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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Crossing the river Livet

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

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 6) Beyond the Blasted Heath

Sun in Gemini

And then the worlds around us literally fell away…

We were all tired; it had been a wonderful day, and the weather had been kind – which is not always assured in Scotland… The brain tends to switch off, which is no bad thing when you are in a ‘holding’ group and the whole idea is to engage a different (deeper, gentler, non-analytical) layer of consciousness.

The path was very straight and shaded with overhanging trees. I could sense the beginning of dehydration, and resolved to drink a little of our remaining water supply when we arrived at the wide path to the place of our workings. I voiced to Dean how good the route was; he chuckled.

” Straight and well-kept? Yes – It’s the old railway line between Grantown and Elgin…”

I laughed back. The tired brain reacts to defend the idiot it has become but I let…

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Perfect peace

The sun had shone on a perfect day, buzzing with the sound of summer. The air was full of small noises… the distant squeals and laughter of children playing, insects busily going about their job, music carried on the breeze, the tearing of grass beyond the garden fence where the cattle munch their way through the lush green field and the constant song of birds. It was one of those days where you could read the season from its soundtrack, even here in the village.

Much later, I sat outside while the dog dozed in the cool night air and there was silence. It wasn’t just quiet … there was no breeze to rustle the leaves on the trees, no wisps of speech from late-night television wafting through open windows…not even the usual muted roar of the occasional car on the main road. With the door closed behind me to keep the moths safely outside, the quiet whirrs and hums of appliances could no longer be heard. The silence was complete.

I love the night… I always have. As a girl, in a more innocent world, I loved to walk long after dark, feeling the change in the city streets as people closed their doors and curtains, withdrawing their life, gathering it in to the centre of hearth and home. It was never silent, but there was a quieting of human presence… a strange, psychic ‘space’ and peace in the empty streets. I would watch the stars… at least, those that could compete with the sulphurous glow of the city… and I would dream.

It was, perhaps, an odd way for a young teenager to spend her evenings, but somehow there was a sense of security in that silent solitude. It was the one time in my day when I felt I could be no more and no less than me. There was no parental expectation, no teenage self-image to create or maintain for peers, no awkward self-consciousness, just a consciousness of Self as I set my mind free to wander. It was, I suppose, my introduction to the kind of walking meditation I would learn in later years.

But this evening was different. Deliberately becoming consciousness of the body is a technique often used in meditation. It encourages awareness of the here and now. But this was not the same; it was not deliberate at all, but a moment that arose spontaneously and brought with it a sense of peace and wonder all of its own.

There was a stillness to the night that is rare… a perfect pause. The absence of any kind of noise only seemed to enhance the vibrancy of the life around and within me. The only ‘sounds’ came from my own body and they were ‘heard’ only within. Observing and following my attention as it seemed to dance deeper, I was aware first of the constant whine of the tinnitus, a false sound that is only exacerbated by silence. I became conscious of each breath, of the blood in my veins and the beating of my heart, as I ‘listened’ to the silent rhythm of my body’s life and knew it for a tiny part of something vast and beautiful… just one small note in a great symphony.

There was a clarity to the moment, knowing that the body we inhabit is not who we are, that the mysterious thing we call life may animate, but exists beyond, the physical machine. That the life I think of as my own is simply a drop in a great well from which all life is drawn and in which we all share, from the warm, summer grass to the snuffling hedgehog, from the moths drawn irresistibly to the light behind the curtains to the dog snoring at my feet.

I thought about the scientific premise, so easily observed, that energy is never lost… it simply changes form or state when it reaches an apparent end.  As summer blossoms, the energy of the sun is captured and forms flowers. With summer past its zenith, the blooms fade , revealing their burgeoning fruits and seeds while the petals decay and disappear, becoming one with the earth from which they arose, the source of next year’s flowers.

