be making this a very visual walk, so you can ‘feel’ the atmosphere of this beautiful place.

After much barking and running – and that’s just me – we cross to the other side of the pitch-and-put course and arrive at the far hillock that overlooks the town of Bowness-on-Windermere (Bowness) and its busy ferry point.

The local council allows dogs on the mini-golf course, which is deeply appreciated. Being a former (but not very good) golfer, I stay off the greens of course!

It’s at this point that we realise that it’s a lot busier down there than it should be on a winter Monday… We share this view with a passing fellow dog-owner who laughs, and reminds us it is both half-term and Valentine’s Day. We remember exchanging cards, and tea in bed, but the school holidays have somehow eluded our radar…

Crestfallen, we descend towards the crowded ferry wharf…and don our Covid masks…

As we near the bottom of the hill, a graceful shape slides through the trees. One of the large passenger ferries is about to dock. You’d think it was summer…

You can take ferries along the whole ten miles of Lake Windermere; from Lakeside, in the south; via Bowness; and on to the northern tip near Ambleside, whose ferry point is Waterhead.

The boat – now seen to be the M.V. Swan – the largest of the passenger boats on the lake – beats us to the dock as we watch its graceful entrance to Bowness. There’s something deeply moving about seeing a large craft like this dock, elegantly.

Ahead of us, the Swan dominates the space, its sheer, white presence lighting up the winter water.

Bernie notices a panel on the side of the ticket office which shows the height of the terrible floods caused by Storm Desmond in 2015. She has me pose with extended elbow to show the water level at the time… The ferry harbour was closed for weeks.

The picture below shows the same place after the floods … Devastating.

It’s time Tess had a drink of water, and we’re due a coffee, so we head along the shore and into the town. We’re about to turn off the road into a Costa Coffee shop (with outside seating for dog owners – we know how to live!) when I notice that the intensity of the ‘holiday’ traffic on this main road has diminished…to nothing.

I turn to view a road empty of traffic and there’s one of the largest articulated lorries I’ve ever seen. It’s slowly climbing up from the ferry point, flanked by an escort car that is racing ahead to halt and disperse all other vehicles.

Tess has been in the adjacent ‘coffee garden’ many times. Terrified of the behemoth roaring up the gradient, she drags me towards the gate…

I manage to grab a final shot of the monster as it rages past, then turn to console the Collie… Large coffees, we think… are they licensed? She nods… we’re a complete synthesis of human and dog. Inseparable.

And that’s about it, really. We amble around the shops, loving Bowness’ artisan back streets and alleyways…

There are even some period arcades, their original woodwork intact…

I always look for some humour on these occasions; something to end the piece with a smile… Here’s today’s offering. The new owner of a shop that’s been there ‘forever’ has repurposed its space.

I’ve expanded their wonderful (and I’m sure tongue-in-cheek) tag line in the image below…

Next time you need that unique sterling silver statement jewellery with repurposed attitude, you know it’s time you visited Bowness-on-Windermere… love it!

It’s never dull in Bowness. Come and join us…

©Stephen Tanham 2022

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

a lighthouse of man

(Above: the lighthouse at Maughold Head)

We have friends who live on the Isle of Man, a once-Viking stronghold which lies in the Irish Sea between England and Northern Ireland. Once or twice a year we exchange visits. I’ve always been fascinated by the presence and the symbolic importance of lighthouses, and this trip offered the opportunity to discover a new one, in a wild and wonderful setting.

(Above: the north-east corner of the Isle of Man. Our walk took in the right-most headland, as far as Mooar Bay and then back to the edge of Ramsey, as above. Image by Apple Maps)
Above: details of the Maughold coast, Isle of Man. Image: Apple Maps

Our friends live close to the sea in the area just east of Ramsey. Mark is a keen walker and has explored most of the local paths. We had a morning to spare while the ladies visited the town. Mark proposed a walk to Mooar Bay whose return leg would take in the Maughold Head Lighthouse.

