Reblogged from Journey to Ambeth:So this was it. The final stop on my weekend with the Silent Eye, not far from where it had begun for me, two days earlier. We were very close to Aberdeen airport, but, other than the occasional plane or helicopter overhead, you wouldn’t have known it.
We were standing on high ground overlooking a river that turned, serpent-like, through a green landscape. A huge boulder sat on the edge of the drop and across the river from us were several homes, nestled among trees. Behind us was a ruined church, roof and windows long gone. Yet it still held secrets.
We went into the tidy churchyard, rows of stone monuments to war dead from both sides reminders of a not-too-distant past. The church itself, dedicated to St Fergus, was built of grey stone, weathered by time like the grave markers surrounding it. Interesting that it was the second church of the weekend – sacred places in the landscape were often overtaken by others as beliefs changed, often as part of the process and against the wishes of the community.
It was Sunday morning, and it was raining again. But I breakfasted with friends, warmth and laughter a pleasant way to begin the day. Outside, a raven wandered along the wooden fence – one of our group remarked on him, as he was quite unusually large. ‘He was there yesterday, as well,’ I said. Sue had mentioned to me the day before, as we stood in Midmar circle, that it was the time of the Raven, so it seemed appropriate to see him waiting there.
After breakfast we met the rest of the group at the usual place, before splitting into smaller groups to head to the first of three planned sites for the day. Aftera short drive we pulled up on a road running alongside a petrol station, brambles and bushes tangled along the verge, and what looked like a bit of a wasteland on the other side. Yet, that was our destination
Stone and rain. Rain and stone. It seemed to be a theme of the weekend. No matter the weather, when we reached any stone of significance the rain would fall. From soft misty drizzle to gale force rain storms, we experienced just about all the types of rain Scotland seemed to offer, often in the space of just a couple of hours.
And so it was at our next two sites, both of which featured carved Pictish stones. I’d never seen such stones in real life before, so it was a thrill to see the first one, even though it had been reconstructed and sat in the middle of a modern housing estate. There had been a circle there, once, still marked with a ring in the grass, but it had been pulled down long ago, in days when such monuments were no longer revered, their carefully chosen stones broken for use in stone fences and buildings. Some still remained on site, said to come from the original circle, and, despite the cracks crossing the face of the carved stone, the images were still clear, a serpent and spear, thought perhaps to represent the nearby river, and a semi-circle and broken spear, the shape of which came to have more significance for me, later in the day. The rain was still falling as we got into the cars, a soft cool drizzle, dampening the stones but not our spirits, as we headed out into the landscape once more.
Our last visit of a weekend that seemed to have flown by all too quickly was to a little church on the edge of Aberdeen. The sun finally decided to show its face… though it still managed to rain anyway, but at least we had blue skies through the roofless ruins of St Fergus’ Church.
Originally built around eight hundred years ago, the old parish church of Dyce sits high above a bend in the river Don. It was a place of Christian worship long before the present church was built…and possibly already a sacred or significant site in the pre-Christian era. Little now remains of the church apart from its shell, with the curious doorway to the east, where the altar would normally be situated.
Fergus the Pict was an Irish bishop, responsible for bringing Christianity to many in this area of Scotland. He may be the same Fergus who took part in the council of Rome in 721AD that condemned ‘irregular marriages, sorcerers and clerics who grew their hair long’.
Outside the door is a pedestal carved into a bowl that looks like the remains of an ancient font. Local legend says that it is a penitent’s seat, in which the lawbreakers of the community were obliged to sit as the congregation filed past. Within the church, there is nothing much left of interest except a few carved stones.
Some of them are much older than the church and have been reused as part of its fabric. On one of them, visitors have left a small white stone. The reason for this is unknown to me. Is it a pagan or Christian practice? Does it relate to the presence of the Commonwealth graves within the churchyard? The only parallel I can think of is one Barb had mentioned, the Jewish custom of placing a stone on a grave, though we too had been placing stones at sacred sites as a symbol and prayer for peace.
