Written in stone

Nine Stones Close
Nine Stones Close

There has been a bit of a preoccupation around here lately with stone. Between the recent and forthcoming workshops we will have visited a fair number of stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers and it might be tempting to think we are simply indulging our curiosity or even wafting around the stones of the past, in denial of the fact that evolution has taken humanity thousands of years away from the time and spiritual climate in which these stones were erected.

There is a temptation also to look at these stones and call them primitive constructions, or crude symbols, yet the planetary and seasonal alignments present at many of these sites, let alone the scale and sheer number of them across the landscape, suggests we need to reassess that misconception. While arguments smoulder about their purpose and significance, their beauty, mystery and the power of standing in their presence is undeniable.

Castlerigg
Castlerigg

We look upon these enigmatic stones from a position of greater knowledge of the world and indeed, the universe than at any other time in human history, yet we still look at the precision and beauty with which they were built with awe… and wonder if, for all our knowledge, we may have lost something. Did the Old Ones understand the world in a way we have forgotten? There are so many questions that will remain unanswered and any answers we are given will be accepted or denied according to our own predisposition.

Yet there are still things we can learn from looking at these monuments to our own distant past. Not all of those lessons need to be about the stones themselves, even if we simply observe through modern eyes, the stones can act as catalysts for our own progress towards understanding.

I remember a very interesting talk given by Steve some years ago, based on the work of Maurice Nicoll, in which he looked at some elements of the Gospels from a symbolic, rather than a literal viewpoint. He suggested that certain words refer not to physical objects, but to more abstract concepts. Three of the words he looked at were wine, water and stone. I can’t recall the exact terms he used, but roughly, wine symbolised spiritual truth, water living truth and stone the rigidity of dogma. Within the context of the Gospels stories, those terms work to shed an extra level of illumination on the parables. Such apparently coded symbols may have been common knowledge in an earlier era, much as the symbolism of the medieval wall paintings that look so strange to our eyes yet conveyed a clear message, in their day, even to the unlettered peasantry. Like any code of symbols, though, just because it works within one era and arena, it does not necessarily follow that the same meaning would be applied across all others.

Gardoms
Gardoms

Of the three words that Steve examined, his symbolic definition of stone is closest to our general use of the term. We speak of things being ‘written in stone’… like the Ten Commandments that were inscribed on the tablets… and therefore both unchanging and unchangeable. It is for this reason that it is so apt for describing the decline of living truth into mere dogma. Yet, I wonder if even the common definition of ‘written in stone’ should be set in stone?

Rock is part of the very fabric of our planet. You could say that it was formed from cosmic energies operating in earth. The elements that existed before the formation of rocks were gradually solidified to form the basis of our lands. Man recognises stone as a symbol of solidity and permanency; even today, we use it for our monuments because of its longevity and durability. In a more abstract sense, because of these same qualities, it represents truth and it is true that the truth as we see it, when it is set in stone and not allowed to grow can indeed become dogmatic.

When our ancestors built their monuments they began by using wood, a material in plentiful supply and relatively easy to work. Traces of vast monuments, such as Woodhenge and Seahenge, still remain. Yet timber circles were not enough. Our ancestors too chose to build their monuments… and in Britain that means the circles, the monoliths, cairns and chambers… in stone. The organisation and work involved with the simple tools we are told they had available at the time is staggering. You cannot imagine that they would have cut, shaped and carried up to eighty stones weighing up to four tons each, over the 150 miles from Wales to Stonehenge, for instance, unless they saw some great virtue in doing so.

long-meg
Long Meg

It can have been no arbitrary decision. Perhaps it was something to do with the Prescelli hills where the stones were formed, perhaps something to do with the qualities of the stone itself. We may never know. Either way, it was an incredible undertaking. The precision of the stones at Stonehenge, both their crafting and their placement, is well documented and many books have been written exploring the astronomical alignments built into the circle. It can only have been conceived with some kind of sacred purpose in mind, especially considering the labour it took, the manpower and the time, in order to raise the monument and the vast, sacred landscape in which it stands. Stonehenge may be the best known and visually the most impressive, yet there are over a thousand stone circles in Britain.

