Hunting the Unicorn: “Upon the earth…”

Our morning began with an early meditation upon the hillside, turning our attention to the light, both in literal and symbolic terms. It was a moment to drink in the beauty of the land as a ‘false dawn’ opened a window in the clouds and we placed the work of the weekend under the aegis of Spirit. Each of us brings our own peculiar interpretation to that word and concept… and that is how it should be; the relationship between each of us and whatever we conceive of as spirit, divinity or a guiding presence is both unique and personal.

In simple rituals and in spite of a multitude of perspectives, we can set differences easily aside, colouring the symbols we use with our own interpretations in order to work together towards a common goal. That is one of the ever-present joys of such workshop weekends. We were using a five-pointed star, but there is always a hidden point to any symbol and, magically, that always operates on a different level to the symbol itself. The opalescent horn of the Unicorn would be both the guardian of the threshold and would point the way for us.

Having established the Unicorn as a symbol of Spirit the night before, we were about to begin a more personal journey into the elements of our own nature. Using imagination, knowledge, memory and the senses, we would map that journey onto the five points of the pentagram. Dean had carefully chosen passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to illustrate the psychological aspects of the elements as they are played out within the human psyche. He had chosen stones with different colours, patterns and textures to represent the physical  elements with which we would weight down the ribbon paths we were to walk around the pentagram and chosen sites for us to visit that reflected the elemental principles too. In other words, he had tied the journey together beautifully on all levels.

 

Our next stop would be Duffus Castle, built around 1140 and abandoned in the eighteenth century. As Steve has already covered the history of the castle, I need not repeat the details of its construction and ownership, but can take a more personal perspective.

The castle is surrounded by the remains of a moat, now a pure, clear stream, teeming with wildflowers and small creatures. It was here that we began to get an inkling of Dean’s deep love and knowledge of the natural environment of his adoptive home, much of which he would share with us over the weekend. It is a very beautiful site, an island in a green land. Rising from the Laich of Moray, it dominates the landscape and, from a distance, seems to epitomise our idea of a ‘proper’ castle.

The mound upon which the fortifications are built is imposing. Both the motte that holds the castle keep and the bailey… the lower enclosure that once protected the stables, people and day-to-day practicalities of castle life… are intact.

It is only as you come closer that you see that the castle has not only suffered the depredations of time, but is gradually slipping down the slope of the motte to be swallowed by the hill. Windows have broken, whole sections of the structure seem to be sailing away. It is almost as if the most solid-looking part of the castle is the most fragile… and what a good analogy for our own masks that might be.

It has a very different ‘feel’ than its Norman counterparts in England. So often these were built by the conquerors on sites already important to the community, thus both wresting position and imposing authority on the land and its people in one fell swoop. There is a lot of research ongoing at the moment, looking into the age of motte and bailey-type earthworks that were once Norman castles… and had, we now know, sometimes origins and uses of a  much earlier date.

Here though, the castle mound was purpose-built. There was none of the underlying trauma or conflict felt at many other such sites. Sadly, though, it may be this very fact that has proven to be its downfall; the ancients were pretty good at building earthworks. Apparently, the castle-builders had needed to learn a bit more about foundations…

And that carried us neatly into the next part of our work, for the foundations of our own personalities need to be firmly built and deeply rooted before we can build upon them.

We were looking at ourselves from a magical perspective and the spiritual journey of each of us has to start somewhere. We all start at the beginning, knowing nothing, and build gradually from that point. How you build will determine how you will develop.

Most of us start by devouring information… books, articles, courses…whatever we can find, like newly-hatched chicks in need of nourishment. Some will believe that is enough and will construct an impressive-looking façade from what they have learned. You can carry on adding knowledge for decades… but unless you do the ‘spade-work’, the spiritual edifice you are building will one day crumble and swallow itself.

You may even find that, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘power’ you think you have attained demands more and more of you in order to maintain its illusion. The real ‘spade-work’ of a spiritual system tends to include getting to know yourself… and that may mean digging into areas of the mind, heart and memory that can be as unpleasant as a blocked sewer.

It also means finding ways to put into practice what you have learned. That’s where this type of workshop can be useful. The written word can only teach knowledge and report experience… it cannot teach understanding, though it may show a way towards it.

But maybe, too, this broken castle might symbolise the freedom that comes when we can cast down the walls behind which we so often feel the need to hide, opening ourselves to light and life. Either way, it was a great place to start our day.

Hunting the Unicorn: Dusk in the kirkyard…

On the banks of the river Spey, Dean introduced us to some of the concepts we would be working with over the weekend before leading us into Inverallan burial ground. It is an interesting place in its own right, with a fair amount of history and home, as we would soon find out, to a voluble, nesting oyster-catcher.

There is no longer a church at the cemetery, although one was recorded on the site as far back as 1230. It is believed to have been dedicated to St Futach, an Irish saint whose name is derived from ‘fiachra’ which means, appropriately enough, ‘raven’ and which can be found in the ancient Irish tales like that of the Children of Lir.

The walls of the lost church were uncovered and destroyed in 1888, when the graveyard was being extended and no trace now remains of them… though there are clues to be discovered that a kirk once stood there and who knows how much further back the site was held in reverence.