The other carved stones, though, are what we had primarily come to see…and they were rather spectacular. Some of them are relatively small, simple grave markers, probably carved around thirteen hundred years ago, found close to the church, others carry a mixture of Christian symbolism and the elaborate and enigmatic Pictish symbols.
One is a huge cross slab, dating back to the mid 800s, which, in addition to the ‘Celtic’ interlacing on the cross itself, carries a number a length of Ogham script down one side. The beautifully carved symbols include a ‘mirror case’, the ‘crescent and V-rod’ that we had already seen once that morning in the stone circle, and a ‘double disc and Z-rod’. That symbol, less ornately carved, also features on the second of the two large stones. This one dates back a further three hundred years to around 500AD and once again, we came face to face with the Pictish Beast. The information boards, which really only offer dates and questions, show coloured impressions of how the stones may have looked when they were painted, based upon illuminations from later manuscripts and the beautiful jewels that have been found.
And that was it… we gathered above the river where our companions shared their final readings of the weekend and where Running Elk was presented with a hat and the ceremonial Order of the Brolly… a moment I missed as I sat with Mrs Elk in the churchyard, speaking of what has been and what is yet to come. All that remained was a last hour to talk over lunch and some very fond farewells. Scotland and Running Elk had done us proud. By way of showing our gratitude, I am rather hoping we may convince him to show us those ‘other places we should have visited’ one of these days…though Stuart and I did accidentally find one of them on our way back to the hotel… and England was a long way and much beauty away… with plenty of places to get sidetracked and a genuine adventure yet to come…
(The part of this journey that falls outside of the Silent Eye weekend will be continued on my personal blog.)
If you have enjoyed travelling with us through this ancient landscape, why not join us for one of our informal weekends? The next event will be Riddles of the Night in Derbyshire in 1st-3rd December 2017. Full details of this and future workshops can be found on the Silent Eye Events page.
It looked, for a while, as if we might escape being rained on at our second site of the morning, but no… that would have been too much to ask The ritual cleansing would continue. We were heading for another recumbent circle, with a few unusual features… Loanhead of Daviot.
The car park was full so I parked the car at a little distance and we walked back, arriving to find the group listening to a ghost story about the lady seen in the woods through which we would walk to the circle. The trees could not have been there when the circle was constructed, or they would have blocked the view of the moon and made the recumbent redundant, but they do provide a beautiful approach and backdrop to the stones. The green lawn opens out beyond the shadows of the trees on a spectacular site.
There are two circles at Loanhead. One is a circle of standing stones, the other, a low-kerbed enclosure which is an ancient cemetery. The earliest construction at the site seems to date back to the Neolithic period, with later use, changes of use and additions. Making sense of the place means looking at perhaps six thousand years of history, as well as the way we view and use our buildings.
In one of the villages where I grew up, there was a lovely old chapel. It had belonged to a small Christian sect and had long-since fallen into disuse. Over the few years that I was there, attempts were made to use the building. It served as a community centre, office space, a dance hall, a cinema and was eventually converted into residential apartments. Each function saw changes to the structure and decor and, by the time the new residents moved in, its original builders would not have recognised the place. They would certainly not have approved of many of the roles it had assumed.
With these truly ancient sites, I think we have to look at a similar shift over millennia, with later folk adapting the site for their own needs and traditions. In a time without written records, it is easy to see how knowledge could be lost as peoples move and shift across the face of the land, yet in a landscape where nothing other than homesteads were built, these enigmatic circles must always have commanded awe.
Then, thousands of years later, the archaeologists who restore and reconstruct them must find a formula that seems to fit all the facts, but which may not be entirely correct or inclusive of all a site’s history. Especially when we know nothing for certain about their original function within the community, exactly how they were used or what form the rituals performed there may have taken. It is, I think, for this reason that the interior of the circle was infilled with the stones of the much later cairn when it was restored.