You can imagine the Old Ones lifting the stone with reverence from the earth, shaping it both to their needs and to its place in the landscape. You can see them placing it with care to exemplify and illustrate a living truth which made sense of their world, raising their beliefs to be written in the permanent language of stone.

stonehenge
Stonehenge

Yet stone is continually open to change. It is constantly being eroded and reshaped by the weather, even by the touch of human hands. It is destroyed by progress, cleared away, moved, re-used to suit the needs of later generations.  Its meaning, both as a symbol and as an exemplar of our ancestors’ beliefs, may be lost. Yet, the original message… the essence of what was ‘written in stone’… although invisible to later eyes, still remains encapsulated in the living stone they raised.

We will continue to build our monuments in stone to the truth that we see and their meaning too will one day be lost in the mists of time. Unlike our ancestors, we record our world… with new technologies that will also become obsolete. Five thousand years from now, there may be some knowledge left of the meaning and purpose of what remains of what we now build, but the true import, the understanding of the emotional, social, religious and political context, will have been lost. Stone is not a permanency, it just has a longer, slower life than we mere humans. It is in a constant state of change, just like the truth it symbolises. Even dogma will have its day and either self-destruct or slowly fade, replaced in the heart of Man with a new paradigm. But behind the truth and the reality we know and profess, there is a greater Truth, eternal and immutable. We may not be able to see it, but somewhere beyond our differences and arguments, beyond our ever-changing beliefs, doubts and systems, we know it is there. It is in this greater Truth that understanding grows and sometimes we may be able to catch a glimpse of it, written in the very stones of this little planet we call home.

avebury
Avebury

Fear and Love in the High Peak – part one

It’s not the best of photo resolutions, but the above image says it all. Briony saluting the Derbyshire landscape in her own way at the end of three days of the Silent Eye’s Tideswell-based workshop: Sue and Stuart’s creation; and a wonderful experience for the group of souls who braved the provocative title for the weekend…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear

…and decided that they would examine the roots of their own fears… and face them in the warmth of loving companionship and symbolic danger.

It’s a time-honoured formula for all mystical organisations; one that brings us all to a point where the day to day ‘fog’ of habitual perception is cut through by the vividness of landscape and experience. That’s what we hope to achieve on these weekends. This one worked well – and in different ways for each person, as it should, for we all have different stories that have brought us to our ‘now’.

Sometimes, especially in reviewing such things, it’s better to start at the end. The picture (above) of Briony is of her at the ‘peak’ of the weekend; the last act of the formal part of our physical, emotional and spiritual wanderings across the ancient and mysterious landscapes of Derbyshire.

A short time later, we would be laughing in one of the oddest, oldest and most wonderful pubs in England…

But that’s for the final chapter of this short series of blogs. For now, let’s drift backwards in time to the sunshine of the Saturday morning. A day of ‘Indian Summer’ as good as any we been blessed with over the years.

Baslow Ridge

We were up high in a place called Baslow Ridge. Looking down on a series of valleys that lead to places like Bakewell, and the glories of the Chatsworth Estate.

The Eagle Stone – a place of proof of maturity, and a precursor to local marriage

The Eagle Stone stands alone, an outlier from a distant time of glaciation. It dominates the landscape like the monolith did in Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey. People are drawn to it from miles around. It even featured in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the place that Elizabeth Bennett visited and climbed… to get away from it all.

It is still used by local folk as a rite of passage. Those who seek the hand of marriage with the girls and ladies of the nearby town of Baslow are expected to demonstrate their suitability by climbing the stone unaided. It’s not a trivial ascent, as this second shot of the rock shows:

The Eagle Stone close-up shows how the higher layers overhang the lower; making an ascent difficult

The Eagle Stone is an example of a sacred folk-object at the centre of a local custom; a ritual, in this case. The ritual was a gateway into adulthood–and maturity. There would be real caution – if not fear- for anyone faced with the challenge. But, with some secret help from your friends, there was only an element of danger, rather than the certainty of death…

The Riley Graves

But many in the history of these parts have not been so lucky. Going back in time to our first visit of the weekend, we were brought face to face with personal fear and sadness of a degree that would be hard to envisage in modern life… and one of the most heart-rending sacrifices we could have encountered.

