Solstice of the Moon: Graven images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Solstice of the Moon: Circles out of time

It looked, for a while, as if we might escape being rained on at our second site of the morning, but no… that would have been too much to ask The ritual cleansing would  continue. We  were heading for another recumbent circle, with a few unusual features… Loanhead of Daviot.

The car park was full so I parked the car at a little distance and we walked back, arriving to find the group listening to a ghost story about the lady seen in the woods through which we would walk to the circle. The trees could not have been there when the circle was constructed, or they would have blocked the view of the moon and made the recumbent redundant, but they do provide a beautiful approach and backdrop to the stones. The green lawn opens out beyond the shadows of the trees on a spectacular site.

There are two circles at Loanhead. One is a circle of standing stones, the other, a low-kerbed enclosure which is an ancient cemetery. The earliest construction at the site seems to date back to the Neolithic period, with later use, changes of use and additions. Making sense of the place means looking at perhaps six thousand years of history, as well as the way we view and use our buildings.

Image: Canmore

In one of the villages where I grew up, there was a lovely old chapel. It had belonged to a small Christian sect and had long-since fallen into disuse.  Over the few years that I was there, attempts were made to use the building. It served as a community centre, office space, a dance hall, a cinema and was eventually converted into residential apartments. Each function saw changes to the structure and decor and, by the time the new residents moved in, its original builders would not have recognised the place. They would certainly not have approved of many of the roles it had assumed.

With these truly ancient sites, I think we have to look at a similar shift over millennia, with later folk adapting the site for their own needs and traditions. In a time without written records, it is easy to see how knowledge could be lost as peoples move and shift across the face of the land, yet in a landscape where nothing other than homesteads were built, these enigmatic circles must always have commanded awe.

Then, thousands of years later, the archaeologists who restore and reconstruct them must find a formula that seems to fit all the facts, but which may not be entirely correct or inclusive of all a site’s history. Especially when we know nothing for certain about their original function within the community, exactly how they were used or what form the rituals performed there may have taken. It is, I think, for this reason that the interior of the circle was infilled with the stones of the much later cairn when it was restored.

What we do know is that these circles are in alignment with the movements of heavenly bodies and the seasonal changes. They forge or celebrate the relationship between the earth and the heavens and, in that respect, have something in common with our modern places of worship. It is no surprise, then, that many of these sites have burials attached to them, though this one has more than most.

The main circle is sixty-four feet in diameter. There are eight single standing stones, plus the two flankers and the huge recumbent which, says the official report, has been split vertically in two by the frost. The stones, as always, descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent. The two flankers, one of which is carved with cupmarks, lean in towards the recumbent and you are left in no doubt of which of them represents the masculine, fecundating forces of nature.

Within the circle, at some later date, a cairn was raised over a cremation where shards of adult and children’s bones were found, with worked flints, potsherds and charcoal. Around the base of each of the standing stones a small cairn had been raised, where cremation burials were also found. Four shallow holes within the centre of the circle have given rise to the suggestion that a wooden mortuary house may once have stood there.

I had initially been drawn to the smaller, less impressive circle, curious as to its purpose, but in no doubt as I approached. During excavations in 1935, a shallow pit had been found in which were the half-cremated remains of a forty year old man who seemed to have been clutching a pendant. The pyre had been built over the body and, instead of collecting the remains, the area had been used to inter another thirty or so cremations. Close by is a pit in which, it is thought, bodies may have been stored before burning and another eleven burials in urns and yet more in pits.

The burials seem to date from the Bronze Age, and took place over a relatively short period of time. “Whereas the great stone circle had required the co-operation of a whole community (and their neighbours) to build it, and while its use for the rituals of life, fertility and magic extended over many centuries, the cremation cemetery is an altogether slighter, more transient creation, concerned with the relationships in death within an individual family or two over a short time.”  ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Grampian’, (1986).

On the edge of the next field are the remnants of yet another recumbent circle. We can only imagine the awe and wonder in which such sites, already remnants of an ancestral past, must have been held. That same awe still touches those who visit these ancient, mysterious sites still today. We may not always understand, but we can still feel the magic in the stones and see the spirits of the earth in the forms that linger in their shapes. There are sinuous dancers, great hands reaching for the sky, faces and animals, a shaman’s headdress… all there for the eye to find and the heart to comprehend. For all our veneer of modernity and our vaunted civilisation, we are not so far removed from our roots as we might care to think.