(Above: the view of the Maughold Coast from the edge of Ramsey)

To me, a lighthouse is more than just its physical presence. These are quite ‘ancient’ monuments to mankind’s ingenuity and our desire to protect and guide those brave enough to sail on the unpredictable sea. I find in that a parallel to the mystical path, and those who have gone ahead to explore what appears to be a mysterious world where solid land gives way to the more shifting realms of our shared sea of underlying consciousness…

(Above: Mooar Bay – all to ourselves)

November is an enjoyable time to visit the island. The TT Motorcycle races are in the summer, when, for two weeks, the place is packed with tourists. In contrast, the pre-Christmas months are quiet, and you can often have an entire cove to yourself, as we did when we reached the farthest outward point at Mooar Bay: photos above and below.

(Above: Mooar Bay, pronounced ‘more’)

Until Mooar Bay, we had been following the county lanes. Now, it was time to leave the security of the paved tracks and pick our way across the rocky shores and onto the coastal path – which rises steeply towards the distant Maughold headland and its lighthouse. The gentle walk soon became a lung-stretching climb, as we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse.

(Above: the rocky coastal path and the first sight of the Maughold Point Lighthouse)

A lighthouse is a fixed object, yet it guides those who are travelling. Its light rotates – each one a unique number of seconds to complete a rotation. This warns the mariner to avoid the deadly rocks, but also shows them where they are, with reference to their nautical charts. A sighting of two such ‘blinking’ lights leads to a process of triangulation, whereby a ship can locate its precise position. Take two of these over an interval and you have a line of travel – the course you are on.

In the days before satellite-based location systems, this (and the stars, if you can see them) were all the sea traveller had to locate themselves, often in perilous and stormy conditions. After that, survival was down to good maps and even better seamanship.

(Above: the sign warned us that we were approaching ‘rough walking’ along the Brooghs (pronounced ‘brews’). This is a local name for the bumpy landscape of the high path across this coast. I can confirm that parts of the Brooghs are demanding territory, but nothing that can’t be tackled if you have good boots on)
(Above: leaving behind the gentle landscape of Mooar Bay, we climbed towards the lighthouse)

It’s interesting and symbolic that the lighthouse helps mariners to locate themselves. We can compare this with the great works of spiritual writers whose power of description of the progressive experiences on the inner sea enables us to locate where we are in that great quest to arrive at an inner ‘us’. Guided by these lights, we leave behind the ordinary life of ‘the world and me’ and begin to take a different voyage – one where the shifting sea is very much a friend.

The climb was arduous, but, soon the lighthouse was not only ahead of us, but below… We stood in silence for a while. No words were necessary to augment the enduring edifice.

(Above: the lighthouse at Maughold Head. This is as close as you can approach. Those are dangerous cliffs! But what a feat of engineering and intent…

Beyond the lighthouse, the path continues to climb, until a new view is revealed. To our left and further south arose the spine of the North Barrule range of mountains, second only in height to the famous Snafell – the highest point on island, and one of the most fascinating challenges of the TT races, as the bikes climb the mountain switchbacks at over 150 mph.

Extending my lighthouse analogy, the darting and nimble motorbikes could be likened to our thoughts: useful in the moment, but unable to give us a secure path without the deeper aid of the road. The well-travelled road becomes our personality; but its routes are not the only way from A to B. Looked at from an ‘aerial’ view, we might come to some startling conclusions.

(Above: North Barrule, one of two mountain ranges that form the spine of the island)

There was one more uphill section before we reached the highest point on the coastal path. From there we could see several miles along the coast to the sunlit buildings on Ramsey’s seafront.

(Above: the first sighting of Ramsay, still several miles away)

It was at this point that Mark said that we were headed for what is known locally as the ‘Bus Shelter’. The reference being to a concrete building dominating the headland at the path’s highest point. The building was built and gifted to the walking community by the original owners of this section of the Brooghs at the same time as the land was gifted to the Manx National Trust.