It’s 1666 in a small High Peak town, not far from Chatsworth. In the space of a single week, a lone woman buries all six of her children and then her husband. No-one will help her; no-one can help her. It is the most awful piece of personal history imaginable and yet the act which surrounds it is of the highest nobility.

Stuart… showing how it should be done

And so the story – the plot – of the weekend, moves from an historic example of fear and self-sacrifice – but seen through modern eyes, through the ancient stones set in the Derbyshire landscape and their cultural and symbolic use, to its finale in a rather foreboding place, high above a valley with a dark history…

Seen like this – backwards from the end, we can appreciate the careful construction of the weekend carried out by Sue and Stuart. Sue has begun its re-telling in her Silent Eye and personal blogs. She’s a great storyteller and there is little point in my replicating her excellent eye for detail.

Instead, I will pick certain moments of significance and focus on them – and hence this backwards-in-time introduction to set the scene.

It’s a long way from the Friday meeting place at Eyam to our final (small for drivers) glass of Black Lurcher at the Three Stag’s Heads near ‘Hanging Rock’, but it’s a fascinating journey. The weekend demanded a degree of serious intent… but we had lot of fun, too.

In the end, on Sunday morning, everyone was alone for a moment on that dark peak… Very Carlos Castenada, really…. but that’s just my personal take on it.

Next time we meet, it will be August 1666 and, in this part of Derbyshire, something remarkable, unique and utterly selfless will be about to happen.

 

 

©Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 7 Final) Face to Face with Macbeth

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin-1-800px.jpg
It was time to come face to face with the man who may well have inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth…

We were standing in the car park near Drumin Castle. Dean was using the visitor map of the Glenlivet Estate to describe the day ahead.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-red-highlights-sm.jpg
The visitors map of the Glenlivet Estate with our two intended locations highlighted in red

We were to begin by exploring an ancient and little visited stone circle on the nearby slope above the river Livet – The Doune of Dalmore. After this we would cross the river to the nearby ruin of Drumin Castle before driving across the Glenlivet estate to its south-eastern edge to conclude our work on the elements at Scanlan; the home of a secret seminary.

It was expected that we would be able to finish our workshop in time to allow the usual local lunch, together, followed by our departure. Many of us had far to go before we got home on that Sunday. In our case, the journey even to Cumbria was going to take at least six hours.

Both locations for the planned day are marked on the photo of the Glenlivet Estate, above, and have their own maps within the text.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-northmap-1-800px.jpg
Glenlivet Estate: our first two locations are shown above. The Ring Cairn and Drumin Castle are described in the text. Map provided by the Glenlivet Estate on their notice board.

The Glenlivet estate comprises 23,000 hectares of some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and lies at the northern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, between the northern Ladder Hills and the Cromdale Hills. Two rivers – the Avon and the Livet run through its heart.

The land in Glenlivet is an elevated plateau and is always higher than 200m (600ft). Although remote, and on the edge of some of Britain’s highest mountains, the gentle landscape is easy to access and explore. People have lived and farmed this region since prehistoric times.

From the 1500’s to the early 20th Century, Glenlivet Estate belonged to the Gordon family, who became the Dukes of Richmond and Gordon. Their legacy can be seen throughout the region.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-crossing-bridge2-1-800px.jpg
Crossing the river Livet

First, we had to cross the river Livet and begin the walk through the gentle meadows.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-towards-doune-of-dalmore-1-800px.jpg
The hilltop of the Doune of Dalmore can be seen at the far end of the meadow.

It was an easy climb to the Doune of Dalmore. Soon, we were standing at the base of the ancient site.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-towards-doune-of-dalmore-1-1-800px.jpg
The Doune of Dalmore – Stone circle and burial chamber.

