Two journeys, one destination (6) – a Pictish horizon

With the wonderful Portmahomack behind us, it was time to meet the three Pictish stones that marked the horizon line of the Tarbat Peninsula. These would originally have been visible from the sea, and boats approaching from the Moray Firth would have known they were approaching sacred Pictish land – centred on the monastery at Portmahomack.

On this second day of the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail weekend, our plan was to work our way back from Portmahomack along the spine of the Tarbat Peninsula towards Inverness, viewing each of the major standing stones and ending with a visit to Rosemarkie – across the Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle.

Our first stop was at Balintore, a village that looks out over the Moray Firth. There, we saw signs for the nearby Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. I was eager to see this famous stone, about which we had read so much in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. I knew a little of its history, but the truth was to be more fascinating than I could have envisaged…

This Pictish stone at Hilton Cadboll was created at the Portmahomack Monastery to the classic design of a what we now call a Pictish Class II cross-slab. One side would have contained symbols from the older Celtic (pre-Christian) religion, mixed with local glyphs of the sponsoring family. The other would contain Christian iconography.

The cross-slab was erected here in about AD 800. Sadly, it broke soon after, under the pressure of high winds. The stone was re-erected, on the same spot; the lower portion being buried to form a new base. It broke again in 1674, and a further section was left in the ground. This beautiful stone has not enjoyed a happy history…

In about 1676 the entire Christian cross-face was chipped off by a local laird to create a family grave slab! By 1780 the surviving half of the stone was recorded as being near the ruins of a now-vanished chapel which is presumed to be located under the mound of earth next to the present stone.

(Above: the mound that covers the ancient church and, possibly its hamlet)

100 years later the stone endured a somewhat ‘political’ journey via Invergordon Castle and the British Museum to be returned to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the original is now located.

The local people were not happy at the loss of their precious stone, but accepted that it was now safe from harm and, at least, back in Scotland. Its original base and thousands of broken fragments were extracted from the site in 2001. But the local population were so supportive of their folk-history, they paid for a magnificent replica to be carved, in situ, over a five year period. The work was carried out by local sculptor Barry Grove.

(Above: the seaward-facing side of the Hilton Cadboll slab-cross. This was re-created by the sculptor using his knowledge of similar stones)

Barry says of the reconstructed stone:

“No Pictish tools survive. At our Iron Age bonecarving workshop, Jim Glazzard used a Viking tool box as his basis for the iron tools. The Hilton of Cadboll stone also provided some evidence. It snapped and blew over several centuries ago, and the remains of the base and lower areas of carving became buried.”

Remarkably, during an excavation taking place prior to the erection of Barry Grove’s replica, the original base (from AD 800) was found preserved by the soil – which also revealed the nature of the Pictish carver’s chisel marks. This provided the sculptor with a basis of authentic design and technique for the reconstruction of the missing cross face. Using what he had as clues, Barry Groves spent a month on the design, then began what would be five years of stone carving. The rediscovered original base has a secure home in the local Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit.

It’s a remarkable story of a small community succeeding against the odds…

(Above: the upper face of the ‘Celtic’ Pictish design, showing a noble woman leading a hunt, which includes several men in the group on foot. This is deemed to show her superiority. She may well have been the sponsor of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Above the hunt scene, the upper face contains the traditional twin discs and ‘V-Rod’ design, which will be commented on later in the post.

Standing before the ‘restored’ Hilton Cadboll cross-slab is a profound experience. You can view the stone as original Pictish ancestors would have seen it over 800 years ago. Standing in front of it in the sunshine, with the sea at your back, is quite an experience…and freely given. There is no charge.

It is believed that all such stones were originally painted. The image below shows how the centre section of the Hilton Cadboll cross slab would have originally looked. The use of colour makes the symbols a lot more ‘familiar’.

But what of the Pictish symbols, such as the ‘V-Rod’ and the twin discs, both of which feature on the Hilton of Cadboll stone? It is unlikely that we will ever find a ‘Rosetta stone’ that gives a word for word translation. But there’s nothing stopping us looking at the symbols and letting our conscious (and possibly subconscious) minds having a go…

Symbols are universal. If they ‘speak’ to us, then there’s a reason. We can relax and let them share what they are. We don’t have to be archeologists to sit with the symbol and let it talk. If we take a child’s approach and ‘say what we see’, then insights can happen.

Take the upper symbol above – the V-Rod. When I did this, earlier, the two halves of the rod suggested an arrow. But it’s not broken in two, just bent… at what looks like a precise angle; a little greater than 90 degrees. Lets take a guess and examine what 100 degrees looks like:

That looks quite close… So, as fingers have been around for a long time, and the Picts clearly had a strong grasp of numbers and geometry, we could say that the V-Rod might represent 10×10 fingers – or ten ‘men’. The arrow may indicate that they were warriors, so we have ten warriors, which may have had symbolic significance. It might have been short form for an army, for example.

The crescent looks moon-like to me, but it might also represent the bowl of the heavens. Also, it seems to contain waves. This might alter the overall interpretation of the symbol. The lower curves in the crescent remind me of the bowed shape of a sail. We might be looking at sailing warriors, then. Masters of the craft of sailing long distances, possibly using the moon or stars for stealthy navigation? Or perhaps the moon is simply a symbol for the sea, with which it is intimately connected?

And here, I’d better stop, because I’ve just realised I’m making a very good case for a leading family whose ‘crest’ this is being Viking!

My logic may be baseless, but it’s the kind of open-minded approach that can bring insights. But we should move on… We had a timed entry at the museum in Rosemarkie, due to Covid restrictions, and we’d yet to visit Shadwick and Nigg.

The Hilton Cadboll stone is a dream to photograph…unlike our next location; which is a classic example of an intact Pictish cross-slab that has stood in its original position for over a thousand years…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. This is Part Six

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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.

Two journeys, one destination (5) – blood and stone

Writing without the other hand to steady him was hard, but the other was clamped on his thigh, holding back the flow of blood.