(Above: the ‘Bus Shelter’ – the bus service is not good)
(Above: The ‘Bus Shelter’ has two rooms, one facing the sea, the other, inland. In the seaward one we found this memorial board)

The inscription is not clear, due to decades of weathering. It reads:

‘Part of these Brooghs were presented the Manx National Trust by Mrs E.M. Halahan and family in memory of Mrs A.E. Groves of the Varrey, Maughold.’

From here, the path is much easier, gently winding up and down so that height is maintained. Ramsey is a busy working port, and several ships were moored off the coast, awaiting clearance to enter and dock.

Finally, the path turned back inland, and we knew we were descending and returning to the road on which we had begun, two hours prior. But the adventure was not over…

(Above: there’s a beach down there, beneath the waves; and you can walk it all the way into Ramsey… at low tide, of course)

There are many grand houses, here, and several directly overlook the sea. But the ancient paths and tracks that have direct access to the beaches and sea have been maintained. You can walk down what looks like someone’s drive and find yourself overlooking the beach – with stone steps down. When I took the photos, it was high tide; the beach was under several metres of water, but it’s there and accessible whenever the tide permits.

A popular pastime is to walk, a low tide, into Ramsey, which has an excellent social life. There are no worries about having a drink or two, and you can get the bus or the famous tourist tram home. The local stop is just up the road…

Soon, we were back home, with an hour to relax before setting off for a well-deserved Manx kipper lunch at the fishing port of Peel…. But that’s for another day.

Mind you, there’s a lighthouse in Peel, too…

(Above: the pleasant fishing port of Peel, on the west coast. The place where our Manx Kipper lunch awaited…)

©Stephen Tanham 2021

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

Season Changing: Levens Park

We had just begun our evening walk, the collie and I. We were going to visit ‘the oak’, and say our goodbyes to its ‘fullness’; its summer glory, as we knew that one or two of the leaves would be turning.

There’s always one walk, one outing, where you realise that the season is giving you the most it can; is conveying to you the ‘harvest’ of that time. Usually, you don’t realise until you set off – like so many things in life… You have to be in the river to truly appreciate the river. The constant change of ‘the flow’ is the essence of what it is to be a river. I’m thinking metaphorically, of course…

There would be a real river, later, but I didn’t realise it at the time. We had come to touch and say farewell to the special oak as it began its turning into autumn. In winter, this tree becomes a stark skeleton, devoid of other features. I often walk past and talk to it, telling it the spring will not be long; though it knows these things far better than I do. It’s far more in-volved than I am in the procession of the seasons.

Something made me carry on, after the special oak, and soon, we found ourselves leaving the line of the old canal, where it sits, oddly high – a line on the hillside from the 1820s, just a filled-in part of the field. Only the purposeless stone bridge – No. 178, they are all numbered – showing where it was. In parts the basin of the canal survives, as here, but you have to be several miles south to find any remaining water in it.

The early evening was so pleasant, I carried on walking, reaching the gate that leads to the road that crosses this pleasant landscape in stark contrast. The A590 is the main feeder road from the M6 motorway. It’s the place where you see the most smiles on the faces of the arriving families; as they realise their long drive is almost over. Windermere is only another 30 minutes away.

(Above: the A590, the main route from the M6 into the heart of the Lake Distict

My options were narrowing. I could follow the minor road and loop back, taking in mainly agricultural land, or I could head for the raised gate, above, and enter Levens Park – ancestral home of the Bagot family. The footpaths through Levens park are open to the public, though dogs must be on a lead.

(Above: Levens Park, showing the footpaths and the course of the River Kent)

Levens Park marks the final course of the River Kent before it flows out into the northern end of Morecambe Bay. It’s not a vast estate, and you can walk around it in an hour. My main interest was to give Tess a good walk and take photographs in the golden light.