What we do know is that these circles are in alignment with the movements of heavenly bodies and the seasonal changes. They forge or celebrate the relationship between the earth and the heavens and, in that respect, have something in common with our modern places of worship. It is no surprise, then, that many of these sites have burials attached to them, though this one has more than most.
The main circle is sixty-four feet in diameter. There are eight single standing stones, plus the two flankers and the huge recumbent which, says the official report, has been split vertically in two by the frost. The stones, as always, descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent. The two flankers, one of which is carved with cupmarks, lean in towards the recumbent and you are left in no doubt of which of them represents the masculine, fecundating forces of nature.
Within the circle, at some later date, a cairn was raised over a cremation where shards of adult and children’s bones were found, with worked flints, potsherds and charcoal. Around the base of each of the standing stones a small cairn had been raised, where cremation burials were also found. Four shallow holes within the centre of the circle have given rise to the suggestion that a wooden mortuary house may once have stood there.
I had initially been drawn to the smaller, less impressive circle, curious as to its purpose, but in no doubt as I approached. During excavations in 1935, a shallow pit had been found in which were the half-cremated remains of a forty year old man who seemed to have been clutching a pendant. The pyre had been built over the body and, instead of collecting the remains, the area had been used to inter another thirty or so cremations. Close by is a pit in which, it is thought, bodies may have been stored before burning and another eleven burials in urns and yet more in pits.
The burials seem to date from the Bronze Age, and took place over a relatively short period of time. “Whereas the great stone circle had required the co-operation of a whole community (and their neighbours) to build it, and while its use for the rituals of life, fertility and magic extended over many centuries, the cremation cemetery is an altogether slighter, more transient creation, concerned with the relationships in death within an individual family or two over a short time.” ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Grampian’, (1986).
On the edge of the next field are the remnants of yet another recumbent circle. We can only imagine the awe and wonder in which such sites, already remnants of an ancestral past, must have been held. That same awe still touches those who visit these ancient, mysterious sites still today. We may not always understand, but we can still feel the magic in the stones and see the spirits of the earth in the forms that linger in their shapes. There are sinuous dancers, great hands reaching for the sky, faces and animals, a shaman’s headdress… all there for the eye to find and the heart to comprehend. For all our veneer of modernity and our vaunted civilisation, we are not so far removed from our roots as we might care to think.
The weather was looking none to promising for the final day of the workshop, but at least it wasn’t really raining. It seemed incredible, under the heavy grey of the sky, that we’d had the clear weather-window the night before, just long enough to show us a starlit sky above the stone circle.
We had another visit to a stone circle after breakfast, but this one was quite a bit different…and suburban. I want to state here and now, that to have quite so much archaeology concentrated in Abereenshire seems a little unfair, when the place where I live has virtually nothing for miles. North…or south… yes… but not here. Oh, it is probably all there under the surface… ploughed and sown by centuries of farmers, but little of it is visible. It can be rather frustrating at times.
And yet, there is a lesson for me in that too. Whether there are standing stones, cairns and circles aplenty, or nothing visible at all, the land itself remains. The earth knows neither boundary nor barrier, nor is it sacred simply because it is marked by some prehistoric monument or fascinating legend. The ancients saw the goddess in the earth that gave them life… virgin in her unsown fields, blushing dawns and laughing brooks, maternally fruitful and nurturing, ancient and wise with her intimacy with the cycles of life and death. It matters little how our beliefs and perceptions have changed over the millennia… the earth is still all of that and more.
The threads of life are interwoven. Now, more than at any other time in our history, we are able to scientifically prove the interdependency of the species and the need to maintain balance in our environment. Our forefathers seem to have understood that without the need for any other proof than that of their eyes and hearts. I wonder which of us is the most advanced in that respect?
