Helen continues her journey through the sacred sites of Derbyshire…
I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part six of my account, parts one, two, three, four and five can be found here…
As you pass between the gateposts leading onto Stanton Moor, there is a feeling of entering another world. Perhaps it’s the Cork Stone, a great stone guardian whose sphinx-like profile has monitored the path for millennia, or the old quarry marks, now overgrown. Or perhaps it’s the many cairns hidden amongst the heather, silent indicators that this is a land of the dead.
Humans have been using this place for thousands of years, which is why Stanton Moor is a place of national importance and, as such, is protected. Prominent signage advises visitors to leave no rubbish, make no marks and, something that became important as we journeyed further into the landscape, keep their dogs on a lead at all times.
Helen continues her journey through Derbyshire with the Silent Eye:
I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part five of my account, parts one, two, three and four can be found here…
We left Tideswell and headed into the hills. The sun was shining, the temperature warm enough for just a light jacket – not exactly the kind of weather one associates with fear. However, so far we had faced pestilence, death, and the idea of losing everyone you hold dear to be left alone in a changed world. Quite intense for the first afternoon! I started to get the inkling that this weekend would be about challenging myself internally, as well as externally…
Fear is something that is both universal, and specific to the individual. There are fears that hearken back to our ancestral roots – the fear of being vulnerable, cast out, or killed by some predator. Then there are fears that are more personal – some people suffer from claustrophobia, whereas others dislike large open spaces. Some people are scared of heights, others of spiders – it really depends on the individual. There are modern fears – nuclear war, gender-based violence, terrorism – and age-old ones such as poverty, bankruptcy, homelessness. Fear is unique to each individual, and yet is something we all share. Our next destination was a place where people were tested against an ancient fear, yet where the same tradition is still observed to this day.
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.
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.
The weather was beginning to regain its composure, but it was still being temperamental enough to lustrate the companions exploring the mysteries of an ancient landscape. Our next site was not far distant and it was not long before we gathered at the entrance to Cullerlie Stone Circle, the Standing Stones of Echt. We were greeted by the guardian collie, who was evidently torn between the innate need to herd the wandering group of humans and the sure and certain olfactory knowledge that at least half of them had treats in their pockets and the hope that a fair percentage could be induced to throw sticks.
Even so, there was a ‘rightness’ about his presence as he crouched, poised, between us and the stones. About the only thing that did feel right. And that was odd. The wide, open valley gives clear views for miles, broken only by the trees and a few farm buildings. A green lawn leads up the neat avenue of trees to the stone circle, just a short walk from the lane. It is a beautiful prospect. Yet, even from that distance, it didn’t have the right ‘feel’.
The most obvious reason for that was clearly visible on the information board… the circle looked like a pizza, pockmarked with cairns. These cairns would once have been mounds of stone, quite tightly packed into the enclosing ring of the original circle, effectively preventing it for being used in the manner for which it was intended. We may not know all the uses to which these circles were put, nor how rituals were conducted there, nor how they were used as part of the daily life of the community… bit we do know that the central space was crucial to at least some of their purpose.
The University of Adelaide reported last year that it had conclusive proof of what many less officially erudite people have known for a very long time… that the stone circles are constructed with astronomy and planetary alignments as part of their design. The majority of these alignments can only be used from within the circle… so why would anyone destroy that purpose? It was something to ponder…
Another reason for the strangeness of the place may have to do with the landscape itself. All the other circles we had visited were just below the horizon of a hill. These circles never stand alone in the landscape and cannot be seen as separate from it…they are one with it and use its contours as part of the design. Distant hills that form shapes suggesting the body of the Earth Mother… the goddess… even their relationship with the horizon itself, are all part of the way they work. We have often seen the effect referred to as ‘mirroring’, but which we call shadowing…for a mirror reverses the image and the stones do not… where the standing stones themselves echo the shape of the hills. We believe that, in the true tradition of sympathetic magic, those who worked within the circle sought to affect conditions in the wider, macrocosmic landscape by working within their constructed microcosm.
The circles themselves seem to shadow reality. When you lie on your back in an empty landscape and look up at the sky… especially when the stars wheel overhead… you see a circular horizon, as if the arch of heaven is an upturned chalice. It must be remembered that we, in this small and overworked landscape, seldom see the land untouched by the hand of man. Plantations of trees, contours flatted by centuries of ploughing or five minutes with a bulldozer, quarried hills and constructed mounds… let alone our town and cities… none of these would have been there for our ancestors. The chalice of heaven cupped an unsullied land, where only small clusters of dwellings and the great standing stones attested to Man’s presence.
Another possible factor in the feeling of oddness may be the bedrock… there isn’t any. The other stones circles were built on ground underpinned by solid rock while Cullerlie lies on gravel. Stone is a crystalline substance and, leaving aside such things as their healing properties for a moment, like everything else in this world, they have a unique vibratory signature. When speaking of the properties of stone and crystal, our language often uses terms more readily associated with music. I have a pet theory that when we are born, we are ‘tuned’ to the specific vibratory frequencies of the bedrock and that is one of the reasons for feeling at home in a place… because we are on bedrock with a similar or harmonious frequency to that of our birth. I am no expert with either crystals or music, but it would make logical sense of crystal healing too, if the different types of stone act as ‘tuning forks’ or add their note to dissonance to create harmony. If gravel is made up on many types of fragmented rock, I can imagine cacophony.
It was noticeable that most of us hung back. In stark contrast to the previous circles, there was a distinct lack of eagerness to enter the circle. I, for one, did not wish to amplify the unease by standing with a stone and chose, instead, a space on the perimeter.
Cullerlie is a Bronze Age circle with eight smallish standing stones, the tallest being less than six feet high, and forming a circle thirty-three feet in diameter. Within, there are eight circular cairns in which cremation burials have been found. In 1820, James Logan recorded nine satellite cairns, but by the excavations of 1934, no trace of them remained.
It would appear that the main stone circle came first, with the cairns being of much later date. There are cup marks on some of the standing stones…and again, looking incongruous as if the stones had been repurposed from an older construction, on the kerbstones of the cairns. Oak, hazel and willow charcoal have been found… all three of them ancient sacred woods… where the land was levelled and burned before construction began. Were the fires merely intended to clear the vegetation, or was this some form of ritual purification? And why did they fill a sacred space with burials?
It may be as simple as an evolution in their practices, in much the same way as we see in our ancient churches, where the needs of the community have brought playgroups and kitchens into the nave to sit side by side with Elizabethan tombs and medieval wall paintings. Somehow, I don’t think so. Stone circles are never graveyards. There may be the occasional burial within them, but these seem to have another purpose, perhaps sanctifying the ground,or maybe honouring a person important to the site and its clan. Here, it seems as if the circle was deliberately closed. Had some catastrophe so decimated the community that, in a short-lived time, knowledge of the circle’s true purpose had been lost and only its sanctity remained? Were the dead placed within the circle to guard the stones? Or for the stones to guard them? For it is curious that so many stone circles survived, unharmed over the millennia by invaders and a changing religious ladscape. Maybe the answer we choose depends upon whether we stand outside, looking in… or inside, looking out.