(Above: stone cottages of typical Lakeland design mark the northern entrance to the park)

Once you’re into the park, the wide path stretches out into the distance, in a perfect straight line; though it eventually curves to follow the River Kent. At this point, the landscape falls off to the right, leading to the water, though the actual river cannot be seen from this angle. That awaited us, and I was looking forward to a few good shots of the evening light on the water.

(Above: the wide path, lined with trees, runs the length of the park, and begins with a long, straight section. Later, it curves right, following the curve of the River Kent)

Wildlife is abundant in Levens, with the famous Bagot Goats roaming free, as well as Muntjac Deer. Sadly, none of them were visible, so I’ve included a photo from last year, below. The goats are very tame and not bothered by passing visitors. Not so the deer…

(Above: the celebrated Bagot Goats)
(Above: first view of the River Kent, far below)

For another fifteen minutes, we walked the straight path. Suddenly, there was a flash of gold from the right, coming from the main part of the the river: a perfect twinning of sun and reflection bounced back through the dense trees – a beautiful moment.

Many of the park’s trees are oaks. I stopped to pick up a branch that had fallen from one of them. It was a microcosm of the season’s change. There, before me, were all the colours of Autumn. A poignant image…

There is a strong identification between the English ‘soul’ and the oak. Mythically, the two have been linked throughout history.

From here, the vista of the River Kent opens in an a wide turn towards the final bridge and the sea. The sun sets to the right and makes evening shots ‘foggy’ – but good enough to give a feel of the place at this lovely time of year.

Eventually, the lines of tall and ancient trees ends, revealing the River Kent in its splendour.

(Above: one of the many ancient trees that sit like tall columns along the raised bank of the Kent)
(Above: the wide expanse of the River Kent’s valley)
(Above: the old steps taken you up to the road, from which you cross over the bridge, before descending, on the other side of the river, back to the lower ground of the park)

The road here is the historic A6, once the main north-west ‘trunk-road’ to Scotland. The entrance, above, is to Leven’s Hall, with its amazing topiary gardens, modelled on the original Elizabethan style; one of the few such in Britain.

(Above: from the Leven’s Hall website)
(Above: crossing the river bridge, next to the A6 main road, you get a great view back up the river valley)

Once on the opposite bank, the landscape changes, and most of the walk back is away from the river. We made one final stop at the place where dogs are allowed free to drink and play.

(At this point, Tess makes a bee-line for the water. To drink, and, often, to play)

On the return leg, the focus was very much on the sky. The sun was beginning to set and pastels of pink and blue were everywhere.

(Later, I processed one of these shots in Snapseed to exaggerate the colour)

At the end of the park, we crossed over some farmland and down to the river, again, but this time the route takes you – dramatically – beneath the carriageway of the A590 (actually now the A591). Two very different aspects of the same road!

(Above: over, then under. Our journey ends by crossing beneath the massive A591 and back into the village of Sedgwick)

And then it’s a short climb back into the village of Sedgwick and home.

(Above: climbing the lane into Sedgwick, and home)

©Stephen Tanham 2021

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

Two journeys, one destination (9) – Dunrobin Castle

The beautiful vision of the ‘fairytale’ Dunrobin Castle, seen here from across the bay during our visit to Portmahomack, had tantalised us with the reported splendour of its architecture and gardens. Now, we had arrived at the gateway of its estate.

(1800 words, a twelve minute read)

(Above: Dunrobin Castle through a long lens…)

Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands, having nearly two hundred rooms. It has been home to the Earls, and later, the Dukes of Sutherland since the late medieval age. It lies just north of the beautiful coastal town of Dornoch, on Scotland’s far northeastern coast. It is said that, in terms of Scotland’s history, Dunrobin is ‘about as connected as you can get‘.

Leaving the Inverness region behind, we were finally on our way to Orkney to begin the second part of the trip: Ancient Orkney, but not without stopping to see this masterpiece about which we had heard so much. It wasn’t entirely a diversion from the Pictish Trail, the castle actually marks its most northerly point.

