Rites of Passage: Familiarity…

It isn’t always what you know that counts… it matters more what you understand well enough to bring it into consciousness. Some of us were to get a graphic example of that as we took a break for lunch in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.

It is a lovely town, in spite of the inevitable hordes of visitors that flock there ever summer, with one of the best churches, replete with stories, history and mysteries. From the Saxon crosses and Masonic gravestone in the churchyard, to the dragons and the white stag in the stained glass, it has something to discover on every new visit.

We have run a workshop based in Bakewell, explored pretty much every nook and cranny, as well as having spent many a lunch-break on the banks of the river Wye, watching the huge brown trout and the innumerable birds enjoying the swift, shallow waters.

Although we would not have time for a proper visit on this trip, it was the perfect place, midway between sites, for an extended lunch-break that would allow our companions to explore. Arranging to meet at the river, we went our separate ways.

We returned early to the meeting place and, finding all the benches full, Stuart took up a perch on a tree as we waited. As we did so, a tiny old lady, as fragile as a whisper, whipped into a newly vacated spot with surprising alacrity. She must have been in her nineties… frail and almost transparent, yet in spite of the  trolley upon which she leaned, her movements were bird-quick.

And the birds were quick to notice her as she reached into her trolley to take out their lunch. It was obviously a ritual of long standing, as dozens of birds recognised her movements and arrived at her feet, showing no fear at all of either their benefactor or those, like us, who were seated close by.

Wild birds are supposed to be wary of humans, but that fear is a learned behaviour. Birds were around, in one form or another, for millions of years before humans came along and decided that their meat, bones  and their feathers were a useful addition to their hunted supplies. Birds learned to fear us and that fear has been passed down through the generations.

I thought of the Dodo, living safely on its island throughout its evolution. With no predator to teach it to know fear, it was only curious when Man arrived and that was its undoing. In just decades, the Dodo was extinct. Not only does the Dodo provide a graphic illustration of how fear, in its rightful place, can be of service,  it also shows something we all know, but seldom think about… fear has to be learned.

It may be learned through personal experience, or through the cumulative experience of our ancestors, but whether it is a finger burned in a forbidden flame or the genetic memories that preserve us, fear is an acquired and instinctive reaction. Yet these particular birds, used to the constant stream of munching tourists  as a food source, as well as their regular suppliers, like the little old lady, had  learned something other than fear…they have learned to trust.

It cannot have come easily to begin with. You can even spot the newcomers who find safety in the crowd but who are still wary when separated from the flock.  But, with personal experience… getting to know the environment, its gifts and its people, the inborn and instinctive distrust built up over the course of millions of years has been set aside in favour of a newly-learned trust. And, if the birds can do it, so can we.

Our own behaviours and reactions are learned, whether from early experience, those who raised us, or from the generations of ancestors who went before. But the world is a rapidly changing place.

Countries we could only dream of seeing, even a generation ago, are now easily accessible as holiday destinations, places to work or are instantly accessible via the internet. Behaviours that served to keep  our distant ancestors safe may no longer serve us, only keep is separate and fearful, creating division and prejudice. Perhaps we too can learn to see beyond fear to trust… and find that, in doing so, we are richer for the change of heart.

It had taken so little to bring this point home. Our little old lady had been there only a few moments, yet she had the joy of feeding the birds and seeing them flock to greet her…and they, through their trust, had been nourished. Their interaction, fleeting though it was, had been beautiful to watch.

As our companions gathered once more by the bridge, I reflected on how simply Nature can teach us…and how easily we can miss her lessons, forgetting, in the hustle and bustle of urban life, that we too are her creatures and part of the vast and intricate dance of life on this planet we call home.

Rites of Passage: On the Edge…

On Saturday morning, we gathered on the Edge above Baslow. The rocky landscape here is one we know well, capturing and melding the wild essence of the land with the lives of its people, through history, necessity and modern Man’s pursuit of beauty.

You have to wonder if the stark beauty of the high crags with their panoramic views over the valleys played a part in why our ancestors chose this spot to build a settlement. It is logical to assume that the dictates of practicality and safety made them seek a place with water and a defensive position. We know that many of these sites were considered sacred too, given the purposes for which they were used. To a culture already crafting beautiful things and colourful garments, perhaps the land itself spoke to them and asked them to call it home.

It would not have mattered which way we had chosen to walk… there is history beneath every step here, from the cairnfields and stone circles of the Barbrook complex, to the enclosure, rock art and standing stones of Gardom’s Edge, the ancient settlements of Big Moor…or the cairnfields around our destination, the Eagle Stone.

We opened our day with a visualisation, then the party separated. Some chose to walk along the path that runs along the Edge, where the view over Derbyshire is spectacular. Others followed the more direct path, keeping our eyes open for the ‘scrying bowls’ we wanted to share on our return.

First though, we wanted to explore other aspects of fear, both physical and the more tenuous fear of failure and its consequences… or perceived consequences…within a community. As we gathered around the Eagle Stone, we asked if anyone could see a way to climb to the top.

