Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 5) – Stone in the Sky

A Pictish stone so large, it needs its own ‘hangar’.

You can’t miss Sueno’s stone. It sits on its own plateau, just off the old main road between Findhorn and Forres; now bypassed. You see its ‘hangar’ first, then realise that this glass and steel monolith contains something special…

Sueno’s stone is massive – 7 metres tall. Sadly, the type of glass used to protect stones of this nature makes it difficult to capture images through the reflections on its surface.

Sueno’s stone was thought to be named after Swenson Forkbeard, but this is disputed. There is also a folk-link to King Duffus, whose castle we visited earlier in the day. The stone was mentioned in Scottish history as early as the 15th century, but accurate records date to the work of Lady Ann Campbell, the Countess of Moray, who, at her own expense, carried out maintenance work on it in the early 1700s in an attempt to stabilise the heavy stone. Stepped plinths around the base of the stone were the fruit of this dedicated work. We owe her a debt of gratitude.

Above: Image of Lady Ann Campbell’s preservation work of the 1700s. The red scribble (mine) shows the original Old Red Sandstone cross and base. The stepped plinths were added to protect and stabilise the Pictish masterpiece. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

There is archeological evidence that it was originally one of two stones, the other being smaller. Sueno’s stone is massive – seven metres (23 feet) tall. It was carved from Old Red Sandstone – a commonly used rock in this part of the Moray Firth’s coast. It is an upright cross slab bearing typical Pictish-style interwoven vine symbols on its edge panels. These were difficult to photograph so I have used the Historic Scotland noticeboard images to supplement the actual photos

Above: The front of the giant stone – a ringed cross

The front face is carved with a great ring-head cross. The shaft, base and background are filled with interlaced decoration. Beneath the base, two figures lean over a smaller figure. Two other attendants wait in the background.

A great battle scene is depicted in four panels on the back of the stone

Each narrow side is intricately decorated with interlace designs, which include spirals of foliage within which small human figures are perched. The reverse of the stone shows a great battle scene – covering four panels. This depicts cavalry, foot soldiers and the beheading of the defeated – the usual savagery of bitter wars…

The historic scope of the stone is considerable. From the arrival of one army in the top panel, to the main battle, and the resulting rout of the defeated in the middle panel, to the fleeing of the fallen army in the bottom panel, something of monumental importance is being shown.

But what?

The artistic style of the carving – a mixture of Pictish, Irish and Northumbrian techniques – suggests that was carved in the 9th or 10th century. This points to three possibilities:

Above: The Historic Scotland board features drawings to make the ancient carving clearer. Here, related work from Pictish Symbol Stones is shown. The first shows the cross-stand on display in nearby Elgin Cathedral. The second shows its reverse: an animated hawking scene.
A bull-head carving from nearby Burghead. The bull symbol was a key element of Burghead’s art and decoration.

One is that the stone commemorates the vanquishing of the Picts by the Scots, under the command of Kenneth MacAlpin, in the mid 9th century. A second is that the stone denotes a confrontation between a local Pictish and Scottish force and marauding Norsemen. This would tie in with the known date of the destruction of the headland settlement and fort at Burghead (see previous post).

The third possibility is the stone depicts a conflict between the Scottish king, Dubh, and the men of Moray. The oral records claimed that the body of the dead king lay beneath the famous bridge at Kinross, a short distance away. This bridge could be the curious arched object carved at the bottom of the battle scene.

There may never be an answer. There is no inscription on the stone and historical data is limited.

Difficult to photograph through the darkened glass, but magnificent.

Historic Scotland has a policy of protecting the larger Pictish stones by this method of enclosure within steel and glass. You can understand the need to do so, but it does make them less accessible. During our scouting visit with Dean, in March, we came across another stone of the ‘Pictish Trail’ just south of Portmahomack, an hour’s drive north of Forres.

Above: During March 2019, while scouting for the the Silent Unicorn weekend, we discovered this beautifully-located Pictish stone – the Shadwick Stone, on the peninsula south of Portmahomac; and close to the former Pictish monastery there.

