Two journeys, one destination (8) : the thousand-year fingers

Despite the world of the Picts being so far away in time, there was one man who reached back and ‘touched’ their minds with a language they shared… Art

(A ten minute read, 1300 words)

(Above: George Bain)

He looked, once again, at the beautiful rendering of belief and life and…. everything. Once more, he was swept away by a sense of identity with what he saw–what he felt. He knew he understood how they had created it… and he felt a connection to why they had created it.

He was determined to do it his way… and ‘his way’ was art. He picked up his stump of a pencil and let his fingers approach the circle he had drawn earlier on the graph paper. Across the internal horizon of the figure were seven dots. He hovered his pencil tip over the sixth, wondering how well he could render the curve needed. He’d had plenty of practice. He was, after all, a successful artist.

He was so wrapped up in this that his pipe rotated in his mouth – through lack of firmness of his jaw muscles. He smiled, as though sharing a joke with them…

“Not helpful,” he muttered, reflecting how much easier it was to speak with the pipe the right way up. “But I’m glad you’re here, all the same…”

(Above: gently and with precision, George Bain drew the first of his recreations of Pictish art.. The journey had begun)

(Above: George Bain worked entirely by hand, and was seldom without his pipe and his trusty ruler)

George Bain was born in Scrabster, Thurso’s port in Caithness, in 1881. Throughout his life – he travelled and worked in many places – he always stressed that he was a ‘Caithness man.’

Having journeyed up that beautiful coast on our way to Orkney – ironically via the ferry at Scrabster – I can understand why.

George Bain’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was nine. There, he studied at Edinburgh School of Applied Art, then Edinburgh College of Art. In 1902 he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he supported himself by working as a freelance newspaper artist and a magazine illustrator.

After serving in the First World War as a Royal Engineer, he taught art at Kirkcaldy High School, and remained there as Principal Teacher of Art until he retired in 1946. As a watercolour artist, he is best known for his landscapes. He painted his native Scotland, Greece and the Balkans, and held successful international exhibitions in Paris and London.

If he was restless, it was because he had a deeper fascination which was harder to fulfil – penetrating the art of the Picts, which, at that time, was not well known and even less understood.

(Above: this reproduction of a small roundel, created by George Bain, was based on an original Insular piece only 1.5 inches across)

I have remarked before in this series of posts that when I saw a Pictish design up close for the first time, I felt just as I had when I first encountered Egyptian art. It’s an emotional experience and reminds you that there is a real power there. Art has has an ability – like symbols – to convey something deeper than the surface shape. In a sense it still ‘speaks’ – even after a thousand years. We may not comprehend it, but we can share it…

Beyond his watercolours, George Bain made it his life’s work to understand how the Picts had created their decorative art: to unravel its geometric principles and the actual techniques used to create their complex patterns. There was nothing primitive about the Picts’ designs, and by inference, their social and spiritual beliefs.

(Above: George Bains’ drawings of the evolution of the Pictish three-coil spiral)

The Picts’ work survives only in stone, but (as we have covered in previous posts) the monastic ‘Celtic’ world was closely connected across Scotland, Ireland (‘Insular’ art), Cornwall and Brittany, and there were many related examples of jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. The Celtic worlds comprised the Western fringes of the old world.

We were to see how influential that old world was when we reached Orkney…

George Bain unravelled the mathematical frameworks for constructing Celtic art. He ‘decoded’ and reproduced hundreds of examples. It enabled those who read his books to not only understand the art of their forebears, but also to have a go at creating examples of their own. In this he was unique, and it earned him a special place in Scotland’s history – and a place in the hearts of those artists and lay-folk who longed to understand the principles on which Pictish art – and Celtic art in general – was based.

(Above: an example of George Bain’s detailed work. This is the opening page of the Book of Kells’ section on St John’s Gospel, reproduced by the artist, with illustrative notes as to how it was created)

The act of producing authentic designs based upon an historical model requires a deeply focussed mind and a set of refined draughting skills. George Bain produced his classic work Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951. Initially, the work did not receive a lot of attention, but when it was re-issued in 1971 it caught the enthusiasm for Celtic revival prevalent among young people at that time, and the book has been in print ever since. Creative people of all walks of life were receptive to ‘having a go’ and Bain’s scholarly yet accessible methods became necessary reading to anyone who wanted experiential knowledge of a ‘drawn form’ that had fascinated the world for a century or more.

