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.

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 4) – Sea and Stone

I didn’t want to leave Burghead… not even for Findhorn.

I didn’t want to leave Burghead, not even for Findhorn; a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time. Burghead had filled me (many of us, I think) with a sense of ancient mystery and that dreadful knowledge that the centre of the Pict civilisation had likely perished in the Viking raids of the 9th century, when the ‘fort’ was sacked and burned. Medieval history is thin for north-eastern Scotland, for example the all-important Celtic Christian monasteries at Iona and Lindisfarne have well-documented medieval histories, but the important monastery at Portmahomack (the ‘Iona of the East’) north of the Moray Firth, is not.

The statue of ‘The Queen of the Picts’ from the museum of Portmahomack monastery, an hour’s drive across the Moray Firth, via the A9 bridge at Inverness.

Given time, I’d have spent the rest of the day exploring the layers of Burghead… and sitting with a coffee or six gazing out at the splendour of the Moray Firth. The Pictish people fascinate me – and their art has the same effect on me as did that of Egypt when I first came across it.

Pictish high art from Inverurie – Celtic, certainly, but something ‘smoother’ lurks in these masterworks…

One of our future workshops will be “On the Trail of the Picts“. We will follow the established ‘Pictish Trail’ across three landscapes just north of the Moray Firth in The Black Isle and Easter Ross; with a possible onward option to visit Orkney by car ferry. Advance reservations are being taken. September 2020 is being considered… but that is to be confirmed.

The Pictish Trail is already established. We just need to turn it into a workshop weekend… .with some modern spirituality in the mix

But we were still in the morning of the Saturday, and, though we had experienced the Burghead Well in a very special way, our use of the ‘element’ of water had a deeper personal purpose in the system that Dean had devised.

The journey of ‘Alchemical Water’ was about to be ‘walked…’. In it, we would meet the ‘Limited Self’.

At our next destination, we would ‘walk’ the ‘watery’ pentagram in search of deeper, individual self-knowledge. Dean’s system called for each person to be paired up with another – ideally someone they didn’t routinely work with. One person would walk the pentagram for each element, the other would record their feelings and observations as the mental and emotional journey progressed. Our Friday evening by the River Spey had begun this with the element of Earth. Now it was time, with the help of Findhorn’s beautiful beach, to do it for water…

No beach, lots of sand dunes, two dogs… Findhorn: Dean did not deserve this…

Except, when we got there, there was no beach… The high tide had consumed it, leaving only sand dunes and pebbles where once there had been (we were assured) level sand, perfect for laying out geometrical ribbons!

With great skill and some ingenuity we worked out a technical system that prevented the ribbons from flying away in the strong sea-breeze (heavy pebbles), and carried out what everyone thought was an excellent exercise. One of my key thoughts about ‘water’ has always been the ‘wisdom’ of how it moves around obstacles, rather than offering outright resistance. In nature, few things are as powerful, nor as determined as free-flowing water. Related to the emotions, yes, but much more that that… We should also consider the way it divides itself, without hesitation, to carry out such a flow-around. The ‘self’ of water exists only in the whole….

The ever-present clipboard – used by each half of the pairings to record the on-the-spot feelings and observations of the partner at the points of the magical matrix pentagram. Suitably redacted to mask personal comments.

We were getting used to the ideas behind, and method of Dean’s ‘magical matrix’ system. It’s always surprising (and often a delight) to see what takes form beneath the pencil from spontaneous thought and emotion when we are free just to ‘be’ in the landscape… and that is the whole point of these workshops. The magical matrix was beginning to show each of us the polarity between our beliefs and how we lived our lives… and the two are not always the same thing. There are limitations – real and false – and the simple scribblings were to build up to a comprehensive picture of our selves. Also, the trust that one places in the partner in this type of working is a lesson in itself – and a delightful (and often humorous) process.

And then, mercifully, there was lunch… in one of the best cafes imaginable. Set in the beautiful and famous village of Findhorn, the creative centre of this part of the Scottish coast, the Bakehouse cafe is a delight…

And, in closing this part of the weekend’s story, I have to add this photo of Larissa, enjoying (at the Bakehouse) her ‘first decent coffee fix’ of the whole weekend; truly a memory in itself…

After lunch we were to be treated to a Pictish stone so large, they had to build a glass hangar to house it…

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, This is Part Four.

©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.

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 3) – A Pictish Headland

The Moray Firth is vast, wild and beautiful. Examined on a map it resembles a child’s geometry exercise in triangles, with the coast between its ‘origin’ at Inverness and far-away Fraserburgh being a virtually flat west-east baseline. From Fraserburgh the great inlet of the Moray Firth reaches northwards into the North Sea. The final line in the triangle, from Inverness moving north-east, ends at the tip of Scotland: John o’ Groats.

Above: The vast Moray Firth, a small section of which formed the northern boundary of our Silent Unicorn weekend. Map Google Maps

Our huge geographic triangle pivots around Inverness -which is also the place where Loch Ness meets the sea. What we know as Loch Ness today is the result of the shearing of two vast tectonic plates four-hundred million years ago. This geological event produced a ‘line’ of fracture that is now the line of Loch Ness but runs further across the entire width of Scotland and beyond. The east-west depression is known as the Great Glen.

Above: The mighty Moray Firth, stretching northwards towards Scandinavia.

If you are sensitive to ancientness, when you stand on this, the south coast of the Moray Firth, you can feel the immense age of this beautiful place – and its importance in Scotland’s history.

