‘…One of the stops we did manage to make on the way to our second ‘official sojourn’ in Glastonbury was, Merlin’s Mound.
Now, Merlin’s Mound you might have thought would be a well-known tourist attraction boasting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year just like its Big-Sister Mound of Sil-Bury Hill, so called because late legend has a king called Sil buried there along with his treasure, a golden horse.
Quite why this is not the case it is difficult to fathom although one possible reason is that Merlin’s Mound is hidden within the grounds of Marlborough College which is a private school.
Of course, there is nothing actually buried in Silbury Hill because it isn’t a burial mound at all and the Golden Horse is far more likely to refer to the sun which, knowing the folk responsible for its construction, probably set behind the hill when viewed from one of the other sites in the area, or seemingly rose from it, and I did not learn that at any school, private or otherwise…
“Which would make it Sol-Bury Hill, anyway,” says Wen.
…Now, I was lucky enough to come across Merlin’s Mound because I attended a conference in the grounds of the college and I have to say I was astonished to learn of its existence but not half as astonished as I was to learn of its size.
In fact for a long time I was fairly sure that although Silbury Hill was regarded as Merlin’s Bigger Sister, size wise, there was not an awful lot in it.
“Silbury Hill is much bigger,” says Wen.
“I’m not so sure.”
“Much bigger, Merlin’s Mound only looks comparable because it dwarfs the buildings that currently hide it so effectively.”
“I don’t think there’s much in it.”
“What does Silbury Hill have to give it scale?”
“No, there’s not a lot else in the vicinity is there.”
“This is one reason why accurate measurement is so important.”
But anyway, and more importantly than accurate measurement of any kind, work is currently ongoing in the renovation of Merlin’s Mound and we are able to walk two-thirds the way around its newly refurbished spiral path-way and I have to say although it was something of a disappointment not to be able to get all the way to top in other ways it was not such a bad thing after all for just getting two thirds the way up was giving me a rather ‘heady’ feeling.
“I know,” says Wen. “Me too. What’s the line in, ‘A House on the River’ when Aeth’s troop, in all their glory, is approaching the strong-hold of Aillil Silver-Tongue and Sweet-Mouthed Maeve?”
“My head may as well be in a vat full of wine…”
“My head may as well be a vat full of wine,” laughs Wen, and I laugh too.
Although, to be strictly accurate in our comparison, the experience is far, far better than drinking or indeed, being wine…
‘Shadowing’ is our term for the phenomenon whereby a standing stone, or group of stones, recreates a distant landscape feature and thereby renders it immediately apparent or tangible.
Most other megalithic writers on the subject have also, independently, recognised this phenomenon although they usually refer to it, less accurately perhaps, as ‘mirroring’.
This being the case, it is highly unlikely for such a notion to be the product of fantasy, yet it is still quite difficult to credit the skill set required to so accurately render this technique, and especially so in a people still regarded by many as ‘primitive’ in relation to us.
Either, the ‘circle constructors’ had an incredible eye for, and memory of, the natural landscape, which they, inevitably, would have done anyway, or, they ‘crudely dressed’ the stones once placed.
Please note the inaccurate use of the notion ‘crude’ here.
There is nothing crude about the ancients’ ability to dress stone in this way, quite the opposite.
Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the question of precisely why the circle constructors would do this?
The terms ‘false perspective’, ‘collapsing distance’ and ‘correspondence’ are all useful in formulating an answer to this intriguing riddle.
All the images in this post display examples of ‘shadowing’ in one form or another, although you may have to work quite hard to discover each and every one of them.
Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior immediately set out for the sea-shore.
There, moored at the mouth of a natural cave in the cliffs, bobbed a coracle.
They both clambered aboard…
…The King of Castle-Hill took the magic halter to the cell of the tower on his wooded isle and presented it as a gift to appease his imprisoned daughter.
“Of what use to me is a magic halter,” sobbed the princess, “if all my days are to be spent cooped up here seeing none but my hand-maids.”
“With the halter comes a wondrous cow, my child, its inexhaustible supply of milk will sustain you,” soothed the king, “and I shall bring your food everyday and relate the comings and goings of the kingdom. Far better a sequestered life than one without a father.”
As the King of Castle-Hill left the tower to attend to his duties, the magic halter cascaded against the back of the cell door…
Brother-Warrior and Brother-Wizard landed at the wooded isle in their coracle.
“The magic halter is with the king’s daughter,” said Brother-Wizard.”
“And where is the king’s daughter?” said Brother-Warrior.
