It seems incredible that it is almost two years since we were last far in the north, exploring ancient circles and carved stones and drinking in the beauty of the Northeast Scotland and the Highlands. It seems almost as incredible that we will soon be there again, exploring the landscape and once again in the company of friends. Our next workshop, organised in conjunction with Lodge Unicorn na h’Alba, is calling us northwards.
It is crucial to have local knowledge when holding a workshop and we would usually make a special trip to research the sites for ourselves. This time, though, we have a guide who lives in the area and knows it well.
We have recently seen the list of places where we will be going and the journey will be a magical one. It will take us from castles to holy wells, from churches to beaches and from lonely stones to stone circles… and who knows what else we will find on the journey? One glance at the map of ancient sites in the area shows that we would need weeks to explore properly… but time, on these weekends, has a habit of allowing us to do more than the hours at our disposal should allow.
There are other reasons to look forward to this workshop though. Not only do we get the chance to spend time with folk we too seldom see, we will also get to work with them and learn from them. We may meet people from other traditions and who work in ways different from our own, but all magical and mystical roads lead to the same Centre and the more we know of the paths others have chosen, the more we can hope to understand those who walk them and, in so doing, the more we can hope to learn about ourselves.
Knowledge is only a small step towards understanding. Until you taste the salt spray on your lips, the sea is no more than a body of water. Until you stand within a circle of stones, they are no more than an archaeological curiosity. Until its magic touches your heart, even beauty is no more than an idea. Knowledge needs experience to bring it to life… and that is what these weekends in the landscape can offer.
Wheels are in motion… and Scotland is our next stop…
The Silent Unicorn
The Silent Eye and Lodge Unicorn na h’Alba
The Unicorn is an iconic spiritual symbol in the British Isles and particularly in Scotland. We will use the power of the elements and spirit of the unicorn to create your own Silent Unicorn within, culminating at the old hidden seminary at Scalan in the remote Braes of Glenlivet.
The Silent Eye, in conjunction with Lodge Unicorn na h’Alba, invites you to join us for a magical weekend in Scotland, experiencing the “White nights in Macbeth Country…” Grantown on Spey, June 14-16th 2019.
When we meet in June it will be the special time of the “ White Nights”. At this latitude in northern Scotland it never gets properly dark and if the weather is clear a bright glow is seen to the north, hence “ White Nights”. It will still be a week until the solstice and the longest day, and the photo below was taken at 11.30 pm 21st June 2018 and just illustrates how light it is!
One of the things we will be doing is looking at outer, well-known literary Archetypes, and endeavor to see them within ourselves. Also, apart from finding out if there really was a King and Queen Macbeth we shall experience the “Unicorn of the Elements” and create for ourselves a power symbol which we will be able to draw on after the weekend, if you so wish…..Air, Earth, Water, and Fire; we will use locations, literature and imagination to access these elements., bound together by the fifth element, Spirit.
So, we will have a lot of daylight to visit important places and experience a variety of ways in which we can access our Inner Elements. From the coast of Findhorn Beach and Burghead holy well( we can take a look and have a coffee at the Findhorn Foundation, if you like! ), a mysterious haunted castle, and south to the Cairngorm Mountains and Scalan Monastery in the Braes of Glenlivet; we will experience a variety places on what will be a personal pilgrimage…..
The image above is the “Wee Sma’ Still” at the distillery in Glenlivet. It is brought out every Bank Holiday so one can “ tae a wee dram o’ the uisghe beatha”. The anglicised pronounced form of the gaelic ‘ uisghe’ is “ whisky”; and uisghe beatha means “ water of life”. Many locals had stills before they were outlawed and each would in a sense use fire, earth, air and water to create ….spirit! This is what we will all be doing metaphorically in June- prepare to be your own personal still, create an alchemy of the elements within, and see what uisghe beatha spirit presents itself! And as they say in gaelic as a toast, “ Slainte mhath!” I look forward to seeing you in June….
“When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain…?”
Weird Sisters, Macbeth
Well, hopefully we will meet in sunshine and with more than three of us ! Join us in the northern Cairngorms where, from mountain to coast, we will explore the magic of Macbeth Country in a triangle from Cawdor Castle to Findhorn Beach, down to Glenlivet. Through the Archetypes of Lord and Lady Macbeth, the Witches, King Duncan and a Unicorn! We will use the writings of The Scottish Play and other media to discover these characters within us…..
