Solstice of the Moon: Circle of Peace

Our first stop next day was a place where mysterious stones, a Celtic saint and a link to one of the best-known legends of the British Isles all come together in a village churchyard. It took a bit of finding, but at least the weather was a little less vicious than the day before. We were still going to undergo the ritual cleansing of the rain-gods though. We had no idea what we were about to see. We could have done a bit of research and snooping, but I, for one, was enjoying this mystery tour and was happy to go where we were led, enjoying the surprise of revelation.

Walking into the neat and well-kept graveyard of Midmar Church, I glimpsed a suspicious looking standing stone around the back and wondered if it was an outlier of a stone circle. We tried the door of the little church, but found it locked. It is of no great age, being built in 1787 to replace the now-ruined  Old Kirk lower down the hill, beside the earth mound that is said to be the site of a Norman Castle…as are so many of these ancient mounds near the old churches. The Old Kirk too was a replacement, built on the site of the first church in Midmar and dedicated to St Nidan, a cousin of St Kentigern, who keeps cropping up on our travels. The two had set out together to bring Celtic Christianity to the Picts around 574 AD and Nidan himself had founded the little church that later bore his name.

Midmar old church. Image: Stu Smith, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Kentigern is an interesting saint. His story is a colourful mixture of myth and legend, with a little fact sprinkled in almost reluctantly, it seems. He is also known as St Mungo, a name he was given by St Serf, who was his guardian and teacher as a child. We have stumbled across his legends in places as far apart as St Asaph‘s in Wales, Aspatria in Cumbria as well as elsewhere in England. In Scotland, he is Glasgow’s patron saint, but more intriguingly, his life story records that he came into conflict with Lailoken, a wild prophet who foretold the death of King Rhydderch Hael. Lailoken, of whom “…some say he was called Merlynum“, is often equated with Myrddin Wyllt, an earlier form of the Arthurian wizard Merlin.

So even without what we had come to see, I would have been glad to visit this little church…another link in a nameless chain that leads us to a destination as yet unrevealed. But as we turned the corner, expecting to be led beyond the church grounds, we were greeted with a most unusual sight. A stone circle, fairly intact and very well kept, right behind the church.

And what a circle it must have been! Midmar recumbent circle, also known as Christchurch circle, is nearly 57 feet in diameter and the recumbent stone itself is huge, weighing around twenty tons and being over fourteen feet long. The two eight feet tall flankers have their flat edges facing inwards and look rather like sharp teeth. Running Elk had explained that the flat edges of standing stones such as these were the parts that marked, or indicated something. With a recumbent and its uprights, the mark the rising, passage and setting of the major standstill moon.

I would love to be able to go into vast detail about the precision of these circles… but it needs someone who really understands the technical niceties to explain it. Like Running Elk.* Basically, these circles allow observers within the circle to chart the  movements of sun and moon at significant moments of the year, marking the seasons… and at the longer intervals such as the major standstill that occurs every 18.6 years. We can easily understand how important seasonal changes would be to our ancestors with regard to crops and animals, but there were other reasons that we discussed… and which some of us were to experience later for ourselves… and perhaps others still at which we can only guess. One thing is certain though, these stone circles, raised in the Stone Age and Bronze Age, were not the work of uncivilised ‘cavemen’ but a complex technology in stone.

The circle is not quite complete… nor has it been left untouched. One stone seems to face the wrong way, others may have been moved during the building of the church or the ‘tidying’ of the circle that may have removed a central cairn that was added long after the building of the circle. What does remain unsullied though, is a sense of continuous worship going back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. Many of our older churches are built on ancient sacred sites. The infamous letter of Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus in the sixth century gave clear instructions on that point. We do not know what the motivation was for moving the new church to his particular spot. Was it simply an antiquarian passion of the local minister? Was there a desire to illustrate the power of the Church over paganism? Perhaps local superstition engendered a need to keep the stones and their powers ‘within the fold’… that is another thing we will never know. Whatever the reason, the two religions, old and new sit serenely together within their guardian trees… and there is a lesson of peace in that.

There was one last thing we were shown before we left the churchyard… and that too was unusual. The gravestone of artist Anne Rochford. The story, as Running Elk told it, is that knowing that she was dying, she created her own headstone, melding a piece of rough red and grey stone with a metal sculpture.** Not only is it a beautiful memorial, but it says a great deal beyond the name and dates it incorporates.