The words on the vellum were like the wanderings of a dying bird… he smiled at the thought, despite the pain. Through eyes filled with hot and salty water he read what he had written:

‘They came at the end of the night, as the first light of day was seeping into the darkness. Four longships, sixty men or so… the smoke woke us, then the screams, then the stench of blood. When my fellow monks were lined up to face their deaths, the Norsemen began breaking the holy stones.

They are all dead, now. Somehow we escaped, half alive, into the vellum hut; just the master, Patternex, and me. “Write that the talking stones are still here,” my master commanded. “They are scattered but can be reformed..” He did not speak again, but I felt I could still hear his voice. His apprentice gazes at him with love, now, soon to follow him into the quietness.

Do not fear death,’ he taught me. ‘For what gives life brings death, and that brings life, again.’ He’d drawn a strange double curl in the sand, and pointed at the place in the middle where the lines crossed, saying, ‘When you die, you are here.’ His finger had slid sideways then, into the fullness of the other space… wordless, like now.

I have written on this vellum tablet what he… or his spirit, commanded. The red water of life seeps through my fingers and drips down through the timbers of the still-smoking hut. I hope it reaches the sea… ‘It is important that you wrote it,’ he said. ‘It may never be read, but it is of importance that it was written…’


No one knows exactly when the Vikings came to Portmahomack – sometime after AD 800 is the likely date. Skirmishes were frequent, but the final one seems to have been planned to destroy the monastery. The Norsemen did not like the survival of other people’s sacred traditions… Perhaps they feared them? It is ironic, because, having established their new kingdom on the archipelago of Orkney and in the extreme north of the Scottish mainland, they went on to embrace Christianity…

We will meet the Norse Earls of Orkney, soon. But for today, the Silent Eye’s group are studying the restored treasures of what the Norseman smashed, as we wander around the artefacts of the Tarbat Discovery Centre, during the last half-hour of our time-restricted visit, due to Covid regulations.

Smashed and scattered…. But the workings of intelligence, and particularly high art, have a habit of being found… It was always known, by the local folk of Portmahomack, that small fragments of carved stones often appeared during ploughing. But then the team from York University arrived, and spent the next few years carefully removing the layers of time, and cataloguing what they they found. There were no large single cross-slabs at Portmahomack, but the excavations produced many fragments of smaller crosses and gravestones, all belonging to Pictish times.

(Above: a large slab stone from one of the monastery’s important graves. Above it is the Dragon Stone, found lying next to a wall in the excavated crypt. Below: Some of the important fragments from the monastery’s ancient past.)

(Above: It is ironic that the monastery at Portmahomack, the creative centre of Pictish life, does not have its own Type II Cross Slab. There was one, but it was largely destroyed by the Vikings. Only the lower section remains, as in the photograph)

The sculptures that stood on the Tarbert Peninsula in the eighth century are amongst the most accomplished anywhere in early mediaeval Europe. The centre of carving was at Portmahomack, where a dozen different monuments were made from the local sandstone. Many were simple grave markers carrying a cross. One was the lid of a great sarcophagus; likely the tomb of an eminent person. The most spectacular were giant cross-slabs set as markers for seafarers along the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas. These were to be our next port of call after Portmahomack.

The cross slab design, Type II, (see below) was known as the Cross of Christ, it followed a similar pattern on all such Pictish carved slabs. After Portmahomack, we planned to see two of these crosses – at Shandwick and Nigg. If time permitted, there might be three…

Above is the Discovery Centre’s large photograph of the Nigg Cross – one of the most important on the coast and a classic of the Cross of Christ type II – Christian cross on one side, and local (and more ancient) symbols on the reverse. Later, I was to give thanks to the impulse that made me photograph it…

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘Z-Rod’ design)

(Above: the grave of an important Chieftain was found beneath the crypt. This is a reconstruction!)

There were also at least four monumental crosses which once stood by the early church and at the edge of the monks’ cemetery. A further cross had a dragon on one side and the four apostles on the other – a recurring motif for the later Picts.

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘V-Rod’ design)

Large pieces of these Viking-smashed crosses were built into the foundations of the medieval church. Without the York University excavation work, they would never have been re-assembled. The fragments were found scattered over the burnt-out rooms of the vellum working area.

(Above: the next stage of our journey mapped out in Pictish symbols – from Portmahomack to Hilton of Cadboll and Shandwick, then on to Nigg and the Cromarty Firth)

The mysterious symbols, unique to the Picts, may well have represented holy men, warrior chiefs or powerful families associated with the settlements along the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas. We may never know their real meaning…

(Above: the Pictish Comb and Mirror glyph – a female symbol)

There were almost certainly other ministries founded from Portmahomack in the proximity to the Moray Firth – the Picts’ stronghold. The nearest neighbours lay at Edderton, Rosemarkie and across the Forth of Moray at Burghead. All these have remarkable stone carvings which can still be seen today.

We cannot end the story of our visit to Portmahomack without mentioning two final exhibits: the beautiful metalwork section; and the finding of the ‘Oldest Pict’.

(Above: Sacred vessels and precious jewellery)

During the 7th to 9th centuries A.D. royal residences and ministries, such as Portmahomack, were centres for the production of bronze, silver and gold objects. Here, skilled metal workers created some of the finest treasures ever found in Britain and Ireland.

In order to celebrate the rites of the church, special objects were (and are) required. These included sacred vessels for the Eucharist – for example the chalice for the wine. The manufacture of these required great individual skill, given the simple forging methods of the time. The monastery at Portmahomack was one of the most important metalworking centres in the whole of northern Scotland.

Objects made of precious metals were a mark of status and success. The photo above shows elaborate brooches for use as treasured possessions of the Pictish wealthy.

Sadly, nothing produced by the monastery’s foundry survives. The examples here were made in Celtic Ireland during the same period, and are known to be faithful replicas of common styles across Insular (Irish) and Pictish lands, which shared so much in the way of art and design.

We had seen so many things, already, and it was only mid-morning…

The group took a break for a coffee and we reflected that there were two regrets. The first was the desire to ‘touch’ the Pictish civilisation in a deeper way – to feel some shared human connection with these civilised and sophisticated forbears. The second was to know the basis of their beautiful, symmetric artwork; to be able to see into the ‘mathematical mind’ of the Picts and see how they conceived and drafted their intricate designs. Of course there’s no way to meet someone from the 7th century AD..

