… So, we return to the quest and turn shining eyes to the south.
Not that we ever left it, yet the churches had definitely ‘fallen off-line’…
Until one particular stained-glass window in Skipton.
It is tempting to think that later traditions lose much that is essential to preceding ones.
In magical traditions derived from the Hebrews, the Archangel Mikael is a guardian of the south quarter and if a ‘Michael Window’ is present in a church, it is a relatively safe bet that it will be found on a south wall of that church.
So, why were we charging around St Michael’s, Hathersage, looking at stained-glass windows on the north wall, with such singular precision?
Because we were desirous of another window.
This headlong, wilful charge, bugles blaring, could well have been our undoing, had we been alone.
There was no ‘Michael Window’ in St Michael’s, Hathersage.
But there was this…
So, what to say about this banner?
It is a work of art, certainly.
It is a work of art that transcends the medieval style of its composition, although, the ‘S’ as an ‘eight’ and the ‘M’ as an ‘omega’ are both remarkable.
The ‘lance’ too, as ‘Celtic crozier’, is a sublime touch.
Was the dragon always golden?
Does this hue, denote the beginning or even the end of a process?
Was the beast once much bigger?
Is this really how one earns one’s ‘spiritual wings’?
The spirals on the Saint’s shield are, to say the least, suggestive…
Psychologist, Maurice Nicoll studied under Fourth Way exponents G.I Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, and presented his own philosophy in a series of works published during the Mid Twentieth Century.
In his seminal work, Living Time… he makes no bones about insisting that the psychological states and concepts that he is expounding, and their utilisation, are ancient and stretch back through Christianity, Judaism, the Greek Philosophers and on into the mysterious climes of Pre-Dynastic Egypt…
In re-presenting these ideas as a series of poetic explorations, author and essayist, Stuart France uncovers a series of links with the Mediaeval Traditions of the Northmen, and the Matter of Britain!
What is the original story of our week? How does the moon harrow hell? Prepare to be enthralled, entertained, educated, and enlightened, as new light is shed on the enigmatic figures of Wotan, Merlin, and King Arthur.
They do not write books like this anymore, if indeed they ever did!
We’re in the town of Cromarty, in the north-east Highlands of Scotland. We’re on the old quayside, looking across the Cromarty Firth at the land known as Ross – as in the county name ‘Ross and Cromarty’.
The quayside is the oldest section of the town, and represents well the evolution of this lovely community. Cromarty is one of the gems of this peninsula; known as ‘The Black Isle’. Named because of the difficultly of reaching it across the turbulent waters of the Moray Firth.
But the town of Cromarty, whilst appearing quite idyllic and prosperous, offers a strange contrast of landscapes…
The thriving metropolis of Inverness, gateway to this part of the Scottish Highlands, lies only thirty minutes south of Cromarty. It’s all very different from the days when the ‘Kings Ferry’ connected travellers by ferry across this waterway to continue their northwards journey on the ‘Kings Road’ to the farthest reaches of north-east Scotland, and possibly beyond, to Orkney.
Today there are vast, and award-winning bridges, but back then it was a long detour around the head of Loch Ness, or more likely, a boat ride from Inverness.
The view in front of us is divided; the huge oil platform ahead is ‘resting’. It’s been retired from active service in the North Sea, pending a rise in the wholesale price of oil. At a certain price point, it becomes viable to operate it again, and giant tugs will pull it out into active use in the seas off North-East Scotland.
We counted ten such platforms, all ‘resting’ or being maintained. It requires a skeleton crew onboard at all times, so it’s also expensive to park them in this way.
Beyond the array of the oil platforms lies a ring of beautiful mountains, many of them still snow-capped in this extraordinarily cold spring, where there is still frost in May.
We’re having a week’s break on the Black Isle, one of our favourite resting spots. It was originally booked a year ago, but due to Covid, we were offered a choice of refund or a year’s postponement. We choose the latter. It’s lovely to be back in this gentle part of the Scottish Highlands.
The other reason for being back in Cromarty is to scout out a possible location for one of our Silent Eye landscape weekends, which we hope to resume, soon. This part of Scotland was host to our ‘Pictish Trail’ workshop, last September and before the recent lockdowns.
Stuart and I will take turns to host the new series of ‘Landscape Workshop’, and other close friends of the School have offered to guest-host others in their areas, such as the sacred wells of the Malvern hills.
