Off duty…

After driving for four hours on the road north, there is a brief glimpse of a hillside on the horizon which, at this time of year, is the one thing I am waiting to see. If the light is right and the weather kind… and if the heather is in bloom, the shadowy hilltop wears a faint purple smudge.

It doesn’t take much for this smudge to be hidden or indistinct. Without it, I have to drive another half an hour before seeing the first possible patch of heather. On days like this, that means an anxious wait. I usually have just one chance every year to see the heather in full flower.. and this was it. I had missed it last year, seeing only the tail end of glory and was really hoping that this time, the timing would be right.

Ever since I moved away from Yorkshire, first to France and then to the south, the moors have called me home. In spring, when new life is beginning to break through the winter pall…even though the moors seem to change little at that time of year… and again mid-August.

It is a curious yearning. There is beauty enough in this land to heal any heart, without purple hills, but if you have heather in the blood, no other sight fills you with quite the same joy and sense of homecoming. When you are far away, it tugs at your heartstrings and I held my breath as I crested the hill.

I was out of luck. Low clouds and racing shadows obscured the view of the distant hills. I would have to wait until I rounded the corner below Gardom’s Edge… and there, the dull, faded purple was a body blow. Either the heather had not yet reached its full flowering or I had missed it…and it looked like the latter. The extremes of weather this year have thrown the flowering out of its usual pattern. I would see no vibrant purple hilltops, no seas of colour…and I was devastated.

It rained all the next day and we had meetings cross-country. The following day, I had an unexpected day to myself. A day when I had absolutely nothing to do except rest, potter and read, with no clocks to watch, no-one waiting and nothing at all demanding my attention.

It was odd, because I had said only the day before that I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, at least, not without me first having to be at death’s door. And it was weird. I am so unused to being free of all duties, responsibilities and time-constraints that I barely knew what to do with myself… until the sun came out and I went out to play.

A little warmth had dried the sodden heather. It was definitely not at its best and hilltops that should have been brilliant with colour were a dull, reddish hue. Even so, this is a landscape I know and love… and it is never less than beautiful. I took the hidden backroads that are usually empty of all but a few walkers, even in summer, and drove out towards the Snake Pass that links Yorkshire and Lancashire across the Pennines.

It is a road I love to drive, being full of twists and turns that lead up from the valley onto the highest moors and back down again on the other side. There, I would turn around and drive back. There are few places to stop, but I know them all… and each one unveils a vista very different in character from the rest. There are green vales, high moors, silver streams and tumbling waterfalls… and, when the season is right, whole hillsides covered in heather and perfumed with honey.

I had to laugh at myself. Only desire and expectation were responsible for my disappointment. I had focussed solely on the heather and forgotten the beauty that surrounds it. How could I possibly be disappointed when I had a day to play in such glory?

I drove on, stopping here and there to contemplate the view, drinking from a stream whose golden waters taste of home and memory…and found swathes of almost perfect heather on sheltered hillsides. It felt as if I had only needed to realise the lesson I had been offered before the gift was given.

Expectations narrow the parameters of hope. Expectations restrict the possible to a mere fragment of what it could be, leaving disappointment to become almost inevitable. Hope is expansive by nature…it takes in as many possibilities as we will allow and, if we let it blossom, we remain open to wonder. Once again, the land had been my teacher, reminding me to focus on a wider picture… to be not just grateful for what was, but to revel in it. And once I had been reminded, I lost myself in joy.

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Hunting the Unicorn: The place of the heather priests

Our final visit of the workshop was to be a silent, withdrawn location that owes much of its history to its very isolation. Hidden amongst the hills of the Braes of Glenlivet, the buildings of Scalan remain invisible until you are almost upon them… even when you know they are there. Dean had chosen Scalan for its peace and solitude as much as any other reason. It was a place where it was rare to see another living soul and the land wraps itself around the low buildings.