The description reads:

Shadwick Stone (near Tain)

“A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed about animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes and serpents. The designer of this and the other stones in the area were certainly not working alone. They must have known of the Christian decorated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Iona, as well as the metalwork and sculpture of Pictland, Northumbria and Ireland.”

The front view of the Shadwick Cross – rendered as best I could through the tinted glass

We left Sueno’s Stone feeling that we had only glimpsed the importance of its place in Scotland’s history. Our Saturday – which had begun a long time ago – was taking its toll and people were getting fatigued.

Dean at Logie Steading – a welcome cup of tea… and perhaps an afternoon scone with jam and cream…

Luckily, Dean had arranged a mid-afternoon detour to the wonderful Logie Steading… The old stables of the Logie estate, and a place of craft displays, food stalls and a very nice tea room….

The photos were taking during our scouting visit in March 2019 – hence the lack of resting attendees!

Beyond the refreshments at Logie Steading, we were headed for a location provided at the the last minute by two of our number, Michael and Eva. We had completed our assignments with the Element of Water. Now, we were going to explore the Element of Air in a rather different kind of location…

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

 

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…

Hunting the Unicorn: the Fairy Circle

 

Sunday morning already… the weekend was slipping by incredibly fast, but we knew Dean had a lot planned for the final morning of the workshop. Our day began by packing the car, necessarily skipping breakfast… which was to prove a bit disastrous as things turned out… and re-inflating the dodgy tyre yet again. It was definitely getting worse, but it was still manageable as long as we had access to an air pump. There was no prospect of getting it dealt with on a Scottish Sunday so far from a large town anyway.

But all practical considerations would fade away as we drove to our rendezvous at Dean’s home in Glenlivet. The morning was beautiful, the landscape incredible with wide valleys fringed with the blue of snow-kissed mountains. We glimpsed rabbits, deer and scurrying weasels and, quite magically, there were huge hares on the road.

While hares may well be a common sight in that area, for us they are a real and exciting rarity and we saw three… as many in a few minutes as we have seen in all our travels together. Hares are symbolically associated with the moon, as are many of Scotland’s ancient sites… and with the realms of the Fae. They represent rebirth and regeneration… and, in our experience, they always herald something special.

We would have to wait and see… and had not long to wait. Our first stop was a place close to Dean’s home, with a name that sounds as beautiful as the site proved to be… the Doune of Dalmore. We parked beneath the hill that leads up to Drumin Castle, where we would be heading next, crossed the whisky-coloured river, where, to my delight, we found healthy elm trees, and walked into wonderland.

A mound rises up from a ridge at the top of the field… an emerald carpet scattered with white flowers, pale rocks and the silvery bark of the trees. It seems to be a man-made structure but, ‘Doune’ means ‘fort’ and that’s what it looks like, a fairy fort. It is what it feels like too…a magical place.

 

Close by is the stone circle, with four remining standing stones surrounding a ruined cairn of the Clava type, like the amazing structures we had seen on our last trip to the area and Clava Cairns.

The rocks that scatter the base of the hillock wear strange shapes and seem to be arranged in patterns, as if, did we but have the key, they would still speak for us with stories that have slept there for millennia.

We were here, though, to work, not wander off exploring…which I think we would all have been happy to do had we had the time to spare. It was the most beautiful of places.

Unfurling our ribbons and stones once again, we contemplated yet another aspect of the magical personality. As we worked, we were watched… a young deer patrolling the fences, though whether we were being guarded or guarded against, we will never know.

Some places have a ‘rightness’ to them that is impossible to explain. Across the river, the medieval walls of Drumin Castle looked almost complete above the trees. You could have been centuries ago, just looking at them… and yet, they were insubstantial, ephemeral, against the ancient spirit of this sacred hill.

In itself, that was another beautiful illustration of how well and how much the land itself can teach us. Beneath all our acquired habits, hang-ups, fears and triumphs, there is something much older and more real than we tend to realise as we go about our daily lives. No matter what we build for ourselves, all of which may decay or be torn down, there is a bedrock of beauty within each of us, a bastion of the otherworld, to remind us that we are more than our worldly form  and of whence and what we come.