This time, I’m looking for something different, something that contrasts the ancient landscape with the harsh results of modern living and its associated technologies. It’s a topical consideration, and Cromarty is a fitting location…
The clash of unchecked technology and sustainable living is a central consideration, given the global warming background to all our lives.
There are few landscapes that bring nature together with the harsh sides of mankind’s struggle for survival and prosperity. Cromarty has both, and I want my mind (and emotions) to work on the potential this location offers.
There’s a conscience here in Cromarty. There’s also a rich seam of intelligence and consciousness. The locals work together to support each other with projects, craft workshops, theatre and books. You can feel that it’s not only peaceful but involved. It’s the kind of mindfulness that is productive and harmonious.
I asked the lady owner of the local bookshop about the contradiction of the presence of the giant rigs, just offshore, She smiled and said, “You just don’t see them after a while. They’re a part of the landscape.”
I think here’s a lesson there, positive and negative.
That sentiment of the ‘changed normal’ was what first made me think of Cromarty as a basis for a weekend, perhaps one that would contrast human ego and human soul; held, necessarily, in balance between the perceived ‘higher and lower’, where the stage for the drama is human nature.
With Sue’s sad death, Stuart and I are examining how we take the Silent Eye forwards, particularly in terms of workshops. The teaching system is well-established and we plan to extend this with online events. Covid under Covid has taught us much, and the powers of ‘Zoom’ to reach across the world and host a virtual discussion, or even short workshop, have been established.
We also feel it’s time to be open to new ideas for the workshops.
The Cromarty weekend would have a residential base in the local B&Bs, but the workshop would be held as a series of walks and talks in the landscape, never far from the contrasts of beautiful loch, mountain and the ever-present giant rigs of Cromarty Firth.
Fitting, perhaps, for the Beltane weekend, that the final mile of my Collie walk was graced with this turning of the river path’s earth to reveal the most beautiful ochre-gold of sunset across the ground.
Shortly after, we crossed the old bridge. Tess went down to the water to drink, photo-bombing my carefully framed attempt at what I’d spotted as a ‘Constable shot’. I’ve been photographing this stretch of the River Kent for a decade, but had never seen this glowing colour set, before…
It was then I realised that we’d already had two of the ‘alchemical’ elements, Earth and Water. Never really about the literal words, these are ‘trigger symbols’ for psychological and energetic states. This quaternary of four elements is important to anyone who delves into humanity’s emotional and mental origins. They are rightly prized at all major points of the solar year, and the May Day (Beltane) festival, though not one of the four solstice/equinox points, is key to the strength of the returning Sun.
I set off, again, wondering if I could possibly hope for such appropriate photos of the other two elements. I need not have worried. The Beltane fairy-folk were obviously present to guide my steps…
Leaving the river behind, Tess and I climbed up through the rapidly darkening meadow to the towpath of the former Preston-Kendal canal. Nearing the end of the climb, I felt a brush of faint warmth on my back and turned to see the western horizon ablaze. Sunsets don’t always photograph well with phone cameras, but this one did…
Through the small wood, then back into the open meadow to the edge of the village. I was still missing an experience and an image that corresponded with alchemical air... And then I remembered that, at the start of the walk, I had stopped to set the camera at ground level in order to capture a dandelion seed head in a way that mirrored its spherical shape with the distant sun. At the time, I had just put the iPhone back into my pocket without looking at the result.
Now, at the end of the walk, I had chance to see what had been recorded. Sure enough, there was as good an image for alchemical air as you could wish for.
My journey was complete. I hope your May Day weekend was filled with the delights of this special time, when, in the ancient calendars, the spring gave way to summer, and the life-giving power of the full solar energies.
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…
This may be the final post that I get chance to write for the Silent Eye… that decision has been taken out of my hands. I spent much of last week in hospital, having, as many of you know, been diagnosed with incurable small cell lung cancer last September. It has been an interesting and informative journey on so many levels as familiar things have been stripped away and a gift of love left in its place… rather like the tooth fairy leaving something of real value in place of a discarded incisor.
First to go was the illusion of near-immortality that gets us through life, one way or another. We know there is a certain inevitability about life leading to death, but we tend not to apply it to ourselves until we are forced to pay attention. Dealing with the situation that made me sit up and listen meant that the body came under attack. As its fitness levels diminished, my job went… and so did my face and figure. All core things with which I have identified myself over the years.
Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Even language conditions you to that… ‘my face’, ‘my body’… ‘my life’, forgetting that we borrow the raw materials of our physical existence from Mother Nature and that they will, one day, have to be returned.
Bit by bit, the human version of one’s identity is stripped away. You are too weak now to dance, couldn’t climb a slope, let alone a hill, if you tried and are going to have to be pushed in a wheelchair… the way you have done for your son all these years, in a complete role reversal. Except that he is still stuck in the wheelchair and you can’t even trade places to make it a good deal. Because there are no ‘deals’ at the end of life.
So, eventually you accept that you won’t make it to retirement. Your voice changes, disappearing every so often. Then, an eye goes… and not in some fixable way. So you can no longer drive the thousands of miles that have been your joy. Or see to paint or write with ease, or even watch the birds on the feeder. And while you are given lots of hope about the outcome while they wait for test results, it is not a surprise when you are told that the cancer that had started in your lungs has now set up multiple homes in your brain.
Or that the ‘months’ you had been given have now been reduced to ‘days to weeks… if you are lucky’.
If you haven’t started to let go of the identification of yourself by what you have done, the definitions of ‘self’ imposed by language, role and label, then having them forcibly torn away is really going to hurt. The human personality is programmed for survival, and the possibility of extinction… like a candle flame forever snuffed out… is anathema to the ego.
The ego… the personality we wear like a protective shell as we walk through the world… wants to have mattered, to be remembered, to have made a difference. Sometimes it has… and may learn before life ends that it did. And that is a joy, although it comes with a certain regret. How would life have been different had you always known that you were so loved and made a difference? Yet each one of us, every one of us, does so…simply by being present in the world, we change it indelibly. By reaching out to a friend, by comforting a child, by simply being human, sharing life and love and laughter… and tears… we each make the world a different place, moment by moment. We may never see the ripples of what we do or say, or know how far we can shape a day or a person by our actions. We each have that power… and responsibility.
But if we had known how much we mattered in the world, or how much love might be out there waiting for us to let it in, would we have tried to become better at being human? A better vessel for the spirit that animates Mother Nature’s gift of form? Who can say? But I suspect that complacency could be a real danger.
And then you reach the real goodbyes, realising that letting go of the illusions of identity which have, inevitably, helped get you through life, was just a step towards learning how to look at someone you love and say goodbye for the last time. We say goodbyes all the time… it shouldn’t be so hard. But that ‘last time’ seems awfully final. You look at the spring flowers and know you will not see the heather bloom again, or look up at a full moon and know, with a fair amount of certainty, that it will be your last. That ‘tomorrow’ is now an uncertainty.
There is grief at leaving behind the human loves, the beauty and all the things that make our experience on earth so rich and varied. There is, for many, a clear roadmap of where we go next. For those who hold such beliefs close to their heart, there is no ego-fear of annihilation. Nor is there an ending…
Spring is the time of rebirth and the daffodils are in bloom here. I hold to an inner certainty of an existence beyond this one. It is more than belief, but if there are those who choose to call it an expression of that very ego-fear it erases, that is their privilege. I have experienced enough ‘otherness’ to know the difference.
I believe that we are all expressions of the One, by whatever name, story or symbol we seek to understand It. Talking with my son today, he compared us to a microbe on our skin trying to understand the workings of our universe. So much we may be able to deduce, sometimes we are granted a glimpse beyond the Veil… but for the most part, we are far too small to see the Design or know its reasoning in its entirety.
From its essence we are brought into manifestation, still part of the One… and when we depart this world, we are still part of the One. As the components of our bodies are returned to earth, so is the animating spirit returned to its source, carrying with it the fruits of our learning and adding to the store of Creation’s understanding. If the One is All, then it can be no other way and the separation we feel through loss or death is an illusion, painful to the human side of us, but perhaps with a purpose too. If we are here as ‘crystallised spirit’ as some have called it, then we are here to learn things that spirit alone cannot learn and we cannot do so without seeing both sides of life, bright and dark, joyous or sad. How would we know how deep love goes without the grief of loss?
Like many others these days, I have been given the privilege of being able to say goodbye. To leave those I love with memories of smiles and laughter, fierce hugs and gentle tears… for, when you know in advance, the grief of letting go works both ways.
