On the Sunday morning, we met at the Lion Inn, perched some thirteen hundred feet above sea level and high on the North Yorkshire moors. The sixteenth-century inn is an isolated spot above Rosedale, in an area fair littered with archaeology that demands further exploration. It is also a warm and welcoming place, with a fire in the hearth and, at this time of year, full of Christmas greenery. We met there for coffee but could have happily stayed there for hours.
Outside, though, within just a few yards of the inn, was the first of three standing stones that Steve wanted to show us. We had already passed Young Ralph’s Cross on the way and another couple of intriguing stones. Had the weather been a little less wild, we would have stopped to explore… but it was truly blowing a gale, with nothing in that exposed spot to mitigate the winds.
But out we went anyway, with me battling a gale that mistook my wide skirts and cloak for sails and seemed convinced that, with just a little more effort on its part, I could be persuaded to fly. Held earthbound by Steve’s firm grasp, and with the wind whipping all sound but its own from my ears, I set my back to the first standing stone, perched on the bank above a hollowed cairn. I caught only fragments of what Steve told us about Blakey Howe, or Cockpit Howe as it is sometimes called, after the so-called ‘sport’ that used to take place within the hollow. The standing stone itself is an eighteenth-century boundary stone, though it may have once been a true standing stone, later re-used.
The area is rich in history. At Loose Howe not far away, excavation had found a boat burial, where the deceased was sent on his final journey with a hollowed log resembling a canoe. A number of these have been found on the North Yorkshire moors, with radiocarbon dating suggesting the burials are around four thousand years old. At Loose Howe, hazelnuts and a dagger were also buried and a later cremation interred above the boat.
Behind the inn is another stone that has both the look and feel of a more modern construction, though possibly reusing an older stone. It does not appear to be marked on the map-catalogue of ancient sites, but it is impressive enough as it stands. That, however, was as far as I could go.
Straining stand against the wind had set off the pain again and I was obliged to go back to the car and wait while the others walked to the final of the three stones in the area, another eighteenth-century boundary marker placed upon a Bronze Age round barrow. As it turned out, I had made a wise decision as, by the time the others returned, they were drenched, having been caught by a sudden change in the weather. I think we were all thankful that the final sites of the day would be a little more sheltered…
Our final site of the day was to be one of the most astonishing circles we have visited. It is not the biggest, nor are the stones themselves the largest, but it has a ‘feel’ unlike any other. Castlerigg, which we would visit on our final day of the workshop, may rightly be accounted one of the most beautiful of circles, but what Long Meg and her Daughters lack in aesthetics, they more than make up for in sheer presence.
On our very first visit, the light had been going and the winter dusk had been bitterly cold. We thought we knew what to expect…after all, we had seen enough photographs of the place. I had even a vague memory of having been taken there as a child. Yet, we had rounded the corner and been ambushed by the stones. Getting out of the car, we had literally bounced with excitement, like children at Christmas. The site was more, far more, than we had expected.
For a start, the narrow farm track that is signposted for the ‘Druid Circle’ gives no warning when you are about to arrive. It does not stop at the edge of an enclosure or parking space… it carries on, straight through the circle, skirting stones that divide the track at one point. When we arrived with our party for the workshop, our passenger too felt that ‘psychic shock’ and was, moments later, out of the car and bouncing up and down like an excited child.
The short winter’s day was drawing to a close and we would be in the circle at sundown. Unlike our last visit, equipped with cameras, the fading light would not linger and we lost no time in sending our party out to explore and attune with the stones.
The circle is huge, the sixth largest in Northern Europe, and not really a circle at all. It is an oval, formed from the geometric form of the vesica, and some three hundred and forty feet across its longest axis. Although legends say that it is bad luck to try and count the stones, the usual count puts them at fifty nine stones still in situ out of the seventy original stones. The whole thing was once surrounded by a low embankment, which may have been white-faced with gypsum, allowing it to glow.
