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.

 

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (1)

We were standing close to the River Spey in the grounds of Strathallan church a few miles from the centre of Grantown-on-Spey: one of the gems of the north-eastern highlands of Scotland. The previous hour had seen us all meet at a tea room in the centre of the town. We discussed the plans for the weekend, drank tea and had cake…

Strathallan church is famous for its beautiful location by the river. But it is also the site of an ancient pictish stone; one that bears markings related to the mysterious number at the heart of the pentagram – Phi.

The Pictish stone in the graveyard of Strathallan Church

The call of the nearby oyster-catcher rose till it was overwhelming.

“A lone female,” the groundsman of the nearby church explained, as he prepared to wield his petrol strimmer against the long grass around the neighbouring gravestones. “Down to one surviving egg,” he shouted, lowering his ear mufflers. “Makes a terrible racket!”

Whatever else he was trying to convey to our suspicious-looking bunch of clipboard-wielding visitors was lost in the mayhem that followed. You have to wonder if the oyster-catcher was chuckling…

You get days like this in the pursuit of mystical experiences…

Luckily, our guide and teacher for the weekend, Dean Powell, was used to dealing with adversity. We have shared many an adventure, he and I. This, the Silent Unicorn weekend – a union of the Silent Eye and his Scottish Lodge – was to be one of the best.

Dean introducing us to the local landscape on the Friday evening

We stuck the twin noises as long as possible, then moved to the edge of a high wall, near the river, against which we could begin our construction of ‘pentagrams from ribbons’. We had no plans to enact moonlit rituals! To start with, there’s precious little darkness this far into northern Scotland so close to the summer solstice. Darkness lasts a few hours at best, and the dawn is about 03:00.

The pentagrams were to be the basis of a psychological analysis of ourselves. Their five-pointed shapes would come to represent our journeys of self-enquiry as we let rationality slip away within the glorious green of the Spey valley, the Findhorn coastline, and the mysterious castles of Macbeth country…

The river Spey’s course is just over one hundred miles long and is the fastest flowing river in Scotland. Its beautiful landscapes are famous for salmon fishing and the production of Scotch whisky. It flows northwards, ending in the Moray Firth a few miles west of Buckie. We were to see many of its beautiful faces as the weekend progressed.

Map showing the course of the River Spey as it flows towards the Moray Firth. Source: Wikipedia, licence SA 3.0

The groundsman’s strimmer fell silent. The oyster-catcher’s urgent protest stilled. We would be reunited soon enough.

Dean pointed to our first-attempt pentagrams and allocated names to the five points; later backed up by a comprehensive set of handouts.

The pentagram has long been a symbol of both the human and the place of the human in the scheme of creation. In other posts, I have detailed the unique geometric properties of its shape. The primary mystery of it lies in the embedded ‘magical’ number Phi. Phi allows the division of a ‘whole’ into two parts such that the child pieces retain their relationship with their dimension of origin. Phi is the ‘seen’ symmetry in plants and seashells, and can be found throughout nature. Famous artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, based much of their work on this mysterious number.

Dean’s use of the pentagram was as a map of the human self, using the headings of:

  • Core
  • Potential
  • Limited
  • Boundary
  • Weak/Defect
  • Shadow

The meanings of these would unfold within the beauty of the landscape. We were in for quite a weekend…

To be continued….

©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.

Solstice of the Moon: Stone of the Maiden

Once upon a time… twelve or thirteen hundred years ago… there lived a fair maiden. She was, it is told, the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain. She was betrothed and very soon to be married. On the eve of her wedding, she went down to the kitchens, rolled up her sleeves and set about making bannocks to serve to the wedding guests who would be arriving from far and wide.

As she worked, a dark stranger came into the kitchen and, seeing the mountain of flour, said that he could build a road to the top of Bennachie before she would finish her task. Now, Bennachie was sixteen hundred feet high and two miles distant. The maiden laughed and the dark stranger made her a wager… if he could build his road before the bannocks were baked, she would marry him instead of her betrothed. The maiden, certain of victory, laughingly agreed, but to her dismay, the stranger soon returned… the road was built and her forfeit must be paid. In horror, she ran, towards the wood of Pittodrie, seeking to escape. As she ran, she prayed for salvation, for she now realised that her pursuer was the devil in disguise. But her prayers were heard and as the devil seized her shoulder, she was turned to stone.

Unlike most legends, this must be a true story, for there was a paved road up Bennachie, of which parts still remain. It is still called the Maiden Road, and from the Maiden Stone a piece has disappeared, the same that was held in the grasp of the devil when the maiden’s prayer was answered.

***

I have known about the Maiden Stone for a long time. It is one of those things you would really like to see, but never expect to actually see, so I was over the moon when I realised that it would be our next stop. Even though it was about to rain yet again, we had a little blue sky and a hint of sunshine… a little ironic when the worn designs would show up best in black and white on the photographs.

The Cross may once have been brightly painted and the quality and detail of the carving, even after thirteen hundred years of Scottish weather, are remarkable. The two sides of the Cross are carved with knotwork and keywork, even into the uneven contours of the edges. On the western face is a weathered Cross, suggesting that this was a Preaching Cross…a place where the evangelising brothers would come to teach the message of the Gospels. At the base is a roundel, framed within a square, intricately carved with interlacing and spirals. I have to wonder if this represents the Earth and its energies, surmounted by a Celtic Cross, symbolising the way to Heaven.