We shall travel and explore the land during the long June days and lingering twilight at Midnight to discover this land where Celts met Picts. Where heather-clad mountains tumble down to salmon rivers like the mighty Spey, as it meanders its way to the pristine sea and white sand beaches of the Moray Firth.
The Unicorn is an iconic spiritual symbol in the British Isles and particularly in Scotland. We will use the power of the elements and spirit of the unicorn to create your own Silent Unicorn within, culminating at the old hidden seminary at Scalan in the remote Braes of Glenlivet.
I enjoy research. For a writer, this is obviously a good thing. I love following an obscure reference to its source or delving into the past in search of what, for want of a better word, could be called ‘the truth’, even though, historically at least, there is no such thing.
It can seem a bit obsessive. Halfway through a film or documentary, I will stop to look up a historical reference. Films are the worst. Documentaries portray at least one person’s vision of the truth… evidence-based or speculative, they are interpretations and opinions of an accepted fact. Films, though, take huge liberties with the facts and that worries me. As long as the viewer remembers that these are stories, made to entertain as much, if not more, than they are made to inform, then the inaccuracies do not matter. When, however, the ‘Hollywoodised’ version of the facts becomes the only one to which people pay attention, then our vision of history becomes seriously skewed.
Take Braveheart, for example. Mel Gibson’s 1995 film brought the story of William Wallace to the attention of the world. It was hugely successful and remains a firm favourite with many people. We watch the film, engage with its characters and story and are left with a feeling that we have gained some knowledge and insight into the period and its people.
Not so, say the lists of ‘most historically inaccurate films’. Nowhere near so, say those who have studied Wallace, his life, and the history of Scotland. Mel Gibson himself admitted that to be true, but defended his directorial choices because they made for more compelling cinema, regardless of their lack of accuracy. Ironically, the film rasied the profile of Wallace and Scottish history in general as well as increasing tourism, so perhaps its very inaccuracy served a purpose.
We all know that the movie industry takes as many liberties with history as it does with scripts based upon classic works of fiction. It does not devalue the cinematic art form, but it really ought to make us question what we absorb and unconsciously accept as historical fact, or an accurate rendition of literature.
Yet how often are we interested enough to go off and study the sources with any depth just because we have enjoyed a film? I get curious. Where did they get that idea from, is it based on fact or a piece of pure cinema? How come one portrayal of a historical character can be so very different from another?
I will probably start with Wiki, just as a jumping off point, then wander off in goodness knows how many directions. I always look for several different sources so that I have something on which to form an opinion. And I often get sidetracked, chasing down associated people or ideas, knowing all the while that there is no way I will ever know the truth… at best, all I can hope for is an accepted version of the truth, a consensus based on the interpretation of collated evidence.
Obviously, history itself is true… what happened, happened… but the records that have been left to us are not objective. They are all, of necessity, subjective interpretations of that truth and are therefore inevitably subject to error, manipulation, or simply fall victim to the writer’s perspective and emotions.
Personal perspective colours everything we see, do, and record in memory. It takes very little to grasp how even the simplest of things can be so coloured.
“I stayed in my pyjamas and wrote until lunchtime…” That could be seen as a statement of fact. Except, I don’t own pyjamas, but it sounded better than ‘dressing gown’. And I was dressed way before I had lunch…which, admittedly, was nearer tea-time… And I didn’t just write… I read, made and drank coffee, fed and played with the dog, fed the fish…and all the other little things that creep in when we are ‘supposed’ to be writing. But how would it look to others?
“She didn’t even get dressed till lunchtime!”
“I wish I could sit around doing nothing…”
“She can’t have much of a life/must be really depressed if she doesn’t even bother getting dressed…”
“Wow, I wish I was a writer…”
“It’s alright for some. Bet she doesn’t have to work…”
“She must be lazy/ill/weird…” (Okay, they can have that last one…)
Emotional response always and immediately overlays what we experience, crafting its own version of the truth of a situation. Even our own. I think I stayed in the dressing gown till lunchtime because, for once, I could. I normally work a seven-day week and start early. I have done so for years, barring the occasional weekend and holidays… and there were a good many years when I didn’t even get those. Today, I didn’t have to go out early. I had a choice. The housework was done and the dressing gown is warm and cosy on a cold morning.