Will the energy that is ‘me’ one day do the same? Not just the physical form returning to its component parts, but that invisible something we call life? My own belief is that it does, returning to its source as fuel for future lives, and, in the silence, I wondered whether what I have borrowed from the well will be returned depleted, enriched…or simply in its original state? And yet, I thought, did  an answer really matter? Any borrowed gift must always be respected and returned  with care.

Perhaps darkness is the time for unanswerable questions. The dog yawned and shifted. I felt closer to her than ever, feeling the shared bond of life as I reached down to bury my hands in her fur.

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.

 

Hunting the Unicorn: The place of the heather priests

Our final visit of the workshop was to be a silent, withdrawn location that owes much of its history to its very isolation. Hidden amongst the hills of the Braes of Glenlivet, the buildings of Scalan remain invisible until you are almost upon them… even when you know they are there. Dean had chosen Scalan for its peace and solitude as much as any other reason. It was a place where it was rare to see another living soul and the land wraps itself around the low buildings.

Unfortunately for us, we had chosen the one day of the year, it seemed, where an event was to be held there. The Annual Mass, a pilgrimage to Scalan which is normally held in July, had been quietly moved forward to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of a Bishop at the site.

For us, it meant that the silent buildings Dean had chosen for their solitude…and to allow us to be undercover if the weather were wet… were about to be thronging with hundreds of people sharing a religious rite. Not only would our work not share the space well  with their worship, there was a fair chance that they would not understand five pentagrams laid out on a place they consider holy ground. Discretion, respect for their beliefs and the herding of a guardian encouraged us to move a little deeper into the hills for our work… but not before we had looked around Scalan itself.

The buildings look like the remains of farm, and for a part of its life, that is exactly what it was. Traces of that part of its story abound, from the shreds of faded wallpaper clinging to the walls, to the remains of the waterwheel.

But Scalan’s history is both darker and brighter than that. Originally established in 1717, at a time when Catholicism was effectively outlawed, Scalan was the last seminary in Scotland  where Catholic priests could be trained in secret. The old chapel now stands roofless beside the newer, two storey building erected fifty years later. Because of the isolation and secrecy, at a time when code-words were used to describe anything pertaining to Catholicism, the soldiers charged with eradicating the worship found the place difficult to find… and the priests who trained there were known as the ‘heather priests’.

It was not only a place of spiritual induction, but a place where some rather radical views were occasionally aired, including those of Alexander Geddes, who trained at Scalan and in Paris, and wrote in praise of the French Revolution, earning him the censure of the Church and his suspension from ecclesiastical duty.

Scalan continued its work as a seminary until 1799, when the repeal of the Penal Laws allowed a new and more open site to be established. On the face of things, you would think that a place that had once been holy ground might welcome seekers of light, even if they walk other paths. After all, the residents of Scalan were no strangers to persecution and misunderstanding because of their beliefs. But, it has to be said that while most, though not all, of the men seemed okay with the place, most of the women got a really uncomfortable ‘feel’ from it. We felt we were definitely not wanted… understandable, perhaps, in a place designed to train those vowed to celibacy and the doctrine of original sin… and were picking up both antipathy and the echo of something unpleasant. Even though, as a location, it was both perfect and beautiful, I don’t think the women of the party could have comfortably worked there even had there been no-one else in sight.

Oddly enough, the feeling dissipated as soon as we crossed the stream. On the outer side, away from the seminary, there is a well, now known as the Bishop’s Well. It is curious, as a well right next to a stream is unusual, to say the least… and was probably once Bride’s Well and sacred to the Goddess.

We walked a little further into the hills where we would disturb no-one except the birds and butterflies and where we would have peace to work. We stopped within the curve of a hollow shaped like the crescent moon, where a clear stream flowed and heartsease grows wild. We had worked within the land all weekend… and somehow, it seemed fitting that we should complete the process surrounded by the elements as Dean guided us through the final sequences of the elemental matrix.