The Eagle Stone is a naturally occurring gritstone boulder, some twenty feet high. Wind and rain have carved the huge boulder into fantastical shapes that give the stone a different face from every angle. While it is possible to see an eagle poised for flight from one position, there are laughing faces from others.

Some stories say that it got its name simply because eagles would perch upon the rock, other tales tell that it was cast there by a pre-Christian god, who could throw stones no mortal man could lift, and that its name should be Aigle’s Stone. It is also said to turn around three times when the cock crows… but we were a little late to verify that.

The Eagle Stone stands close to a Neolithic cairnfield on the Edge above Baslow. Given its proximity to the many prehistoric sites of the area, it is safe to assume that it would have been seen as significant by our ancestors and that what has come down to us in folklore may have its roots in the distant past.

Local tradition states that, before a man may marry, he must scale the Eagle Stone. As there is no easy way to climb the overhanging rock, this test of manhood has, since time beyond memory, been used to determine a youth’s fitness to mate and provide. The custom persists, with groups of young men, adorned with bridal veils, gathering to help their friends to the top. Perhaps ‘manhood’ is not only defined by the ability to face fears and overcome hurdles, but by the ability to cooperate and help each other.

Going back through the mists of time, we might consider that this surviving folk custom had its roots in a deeper mystery. Was it seen as a rite of passage into manhood? Watched over by the ancestors in their cairnfield, was this test of physical courage, strength and ingenuity the test that carried boys into adulthood and gave them a place within the clan? If so, then failure would have had dire consequences, whether from a fall or by the loss of place and face within the community. Is it too much to imagine that those who succeeded became the warriors or hunters, the ‘eagles’ of their tribe?

We still face similar ‘tests’ today and our position within the community is too often ranked by our success or failure at climbing the social, academic or business ladders. We are frequently judged by what we can ‘bring to the table’, instead of who we are as human beings and the higher qualities of humankind that we can teach our children. Individuals value such qualities, societies, it seems, do not. Many who should be honoured for their kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice are simply swept under the societal table because their focus was not on the ephemeral glitter ball of its approval.

As we returned, we stopped to look at the ‘scrying bowls’ that dot the moors and a huge boulder perched upon smaller ones that looks for all the world like a collapsed dolmen. The scrying bowls are usually filled with water, but for once, they were empty. While they may be no more than natural features… and I have found no record of a dolmen here… it is entirely possible that they would have been recognised and used by our ancestors.

Our visit was more light-hearted than serious. There had been merriment as some of our company made an attempt on the Eagle Stone. There were dogs and their owners to greet, people whose barriers came down for a moment to share the laughter and the sunshine… a stark contrast to the sad faces we had seen in Eyam the day before.

To the ancients, the Eagle Stone and the cairnfield where their forefathers were buried may have been a gateway through which they could touch the Unseen. Such ideas are often dismissed as superstition, but we deal with the unseen all the time. We feel the peace in an old village church and the tension in the atmosphere of a room without any obvious cues. The atmosphere of Eyam had been as darkly infectious as the mood was light on this walk across the moors. As we left Baslow Edge behind and headed for lunch in Bakewell, we couldn’t help wondering what our companions would make of what we had planned for later…

Rites of Passage: Beyond well…

Our last ‘official’ site for the day was Mompesson’s Well. The small, stone-capped well-housing sits in an enclosure above the village of Eyam, on the old salt road that once joined Sheffield to Cheshire. The well is fed by a stream and we had hoped that its pure waters would symbolically wash away the taste of grief after plunging ourselves into the dark history of the plague.

Mompesson’s Well, renamed in honour of the clergyman who had convinced the village to quarantine itself in 1665 when the plague had struck, was one of the places where money and goods were exchanged during the village’s self-imposed isolation. Money was left for supplies for the plague-ridden village, and the coins washed in the water in the belief that it would prevent infection. There are still coins left at the well today, though whether that is in homage to its history or part of an older tradition of leaving offerings by sacred springs is debatable.

The plague in Eyam lasted for fourteen months. The quarantine was lifted a little while after the death of the last victim of the pestilence, farm worker Abraham Morten, had died on the first of November 1666. It must have been a time of both hope and terror as the village held its breath, waiting to see if he were indeed the last.

Figures vary from source to source about how many people were living in Eyam when the plague first struck and how many died. The church holds records of two hundred and seventy three deaths, but that may not be the full total. While one source claims there may have been around seven hundred villagers at the start of the plague, many seem to agree on a mere three hundred and eighty. Either way, the loss is a staggering proportion of the population and no-one would have been left untouched by loss.

Yet, without their chosen actions and self-sacrifice, the plague would have undoubtedly spread, not only to the villages immediately surrounding Eyam, but thence to the towns and cities such as Bakewell, Buxton and Sheffield where poverty and the density of the population would have spelled disaster.

The quarantine was no empty gesture. The villagers knew that through their choices, most were condemning themselves and their families to a painful and horrible death. There was no effective treatment for the plague in the seventeenth century, but while tens of thousands were dying every week in London, in Derbyshire, the comparatively low death toll  is due to the sacrifice of this one village.