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 4) – Sea and Stone

I didn’t want to leave Burghead… not even for Findhorn.

I didn’t want to leave Burghead, not even for Findhorn; a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time. Burghead had filled me (many of us, I think) with a sense of ancient mystery and that dreadful knowledge that the centre of the Pict civilisation had likely perished in the Viking raids of the 9th century, when the ‘fort’ was sacked and burned. Medieval history is thin for north-eastern Scotland, for example the all-important Celtic Christian monasteries at Iona and Lindisfarne have well-documented medieval histories, but the important monastery at Portmahomack (the ‘Iona of the East’) north of the Moray Firth, is not.

The statue of ‘The Queen of the Picts’ from the museum of Portmahomack monastery, an hour’s drive across the Moray Firth, via the A9 bridge at Inverness.

Given time, I’d have spent the rest of the day exploring the layers of Burghead… and sitting with a coffee or six gazing out at the splendour of the Moray Firth. The Pictish people fascinate me – and their art has the same effect on me as did that of Egypt when I first came across it.

Pictish high art from Inverurie – Celtic, certainly, but something ‘smoother’ lurks in these masterworks…

One of our future workshops will be “On the Trail of the Picts“. We will follow the established ‘Pictish Trail’ across three landscapes just north of the Moray Firth in The Black Isle and Easter Ross; with a possible onward option to visit Orkney by car ferry. Advance reservations are being taken. September 2020 is being considered… but that is to be confirmed.

The Pictish Trail is already established. We just need to turn it into a workshop weekend… .with some modern spirituality in the mix

But we were still in the morning of the Saturday, and, though we had experienced the Burghead Well in a very special way, our use of the ‘element’ of water had a deeper personal purpose in the system that Dean had devised.

The journey of ‘Alchemical Water’ was about to be ‘walked…’. In it, we would meet the ‘Limited Self’.

At our next destination, we would ‘walk’ the ‘watery’ pentagram in search of deeper, individual self-knowledge. Dean’s system called for each person to be paired up with another – ideally someone they didn’t routinely work with. One person would walk the pentagram for each element, the other would record their feelings and observations as the mental and emotional journey progressed. Our Friday evening by the River Spey had begun this with the element of Earth. Now it was time, with the help of Findhorn’s beautiful beach, to do it for water…

No beach, lots of sand dunes, two dogs… Findhorn: Dean did not deserve this…

Except, when we got there, there was no beach… The high tide had consumed it, leaving only sand dunes and pebbles where once there had been (we were assured) level sand, perfect for laying out geometrical ribbons!

With great skill and some ingenuity we worked out a technical system that prevented the ribbons from flying away in the strong sea-breeze (heavy pebbles), and carried out what everyone thought was an excellent exercise. One of my key thoughts about ‘water’ has always been the ‘wisdom’ of how it moves around obstacles, rather than offering outright resistance. In nature, few things are as powerful, nor as determined as free-flowing water. Related to the emotions, yes, but much more that that… We should also consider the way it divides itself, without hesitation, to carry out such a flow-around. The ‘self’ of water exists only in the whole….

The ever-present clipboard – used by each half of the pairings to record the on-the-spot feelings and observations of the partner at the points of the magical matrix pentagram. Suitably redacted to mask personal comments.

We were getting used to the ideas behind, and method of Dean’s ‘magical matrix’ system. It’s always surprising (and often a delight) to see what takes form beneath the pencil from spontaneous thought and emotion when we are free just to ‘be’ in the landscape… and that is the whole point of these workshops. The magical matrix was beginning to show each of us the polarity between our beliefs and how we lived our lives… and the two are not always the same thing. There are limitations – real and false – and the simple scribblings were to build up to a comprehensive picture of our selves. Also, the trust that one places in the partner in this type of working is a lesson in itself – and a delightful (and often humorous) process.