Our brief time in the company of this man’s works had not been wasted. We all wished that it could have been longer, but the Covid restrictions were in force and we understood the need to honour our departure time.

But we now had a feel, if not the details, of how expertly and geometrically the Picts had wrought their works. Knowing them through George Bain’s efforts, we each would have liked to pick up a pencil and play at Pictish art… exactly as he would have wished.

(Above: More of George Bain’s hand-drawn expositions of classic books)

By all accounts, he was not an easy man to get along with, but he was devoted to his teaching work. His mistrust of academics might have been the scarring of years of dismissal by those who felt that a ‘mere artist’ had little to add to the study of ancient history. How wrong they would have been!

George Bain died in 1968, age 87. He had and has a large following. His writings opened up the intricacies of an ancient civilisation to a wider public, encouraging exploration of, amongst others, The Book of Kells, Celtic Knotwork, the Pictish Stones, themselves, and the Book of Durrow. One of the main reasons for Bain’s success was his practical encouragement for fellow artists to use Celtic principles in their craftwork.

The lasting memory I took away from Groam House Museum, which houses the George Bain exhibit, was the memorial he designed for the grave of his wife, Jessie Mackintosh – the image above. Theirs was a deep love and they were inseparable. He was devastated when she died, tragically and prematurely, in 1957. In the memorial, he represented himself in Celtic style, and the entire work was created according to the principles he had learned in his Pictish studies.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

This is Part Eight.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

“Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!”

In the film ‘No Country for Old Men’, there’s a famous opening scene at the site of a drugs shoot-out. Everyone’s dead when the local Sheriff and his deputy arrive and start wandering through the bodies as though they were in a Spaghetti Western.

The Deputy stays silent for a long time, then says excitedly, “Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!”. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks askance at his junior and replies, as only Tommy Lee Jones can, “Well, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till a real mess comes along…’

As you can tell, I think the scene is priceless. It somehow ‘enables’ the rest of what is, otherwise, a very dark movie–but brilliantly told.

I seldom revisit it, but sometimes, if I do something stupid enough, I can hear Sheriff Bell’s words in my head…

As I began to recount the story of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekends, I found the episodes were so full of detail that I had slipped over my target 1000-1300 words. When you write often, you can gauge, almost immediately, when you’ve overcooked something – and you are asking an unreasonable degree of reading from those wonderful souls who follow you.

After the third post, I had already written the next two. When I examined them, they were each twice as long as my new target of approximately 1000 words.

So I cut them in half…

That meant I had four posts lined up in the WordPress firing chamber.

And this is where, as Gerard Hoffnung once said, in his famous and hilarious Bricklayer’s Story, ‘I may have lost my presence of mind…’

Last Thursday, forgetting I’d halved them, I published the post of our triumphant arrival at Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, and missed out the post that should have preceded it.

So, by way of recompense, here it is…

It’s a fine mess, but hopefully, it’ll do till a real mess comes along...

The Shandwick and Nigg Pictish Crosses

I suspect there’s a certain amount of suspicion – quite justified as it turns out – about how smoothly our workshops go. A sense of ‘they couldn’t possibly have fitted all that into one day, for heavens sake…’

But, so far, on the Saturday of this Pictish Trial weekend, we had.

We’d had the pleasure of seeing the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which time had not permitted on the prep visit, the previous year. Now, the amazed look on the faces of the visitors as we arrived at the glass-housed beauty that is the Shadwick Stone said it all…

Clach a’Charrridh (Shandwick stone) means stone of the grave plots, and was named so after the area was used as a burial-ground during the 1832 cholera epidermic. It’s on the Fearn Peninsula, about a mile from the Hilton Cadboll site, and sits on the crest of the ridge, visible from the sea.