The Doune of Dalmore comprises the ancient remains of a ring cairn – a prehistoric burial monument with an open central area – and a stone circle that surrounds it. This type of circle and ring is known locally as a Clava cairn. The cairn is 13m in diameter and 0.7m high. Four of the stones of the surrounding circle are now standing, but some others, which have fallen, lie where they fell.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drumin-stone-circle-edge-sm.jpg
The edge of the ring of stones

The day was mild and the weather kind. For the penultimate time, we assembled our ribbons into pentagrams, cornered with our special stones, and gathered in our groups of two to partner in inner vision and notation on the element of alchemical ‘Fire’. Fire is both potent and dangerous. It can work good and bad. Thoughts of the witches on the blasted heath came to mind; and also the essence of what they represented within the Macbeth story: they had no power to compel, merely to dangle before human ambition what ‘might be’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-vision-castle-1-800px.jpg
In the distance… the home of the Wolf of Badenoch

And then it was time to turn and look across the valley of the Livet river to see our next destination. It was our final day… and we had to be open to conclusions – our own and that of the landscape we had ‘asked’ to teach us. With some trepidation, I looked across the clean, flowing water of the Livet to the ruins of Drumin Castle beyond… Drumin was the home of the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, known in history as ‘Scotland’s vilest man’…

In the words of Scottish historians, “Scottish history has its fair share of deeply unpleasant characters, but Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, is a strong contender for the title of least pleasant of the lot.”

Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, but more commonly known as the Wolf of Badenoch, and the Celtic Atilla, lived from 1343 to 1394. He was the fourth illegitimate son of the future King Robert II of Scotland and of Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan, but became legitimised in 1349 upon his parents’ marriage. His life is a classic example of an egoic character provided with the means to destroy on a wholesale scale.

The element of Fire had well and truly returned to our presence with the glimpse of the life of this evil man. He systematically abused the power his royal father granted him and was fond of burning towns and sacred buildings to the ground. The town of Forres is an example of the former, the destruction of Elgin Cathedral is the worst example of the latter.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-southmap-1-1-800px.jpg
Drumin Castle as seen from the steep approach by the river Livet – a forbidding aspect….

Shortly after, we descended across the meadows, re-crossed the river Livet and began the climb to the Wolf of Badenoch’s castle – Drumin. Scottish castles are usually compact structures. Drumin is strategically placed – overlooking both the river valley and the confluence of the rivers Livet and Avon (pronounced a’an).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin2-1-3-800px.jpg
Nothing is permanent – not even stone walls this thick…

Alexander Stewart died in 1394. He was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral. His tomb is, ironically, one of the few to have survived from Scotland’s Middle Ages. The details of the ‘Wolf’s death’ are unclear, but, as so often happens, the folk legend sheds light on both his life and death.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screenshot-2019-07-10-at-11.44.28.png
Ironically, the Wolf of Badenoch’ tomb is one of the few surviving from the Scottish Middle Ages. Image Source: Undiscovered Scotland

It is said that on the 24th July 1394, a black robed visitor arrived at Ruthven castle and challenged its owner to a game of chess. During the night that followed the castle was battered by a terrible storm, with intense thunder and lightning. In the morning the castle servants were discovered dead outside the castle walls. The Wolf of Badenoch was found dead in the great hall. His body was unmarked…but the nails in his boots had been torn out. This may have been a reference to Christ’s execution – Alexander Stewart’s being the opposite.

There was no sign of the dark stranger… Play ‘chess’ with the devil at your peril…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin2-1-8-800px.jpg
The modern garden of Drumin castle provides a place of peace amidst the terrible history

I think Shakespeare would have liked the story. There is no direct proof that Macbeth was based upon Alexander Stewart. Witchcraft was rife at the time of James I (James VI of Scotland) and the King lived in terror of it. Shakespeare based many of his plays on real historical figures. It is reasonable to propose that the Wolf of Badenoch was the fictional twin of the ambitious psychopath who brought such chaos to this part of Scotland.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-community-orchard-1-800px.jpg
The Community Garden – produce available to all…

There was a pleasant end to our visit to to Drumin castle. Part of the garden (see above) has been given over to allow the creation of Glenlivet’s Community Orchard – a place of mutual industry and kindness.

