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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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!
There’s a certain amount of ‘fighting back’ in this. The long period of Covid restrictions, followed by a summer in which we all got a taste of gentle freedom again; the sad death of the ‘third musketeer’, Sue Vincent, in March of this year, the inability to hold our regular workshops in the mystical landscapes of Britain…
But then there were positive things: learning – and continuing to learn – the techniques that make Zoom a powerful tool for holding get-togethers across the planet in a way that eliminates cost and distance – though not time; the emergence of new people, in particular a lady from Canada who we will be introducing as part of the team in the next few months. Caroline is already at work updating the three-year course with which we literally accompany those willing to work on themselves and their relationships to ‘the world’, in order to enter a new land of the mind and heart.
And finally, the sheer sense of determination and creative energy that we all feel, the flush of new ideas, and an absolute conviction that we need to not just carry on, but expand the work of the Silent Eye.
The first of these was the Healing Circle, a combination of group meditation and focus, and the mental and emotional creation of a place of working. We had the help of a lovely artist and friend, Giselle Bolotin, who lives in Australia, to paint a beautiful motif for the endeavour, reproduced below. Our own Barbara Walsh stands guard and guide as our high priestess of a beautiful and gentle place that does not physically exist in this realm, but is a solid reality in another – as many who have received its healing assistance will testify.
And then Stuart returned from many years working in South Yorkshire to his native Lancashire, meaning that, with me just over the northern edge of that fine county, the two of us could meet on a much more regular basis, and perhaps over the odd glass of Guinness or two…
These more regular meetings have enabled us to focus on the immediate needs of the School, particularly in dovetailing what we do on our monthly Silent Eye Explorations evening, held over Zoom, on the third Saturday of each month. It’s a coming together of interested people – not all from the Silent Eye’s world – but people who understand the importance of such a gathering, regardless of time or place. It builds an ‘egregore of the mind and heart’ as an old mentor and friend once said… The Zoom meetings – Silent Eye Explorations (a Facebook Group) is open to all. We welcome new visitors.
The third is the return of the workshop. We cannot predict what the currently increasing Covid rates will do to restrictions in the coming winter, where Zoom meetings may again be the only way of meeting, but we can look forward to the spring and the potential for having a completely new style of workshop; one that does not rely on the use of a hall, or conference location. We dearly miss our visits to the heart of Derbyshire, and the Nightingale Centre, but Covid and understandable inability to travel has forced us to look at a different formula. That ‘old style’ of hands-on workshop may have become a luxury that few can take advantage of. It’s our duty to explore the alternatives.
Our landscape weekends, which did not rely on a certain number of attendees to play the dramatic roles we had scripted, have always been popular and financially viable. So, we thought, let’s combine the two ideas and have a big one, where people don’t take on dramatic personas but play… themselves. Our last Zoom meeting was inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell, who used the word ‘monomyth’ to show that the world’s myths and legends had a commons meta-story at their heart. This generic ‘journey of the hero’ will be the basis for next May’s journeys in the landscape in the northern Lake District. Each person will become their own hero, during several experiences over the weekend of 6-8 May 2022,
Viruses willing, we will emerge from next winter to a bright May morning where an international gathering of spiritually inclined people will follow a mysterious trail through lakes, mountains, waterfalls and, most of all, a silent language of ‘movements’, each one building on the previous until we culminate the power of this in a final visit to the magical stone circle of Castlerigg, high in a natural ring of mountains and surrounded by nature’s grandeur.
Our final project is in honour of our departed Director, Sue Vincent. The three of us often discussed the power of the traditional Tarot images to convey many of the deeper aspects of the mystical journey towards the deeper Self. We wondered if we had the capacity to create a set of ‘oracle cards’ for use by ourselves and our student/companions. The Silent Eye uses the enneagram, rather than the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as its teaching basis. Any such project would have to reflect the unique and circular basis of the enneagram, rather than the vertical down-up structure of the Tree of Life.
At the time, we parked it. Sue was uncertain that she had the artistic skills to do it, and we decided that we would be better equipped to scope it when we had a generation of companions who had made the three-year journey with us. We are in discussions with an artist of great skill, whose work has often been this type of vivid depiction. By the time of the spring workshop in the northern Lake District, we should be well on with the project and ready to give an update. Who knows, we might even be able to use some of the prototypes oracle cards for the weekend…
The mist is certainly clearing. It appears there is a lot to do… wish us luck!
The monthly Silent Eye Explorations Zoom meetings are open to all. The documentation for this is on the Facebook Group ‘Silent Eye Explorations’. As Facebook is a closed environment, you will need to click the link requesting to join the group. We will then authorise you, and you will be able to see the previous meetings and join us in meetings to come. These are held on the third Saturday of the month at 8:00 pm.