But is that the truth, or just an excuse? Not even I can be sure of that… we are all adept at finding justification for our own actions, if we ever bother to question them. Most of the time we go through our days without stopping to question such basic actions or the true reasons behind our decisions.
Many spiritual schools and religious bodies advocate a daily ‘examination of conscience’ where the events of the day, your own actions and reactions, are played out in imagination before sleep. This can be a really useful exercise, yet time alone will only allow us to replay a fraction of the day…those moments that stand out from the rest and have roused an emotional response for some reason.
Much of what we do throughout the course of a day is habitual. We are programmed to adopt patterns of behaviour. It frees us processing space in the brain and conserves energy… and probably makes us more efficient as we are not constantly starting from scratch with every action.
That is all well and good when you are getting in a car to drive to work or loading the washing machine…that kind of patterned efficiency is a good thing and could be called expertise. If we accept the habitual patterns that become imprinted upon the way we think and feel with as little examination, we perpetuate them too. We are all aware that habits are easily formed and will shape our way of seeing the world. This can be a good thing… though more seems to be written about its negative effects than its possibilities. Consciously seeking the good in life, rather than the bad, being open to compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit… they would not be bad habits to acquire.
Once upon a time… twelve or thirteen hundred years ago… there lived a fair maiden. She was, it is told, the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain. She was betrothed and very soon to be married. On the eve of her wedding, she went down to the kitchens, rolled up her sleeves and set about making bannocks to serve to the wedding guests who would be arriving from far and wide.
As she worked, a dark stranger came into the kitchen and, seeing the mountain of flour, said that he could build a road to the top of Bennachie before she would finish her task. Now, Bennachie was sixteen hundred feet high and two miles distant. The maiden laughed and the dark stranger made her a wager… if he could build his road before the bannocks were baked, she would marry him instead of her betrothed. The maiden, certain of victory, laughingly agreed, but to her dismay, the stranger soon returned… the road was built and her forfeit must be paid. In horror, she ran, towards the wood of Pittodrie, seeking to escape. As she ran, she prayed for salvation, for she now realised that her pursuer was the devil in disguise. But her prayers were heard and as the devil seized her shoulder, she was turned to stone.
Unlike most legends, this must be a true story, for there was a paved road up Bennachie, of which parts still remain. It is still called the Maiden Road, and from the Maiden Stone a piece has disappeared, the same that was held in the grasp of the devil when the maiden’s prayer was answered.
I have known about the Maiden Stone for a long time. It is one of those things you would really like to see, but never expect to actually see, so I was over the moon when I realised that it would be our next stop. Even though it was about to rain yet again, we had a little blue sky and a hint of sunshine… a little ironic when the worn designs would show up best in black and white on the photographs.
The Cross may once have been brightly painted and the quality and detail of the carving, even after thirteen hundred years of Scottish weather, are remarkable. The two sides of the Cross are carved with knotwork and keywork, even into the uneven contours of the edges. On the western face is a weathered Cross, suggesting that this was a Preaching Cross…a place where the evangelising brothers would come to teach the message of the Gospels. At the base is a roundel, framed within a square, intricately carved with interlacing and spirals. I have to wonder if this represents the Earth and its energies, surmounted by a Celtic Cross, symbolising the way to Heaven.
Above the head of the Cross is a figure with outstretched arms, in a pose similar to that of the crucified Christ. He appears to be holding on to two ‘fish-beasts’. I take issue with the official idea that this depicts Jonah and the Whale. There was, I believe, only one whale in that story and the idea that they carved two ‘to make the design symmetrical’ seems a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, a fish has long been a symbol of Christianity, and Jesus, if it is indeed He who is depicted, was called a ‘fisher of men’. Perhaps, too, they are the twin forces of the dragon, the earth energies… To go by some of the carvings we see, Celtic Christianity was too close to the old religious symbolism to be unaware of such things and seemed less inclined to dismiss the shadow of the old ways.
The red granite pillar stands almost ten feet high, and was once a little taller… you can see how erosion has destroyed the top edge of the design on the eastern face. This is a great shame, as one centaur is odd enough in Britain, let alone the three that are thought to have been there before the rains came. That is, if they are centaurs. They certainly look like the Greek combination of man and horse, and have been found painted in contemporary manuscripts. In the Mysteries, the centaur has its own symbolism, as the higher human virtues transcending the nature of the beast within. But this is Scotland, where legends abound and even horses may not be what they seem.