And then, mercifully, there was lunch… in one of the best cafes imaginable. Set in the beautiful and famous village of Findhorn, the creative centre of this part of the Scottish coast, the Bakehouse cafe is a delight…

And, in closing this part of the weekend’s story, I have to add this photo of Larissa, enjoying (at the Bakehouse) her ‘first decent coffee fix’ of the whole weekend; truly a memory in itself…

After lunch we were to be treated to a Pictish stone so large, they had to build a glass hangar to house it…

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

 

Hunting the Unicorn: “…of whirling air…”

The first stop of the afternoon was a familiar one; we had made a point of visiting the magnificent Sueno Stone on our last trip to the area. It is the tallest carved Pictish stone in Scotland and shows scenes of war and conquest… with the usual Pictish wholesale hacking off of heads. In this case, not one of our pet theories about the symbolic ‘removing the head’ psychologically in order to access the higher self, but the more graphic depiction of the slaughter and decapitation of the conquered. Not for nothing is Sueno’s Stone also known as the Battle Stone.

The Battle Stone is also one of the places reputed to be where Macbeth met the witches at the crossroads. Behind it, on Cluny Hill, is Nelson’s Tower, commemorating a sea battle from a later time… the Admiral’s victory at Trafalgar. But the hill is better known for a darker period in its history, when it was the site of the examination of witches.

Witches Stone, Forres, truehighlands.com

During the witch trials that would execute an estimated fifteen hundred midwives, healers and herbalists in Scotland for being in league with the devil, those accused of witchcraft in Forres deprived of sleep for three days and nights until they were vulnerable and would confess (a little odd, given what was to come…). One they had done so, they were put to death by packing them, still living, into spike-lined barrels and rolling them down Cluny Hill. Where the barrels came to rest, they were burned… a grisly echo of the Burning of the Clavie.

When the Macbeth witches were reputedly burned in this way, stones marked the spot of their incineration…and one of these stones, split into three and stapled together again, still sits directly outside Forres police station. Local legend says the stone was once broken up and used for building a house in which all the occupants fell ill. The house was demolished and the stone returned, such was the superstitious fear in which witchcraft was still held. It didn’t bode well for our pentagrams… not all things are what they may seem.

A brief comfort break at Logie Steading allowed us to walk through the gardens where rhododendrons line the paths. Beautiful as they are, one species is becoming a ‘weed’ in the woodlands, suppressing the habitat of native wildlife. Then it was on to our next symbolic location.

A green lane led us onto a viaduct, where the element of air was perfectly symbolised. Air beneath us, wind farms harvesting its power on the horizon, wind catching hair and garments as we worked… so much so that the ribbons were abandoned Instead, we marked out the pentagrams with stone, conscious that any walkers or bikers would be looking askance and glad the witchcraft laws were no longer enforced…

It was a perfect choice for the element of air, but as far as I was concerned, at least, the best location of the afternoon was the last. Dean had found a ‘blasted heath’… a stretch of moorland where the heather had been burned, presumably as part of its management. Here we had a fabulous rendition of another scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, illustrating the elements as psychological components. But it was the land itself that got to me…

A narrow, silver river snaked below us, flowing through a loch that mirrored the sky, holding  Lochindorb Castle on a man-made island at its heart. Tiny wildflowers starred the earth, great banks of sweet-scented golden gorse and the purple of early heather promising summer magic…and in the distance, mountains. I would have happily stayed there much longer.

But, with evening drawing in and a table booked for dinner, there was just enough time to take the ’long’ way back to Grantown, traversing the most beautiful of roads across the moors and between the hills… touching the heart of the deepest enchantment of all.

Hunting the Unicorn: “…and under the earth…”

Sharp tang of woodsmoke, tall shadows climb stone walls, reflected flames dance in a black pool. Deep in the belly of earth, the symbols of the rite painted on pale skin, I wait as the torches come…

I could not say where or when the scene unfolded, nor what was the rite, only that to find yourself unexpectedly standing in a landscape familiar from an old, recurring dream is very strange. The soft echoes of the chamber brought back one missing detail.