For more information on any of the above, email us at email@example.com
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:
New evidence from the past two years’ work on Orkney has revealed breathtaking perspectives on the nature and importance of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar…
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: technical reconstruction of Structure 10 and its dramatic ‘pyramid’ roof on the Ness of Brodgar by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)
Staring, breathless, at the TV, desperately trying to keep notes, I was clutching my pencil so hard, it began to splinter…
There was a silence among the archaeologists and assorted technical specialists grouped near Structure 10 on the Ness of Brodgar World Heritage Site; the kind of silence that follows feverish activity and intense speculation – most of it expectantly negative…
We are a cautious species. If we long for something that might change the world, and hope it might happen, we prepare ourselves to be wrong.
The group of intense people were waiting for a phone call regarding a date. A diving team had drilled a ‘time-core’ into the base of the shallow sea that is Loch Stenness, north of the tiny strip of land that houses the Ness of Brodgar site. Extensive ‘geophys’ (basically radar for archeological work) had revealed a sunken island in the middle of the loch’s basin, and the surface had revealed the shape of a natural stone circle.
In revelation after revelation, the story of what was likely the world’s first ‘common culture’ had come together, centred on the Ness of Brodgar, an impossibly narrow strip of land north of Stromness, on Orkney, seven miles north of the tip of Scotland.
Older than the Great Pyramid, the nearby Ring of Brodgar had been dated to a time in the Neolithic period when the tribes of hunter-gatherers had settled in fertile lands, creating the first permanent settlements and beginning what we today call a commonculture.
I was watching the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’. If you follow my blogs, here and on Sun in Gemini, you’ll know that Orkney and its ancient history are a favourite topic. Other relevant posts from the Silent Eye’s 2019 workshop on Orkney are listed at the end of of this piece. The BBC programme features, amongst others, Neil Oliver and Chris Packham, two well-know authorities in their own fields; together with the dedicated team excavating the Ness of Brodgar each summer.
Chris Packham had just shown how the presence of the Orkney Vole was really an interview with a time-traveller. He revealed that, thousands of years ago, the non-native vole species had arrived from Belgium, not by itself, but carried and bred as an eaten delicacy by the farmers who originally populated Orkney, five thousand years ago… Meat-eater or not, you’ve got to admire the science…
Back to the waiting crowd at the Ness of Brodgar. Neil Oliver read out the results of the core’s dating. The researchers had dared to consider that the presence of the natural stone ring had been the ‘first stone circle in Britain’… and therefore something that inspired all the rest. Archaeologists have long puzzled how such structures sprang into existence ‘fully formed’. Finding the first would have been a seminal moment.
The documentary had already shown that Orkney was the place from which all other stone circles in Britain had originated; following a development that would move south through Scotland and the rest of Britain, and culminate with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – considered to be a masterpiece of the art, but now dated at least three hundred years after the Ring of Brodgar.
Neil Oliver looked realistic but sad as he reported the data had shown the sunken ring feature was thousand of years older than needed to fit the possibility; millennia before the ‘spiritual farmers’ who came to settle and create this outstanding culture of the Stone Age – with villages such as Skara Brae amazingly intact, including the interior of their houses.
You could feel the disappointment in the team. But so much had already been uncovered and proved – including a reconstruction of how the Orkney people, finally leaving their beloved archipelago, crossed the deadly Pentland Firth to reach the mainland near present day Thurso. And all this in boats made from tree branches and waterproofed hides.
The series reached its final few moments with Neil Oliver and Chris Packham visiting a now-deserted island, off Hoy, to ‘feel’ what an abandoned land was like – They found that the cattle left behind, thirty years prior, had not only survived, but, in seven generations, had reverted back to their genetic forbears in order to reorganise and survive, alone.
But then it was back to the Ness of Brodgar for the final sentiments. So much has been achieved; so much revolutionary ancient history uncovered. Orkney had been placed as the ancient capital of Britain. Who would have thought a place so far north could have been such a cradle of civilisation!
And then, as the archeological team were pulling over the vast tarpaulins that would protect the site through the coming winter, they stopped to show the latest and strangest find. Located in the deep earth below Structure 10 (the pyramid-roofed ritual centre of the complex) was a long, thick slab of stone on its side. Further examples of this strangely aligned stone revealed a random layout, clearly not a part of what had been constructed above it.
The camera pulled back to show the face of the Site Director, Nick Card, calm and unruffled, as he had been through the three programmes. “We think they’re full standing stones that have been laid on their edges,” he said. “As though the whole of this Ness of Brodgar complex had been built above the first stone circle… which, of its type, it might well be.”