Solstice of the Moon: Sacred earth

The weather was looking none to promising for the final day of the workshop, but at least it wasn’t really raining. It seemed incredible, under the heavy grey of the sky, that we’d had the clear weather-window the night before, just long enough to show us a starlit sky above the stone circle.

We had another visit to a stone circle after breakfast, but this one was quite a bit different…and suburban. I want to state here and now, that to have quite so much archaeology concentrated in Abereenshire seems a little unfair, when the place where I live has virtually nothing for miles. North…or south… yes… but not here. Oh, it is probably all there under the surface… ploughed and sown by centuries of farmers, but little of it is visible. It can be rather frustrating at times.

And yet, there is a lesson for me in that too. Whether there are standing stones, cairns and circles aplenty, or nothing visible at all, the land itself remains. The earth knows neither boundary nor barrier, nor is it sacred simply because it is marked by some prehistoric monument or fascinating legend. The ancients saw the goddess in the earth that gave them life… virgin in her unsown fields, blushing dawns and laughing brooks, maternally fruitful and nurturing, ancient and wise with her intimacy with the cycles of life and death. It matters little how our beliefs and perceptions have changed over the millennia… the earth is still all of that and more.

The threads of life are interwoven. Now, more than at any other time in our history, we are able to scientifically prove the interdependency of the species and the need to maintain balance in our environment. Our forefathers seem to have understood that without the need for any other proof than that of their eyes and hearts. I wonder which of us is the most advanced in that respect?

We parked behind a filling station on the edge of town, on a road that seemed to lead to an industrial estate or similar. A couple remained in the cars as the ground was rough. The high, overgrown grasses and fireweed did not look a promising sight… a far cry from the emerald and gold of the autumn foothills… but you cannot judge a site by how it is presented by urban planners, and at least this one, unlike so many others, has been recognised and protected.

Broomend of Crichie is a curious place and the last thing you would expect to find in the urban environment. It is a huge site, yet very little can be seen, unless you know what you are looking for, beyond the three standing stones in the centre. It would be easy to miss the concentric ditches and banks of the henge and no visible trace now remains of the great processional avenue of stones, a mile long, that once led to Crichie from Kintore…save only a solitary stone, half buried in the grass. Today, this is a protected place, although it looks like a patch of wasteland awaiting the bulldozers of the developers. Yet the scale of this site, the work involved in its creation and its continued use over such a long period of time… all mark it as a place that must have held enormous significance for our ancestors.

The site was built in stages, from the Neolithic period onwards, and was first excavated a hundred and fifty years ago. A number of cremation burials were found, along with a cist containing an inhumation. Curiously, small animal, probably bird, bones were mixed with the ashes of the cremations and you have to wonder about their significance . Artefacts were also unearthed, including a decorated stone hammer and the burial urns which appear to be Late Bronze Age. Several other burials were also found in the area dating back around four thousand years to the Beaker culture, so named after the distinctive decorated vessels they created and traded.

Beaker burial- reconstruction from Museum of Madrid. Image: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (CCL)

In one burial, a small beaker and a child’s skull was found. In another, two men were interred, in a third, a man with girl-child, all covered with oxhide. In the latter, a beaker and a small spoon carved from horn were found…the equivalent of simple, everyday items in our society, but probably prized possessions back then; not only a gift to the departed, but a glimpse into a common human life for us.

It is thought that there was once a timber circle, as well as a circle of six standing stones, of which two now remain. A third stone has been added to the central space. It was erected  there after it was found when a nearby embankment was dug up to be taken away to build a railroad line. It may well be one of the original stones of the complex, reused by the Picts in later years and inscribed with the Beast and the crescent and V-rod symbols. It is certainly out of place within the henge, but it does not feel entirely alien. Only lost.

I think I would like to spend a week or two there with a lawnmower, to unveil the true immensity of this site. It would be the only way to appreciate it for what it is… and was. We have seen many stone circles, from those small, almost domestic circles to te great, grand marvels in stone such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Castlerigg, to name but three. All are constructed with regard to alignments, with the land or the season shifts of the heavens. I have often wondered if a comparison could be made between the the differing roles of the great and small stone circles and the visible power of the medieval Church. The great Gothic cathedrals, with their rituals and complex beauty were built to impress, showing both their religious and secular power.  In contrast, the simple parish churches, where that same power was stepped down to a more accessible level, was where the real, human work of living in faith was done.  If there is any truth to that comparison, then Broomend of Crichie is the ghost of a forgotten ‘cathedral’, veiled in fire-flowers, and yet… it somehow still remembers itself.