Solstice of the Moon: Circle of Timeless Light

Stars over Scotland. Image: Pixabay

A few stars twinkled above Inverurie as our group gathered for dinner. It wasn’t even raining much. That probably explains why, some time after nine o’clock, when the moonless night had well and truly fallen, four people would once again walk the path up to the stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies…

We arrive first and, switching off the lights of the car, allow our eyes to gradually become accustomed to the complete lack of artificial light. We have torches, but they seem an intrusion somehow and will only be used to navigate the potholed track. There is no moon tonight and the little town is far enough distant, and set low enough in the landscape, to be invisible. Even the lights of Aberdeen make only a smudge of sickly ochre on the far horizon. We can see very little… only the ink-black silhouettes of the trees against the lightless sky.

The silence is profound, yet it is not a silence created by the absence of sound, only by the absence of Man. There is a rustling in the leaves, the breath of a breeze, ghostly fingers caressing the night. It is not emptiness, but a living silence… and we are part of it.

We wait, watching for our companions’ arrival. Gradually we realise that the darkness is receding. After a while, we can see almost as clearly as in daylight. Not as far, it is true, but we stand within a circle of vision, painted in silver, black and grey. Between the dancing leaves of the trees, we can see a thousand stars with unparalleled clarity. It is astonishing how quickly our eyes accept the darkness, painting detail upon its canvas with ancient and remembered skill. We will not really need the torches… but our companions’ eyes will not have time to adjust.

Two specks of approaching light rob the night of its completeness. A few minutes later four of us leave the cars and the modern world behind. We speak softly; voices are louder in the darkness, hearing more acute. In fact, it seems as if all the senses awaken in the night, remembering a purpose the everyday world forgets. There is nothing to remind us of when we are… only the torchlight that dances ahead of us on the earth. I am acutely conscious of distance… the noise of a Saturday night is centuries away…  Extinguishing the torches, four souls step out of time and into the circle.

Without a word, we know what to do. We each seek our stone and stand before it in silence. My stone is the Elder, carved long before the others. I feel its presence, warm and enduring, against my spine. I think of my own garden and how the moon in its fullness casts shadows there. Tonight, the moon is absent. I look up… and the world falls away…

Above, the sky is cloudless and clear. A million, trillion stars sparkle, flashing colours. What I see is little different from what they would have seen here thousands of years ago… though there would have been no light save a few distant hearthfires to rob the darkness of beauty.

Three steps to my right and I am laying on the stone. It is warm in the circle, there is neither wind nor chill. ‘My’ stone looms over me, a dark void against the stars. Stone accepts my body… my view is unobstructed; the vastness of space draws me into that living silence and I hear its song. An endless time, that is no time, playing in the stars. The Milky Way arcs across the vault of night. The heavens are an upturned chalice to which the stones of the circle are reaching. Constellations that once shone white on black are drowning in a sea of diamond dust… and so am I…

After a few minutes, I sit up. Vision has embraced the night and I can see right across the circle ; the stones glow white in the starlight. I can see my companions, silhouetted against their brightness. It looks as if they are held within the folds of snowy wings. It reminds me of something we had found in a little country church… and as my mind returns to earth, my companions stir and leave their stones.

Reluctantly, I stand… I wish we could stay longer, but we are all aware that it is time to leave. We close the circle and leave quietly. There is no need for words… nor is there really any need for the torchlight. The temperature drops noticeably as we step beyond the stones. For safety’s sake, we switch on the lamps and the night recedes by thousands of years.

We say goodnight and head our separate ways. When we realise the time, we are incredulous. It feels as if we had been there no time at all… but it is not far from midnight…

Solstice of the Moon: Switching the lights on

We had returned to Easter Aquhorthies for a second visit. It was still raining, but this time the sky was much brighter than the iron-grey deluge of the day before and there was already a sense of revisiting an old friend as we each returned to our stones. For myself, I was pondering some of the things we had learned here the day before… beginning with a rather obvious question from Running Elk.

“Where does the sun rise?” He was answered by silence. Twelve intelligent, fairly well-educated people had all apparently reached the same conclusion. The answer was so obvious that stating it was obviously going to turn out badly. Only the dog grinned. The sun rises in the east… that’s what we learn in school and that’s exactly what we think we see whenever we watch a dawn. Only, apparently, it isn’t. Who knew?