Soon, we were driving across the length of the Glenlivet estate to a place close to its south-east border.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-southmap-1-800px.jpg
Our final destination. The location marked “Walk 2” shows Scanlan Seminary

We were headed for the isolation of the Braes of Glenlivet; specifically, The Scanlan, a former and secret Catholic seminary for the training of priests and young men set to become priests.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-1-800px.jpg
Scanlan Seminary – now a quiet and (usually) infrequently visited place…

During the 18th century, ‘The Scanlan’ was the only place in Scotland where young men could be trained to be priests – they were named the ‘heather priests’. During the period 1717 – 1799 over a hundred were trained, despite the persecution by Hanoverian soldiers following the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion. The location of The Scanlan was a closely guarded secret, and the site – at the head of a remote valley – was impossible to see until you were close to it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-3-800px.jpg

Dean had visited the site of Scalan Seminary several times. He said that, often, he was the only one visiting. He had considered – given its remoteness and usual emptiness – that it would be an ideal basis for us to gather for our final exercise with the ribbon-based pentagrams.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-11-800px.jpg
The Scanlan still has no interior electric. Heating and lighting are as they were in days gone by…

But the ‘witchy fates’ had other ideas. Having made Findhorn beach disappear, and conjured mysterious winds to drag apart our ribbon pentagrams, they pulled off a spectacular strike on the final act in our ‘Macbeth play’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-5-800px.jpg
How Scanlan used to look. For much of its later life it was a farmhouse, prior to its restoration as an historic museum.

The college played a vital role in keeping the traditional Catholic faith alive in northern Scotland. It’s name derives from the Gaelic word for a hut made of turf pieces – which is how the initial building at Scanlan was constructed.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-10-800px.jpg
A spartan interior…

In 1799, the religious training work of the Scanlan was moved to a less remote site, Aquhorthies College, near Inverurie. In researching this blog, I discovered I had a personal link to the tradition begun at Scanlan. My father’s eldest sister married a Glasgow man of the Catholic faith. The local church were helpful during the upbringing of my seven cousins, whom I used to visit every summer. The eldest son (my cousin) eventually left Glasgow to study to become a priest at Blairs College, in Aberdeen. Eventually, he left the priesthood and became a successful lawyer in Glasgow.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-12-800px.jpg
The most recent building (and now museum) is on the left. The old stone structure on the right replaced the original, secret turf hut. The bend in the stream to the right is the location of an ancient well.

Blairs College had taken over the work of training priests from Aquhorthies College in 1929 and continued this work until 1986. It is, now, also a museum. There was therefore a strong, religious and cultural link between where I was standing at the end of our weekend and my cousin’s life… But I didn’t know at the time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-14-800px.jpg
The ruin of the second generation Scanlan…

But… the witches, the tricky fates…

No sooner had we arrived ( a twenty minute trek along the land from the car park) than others began to arrive, too. By the time we had taken a quick look at the museum there were upwards of thirty people gathering in a pagoda outside the main door. One glance at the approach track showed there were hundreds more arriving.

It transpired that there was an annual (and well-dressed) pilgrimage to Scanlan… and this was the day…

In deference, we retreated to a point out of sight and over the next small hill, there to lay out our humble pentagrams and perform the last movements that would resolve our work of the weekend, bringing our inner strengths and vision to help dissolve our perceived limitations. All this was focussed on a set of inner symbols that grew into a composite image which we were to take away with us as a lasting focus and token of the work done.

It was beautiful.

By the time we had battled the incoming tide of visitors, and regained the road system, it was five in the afternoon; several hours later than intended. But everyone felt we had enjoyed an excellent weekend among the hills and valleys of this beautiful Scottish landscape.

The oyster-catchers were never far away, and their beautiful calling accompanied our entire weekend.

Our thanks to Dean for the great amount of work that went into planning and realising the three days. We look forward to further Scottish adventures, including “On the trail of the Picts”, our workshop for September 2020.

End.

Other parts in this seriesParagraph

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six,

This is Part Seven

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult to photograph through the darkened glass, but magnificent.