There is the nuckelavee from the Orkneys, a half man, half horse beast that retains both heads. Its breath wilts crops and brings epidemics and the stories of its terrible effect paint it as the worst of the equine demons. It is a sea creature, though, and will never come ashore when it rains, so we were safe on that count. Then there are the kelpies, shape shifting creatures that may appear as humans or as beautiful black horses that will carry their riders into deep waters…where they drown. In Aberdeenshire, some are said to have manes of serpents… but we were far from the lochs in which they live. The dullahan is a not a horse, but rides one, carrying its own head and whip made of a human spine. It is a bringer of death and the only thing that will drive it away is gold. We were probably safe on that score too, if only for the nature of the company.
Below the centaurs is a “notched rectangle and Z-rod” symbol. No one seems to be venturing a guess on the meaning of this symbol. It looks, though, like some kind of gateway or portal and reminds me, for some reason, of the great pylon gates of Egypt. The ‘Z rod’, which has been seen as a spear, seems to go through the body of the design, rather than be overlaid.
Below that is the Pictish Beast, a strange and sinuous creature, sometimes called the Pictish Dragon, that looks unlike any known animal. It looks a little like a seahorse, so it has been suggested that it could be a kelpie… or even a dolphin. It is a very common symbol on these carved stones, though, so must have been important to be so widespread. Did it relate to some forgotten story or legend, or did it have significance in clan heraldry? Or was it purely symbolic of something too abstract for a figurative artistic representation?
The lowest panel contains the two clearest carvings…a mirror and comb. We all agreed that although they appear, on the surface, to be far too ordinary to be immortalised in stone, they must have a far deeper meaning than as simple accoutrements of beauty. They would certainly have been objects of value, given their materials and the work involved in creating them, but did they have a value beyond their price? One of our companions suggested that they were the symbols of office, or the power of the priestess. Did she work with the mirror to capture the moon or direct its light? Was it a scrying glass or a portal through which other realities could be reached? Modern magical techniques still use such practices to access those other realities which lie buried in the layers of our own consciousness.
One of our companions had a story to tell of an experience he had at Easter Aquhorthies that seemed to shed light on both mirror and comb. I will not share it here without his permission, but hope he will do so himself in due course. Stuart,who has a gift for interpreting symbols and seeing their deeper implications and ramifications, suggested that the whole face of the pillar could be read as a process… directions for the spiritual journey.
“The mirror,” he said, “fixes and allows focus on the moon so that it could be scryed or seen beyond.” The moon is often used in magical systems as a symbol for the subconscious mind. “The comb is in this context a meditative tool or process to symbolically clear the head or still the mind in order to facilitate communication… Success in this process gives access to the animate soul, perhaps depicted here as a ‘water’ beast.” Water is symbolically associated with the flow of emotions and, by extension, a heart-centred consciousness.
“In other traditions, this would the White Horse or Sleipnir…” Otherworldly creatures that may carry the seeking soul onwards. “By raising this aspect of consciousness entry is gained through the portal to the otherworld of spirit where we see shamanic type figures… ” And onwards transcending the physical world to reach the spiritual realms… symbolised, perhaps, by the centaur… the beast transcended by the higher human consciousness. As an on-the-spot interpretation, that made perfect sense, especially if the top two centaurs were embracing… not ‘wrestling’… bringing the physical and spiritual natures of Man together as One.
We may not have solved the riddle of the stones, but with ideas and input from almost everyone present, we had certainly come up with some workable hypotheses. One mystery remained untouched, though. The legend of the maiden’s marriage must have come into being after the stone was erected. Was that why it was called the Maiden Stone, or was the name referring back to the priestesses or a pre-Christian religion that still held the faith and respect of the people of the area? Or was it simpler than that… and the stone been named for what I and others may have seen in the shape of the stone itself…*
It is raining again and about to get worse. You are in a suburban green space between neat-gardened houses, the last place you would expect to find an ancient treasure… and you are confronted with something both so alien and so hauntingly familiar, that it stops you in your tracks. A carved stone, covered in symbols, strange incisions and fantastic creatures. You have absolutely no idea what it may mean… no frame of reference… no starting point for comprehension. Yet somehow, it is not only familiar from all those pictures in books, but it feels as if you really should know how to read it.