Dunrobin has its own museum, which houses one of the best collections of Pictish stones on the whole coast. The clarity of the markings on these stones is said to be unsurpassed, so we were excited to be coming face to face with some of the best examples anywhere in the world.

(Above: the Pictish stones of Dunrobin’s museum. Sourced from Undiscovered Scotland’s website )

The original building at Dunrobin had been a much simpler square-section fort. The family wished to create a house in the Scottish Baronial style, which had become popular among the aristocracy, who were inspired by Queen Victoria’s new residence at Balmoral. From 1835 onwards, two leading architects were commissioned (at different times) to work on the re-design of the castle: Sir Charles Barry, who was responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London; and Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Their work speaks for itself, and, though the subsequent image of Scotland’s highland culture was largely manufactured during Victoria’s reign–to the delight of the monarch–the beauty of Dunrobin speaks for itself.

The towering conical spires stand out on the horizon, as we had seen from the Tarbat Peninsula across the waters. Now, we were approaching them from the rear of that view, down the long drive which forms a rustic entrance for visitors.

There is no town of Dunrobin. The castle is located near to the attractive village of Golspie, on the main A9 route to the northern tip of Scotland. We had tickets for the evening ferry from that coast to Orkney’s main port of Stromness, so we couldn’t afford to be late. No-one in the party had driven that far north before, but we knew the final fifty miles of the journey involved steep winding roads that hugged the rugged coast and took longer than a glance at the map might suggest. It was sobering to think that we were now on the same latitude as southern Norway…

(Above: our run of good weather had ended. From here to Orkney we were to be rained upon, in true Scottish fashion!)

Ahead of us was the entrance to the castle. We donned our Covid masks and signed into our time-slot. We had exactly one hour to take in as much as we could. Sadly, this would be aided by the closure of the museum, as there were not enough staff available to keep it open during the current period of the virus. Our borrowed photographs (above) would have to suffice. No, matter; Orkney was to provide a rich harvest of archeological treasures of the people who, in their movement south, became the Picts.

(Above: the staircase up from the entrance room does not disappoint – nor does the rest of the castle)

Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The Earldom of Sutherland is one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland, and the Sutherlands were one of the most powerful families in Britain with many important matrimonial and territorial alliances.

(Above: Dunrobin is, inevitably, a historical celebration of hunting; something I have little time for if it is done as a ‘sport’. However, taken in the context of history, it is an important element of life on the Sutherland estate)

The Earldom of Sutherland was created in 1235 and a castle appears to have stood on this site since then, possibly on the site of an early medieval fort. The name Dun Robin means Robin’s Hill or Fort in Gaelic, and may have come from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427.

To do justice to the sumptuous interior of Dunrobin would take several dedicated posts. To make this review shorter, I have restricted my reporting to a few of the rooms, leaving room for what is beyond them on the seaward side!

(Above: the beautiful library, ornamented by the ‘rugs’ on the floor, but true to the aristocratic history of its time. The guide did point this out, cautiously, so there is a consciousness of modern sensibilities within the team at Dunrobin)

The Library is a classic example of the interior of Dunrobin Castle. It was converted from a principal bedroom by Sir Robert Lorimer, The entire room is lined with sycamore wood. The Library’s focal point is the portrait by Philip de Laszlo of Duchess Eileen. Born Lady Eileen Butler, elder daughter of the Earl of Lanesborough, she married the 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1912. The Duchess, who was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, died in 1943. The romantic story is a classic example of the complex bloodline of those who have lived here.

(Above: The music room. Still in use for small concerts, it also houses a collection of fine paintings, including the portrait of a Venetian Procurator by Tintoretto)

The earlier castle’s keep was encased by a series of additions from the 16th century onwards. In 1785 a large extension was constructed. Remarkably this early keep still survives, much altered, within the complex of the later work, making Dunrobin one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland.