Or is there? I’m not talking fantasy; flesh and blood do not survive… But the bones remain, and there’s an astonishing science of what can be learned from bones…

The west coast of the Portahomack Peninsula looks out over a large, sheltered bay towards Dornoch. It’s a peaceful spot, and back in Pictish times, the ridge down the spine of the peninsula was a popular place to be buried. Many of these graves lie within the present village of Portmahomack, and several have been the subject of a careful excavation. The Discovery Centre has a fascinating section on ‘Our Earliest Pict’.

He was found in in a group of three graves. A lot is known about him from scientific analysis. The Discovery Centre has been able to use expert help to reconstruct, from his skeleton, how he would have looked, and, astonishingly, what kind of life he led.

The grave was topped by a large slab of sandstone. The sides of the grave were lined with eight upright slabs, three to each side and one each at the head and feet. Within these lay the skeleton, on his back with his feet to the south-east. His arms were aligned along the sides of the body, the right-hand lay palm down, the left palm up, slightly cupped with the thumb across the palm. His legs were crossed at the feet. His head lay turned towards the south – the place where the sun was strongest.

The relaxed position suggests that the burial party laid him out carefully, but without a shroud. The method of laying down may have been a part of their pre-Christian religion. The head facing the sun suggests this.

Forensic work on the bones shows he was a youngish man, between 26 and 35, and stood 5’ 7” tall. Radio-carbon dating indicates he died between 420-610 AD, making him the earliest known member of Portmahomack’s Pictish community.

He was not born locally, and arrived here in his late teens. His life was physically hard, and placed his back and shoulders under heavy strain. He may have been a sword-wielding warrior or have worked with heavy rocks. He could have been a stone craftsman.

At the time of his death he suffered from arthritis and damage to the knees – probably through constant squatting, which is how you would have sat when there were no chairs and the environment was damp. He was left-handed, which would have made him much in demand for complex tasks. He was part of a settlement that ate beef, but also grew a variety of cereals: wheat, barley, oats and rye.

(Above: The face of Portmahomack’s first Pict emerges…)
(Above: And how he is likely to have looked..)

He belonged to the first community at Portmahomack, and may not have been a monk. The group of graves contained the metallic remains of intricate iron pins and a beautifully decorated roundel. They were horseriders who ate well and had high status. Although not necessarily Christian they were people of faith. Their major cultural investment was the making of these massive slab-sided graves, so they believed in an afterlife. Only in the next generation did they become spiritual professionals, the first monks of the Portmahomack monastery.

As we were leaving the Tarbat Discovery Centre, we examined the museum’s section on the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, which has copies of Stevenson’s (as in the lighthouse builder, not the railway engineer) original plans for constructing the lighthouse, and a gallery of interesting astronomical photographs taken by local astronomer Denis Buczynski.

The Stevenson Lighthouse is located at the North West tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. It was built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson and has an elevation of 53 metres; with 203 steps to the top of the tower. It was too close not to visit. Back in July 2017, I wrote a detailed post about a Scottish visit to another of this famous engineer’s lighthouses on the western island of Tiree.

We bought some books from the store and said our goodbyes to Margaret, the manager of the centre. Twenty minutes later, after a short car drive, we were standing near to the lighthouse and taking photographs. We had time for only the briefest of visits. If we were to stick to the day’s plans – and there was a lot of it left – we needed to be on our way south.

The road along the spine of the peninsula returned us to Portmahomack. As we turned to leave the village, we caught site of the Discovery Centre’s manager, Margaret, walking along the road with a young man’s arm in hers. We stopped to wind the window down and give a final greeting… and to say how much we had enjoyed our visit.

We noticed her companion’s bright eyes upon us… He was smiling with pride.

Robert, the ‘voice from the upper floor’ during our visit, turned out to be a Down’s syndrome young man, and his undoubted intelligence had been put to good use at the Discovery Centre as one of their best volunteers. It was now lunchtime, and Margaret was taking him for a well earned meal at the local cafe – the Discovery Centre being closed for an hour.

[The names of Margaret and Robert have been changed to protect their privacy.]

We waited as they walked off, arm in arm. It was one of the most touching scenes. Beyond anything we had glimpsed in the distant world of the Picts, this sense of presence and kindness left us with a golden feeling as we drove the few miles down the spine of the twin peninsulas towards Shandwick, Where, beneath protective glass, there stands one of the best Pictish cross slabs – intact and in all its glory.

To be continued…

Other parts of this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five,

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning school for the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the soul.

Two journeys, one destination (4) – two sides of the hill

On the second day of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend, we are beginning in what is, for me, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Portmahomack is a small fishing village on the north side of the Tarbat Peninsula. It’s an hours drive north from Inverness.

I’m at the end of the pier, gazing out across the deep blue sea towards highland mountains in the distance. Low in the line of dense green forest and near the sandy line of that far shore is a white fairytale castle. It could be a dream but it’s not. It’s real, and we will be visiting it on our way to the archipelago of Orkney, tomorrow. It’s called Dunrobin Castle, and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.

The museum at Dunrobin has some fine Pictish stones, and the castle marks the most northerly point of the Pictish trail. But the real historic trail points further north to Orkney, and that is a very different land and one-time kingdom.

No-one in the group has been to Dunrobin, before. Having glimpsed its pale spires glinting in the morning sun, we can’t wait…but our Saturday has more than enough for now.

Today’s explorations begin with the sight of an ancient church just over the rise of the hill at my back. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel its presence. I want the others to feel it in a different way to how I first discovered it. I want them to feel its ancientness before they see it. To do this I have to enter a state which is crisp and clear with anticipation, then share it – without words.

It’s one of the things we do – Sue Stuart and I. There aren’t always words for how it works, in fact it’s more powerful when there are no words at all.