Unfortunately for us, we had chosen the one day of the year, it seemed, where an event was to be held there. The Annual Mass, a pilgrimage to Scalan which is normally held in July, had been quietly moved forward to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of a Bishop at the site.

For us, it meant that the silent buildings Dean had chosen for their solitude…and to allow us to be undercover if the weather were wet… were about to be thronging with hundreds of people sharing a religious rite. Not only would our work not share the space well  with their worship, there was a fair chance that they would not understand five pentagrams laid out on a place they consider holy ground. Discretion, respect for their beliefs and the herding of a guardian encouraged us to move a little deeper into the hills for our work… but not before we had looked around Scalan itself.

The buildings look like the remains of farm, and for a part of its life, that is exactly what it was. Traces of that part of its story abound, from the shreds of faded wallpaper clinging to the walls, to the remains of the waterwheel.

But Scalan’s history is both darker and brighter than that. Originally established in 1717, at a time when Catholicism was effectively outlawed, Scalan was the last seminary in Scotland  where Catholic priests could be trained in secret. The old chapel now stands roofless beside the newer, two storey building erected fifty years later. Because of the isolation and secrecy, at a time when code-words were used to describe anything pertaining to Catholicism, the soldiers charged with eradicating the worship found the place difficult to find… and the priests who trained there were known as the ‘heather priests’.

It was not only a place of spiritual induction, but a place where some rather radical views were occasionally aired, including those of Alexander Geddes, who trained at Scalan and in Paris, and wrote in praise of the French Revolution, earning him the censure of the Church and his suspension from ecclesiastical duty.

Scalan continued its work as a seminary until 1799, when the repeal of the Penal Laws allowed a new and more open site to be established. On the face of things, you would think that a place that had once been holy ground might welcome seekers of light, even if they walk other paths. After all, the residents of Scalan were no strangers to persecution and misunderstanding because of their beliefs. But, it has to be said that while most, though not all, of the men seemed okay with the place, most of the women got a really uncomfortable ‘feel’ from it. We felt we were definitely not wanted… understandable, perhaps, in a place designed to train those vowed to celibacy and the doctrine of original sin… and were picking up both antipathy and the echo of something unpleasant. Even though, as a location, it was both perfect and beautiful, I don’t think the women of the party could have comfortably worked there even had there been no-one else in sight.

Oddly enough, the feeling dissipated as soon as we crossed the stream. On the outer side, away from the seminary, there is a well, now known as the Bishop’s Well. It is curious, as a well right next to a stream is unusual, to say the least… and was probably once Bride’s Well and sacred to the Goddess.

We walked a little further into the hills where we would disturb no-one except the birds and butterflies and where we would have peace to work. We stopped within the curve of a hollow shaped like the crescent moon, where a clear stream flowed and heartsease grows wild. We had worked within the land all weekend… and somehow, it seemed fitting that we should complete the process surrounded by the elements as Dean guided us through the final sequences of the elemental matrix.

And then we were done. It had been a fabulous weekend, into which an enormous amount of thought and detail had been poured… and one we had thoroughly enjoyed.

There remained only the long walk back to the cars through the oncoming and incongruous crowds gathering for the Mass. We had taken longer than anticipated and, with many having a very long way to go, lunch plans changed. Dean offered hospitality to those who could accept it, while others hugged and took their leave of one another. We were amongst the latter, though not because we were facing the long drive home… we had a day’s grace before we needed to head back so we were heading north… but that is another story.


With thanks to Dean Powell and Steve Tanham for organising the weekend…
and to all those who joined us in Scotland for making a great one.

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If you would like to join us for a weekend, exploring the inner and spiritual landscape, within the landscape of Britain, please see our Events page.

Hunting the Unicorn: Shells and fruits

Sometimes, on these workshops, the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there in order to remind us that we are not simply here as sightseers… we are here engaged on spiritual work. As we climbed the winding path up the mound, Drumin Castle gave the illusion of being almost complete. The walls of the medieval tower house made a perfect illustration of the ego-illusion of wholeness we present to our world…and to ourselves… with, we were to find,  the facade hiding only memory and time-ruined hollowness within.