“The king’s daughter, is in a tower in the centre of the wood which is surrounded by nine home-steads,” said Brother-Wizard, “you must enter the tower and sleep with her.”
“And what’s in the nine home-steads?”said Brother-Warrior.
“You’ll see,” said Brother-Wizard. He gave his brother a Cloak-of-Darkness and put a spell on his hands so that whatever door he came to would open for him.
“Wish me luck, brother,” said the warrior, turning to leave.
“One more thing,” said the wizard, “be sure to leave the magic halter with the princess, we will return for it another day.”
“I thought…” began Brother-Warrior but a withering look from the wizard stayed that thought and sent him swiftly on his way into the wood.
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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The Standing Stones of Stenness are reduced in importance compared with their former status. But 5,000 years ago, they were the stone circle for the Ness of Brodgar spiritual city. Only later, in the period culminating in the deliberate act of self-destruction of the Ness of Brodgar structures, were these stones eclipsed as the ‘guide to the heavens’…
(1300 words, a twelve-minute read)
The Orkney site of the Standing Stones of Stenness is overshadowed by its neighbour – the Ring of Brodgar, which is just a few minutes away by car, or fifteen minutes on foot. We had done it both ways… the first time was under a spectacular golden sunset, in 2018. This was the second, and our final visit to the Ness of Brodgar area.
There were other reasons to visit Orkney, but seeing the entire Ness of Brodgar area – in light of the implications of recent excavations – had been the main reason for extending the Silent Eye’s weekend onto Orkney.
For a long period of time at the start of what we now call the Neolithic era – the new stone age, the stones at Stenness were the major stone circle on Orkney, and a key component of the life of the ritual city centred on the Ness of Brodgar, whose sophistication is just coming to light, as detailed in a previous post.
The Standing Stones of Stenness were raised between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Originally, the circle consisted of no more than 12 stones. Today, only four survive. They were surrounded by a wide ditch and raised circular bank (a henge) which was crossed by a single causeway. The whole is reminiscent of how the interior of the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure 10 led only to one point at the centre of the building…for those granted the privilege of being there. In both cases, the recipients are likely to have been carefully selected, and few in number.
There were several related stones that lay outside the stone circle. These include the Stone of Odin, which features in local legends but was destroyed by a local farmer in 1800s, and the Watch stone, which marks the land bridge to the area which contains the Ring of Brodgar, though the latter had not been constructed at the time the Stenness Stones were erected.
At the centre of the Stenness circle was a large hearth. In Neolithic houses, such as those we had seen at Skara Brae (and, though not visited, Barnhouse, next to Stenness) the hearth formed a ritual focal point. The fire there would have been viewed as sacred, and as demonstrating to ‘nature’ that the tribe understood there was an inner fire possessed by all of life, and passed down to it from the ‘stars’.
We have lost the sense of ‘specialness of fire’. To us, fire is commonplace and practical. Unless we are young children there is no wonder in it, even though, if civilisation ended and we found ourselves freezing, few would have the ability to make it, again. The comforts of the modern world have their benefits and their disadvantages. One of the latter is the loss of contact with the vital forces of nature…
Like Struture 10 at the neighbouring Ness of Brodgar, the single entrance at Stenness created a hallowed central space where access could be controlled. Its use can only have been ceremonial and ritualistic: the birth of a child, perhaps; the survival of that child beyond seven years; the coming of age as an adult; the passage of a trainee into the priesthood… perhaps all these things took place here.
There is also celebration. The coming together of the people – probably from far away, as this was such an important centre of Neolithic life. You can stand on this place, look back at Lochs Stenness and Harray and feel how they might have rejoiced at such a gathering.
There was in all probability an earlier building at the site partially represented by sections of masonry, empty stone holes and an earlier central hearth setting.
The form of the stones themselves is of architectural note in that they are very tall and very thin blades of stone i.e. they are structurally very slender and probably at the very limit of structural stability. The stone monoliths were derived from at least five different sources, one of which was Vestra Fiold, on the west coast of Mainland, north of Skara Brae.
A leading archeologist writes:
We had run out of time… No-one wanted to leave the Brodgar area. We gathered to review what this landscape had taught us about the sophisticated people who had lived here, so long ago.
The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have shown that all the sites here, plus the ‘village’ of Skara Brae, were part of a single, spiritually-focussed landscape that involved both a trained priesthood and a dedicated (and hugely ‘expensive’) temple-building programme. The ritual chamber at Maeshowe is a foremost example of this.