There are no words from either of them here, Because they are not with us. They are hundreds of miles south in a hospital, where Sue is being tested for something serious. Where there are usually three of the Silent Eye Directors on our ‘landscape’ weekends, here, there is one, and the workshop needs to continue. We have a duty to each other – and to those who have travelled so far.

I’ve held the emotions back so far, but here they are overwhelming. Sue loves beaches, and this is one of the best… So this is for her.

We return to our vehicles and I lead the way from the bay and over the small hill to the other side of the Tarbat peninsula. In front of us, at the entrance to what looks like an old church, is a striking statue of a Pictish Priestess.

We gather around her and I describe a visualisation in which we are approaching this place, not by car, but in a boat, cutting its way through the choppy blue sea as it nears the sixth-century harbour of the old Portmahomack.

As the boat turns to make its landing, we look up at the large stones that pattern the spine of the peninsula – and mark it as sacred ground… In our vision, we can see them all, though some are miles away.

These large marker stones will form the basis of the rest of the morning. They will lead down the Tarbat peninsula and across its sister; the Fearn Peninsula. By the time we have travelled their length, we will be at Nigg, from where we can look out south, across the waters of the Cromarty Firth towards the Black Isle, our afternoon destination.

The boat nears the shore. We can pick out the outlines of the harbour, a farm, and, at the highest point, a church. Ahead of us is an entire Pictish village on the shore. It’s a large settlement for this age. At its heart is a monastery as influential as the (Irish-derived) Celtic Christian monastery at Iona, and founded at much the same time. This is 6th century Portmahomack, and the monastery is one of a chain of such institutions tasked with nothing less than keeping civilisation alive… in the face of barbarism. This village houses the central spiritual authority of the Picts.

Here, there is also a metalworking foundry and scholarly building where sacred texts are painstakingly copied or created by hand, in all their ‘illuminated’ brilliance. These would rival the works produced at Lindisfarne, many miles south, though all will be lost to history – and the attacks of the Vikings… but the evidence will remain in their unmatched stonework.

Scriptoria is the scholarly name for the historical creation of holy texts. The map, above, shows the location of monasteries with scriptoria that existed at the same time as that at Portmahomack.

(Above: the tools of scriptoria. The writing instruments were found in the foundations of the church)

Each monastery would have had a library of books for copying by hand; the work carried out by a hierarchy of skilled artists and calligraphers. This was the ancient science of sacred communication – as vital to the Pictish people as the internet is to us. The holy books taught that mankind was both beast and something more. Sacred texts fed the higher.

Everyone spoke, few people read and wrote… when the writers spoke everyone listened.

The books were loaned and gifted by monasteries to each other. They travelled long distances and the art they contained came to have a great effect on sculpture and metalwork. Strong examples of this can be seen at nearby Nigg and Rosemarkie. We intend to visit both, today.

Aided by this vision of the landing of our ancient boat, our day begins here; around and within the white building ahead. This is the Tarbat Discovery Centre, and they are expecting us…

The Portmahomack Discovery Centre is one of the best places to ‘immerse’ yourself in the world of the Picts, their culture and their civilisation.

The Discovery Centre is unique in that the main subject of its work is itself. In a very real sense, the church remains a partly Pictish building. No less than six churches have stood on this site, and the earliest construction – part of a stone wall that still forms a side of the recovered crypt – is as it was constructed by the Pictish builders of the 9th century.

(Above: the Discovery Centre is housed in the old church of St Colman. Bishop Colman led the ‘Celtic Christian’ contingent, centred in Lindisfarne, during the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. Under the jurisdiction of the powerful Northumbrian King Oswiu, the church of Rome prevailed, steering Britain’s history away from the more mystically-inclined and nature-facing Celtic tradition that had travelled with St Columba from Ireland. Bishop Colman – St Colman – is remembered in the name of the old church, though there are no records to show if he spent time here, as he and his monks from Lindisfarne departed into exile… It is likely that here, as in Iona, Celtic Christianity continued for a while after)

You can plan a weekend workshop like this, and have it go mainly to plan, but the exceptions will often form the best bits. The lady who runs the Tarbat Centre is a Portmahomack local and very welcoming. We are lucky. It’s still early and we have the place to ourselves.

She is in the middle of explaining the layout when a rather wild shout comes from above: “Margaret, I’ve done it!”

She smiles. “That’s Robert, one of our best volunteers…” she leaves it there… but you know there’s more to the story, as we’ll find out later. After watching a short introductory video, we wander… and it’s amazing.

The upper floor is the education centre where talks are given. The centre owes its existence to the results of the major excavation carried out by York University between 1997 and 2004.

(Above: the archeological work at Portmahomack, carried out by York University during 1997-2004. St Colman’s church is top right)

The centre has three levels. The main, middle floor is divided into exhibition sections. The crypt – the lowest level – dates all the way back to medieval times. It has lots of history and two skeletons…

On our first pass around the centre, we concentrate on the societal aspects revealed by the Tarbat discoveries – the importance of the Portmahomack monastery to the lives of all the Pictish people. There is one important aspect of this to consider before we can progress to the archeological relics: the question of how central the monastery was to the economy of the region. Two information boards describe this well:

‘The Tarbat peninsula contains some of the most productive agricultural land in Britain, But when the monastery was founded in the 6th century CE, the landscape was very different. The valley behind the church was marshland, which has been radiocarbon dated to the 1st millennium BCE.

Several Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads have been found close to the area suggesting that wild fowl on the marsh attracted prehistoric hunters. This wild marshland was tamed by the monastic community of Portmahomack, who drained it to create grazing for cattle and plough lands for grain.

Vast quantities of animal bones have been found during excavation which show that plenty of pasture must have been available for grazing cattle and sheep. Pigs were also eaten and may have been let loose to forage for food nearby. More rarely, deer bones have been found which shows that the land surrounding the monastery was home to wild herds.

Crops were also cultivated and the first signs of this were visible in the earth as scratch marks made by a wooden plough. In order to toughen the board against wear and tear, it was studded with small pebbles known as ‘plough pebbles’. The pebbles sometimes fell out and many have been found during excavation. An ancient ditch found beneath the church dated to the 6th century, contained burnt grain identified as barley. A massive barn found in the farm area of the monastery would have been used to thresh, dry and store the barley following harvesting by hand using a sickle.