The dig had run out of time and weather. It will take another season of careful excavation to confirm that possibility. But, bearing in mind that the Ness of Brodgar has been re-dated back to at least 3,500 years BCE, They may already have found the indisputable heart of the relationship between the stonemasters of ancient Orkney and their beloved sky…
‘Shadowing’ is our term for the phenomenon whereby a standing stone, or group of stones, recreates a distant landscape feature and thereby renders it immediately apparent or tangible.
Most other megalithic writers on the subject have also, independently, recognised this phenomenon although they usually refer to it, less accurately perhaps, as ‘mirroring’.
This being the case, it is highly unlikely for such a notion to be the product of fantasy, yet it is still quite difficult to credit the skill set required to so accurately render this technique, and especially so in a people still regarded by many as ‘primitive’ in relation to us.
Either, the ‘circle constructors’ had an incredible eye for, and memory of, the natural landscape, which they, inevitably, would have done anyway, or, they ‘crudely dressed’ the stones once placed.
Please note the inaccurate use of the notion ‘crude’ here.
There is nothing crude about the ancients’ ability to dress stone in this way, quite the opposite.
Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the question of precisely why the circle constructors would do this?
The terms ‘false perspective’, ‘collapsing distance’ and ‘correspondence’ are all useful in formulating an answer to this intriguing riddle.
All the images in this post display examples of ‘shadowing’ in one form or another, although you may have to work quite hard to discover each and every one of them.
The conclusion of the Silent Eye’s extended workshop to Orkney. A visit to the neighbouring island of Rousay. A sad disappointment and a wonderful surprise. (1300 words, a twelve-minute read)
For our final day, we were off to the Island of Rousay..
I’ve written, elsewhere, about what it’s like to drive a car full of passengers, backwards, down a steep ramp towards a ferry which should be ‘down in the gloom, somewhere’… Then take a twenty-minute journey to a neighbouring island, only to do it all again and return at the end of a the day…
On our previous trip to Orkney, in 2018, we had visited the island of Hoy, across the central Scapa Flow waterway.
It had provided a necessary contrast to the Orkney mainland, and reminded us how central was the constant presence of navigable water to the ancient peoples who lived here.
For this trip to Rousay, the ferry crossing was a shorter one, and the purpose of our visit was twofold: to examine a chambered tomb within what had been a Neolithic farming community; and to carry out a coastal walk to a ‘Broch’ – a peculiarly Scottish defensive structure that was often found at the heart of prosperous Iron Age settlements – usually close to the sea.
The first of these was Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, built by Neolithic farmers over five thousand years ago, and uncovered thanks to the work of Walter Grant and Graham Callander (see image below).
In 1936, Walter Grant, a local whisky producer, and National Museum director Graham Callander dug into a mound of heather-covered stones to reveal Blackhammer. Inside they found human remains and objects possibly left as offerings to the dead. The chambered tomb was remarkably intact.
Blackhammer is one of 15 such tombs on Rousay, and in use at the same time as the Ness of Brodgar sites now being excavated. There was an important difference, though – and that was why we wanted to visit.
Here on Rousay, the chambered tool served the needs of a simple farming community, and we felt it would allow us to understand their spiritual beliefs, which may have subtly differed from the ‘priestly’ community around Brodgar.
Excavations in the 1930s revealed two adult male skeletons, fragments of animal bone, a bone pin, a polished stone axe of plain grey-green stones and some Neolithic pottery. It is not known whether these were ‘grave goods’ buried with the body, or ceremonial objects used during burial rites.
The Blackhammer burial chamber has seven compartments and is cocooned within the heather-covered mound, less than a mile from the sea. Dry stone walling arranged in a herringbone pattern runs around its outer edge. The tomb’s construction was a massive undertaking for local farmers during the Neolithic period, when most of their time was spent providing food for their families. It reveals the important place that the community’s ancestors retained in daily life.
The above schematic shows the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. The elements are: (1) Entrance Passage; (2) Blocking Stones; (3) A set of ‘stalled chambers’ for the remains of their ancestors; and (4) A later wall which may have been created following encroachment on the original tomb)
Sadly, when we got there, the site was closed… We knew the second of our visits would provide ample justification for the ferry ride, so I photographed the information boards, which have been used above to illustrate the site.
We were able to clamber up the mound to peer down through the roof (above), giving some idea of what lay in the interior, but, other than the mound itself, that was it.
But then, on the way out, I noticed that the ‘closed’ sign had a QR code on it. If you’ve not used one of these before they are amazing things. They link to a website related to what you’re looking at, and sometimes even contain a virtual-reality tour.
We couldn’t get a phone signal at Blackhammer, and the rest of the day was full, so I forgot about it… Until I was writing this blog! What I hadn’t expected was that the online link would work with a photo of the QR code just as well as being there. Please try it!