(Above: the dining room is the foremost example of a major Victorian public room. It is laid out for dinner in exactly the same way it would have been in 1850. It contains an extensive collection of family portraits)

I took many more photographs, but space will only allow so many. But there’s another reason to be economic with the interior’s real-estate here: the magnificent gardens… even in the drizzling, cold rain that was now a continuous backdrop to our exploring.

My wife, Bernie, was with us on this trip. She is a trained horticulturalist and had dearly wanted us to visit Dunrobin, if only to see the world-renowned gardens. Even the rain didn’t dim the splendour.

(Above: it’s quite shocking… you turn a corner of the balcony terrace and suddenly, as the castle’s ground base drops away, there’s this!)

The gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the Victorian extension to the Castle. One look from above shows that inspiration came from the Palace of Versailles near Paris, and they have changed little in the 150 years since they were planted, although new plants are constantly being introduced. Despite its northerly location, the sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including, at the foot of the steps leading to the garden, a huge clump of Gunnera manicata, a native rhubarb of South America that has eight foot leaves.

The gardens provide the cut flowers for the displays throughout the Castle. A visit to Dunrobin’s garden is an excellent education in the design of a formal Victorian garden.

Sir Charles Barry was a man of many talents, and had previously designed a large Italianate garden for the 2nd Duke of Staffordshire’s estate at Trentham, in Staffordshire. Dunrobin’s gardens have changed little from Barry’s design of 150 years ago, although new plants are constantly tested, then introduced if hardy enough.

(Above: a few more steps and it broaden to this full view of the parterre landscape below)

Make your way down the stone steps and there emerges a jewel of a garden, full of colour, interest and unexpected features. From below the towering castle provides a splendid backdrop.

(Above: one of the parterres in all its glory…)

The design is much as Barry left it but there have been recent exciting refurbishments to the planting and ornamentation. This includes avenues of Tuscan laurel and Whitebeam and the construction of wooden pyramid features. The old method of tree culture – pleaching – has been re-introduced.

Despite Dunrobin being so far north, the Gulf Stream of warm sea water that flows from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic brings sub-tropical conditions to the UK’s western gardens, from the Isles of Scilly to the North West Highlands, from where it goes on to sweep round Cape Wrath and John O’Groats before making its final landing at Dunrobin. The sheltered and warmed gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants.

(Above: and throughout this, you can look back at the castle and be constantly delighted by the thousand different views)

(Above: that’s Bernie, sheltering under the terrace in the distance. unaware of the cameraman at the end of the avenue, she was actually texting to tell me that our hour was up…)

Knowing we had a long drive ahead, we decided to risk a short visit to the cafe in the castle before setting off. A cup of tea and a piece of cake seemed in order – we’d not had time for lunch, and were due for dinner in the quayside hotel in Stromness, “If the boat was on time,” they’d said, ominously!

We were glad we did, because the cafe is built in what was the estate’s private fire station, and the photographs are some of the best of the trip…

A brief twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, bound for the port of Scrabster and the Islands of Orkney beyond… The Pictish Trail was over. Everyone had loved it. Now, tired but happy, we were on our way to a much more ancient land with an entirely different ‘feel’.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

Part Eight, This is Part Nine.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

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

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

Two journeys, one destination (8) – the thousand year fingers

Despite the world of the Picts being so far away in time, there was one man who reached back and ‘touched’ their minds with a language they shared… Art.

(1300 words, a ten-minutes read)

(Above: George Bain)

He looked, once again, at the beautiful rendering of belief and life and…. everything. Once more, he was swept away by a sense of identity with what he saw–what he felt. He knew he understood how they had created it… and he felt a connection to why they had created it.

He was determined to do it his way… and ‘his way’ was art. He picked up his stump of a pencil and let his fingers approach the circle he had drawn earlier on the graph paper. Across the internal horizon of the figure were seven dots. He hovered his pencil tip over the sixth, wondering how well he could render the curve needed. He’d had plenty of practice. He was, after all, a successful artist.

