We had returned to Easter Aquhorthies for a second visit. It was still raining, but this time the sky was much brighter than the iron-grey deluge of the day before and there was already a sense of revisiting an old friend as we each returned to our stones. For myself, I was pondering some of the things we had learned here the day before… beginning with a rather obvious question from Running Elk.
“Where does the sun rise?” He was answered by silence. Twelve intelligent, fairly well-educated people had all apparently reached the same conclusion. The answer was so obvious that stating it was obviously going to turn out badly. Only the dog grinned. The sun rises in the east… that’s what we learn in school and that’s exactly what we think we see whenever we watch a dawn. Only, apparently, it isn’t. Who knew?
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…
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…
The weather was beginning to regain its composure, but it was still being temperamental enough to lustrate the companions exploring the mysteries of an ancient landscape. Our next site was not far distant and it was not long before we gathered at the entrance to Cullerlie Stone Circle, the Standing Stones of Echt. We were greeted by the guardian collie, who was evidently torn between the innate need to herd the wandering group of humans and the sure and certain olfactory knowledge that at least half of them had treats in their pockets and the hope that a fair percentage could be induced to throw sticks.
Even so, there was a ‘rightness’ about his presence as he crouched, poised, between us and the stones. About the only thing that did feel right. And that was odd. The wide, open valley gives clear views for miles, broken only by the trees…
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…
Following a rather delicious soup stop, we headed off for some light refreshment in the form of Symbol Stones. These mysterious artefacts of the Picts, with their admixture of Christian and Pagan symbolism, remain largely unexplained due to a lack of written records. The Gael provide the only evidence of who the Picts were, and that appears to be more legend than fact.
The Brandsbutt Stone, having been found in pieces making up part of a boundary wall, is not in its original location. It may not have travelled far, however, as traces of a stone circle, long gone, remain hidden a few yards away, under the well-manicured grass.
The stone is unusual in that it contains an Ogham inscription. Translating offers no insight, and it may just be 6th-century vandalism…
The main symbol, the so-called “V-rod and crescent”, is accompanied by a “Z-rod and serpent”. Interpretation of the symbols is currently futile, but the contemplation of them, in relation to the landscape in which they sit and the astronomical theme of the weekend, bears interesting fruit.
Lesson 14: Thirteen heads are better than one.
Lesson 15: The mystery of the Serpent endures.
Lesson 16: Make the most of the sunshine.
The route from the Brandsbutt Stone to our next stop allowed a “drive past” view of an intriguing aspect of the stone circles in the region – there are SO many of them, often in such close proximity to each other, that the “social” purpose proposed seems spurious. We only had time to stop and view from afar: little more than 2km separates the Inveramsay circle (a ruined circle comprising the recumbent the uprights, one remaining standing in the circle, and an intriguing outlier). The next day we would visit one with a partner less than 800m distant, which raises the question: were these separate communities, or did the community “move” the circle as it’s initial location no longer served its primary purpose?
Lesson 17: Question everything!
Pulling up at the Maiden Stone car park was always going to be “interesting” with such a large group. Any additional tourists would have ensured a blockage of the narrow road. What I never, in a million years, expected was:
Lesson 18: The local cycling club can cause an unexpected traffic jam where you least expect one.
Described as one of the most magnificent Pictish stones ever carved, the Maiden Stone stands over 3m high. Although the West face, originally a ring cross, is badly worn, the other faces remain clear. It was the eastern face (pictured) we had come to see.
The “beastie”, of all the “beasties”, is possibly the most detailed of the form. It is, however, the “mirror and comb” motif, from which the stone may have obtained its name, that proved the most interesting. One of the group shared an experience they had during a previous visit to Easter Aquhorthies, which shed considerable light on the motif. Literally.
Lesson 19: Our reaction to the stories, and experiences, of others, informs and expands our own stories and experiences; and might provide the clues we are missing towards our own deeper understanding of the relation between things.
Lesson 20: When offered the option to view another Pictish Symbol Stone, or revisit a stone circle site that the elements had driven you from the day before, the stone circle wins.
As it turned out, it was a great choice for two reasons: the proposed Symbol Stones had already been wrapped for preservation through the coming winter months, and a stone circle in the sun is a much more enjoyable experience… and it also saved my bacon on the “prepared material” front.
Lesson 21: Always have a backup plan in case of poor weather.
Revisiting Easter Aquhorthies in more clement weather allowed the site to be experienced in its wider context within the landscape. Without the mist and driving rain of the previous day, the view of the hillfort at Mither Tap, raised some 1000 years after the stone circle, was magnificent. The location of the hill, the most prominent across the entire area, means that the equinox sunset, when viewed from Easter Aquhorthies, dips behind the mountain.