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

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

The description reads:

Shadwick Stone (near Tain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: An unlikely route to a magical location.

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

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

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

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

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

Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1828

A strange descent to the well-chamber below….

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

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

Burghead Well is described as a ‘Pictish puzzle’

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

Even after millennia, the construction is still resilient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (1)

We were standing close to the River Spey in the grounds of Strathallan church a few miles from the centre of Grantown-on-Spey: one of the gems of the north-eastern highlands of Scotland. The previous hour had seen us all meet at a tea room in the centre of the town. We discussed the plans for the weekend, drank tea and had cake…

Strathallan church is famous for its beautiful location by the river. But it is also the site of an ancient pictish stone; one that bears markings related to the mysterious number at the heart of the pentagram – Phi.

The Pictish stone in the graveyard of Strathallan Church

The call of the nearby oyster-catcher rose till it was overwhelming.

“A lone female,” the groundsman of the nearby church explained, as he prepared to wield his petrol strimmer against the long grass around the neighbouring gravestones. “Down to one surviving egg,” he shouted, lowering his ear mufflers. “Makes a terrible racket!”

Whatever else he was trying to convey to our suspicious-looking bunch of clipboard-wielding visitors was lost in the mayhem that followed. You have to wonder if the oyster-catcher was chuckling…

You get days like this in the pursuit of mystical experiences…

Luckily, our guide and teacher for the weekend, Dean Powell, was used to dealing with adversity. We have shared many an adventure, he and I. This, the Silent Unicorn weekend – a union of the Silent Eye and his Scottish Lodge – was to be one of the best.

Dean introducing us to the local landscape on the Friday evening

We stuck the twin noises as long as possible, then moved to the edge of a high wall, near the river, against which we could begin our construction of ‘pentagrams from ribbons’. We had no plans to enact moonlit rituals! To start with, there’s precious little darkness this far into northern Scotland so close to the summer solstice. Darkness lasts a few hours at best, and the dawn is about 03:00.

The pentagrams were to be the basis of a psychological analysis of ourselves. Their five-pointed shapes would come to represent our journeys of self-enquiry as we let rationality slip away within the glorious green of the Spey valley, the Findhorn coastline, and the mysterious castles of Macbeth country…

The river Spey’s course is just over one hundred miles long and is the fastest flowing river in Scotland. Its beautiful landscapes are famous for salmon fishing and the production of Scotch whisky. It flows northwards, ending in the Moray Firth a few miles west of Buckie. We were to see many of its beautiful faces as the weekend progressed.

Map showing the course of the River Spey as it flows towards the Moray Firth. Source: Wikipedia, licence SA 3.0

The groundsman’s strimmer fell silent. The oyster-catcher’s urgent protest stilled. We would be reunited soon enough.

Dean pointed to our first-attempt pentagrams and allocated names to the five points; later backed up by a comprehensive set of handouts.

The pentagram has long been a symbol of both the human and the place of the human in the scheme of creation. In other posts, I have detailed the unique geometric properties of its shape. The primary mystery of it lies in the embedded ‘magical’ number Phi. Phi allows the division of a ‘whole’ into two parts such that the child pieces retain their relationship with their dimension of origin. Phi is the ‘seen’ symmetry in plants and seashells, and can be found throughout nature. Famous artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, based much of their work on this mysterious number.

Dean’s use of the pentagram was as a map of the human self, using the headings of:

  • Core
  • Potential
  • Limited
  • Boundary
  • Weak/Defect
  • Shadow

The meanings of these would unfold within the beauty of the landscape. We were in for quite a weekend…

To be continued….

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

The Way to Dusty Death?

We were in Ulverston, Dean and I. We’d just climbed the famous ‘Hoad’ – a tall monument on the top of a tall hill that looks like a lighthouse… but isn’t. There’s some important symbology in that, but we’ll return to it later.

Light and dark….a walk in Glenlivet…including a view from the stone circle at the Doune of Dalmore toward Drumin castle…both scenes of coming derring-do on Sunday. Photo: Dean Powell.