We parked behind a filling station on the edge of town, on a road that seemed to lead to an industrial estate or similar. A couple remained in the cars as the ground was rough. The high, overgrown grasses and fireweed did not look a promising sight… a far cry from the emerald and gold of the autumn foothills… but you cannot judge a site by how it is presented by urban planners, and at least this one, unlike so many others, has been recognised and protected.
Broomend of Crichie is a curious place and the last thing you would expect to find in the urban environment. It is a huge site, yet very little can be seen, unless you know what you are looking for, beyond the three standing stones in the centre. It would be easy to miss the concentric ditches and banks of the henge and no visible trace now remains of the great processional avenue of stones, a mile long, that once led to Crichie from Kintore…save only a solitary stone, half buried in the grass. Today, this is a protected place, although it looks like a patch of wasteland awaiting the bulldozers of the developers. Yet the scale of this site, the work involved in its creation and its continued use over such a long period of time… all mark it as a place that must have held enormous significance for our ancestors.
The site was built in stages, from the Neolithic period onwards, and was first excavated a hundred and fifty years ago. A number of cremation burials were found, along with a cist containing an inhumation. Curiously, small animal, probably bird, bones were mixed with the ashes of the cremations and you have to wonder about their significance . Artefacts were also unearthed, including a decorated stone hammer and the burial urns which appear to be Late Bronze Age. Several other burials were also found in the area dating back around four thousand years to the Beaker culture, so named after the distinctive decorated vessels they created and traded.
In one burial, a small beaker and a child’s skull was found. In another, two men were interred, in a third, a man with girl-child, all covered with oxhide. In the latter, a beaker and a small spoon carved from horn were found…the equivalent of simple, everyday items in our society, but probably prized possessions back then; not only a gift to the departed, but a glimpse into a common human life for us.
It is thought that there was once a timber circle, as well as a circle of six standing stones, of which two now remain. A third stone has been added to the central space. It was erected there after it was found when a nearby embankment was dug up to be taken away to build a railroad line. It may well be one of the original stones of the complex, reused by the Picts in later years and inscribed with the Beast and the crescent and V-rod symbols. It is certainly out of place within the henge, but it does not feel entirely alien. Only lost.
I think I would like to spend a week or two there with a lawnmower, to unveil the true immensity of this site. It would be the only way to appreciate it for what it is… and was. We have seen many stone circles, from those small, almost domestic circles to te great, grand marvels in stone such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Castlerigg, to name but three. All are constructed with regard to alignments, with the land or the season shifts of the heavens. I have often wondered if a comparison could be made between the the differing roles of the great and small stone circles and the visible power of the medieval Church. The great Gothic cathedrals, with their rituals and complex beauty were built to impress, showing both their religious and secular power. In contrast, the simple parish churches, where that same power was stepped down to a more accessible level, was where the real, human work of living in faith was done. If there is any truth to that comparison, then Broomend of Crichie is the ghost of a forgotten ‘cathedral’, veiled in fire-flowers, and yet… it somehow still remembers itself.
A few stars twinkled above Inverurie as our group gathered for dinner. It wasn’t even raining much. That probably explains why, some time after nine o’clock, when the moonless night had well and truly fallen, four people would once again walk the path up to the stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies…
We arrive first and, switching off the lights of the car, allow our eyes to gradually become accustomed to the complete lack of artificial light. We have torches, but they seem an intrusion somehow and will only be used to navigate the potholed track. There is no moon tonight and the little town is far enough distant, and set low enough in the landscape, to be invisible. Even the lights of Aberdeen make only a smudge of sickly ochre on the far horizon. We can see very little… only the ink-black silhouettes of the trees against the lightless sky.
The silence is profound, yet it is not a silence created by the absence of sound, only by the absence of Man. There is a rustling in the leaves, the breath of a breeze, ghostly fingers caressing the night. It is not emptiness, but a living silence… and we are part of it.