Long Meg herself is the solitary standing stone who watches over her ‘daughters’, which are the stones of this Bronze Age circle. Legend says a coven of witches were put to sleep and petrified by a Scottish wizard named Michael Scot. His surname may indicate his origin north of the border, but Michael harks back to the Saint of that name who is so often shown with the dragon held quiescent on the point of his lance. The dragon power of old Albion, associated with the leys, was seen as pagan and therefore ‘evil’ by nascent Christianity and knowledge of its ways driven underground. Perhaps the dragons, like the stones, merely sleep…
The circle was built as part of the megalithic tradition which began around five and a half thousand years ago. The exact date of the circle and the surrounding enclosures and embankments is uncertain and its precise purpose is unknown, though much can be deduced. For a people who, like our ancestors, constructed interrelated sites across vast swathes of the landscape, it is probable that there is a relationship between this site and others in the area, including Little Meg, two fields away, and the henges we had visited. Not far away is the sacred landscape and Avenue at Shap… and you have to wonder if, as at Avebury and Stonehenge, these features formed part of a greater plan…and if so, did it echo the map of the heavens as our ancestors once saw it?
There are larger stones in circles across the country, but the stones are far from small. The four quarter-stones are not local and are quartz-bearing. Most circles are built from a single type of stone, perhaps with a quartz-bearing stone, or even an entire boulder of quartz, such as we had seen at Boscawen-Un. Here, however, Long Meg herself is a column of red sandstone that sparkles in the sunlight and which, with the quartz-rocks, differs from the rest of the circle. The technology of stone as it was known to our ancestors may be lost to us, but we have echoes in the use of crystal for both healing and communications technologies. Their choices of stone were not only deliberate but significant.
The arrangement of the stones suggests a calendrical function that would work by standing outside the circle and sighting across to the quartz stones. Long Meg herself, standing outside the circle, is part of a Samhain alignment with a portal stone and one of the quartz rocks.
Long Meg is a magnificent presence. Standing twelve feet tall, she is ‘tattooed’ with concentric circles and her uppermost surface is notched in the manner we have so often seen. This may be simple erosion, as is often averred, or the weather may have exaggerated an existing feature, but whenever we see this kind of notch we are struck by its similarity to the sight on an old-fashioned firearm. And this, we believe, was its function.
Between anecdotal observations and the mathematical precision survey work such as that conducted by Professor Thom’s, a good many astronomical alignments have been proposed and observed, indicating alignments at solstice and equinox and particularly with Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus. Deneb heads the Northern Cross in the heavens and, along with Vega and Altair, is one of the three stars known as the Summer Triangle that was used for navigation right up until the twentieth century, helping pilots find their way home. There are physical alignments within the landscape too and while the entrance to the circle frames the hills, their form is shadowed in he contours of the stones.
As the day drew to its end, we gathered around Long Meg, focussing our minds and breathing. Closing our eyes, we once more sounded our ‘words of truth’, this time giving voice to the vowels which are the flowing seeds of sound. It is odd, but the voice changes when you work in this way; sound emerges unrecognisable from your throat as if illuminating hidden corners of your being. The words ‘breath of Creation’ passed through my mind, listening to the anonymous voices joined in unplanned harmony.
As we ended our day, the light failed and the clouds broke, allowing a final glimpse of the sun setting behind Long Meg. Wishing I had not left the camera in the car, I reached for my phone, just to mark the moment. The stones were alive, glad, I felt, for our presence and glowing faintly in the twilight as the sky itself offered us a final gift.
A new footpath has been installed close to the village, running for a few miles through the silent, empty fields. One of its entrances gives onto the road I travel every day and I have watched with mild curiosity as the work has been underway.
The path is part of a walking and cycling initiative to connect the village to the nearest railway station and, hopefully, reduce the need for cars on the road. It follows the course of the old Roman road, which probably followed the course of an older track, thus continuing a tradition of travel along this route.
My interest was caught when I noticed the workmen had installed a sculpture or two, glimpsed through one of the gates and through the thinning leaves on the trees. Aha, I thought, a Pointy Stone! Even after millennia there is something about a standing stone guarding the way that seems absolutely right.
A standing stone, guarding a way through the wilderness. Symbolically, it was perfect. If my theories were correct, a pointed stone was once used as a waymarker, allowing travellers to navigate across the empty landscape before the land was mapped and signposted. But our ancestors had marked the entrance to their sacred sites with standing stones too, signalling that here a new path opened before the seeker’s feet and that each step forward should be taken with reverence.
What they revered, we can only surmise and perhaps feel for ourselves as we too walk the land, but that these stones were held as important, both exoterically and spiritually can be in little doubt.
There is both permanence and impermanence to stone. It has already lasted longer than man can fathom by the time we lift and shape it, yet once it is exposed to the wind and weather, it will eventually crumble. It may outlast us by millennia, but to the slow life of stone such timescales mean little.