He was so wrapped up in this that his pipe rotated in his mouth – through lack of firmness of his jaw muscles. He smiled, as though sharing a joke with them…

“Not helpful,” he muttered, reflecting how much easier it was to speak with the pipe the right way up. “But I’m glad you’re here, all the same…”

(Above: gently and with precision, George Bain drew the first of his recreations of Pictish art.. The journey had begun)

(Above: George Bain worked entirely by hand, and was seldom without his pipe and his trusty ruler)

George Bain was born in Scrabster, Thurso’s port in Caithness, in 1881. Throughout his life – he travelled and worked in many places – he always stressed that he was a ‘Caithness man.’

Having journeyed up that beautiful coast on our way to Orkney – ironically via the ferry at Scrabster – I can understand why.

George Bain’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was nine. There, he studied at Edinburgh School of Applied Art, then Edinburgh College of Art. In 1902 he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he supported himself by working as a freelance newspaper artist and a magazine illustrator.

After serving in the First World War as a Royal Engineer, he taught art at Kirkcaldy High School, and remained there as Principal Teacher of Art until he retired in 1946. As a watercolour artist, he is best known for his landscapes. He painted his native Scotland, Greece and the Balkans, and held successful international exhibitions in Paris and London.

If he was restless, it was because he had a deeper fascination which was harder to fulfil – penetrating the art of the Picts, which, at that time, was not well known and even less understood.

(Above: this reproduction of a small roundel, created by George Bain, was based on an original Insular piece only 1.5 inches across)

I have remarked before in this series of posts that when I saw a Pictish design up close for the first time, I felt just as I had when I first encountered Egyptian art. It’s an emotional experience and reminds you that there is a real power there. Art has has an ability – like symbols – to convey something deeper than the surface shape. In a sense it still ‘speaks’ – even after a thousand years. We may not comprehend it, but we can share it…

Beyond his watercolours, George Bain made it his life’s work to understand how the Picts had created their decorative art: to unravel its geometric principles and the actual techniques used to create their complex patterns. There was nothing primitive about the Picts’ designs, and by inference, their social and spiritual beliefs.

(Above: George Bains’ drawings of the evolution of the Pictish three-coil spiral)

The Picts’ work survives only in stone, but (as we have covered in previous posts) the monastic ‘Celtic’ world was closely connected across Scotland, Ireland (‘Insular’ art), Cornwall and Brittany, and there were many related examples of jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. The Celtic worlds comprised the Western fringes of the old world.

We were to see how influential that old world was when we reached Orkney…

George Bain unravelled the mathematical frameworks for constructing Celtic art. He ‘decoded’ and reproduced hundreds of examples. It enabled those who read his books to not only understand the art of their forebears, but also to have a go at creating examples of their own. In this he was unique, and it earned him a special place in Scotland’s history – and a place in the hearts of those artists and lay-folk who longed to understand the principles on which Pictish art – and Celtic art in general – was based.

(Above: an example of George Bain’s detailed work. This is the opening page of the Book of Kells’ section on St John’s Gospel, reproduced by the artist, with illustrative notes as to how it was created)

The act of producing authentic designs based upon an historical model requires a deeply focussed mind and a set of refined draughting skills. George Bain produced his classic work Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951. Initially, the work did not receive a lot of attention, but when it was re-issued in 1971 it caught the enthusiasm for Celtic revival prevalent among young people at that time, and the book has been in print ever since. Creative people of all walks of life were receptive to ‘having a go’ and Bain’s scholarly yet accessible methods became necessary reading to anyone who wanted experiential knowledge of a ‘drawn form’ that had fascinated the world for a century or more.

Our brief time in the company of this man’s works had not been wasted. We all wished that it could have been longer, but the Covid restrictions were in force and we understood the need to honour our departure time.

But we now had a feel, if not the details, of how expertly and geometrically the Picts had wrought their works, Knowing them through George Bain’s efforts, we each would have liked to pick up a pencil and play at Pictish art… exactly as he would have wished.