We wait, watching for our companions’ arrival. Gradually we realise that the darkness is receding. After a while, we can see almost as clearly as in daylight. Not as far, it is true, but we stand within a circle of vision, painted in silver, black and grey. Between the dancing leaves of the trees, we can see a thousand stars with unparalleled clarity. It is astonishing how quickly our eyes accept the darkness, painting detail upon its canvas with ancient and remembered skill. We will not really need the torches… but our companions’ eyes will not have time to adjust.
Two specks of approaching light rob the night of its completeness. A few minutes later four of us leave the cars and the modern world behind. We speak softly; voices are louder in the darkness, hearing more acute. In fact, it seems as if all the senses awaken in the night, remembering a purpose the everyday world forgets. There is nothing to remind us of when we are… only the torchlight that dances ahead of us on the earth. I am acutely conscious of distance… the noise of a Saturday night is centuries away… Extinguishing the torches, four souls step out of time and into the circle.
Without a word, we know what to do. We each seek our stone and stand before it in silence. My stone is the Elder, carved long before the others. I feel its presence, warm and enduring, against my spine. I think of my own garden and how the moon in its fullness casts shadows there. Tonight, the moon is absent. I look up… and the world falls away…
Above, the sky is cloudless and clear. A million, trillion stars sparkle, flashing colours. What I see is little different from what they would have seen here thousands of years ago… though there would have been no light save a few distant hearthfires to rob the darkness of beauty.
Three steps to my right and I am laying on the stone. It is warm in the circle, there is neither wind nor chill. ‘My’ stone looms over me, a dark void against the stars. Stone accepts my body… my view is unobstructed; the vastness of space draws me into that living silence and I hear its song. An endless time, that is no time, playing in the stars. The Milky Way arcs across the vault of night. The heavens are an upturned chalice to which the stones of the circle are reaching. Constellations that once shone white on black are drowning in a sea of diamond dust… and so am I…
After a few minutes, I sit up. Vision has embraced the night and I can see right across the circle ; the stones glow white in the starlight. I can see my companions, silhouetted against their brightness. It looks as if they are held within the folds of snowy wings. It reminds me of something we had found in a little country church… and as my mind returns to earth, my companions stir and leave their stones.
Reluctantly, I stand… I wish we could stay longer, but we are all aware that it is time to leave. We close the circle and leave quietly. There is no need for words… nor is there really any need for the torchlight. The temperature drops noticeably as we step beyond the stones. For safety’s sake, we switch on the lamps and the night recedes by thousands of years.
We say goodnight and head our separate ways. When we realise the time, we are incredulous. It feels as if we had been there no time at all… but it is not far from midnight…
I should have expected this. On the last Silent Eye weekend I’d attended there had been a place that had shaken me, unexpectedly, making my breath shorten, my heart pound. And so it is, I suppose. On these weekends we are challenged as well as inspired, and beauty can hold darkness as well as light. Still, when you reach such a place it is always a shock.
And so it was at Cullerlie. We parked by an old stone wall, and I picked a couple of blackberries to eat as we approached the gate leading to our next site. And then the guardian appeared. A bouncing ball of black and white fur, the collie seemed very pleased to see us all, bounding about on the grass, pausing at intervals on the approach to the circle. My companions (if you read their accounts), saw him as a friendly spirit, welcoming. And I felt the same way… for the most part. To me it felt a little bit as though he wasn’t sure whether or not we should be there, but he led us on nonetheless, pausing every so often to make sure we were following.
Cullerlie stone circle, also known as the Standing Stones of Echt, is described as a circle of red granite standing stones, surrounding eight small burial cairns. The cairns are also circular, and fill the interior of the circle. Hawthorn and willow ash have been found in the cairns, as well as cremated human bones placed there before smaller stones were placed over the top of them. When the circle was constructed in the Bronze Age, the landscape around it was boggy, the stones brought from higher ground to be placed there, in contrast to the other circles we had seen.