Well actually, I did. Except I didn’t know that I knew. It is one of those things simply taken for granted. Sunrise. East. Yet, my garden doors face east and I watch the sunrise most days. But thinking about it, I realised that while the winter sun rises directly opposite my doors, I only see the summer sunrise  by looking across the garden next door. At a guess, maybe forty-or-so degrees difference. So the sun does not rise due east, but in the eastern skies, or ‘east of centre’.

As an opening gambit, it was a masterstroke. I cannot have been the only one wondering what else I was simply taking for granted… and that one question opened the mind to considering possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked.

We had learned about the solar and lunar alignments in the circle and we had also talked about the value of the elders in the community. Running Elk had started that with a question too, asking how old we thought the average life expectancy would be for those who had constructed this astronomical circle. The consensus seemed to be around thirty years… but averages take in the extremes and seldom reflect reality. Infant mortality was high, and perhaps few would live to what we would call a ripe old age. That alters the figures. It also means that those who had lived long enough, say, to remember the preceding major lunar standstills, over eighteen years before, would have unique knowledge, precious to the community. …and would be valued accordingly. Something our own society might remember…

But why, we were asked to consider, was the moon so important to these people? While we discussed  the agricultural necessities of growing seasons, my mind wandered back to childhood and Old Moore’s Almanack. This was a fascinating seventeenth century publication, updated yearly and still on sale today. Optimum planting times are listed along with predictions, astronomical and tidal observations and a really intriguing collection of advertisements for strange and wonderful things. As a child, I found the little booklet fascinating.  I always wondered why people planted by the lunar tides, believing that by respecting the lunar cycle, the crops would grow more abundantly. My mother dismissed it as old superstition. My horticultural great-uncle John looked up from his prize-winning dahlias, winked, tapped the side of his nose and said, “Think abaht it, lass.”

So I thought about it. I knew that the moon ruled the tides, its gravitational pull drawing the oceans up and letting them fall as it orbits the earth… and maybe that had something to do with the waxing and waning of the moon too. Maybe, I thought, the same thing happens with the sap in the plants? So if you could understand and predict how the moon tides, maybe you could encourage the plants to grow better? The sun quite obligingly rises and sets daily, and the extremities of its yearly journey are marked by the solstices when the sun ‘stands still’. The longest and the shortest days. The moon then, must also have a solstice… and I was back in the present, listening to Running Elk explain about the major lunar standstill… Light dawned. Solstice of the Moon.

Photo: Helen Jones

Stuart chanted from the recumbent stone, ancient syllables born of the land itself, and we gathered at the Priestess’s stone to listen. Outside the circle, the sound simply died… within it, a matter of inches away, the acoustics were incredible. We stood by our stones and Steve came to the stone, using its amazing acoustics to lead us in a chant. Syllables, symbolising the masculine and feminine potencies of the universe, the sound reverberating through the space.  Next, men and women chanted in counterpoint… and for those moments, each of us was priest and priestess of that formless light that owns no name, weaving sound and breath, in homage and celebration of its Presence and our own presence within it.

And when we had done, as if in response, the rain stopped and the sky was lit by rainbows. Right on cue. It was a truly magical moment. You can spend months on research and planning for these weekends, right down to the last detail. But it is these unexpected gifts that light up the days.

Photo: Barb Taub


Solstice of the Moon: Circle of Peace

Our first stop next day was a place where mysterious stones, a Celtic saint and a link to one of the best-known legends of the British Isles all come together in a village churchyard. It took a bit of finding, but at least the weather was a little less vicious than the day before. We were still going to undergo the ritual cleansing of the rain-gods though. We had no idea what we were about to see. We could have done a bit of research and snooping, but I, for one, was enjoying this mystery tour and was happy to go where we were led, enjoying the surprise of revelation.