The cross slab has stood majestically overlooking the Moray Firth for over 1000 years. Its present site is where it has always been. There is something wonderful about standing there and knowing that.

Here, I met the first problem: the smoked glass. For me, there is a joy in bringing back images that I know will generate interest. But, at Shandwick, every time I took a shot, all I could see was the reflection of me and the landscape in the glass.

(Above: the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsula is the location for these famous Pictish stones)

I took myself off to one side to try with the editing tools to see if what I had taken was salvageable. As long as I could live with a little colour distortion they would be fine. I returned to snapping…

The thick glass serves a purpose, and it’s wonderful to see these precious artefacts so well protected. The glass and steel housing is locked. You can go inside, but only by appointment with a key holder. And not in the year of Covid-19.

The landward side of the slab is set out in eight panels. They contain a range of symbols. The top panel once had a finely decorated Pictish double disc on it. The central panel contains a hectic scene of Pictish life, with birds, beasts and human figures.

A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may also be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed above animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes or serpents. The designers 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 Northumbria and Ireland.

This Pictish sculptured stone was carved and erected about 1200 years ago. The stone was presumably quarried from the local cliffs in about 780 A.D. It was moved here using ropes, timber rollers and levers, or possibly a cart. The blocks of pattern were marked out and carved using a hammer and iron chisel.

Such a complicated design using a single motif is unusual. Yet it also occurs as a panel on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and fragments from Tarbat. It is speculated there was a school of sculpture in the area specialising in this style.

(Above: the sides are decorated, too)

(Above: the ‘trinity’ symbol in a Pictish form. The often recurring ‘three as one’ glyph will be familiar to many, and shows the depth of spiritual thought possessed by the Picts)

Our afternoon was passing, fast. Our next stop, the small town of Nigg, is famous for its connection to the North Sea Oil business, which is now diminishing. Back up the hill from the oil terminals is a lovely old church which houses the famous Nigg Stone. It’s run by volunteers, but the website, checked that morning on my phone, said it would be open.

The Nigg Stone is displayed inside Nigg old church in a specially created exhibition area. Admired and studied by scholars from all over the world, its ornamental cross resembles a manuscript page. The fantastic intricacy of the carving, the whorls and spirals, and the heaped up knot of snakes, with tails and tongues endlessly intertwining, is said to be paralleled only in the illuminations of the Great Gospel book of Kells.

Unfortunately, when we got to the door, it was locked…

(Above: Nigg’s ancient and beautiful church… sadly closed)

However…. Sue Vincent is celebrated on the Silent Eye weekends for fearlessly reaching up on tip-toes and sticking her camera lens up against the glass, then pressing away, merrily, to see what she can capture. I thought of her as I jammed my iPhone as close as I dared and took a few exploratory shots. When the results looked interesting, I wiped a tissue on the grass to wet it, cleaned the promising spot on the windows and hit the shutter again.

(Above: the ‘stolen shot’ of the Nigg Stone. It’s long way from perfect, but, given the church was closed, it’s a lot better than nothing… The metal bracket is not vandalism, it was custom-made to fit into an eroded gap in the stone (see below), and also to hold the slab-cross in place in its tiny museum)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is nigg-stone-colour.jpg

(Above: One we took earlier, thankfully! The high quality image of the Nigg Stone at the Tarbat Discovery Centre partly makes up for Nigg Church being closed)

The carvings include a unique illustration of a miracle: the first monks, Paul and Anthony, receiving bread in the desert from a raven sent by God, and David: King and Psalmist saving a sheep from the lion, his harp beside his shoulder.

We had completed our Tarbat Peninsula visits. We dashed down to the shore to show our visitors the dramatic Cromarty Firth, then headed off to the final assignment of the day – Rosemarkie, where one of the most wonderful surprises awaited…

Above: the ferocious Cromarty Firth. Majestic and fearsome. Across this, but not literally (as the ferry wasn’t running!) lies The Black Isle, our final destination for the Saturday, before returning to Inverness.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, This is Part Six, Part Seven (Rosemarkie)

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Mellow moods for Autumn (4) : by the river

Autumn is a beautiful time in the Lune Valley…

The River Lune rises in the gentle hills of the Eden Valley, in Cumbria, the last western county before you cross the border into Scotland. It flows for 53 miles in long curves, defining a series of beautiful valleys.