For centuries, grain was ground by hand, using either a trough quern or a rotary quern, but both methods were time-consuming and hard work, The 8th century monks introduced the horizontal water-powered mill, in which a fast moving stream turned the mill wheel, which turned a millstone.

The dam for a mill has been uncovered at Portmahomack, made of a massive retaining wall with a culvert feeding the mill race. The mill itself may lie under the modern road. Monasteries like Portmahomack eventually came to control grain processing and this was an important factor in controlling the size and economy of the local population.’

A very important ‘village’…

Now, Robert is shouting from the lecture room that he’s solved another of Margaret’s problems, and I’m wondering how I’m going to fit any more into a single blog… and suddenly everything goes quiet, outside and in, and I realise we don’t have to…

The Discovery Centre is too good to squash into a single post… so let’s give it two…

Besides, ahead of me at this point in the retelling is one of the most beautiful chalices I’ve ever seen… And I’m eager to fit it into our newly discovered cultural framework of the amazing Picts.

(Above: a beautiful and mysterious chalice awaits us…)

In the next post we will examine the legacy of the Pictish objects found within the excavated Portmahomack site, before moving on, down the spine of the peninsula, to a beautiful glass-protected cross-slab… and two surprises, one of which will test our ingenuity to the full!

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, this is Part Four

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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.

Two journeys, one destination (3) – the mysterious Picts

(Above: the view of the neighbouring Inverness Castle from the steps of the museum)

‘The Romans were frightened of them…”

I remember reading that the week before our Scottish workshop and being astonished. I knew the Picts had created some of the most mysterious stone carvings I had ever seen. But fearsome warriors? Weren’t these enigmatic people simply farmers?

We were in the Inverness Museum, which is one of the best places to study the history of the Scottish Highlands. Our interest was specific and restricted – though we could have happily been there half the day. We were there to gain a perspective on the story of the Picts’ existence: where they came from, how long they endured, the nature of their spirituality, and the location of their primary settlements.

(Above: the land of the Picts, stretching from the far north-east of Scotland, to the present site of Inverness, then along the Elgin coast towards Burghhead and beyond. Inverness, the site of the museum, is marked in red.
~Map adapted by the author from a photo of the panel in the Inverness Museum~)

Equipped with this mental map, the following two days of our Silent Eye weekend would enable us to place in context some of the most remarkable pieces of Pictish stone carving and other artefacts, as we travelled, in turn, up the Tarbat peninsula, down to the Black Isle and, finally, to Dunrobin Castle on our way to the Orkney ferry at Thurso.

(Above: Cast of the Brodie Stone, a mystery in two halves:)

Following the Pictish Trail throws up some wonderful mysteries and instances of great fortune. As an example (above), the Brodie Stone, a classic ‘cross slab’ – a cross carved within a surrounding stone surface. The real Brodie Stone stands in the grounds of Brodie Castle, Moray. It was discovered in 1781 during the digging of foundations for a new parish church. For many years it stood in the village of Dyke as a tribute to Vice-Admiral Rodney, for his success at the battle of Saintes, in Dominica. Since then it has also been known as ‘Rodney’s Stone’. It is actually a Class II Pictish stone, meaning it has a Christian cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other. The Picts converted to Christianity during the 6th and 7th centuries, as we explore, below.

We’d had to reserve our places for the museum online, as the Covid-19 restrictions applied. We were allowed to enter only in small groups and at our allotted time. We were also expected to maintain a steady flow through the exhibits to prevent queuing at the entrance. A tall order, when we had so much to absorb… But at least photographs were allowed, and many of the information panels featured graphical summaries without which this post would have had much less illustration. Sincere thanks are due to the Inverness Museum for allowing this.

Before us were information displays on the geographical and geological history of the region, showing Scotland’s organic formation after the last ice age:

(Above: after the ice; the emergence of Scotland at the end of the last ice age)

The last ice age ended in Scotland about 9,000 years ago. The melting ice gave way to tundra – an arctic diversity of mosses, lichen and grasses, supporting mountain hares, arctic foxes and reindeer.

As temperatures rose, the tundra was invaded by birch scrub and then woodland, Oak and scots pine eventually replaced the birch, and cloaked the Highlands in dense forest. This became home to red deer, elk and wild cattle.. along with wolves, bears, lynx and, humans.

Around 9000 years ago, the European hunter-gatherers, enabled by the melting ice-sheets, reached the Highlands, and, as conditions improved, they settled permanently to become the first highlanders. They were originally nomads, but, as stone gave way to bronze and then iron – the iron age, the Picts established their home and became skilled farmers.

Then we came to the first of the Pict-focussed panels.

(Above: one of the panels in the Inverness Museum places the Picts and Romans co-existing from 80-399 CE. Beyond this, the Picts survived to around 900 CE, when they ‘mysteriously vanished…’)

The Iron-Age people who became the Picts were inhabitants of this Highland coast long before they were given their name by the Romans, who called them the ‘Picti’ – painted people; the reference being to their custom of painting their naked bodies before they went into battle, thereby giving a ghostly sheen to their skin and showing off their warlike body art and battle scars. Despite this frightening appearance, they were essentially peaceful farmers, whose ferocity appears to have been roused only when they were threatened.

(Above: a picture of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone. We had no idea that the weekend would bring us face to face with a large and exact life-size replica! Note the twin circles in the upper and middle parts; these are considered feminine and depict ‘comb and mirror’. The inset ‘V’ shape is another classic Pictish symbol called a ‘V-Rod’)

The Picts left no written record of their history. What we know of them comes from the striking images they carved in stone – which therefore endured. They were written about by both Scottish and Roman writers. The Roman Eumenius, in 297 CE, was the first to refer to them as Picts. There is an alternative theory of the name ‘Pict’, which refers to their own word ‘Pecht’, meaning ancestors. This link to those of their own who ‘went before yet still remain’ has strong spiritual overtones, as we shall see when we get to the Orkney part of these journals.