On the first morning where weather, time and traffic came together, I took the camera for a closer look. As the sharp, sculpted angles caught the light, I realised I was doomed to disappointment. The stone is not a stone.
The disappointment I felt was in direct proportion to the expectations I had raised for myself. I was also disproportionately saddened in a way that is a little difficult to explain.
For a chill autumn morning, the scene was pretty idyllic. Frosted fields held a herd of grazing cows, half veiled by the rising mist as the sun awoke, whiting out the sky. Even at close quarters, I had to reach out and touch the ‘stone’ to be sure, though I could feel the truth. It was metal, pre-rusted, and the hollowness beneath the tap of my fingertips seemed to sum up, somehow, where humankind has lost its way.
With our focus fixed on survival and success, we still choose to ape the forms that have served us through the centuries. Even though their original meaning may be lost to us, we recognise their significance. There are modern pyramids across the world… our local one is neither tomb nor temple, but it is, I suppose, still a gateway to another world, being a cinema. We erect stone circles in new housing estates, but without regard to their alignments or place within the landscape, they are no more than overgrown garden ornaments. Monuments imitating the glories of a bygone age, they are as empty of life as the grave.
The hollow clang of the new ‘standing stone’ beneath my hand seemed to epitomise the hollowness of life for so many. We adhere to the form of old beliefs and systems without engaging with them or applying them to how we live. It made me consider how we walk the earth without any sense of its sacredness… and we do not even have to believe in any god to hold the planet we call home in reverence, but modern societies no longer do so…only individuals touch the heart of earth and feel its life.
The metal of the sculpture is already rusted; even its finish has been faked, encouraged, its ultimate end hastened. Appearances matter more than the reality as we seek to have now the fruits of time’s passage and the processes of nature. The stones of the ancients in this land have stood for five thousand years and more. Will the modern metal ‘stone’ last a tenth of that long?
Even so, the newly erected ‘stone’ serves a purpose with poles upon which the weary walker can rest and it makes for a striking feature in the landscape. Perhaps, after all, doesn’t really matter what the outward form of anything may take… including our own lives. It is how we use them on the journey that matters.
Reblogged from Journey to Ambeth:So this was it. The final stop on my weekend with the Silent Eye, not far from where it had begun for me, two days earlier. We were very close to Aberdeen airport, but, other than the occasional plane or helicopter overhead, you wouldn’t have known it.
We were standing on high ground overlooking a river that turned, serpent-like, through a green landscape. A huge boulder sat on the edge of the drop and across the river from us were several homes, nestled among trees. Behind us was a ruined church, roof and windows long gone. Yet it still held secrets.
We went into the tidy churchyard, rows of stone monuments to war dead from both sides reminders of a not-too-distant past. The church itself, dedicated to St Fergus, was built of grey stone, weathered by time like the grave markers surrounding it. Interesting that it was the second church of the weekend – sacred places in the landscape were often overtaken by others as beliefs changed, often as part of the process and against the wishes of the community.
It was Sunday morning, and it was raining again. But I breakfasted with friends, warmth and laughter a pleasant way to begin the day. Outside, a raven wandered along the wooden fence – one of our group remarked on him, as he was quite unusually large. ‘He was there yesterday, as well,’ I said. Sue had mentioned to me the day before, as we stood in Midmar circle, that it was the time of the Raven, so it seemed appropriate to see him waiting there.
After breakfast we met the rest of the group at the usual place, before splitting into smaller groups to head to the first of three planned sites for the day. Aftera short drive we pulled up on a road running alongside a petrol station, brambles and bushes tangled along the verge, and what looked like a bit of a wasteland on the other side. Yet, that was our destination
Along winding roads through green fields, the purpling hills beyond, we travelled back to where our journey began – Easter Aquhorthies. We returned to a circle transformed from the screaming wind and rain of the previous day – this time, the sun drew shadows from the stones, the distant peak of Mither Tap clear against patches of blue sky. There was still rain around, but none really came to trouble us as we once more found our stones and learned more about their alignments.
‘My’ stone was warm, welcoming again, and I gave it a gift, something I’d been carrying with me, looking for the right place to leave it. It seemed to have been accepted. I learned that ‘my’ stone aligned with the winter solstice sunset, and also with the viewing platform we could see through the trees… which also lined up with the circle and carved stone in the housing estate beyond. Truly, the people who created these monuments worked on a large scale and with great accuracy, the alignments of sun and moon and land precise to the decimal point.