The tree seems full of fire-flowers… all but one empty bud. Creatures… a mouse, a lizard, a spider… climb in its branches; it is a living thing, a Tree of Life that still blooms after its maker has laid down her tools. Perhaps it is no more than a symbol of her faith, her love of beauty and a memorial to her art. I see in it her love of the living land and a symbol of harmonious growth and hope. In place where a stone circle shares the space with a church, there can be no better symbol of peace.

*See comments below for an explanation from Running Elk on the lunar standstill.

** See comments for the correct story of Anne’s gravestone, written by her son… and even more beautiful.

Maiden, Mother, Crone – Part 2 – Easter Aquhorthies by Helen Jones

Reblogged from Journey to Ambeth:

I realise that Wednesday is usually my day to wander. However, I’m also writing up my weekend with The Silent Eye. So, I’m combining the two and taking a wander to Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near Inverurie, Scotland, for the second part of my experience.

‘I must be insane,’ I thought to myself. I was standing in the centre of a stone circle on a Scottish hillside, near-horizontal rain and hail hitting the back of my jacket like millions of ball bearings. My hands were frozen and I could feel that my waterproof trousers were not living up to their name. And yet… even though I knew the rest of the group were as cold and saturated, if not more so, than I was, none of us made any move to leave. It was one of those moments that defies explanation. And yet, wasn’t that what I was there for, after all? …

A hour or so earlier I’d walked into a shop, glad to get inside. The weather had alternated between rain and sort-of-rain as I’d made the ten-minute walk into the town centre, and I was glad I’d put on my wet weather gear before leaving the hotel.

A small sign directed me into the café where I’d be meeting the group of companions, and I entered to see I was almost the last to arrive, a table full of smiling faces greeting me. A warm hug from Sue and several other companions I’d met on my last Silent Eye weekend, and then I was introduced to the rest of the group.

And so the connections continued. I knew Running Elk from blogland, so it was nice to meet him in person. It was also a pleasure to meet his wife and her daughter, who happened to be Canadian. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked, having lived many years in Canada myself. ‘Oh, just outside Toronto,’ came the answer. I smiled. I knew that answer well, as it was one I made myself whenever I was asked where I’d lived when I was there. ‘I went to high school in––‘ I answered, and the shock in both their faces was profound. ‘That’s where we’re from!’ It was a wonderful extra layer to the weekend, and led to a lot of reminiscing.

But first, we were to be taken to the first stop on the tour. Running Elk had planned the weekend, so Sue, Stuart and Steve were as much in the dark as the rest of us as to where we were going to go. We piled into cars and headed out of town, following the (somewhat vague) directions we’d been given. The weather ranged between rain and clear, small patches of blue visible among the grey clouds overhead. Not the best outlook for a weekend we would be spending mostly outdoors, but it wasn’t going to stop us from exploring.

Continue reading Helen’s account of the circle at Journey to Ambeth

Solstice of the Moon: The Field of Prayer

Easter Aquhorthies. Image: Paul Allison CCA2.0

There were many merry meetings in Inverurie, bringing a golden glow to the afternoon that belied the grisaille of rain and wet stone. We were greeted outside our meeting place with fierce hugs from a lady we love dearly and who has been much missed over the past couple of years. Inside, there was the wonderful surprise of finding the Canadian contingent, and we had soon filled a fair proportion of the tea-room with laughter and conversation… there was a lot of catching up to do.

When all members of the party were assembled or accounted for, we set off for the short drive to our first destination. The circle sits on a hillside above the town with a small parking area a few minutes’ walk from the stones. By the time we arrived the steady rain had turned into a lashing downpour. I stowed my camera in an allegedly waterproof pocket for safety, where it promptly and irrevocably drowned. But that circle alone was worth it…and the weekend was only just beginning.

Easter Aquhorthies is one of the rare ‘recumbent circles’ found only in this small area of Scotland, and in the far south-west of Ireland. ‘Aquhorthies’ comes from the Gaelic; it may come from ‘auch’ or ‘achd’ meaning ‘field’, and ‘ortha’ meaning ‘prayer’ giving ‘field of prayer’, or be derived from ‘achadh choirthe’, ‘field of pillar stone’. If the sanctity of the site is preserved in its name, which is of a much later date than the circle’s creation, it would suggest that a recognition of its importance as a sacred centre long survived its builders. So too would its state of preservation…as if all later peoples understood or perhaps feared the magic of the place.