Walking into the neat and well-kept graveyard of Midmar Church, I glimpsed a suspicious looking standing stone around the back and wondered if it was an outlier of a stone circle. We tried the door of the little church, but found it locked. It is of no great age, being built in 1787 to replace the now-ruined  Old Kirk lower down the hill, beside the earth mound that is said to be the site of a Norman Castle…as are so many of these ancient mounds near the old churches. The Old Kirk too was a replacement, built on the site of the first church in Midmar and dedicated to St Nidan, a cousin of St Kentigern, who keeps cropping up on our travels. The two had set out together to bring Celtic Christianity to the Picts around 574 AD and Nidan himself had founded the little church that later bore his name.

Midmar old church. Image: Stu Smith, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Kentigern is an interesting saint. His story is a colourful mixture of myth and legend, with a little fact sprinkled in almost reluctantly, it seems. He is also known as St Mungo, a name he was given by St Serf, who was his guardian and teacher as a child. We have stumbled across his legends in places as far apart as St Asaph‘s in Wales, Aspatria in Cumbria as well as elsewhere in England. In Scotland, he is Glasgow’s patron saint, but more intriguingly, his life story records that he came into conflict with Lailoken, a wild prophet who foretold the death of King Rhydderch Hael. Lailoken, of whom “…some say he was called Merlynum“, is often equated with Myrddin Wyllt, an earlier form of the Arthurian wizard Merlin.

So even without what we had come to see, I would have been glad to visit this little church…another link in a nameless chain that leads us to a destination as yet unrevealed. But as we turned the corner, expecting to be led beyond the church grounds, we were greeted with a most unusual sight. A stone circle, fairly intact and very well kept, right behind the church.

And what a circle it must have been! Midmar recumbent circle, also known as Christchurch circle, is nearly 57 feet in diameter and the recumbent stone itself is huge, weighing around twenty tons and being over fourteen feet long. The two eight feet tall flankers have their flat edges facing inwards and look rather like sharp teeth. Running Elk had explained that the flat edges of standing stones such as these were the parts that marked, or indicated something. With a recumbent and its uprights, the mark the rising, passage and setting of the major standstill moon.

I would love to be able to go into vast detail about the precision of these circles… but it needs someone who really understands the technical niceties to explain it. Like Running Elk.* Basically, these circles allow observers within the circle to chart the  movements of sun and moon at significant moments of the year, marking the seasons… and at the longer intervals such as the major standstill that occurs every 18.6 years. We can easily understand how important seasonal changes would be to our ancestors with regard to crops and animals, but there were other reasons that we discussed… and which some of us were to experience later for ourselves… and perhaps others still at which we can only guess. One thing is certain though, these stone circles, raised in the Stone Age and Bronze Age, were not the work of uncivilised ‘cavemen’ but a complex technology in stone.

The circle is not quite complete… nor has it been left untouched. One stone seems to face the wrong way, others may have been moved during the building of the church or the ‘tidying’ of the circle that may have removed a central cairn that was added long after the building of the circle. What does remain unsullied though, is a sense of continuous worship going back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. Many of our older churches are built on ancient sacred sites. The infamous letter of Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus in the sixth century gave clear instructions on that point. We do not know what the motivation was for moving the new church to his particular spot. Was it simply an antiquarian passion of the local minister? Was there a desire to illustrate the power of the Church over paganism? Perhaps local superstition engendered a need to keep the stones and their powers ‘within the fold’… that is another thing we will never know. Whatever the reason, the two religions, old and new sit serenely together within their guardian trees… and there is a lesson of peace in that.

There was one last thing we were shown before we left the churchyard… and that too was unusual. The gravestone of artist Anne Rochford. The story, as Running Elk told it, is that knowing that she was dying, she created her own headstone, melding a piece of rough red and grey stone with a metal sculpture.** Not only is it a beautiful memorial, but it says a great deal beyond the name and dates it incorporates.

The tree seems full of fire-flowers… all but one empty bud. Creatures… a mouse, a lizard, a spider… climb in its branches; it is a living thing, a Tree of Life that still blooms after its maker has laid down her tools. Perhaps it is no more than a symbol of her faith, her love of beauty and a memorial to her art. I see in it her love of the living land and a symbol of harmonious growth and hope. In place where a stone circle shares the space with a church, there can be no better symbol of peace.

*See comments below for an explanation from Running Elk on the lunar standstill.

** See comments for the correct story of Anne’s gravestone, written by her son… and even more beautiful.