Recent evidence suggests that the Picts came to Scotland from Orkney, and before that were descendants of Scandinavia, though they lived much earlier than the Vikings, who, according to some sources, were to feature cruelly in their eventual demise. Orkney played a fundamental role in the advancing civilisation of what became Britain, and the age, sophistication and influence of its works is staggering. When we come to consider the spiritual beliefs of the Picts, Orkney takes on an entirely different importance…

(Above: Wolf Stone
Found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromart
This incised Pictish stone was found in 1903 built into an old wall. The graceful figures of the wolf is depicted using a few carved lines to give a sense of movement and shows the power of the animal)

The Picts lived here in the Highlands; the Romans invaded. With the Picts, they came up against something they didn’t understand…and came to fear. If the local forces were losing a battle, they would simply vaporise into the landscape – a wild landscape they knew well, unlike their oppressors. The Romans became frustrated, then despondent, at the failure of their traditional military tactics.

The Picts held their ground against the invaders in a number of engagements, but also lost major battles. It’s often said that they lost the battle but won the war. Scotland was never successfully conquered by the Romans, though they tried many times and succeeded in establishing forts well into the Highlands.

(Above: a Pictish picture of an ‘unknown beast’. Also found at Stittenham, Andross, Ross & Cromarty)

The Picts left no writing, unless their art contains a hidden phonetic key, awaiting the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone that enabled the translation of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Written records, by others and about the Picts exist from 297 CE until 900 CE, when they supposedly vanished. Scholars caution against interpreting this as extermination, since it is likely that they simply merged with the surrounding Scots tribes. It is also probable that the Picts’ adoption of Christianity in the 6th century CE was (at least in part) political.

The ‘Scots’ were, in those times, the rival tribe to the south. Further south, still, was Northumbria – one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. In 664 CE, Northumbria’s King Oswiu hosted the Synod of Whitby at which the rivalry of Celtic and Roman Christianity was determined in the Roman Church’s favour. By the time the Picts embraced Christianity, the Roman church had become the de-facto Christian faith across most of Europe. That the Picts came to embrace it is the logical act of a people who wished to live ‘in harmony’ with their neighbours. This may also explain the eventual merging of the Picts and the Scots, and the apparent disappearance of the former.

But what of their art? One of the main goals of the Silent Eye’s weekend was to consider its extraordinary clarity of design, its refreshing simplicity and the use of recurring motifs. The museum had little to say on this, so we hoped that our further journeys to the Tarbat peninsula and The Black Isle would help us. We had been successful, however, in placing the Pictish people, in understanding a little of their motives and culture. We had a framework within which to work. Inverness had served us well.

(Above: The Achavrail Armlet
The example of ‘massive metalworking’ reflects the designs adapted from continental Europe. Dating to the first or second centuries CE, this large bronze armlet was made by the ‘lost wax’ casting method)

Our time was up. The enforced flow around the exhibits had meant a rushed gathering of information. What we needed next was a degree of immersion in the Pictish culture. In the morning, a forty minute drive north from Inverness would see us enter the Tarbat Peninsula (see map). There, on one of Scotland’s most beautiful coasts, we would find a former church dedicated to a much deeper social understanding of the mysterious Picts.

But first, it was time to chill for an hour or two and then get ready for some much-needed pizza!


(Above: Mobile populations.. The Inverness museum illustrates many facets of Highland life. Silver pocket watches by Primus Mink and Faller brothers, 1870s. Mink and Faller brothers were craftsmen driven from Germany by political unrest during the late 1800s. They and at least six other German watchmakers flourished in Inverness at this time…)

To be continued…

Other parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two, this is Part Three

©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.

The mysterious Picts… and beyond

Three questions are asked about the mysterious Picts of the Easter Ross coast of north-east Scotland: Where did they come from? What was the meaning of their wonderful art – miraculously preserved in stone for us to explore, today; and where did they go?

For more than six hundred years, between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E., the Picts – literally ‘The Painted Ones’, sustained a kingdom running from a southern line between what is now Glasgow and Edinburgh – then known as the Antonine Wall, and the coastline of Easter Ross, north of Inverness in the Highlands.

For centuries, popular history viewed them as ‘half-crazed savages’. But these ‘wild painted men’ fought back the might of Rome’s legions before vanishing from history. They left no written records, but their culture and beliefs are etched into Scotland’s history.

(Above: a tiled mosaic of a Pictish design, outside the Pictish museum, Rosemarkie)

The Picts created intricate and sophisticated designs, which surpassed any other native art in Britain at the time. The subjects of their art varied from animals and mythical beasts to Pagan and Christian symbols; they appear to have easily synthesised the old and the new religions, and made it their own.

(Above: the beautiful beaches of Easter-Ross)

Although there are no written texts, the Picts left behind a wealth of spectacular standing stones, elaborate carvings and intricate sculptures for future generations to discover. We plan to explore several of these – and their stunning landscapes, during our weekend. We will also look at the nature of their art, and, possibly recreate something of our own using the Pictish symbol system.

(Above: Pictish Queen at Portmahomack)

The Easter Ross Pictish trail is has been established by Historic Scotland and offers a spectacular journey through a landscape which has been inhabited since the dawn of civilisation.

“Mysterious and often beautiful, Pictish sculpture presents one of the great puzzles of Dark Age archaeology” (Joanna Close-Brooks 1989) 

The Silent Eye had a series of workshops planned for this year. Due to the Covid-19 situation, these have, so far, been moved to the corresponding months of 2021.

The coming September Workshop: ‘The Pictish Trail’ presents us with an opportunity to resume our celebrated weekends of wandering and learning from the landscape…and each other.

As of the date of writing this, (22 July 2020) The Scottish government rules on travel and groups have been relaxed to a degree that will permit the Pictish Trail workshop to go ahead. Outdoor sites were never a problem. However, as of this week, Historic Scotland are relaxing their restrictions, and an increasing number of indoor locations are being re-opened.