And yet, there is, in spite of their actions, and in spite of the vibrant internal life of the modern village, still a heavy taste of old fear hanging over Eyam. Even the atmosphere of the well did not feel truly clean… it was not the place to end our day. It is not always enough to heal the body; old pain leaves its scars and its ghosts. Instead, we followed the road up onto Eyam Moor, where older inhabitants had built stone circles thousands of years ago and where the air is clear and clean.

We had begun our afternoon together with a visualisation, placing our work within a circle of Light. High on the moors, amid the last of the heather, we offered what light we shared for the healing of old pain.

All that remained for us to do was to return to base. We had booked a table for dinner at the Queen Anne in Great Hucklow, the inn that has seen us every year during our April ritual workshops. The pub, just three miles from Eyam and built in 1621, is just a few years older than the story of the plague. There was something rather comforting about its familiarity at the end of such an emotional day. And sometimes, warmth and friendship are all it takes to make the world right.

We had been lucky with the warm weather too… a beautiful autumn day. As we watched the sun go down from the pub’s garden, we were hoping for fine weather for the next day too… for we would be spending it high on the moors with the stones…

 

Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villagers of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

Rites of Passage: Light and shade

We walked through the village, watching the changing expressions of visitors as the full horror of the plague story hit home. From the mildly curious to the stark shock of those who aligned themselves with the  story for a moment, it was interesting to observe those who merely skimmed the history from an emotional distance and those for whom empathy made it personal. It is difficult to keep the story at bay if you open yourself to what people experienced, rather than seeing them just as characters on the page of history.

Central to the story of the villagers’ response to the plague in 1665 was the church, even though all services were soon moved to a nearby field to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and it was there that we were heading.

There has been a church in Eyam since before the records of its incumbents began. Its first recorded rector served here in 1250, though its story goes back much further.  In the churchyard stands an intricately carved ‘Celtic’ cross of Mercian design, dating back to the eighth century, preserving that mix of Pagan and Christian symbolism that typifies the style. The top part of the shaft is missing, broken long ago for use in domestic building, and we cannot help wondering what artwork and symbolism was lost.

Within the churchyard is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife, who had stayed in the village when others left, to support her husband and his congregation. Her husband had wanted her to leave when they sent their children to Yorkshire for safety during the early days of the plague, but she had refused to go. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak, having contracted the disease whilst nursing those infected. You can only imagine how she and her husband must have felt as they faced these decisions. Catherine is buried close to her husband’s church. She was just twenty seven years old.

The current church of St Lawrence is a mainly fourteenth century building, yet traces of its earlier history are easy to find.

In this small church there is a feeling of living history, the continuity is caught and held here somewhere between the ancient burial urn, interred on the moor three and a half thousand years ago and the Saxon font that has seen the baptism of villagers for over a thousand years.

The font stands in St Helen’s chapel and close by a medieval grave slab bearing St Helen’s Cross is set into the wall.

All in all, it is one of those old churches that seems, on the face of it, to have everything we get excited about. It is obviously loved by its parishioners, is well cared-for and, from the children’s corner to the village notices around the church, still very much part of the community today. And yet, there is an oppressive atmosphere, felt by most of us, as if the ghost of sickness still clings to the place, not helped by the story of the plague displayed in the side chapel and the book listing the names of those who died; a place designed for spiritual inspiration given over to the memory of old death.

Wall paintings show the twelve tribes of Israel and a Memento Mori of grinning skeletons. But there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows, one of which commemorates Mompesson and his congregation, with vignettes telling their story, from the outbreak of the plague to the tragedy of Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre, lovers who lived either side of the quarantine boundary.

Emmot, a young woman in her early twenties, lived in Eyam. Rowland lived in Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village just a short walk away. They would meet every day, as young lovers do, and when the quarantine was imposed, their meetings continued, though they could only shout to each other from a distance.

John Sydall, Emmot’s father, lived with his family opposite the cottage where the plague had broken out. He and four of his children were amongst the first to die. In the spring of 1666, Emmot failed to come to the rendezvous with Rowland. He returned every day to the appointed spot, until the quarantine ended some months later. At the first opportunity, he walked into Eyam to seek for his love, only to be told that she had fallen ill and died in April. One sad story amongst so many…

The Mompesson window also contains a ring of roses, in reference to the nursery rhyme, long thought to be associated with the story of the plague. In some ways, it is ironic that the beauty and fragrance of roses should be forever joined in the folk record with such a horrific episode in human history. In others, regardless of the historicity of the attribution, it is a good reminder that apparent beauty may hide its thorns and its petals strew a path to despair, and yet, when we face the horror of our darkest fears, our choices may lift us to the Light.

In spite of its beauty, no-one felt like lingering in the church. There were still two more places we wanted to take our companions that afternoon… and, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were acutely aware that the next story we had to share could be harrowing…

Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

Hunting the Unicorn: The place of the heather priests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Hunting the Unicorn: Shells and fruits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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