(Above: More of George Bain’s hand-drawn expositions from classic Celtic books)

By all accounts, he was not an easy man to get along with, but he was devoted to his teaching work. His mistrust of academics might have been the scarring of years of dismissal by those who felt that a ‘mere artist’ had little to add to the study of ancient history. How wrong they would have been!

George Bain died in 1968, age 87. He had, and has, a large following. His writings opened up the intricacies of an ancient civilisation to a wider public, encouraging exploration of, amongst others, The Book of Kells, Celtic Knotwork, the Pictish Stones, themselves, and the Book of Durrow. One of the main reasons for Bain’s success was his practical encouragement for fellow artists to use Celtic principles in their craftwork.

The lasting memory I took away from Groam House Museum, which houses the George Bain exhibit, was the memorial he designed for the grave of his wife, Jessie Mackintosh – the image above. Theirs was a deep love and they were inseparable. He was devastated when she died, tragically and prematurely, in 1957. In the memorial, he represented himself in Celtic style, and the entire work was created according to the principles he had learned in his Pictish studies.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

This is Part Eight.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

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

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

Interlude: Looking Back…

The mere idea of “saving the ‘best’ till last” was feeling all too prophetic. Especially as ‘best’ is debatable anyway.’ Most iconic, perhaps, best known worldwide, most unusual… but just ‘best’ is  too subjective. From the magic of mountain-girt Castlerigg, to the intimacy of Barbrook, where ancestral voices still whisper, each circle has its own feel and character. Perhaps Stonehenge is the Westminster Abbey of stone circles… but it is in the quiet chapels of the tiny parish churches where the prayers of centuries are most often felt.

Where we ought to have been recently, on the Orkney Islands, we might have touched something similar, something older, for there are theories that the Megalithic culture spread from those isles… or perhaps they too were just another stepping stone back towards an even more ancient vision.

But we were here and now. It had been a long day. I had already driven for hours and would have hours more to drive before we were home. I was ill, struggling and, had we had any sense whatsoever, we would not have even considered such a trip under the circumstances.

But then, sense does not come into it when you are called… and there had been far too many synchronicities for us to think otherwise. Even the group who would finally be allowed within the circle was less than half its usual permitted number; it was a mere handful of strangers, therefore, spread across two buses, who would be free to wander within the stones of Stonehenge.

“I saw you at the stones wrapped in wings,” had said my healer-friend, so I had worn my favourite scarf, surprised it was warm enough to be without a decent shawl at this time of year and evening. I would have liked to walk to the great stones, each step carrying me one step closer to both past and future across the long-sacred earth. A pilgrimage, of sorts and a homage to memories of my own long-ago. But the ravens walked with me as I lagged behind, failing to keep up, even on the short path from the bus.

I was not at all in the frame of mind that I should have been. I think, most of all, I was afraid that the circle would have closed down… that it would no longer feel ‘right’ after so much attention by so many people…many of whom are simply gawping at something they will tick off their tour list as having ‘done’. Were my memories of the place, of the feel of it, anywhere near accurate… or any reflection of what was left, now the site was under corporate protection?

I desperately wanted Stuart to be able to feel some trace of what I had known when the stones stood free to the wind and to the worship. Not how they had felt from outside when last I had brought someone here, milling around the edges with thousands of others…

Our guide and guardian, a storyteller, took us to the edge of the grass, allowing us a few minutes to take people-less photographs of the circle before we went inside. And as soon as my feet touched the forbidden green beyond the barriers, seeing all the faces emerge from the stones, I knew my fears were groundless.

The circle opened its heart to welcome me back… and ‘welcoming’ was exactly the feeling Stuart reported later, with a good deal of surprise. It was not what he had expected from the place at all. It is hard to find words that describe it… as if each of the different types of stone… the sarsens, bluestones, gneiss and many others… all sing a different note, but no matter how beautifully they harmonise, their song needs to pass through the human heart in order to be heard, felt and lived. So it was with tears of gratitude streaming… and probably a very silly grin… that we finally entered the circle of stones.