The stone is one of the many Pictish symbol stones that dot the landscape. It is far from the best example, being both broken and weathered. The Brandsbutt Stone was found in pieces, used as part of the construction of a farm dyke and wall. Close by are two large stones, thought to be from a stone circle that stood there until it was levelled a couple of hundred years ago, before we began to value our ancient heritage and after it had lost the respect and awe it had once inspired. It is worth noting that even today there are ancient monuments that are being destroyed through lack of care, inept officialdom and the worship of the great god Mammon.
The Brandsbutt Stone may once have been part of that ancient complex, though that is far from certain. While the now-missing stone circle would have dated back four to six thousand years, the carvings date back a mere fifteen to twelve hundred years. The Picts, the ‘painted people’, inhabited this area in the Late Iron Age through to the early medieval period and, although they themselves left no written record of their lives, they did leave many carved stones from which we can learn a good deal about them. Not all of them are as enigmatic as this one; some have scenes of battles, some tell stories, and some marry the symbols of an older time with those of the new religion of Celtic Christianity.
We had come across a few Pictish stones on our last foray into Scotland, most notably the carvings and the Cross at Brechin with its ‘indeterminate figures’, its eight-legged horse and unfortunate explanations… There too, the marriage of old and new was still apparent, even though the stone is thought to be only a thousand years old.
The human figures are easier to understand, even though we may argue over the interpretation of the stories they represent. The Symbol Stones, though, are another matter. To even begin to have a hope of understanding them, we must leave the familiar thought processes of a literate society behind and go back to our earliest ancestral forms of written communication.
How can you write before there is standardised written language or when regional dialects differ? Or when no-one knows how to write…or read? The only way is to draw a picture. That works for a while. A snake is a snake. Then it gets more complicated and two things happen. The pictures may become simplified, almost symbolic… like the curving snake of a ‘S’. Early forms of writing began as pictograms. But how do you draw a river, sliding silver through a valley? Or the passage of time? How do you communicate abstract concepts… like ‘wisdom’, ‘renewal’ or ‘immortality’? You might look at the curve of a river and see a snake. You might find the flow of water reminds you of the passage of time. If the tales of your people attribute wisdom, renewal or immortality to the serpent, you might just draw a snake…
If, on the other hand, you were a leader renowned for your cunning or wisdom, or if your lands were bounded by a river, you might take the serpent as your emblem and carve it on your boundary stones. Perhaps the ‘painted people’ wore their clan symbols painted or tattooed on their skin too? It is for this reason, I believe, that the incomprehensible symbols seem to hover with vague familiarity on the edge of understanding. The pictorial language of symbols speaks across both space and time in a way we can almost grasp, even if we no longer hold the keys to its unlocking.
There are some symbols, though, that are yet to be deciphered; symbols quite specific to a culture long gone. The Brandsbutt Stone bears an incised ‘crescent and V-rod’ and the ‘serpent and Z-rod’ symbol. Are the spear and the arrow, as Helen suggested, male and female weapons? The crescent of the moon and the obvious symbolism of the serpent, as well the relative appropriateness of the weapons’ ease of use, might bear that out. Do they refer to the male and female lines of a heritage or clan? Are the angles reminiscent of those used in the construction of the stone circles, millennia before? And why are the weapons apparently broken? It is an ancient practice to ritually break that which is offered to the gods, as we had explored at the Druid Lake on the isle of Anglesey. The breaks in these carved, symbolic weapons, if breaks they are, appear to be both deliberate and supported in some way. What significance might that be hinting at?
Thankfully, we do have a transliteration of the final symbol on the stone. The vertical line crossed with many horizontal lines is not an untidy decoration, but an inscription in Ogham, which we had last seen at Nevern. This early medieval alphabet is almost always used to inscribe just a personal name. The groups of dashes are placed in specific positions and at distinct angles, across a straight line…usually the vertical corner of a stone. Here, as the corner of the stone would have been too uneven to be suitable, the vertical line was simply inscribed. It can be read as IRATADDOARENS, which has been linked with Eddarrnonn, which may refer to St. Ethernanus, a Columban saint, and founder or a number of churches on the east coast Scotland.
Intrigued and thoroughly drenched one more, we regained the shelter of our vehicles and set off behind Running Elk for our next location. Following his lead, I wondered about the odd hand signals coming from his car, often in direct contradiction to his indicator lights. The ‘up’ was confusing. It took a moment to work out that he was pointing to various other sites of interest along the way… ones we would not have time to visit, like Balquhain recumbent circle, also known as the Chapel of Garioch, on the slopes below Mither Tap; a circle which has lunar alignments.