Stone and rain. Rain and stone. It seemed to be a theme of the weekend. No matter the weather, when we reached any stone of significance the rain would fall. From soft misty drizzle to gale force rain storms, we experienced just about all the types of rain Scotland seemed to offer, often in the space of just a couple of hours.
And so it was at our next two sites, both of which featured carved Pictish stones. I’d never seen such stones in real life before, so it was a thrill to see the first one, even though it had been reconstructed and sat in the middle of a modern housing estate. There had been a circle there, once, still marked with a ring in the grass, but it had been pulled down long ago, in days when such monuments were no longer revered, their carefully chosen stones broken for use in stone fences and buildings. Some still remained on site, said to come from the original circle, and, despite the cracks crossing the face of the carved stone, the images were still clear, a serpent and spear, thought perhaps to represent the nearby river, and a semi-circle and broken spear, the shape of which came to have more significance for me, later in the day. The rain was still falling as we got into the cars, a soft cool drizzle, dampening the stones but not our spirits, as we headed out into the landscape once more.
Our last visit of a weekend that seemed to have flown by all too quickly was to a little church on the edge of Aberdeen. The sun finally decided to show its face… though it still managed to rain anyway, but at least we had blue skies through the roofless ruins of St Fergus’ Church.
Originally built around eight hundred years ago, the old parish church of Dyce sits high above a bend in the river Don. It was a place of Christian worship long before the present church was built…and possibly already a sacred or significant site in the pre-Christian era. Little now remains of the church apart from its shell, with the curious doorway to the east, where the altar would normally be situated.
Fergus the Pict was an Irish bishop, responsible for bringing Christianity to many in this area of Scotland. He may be the same Fergus who took part in the council of Rome in 721AD that condemned ‘irregular marriages, sorcerers and clerics who grew their hair long’.
Outside the door is a pedestal carved into a bowl that looks like the remains of an ancient font. Local legend says that it is a penitent’s seat, in which the lawbreakers of the community were obliged to sit as the congregation filed past. Within the church, there is nothing much left of interest except a few carved stones.
Some of them are much older than the church and have been reused as part of its fabric. On one of them, visitors have left a small white stone. The reason for this is unknown to me. Is it a pagan or Christian practice? Does it relate to the presence of the Commonwealth graves within the churchyard? The only parallel I can think of is one Barb had mentioned, the Jewish custom of placing a stone on a grave, though we too had been placing stones at sacred sites as a symbol and prayer for peace.
The other carved stones, though, are what we had primarily come to see…and they were rather spectacular. Some of them are relatively small, simple grave markers, probably carved around thirteen hundred years ago, found close to the church, others carry a mixture of Christian symbolism and the elaborate and enigmatic Pictish symbols.
One is a huge cross slab, dating back to the mid 800s, which, in addition to the ‘Celtic’ interlacing on the cross itself, carries a number a length of Ogham script down one side. The beautifully carved symbols include a ‘mirror case’, the ‘crescent and V-rod’ that we had already seen once that morning in the stone circle, and a ‘double disc and Z-rod’. That symbol, less ornately carved, also features on the second of the two large stones. This one dates back a further three hundred years to around 500AD and once again, we came face to face with the Pictish Beast. The information boards, which really only offer dates and questions, show coloured impressions of how the stones may have looked when they were painted, based upon illuminations from later manuscripts and the beautiful jewels that have been found.
And that was it… we gathered above the river where our companions shared their final readings of the weekend and where Running Elk was presented with a hat and the ceremonial Order of the Brolly… a moment I missed as I sat with Mrs Elk in the churchyard, speaking of what has been and what is yet to come. All that remained was a last hour to talk over lunch and some very fond farewells. Scotland and Running Elk had done us proud. By way of showing our gratitude, I am rather hoping we may convince him to show us those ‘other places we should have visited’ one of these days…though Stuart and I did accidentally find one of them on our way back to the hotel… and England was a long way and much beauty away… with plenty of places to get sidetracked and a genuine adventure yet to come…
(The part of this journey that falls outside of the Silent Eye weekend will be continued on my personal blog.)
If you have enjoyed travelling with us through this ancient landscape, why not join us for one of our informal weekends? The next event will be Riddles of the Night in Derbyshire in 1st-3rd December 2017. Full details of this and future workshops can be found on the Silent Eye Events page.