Empty windows look out across the confluence of the Livet and Avon rivers, making this a perfectly sited defensive tower. Every approach can be watched across three valleys and it is, itself, an imposing structure. Like the walls raised by the ego to keep the kernel of individuality safe and isolated within its shell, the exterior of Drumin is designed to say, ‘this far and no further’… at least, not without permission and watchful eyes.

Some of those eyes belong to Nature, though, especially these days. The defensive portals now hold only great nests and jackdaws chittered and fussed as we disturbed their younglings.

Drumin was built in the 1370s by Alexander Stewart, the notorious Wolf of Badenoch who had once attacked Elgin cathedral. It was almost certainly built on the site of an Iron Age fort and, with the cairn and stone circle of Doune of Dalmore just across the Livet, may have been part of yet another of those prehistoric sites where the lands of the living and those of the ancestors were separated by water.

As we entered the tower, I was struck by the resemblance to the Red Tower at Penrith Castle which we had visited on a previous workshop. The great supporting arch had sheltered us there from the bitter December wind and rain. This weekend, we had been far luckier with the weather, but the arch was almost identical.

Above it, one floor allowed a glimpse through vacant windows and thick walls, with a wonderful view over the river valleys below. It has a solid feel… a castle built to last… and yet, the apparently strong fortress had a lifespan little more than our own, falling into disuse around a century after it was built.

Below the castle, however, is a walled garden. Almost an orchard. ‘Almost’ because the trees of the community orchard are still very young. It is a beautiful and peaceful place… sheltered, protected  and yet very much a part of its landscape.

The contrast between the defunct, isolated tower and the vibrant green life of the communal garden is quite striking, both visually and symbolically, especially given their relationship and dependence on each other. So it made a perfect place to construct our pentagrams once again and walk the pattern of our own psyche on their lines.

When we had finished our work at the Castle, Dean took us to his new home. It is a project he and his partner have been working on for several years, building a sustainable home within the trees and hills just a few hundred yards from the Castle. It will be beautiful when it is finished and part of its landscape, not apart from it or imposed upon it. Already, even with the stark lines of newness still exposed, you can see how it will look when it is loved and lived in.

As I said… sometimes the land and the sites are so well chosen that they need do little except be there to remind us…

Hunting the Unicorn: the Fairy Circle

 

Sunday morning already… the weekend was slipping by incredibly fast, but we knew Dean had a lot planned for the final morning of the workshop. Our day began by packing the car, necessarily skipping breakfast… which was to prove a bit disastrous as things turned out… and re-inflating the dodgy tyre yet again. It was definitely getting worse, but it was still manageable as long as we had access to an air pump. There was no prospect of getting it dealt with on a Scottish Sunday so far from a large town anyway.

But all practical considerations would fade away as we drove to our rendezvous at Dean’s home in Glenlivet. The morning was beautiful, the landscape incredible with wide valleys fringed with the blue of snow-kissed mountains. We glimpsed rabbits, deer and scurrying weasels and, quite magically, there were huge hares on the road.

While hares may well be a common sight in that area, for us they are a real and exciting rarity and we saw three… as many in a few minutes as we have seen in all our travels together. Hares are symbolically associated with the moon, as are many of Scotland’s ancient sites… and with the realms of the Fae. They represent rebirth and regeneration… and, in our experience, they always herald something special.

We would have to wait and see… and had not long to wait. Our first stop was a place close to Dean’s home, with a name that sounds as beautiful as the site proved to be… the Doune of Dalmore. We parked beneath the hill that leads up to Drumin Castle, where we would be heading next, crossed the whisky-coloured river, where, to my delight, we found healthy elm trees, and walked into wonderland.