The circle is no longer complete and is missing several stones, but what remain are large and impressive, even from the road. The ten tonne recumbent stone is twelve feet wide and over five and a half feet tall, I read later. It is a white granite that seems to have been carried to the site from some distance. Once again, the stones are polychrome. The eastern flanker, six and a half feet wide, is of grey basalt, while the western flanker, over seven feet wide, is of red quartzite with white quartz inclusions. The outlier is the one I would most like to have met, though… a ten foot tall pillar of pink-seamed white quartz, which, even from a distance, appears to have an interesting face… Me, I’d have happily foregone lunch to get a closer look… but I would not have wanted to miss our next stop…
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.
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.
I realise that Wednesday is usually my day to wander. However, I’m also writing up my weekend with The Silent Eye. So, I’m combining the two and taking a wander to Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near Inverurie, Scotland, for the second part of my experience.
‘I must be insane,’ I thought to myself. I was standing in the centre of a stone circle on a Scottish hillside, near-horizontal rain and hail hitting the back of my jacket like millions of ball bearings. My hands were frozen and I could feel that my waterproof trousers were not living up to their name. And yet… even though I knew the rest of the group were as cold and saturated, if not more so, than I was, none of us made any move to leave. It was one of those moments that defies explanation. And yet, wasn’t that what I was there for, after all? …
A hour or so earlier I’d walked into a shop, glad to get inside. The weather had alternated between rain and sort-of-rain as I’d made the ten-minute walk into the town centre, and I was glad I’d put on my wet weather gear before leaving the hotel.
A small sign directed me into the café where I’d be meeting the group of companions, and I entered to see I was almost the last to arrive, a table full of smiling faces greeting me. A warm hug from Sue and several other companions I’d met on my last Silent Eye weekend, and then I was introduced to the rest of the group.
And so the connections continued. I knew Running Elk from blogland, so it was nice to meet him in person. It was also a pleasure to meet his wife and her daughter, who happened to be Canadian. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked, having lived many years in Canada myself. ‘Oh, just outside Toronto,’ came the answer. I smiled. I knew that answer well, as it was one I made myself whenever I was asked where I’d lived when I was there. ‘I went to high school in––‘ I answered, and the shock in both their faces was profound. ‘That’s where we’re from!’ It was a wonderful extra layer to the weekend, and led to a lot of reminiscing.
But first, we were to be taken to the first stop on the tour. Running Elk had planned the weekend, so Sue, Stuart and Steve were as much in the dark as the rest of us as to where we were going to go. We piled into cars and headed out of town, following the (somewhat vague) directions we’d been given. The weather ranged between rain and clear, small patches of blue visible among the grey clouds overhead. Not the best outlook for a weekend we would be spending mostly outdoors, but it wasn’t going to stop us from exploring.
There were many merry meetings in Inverurie, bringing a golden glow to the afternoon that belied the grisaille of rain and wet stone. We were greeted outside our meeting place with fierce hugs from a lady we love dearly and who has been much missed over the past couple of years. Inside, there was the wonderful surprise of finding the Canadian contingent, and we had soon filled a fair proportion of the tea-room with laughter and conversation… there was a lot of catching up to do.
When all members of the party were assembled or accounted for, we set off for the short drive to our first destination. The circle sits on a hillside above the town with a small parking area a few minutes’ walk from the stones. By the time we arrived the steady rain had turned into a lashing downpour. I stowed my camera in an allegedly waterproof pocket for safety, where it promptly and irrevocably drowned. But that circle alone was worth it…and the weekend was only just beginning.
Easter Aquhorthies is one of the rare ‘recumbent circles’ found only in this small area of Scotland, and in the far south-west of Ireland. ‘Aquhorthies’ comes from the Gaelic; it may come from ‘auch’ or ‘achd’ meaning ‘field’, and ‘ortha’ meaning ‘prayer’ giving ‘field of prayer’, or be derived from ‘achadh choirthe’, ‘field of pillar stone’. If the sanctity of the site is preserved in its name, which is of a much later date than the circle’s creation, it would suggest that a recognition of its importance as a sacred centre long survived its builders. So too would its state of preservation…as if all later peoples understood or perhaps feared the magic of the place.