It’s most scenic section is where it passes a few hundred metres from the centre of Kirkby Lonsdale, a 13th century market town, famed for its wealth of history and surviving stone dwellings – and also the still-standing Devil’s Bridge, which used to be the main highway into West Yorkshire and offers one of the most photographed views in Cumbria.

This beech tree lives just above the banks of the Lune, on the footpath to the ‘dreaded’ Radical Steps…

…whose 99 blocks of uneven stone challenge the visitor to ascend from the level of the river to Ruskin’s View – photographed, here, in summer.

And from here, the entire curve of the River Lune’s passing can be seen. It’s an ascent best attempted in dry weather… But worth it for the view.

There are other views… The many excellent restaurants strive to outdo each other with seasonal delights…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a personally-mentored, distance learning course in the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the individual soul.

Two journeys, one destination (7) : Rosemarkie, the Black Isle

The continuing story of the ‘Pictish Trail’, the Silent Eye’s workshop in the far north-east of Scotland. We encounter the best Pictish stone at close quarters… (A ten minute read, 1100 words)

Our final visit of the Saturday was to Rosemarkie, a beautiful village on the Black Isle, whose seafront looks south across the vastness of the Moray Firth.

Rosemarkie was also home to a Pictish Monastery. This is now celebrated by the presence of an excellent local museum – close to the site of the original church. Groam House Museum highlights and celebrates the Pictish connection.

Outside the Groam House Museum is a set of mounted mosaics based on Pictish designs. Several had attached folk tales. One in particular caught my eye as we were entering Groam House. It is called ‘The story of the salmon and the hazelnuts’.

‘There is a mythical tale that hazelnuts are believed to be the source of great wisdom.

‘The story tells of a deep dark pool surrounded by hazel trees. In the pool lives a salmon who loves to eat the hazelnuts as they fall from the trees. It said that whoever catches this salmon and eats his flesh will become the wisest person in the world.’

Nothing else, just those words… But they reminded me of one of W. B, Yeats’ mystical poems, ‘Wandering Aengus’, in which a man stops by a river and fashions himself a fishing rod from the branch of a (magical) Hazel tree. For bait he used a berry. What he catches changes his world, and fills him with a purpose that turns the rest of his life into a quest… Follow the link to read the poem.

Smiling at the connection, I entered Groam House Museum, where we were to find our own ‘catch’ of treasures.

The previous stops had left us all with a sense of wonder at the artistic skills of the Pictish craftsman. We had joked that each person, at some stage in the day, had been found with their head ‘at an angle’ trying to figure out the geometric patterns in the stonework. Yet, nowhere had we found an explanation of the complex geometries used in their construction.

The Groam House Museum is devoted to the Pictish relics found on the excavated site of the former church, itself built on the 7th century foundations of another Pictish monastery; though one smaller than that at Portmahomack.

The Groam House exhibits are centred on the giant ‘Rosemarkie Stone (above and below), a classic Type Two cross-slab over twelve feet high, with Christian markings on one side, and more mysterious and ancient Pictish carvings on the other. At the time of their carving, both the traditions were embraced by the Picts, and hence the use of the double design. Archeologists remark that with the Christian faith dominating the world to the south of Easter-Ross, the Picts may have been hedging their bets!

(Above: the reverse, Christianised face is less distinct due to weathering, but the illustrative drawing, below, helps)

The hand-drawn Illustration of both its faces, below, is taken (via Wikipedia) from Angus J Beaton’s Illustrated Guide to Fortrose and Vicinity, published in Inverness in 1885.

The Rosemarkie stone is carved from fine-grained sandstone. It was disovered in the first two decades of the 19th century in the floor of the old church in the village of Rosemarkie. The stone had been broken into two parts that have since been reconstructed.

The Christianised side is elaborately carved. The reverse side carvings include a double disc and z-rod, and no less than three crescents and v-rods. It is unique to find this repetition of a symbol, and must indicate a local emphasis of whatever it signifies.

