Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?

We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.

We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.

Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of the last ice age)

The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.

As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.

Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.

Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.

Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.

The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.

The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.

But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.

But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©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.

Two journeys, one destination (2) – Inverness

It begins in Inverness, that beautiful confluence of water, road and mountain. Like any journey through northern Scotland, it will be dominated by water…

The year 2020 will be etched in all our memories. It was not a good year to try to hold the kind of workshop we run: three days of shared travel, feeling the landscape, and thoughts about the nature of consciousness; that most precious jewel every human carries. Add to that the possible extension to visit the archipelago of Orkney, and we had something very difficult to achieve.

Covid had caused us to cancel three of the planned workshops of the year. We hung out for the September one, hoping that the physical heartbeat of the Silent Eye could endure for at least one annual pulse in these challenging times. Bad news after bad news threatened it, but the core bookings had been made and we intended to honour them – even if it meant a small group.

Finally, it was time to get in the car and begin what was to be a vast journey… Inverness would be the point where those able to attend were going to meet up. For most of them, it was a journey of hundreds of miles even before they began the weekend.

(Above: one of the Pictish slab crosses in Inverness museum)

The workshop was to be in two parts: the first, centred in Inverness, would follow Historic Scotland’s Pictish Trail; the second would take advantage of the fact that we were already near the top of Scotland and could easily board the ferry to Orkney. Bernie and I had visited Orkney in 2018. We were keen to return with the others, and even more eager to share the wonders of this magical place.

(Above: the fine lines of Pictish art display the high culture of its people)

The mysterious Picts have long held a fascination for me; ever since I first saw their art, and was struck with an inner sense of wonder at what I can only describe as its ‘quality’. The only other time this had happened was when I saw an Egyptology exhibition in London, and gazed on that ancient civilisation’s wonders.

Decades on, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with a mystically-oriented group and finally see the relief figures on their beautiful temples. Later in the trip, we were to encounter traces of a people even older than those Egyptians, and much closer to home…

(Inverness’ beautiful and formidable River Ness, with its set of islands connected by walkways. What looks like the far bank, here, is actually the largest of these)

But first, we wanted to have a beginning that would ‘wash away’ the miles that most of us had endured to get here. Inverness offers the perfect answer: a walk by the River Ness.

The River Ness is the channel that connects Loch Ness with the North Sea by way of the vast Moray Firth. It is one of the most powerful rivers in Britain… and yet, to my mind, one of the most peaceful. Near the city, it is criss-crossed by several pedestrian bridges, three of which link both sides of the river to a set of islands in the middle of its flow; effectively creating a set of natural wild gardens in the middle of the river.

Using these, we were able to take a circular walk and finish at a coffee stop that reminds me of something you might see in Paris. The bright and unexpected sunshine helped, and you could feel that the tired spirits were rising.

(Above: A Parisian-style coffee hut on the bank of the River Ness)

The coffee hut was a colourful place, and clearly popular with seasoned local folk – one of whom agreed to pose with ‘his’ seagull for this shot…

I had wanted the walking tour to finish here because of its proximity to one of Inverness’ hidden gems: the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, a Scottish Episcopal Church situated by the River Ness a few minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness – a vast geography.

(Above: the exterior of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew)

It is the northernmost cathedral in mainland Britain (but, later, we will encounter another, magnificent one in Orkney…).

Inverness Cathedral was the first new Protestant cathedral to be constructed in Britain since the reformation. The cathedral was built during the years 1866-1869. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, in 1866. The architect was a local man, Alexander Ross.

(Above: the graceful lines of the Cathedral of St Andrew, created in the Gothic Revival style)
(Above and below: the eye is drawn to the high, wooden ceiling)

I had wanted to see inside this building because, since a visit to the Belgian city of Ghent, two years ago, I have developed an interest in religious icons, and I knew that the Cathedral of St Andrews contained a very special set.

(Above: The icons are located on the north wall of the nave)

The central figure is that of Christ. The inscription reads:

“These icons were presented by the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, to the Right Reverend Robert Eden, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness, on the occasion of is pastoral visit to the country in 1866’

A detailed review of the Cathedral is not the point of this post, but it is worth drawing attention to two more unusual features of the building, The first is the magnificent pulpit, rendered in marble and local sandstone.