(Above: the ferry across the Cromarty Firth will be one of the features of the weekend)

Administration of the weekend

Inverness will be our base location, due to its facilities, though much of the weekend will be spent on the coast to the north of here. We will convene on the Friday afternoon (or evening) for a visit to the first of the Pictish Stones and a shared meal. If time permits, we can enjoy a walk around the town.

Saturday and Sunday morning will be spent further north, following the official Pictish Trail along the beautiful coast of Easter Ross, and the nearby hills. We will return to Inverness for Saturday evening.

The dates are: Friday 11 September 2020 to Sunday (lunch) 13 September.

Transportation, accommodation and meals are not included in the £75.00 per person fee. Please make your own arrangements for the above, though meals are usually taken as a group, in local pubs, and the costs divided.

Should the event be cancelled due to Covid-19 issues, a full refund of the monies paid to the Silent Eye will be made.

A mainline train service runs to Inverness from Edinburgh. A small number of car places will be available from Inverness from those driving to the event. If you are travelling on foot, please ensure you have checked this availability before your departure.

To confirm your interest, please send an email to rivingtide@gmail.com, attention Steve Tanham

Optional Extension to Orkney

A small group of us are intending to continue on the Sunday northwards to Orkney, via car and passenger ferry from Scrabster – Thurso’s port. We will sail to Stromness, returning to the mainland on the morning of the 17th September. As of the time of writing, some of the previously closed centres of interest are being re-opened to limited number of visitors. Orkney sites such as the wonderful Ring of Brodgar, have continued to be available during the Covid restrictions. Further updates will be given to anyone interested in joining this. Orkney is beautiful, spiritual and unique. This is rare chance to combine two events and visit it.

©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 7 Final) Face to Face with Macbeth

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin-1-800px.jpg
It was time to come face to face with the man who may well have inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth…

We were standing in the car park near Drumin Castle. Dean was using the visitor map of the Glenlivet Estate to describe the day ahead.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-red-highlights-sm.jpg
The visitors map of the Glenlivet Estate with our two intended locations highlighted in red

We were to begin by exploring an ancient and little visited stone circle on the nearby slope above the river Livet – The Doune of Dalmore. After this we would cross the river to the nearby ruin of Drumin Castle before driving across the Glenlivet estate to its south-eastern edge to conclude our work on the elements at Scanlan; the home of a secret seminary.

It was expected that we would be able to finish our workshop in time to allow the usual local lunch, together, followed by our departure. Many of us had far to go before we got home on that Sunday. In our case, the journey even to Cumbria was going to take at least six hours.

Both locations for the planned day are marked on the photo of the Glenlivet Estate, above, and have their own maps within the text.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-northmap-1-800px.jpg
Glenlivet Estate: our first two locations are shown above. The Ring Cairn and Drumin Castle are described in the text. Map provided by the Glenlivet Estate on their notice board.

The Glenlivet estate comprises 23,000 hectares of some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and lies at the northern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, between the northern Ladder Hills and the Cromdale Hills. Two rivers – the Avon and the Livet run through its heart.

The land in Glenlivet is an elevated plateau and is always higher than 200m (600ft). Although remote, and on the edge of some of Britain’s highest mountains, the gentle landscape is easy to access and explore. People have lived and farmed this region since prehistoric times.

From the 1500’s to the early 20th Century, Glenlivet Estate belonged to the Gordon family, who became the Dukes of Richmond and Gordon. Their legacy can be seen throughout the region.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-crossing-bridge2-1-800px.jpg
Crossing the river Livet

First, we had to cross the river Livet and begin the walk through the gentle meadows.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-towards-doune-of-dalmore-1-800px.jpg
The hilltop of the Doune of Dalmore can be seen at the far end of the meadow.

It was an easy climb to the Doune of Dalmore. Soon, we were standing at the base of the ancient site.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-towards-doune-of-dalmore-1-1-800px.jpg
The Doune of Dalmore – Stone circle and burial chamber.

The Doune of Dalmore comprises the ancient remains of a ring cairn – a prehistoric burial monument with an open central area – and a stone circle that surrounds it. This type of circle and ring is known locally as a Clava cairn. The cairn is 13m in diameter and 0.7m high. Four of the stones of the surrounding circle are now standing, but some others, which have fallen, lie where they fell.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drumin-stone-circle-edge-sm.jpg
The edge of the ring of stones

The day was mild and the weather kind. For the penultimate time, we assembled our ribbons into pentagrams, cornered with our special stones, and gathered in our groups of two to partner in inner vision and notation on the element of alchemical ‘Fire’. Fire is both potent and dangerous. It can work good and bad. Thoughts of the witches on the blasted heath came to mind; and also the essence of what they represented within the Macbeth story: they had no power to compel, merely to dangle before human ambition what ‘might be’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-vision-castle-1-800px.jpg
In the distance… the home of the Wolf of Badenoch

And then it was time to turn and look across the valley of the Livet river to see our next destination. It was our final day… and we had to be open to conclusions – our own and that of the landscape we had ‘asked’ to teach us. With some trepidation, I looked across the clean, flowing water of the Livet to the ruins of Drumin Castle beyond… Drumin was the home of the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, known in history as ‘Scotland’s vilest man’…

In the words of Scottish historians, “Scottish history has its fair share of deeply unpleasant characters, but Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, is a strong contender for the title of least pleasant of the lot.”

Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, but more commonly known as the Wolf of Badenoch, and the Celtic Atilla, lived from 1343 to 1394. He was the fourth illegitimate son of the future King Robert II of Scotland and of Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan, but became legitimised in 1349 upon his parents’ marriage. His life is a classic example of an egoic character provided with the means to destroy on a wholesale scale.

The element of Fire had well and truly returned to our presence with the glimpse of the life of this evil man. He systematically abused the power his royal father granted him and was fond of burning towns and sacred buildings to the ground. The town of Forres is an example of the former, the destruction of Elgin Cathedral is the worst example of the latter.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-southmap-1-1-800px.jpg
Drumin Castle as seen from the steep approach by the river Livet – a forbidding aspect….