(Above: Tree vine and grapes; a Pictish representation of Christ and his Disciples, though the original meaning of may pre-date Christianity)

There are other treasures at Groam House. Rosemarkie’s first stone church became a place of pilgrimage. The sculptured slab above could reflect such a role as one side of a stone shrine – a box that would have held a few bones of a revered saint.

(Above right: St Curadan)

Rosemarkie is generally linked to Saint Curadan, one of the bishops who witnessed St Adnoman’s Law of the Innocents, in 697 AD. This was the first declaration of rights for the safety of women and children during warfare. It was signed by representatives of Christian kingships across the British Isles at a meeting in Ireland. But there is also a story linking the church to Saint Moluag, whose monastic focus was on the west coast, on Lismore. He died in 592 AD. Some of his bones were brought here during the troubled 800s. It was at this time that Saint Columba’s relics were taken from Iona to Dunkeld.

The vine carving was done around 100 years later, at a time when Christianity had become the entire basis of the Picts’ religion. It represents a tree vine with grapes, symbolising Christ’s disciples, his blood and salvation. The imagery is just right for a shrine – perhaps the stone box was prepared for relics of Saint Curadan?

Sadly, the main Groam House exhibits made no mention of how the Pictish works were created, in terms of geometric principles. At that point, I had completed my circuit of the ground floor and was back near the door. My eye was taken by a colourful picture on one side of the notice board. Enquiring, I learned it was of St John, and created by a Scottish artist who had specialised in the reconstruction of Pictish geometry…

I must have looked disbelieving because the guide, smiling, pointed upwards. “We have two floors,” he said. “The upper one is dedicated to the work of George Bain, the man who gave us the keys to the art of the Picts…”

It had been a long day, with a small amount of sustenance. My legs were a touch weary as I climbed the steep stairway to what looked like an extended attic. But what we saw, waiting in that upper floor was refreshment enough…

Forty minutes later, our pre-booked time came to an end. The manager and guide of Groam House had extended it for as long as he dared. Mercifully, the cafe we knew on the seashore was still open, and, as the afternoon light began to fade, we were finally able to have some coffee…. and a little cake.

Next week I will recount the discoveries of that forty minutes and the sheer excitement of seeing the art of the Picts decoded…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

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

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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

Bridges of Stone and Heart

The emotional story of an unusual wartime chapel on Orkney reveals a different type of heroism… and hope. (A ten-minute read, 1400 words).

(Above: the waters of Scapa Flow have not always been so calm…)

Shortly after midnight on the 14th October, 1939, a German U-boat, U-47, passed unseen into the vast and hitherto safe waters of Orkney’s Scapa Flow, the base of the British Fleet, and sank the Battleship HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 834 men. So convinced were the navy that Scapa Flow was impregnable, that over an hour passed before it was realised that the attack had come from the water…

(Above: the doomed HMS Royal Oak. Source Wikipedia, Public Domain)

“The place where the German U-boat sank the British battleship Royal Oak was none other than the middle of Scapa Flow, Britain’s greatest naval base! It sounds incredible…” William L Shirer, journalist, 18 October 1939.

Until that point, the great internal seaway of Scapa Flow had been considered safe waters for the fleet, its narrow entrances already reinforced with an assortment of deliberately sunken, retired merchant ships known as ‘Blockships’. Winston Churchill, soon to be Prime Minister, visited Orkney to inspect the defences in the light of their failure. His naval engineers determined that the integrity of the waters of Scapa Flow could not be guaranteed without a process of sealing off the eastern entrances of the waterway.

(Above: even stranger craft now occupy the centre of Scapa Flow)

The Admiralty concluded that, to make Scapa Flow safe as a continued refuge and harbour for the fleet, they would have to seal off the open waterways between the Orkney ‘mainland’ and the southern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsway. The causeways or ‘Churchill Barriers’ required were the subject of a major civil engineering project awarded to Balfour Beatty.