“We need to chant…”

***

We had arrived in Burghead knowing that we would take a look at an ancient fort and a holy well. For once, that was about the limit of my knowledge. We had been given a detailed itinerary, but I had deliberately not researched any of the places on the list. As I was not one of those responsible for guiding the weekend, I would be able to come at each site fresh and free from preconceptions.

Burghead has all the solidity and cleanliness typical of the area, but although most of the town has stood for just a couple of centuries, its history goes back into the earliest of times. At low tide, you can still see the peat beds and remains of trees that stood where the sea now flows some seven thousand years ago. The earthworks of the Pictish fort were unmistakeable as soon as we had parked… and incredibly well sited on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by the sea. But, when the Picts first came to the area and began work on the earliest phase of the ‘promontory fort’, the promontory had become an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of sea.

Was the site of the new fort first chosen simply for defensive reasons, which is entirely possible, or was there some deeper significance for the choice? So many times we have seen the lands of the living and the lands of the dead… the landscape of ritual… divided by water. There is even the old magical tradition that flowing water contains or prevents the passage of otherworldly beings and forces to back up the idea. Maybe there was more than just tactical planning by the founders?

Most of the fort was buried beneath the new town in the nineteenth century, but radiocarbon dating has shown the site was already occupied as far back as the third century. At the height of its strength, the fort had walls up to twenty feet high and twenty-six feet thick, dotted with around thirty Bull carvings, only six of which have as yet been located.

Was the Bull the symbol of the tribe, its spirit animal… or both? Is it an earth-bull, association with strength and fertility, or one of the mythical water-bulls of Scottish folklore, who were shapeshifters and could not be killed by drowning?

The information boards at the holy well spoke of executions by drowning, such as that of Talorgen, son of the king of Atholl in 739,  could not resist the idea of possible beheadings and mentioned the Celtic carved head found there as being a ritual object such as we see at so many ancient wells. Bearing in mind that the well would once have stood within the walls of a fort surrounded by sea, I would not have thought that contaminating a source of drinking water with messy executions would have been the norm. Not with the sea below the walls.

On the other hand, having a shrine to water deities within the fort, to whom appeals and offerings might be made and where rituals might take place, that does make sense. The idea that the Picts saw ritual significance in both caves and water is reinforced at a site not far away.

In a nearby cliff, the walls of the Sculptor’s Cave are decorated, curiously enough, with pentagrams and other Pictish symbols. Deep within the cave, many human bones were found. Some were cut through the neck as if deliberately decapitated. Others show clear evidence of having been deliberately defleshed. Some heads, mainly those of adolescents, appear to have been placed around the entrance to the cavern.

The majority of reports focus on the apparent brutality, sensationalising ghastly rituals and barbaric sacrifices. One, rather more considered report is that of ScARF, the Scottish Archaeological Framework, who suggest that the caves would have been a liminal place, between land and sea, where “rites of passage – transforming children to adults or the living to the dead – may have taken place” and where it was thought that you could reach out to “the gods or spirits of the underworld”. We know that bones held meaning for our ancestors and that the cleaning of the bones for burial was seen as a respectful funerary rite. We also know that initiatory rites of passage, such as that marking the transition from child to warrior, priest or shaman, often held an element of real risk. What we do not know is the story behind the bones in the cave and it seems unfair to paint their people as barbaric, by our standards, without that knowledge.

That the ritual significance of water persisted into the Christian era we also know, with baptism forming the central rite of all who embraced that religion. There is another well in Burghead, dedicated to St Aidan… a name we have come across many times before on our travels… where the water is still clear and vessels are still provided for travellers… and their dogs. This is not something we have come across before in this health-and-safety dominated age… but oddly, it was not the last time we would see a holy and healing well still in service on this trip.

But the rock-cut well before us was unlike anything we had ever seen outside of dream. It felt forlorn, forgotten… but the spirit of place was not without power. Had it been a baptismal chamber? Quite possibly, with its steps leading down into the clear water and its ledge, either seat or walkway, running around the outside. Had it been used for Christian baptisms, like many another holy well that predates Christianity? Probably… but only later in its history.