And then we were done. It had been a fabulous weekend, into which an enormous amount of thought and detail had been poured… and one we had thoroughly enjoyed.

There remained only the long walk back to the cars through the oncoming and incongruous crowds gathering for the Mass. We had taken longer than anticipated and, with many having a very long way to go, lunch plans changed. Dean offered hospitality to those who could accept it, while others hugged and took their leave of one another. We were amongst the latter, though not because we were facing the long drive home… we had a day’s grace before we needed to head back so we were heading north… but that is another story.


With thanks to Dean Powell and Steve Tanham for organising the weekend…
and to all those who joined us in Scotland for making a great one.

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If you would like to join us for a weekend, exploring the inner and spiritual landscape, within the landscape of Britain, please see our Events page.

Castle of Illusion ~ blackout poem

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Castle of Illusion

Land and sites engaged the illusion,
made perfect the wholeness, hiding
hollowness. Empty windows watched,
the Ego isolated within, disturbed.
Cairn of ancestors, bitter wind,
vacant feel part of its landscape,
our own psyche apart from it.

This blackout poem is based on a post, Hunting the Unicorn: Shells and Fruits,
written by Sue Vincent and posted at The Silent Eye.  I encourage you to read it.
The image is an edited/layered version of  two of Sue’s photos.
~~ Thank you to Sue for her inspiration and for graciously accepting my offering. ~~

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Hunting the Unicorn: Shells and fruits

Sometimes, on these workshops, the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there in order to remind us that we are not simply here as sightseers… we are here engaged on spiritual work. As we climbed the winding path up the mound, Drumin Castle gave the illusion of being almost complete. The walls of the medieval tower house made a perfect illustration of the ego-illusion of wholeness we present to our world…and to ourselves… with, we were to find,  the facade hiding only memory and time-ruined hollowness within.

Empty windows look out across the confluence of the Livet and Avon rivers, making this a perfectly sited defensive tower. Every approach can be watched across three valleys and it is, itself, an imposing structure. Like the walls raised by the ego to keep the kernel of individuality safe and isolated within its shell, the exterior of Drumin is designed to say, ‘this far and no further’… at least, not without permission and watchful eyes.

Some of those eyes belong to Nature, though, especially these days. The defensive portals now hold only great nests and jackdaws chittered and fussed as we disturbed their younglings.

Drumin was built in the 1370s by Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch who had once attacked Elgin cathedral. It was almost certainly built on the site of an Iron Age fort and, with the cairn and stone circle of Doune of Dalmore just across the Livet, may have been part of yet another of those prehistoric sites where the lands of the living and those of the ancestors were separated by water.

As we entered the tower, I was struck by the resemblance to the Red Tower at Penrith Castle which we had visited on a previous workshop. The great supporting arch had sheltered us there from the bitter December wind and rain. This weekend, we had been far luckier with the weather, but the arch was almost identical.

Above it, one floor allowed a glimpse through vacant windows and thick walls, with a wonderful view over the river valleys below. It has a solid feel… a castle built to last… and yet, the apparently strong fortress had a lifespan little more than our own, falling into disuse around a century after it was built.

Below the castle, however, is a walled garden. Almost an orchard. ‘Almost’ because the trees of the community orchard are still very young. It is a beautiful and peaceful place… sheltered, protected  and yet very much a part of its landscape.

The contrast between the defunct, isolated tower and the vibrant green life of the communal garden is quite striking, both visually and symbolically, especially given their relationship and dependence on each other. So it made a perfect place to construct our pentagrams once again and walk the pattern of our own psyche on their lines.

When we had finished our work at the Castle, Dean took us to his new home. It is a project he and his partner have been working on for several years, building a sustainable home within the trees and hills just a few hundred yards from the Castle. It will be beautiful when it is finished and part of its landscape, not apart from it or imposed upon it. Already, even with the stark lines of newness still exposed, you can see how it will look when it is loved and lived in.