Shortly after, we descended across the meadows, re-crossed the river Livet and began the climb to the Wolf of Badenoch’s castle – Drumin. Scottish castles are usually compact structures. Drumin is strategically placed – overlooking both the river valley and the confluence of the rivers Livet and Avon (pronounced a’an).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin2-1-3-800px.jpg
Nothing is permanent – not even stone walls this thick…

Alexander Stewart died in 1394. He was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral. His tomb is, ironically, one of the few to have survived from Scotland’s Middle Ages. The details of the ‘Wolf’s death’ are unclear, but, as so often happens, the folk legend sheds light on both his life and death.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screenshot-2019-07-10-at-11.44.28.png
Ironically, the Wolf of Badenoch’ tomb is one of the few surviving from the Scottish Middle Ages. Image Source: Undiscovered Scotland

It is said that on the 24th July 1394, a black robed visitor arrived at Ruthven castle and challenged its owner to a game of chess. During the night that followed the castle was battered by a terrible storm, with intense thunder and lightning. In the morning the castle servants were discovered dead outside the castle walls. The Wolf of Badenoch was found dead in the great hall. His body was unmarked…but the nails in his boots had been torn out. This may have been a reference to Christ’s execution – Alexander Stewart’s being the opposite.

There was no sign of the dark stranger… Play ‘chess’ with the devil at your peril…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-drumlin2-1-8-800px.jpg
The modern garden of Drumin castle provides a place of peace amidst the terrible history

I think Shakespeare would have liked the story. There is no direct proof that Macbeth was based upon Alexander Stewart. Witchcraft was rife at the time of James I (James VI of Scotland) and the King lived in terror of it. Shakespeare based many of his plays on real historical figures. It is reasonable to propose that the Wolf of Badenoch was the fictional twin of the ambitious psychopath who brought such chaos to this part of Scotland.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-community-orchard-1-800px.jpg
The Community Garden – produce available to all…

There was a pleasant end to our visit to to Drumin castle. Part of the garden (see above) has been given over to allow the creation of Glenlivet’s Community Orchard – a place of mutual industry and kindness.

Soon, we were driving across the length of the Glenlivet estate to a place close to its south-east border.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-finalday-southmap-1-800px.jpg
Our final destination. The location marked “Walk 2” shows Scanlan Seminary

We were headed for the isolation of the Braes of Glenlivet; specifically, The Scanlan, a former and secret Catholic seminary for the training of priests and young men set to become priests.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-1-800px.jpg
Scanlan Seminary – now a quiet and (usually) infrequently visited place…

During the 18th century, ‘The Scanlan’ was the only place in Scotland where young men could be trained to be priests – they were named the ‘heather priests’. During the period 1717 – 1799 over a hundred were trained, despite the persecution by Hanoverian soldiers following the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion. The location of The Scanlan was a closely guarded secret, and the site – at the head of a remote valley – was impossible to see until you were close to it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-3-800px.jpg

Dean had visited the site of Scalan Seminary several times. He said that, often, he was the only one visiting. He had considered – given its remoteness and usual emptiness – that it would be an ideal basis for us to gather for our final exercise with the ribbon-based pentagrams.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-11-800px.jpg
The Scanlan still has no interior electric. Heating and lighting are as they were in days gone by…

But the ‘witchy fates’ had other ideas. Having made Findhorn beach disappear, and conjured mysterious winds to drag apart our ribbon pentagrams, they pulled off a spectacular strike on the final act in our ‘Macbeth play’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-5-800px.jpg
How Scanlan used to look. For much of its later life it was a farmhouse, prior to its restoration as an historic museum.

The college played a vital role in keeping the traditional Catholic faith alive in northern Scotland. It’s name derives from the Gaelic word for a hut made of turf pieces – which is how the initial building at Scanlan was constructed.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-10-800px.jpg
A spartan interior…

In 1799, the religious training work of the Scanlan was moved to a less remote site, Aquhorthies College, near Inverurie. In researching this blog, I discovered I had a personal link to the tradition begun at Scanlan. My father’s eldest sister married a Glasgow man of the Catholic faith. The local church were helpful during the upbringing of my seven cousins, whom I used to visit every summer. The eldest son (my cousin) eventually left Glasgow to study to become a priest at Blairs College, in Aberdeen. Eventually, he left the priesthood and became a successful lawyer in Glasgow.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-12-800px.jpg
The most recent building (and now museum) is on the left. The old stone structure on the right replaced the original, secret turf hut. The bend in the stream to the right is the location of an ancient well.

Blairs College had taken over the work of training priests from Aquhorthies College in 1929 and continued this work until 1986. It is, now, also a museum. There was therefore a strong, religious and cultural link between where I was standing at the end of our weekend and my cousin’s life… But I didn’t know at the time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is glenlivet-scanlan-14-800px.jpg
The ruin of the second generation Scanlan…

But… the witches, the tricky fates…

No sooner had we arrived ( a twenty minute trek along the land from the car park) than others began to arrive, too. By the time we had taken a quick look at the museum there were upwards of thirty people gathering in a pagoda outside the main door. One glance at the approach track showed there were hundreds more arriving.

It transpired that there was an annual (and well-dressed) pilgrimage to Scanlan… and this was the day…

In deference, we retreated to a point out of sight and over the next small hill, there to lay out our humble pentagrams and perform the last movements that would resolve our work of the weekend, bringing our inner strengths and vision to help dissolve our perceived limitations. All this was focussed on a set of inner symbols that grew into a composite image which we were to take away with us as a lasting focus and token of the work done.

It was beautiful.

By the time we had battled the incoming tide of visitors, and regained the road system, it was five in the afternoon; several hours later than intended. But everyone felt we had enjoyed an excellent weekend among the hills and valleys of this beautiful Scottish landscape.

The oyster-catchers were never far away, and their beautiful calling accompanied our entire weekend.

Our thanks to Dean for the great amount of work that went into planning and realising the three days. We look forward to further Scottish adventures, including “On the trail of the Picts”, our workshop for September 2020.

End.

Other parts in this seriesParagraph

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six,

This is Part Seven

©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.Paragraph

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 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.

 

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.