The well reminded me of a painting I made many years ago, trying to catch the essence of a fleeting dream, with the shaft of light illuminating a priestess who stands within a well, her robe floating around her on the water. It was not a good painting, but I saved it and called it Chalice… for when I inverted the colours and the image, the priestess made the stem of a grail-like cup.

And it was dream that brought me to ask for the chant. We gathered once again at the entrance to the chamber. With a health issue, my own voice was meagre, so I was able to listen and feel the growing resonance as we filled the chamber with sound, cleansing, illuminating, reverberating… and, at the last, lifted to the sublime by the voice of a tawny-haired priestess whose favourite robe is red.

It was a quieter company that walked along the earthworks to stand looking out across the sea, the mood only lightening when we found a complete ‘fairy ring’ of toadstools on the way back to the car. There was once more visit before lunch… down to the shore in ritual mode, to once more walk our pentagrams.  The tide had come in, as if sea had come close to watch and, after the well, there was a rightness in that.

Three days of the Oyster-catcher (Part 3) – A Pictish Headland

The Moray Firth is vast, wild and beautiful. Examined on a map it resembles a child’s geometry exercise in triangles, with the coast between its ‘origin’ at Inverness and far-away Fraserburgh being a virtually flat west-east baseline. From Fraserburgh the great inlet of the Moray Firth reaches northwards into the North Sea. The final line in the triangle, from Inverness moving north-east, ends at the tip of Scotland: John o’ Groats.

Above: The vast Moray Firth, a small section of which formed the northern boundary of our Silent Unicorn weekend. Map Google Maps

Our huge geographic triangle pivots around Inverness -which is also the place where Loch Ness meets the sea. What we know as Loch Ness today is the result of the shearing of two vast tectonic plates four-hundred million years ago. This geological event produced a ‘line’ of fracture that is now the line of Loch Ness but runs further across the entire width of Scotland and beyond. The east-west depression is known as the Great Glen.

Above: The mighty Moray Firth, stretching northwards towards Scandinavia.

If you are sensitive to ancientness, when you stand on this, the south coast of the Moray Firth, you can feel the immense age of this beautiful place – and its importance in Scotland’s history.

Above: The Pictish Brandsbutt Symbol Stone from nearby Inverurie. Archeologists have painted-in part of the stone design to show how the original may have looked

The mysterious race known as the Picts, did just that… and they built what would be in our terms a mighty city. Today, the small town that grew in its ruins is known as Burghead.

Above: The scale of the original ‘fort’ can be seen by the fact that it took up the entire area of the Burghead headland – and jutted out boldly into the Moray Firth. Photographed from the Burghead Headland information board.

When we arrived we knew nothing of the above history. Dean (who had made a mysterious stop at one of the shops in the small high street) had arranged to take us through a warren of passageways to get to the famous and mysterious well.

Above: An unlikely route to a magical location.

Another turn and we approached our goal. It’s worth showing an edited copy of the Historic Scotland’s schematic. This pinpoints exactly where we now were in terms of the old fort…

Above: The location of the ancient well, though enshrouded, now, in the small town’s streets, was in Pictish times against the outer wall of the landward side of the city; shown here next to the blue dot.

We stood before the wooden fence reading the Historic Scotland information boards. The Burghead Well is kept locked but Dean had collected the key from one of buildings in the main street. About to enter, we were surprised when a visiting family arrived and said they believed that he had the key! Graciously, we stood back while they added to their holiday enjoyment. They soon returned and we entered the strange space in what looked like a large garden with a depression in the middle…

The Burghead Well. First impressions are of a garden lawn sunken in the middle.

” An old man suggested that they should dig in a certain spot, where, according to immemorial tradition, a well would be found”

Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1828

A strange descent to the well-chamber below….

The well-chamber is accessed by a descent of twenty rock-cut steps. The entire structure was hewn out of the local rock. The chamber is square, with rounded corners; and measures 5m by 5m. In the centre of the chamber is a pool surrounded by a narrow ledge 0.9m wide. The well pool is 1.3m deep. It was once emptied for maintenance and took six days to refill.