He was on his way back from Somerset to northern Scotland – the Glenlivet area of the North Cairngorms, where he and his loved ones have their home. Our house in Cumbria is en-route, so the door is always open to break his journey. After a night involving Bernie’s excellent cooking and a glass of red wine or two, we decided that a local (ish) walk would put some air into the bloodstream for his second leg and return to the far north.

Ulverston is one of our local favourites. It’s about a half-hour journey up the fast Barrow road. A coffee in Ford Park and then the short but taxing climb up ‘The Hoad’ to get to the famous lighthouse that isn’t. It can be seen all over the expanse of Morecambe Bay. It’s actually a monument to the famous engineer Sir John Barrow.

We’d got our breath back by the time we got to the monument. The Silent Eye had recently carried out the ‘Jewel in the Claw’ spring workshop at Great Hucklow – our annual biggie. We had used a Shakespearean theme, casting one of our Californian visitors as Queen Elizabeth – ruling over a giant chessboard which was the royal court; and upon which the players moved with great caution… under her watchful eye.

Dean and Alionora had played two of the central characters: Lord Mortido and Lady Libido – death and life in the fullest sense. They were superb. Leaving the tiny village Dean had reflected that there might be scope for doing something else ‘Shakespearean’, in the form of a journey around Macbeth Country, centred in Grantown-on-Spey, not far from where he and Gordon live.

Now, on top of the world and next to the faux lighthouse, we began to discuss it in earnest.

It would involve several kinds of journey. First, it was a long way to travel; but we had all driven down to Dorset the year before for the similar summer weekend, so we knew we’d get the support from our hardy regulars…

Second, there had to be a dual journey in terms of both spiritual discovery and visiting the landscape. The event was to take place in a triangle of land between Grantown, the Findhorn Coast and the Macbeth castles just south of Inverness. There would be no lack of scenery! Dean had already assembled a set of places with that ‘special feel’, including a mysterious old church and a stone circle. Within this combined landscape he proposed leading a journey of self-discovery using an ancient magical symbol. Macbeth’s ‘witches’ had to be honoured – they were a very real force in the time of James VI of Scotland – and subsequently the English king on the death of Elizabeth I. Dean has an intensely esoteric background and is a qualified NLP therapist and teacher as well as the local leader of Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba. He has recently developed the idea of the ‘magical matrix’ and proposed to use this to accompany our journey in the highland landscape.

I hadn’t realised until he told me that the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. The event would mix his Scottish team and the Silent Eye, and we proposed it be called the Silent Unicorn.

Somewhat pleased with the plan, we took the long and winding path down from the Hoad to have a fruitful cafe lunch in Ulverston.

And now it is upon us. Like Macbeth we must earn our keep (sorry) and ‘strut and fret’ upon the magnificent stage of the highlands. Our weekend’s tower must be a true one and not false. Only with that intent – that something deeper is afoot, will we attract the intellectual and emotional harmony that so typifies these Silent Eye ‘landscape journeys’. By the time this is published, we will be leaving Cumbria, to join up with friends old and new from across the UK. We all face a long journey; but a very rewarding one.

For more information on joining us for one of the Silent Eye ‘discovery in the landscape’ weekends, click to see our forthcoming events, here.

The road to Inverness awaits….

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Our Song of Truth…

*

We circle the Long Stone, feet planted gently but firmly on the earth…

Arms and hands hang loosely by our sides…

We close our eyes…

We breathe deeply…

We perform our breathing exercise…

And then again breathe deeply, listening only to the sound of our own breath…

After a time, the silence is broken by the Seed Sound of someone’s Word of Truth…

Nobody knows who sounded…

Nobody cares…

We are leaving the world of personalities behind…

Before the first Seed Sound has ended, another has sounded, and another, and then another, as our Song of Truth is raised…

Emboldened by the anonymity, carefree in the rising Song of Power we each sound out our Truth, chanting it again and again, delighting as each Seed bounces of each other, one or two entwining, playing and cascading off one another…

Until finally…

As the light of day fades…

Only one sound can again be heard…

Echoing off deep in to the starry far distance…

Everything returns to silence…

And we again focus on our breathing…

*