We had returned to Easter Aquhorthies for a second visit. It was still raining, but this time the sky was much brighter than the iron-grey deluge of the day before and there was already a sense of revisiting an old friend as we each returned to our stones. For myself, I was pondering some of the things we had learned here the day before… beginning with a rather obvious question from Running Elk.
“Where does the sun rise?” He was answered by silence. Twelve intelligent, fairly well-educated people had all apparently reached the same conclusion. The answer was so obvious that stating it was obviously going to turn out badly. Only the dog grinned. The sun rises in the east… that’s what we learn in school and that’s exactly what we think we see whenever we watch a dawn. Only, apparently, it isn’t. Who knew?
Well actually, I did. Except I didn’t know that I knew. It is one of those things simply taken for granted. Sunrise. East. Yet, my garden doors face east and I watch the sunrise most days. But thinking about it, I realised that while the winter sun rises directly opposite my doors, I only see the summer sunrise by looking across the garden next door. At a guess, maybe forty-or-so degrees difference. So the sun does not rise due east, but in the eastern skies, or ‘east of centre’.
As an opening gambit, it was a masterstroke. I cannot have been the only one wondering what else I was simply taking for granted… and that one question opened the mind to considering possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked.
We had learned about the solar and lunar alignments in the circle and we had also talked about the value of the elders in the community. Running Elk had started that with a question too, asking how old we thought the average life expectancy would be for those who had constructed this astronomical circle. The consensus seemed to be around thirty years… but averages take in the extremes and seldom reflect reality. Infant mortality was high, and perhaps few would live to what we would call a ripe old age. That alters the figures. It also means that those who had lived long enough, say, to remember the preceding major lunar standstills, over eighteen years before, would have unique knowledge, precious to the community. …and would be valued accordingly. Something our own society might remember…
But why, we were asked to consider, was the moon so important to these people? While we discussed the agricultural necessities of growing seasons, my mind wandered back to childhood and Old Moore’s Almanack. This was a fascinating seventeenth century publication, updated yearly and still on sale today. Optimum planting times are listed along with predictions, astronomical and tidal observations and a really intriguing collection of advertisements for strange and wonderful things. As a child, I found the little booklet fascinating. I always wondered why people planted by the lunar tides, believing that by respecting the lunar cycle, the crops would grow more abundantly. My mother dismissed it as old superstition. My horticultural great-uncle John looked up from his prize-winning dahlias, winked, tapped the side of his nose and said, “Think abaht it, lass.”
So I thought about it. I knew that the moon ruled the tides, its gravitational pull drawing the oceans up and letting them fall as it orbits the earth… and maybe that had something to do with the waxing and waning of the moon too. Maybe, I thought, the same thing happens with the sap in the plants? So if you could understand and predict how the moon tides, maybe you could encourage the plants to grow better? The sun quite obligingly rises and sets daily, and the extremities of its yearly journey are marked by the solstices when the sun ‘stands still’. The longest and the shortest days. The moon then, must also have a solstice… and I was back in the present, listening to Running Elk explain about the major lunar standstill… Light dawned. Solstice of the Moon.
Stuart chanted from the recumbent stone, ancient syllables born of the land itself, and we gathered at the Priestess’s stone to listen. Outside the circle, the sound simply died… within it, a matter of inches away, the acoustics were incredible. We stood by our stones and Steve came to the stone, using its amazing acoustics to lead us in a chant. Syllables, symbolising the masculine and feminine potencies of the universe, the sound reverberating through the space. Next, men and women chanted in counterpoint… and for those moments, each of us was priest and priestess of that formless light that owns no name, weaving sound and breath, in homage and celebration of its Presence and our own presence within it.
And when we had done, as if in response, the rain stopped and the sky was lit by rainbows. Right on cue. It was a truly magical moment. You can spend months on research and planning for these weekends, right down to the last detail. But it is these unexpected gifts that light up the days.