The information board shows a drawing from the 1800s describing the shape and the angle of access to the well chamber.

Burghead Well is described as a ‘Pictish puzzle’

It is not known when Burghead Well was constructed, nor why. As we have seen from the schematic, it lies on the rampart line of the inner Pictish fort – built between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The well may not have been part of the fort’s design. The well could have been added later or it could be even older than the ramparts themselves.

Even after millennia, the construction is still resilient.

The well could be considered as a water supply for the Pictish fort, but a shaft would be of more practical use. The rock-cut chamber is 5m wide and contains a 1m deep pool which is fed by a spring.

The act of descending into the earth is likely to have had spiritual significance – as mirrored in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hecate.

Different explanations have been put forward. These include a ritual drowning pool, a shrine to Celtic water deities or perhaps an early Christian baptistery.

Above: Note the beautifully rounded corners of the chamber. The dank-looking water was a shock… we had no right to expect anything better but felt helpless in the face of such a spiritually ‘unused’ place.
Then Sue suggested something profound….

After so much buildup, the actual water looked, for want of a better word, ‘sad’. Everyone spent a quiet moment taking in the age and cultural Pictish significance of this very special place. With a collective heavy heart, we began to move back up the rock steps… Then Sue stole the moment and suggested that we do some of our chants…

Music and chanting have been part of sacred practices for as long as man gazed in wonder at the stars and the sunrise. Over the years we have developed a set of chants that come under the general heading of ‘vowel sounds’. Stuart suggested a combination we had used before; one ending in the powerful ‘Awen’ sound.

Structures – particularly stone structures – have resonant frequencies. On a few notable occasions, such as when visiting the West Kennet barrow, just outside Avebury, we have been amazed and delighted when the artefact in which we were chanting ‘came alive’ and appeared to sing with us.

The Burghead Well did the same. In a second of incredible transformation the beautiful but neglected stone chamber began to ring with the human voice and to speak to us. It spoke of water, of the power of water, of the home of water. It spoke of the journey we were making from the element of earth to that of water, and everyone present left that beautiful and hallowed place in a state of deep reflection…

Above: Dean’s use of the mystical (and mathematical) Pentagram equated the ancient ‘Elements’ with (anti-clockwise from Air) The Boundary Self; the Potential Self; the Weak Self: the Limited Self and finally the Core and Shadow Selves. In this journey we travelled from Earth to Fire, from the Potential Self to the Limited Self.

We may not have ‘connected’ with the ancient Picts, but we certain did so with what they left behind…

The morning was still not finished. Before we had our long-awaited lunch at the Findhorn Bakery, another laying-out of our water-oriented pentagrams was to be made on Findhorn Beach… or was it?

In passing, though not part of our agenda, it is worth noting that Burghead connects with its past in a very special way. It is the only Scottish town that still carries out the ceremony of the ‘Burning of the Clavie’ – the origins of which are lost in history. This takes place on the ‘old new year’ date of January 11th, unless that is a Sunday, in which case the 12th is used, instead.

Elders of the town carry a flaming ‘Clavie’ – half of a cask filled with burning, inflammable materials and topped with tar – through the town. The procession ends at the ruins of an altar on the Pictish headland where the Clavie is made the centre of a ritual bonfire. When the originating Clavie finally falls apart, the people of the town rush forward to claim a piece of the still-burning material and take it back to ward evil from their homes…

The culmination of the fire ritual which takes place on 11th January each year. It might relate to the sacking of Burghead by the Vikings… or it might be part of something much older.
The burning of the Clavie
CC BY-SA 2.0
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_the_Clavie

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

 

Hunting the Unicorn: “Upon the earth…”

Our morning began with an early meditation upon the hillside, turning our attention to the light, both in literal and symbolic terms. It was a moment to drink in the beauty of the land as a ‘false dawn’ opened a window in the clouds and we placed the work of the weekend under the aegis of Spirit. Each of us brings our own peculiar interpretation to that word and concept… and that is how it should be; the relationship between each of us and whatever we conceive of as spirit, divinity or a guiding presence is both unique and personal.