After a, frankly stirring, explanatory of the movement of the sun through its celestial meanderings there was time to discuss the wobbly moon, her relationship to the same movement, and how lazy sun takes a year to do what she manages to complete in a month…
Lesson 22: Telling a group of complete strangers, who happen upon proceedings without any context, that you are in the middle of a ritual requiring a sacrificial victim, makes a group of complete strangers make their excuses and leave…
Lesson 23: A chant, in the right place, cannot escape the protection of the circle; but reverberates strongly within.
Lesson 24: The female voice “fits” (this place at least), in a way that the male voice cannot hope to achieve.
There is one, rather special, stone within the circle; whilst all others are of local granite, a rather impressive piece of red jasper stands at the location marking the midwinter sunrise. She also indicates one of the more interesting points of entry / exit into the sacred space within / beyond the circle. As we were leaving, she didn’t fail to impress.
Lesson 25: Parking space may be limited a: When your car is stuck in a ditch, the locals will want to take a photograph of your predicament. b: When your car is stuck in a ditch, only a REAL Land Rover will do!
Day Two (Completions)
I grew up taking the Milky Way for granted. On any clear night, barring the days either side of the full moon, it was there; a great arc of gossamer-light running from the southern horizon, bending eastwards as it traversed overhead to the north. It wasn’t until I moved to the city that its absence to most of the world’s population became apparent. Any level of light pollution so effectively obscures our own galaxy from view, that there must be people out there who have never actually seen it.
Only a small band of fool hardy individuals headed up to the circle under cover of darkness. The occasional cloud scurried above their heads, but it remained dry. Arriving at the site and turning off the torches, it took no more than a few minutes for eyes to adjust: visiting a stone circle at night reveals an entirely unsuspected level of information. I’m not entirely sure why I’d never thought of doing it before…
Lesson 26: The passing of the Milky Way over a stone circle may be significant; particularly to Moon worshipping peoples, as it is most clearly viewed on moonless nights.
Lesson 27: Maybe a moon themed weekend would be best arranged on a weekend when the moon can be seen.
Lesson 28: Starlight is surprisingly bright in hallowed places. (Imagine how bright the moonlit circle when carpeted in Milky quartz).
Lesson 29: The lights of homestead fires can be observed over such large distances on clear nights, that these sites may have operated in more ways than we currently allow them.
Lesson 30: Time is fluid. What may appear little more than half an hour in “circle time”, can hold you till gone midnight in real time…
~~~ Part Three of the Solstice of the Moon series.
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…
Mettle tested and hardly dried, we head off to Midmar; a site rather polluted and dulled by the intrusion of “modern” death rites. The energies here are “slacker”. More turgid. I couldn’t handle the swirling vortices and back eddies the first time I’d visited the site. Work through the years, to reconnect the interrupted ley, had smoothed the flow somewhat but there remains an uneasy balance between the joyous spirit of the Bronze Age site and the chaotic energies which surround it.
There is method in the madness of risking losing some of the group in the wild open spaces poorly serviced by GPS systems. A 20 minute (barring Siri detours) journey from the first day’s site takes us forward 1000 years. The architecture has barely changed, but something has driven a change in “outlook” of the builders. The southerly aspect appears to be completely blocked by a hill: not without good reason – here, the moon at her most southerly passing, skips across the hill which threatens to swallow her.
Lesson 5: “Un”-ease is not “dis”-ease.
Lesson 6: (A cheaty one – I already knew this). Short people miss a LOT of interesting things due to the awkward height of the average hedge…
Lesson 7: Though unmarked, and without visual clues of landscape, the “closer of the gate” always finds their place.
Lesson 8: Some stones just don’t want to let go when their soul-sister(s) pay a visit. There is a “pull”, beyond rational explanation, drawing us to the places where we most naturally belong. (A stronger form of “sympathetic” magic, I can’t really imagine).
The second site of the morning, at Cullerlie, is, again, a journey of 20 minutes and 1000 years. In the 2000 years between Aquorthies and Cullerlie, something, so fundamental, changed, that the group would have no difficulty in identifying it.
Surprisingly, we were met by an “old friend” (it wasn’t till much later that I realised how ridiculous this thought was). Anubis’ “stand-in” had met and escorted me to the site some 20 years prior, in much the same way that he met and escorted the group.
Lesson 9: The “closer of the gate” becomes the Priestly figure, once the Goddess has been removed.
Lesson 10: The officiating Priestess, stands in the “place of the dead”, once the Goddess has been removed.