The so-called ‘Dressers‘ – see image below – were the central edifice in the kind of worship these people performed, and we should examine them accordingly. From this perspective, we can see that there is a significance to the three legs. The idea of ‘threeness’ was central to much of the Celtic world, and invokes the idea that an impelling higher will uses the ‘descending’ power of duality to achieve its purposes. Mankind, as an intelligent recipient of a creative Nature, can come full circle and project this back to the Creator to demonstrate understanding.
The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered ‘shelves’ of these dressers decorated in bright reds and yellows – very likely solar in their representation.
The use of the midwinter solstice as the most sacred time of the year (rather than the midsummer) indicates a subtle comprehension of the ‘tension of cycles’. In my previous ‘fictional’ example, the new priest is chosen and ordained by an appearance of the last sun of the ‘old cycle’ i.e. before the start of the six months in which the sun gets brighter, and the days longer. The priest is thus associated with the power of light over the darkness…
The day was ending. The following morning, we would sample the best – rather than the worst – of the Viking culture that eventually overtook Orkney, bringing a long period of imposed feudalism to its occupants. But, even within that, there were elements of great beauty.
To be continued.
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In the film ‘No Country for Old Men’, there’s a famous opening scene at the site of a drugs shoot-out. Everyone’s dead when the local Sheriff and his deputy arrive and start wandering through the bodies as though they were in a Spaghetti Western.
The Deputy stays silent for a long time, then says excitedly, “Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!” Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks askance at his junior and replies, as only Tommy Lee Jones can, “Well, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till a real mess comes along…’
As you can tell, I think the scene is priceless. It somehow ‘enables’ the rest of what is, otherwise, a very dark movie–but brilliantly told.
I seldom revisit it, but sometimes, if I do something stupid enough, I can hear Sheriff Bell’s words in my head…
As I began to recount the story of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekends, I found the episodes were so full of detail that I had slipped over my target 1000-1300 words. When you write often, you can gauge, almost immediately, when you’ve overcooked something – and you are asking an unreasonable degree of reading from those wonderful souls who follow you.
After the third post, I had already written the next two. When I examined them, they were each twice as long as my new target of approximately 1000 words.
So I cut them in half…
That meant I had four posts lined up in the WordPress firing chamber.
Last Thursday, forgetting I’d halved them, I published the post of our triumphant arrival at Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, and missed out the post that should have preceded it.
So, by way of recompense, here it is…
It’s a fine mess, but hopefully, it’ll do till a real mess comes along..
The Shandwick and Nigg Pictish Crosses
I suspect there’s a certain amount of suspicion – quite justified as it turns out – about how smoothly our workshops go. A sense of ‘they couldn’t possibly have fitted all that into one day, for heavens sake…’
But, so far, on the Saturday of this Pictish Trial weekend, we had.
We’d had the pleasure of seeing the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which time had not permitted on the prep visit, the previous year. Now, the amazed look on the faces of the visitors as we arrived at the glass-housed beauty that is the Shadwick Stone said it all…
Clach a’Charrridh (Shandwick stone) means stone of the grave plots, and was named so after the area was used as a burial-ground during the 1832 cholera epidermic. It’s on the Fearn Peninsula, about a mile from the Hilton Cadboll site, and sits on the crest of the ridge, visible from the sea.
The cross slab has stood majestically overlooking the Moray Firth for over 1000 years. Its present site is where it has always been. There is something wonderful about standing there and knowing that.
Here, I met the first problem: the smoked glass. For me, there is a joy in bringing back images that I know will generate interest. But, at Shandwick, every time I took a shot, all I could see was the reflection of me and the landscape in the glass.
(Above: the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas is the location for these famous Pictish stones)
I took myself off to one side to try with the editing tools to see if what I had taken was salvageable. As long as I could live with a little colour distortion they would be fine. I returned to snapping…
The thick glass serves a purpose, and it’s wonderful to see these precious artefacts so well protected. The glass and steel housing is locked. You can go inside, but only by appointment with a key holder. And not in the year of Covid-19.
The landward side of the slab is set out in eight panels. They contain a range of symbols. The top panel once had a finely decorated Pictish double disc on it. The central panel contains a hectic scene of Pictish life, with birds, beasts and human figures.
A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may also be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed above animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes or serpents. The designers 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 Northumbria and Ireland.
This Pictish sculptured stone was carved and erected about 1200 years ago. The stone was presumably quarried from the local cliffs in about 780 A.D. It was moved here using ropes, timber rollers and levers, or possibly a cart. The blocks of pattern were marked out and carved using a hammer and iron chisel.
Such a complicated design using a single motif is unusual. Yet it also occurs as a panel on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and fragments from Tarbat. It is speculated there was a school of sculpture in the area specialising in this style.