In simple rituals and in spite of a multitude of perspectives, we can set differences easily aside, colouring the symbols we use with our own interpretations in order to work together towards a common goal. That is one of the ever-present joys of such workshop weekends. We were using a five-pointed star, but there is always a hidden point to any symbol and, magically, that always operates on a different level to the symbol itself. The opalescent horn of the Unicorn would be both the guardian of the threshold and would point the way for us.

Having established the Unicorn as a symbol of Spirit the night before, we were about to begin a more personal journey into the elements of our own nature. Using imagination, knowledge, memory and the senses, we would map that journey onto the five points of the pentagram. Dean had carefully chosen passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to illustrate the psychological aspects of the elements as they are played out within the human psyche. He had chosen stones with different colours, patterns and textures to represent the physical  elements with which we would weight down the ribbon paths we were to walk around the pentagram and chosen sites for us to visit that reflected the elemental principles too. In other words, he had tied the journey together beautifully on all levels.

 

Our next stop would be Duffus Castle, built around 1140 and abandoned in the eighteenth century. As Steve has already covered the history of the castle, I need not repeat the details of its construction and ownership, but can take a more personal perspective.

The castle is surrounded by the remains of a moat, now a pure, clear stream, teeming with wildflowers and small creatures. It was here that we began to get an inkling of Dean’s deep love and knowledge of the natural environment of his adoptive home, much of which he would share with us over the weekend. It is a very beautiful site, an island in a green land. Rising from the Laich of Moray, it dominates the landscape and, from a distance, seems to epitomise our idea of a ‘proper’ castle.

The mound upon which the fortifications are built is imposing. Both the motte that holds the castle keep and the bailey… the lower enclosure that once protected the stables, people and day-to-day practicalities of castle life… are intact.

It is only as you come closer that you see that the castle has not only suffered the depredations of time, but is gradually slipping down the slope of the motte to be swallowed by the hill. Windows have broken, whole sections of the structure seem to be sailing away. It is almost as if the most solid-looking part of the castle is the most fragile… and what a good analogy for our own masks that might be.

It has a very different ‘feel’ than its Norman counterparts in England. So often these were built by the conquerors on sites already important to the community, thus both wresting position and imposing authority on the land and its people in one fell swoop. There is a lot of research ongoing at the moment, looking into the age of motte and bailey-type earthworks that were once Norman castles… and had, we now know, sometimes origins and uses of a  much earlier date.

Here though, the castle mound was purpose-built. There was none of the underlying trauma or conflict felt at many other such sites. Sadly, though, it may be this very fact that has proven to be its downfall; the ancients were pretty good at building earthworks. Apparently, the castle-builders had needed to learn a bit more about foundations…

And that carried us neatly into the next part of our work, for the foundations of our own personalities need to be firmly built and deeply rooted before we can build upon them.

We were looking at ourselves from a magical perspective and the spiritual journey of each of us has to start somewhere. We all start at the beginning, knowing nothing, and build gradually from that point. How you build will determine how you will develop.

Most of us start by devouring information… books, articles, courses…whatever we can find, like newly-hatched chicks in need of nourishment. Some will believe that is enough and will construct an impressive-looking façade from what they have learned. You can carry on adding knowledge for decades… but unless you do the ‘spade-work’, the spiritual edifice you are building will one day crumble and swallow itself.

You may even find that, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘power’ you think you have attained demands more and more of you in order to maintain its illusion. The real ‘spade-work’ of a spiritual system tends to include getting to know yourself… and that may mean digging into areas of the mind, heart and memory that can be as unpleasant as a blocked sewer.

It also means finding ways to put into practice what you have learned. That’s where this type of workshop can be useful. The written word can only teach knowledge and report experience… it cannot teach understanding, though it may show a way towards it.

But maybe, too, this broken castle might symbolise the freedom that comes when we can cast down the walls behind which we so often feel the need to hide, opening ourselves to light and life. Either way, it was a great place to start our day.