I watch as those I love and am leaving find their own place within themselves and within the circle of love that surrounds them unseen, knowing that they will grow through the grieving, and that anything I could have done to help is done. In the end, as friends, teachers, partners or parents… we can only ever guide faltering footsteps and hold a hand along the way. Choosing the way forward and having the courage to take that chosen path is always down to the individual and when they realise that, they also begin to realise how strong they can be.
And now, for me, comes a time of gratitude, where I look back at what an amazing life I have been granted… for they all are, even when they seem small and pale against the big screen of fame or notoriety. And I can wonder at how much I have learned from the living of it. And how much love it has held… and then find that there was even more than I could possibly have believed.
This may be the last post I write for the Silent Eye, a school with which I have worked for years and which has given me so very much more in return than I could have dared to dream. I would not have missed this adventure for the world. And any time now, I will embark upon the next… and all I will take with me is love. And that is always enough.
“You could find something spiritual in doing the dishes,” said my friend, as if this was unusual.
“He’s right. And although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it,” said Stuart, “ you could probably find spirituality in going to the toilet.” Half a dozen themes suggested themselves as he spoke.
“Disposing of the old and outworn…”
“…and how unhealthy hanging onto it too long can be…
“An illustration of how difficult it is to find personal time and peace in modern life… ”
“A meditative interlude…”
“One could talk about chemo constipation and how a breakdown in the system affects every other part of the body and mind…”
“…which shows how health is not static but a process. Nature has worked for thousands of years to create a process that works beautifully…”
“A perfect system. Recycling waste to feed plants and through them the animals that in turn feed us…”
“A completely self-contained system. And we think we can do better… and treat it with little or no respect.”
“We’ve only just got away, in evolutionary and social terms, from living with muck. Manure and its human equivalent were very much part of our everyday lives till recently… now we’ve moved away enough to become squeamish. “
“So we try to feel in control…”
“And fail miserably.” Because, when all is said and done, Nature is a bit bigger, a lot older…and a great deal wiser than we are.
So they were both right… you can find something spiritual in anything. Especially in Nature. It depends, really, on how you define ‘spiritual’.
For some, it is a side of life that is finer than mere flesh and earth. These are elements to be escaped, transcended, left behind as we strive for a higher state of being. For others ‘spiritual’ is something to do… attending a place of worship, perhaps… praying or adhering to the rules of a religion… following a moral code, meditating, or seeking the answers to the age-old questions that have beset the heart of humankind. And it is not by accident that the words ‘question’ and ‘quest’ share the same root.
There are as many ways of approaching spirituality as there are souls. None of them is right or wrong… each must fit the feet that walk their path.
For me, my approach to ‘spirituality’ changed decades ago when I first began to actively study the Tree of Life. I was reading The Mystical Qabalah, the best approach to this glyph and system that has, in my opinion, ever been written. Dion Fortune, undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the past century or so in the magical field, writes with a down-to-earth clarity that illuminates the stuffy corners of the academic approach to mysticism…. two concepts that do not really go well together, but knowledge is a necessary fuel for understanding.
When I read the words ‘God made manifest in Nature’, I knew what I had been missing in my own approach.
When you see divinity, by whatever name you wish to call It or in whatever form you choose to picture It, made manifest in Nature… pervading everything, from the sand on the beach to the plants, animals… and even into the works of humankind, because they are, in many ways, as much part of nature as the nest or mating display of a bird… then you see the world and indeed all creation, through a different lens. There is a rightness about it that even finds space for what we see as ‘wrong’ because, in the wider scheme, everything has a place. Even darkness, pain and evil have something to teach, for how could we choose between two paths were we only to ever encounter one?
And, when you see the world through that lens, then how can you see your own life through any other? The spiritual life is life, warts and all. It is not something to aspire to, nor something to seek… it is neither distant from nor alien to our base human nature… it is everything we see, feel or experience… from going to the loo to washing dishes, from watching the rising of the sun to holding a dead sparrow in our hand. You do not have to find the spiritual in your everyday life, It is already there. It is life… and It is you.
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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The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)
History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.
(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)
The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.
No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.
In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.
In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…
(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)
The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.
I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?
(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)
But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.
(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)
The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.
In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.
Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.
A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.
Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…
(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)
Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…
The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.
Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.
Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!
The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.
The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.
To be continued.
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