Above the head of the Cross is a figure with outstretched arms, in a pose similar to that of the crucified Christ. He appears to be holding on to two ‘fish-beasts’. I take issue with the official idea that this depicts Jonah and the Whale. There was, I believe, only one whale in that story and the idea that they carved two ‘to make the design symmetrical’ seems a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, a fish has long been a symbol of Christianity, and Jesus, if it is indeed He who is depicted, was called a ‘fisher of men’. Perhaps, too, they are the twin forces of the dragon, the earth energies… To go by some of the carvings we see,  Celtic Christianity was too close to the old religious symbolism to be unaware of such things and seemed less inclined to dismiss the shadow of the old ways.

The  red granite pillar stands almost ten feet high, and was once a little taller… you can see how erosion has destroyed the top edge of the design on the eastern face. This is a great shame, as one centaur is odd enough in Britain, let alone the three that are thought to have been there before the rains came. That is, if they are centaurs. They certainly look like the Greek combination of man and horse, and have been found painted in contemporary manuscripts. In the Mysteries, the centaur has its own symbolism, as the higher human virtues transcending the nature of the beast within. But this is Scotland, where legends abound and even horses may not be what they seem.

There is the nuckelavee from the Orkneys, a half man, half horse beast that retains both heads. Its breath wilts crops and brings epidemics and the stories of its terrible effect paint it as the worst of the equine demons. It is a sea creature, though, and will never come ashore when it rains, so we were safe on that count. Then there are the kelpies, shape shifting creatures that may appear as humans or as beautiful black horses that will carry their riders into deep waters…where they drown. In Aberdeenshire, some are said to have manes of serpents… but we were far from the lochs in which they live. The dullahan is a not a horse, but rides one, carrying its own head and whip made of a human spine. It is a bringer of death and the only thing that will drive it away is gold. We were probably safe on that score too, if only for the nature of the company.

Photographed from information panel.

Below the centaurs is a “notched rectangle and Z-rod” symbol. No one seems to be venturing a guess on the meaning of this symbol. It looks, though, like some kind of gateway or portal and reminds me, for some reason, of the great pylon gates of Egypt. The ‘Z rod’, which has been seen as a spear, seems to go through the body of the design, rather than be overlaid.

Below that is the Pictish Beast, a strange and sinuous creature, sometimes called the Pictish Dragon, that looks unlike any known animal. It looks a little like a seahorse, so it has been suggested that it could be a kelpie… or even a dolphin. It is a very common symbol on these carved stones, though, so must have been important to be so widespread. Did it relate to some forgotten story or legend, or did it have significance in clan heraldry? Or was it purely symbolic of something too abstract for a figurative artistic representation?

The lowest panel contains the two clearest carvings…a mirror and comb. We all agreed that although they appear, on the surface, to be far too ordinary to be immortalised in stone, they must have a far deeper meaning than as simple accoutrements of beauty. They would certainly have been objects of value, given their materials and the work involved in creating them, but did they have a value beyond their price? One of our companions  suggested that they were the symbols of office, or the power of the priestess. Did she work with the mirror to capture the moon or direct its light? Was it a scrying glass or a portal through which other realities could be reached? Modern magical techniques still use such practices to access those other realities which lie buried in the layers of our own consciousness.

One of our companions had a story to tell of an experience he had at Easter Aquhorthies that seemed to shed light on both mirror and comb. I will not share it here without his permission, but hope he will do so himself in due course. Stuart,who has a gift for interpreting symbols and seeing their deeper implications and ramifications, suggested that the whole face of the pillar could be read as a process… directions for the spiritual journey.

“The mirror,” he said, “fixes and allows focus on the moon so that it could be scryed or seen beyond.” The moon is often used in magical systems as a symbol for the subconscious mind. “The comb is in this context a meditative tool or process to symbolically clear the head or still the mind in order to facilitate communication… Success in this process gives access to the animate soul, perhaps depicted here as a ‘water’ beast.”  Water is symbolically associated with the flow of emotions and, by extension, a heart-centred consciousness.

“In other traditions, this would the White Horse or Sleipnir…” Otherworldly creatures that may carry the seeking soul onwards. “By raising this aspect of consciousness entry is gained through the portal to the otherworld of spirit where we see shamanic type figures… ” And onwards transcending the physical world to reach the spiritual realms… symbolised, perhaps, by the centaur… the beast transcended by the higher human consciousness. As an on-the-spot interpretation, that made perfect sense, especially if the top two centaurs were embracing… not ‘wrestling’… bringing the physical and spiritual natures of Man together as One.

We may not have solved the riddle of the stones, but with ideas and input from almost everyone present, we had certainly come up with some workable hypotheses. One mystery remained untouched, though. The legend of the maiden’s marriage must have come into being  after the stone was erected. Was that why it was called the Maiden Stone, or was the name referring back to the priestesses or a pre-Christian religion that still held the faith and respect of the people of the area? Or was it simpler than that… and the stone been named for what I and others may have seen in the shape of the stone itself…*

*Look again at the third picture from the top…