The second is a beautiful reproduction of a Pictish Christian cross, located in a special chamber near the entrance. I know nothing of its origin, but spent a full ten minutes at the end of our visit just staring at it…

The magnificent Pictish-style cross

We had met well. The rest of our afternoon was to be spent in the wonderful Inverness Museum, deepening our knowledge of the Picts. We had much to learn…

To be continued…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

The Way to Dusty Death?

We were in Ulverston, Dean and I. We’d just climbed the famous ‘Hoad’ – a tall monument on the top of a tall hill that looks like a lighthouse… but isn’t. There’s some important symbology in that, but we’ll return to it later.

Light and dark….a walk in Glenlivet…including a view from the stone circle at the Doune of Dalmore toward Drumin castle…both scenes of coming derring-do on Sunday. Photo: Dean Powell.

He was on his way back from Somerset to northern Scotland – the Glenlivet area of the North Cairngorms, where he and his loved ones have their home. Our house in Cumbria is en-route, so the door is always open to break his journey. After a night involving Bernie’s excellent cooking and a glass of red wine or two, we decided that a local (ish) walk would put some air into the bloodstream for his second leg and return to the far north.

Ulverston is one of our local favourites. It’s about a half-hour journey up the fast Barrow road. A coffee in Ford Park and then the short but taxing climb up ‘The Hoad’ to get to the famous lighthouse that isn’t. It can be seen all over the expanse of Morecambe Bay. It’s actually a monument to the famous engineer Sir John Barrow.

We’d got our breath back by the time we got to the monument. The Silent Eye had recently carried out the ‘Jewel in the Claw’ spring workshop at Great Hucklow – our annual biggie. We had used a Shakespearean theme, casting one of our Californian visitors as Queen Elizabeth – ruling over a giant chessboard which was the royal court; and upon which the players moved with great caution… under her watchful eye.

Dean and Alionora had played two of the central characters: Lord Mortido and Lady Libido – death and life in the fullest sense. They were superb. Leaving the tiny village Dean had reflected that there might be scope for doing something else ‘Shakespearean’, in the form of a journey around Macbeth Country, centred in Grantown-on-Spey, not far from where he and Gordon live.

Now, on top of the world and next to the faux lighthouse, we began to discuss it in earnest.

It would involve several kinds of journey. First, it was a long way to travel; but we had all driven down to Dorset the year before for the similar summer weekend, so we knew we’d get the support from our hardy regulars…

Second, there had to be a dual journey in terms of both spiritual discovery and visiting the landscape. The event was to take place in a triangle of land between Grantown, the Findhorn Coast and the Macbeth castles just south of Inverness. There would be no lack of scenery! Dean had already assembled a set of places with that ‘special feel’, including a mysterious old church and a stone circle. Within this combined landscape he proposed leading a journey of self-discovery using an ancient magical symbol. Macbeth’s ‘witches’ had to be honoured – they were a very real force in the time of James VI of Scotland – and subsequently the English king on the death of Elizabeth I. Dean has an intensely esoteric background and is a qualified NLP therapist and teacher as well as the local leader of Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba. He has recently developed the idea of the ‘magical matrix’ and proposed to use this to accompany our journey in the highland landscape.

I hadn’t realised until he told me that the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. The event would mix his Scottish team and the Silent Eye, and we proposed it be called the Silent Unicorn.

Somewhat pleased with the plan, we took the long and winding path down from the Hoad to have a fruitful cafe lunch in Ulverston.

And now it is upon us. Like Macbeth we must earn our keep (sorry) and ‘strut and fret’ upon the magnificent stage of the highlands. Our weekend’s tower must be a true one and not false. Only with that intent – that something deeper is afoot, will we attract the intellectual and emotional harmony that so typifies these Silent Eye ‘landscape journeys’. By the time this is published, we will be leaving Cumbria, to join up with friends old and new from across the UK. We all face a long journey; but a very rewarding one.

For more information on joining us for one of the Silent Eye ‘discovery in the landscape’ weekends, click to see our forthcoming events, here.

The road to Inverness awaits….

©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.