Image: Stu Smith, Flickr CCL

And it is magical. That first sight drew gasps from many of us. It is a truly beautiful site, even in the rain and even at first glance, appeared to be remarkably complete. Running Elk ushered us into the circle with instructions to find ‘our’ place within it. A place where we felt comfortable…or uncomfortable… and to consider why that might be. Two stones had stood out for me, even on the approach. I wandered around to the almost polished back of the huge recumbent and by the time I had finished exploring it, everyone seemed to have found their places. I stood by one of the flanking stones, hopeful that, even in the rain, I would be able to hear what Running Elk might tell us. I need not have worried on that score… not in this circle.

This circle is one of around ninety recumbents in this area and one of only a few to have retained all of its stones.  There are nine single standing stones in the circle and the recumbent stone itself, flanked by a pair of uprights. The recumbent appears to be chocked with further perpendicular stones, but closer inspection shows that they were not, in fact, designed as supports. Perhaps they have more to do with the acoustics of the circle… from where he was seated between the perpendicular stones, everyone in the circle could hear Running Elk perfectly. Yet, when he stood, his voice was lost in the rain. Later, we would discover that the voice could not carry outside the circle… one step beyond, and it disappeared into the breeze.

Image: Otter CCA3.0

Somebody knew what they were doing with these stones. Yet Easter Aquhorthies has been dated to the Neolithic period, around six thousand years ago. Within its central space a child was carefully buried in a cyst. We have seen this before. Running Elk suggested that the burial may have predated the circle, hallowing the space. We wondered why it always seems to be a boy-child and Stuart signalled that special bond between mother and son. With our daughters, we share our skills and experience of life; sons we raise to manhood and watch them leave our world for their own. And this circle was a place of priestesses.

The circle is slightly flattened in shape and has a diameter of around sixty feet. It sits within a banked ditch that may have been added at a later date, perhaps when the overgrown circle was cleaned and restored in the early nineteenth century. The stones vary in size. The tallest are the two flanking stones in the SSW quarter are over seven feet tall, and the rest of the stones descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent in the NNE which is five and a half feet tall. The recumbent itself is some twelve and a half feet long and weighs around nine tons.

The stones themselves are unusual, being of different colours and composition. The recumbent is red granite, through which are scattered crystals and lines of quartz. It was probably brought from  Bennachie, a nearby hill with a history all of its own. Its most visible height,  Mither Tap, was a ghost against the horizon through the rain. ‘Beinn na Ciche’  means ‘hill of the breast’.  White quartz seems to have played an important role at these circles and seems associated with the ‘male’ stones. It may also have been important in reflecting or capturing the moonlight. Some things we may never know, but what is obvious with this circle and its surroundings is the role of the divine feminine… and the need for balance, rather than supremacy, between male and female, both symbolic and physical.

It is worth remembering that ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not necessarily refer just to gender. They can also be symbolic of more abstract concepts, like the positive and negative poles of a battery, dynamic or receptive force…or the sun and moon. While the sun is usually considered a dynamic force and the moon receptive, it is interesting that in many ancient cultures, there was, in addition to the obvious solar and lunar deities, a sun goddess and a moon god.

Image; Stu Smith, Flickr CCL

The rest of the stones are of pink porphyry. One stone, however, is completely different… a great point of rich, red jasper, polished on one side by the touch of those seeking its blessing over thousands of years. With the red stones and grey, in view of what we were to learn of the purpose of the circle, I have to wonder at the significance of the colour choices in solar and lunar terms, for it seems that here, few details were left to chance.

‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ was the subtitle of the weekend. The Maiden Stone in a circle, Running Elk told us, is always triangular. The Mother Stone is always red. The Crone always the most gnarled. The symbolism of those attributes is evident in terms of female development. In this circle, one stone was Maiden, Mother and Crone all in one… the point of red jasper.  Symbol of a triune deity, perhaps… or the seasons of birth, growth and harvest?… or something we had yet to learn?

It might be thought that all this is too complex for the mind of Stone Age Man… yet the precision with which these recumbent circles are constructed proves that is not so. This circle was built with a clear knowledge of the movement of the heavenly bodies and their relationship with the Earth.  There are many astronomical alignments within the circle and the recumbent and the flanking stone against which I stood mark the major lunar standstill, which takes place every 18.6 years.

There was so much to learn that we could never have covered it in one visit…especially in the rain. Thankfully, we would be returning to the circle…and in better weather too, we hoped. For now, we were all soaked through, so it was back to the hotel to change for dinner… at least into dry clothes. Oddly though, no-one seemed to be in a hurry to leave…

Image: Gordon Robertson, flickr. CCL