Lesson 11: you spin me round… a: Dominion rotates counterclockwise by 90º. b: God claims dominion by moving through the reverse path of the equinox. c: Goddess surrenders dominion by falling in the direction of the setting “Winter” Solstice Moon. d: “Man”, elevated, completes the triangle.
Lesson 12: The “world of the dead” is male. The “world of the living” is female.
Lesson 13: The “dis”-ease of the charnel ground persists. (for at least 2000 years after it is no longer in use).
Lesson 14: Though attractive to the Shamanic psyche, the charnel ground has little to offer the broader community.
The forecast wasn’t all that bad but, heading South, the signs didn’t bode well. The showers seemed to be clumping together, somewhat; and by the time everyone had gathered at the initial meeting place, the gaps between clumps were becoming fewer and shorter.
They appeared to be a hardy bunch, however, and we headed up to the first stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies. Everything seemed to ease for a while, in the car park at least, as boots were donned and sou’westers affixed. Off we trotted along the track.
As the group found their natural places in the circle, the heavens, literally, opened. Thinking it “just a shower” I pushed on…
Then the wind got up. Is that hail? … and on…
I swear that was a flurry of snow… and on…
By the time I realised that the assemblage was likely not warmed by the rather dry delivery of a bunch of “facts” and “fact-ion”, by which I intended to establish the tone of the weekend, it was too late.
My boots were sodden filled and would remain so the entire weekend.
The thing is.
I was having WAY too much fun, and learning WAY too much, even in the first few moments of trailing a large group up to the stone circle with which I am probably most familiar. The group opened up a whole new dynamic with which to explore, questions to ask (and be answered), and they were all playing along wonderfully.
You see, these places ARE group spaces. Investigating, poking around, and evaluating a stone circle alone, or with a few people, is merely an exercise in logic, science, and (so-called) pseudo-scientific thinking, and, ultimately, is a rather dry, flaccid task in exercising the brain matter. As a group space, it is all but impossible to realise the bigger picture in one sitting.
With a larger group, everything changes…
Lesson 1: “Manly men” really don’t belong here. Their big logical brains encroach too heavily into the lightness of the space. Their scent intrudes, their footsteps, hard and heavy, fall rudely in the space between the shadows, and the magic barely penetrates their armour of practical scientism. The nice thing about this group is that all the men are open-minded, open-hearted, seekers of things beyond the mere rational senses. The circle, singing, welcomes them…
Lesson 2: Nevertheless. The “places”, which “call” to them, intrigue me. The “place of power”, the “winter place”, and the “gate of closing”. Whilst, in hindsight, this is very much as it should be, at the time it felt odd that they would so readily fall into these specific places. As a “women’s” space, these places would have been taken by the “elder” women, those charged with “control”, “observation”, and “guardianship”. That it was the men who automatically gravitated to these places, despite the numerous women within the group more than capable of holding these stations, may say more about 21st century “expected” “power” dynamic than that the women present felt incapable of holding these positions.
Lesson 3: Well, more of a confirmation requiring a larger number than I’d normally manage to muster, really. The acoustics, in this one circle, is beyond my wildest imagining. Having never had the opportunity to properly test it before, I really didn’t know what to expect. Hunkering down, wind and horizontal rain slowly filling my breeches, “Can you hear me?” is met with eager (well, I say eager – they may have hoped that I’d take the rain as a hint to leave) nods. Standing up, I have to SHOUT to be heard through the onslaught of Scotland’s finest mist…
Lesson 4: Irrespective of how many seasons you throw at them, a committed group will remain… and may even linger…
~~~ Part One of the Solstice of the Moon series.
This series of posts outlines personal “discoveries” during a walking weekend organised by The Silent Eye (A Modern Mystery School). (Could it really have been 2017?:o)
Love this little tale of a socially distanced picnic at a socially distanced stone, and Kirsty’s imagined history.
From the Canmore information: strange that the stone’s 1855 name appears to have been lost in less than a generation. Gouklan – Gowk’s lann – “Fool’s enclosure” seems befitting the larger structure noted in 1855. “Druid’s Stone” seems way too generic for such a beauty!
“You’ll probably be disappointed when you see it”, said Meg. I assured her that was not going to be the case; I was very much looking forward to our outing and the object of this walk.
We were a small group comprising myself and my brother, my sister-in-law and 11-year-old niece, and my sister-in-law’s parents. An intergenerational group. I was the only one of the group who had never been to our destination before, so I was being taken by five guides.
We walked from the house. It was late morning on a warm summers’ day when we stepped out onto the tarmacked pavement, carrying rucksacks or bags containing food and drink for a picnic. We walked north. After passing a neat row of houses we were out of the town, following the road up a gentle hill.
After a short distance, another road branched off to our left and…