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…

Maiden Mother Crone, Part 8 – Farewell by Helen Jones

Reblogged from Journey to Ambeth: So this was it. The final stop on my weekend with the Silent Eye, not far from where it had begun for me, two days earlier. We were very close to Aberdeen airport, but, other than the occasional plane or helicopter overhead, you wouldn’t have known it.

We were standing on high ground overlooking a river that turned, serpent-like, through a green landscape. A huge boulder sat on the edge of the drop and across the river from us were several homes, nestled among trees. Behind us was a ruined church, roof and windows long gone. Yet it still held secrets.

We went into the tidy churchyard, rows of stone monuments to war dead from both sides reminders of a not-too-distant past. The church itself, dedicated to St Fergus, was built of grey stone, weathered by time like the grave markers surrounding it. Interesting that it was the second church of the weekend – sacred places in the landscape were often overtaken by others as beliefs changed, often as part of the process and against the wishes of the community.

Continue reading: Maiden Mother Crone, Part 8 – Farewell | Journey To Ambeth

Maiden Mother Crone, Part 5 – The Maiden by Helen Jones

Reblogged from

Stone and rain. Rain and stone. It seemed to be a theme of the weekend. No matter the weather, when we reached any stone of significance the rain would fall. From soft misty drizzle to gale force rain storms, we experienced just about all the types of rain Scotland seemed to offer, often in the space of just a couple of hours.

And so it was at our next two sites, both of which featured carved Pictish stones. I’d never seen such stones in real life before, so it was a thrill to see the first one, even though it had been reconstructed and sat in the middle of a modern housing estate. There had been a circle there, once, still marked with a ring in the grass, but it had been pulled down long ago, in days when such monuments were no longer revered, their carefully chosen stones broken for use in stone fences and buildings. Some still remained on site, said to come from the original circle, and, despite the cracks crossing the face of the carved stone, the images were still clear, a serpent and spear, thought perhaps to represent the nearby river, and a semi-circle and broken spear, the shape of which came to have more significance for me, later in the day. The rain was still falling as we got into the cars, a soft cool drizzle, dampening the stones but not our spirits, as we headed out into the landscape once more.

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

Solstice of the Moon: Graven images

Our last visit of a weekend that seemed to have flown by all too quickly was to a little church on the edge of Aberdeen. The sun finally decided to show its face… though it still managed to rain anyway, but at least we had blue skies through the roofless ruins of St Fergus’ Church.

Originally built around eight hundred years ago, the old parish church of Dyce sits high above a bend in the river Don. It was a place of Christian worship long before the present church was built…and possibly already a sacred or significant site in the pre-Christian era. Little now remains of the church apart from its shell, with the curious doorway to the east, where the altar would normally be situated.

Fergus the Pict was an Irish bishop, responsible for bringing Christianity to many in this area of Scotland. He may be the same Fergus who took part in the council of Rome in 721AD that condemned ‘irregular marriages, sorcerers and clerics who grew their hair long’.

Outside the door is a pedestal carved into a bowl that looks like the remains of an ancient font. Local legend says that it is a penitent’s seat, in which the lawbreakers of the community were obliged to sit as the congregation filed past. Within the church, there is nothing much left of interest except a few carved stones.

Some of them are much older than the church and have been reused as part of its fabric. On one of them, visitors have left a small white stone. The reason for this is unknown to me. Is it a pagan or Christian practice? Does it relate to the presence of the Commonwealth graves within the churchyard? The only parallel I can think of is one Barb had mentioned, the Jewish custom of placing a stone on a grave, though we too had been placing stones at sacred sites as a symbol and prayer for peace.

The other carved stones, though, are what we had primarily come to see…and they were rather spectacular. Some of them are relatively small, simple grave markers, probably carved around thirteen hundred years ago, found close to the church, others carry a mixture of Christian symbolism and the elaborate and enigmatic Pictish symbols.

One is a huge cross slab, dating back to the mid 800s, which, in addition to the ‘Celtic’ interlacing on the cross itself, carries a number a length of Ogham script down one side. The beautifully carved symbols include a ‘mirror case’,  the ‘crescent and V-rod’ that we had already seen once that morning in the stone circle, and a ‘double disc and Z-rod’.  That symbol, less ornately carved, also features on the second of the two large stones. This one dates back a further three hundred years to around 500AD and once again, we came  face to face with the Pictish Beast. The information boards, which really only offer dates and questions, show coloured impressions of how the stones may have looked when they were painted, based upon illuminations from later manuscripts and the beautiful jewels that have been found.

And that was it… we gathered above the river where our companions shared their final readings of the weekend and where Running Elk was presented with a hat and the ceremonial Order of the Brolly… a moment I missed as I sat with Mrs Elk in the churchyard, speaking of what has been and what is yet to come. All that remained was a last hour to talk over lunch and some very fond farewells. Scotland and Running Elk had done us proud.  By way of showing our gratitude, I am rather hoping we may convince him to show us those ‘other places we should have visited’ one of these days…though Stuart and I did accidentally find one of them on our way back to the hotel… and England was a long way and much beauty away… with plenty of places to get sidetracked and a genuine adventure yet to come…


(The part of this journey that falls outside of the Silent Eye weekend will be continued on my personal blog.)


If you have enjoyed travelling with us through this ancient landscape, why not join us for one of our informal weekends? The next event will be Riddles of the Night in Derbyshire in 1st-3rd December 2017. Full details of this and future workshops can be found on the Silent Eye Events page.