As I said… sometimes the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there to remind us…

‘Aye’ of the Unicorn…

Stuart France

Image result for Alchemical unicorn

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With almost prescient clarity

we commenced our summer workshop in a graveyard!

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Except, not quite, for before we entered the graveyard,

we stood by the swiftly flowing waters of the river Spey

and entered into a guided meditation.

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The Unicorn of Spirit

sailed down the Spey

disembarked from its boat,

and invited us all astride its back

for a tour of the elements…

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Somewhat unsurprisingly then,

our first pentagram was that of Spirit,

which could be called the ‘parent’ of the elements.

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Have the bodies buried in the earth,

hereabouts, had their constituent parts

returned to spirit?

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One might well hope so!

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In Macbeth, the Bard uses the three witches

to represent the spiritual realm.

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As with a lot of things he wrote

this is simultaneously;

a joke,

a reflection of characterised psychology,

and can also allude to something far deeper…

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Hunting the Unicorn: the Fairy Circle

 

Sunday morning already… the weekend was slipping by incredibly fast, but we knew Dean had a lot planned for the final morning of the workshop. Our day began by packing the car, necessarily skipping breakfast… which was to prove a bit disastrous as things turned out… and re-inflating the dodgy tyre yet again. It was definitely getting worse, but it was still manageable as long as we had access to an air pump. There was no prospect of getting it dealt with on a Scottish Sunday so far from a large town anyway.

But all practical considerations would fade away as we drove to our rendezvous at Dean’s home in Glenlivet. The morning was beautiful, the landscape incredible with wide valleys fringed with the blue of snow-kissed mountains. We glimpsed rabbits, deer and scurrying weasels and, quite magically, there were huge hares on the road.

While hares may well be a common sight in that area, for us they are a real and exciting rarity and we saw three… as many in a few minutes as we have seen in all our travels together. Hares are symbolically associated with the moon, as are many of Scotland’s ancient sites… and with the realms of the Fae. They represent rebirth and regeneration… and, in our experience, they always herald something special.

We would have to wait and see… and had not long to wait. Our first stop was a place close to Dean’s home, with a name that sounds as beautiful as the site proved to be… the Doune of Dalmore. We parked beneath the hill that leads up to Drumin Castle, where we would be heading next, crossed the whisky-coloured river, where, to my delight, we found healthy elm trees, and walked into wonderland.

A mound rises up from a ridge at the top of the field… an emerald carpet scattered with white flowers, pale rocks and the silvery bark of the trees. It seems to be a man-made structure but, ‘Doune’ means ‘fort’ and that’s what it looks like, a fairy fort. It is what it feels like too…a magical place.

 

Close by is the stone circle, with four remining standing stones surrounding a ruined cairn of the Clava type, like the amazing structures we had seen on our last trip to the area and Clava Cairns.

The rocks that scatter the base of the hillock wear strange shapes and seem to be arranged in patterns, as if, did we but have the key, they would still speak for us with stories that have slept there for millennia.

We were here, though, to work, not wander off exploring…which I think we would all have been happy to do had we had the time to spare. It was the most beautiful of places.

Unfurling our ribbons and stones once again, we contemplated yet another aspect of the magical personality. As we worked, we were watched… a young deer patrolling the fences, though whether we were being guarded or guarded against, we will never know.

Some places have a ‘rightness’ to them that is impossible to explain. Across the river, the medieval walls of Drumin Castle looked almost complete above the trees. You could have been centuries ago, just looking at them… and yet, they were insubstantial, ephemeral, against the ancient spirit of this sacred hill.

In itself, that was another beautiful illustration of how well and how much the land itself can teach us. Beneath all our acquired habits, hang-ups, fears and triumphs, there is something much older and more real than we tend to realise as we go about our daily lives. No matter what we build for ourselves, all of which may decay or be torn down, there is a bedrock of beauty within each of us, a bastion of the otherworld, to remind us that we are more than our worldly form  and of whence and what we come.