An upright stone, known as the Priest’s Stone, bears a simple, incised Roman cross on both its faces. The stone on the Canmore photograph, looks like a gravestone, or even a standing stone, and it would not  be the first time we have seen a pagan stone ‘rebranded’ and purified for Christian use. There was also an ancient holy well on the site too… and a huge stone basin that was, we are officially told, ‘probably’ a baptismal font.

Is it pure speculation to wonder whether the sanctity of the site might pre-date Christianity? Not entirely… the well, the ‘raven’ and the basin would be enough to raise possible questions, and the presence of a weathered, Pictish symbol stone, found when the walls of the kirk were uncovered, confirms that the site was seen as important.

 

Pictish symbol stones are generally dated as being carved between the sixth and ninth centuries, with the earlier ones bearing no Cross, while the later ones may be Christianised.  The meaning and purpose of the symbols remains a subject of debate, but the worn designs were familiar as we had met them before at a previous workshop in Scotland.

The Inverallan stone is a very early one, bearing an undecorated crescent, V-rod, two legged rectangle and Z-rod. It was, principally, for the V-rod that overlays the lunar crescent that we had congregated in a graveyard. Its angle relates both to the movements of the planets and to the internal angle of the pentagram, a symbol we would be using during a personal and psychological exploration throughout the weekend.

Pictish symbol stone, near Inverurie, showing crescent and V-rod

While Dean explained how this journey would be undertaken, using a magical symbol, Steve explained why the pentagram is such a perfect symbol to use when seeking inner harmony. Many minds will glaze over at the mere thought of mathematics, but there is more to the subject than  ’just’ the numbers and Steve gave a very clear explanation of how mathematics can illustrate the cosmic and natural laws that apply equally to a flower, a universe or a human being.

We would also be working with the symbol of the Unicorn… the spirit animal of Scotland. There are many interpretations of the symbolism of the unicorn, some obvious, some perhaps less so. From its single-pointed horn, to its associations with innocence and purity, to its place at the heart of the magical menagerie, it is a symbol worth contemplating in meditation and one we have used before in the Silent Eye, for a similar purpose but in a different way from the one that was planned for the workshop. The Unicorn too, was a perfect choice of symbol.

But, perfect or not, we can only imagine what it might have looked like had anyone come into the graveyard to find five large pentagrams being laid out on the ground as daylight began to fade…

Hunting the Unicorn: Heading north…

I hit the road after work for the first leg of what would prove to be a very long journey and one full of unexpected adventures. From my home in the south, I drove to Yorkshire to collect Stuart. Next morning, we left for Scotland, choosing, as always, a route that would avoid the oppressive and insistent clamour of motorways. It undoubtedly takes much longer, but if you are going to work with the landscape, there is no better way to begin to connect with it than by experiencing it… even if only through the windscreen of a car.

We were heading into the Highlands to attend The Silent Unicorn workshop, a joint venture with our own school and a magical Lodge. The weekend would be presented by Dean Powell, who now lives in the area and who would guide us to sites ranging from the ancient, to the historic, to the simply beautiful. The weekend would be an opportunity to connect with old friends we see too seldom as well as, we hoped, enabling us to meet up with friends who live in the far north. But not all plans work out the way we have envisaged…

Passing through the Derbyshire and Yorkshire Dales, we skirted the peaks of Cumbria and, around lunchtime, paused in Penrith. One of the tyres appeared to have a slow puncture and, given the miles and terrain we were planning on covering, a dodgy tyre was the last thing we would need. The mechanic removed the tyre, duly checked it and, in spite of its previous and persistent loss of air, pronounced it to be fine. We paid the bill and resumed our journey.

The Scottish Borders flew by, with memories of previous journeys into the north coming back as we drove. It was getting late by the time we arrived at Kinross, and there was just time to stretch travel-weary legs with a wander around Loch Leven before settling for the night.

In the evening light, the loch was beautiful. It has long been protected as a nature reserve and abounds with wildlife. Its banks starred with wildflowers, its waters silver and home to many waterfowl. The squat, solid remains of Loch Leven Castle occupy one of the seven islands in the lake and it was here that Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567 and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son. A silver and ivory sceptre engraved with her name was found when the loch was partially drained in the nineteenth century. Whether it was dropped or discarded during her arrival, or when she escaped the castle with the help of her gaoler’s family, we will never know. A poignant illustration, perhaps, of how easily the trappings of worldly success can be lost.

Beside the loch, a graveyard reinforces the point, with the tombs of both the great and the small of the world weathering side by side. As with many Scottish cemeteries, the Kirkgate burial ground stands at the edge of the town and was guarded against graverobbers. Many of the tombstones are carved with skulls and bones, others bear witness to Masonic allegiances. Names, achievements and stories fade together into the shadows as memory and history replace them with newer tales.

In many ways, it was the perfect place to begin considering the weekend ahead. We would be delving into our own psyche, seeking out elements of our own nature and how we are affected by events, fears and reactions. All of which, could we but realise it, are as insignificant against the vast backdrop of history as a butterfly against the panorama of the Lomond hills.

Such considerations, however, were driven from our minds by our first encounter with a true Scottish legend… the midge. Larger than their southerly counterpart and prone to forming vast, voracious clouds, we did not linger and hurried back to the car, glad that the Highlands awaited… at a latitude where the midges do not venture.