Solstice of the Moon: Unfamiliar territory

It is raining again and about to get worse. You are in a suburban green space between neat-gardened houses, the last place you would expect to find an ancient treasure… and you are confronted with something both so alien and so hauntingly familiar, that it stops you in your tracks. A carved stone, covered in symbols, strange incisions and fantastic creatures. You have absolutely no idea what it may mean… no frame of reference… no starting point for comprehension. Yet somehow, it is not only familiar from all those pictures in books, but it feels as if you really should know how to read it.

The stone is one of the many Pictish symbol stones that dot the landscape. It is far from the best example, being both broken and weathered.  The Brandsbutt Stone was found in pieces, used as part of the construction of a farm dyke and wall. Close by are two large stones, thought to be from a stone circle that stood there until it was levelled a couple of hundred years ago, before we began to value our ancient heritage and after it had lost the respect and awe it had once inspired. It is worth noting that even today there are ancient monuments that are being destroyed through lack of care, inept officialdom and the worship of the great god Mammon.

The Brandsbutt Stone may once have been part of that ancient complex, though that is far from certain. While the now-missing stone circle would have dated back four to six thousand years, the carvings date back a mere fifteen to twelve hundred years. The Picts, the ‘painted people’, inhabited this area in the Late Iron Age through to the early medieval period and, although they themselves left no written record of their lives, they did leave many carved stones from which we can learn a good deal about them. Not all of them are as enigmatic as this one; some have scenes of battles, some tell stories, and some marry the symbols of an older time with those of the new religion of Celtic Christianity.

We had come across a few Pictish stones on our last foray into Scotland, most notably the carvings and the Cross at Brechin with its ‘indeterminate figures’, its eight-legged horse and unfortunate explanations…  There too, the marriage of old and new was still apparent, even though the stone is thought to be only a thousand years old.

The human figures are easier to understand, even though we may argue over the interpretation of the stories they represent. The Symbol Stones, though, are another matter. To even begin to have a hope of understanding them, we must leave the familiar thought processes of a literate society behind and go back to our earliest ancestral forms of written communication.

How can you write before there is standardised written language or when regional dialects differ? Or when no-one knows how to write…or read? The only way is to draw a picture. That works for a while. A snake is a snake. Then it gets more complicated and two things happen. The pictures may become simplified, almost symbolic… like the curving snake of a ‘S’. Early forms of writing began as pictograms. But how do you draw a river, sliding silver through a valley? Or the passage of time? How do you communicate abstract concepts… like ‘wisdom’, ‘renewal’ or ‘immortality’? You might look at the curve of a river and see a snake. You might find the flow of water reminds you of the passage of time. If the tales of your people attribute wisdom, renewal or immortality to the serpent, you might just draw a snake…

If, on the other hand, you were a leader renowned for your cunning or wisdom, or if your lands were bounded by a river, you might take the serpent as your emblem and carve it on your boundary stones. Perhaps the ‘painted people’ wore their clan symbols painted or tattooed on their skin too? It is for this reason, I believe, that the incomprehensible symbols seem to hover with vague familiarity on the edge of understanding. The pictorial language of symbols speaks across both space and time in a way we can almost grasp, even if we no longer hold the keys to its unlocking.

There are some symbols, though, that are yet to be deciphered; symbols quite specific to a culture long gone. The Brandsbutt Stone bears an incised ‘crescent and V-rod’  and the ‘serpent and Z-rod’ symbol. Are the spear and the arrow, as Helen suggested, male and female weapons? The crescent of the moon and the obvious symbolism of the serpent, as well the relative appropriateness of the weapons’ ease of use, might bear that out. Do they refer to the male and female lines of a heritage or clan? Are the angles reminiscent of those used in the construction of the stone circles, millennia before? And why are the weapons apparently broken? It is an ancient practice to ritually break that which is offered to the gods, as we had explored at the Druid Lake on the isle of Anglesey. The breaks in these carved, symbolic weapons, if breaks they are, appear to be both deliberate and supported in some way. What significance might that be hinting at?

Thankfully, we do have a transliteration of the final symbol on the stone. The vertical line crossed with many horizontal lines is not an untidy decoration, but an inscription in Ogham, which we had last seen at Nevern. This early medieval alphabet is almost always used to inscribe just a personal name. The groups of dashes are placed in specific positions and at distinct angles, across a straight line…usually the vertical corner of a stone. Here, as the corner of the stone would have been too uneven to be suitable, the vertical line was simply inscribed.  It can be read as IRATADDOARENS, which has been linked with Eddarrnonn, which may refer to St. Ethernanus, a Columban saint, and founder or a number of churches on the east coast Scotland.

Intrigued and thoroughly drenched one more, we regained the shelter of our vehicles and set off behind Running Elk for our next location. Following his lead, I wondered about the odd hand signals coming from his car, often in direct contradiction to his indicator lights. The ‘up’ was confusing. It took a moment to work out that he was pointing to various other sites of interest along the way… ones we would not have time to visit, like Balquhain recumbent circle, also known as the Chapel of Garioch, on the slopes below Mither Tap; a circle which has lunar alignments.

The circle is no longer complete and is missing several stones, but what remain are large and impressive, even from the road. The ten tonne recumbent stone is twelve feet wide and over five and a half feet tall, I read later. It is a white granite that seems to have been carried to the site from some distance. Once again, the stones are polychrome. The eastern flanker, six and a half feet wide, is of grey basalt, while the western flanker, over seven feet wide, is of red quartzite with white quartz inclusions.  The outlier is the one I would most like to have met, though… a ten foot tall pillar of pink-seamed white quartz, which, even from a distance, appears to have an interesting face…  Me, I’d have happily foregone lunch to get a closer look… but I would not have wanted to miss our next stop…