A mound rises up from a ridge at the top of the field… an emerald carpet scattered with white flowers, pale rocks and the silvery bark of the trees. It seems to be a man-made structure but, ‘Doune’ means ‘fort’ and that’s what it looks like, a fairy fort. It is what it feels like too…a magical place.

 

Close by is the stone circle, with four remining standing stones surrounding a ruined cairn of the Clava type, like the amazing structures we had seen on our last trip to the area and Clava Cairns.

The rocks that scatter the base of the hillock wear strange shapes and seem to be arranged in patterns, as if, did we but have the key, they would still speak for us with stories that have slept there for millennia.

We were here, though, to work, not wander off exploring…which I think we would all have been happy to do had we had the time to spare. It was the most beautiful of places.

Unfurling our ribbons and stones once again, we contemplated yet another aspect of the magical personality. As we worked, we were watched… a young deer patrolling the fences, though whether we were being guarded or guarded against, we will never know.

Some places have a ‘rightness’ to them that is impossible to explain. Across the river, the medieval walls of Drumin Castle looked almost complete above the trees. You could have been centuries ago, just looking at them… and yet, they were insubstantial, ephemeral, against the ancient spirit of this sacred hill.

In itself, that was another beautiful illustration of how well and how much the land itself can teach us. Beneath all our acquired habits, hang-ups, fears and triumphs, there is something much older and more real than we tend to realise as we go about our daily lives. No matter what we build for ourselves, all of which may decay or be torn down, there is a bedrock of beauty within each of us, a bastion of the otherworld, to remind us that we are more than our worldly form  and of whence and what we come.

Hunting the Unicorn: “…of whirling air…”

The first stop of the afternoon was a familiar one; we had made a point of visiting the magnificent Sueno Stone on our last trip to the area. It is the tallest carved Pictish stone in Scotland and shows scenes of war and conquest… with the usual Pictish wholesale hacking off of heads. In this case, not one of our pet theories about the symbolic ‘removing the head’ psychologically in order to access the higher self, but the more graphic depiction of the slaughter and decapitation of the conquered. Not for nothing is Sueno’s Stone also known as the Battle Stone.

The Battle Stone is also one of the places reputed to be where Macbeth met the witches at the crossroads. Behind it, on Cluny Hill, is Nelson’s Tower, commemorating a sea battle from a later time… the Admiral’s victory at Trafalgar. But the hill is better known for a darker period in its history, when it was the site of the examination of witches.

Witches Stone, Forres, truehighlands.com

During the witch trials that would execute an estimated fifteen hundred midwives, healers and herbalists in Scotland for being in league with the devil, those accused of witchcraft in Forres deprived of sleep for three days and nights until they were vulnerable and would confess (a little odd, given what was to come…). One they had done so, they were put to death by packing them, still living, into spike-lined barrels and rolling them down Cluny Hill. Where the barrels came to rest, they were burned… a grisly echo of the Burning of the Clavie.

When the Macbeth witches were reputedly burned in this way, stones marked the spot of their incineration…and one of these stones, split into three and stapled together again, still sits directly outside Forres police station. Local legend says the stone was once broken up and used for building a house in which all the occupants fell ill. The house was demolished and the stone returned, such was the superstitious fear in which witchcraft was still held. It didn’t bode well for our pentagrams… not all things are what they may seem.

A brief comfort break at Logie Steading allowed us to walk through the gardens where rhododendrons line the paths. Beautiful as they are, one species is becoming a ‘weed’ in the woodlands, suppressing the habitat of native wildlife. Then it was on to our next symbolic location.

A green lane led us onto a viaduct, where the element of air was perfectly symbolised. Air beneath us, wind farms harvesting its power on the horizon, wind catching hair and garments as we worked… so much so that the ribbons were abandoned Instead, we marked out the pentagrams with stone, conscious that any walkers or bikers would be looking askance and glad the witchcraft laws were no longer enforced…

It was a perfect choice for the element of air, but as far as I was concerned, at least, the best location of the afternoon was the last. Dean had found a ‘blasted heath’… a stretch of moorland where the heather had been burned, presumably as part of its management. Here we had a fabulous rendition of another scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, illustrating the elements as psychological components. But it was the land itself that got to me…

A narrow, silver river snaked below us, flowing through a loch that mirrored the sky, holding  Lochindorb Castle on a man-made island at its heart. Tiny wildflowers starred the earth, great banks of sweet-scented golden gorse and the purple of early heather promising summer magic…and in the distance, mountains. I would have happily stayed there much longer.