And it is magical. That first sight drew gasps from many of us. It is a truly beautiful site, even in the rain and even at first glance, appeared to be remarkably complete. Running Elk ushered us into the circle with instructions to find ‘our’ place within it. A place where we felt comfortable…or uncomfortable… and to consider why that might be. Two stones had stood out for me, even on the approach. I wandered around to the almost polished back of the huge recumbent and by the time I had finished exploring it, everyone seemed to have found their places. I stood by one of the flanking stones, hopeful that, even in the rain, I would be able to hear what Running Elk might tell us. I need not have worried on that score… not in this circle.
This circle is one of around ninety recumbents in this area and one of only a few to have retained all of its stones. There are nine single standing stones in the circle and the recumbent stone itself, flanked by a pair of uprights. The recumbent appears to be chocked with further perpendicular stones, but closer inspection shows that they were not, in fact, designed as supports. Perhaps they have more to do with the acoustics of the circle… from where he was seated between the perpendicular stones, everyone in the circle could hear Running Elk perfectly. Yet, when he stood, his voice was lost in the rain. Later, we would discover that the voice could not carry outside the circle… one step beyond, and it disappeared into the breeze.
Somebody knew what they were doing with these stones. Yet Easter Aquhorthies has been dated to the Neolithic period, around six thousand years ago. Within its central space a child was carefully buried in a cyst. We have seen this before. Running Elk suggested that the burial may have predated the circle, hallowing the space. We wondered why it always seems to be a boy-child and Stuart signalled that special bond between mother and son. With our daughters, we share our skills and experience of life; sons we raise to manhood and watch them leave our world for their own. And this circle was a place of priestesses.
The circle is slightly flattened in shape and has a diameter of around sixty feet. It sits within a banked ditch that may have been added at a later date, perhaps when the overgrown circle was cleaned and restored in the early nineteenth century. The stones vary in size. The tallest are the two flanking stones in the SSW quarter are over seven feet tall, and the rest of the stones descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent in the NNE which is five and a half feet tall. The recumbent itself is some twelve and a half feet long and weighs around nine tons.
The stones themselves are unusual, being of different colours and composition. The recumbent is red granite, through which are scattered crystals and lines of quartz. It was probably brought from Bennachie, a nearby hill with a history all of its own. Its most visible height, Mither Tap, was a ghost against the horizon through the rain. ‘Beinn na Ciche’ means ‘hill of the breast’. White quartz seems to have played an important role at these circles and seems associated with the ‘male’ stones. It may also have been important in reflecting or capturing the moonlight. Some things we may never know, but what is obvious with this circle and its surroundings is the role of the divine feminine… and the need for balance, rather than supremacy, between male and female, both symbolic and physical.
It is worth remembering that ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not necessarily refer just to gender. They can also be symbolic of more abstract concepts, like the positive and negative poles of a battery, dynamic or receptive force…or the sun and moon. While the sun is usually considered a dynamic force and the moon receptive, it is interesting that in many ancient cultures, there was, in addition to the obvious solar and lunar deities, a sun goddess and a moon god.
The rest of the stones are of pink porphyry. One stone, however, is completely different… a great point of rich, red jasper, polished on one side by the touch of those seeking its blessing over thousands of years. With the red stones and grey, in view of what we were to learn of the purpose of the circle, I have to wonder at the significance of the colour choices in solar and lunar terms, for it seems that here, few details were left to chance.
‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ was the subtitle of the weekend. The Maiden Stone in a circle, Running Elk told us, is always triangular. The Mother Stone is always red. The Crone always the most gnarled. The symbolism of those attributes is evident in terms of female development. In this circle, one stone was Maiden, Mother and Crone all in one… the point of red jasper. Symbol of a triune deity, perhaps… or the seasons of birth, growth and harvest?… or something we had yet to learn?
It might be thought that all this is too complex for the mind of Stone Age Man… yet the precision with which these recumbent circles are constructed proves that is not so. This circle was built with a clear knowledge of the movement of the heavenly bodies and their relationship with the Earth. There are many astronomical alignments within the circle and the recumbent and the flanking stone against which I stood mark the major lunar standstill, which takes place every 18.6 years.
There was so much to learn that we could never have covered it in one visit…especially in the rain. Thankfully, we would be returning to the circle…and in better weather too, we hoped. For now, we were all soaked through, so it was back to the hotel to change for dinner… at least into dry clothes. Oddly though, no-one seemed to be in a hurry to leave…