Above: The Pictish Brandsbutt Symbol Stone from nearby Inverurie. Archeologists have painted-in part of the stone design to show how the original may have looked

The mysterious race known as the Picts, did just that… and they built what would be in our terms a mighty city. Today, the small town that grew in its ruins is known as Burghead.

Above: The scale of the original ‘fort’ can be seen by the fact that it took up the entire area of the Burghead headland – and jutted out boldly into the Moray Firth. Photographed from the Burghead Headland information board.

When we arrived we knew nothing of the above history. Dean (who had made a mysterious stop at one of the shops in the small high street) had arranged to take us through a warren of passageways to get to the famous and mysterious well.

Above: An unlikely route to a magical location.

Another turn and we approached our goal. It’s worth showing an edited copy of the Historic Scotland’s schematic. This pinpoints exactly where we now were in terms of the old fort…

Above: The location of the ancient well, though enshrouded, now, in the small town’s streets, was in Pictish times against the outer wall of the landward side of the city; shown here next to the blue dot.

We stood before the wooden fence reading the Historic Scotland information boards. The Burghead Well is kept locked but Dean had collected the key from one of buildings in the main street. About to enter, we were surprised when a visiting family arrived and said they believed that he had the key! Graciously, we stood back while they added to their holiday enjoyment. They soon returned and we entered the strange space in what looked like a large garden with a depression in the middle…

The Burghead Well. First impressions are of a garden lawn sunken in the middle.

” An old man suggested that they should dig in a certain spot, where, according to immemorial tradition, a well would be found”

Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1828

A strange descent to the well-chamber below….

The well-chamber is accessed by a descent of twenty rock-cut steps. The entire structure was hewn out of the local rock. The chamber is square, with rounded corners; and measures 5m by 5m. In the centre of the chamber is a pool surrounded by a narrow ledge 0.9m wide. The well pool is 1.3m deep. It was once emptied for maintenance and took six days to refill.

The information board shows a drawing from the 1800s describing the shape and the angle of access to the well chamber.

Burghead Well is described as a ‘Pictish puzzle’

It is not known when Burghead Well was constructed, nor why. As we have seen from the schematic, it lies on the rampart line of the inner Pictish fort – built between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The well may not have been part of the fort’s design. The well could have been added later or it could be even older than the ramparts themselves.

Even after millennia, the construction is still resilient.

The well could be considered as a water supply for the Pictish fort, but a shaft would be of more practical use. The rock-cut chamber is 5m wide and contains a 1m deep pool which is fed by a spring.

The act of descending into the earth is likely to have had spiritual significance – as mirrored in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hecate.

Different explanations have been put forward. These include a ritual drowning pool, a shrine to Celtic water deities or perhaps an early Christian baptistery.

Above: Note the beautifully rounded corners of the chamber. The dank-looking water was a shock… we had no right to expect anything better but felt helpless in the face of such a spiritually ‘unused’ place.
Then Sue suggested something profound….

After so much buildup, the actual water looked, for want of a better word, ‘sad’. Everyone spent a quiet moment taking in the age and cultural Pictish significance of this very special place. With a collective heavy heart, we began to move back up the rock steps… Then Sue stole the moment and suggested that we do some of our chants…

Music and chanting have been part of sacred practices for as long as man gazed in wonder at the stars and the sunrise. Over the years we have developed a set of chants that come under the general heading of ‘vowel sounds’. Stuart suggested a combination we had used before; one ending in the powerful ‘Awen’ sound.

Structures – particularly stone structures – have resonant frequencies. On a few notable occasions, such as when visiting the West Kennet barrow, just outside Avebury, we have been amazed and delighted when the artefact in which we were chanting ‘came alive’ and appeared to sing with us.

The Burghead Well did the same. In a second of incredible transformation the beautiful but neglected stone chamber began to ring with the human voice and to speak to us. It spoke of water, of the power of water, of the home of water. It spoke of the journey we were making from the element of earth to that of water, and everyone present left that beautiful and hallowed place in a state of deep reflection…

Above: Dean’s use of the mystical (and mathematical) Pentagram equated the ancient ‘Elements’ with (anti-clockwise from Air) The Boundary Self; the Potential Self; the Weak Self: the Limited Self and finally the Core and Shadow Selves. In this journey we travelled from Earth to Fire, from the Potential Self to the Limited Self.

We may not have ‘connected’ with the ancient Picts, but we certain did so with what they left behind…

The morning was still not finished. Before we had our long-awaited lunch at the Findhorn Bakery, another laying-out of our water-oriented pentagrams was to be made on Findhorn Beach… or was it?

In passing, though not part of our agenda, it is worth noting that Burghead connects with its past in a very special way. It is the only Scottish town that still carries out the ceremony of the ‘Burning of the Clavie’ – the origins of which are lost in history. This takes place on the ‘old new year’ date of January 11th, unless that is a Sunday, in which case the 12th is used, instead.

Elders of the town carry a flaming ‘Clavie’ – half of a cask filled with burning, inflammable materials and topped with tar – through the town. The procession ends at the ruins of an altar on the Pictish headland where the Clavie is made the centre of a ritual bonfire. When the originating Clavie finally falls apart, the people of the town rush forward to claim a piece of the still-burning material and take it back to ward evil from their homes…

The culmination of the fire ritual which takes place on 11th January each year. It might relate to the sacking of Burghead by the Vikings… or it might be part of something much older.
The burning of the Clavie
CC BY-SA 2.0
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_the_Clavie

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©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.