But, with evening drawing in and a table booked for dinner, there was just enough time to take the ’long’ way back to Grantown, traversing the most beautiful of roads across the moors and between the hills… touching the heart of the deepest enchantment of all.

Circles beyond time – a first dawn

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Friday started early; there is always that sense of excited, nervous anticipation as the day of a workshop dawns. While our companions for the weekend were making their way from distant corners of the country, two of us were driving through crepuscular suburbs toward the open moors for a final morning of reconnaissance. The lightening sky lit the pathway through the fading heather towards what would be our first destination, a little bridge across a stream. We had, on our initial visit, intended to climb the hill by the obvious route, only to find the ground to be a boggy and impenetrable morass. The stream had helped itself to an offering of chocolate from my companion’s pocket…which he had retrieved and unwrapped before giving it back to the water. Retreating, we had been directed to follow the path to another crossing point and we had both remarked that it looked like the troll bridge from Billy Goats Gruff when we had first seen it. This had given us an idea, one that would evolve as the workshop drew closer and we listened to the story of the land as the wind…perhaps…had helped itself to further offerings from our hands.

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By Friday morning, however, our plans were clear. I lingered on the path while my companion went down to the bridge to check lines of sight, then followed him down, reciting a poem from Tolkien that seemed appropriate to the moment, so we could check when approaching voices could be heard. “The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began…”  As I reached the bridge, the sound of small birds filled the air, rising to protect their young from the silent wings of a hawk.

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The birds were not the only watchful creatures… we were watched by interested eyes as we paced out our intentions and learned the space we would be using for our opening. While the rest of the sites we would be visiting are familiar to us, we had only been here once before and we have learned that spatial memory can be unreliable. What you think will work beautifully in a space may bear little relation to what you can actually do there.

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We had decided upon a theme and a loose, flexible structure, adding in some more carefully constructed elements to tie the workshop together. Most of the weekend would be allowed to unfold in the moment, relying on memory for facts about the sites we would visit and on the landscape itself for inspiration. This first entry into an ancient place, though, was something we wished to mark, sealing the intent of the company and our search for a deeper understanding of the old places and mankind’s eternal questioning of what is and what might be.

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The all-pervading damp of the early morning mist was chill, yet the light was soft and beautiful, giving hope for a lovely day ahead. It was not until we turned our gaze to the east that we realised that, in this magical little valley, the sun had yet to rise. We watched in hushed awe as white fire erased the horizon and our day was born. There was yet another place we needed to visit before we headed home to prepare for the start of the workshop… and we were unprepared for what we would find there…

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Not long…

An ancient landscape, shaped by glaciers and the hand of man. Mysterious symbols carved in stone amid the cairnfields. Quiet circles lost in the mists… and a small group of seekers taking time out of time, listening to the echoes of the past to find a deeper connection to the present…

 X ilkley weekend 114

Harvest of Being
Rooted in the Land
Ilkley, Yorkshire
18th – 20th September 2015

 

Join us for an informal gathering on the edges of the ancient landscape of Ilkley Moor, exploring the relationship between the human heart and the heart of earth.

Based at the Cow and Calf Hotel,Hangingstone Lane, Ilkley,  we will venture out into the landscape, exploring sites of ancient sanctity… like the carved stones and circles scattered across the moor.

You can read a little about Harvest of Being 2014 by clicking  here.

Workshop costs £50.00 per person.

Accomodation/meals not included. Accomodation must be booked independently.

Click below to

Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com