(Above: the ‘trinity’ symbol in a Pictish form. The often recurring ‘three as one’ glyph will be familiar to many, and shows the depth of spiritual thought possessed by the Picts)
Our afternoon was passing, fast. Our next stop, the small town of Nigg, is famous for its connection to the North Sea Oil business, which is now diminishing. Back up the hill from the oil terminals is a lovely old church which houses the famous Nigg Stone. It’s run by volunteers, but the website, checked that morning on my phone, said it would be open.
The Nigg Stone is displayed inside Nigg old church in a specially created exhibition area. Admired and studied by scholars from all over the world, its ornamental cross resembles a manuscript page. The fantastic intricacy of the carving, the whorls and spirals, and the heaped up knot of snakes, with tails and tongues endlessly intertwining, is said to be paralleled only in the illuminations of the Great Gospel book of Kells.
Unfortunately, when we got to the door, it was locked…
(Above: Nigg’s ancient and beautiful church… sadly closed)
However…. Sue Vincent is celebrated on the Silent Eye weekends for fearlessly reaching up on tip-toes and sticking her camera lens up against the glass, then pressing away, merrily, to see what she can capture. I thought of her as I jammed my iPhone as close as I dared and took a few exploratory shots. When the results looked interesting, I wiped a tissue on the grass to wet it, cleaned the promising spot on the windows and hit the shutter again.
(Above: the ‘stolen shot’ of the Nigg Stone. It’s long way from perfect, but, given the church was closed, it’s a lot better than nothing… The metal bracket is not vandalism, it was custom-made to fit into an eroded gap in the stone (see below), and also to hold the slab-cross in place in its tiny museum)
(Above: One we took earlier, thankfully! The high quality image of the Nigg Stone at the Tarbat Discovery Centre partly makes up for Nigg Church being closed)
The carvings include a unique illustration of a miracle: the first monks, Paul and Anthony, receiving bread in the desert from a raven sent by God, and David: King and Psalmist saving a sheep from the lion, his harp beside his shoulder.
We had completed our Tarbat Peninsula visits. We dashed down to the shore to show our visitors the dramatic Cromarty Firth, then headed off to the final assignment of the day – Rosemarkie, where one of the most wonderful surprises awaited…
Above: the ferocious Cromarty Firth. Majestic and fearsome. Across this, but not literally (as the ferry wasn’t running!) lies The Black Isle, our final destination for the Saturday, before returning to Inverness.
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…St Lawrence on the Hill finally yields to our belated scrutiny after two unsuccessful attempts at entry and proves something of an enigma. On the one hand it is an old church on an ancient site and the energies of the place must still be operating as of old because the Red Kites, as we know only to well, are simply all over the place, and yet the interior of the church, on first glance at least, bears absolutely no resemblance to a church at all. It looks more like an eighteenth century drawing room replete with ornate gildings and renaissance and baroque type works of art.
My mind presents the images of Dashwood attached to one of the tunnel entrances in the caves directly below; the dandified libertine raising his glass of wine and the pious candle holding monk in his habit…
The living room of the nave is the epitome of those two images for on closer inspection all the trappings of the church are indeed there including a rather splendid Bishop’s Chair which Wen and I cannot help laughing over and an incredibly well fashioned font in the form of a serpent twining its inevitable ascent around a pole. The place is also liberally festooned with doves and these are not discreet doves either like in some of the St John the Baptist churches… they are full on, in your face representations and really quite endearing.
I have to wonder about Dashwood, his reputation is appalling and yet, his use of symbolism is rather refined…
…We do not spend as much time in St Lawrence’s as we would have liked and undoubtedly would have done had the place not been teeming with other folk but as those people entrusted with its care have decided to only open it to the public on one day of the week inevitably the public will be present in large numbers on that day. Now, I have nothing at all against folk per se it is just that a silent communion with the spirit of a place is not really possible with hordes of people milling about, however, I have seen enough of the churches ‘decoration’ to suggest that Dashwood is worth keeping an eye on. At this point he does not appear to be directly connected to our investigations but he is not all together unconnected either. I remember from my research that St Lawrence was regarded as a ‘Saint of Jester’s’ largely because of his comment on the grid-iron about being turned to give an even roasting. And that, if you recall, is the grid-iron that he probably never actually lay on anyway. It is hard not to smile when observing his depictions with cumbersome grid-iron to hand. Once again legend and life seem to have become inextricably meshed and the ‘Jester’s saint’ as dedicate of Dashwood, the pious libertine’s church could not be more apt…