Given the above, I’m content to move on. What happened next was quite sublime…
A few miles along the coast road of Rousay lies a historic site information board. You are here, says the small, red sign on the photo. But ‘here’ is a long way above the ocean, and Midhowe lies close to the sea. I wasn’t too excited. Covid had put paid to any chance of a visit to anything ‘with an enclosed interior’. We knew the risks when we arrived.
The sad thing was that, at the foot the cliff, perched above Eynhallow Sound – with its famous ‘roaring’ tidal race – are two of Rousay’s most spectacular ancient monuments.
Midhowe Chambered Cairn is among the largest Neolithic tombs in Orkney. It was built 5,400 years ago. Neighbouring Midhowe Broch was the centre of a much later Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD… And this latter site was open.
We made a slow and careful descent of the steep path, each lost in our own thoughts. We had seen so much during the past few days. This day had a slightly surreal feeling to it…
The vast hanger that houses the 33 metre Neolithic Cairn was closed and locked. The windows were shuttered, but not all the shutters were locked into place. With a gentle pull (later reversed to restore their original state), several were happy to open. For a moment, I was reminded of the church at Nigg, and Sue Vincent’s famous trick of standing on tiptoes and pointing the camera at the glass, to see what the camera might just capture. The windows here weren’t as high. I tried it and looked at the camera image. Even in the sunlight something was visible.
Motivated by this, I repeated the exercise at three other windows around the perimeter of the hanger. The side windows revealed the long sides of the chambered tomb. I wondered if I dared hope the remaining side had an open wooden shutter…
I confess to having a small chuckle when the final shutter opened. At first I could see nothing, as the bright afternoon sun was streaming in behind me. Then, with adjusted eyes, the entrance to the long cairn came into focus. I found that if I blocked the sunlight with my body, I got a clear image – as clear as the dusty windows would allow.
The ‘stalled’ chambered cairn of Mid Howe is an impressive example of a type of drystone monument known as an ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ cairn. Its entrance passage leads to a long central chamber, divided by pairs of upright stone slabs into 12 ‘stalls’.
Midhowe was excavated in 1932-3, again by Callander and Grant, who found the remains of at least 25 human skeletons, plus stone tools, pottery, and animal bone. In the mid-1930s it was enclosed by its present protective stone-built hangar, allowing the whole cairn to be appreciated. The outer layer of decorative stonework has been arranged in a herringbone pattern to reproduce the likely original.
The hanger was built from local stone. Rousay resident Walter Grant, co-excavator of Blackhammer, and owner of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall, paid for its construction and, afterwards, gave it to the nation.
I left smiling. I wouldn’t be able to evaluate the photos until I got back to the hotel, but I knew they had been worth taking. Perhaps we would come back, one day and take a proper tour. For now, the Broch and its wonderful setting beckoned. It was, literally, next door – though the two structures were not related.
Leaving the Chambered Tomb, my gaze was drawn towards the beautiful stratified rocks that led down to the sea near the Broch. I knew I had to get down there before we left the site.
The thickness of the Broch’s walls tells you that this was a defensive structure. Created long after the Neolithic people who made the temples at the Ness of Brodgar, the Iron Age people who lived here would have known little of their forebears, except perhaps for their stories and legends.
Set behind a rock-cut ditch and rampart, Midhowe Broch was the first and largest building of a small, well laid-out village. It may have been built by an extended family demonstrating their power and influence in the area. Although the site would have provided some protection against sporadic raiding, the inhabitants were farmers, like nearly everyone else at this time.
On a clear day you can see the matching Broch of Gurness across the water. Midhowe is one of nine brochs that stand sentinel over the narrow and dangerous stretch of water known as Eynhallow Sound.
Leaving the Broch and looking towards the sea, I had the sense that this would be the right place to finalise this series of blogs on Scotland and Orkney. By creating two streams, one going back in time, the other forwards, I could end up here. There was something very special about this place.
As I dropped down the descending levels of the layers of rock. I had the desire to let go of all the facts, all the history… They were important, academically, but they were the past. The consciousness in the landscape, the ‘I’ of each of us, was now and was real. In the next second, it too would become old and replaced with the next sequential part of the eternal now. To have that continuity was a gift of Life and memory, but what mattered was the now. The past was subjective history, the future was potential. Only the now had absolute reality.
That sense of letting go felt very good. Within a few minutes I was crouched, balanced on a wet slab of ancient rock, within inches of the lapping sea.
It was one of those, literally, perfect moments… There aren’t too many in a lifetime. The others in our group had left me to my exploring and were on their way back up to the car park. I was quite alone in a now landscape. This beautiful place had created an intense feeling of peace and objectivity. I crouched down on the rocks to make a recording of something very special. You can’t record that level of peace, but you can try…
The moment is here in the video, if you’d like to share it. It may not work within WordPress, but let’s see. If not, the photo above will give some idea of the moment…
This is the last blog in the Pictish Trail and City of the Stars series.
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