(Above: the early stages of one of the main ‘Churchill Barriers’ shows the severity of the working conditions. The water was freezing and could be up to 70ft deep. An enormous degree of land and sub-sea engineering was required. A private railway line was constructed to supply the massive project)

At first, the contractor’s own workers were employed, but the terrible conditions caused most of them to leave. It was proposed that Italian men from the two local Prisoner of War (POW) camps would be commissioned to take over. This was not without its legal (human rights) difficulties and the Italian POWs only agreed on the basis that it would benefit the local people, many of whom had been kind to them and regularly purchased the trinkets and jewellery they made from scrap materials.

(Above: this and other b/w pictures are from the site’s information board)

The Italians were resourceful men. Many had been captured at the British desert victory at Tobruk, and were engineering-trained tank commanders and crew. They missed their homes and felt deeply isolated so far north. They constructed a small concert stage, on which they would entertain locals and other POWs from afar with their own band.

(Above: a wise and considerate Major Buckland eased the Italian POWs into their hard roles as constructors of the Churchill Barriers. Granting them their own chapel was a major part of that agreement)

(Above: a wartime photograph shows how primitive was the accommodation within the Italian POW camp. Despite this, a magnificent place of worship was created)

When, despite the horrific working conditions, the Churchill Barrier project was seen to be progressing, the Italian men asked to be able to construct their own chapel. The British POW Camp Commandant, Major T.P. Buckland, spoke Italian and had formed a good working relationship with his charges. He agreed to supply them with two Nissen huts, originally on the basis that one would become a school, the other their chapel. In the event, the church became so well attended that both huts were used in its enlarged construction.

(Above: the front of the Italian Chapel. From here, we can show modern images in colour, for the Orcadian authorities, and the people of this beautiful archipelago, honoured their pledge to look after the beloved chapel, in perpetuity)

On September 30, 1943, the Italians got their own priest. Padre Gioachino Cobazzi of the Order of Little Brothers, arrived at the camp to take up the role. One of the POWs, Dominico Chiochetti, an artist, became a leading light in the design of the new chapel.

His first project, which had preceded the chapel, had been to construct a statue of St George Slaying the Dragon, which presided over the POW camp’s ‘square’.

He gathered together a team of craftsmen and began work on a sanctuary–the first stage of the church.

It was at this point that local people began to refer to the emerging building as ‘The miracle of Camp 60’. They watched, emotionally involved, as Chiochetti’s creative magic began to transform the ugly piece of land in which the POWs lived.

As each new section of the emerging chapel was erected and decorated, so the remaining space looked drab – and more and more volunteers arrived to speed up its completion. Soon it was decided to beautify the whole of the interior.

(Above: how to beautify a plain ceiling)

The ceiling features painted relief work and wonderfully rendered Evangelists’ symbols of the Four Holy Creatures: Here are to be seen the Holy Bull (St Luke) and Holy Eagle (St John). The other side of the ceiling show the Holy Man (St Matthew) and, finally, the Holy Lion (St Mark).

Overhead in the east of the chapel (below) is a symbol familiar to mystics as ‘The ascending consciousness of God working through Mankind’.

The Italians’ attitude to such ‘creativity in adversity’ is best described by a fellow prisoner:

“It was the wish to show to oneself first, and then to the world, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed-wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free…”

And then this key sentiment:

“The statue of St George was built first. It shows the patron saint of soldiers ready to kill the Dragon…”

Here the speaker pauses in saying what ‘the Dragon’ symbolised to the POWs and why its slaying was so important to the men imprisoned in the camp.

Chiochetti supervised all the pictorial and decorative work. He also designed the altar, tabernacle, candlesticks, lamps, rood-screen, windows and coloured glass, plus the ornamental woodwork.

All of the work was carried out using the simplest materials, including scrap wood from a wrecked ship. The men also utilised the sculpting of reclaimed concrete!

(Above) The altar is Chiochetti’s masterpiece. It is based on Niccolo Barbino’s Madonna of the Olives, from a small picture given by his mother which he carried with him throughout the war.

Sadly, after such an heroic effort, the chapel was in full use for only a short time. Italy surrendered to the Allies, then, having ousted Mussolini, switched sides in the war. In May 1945, their status being changed, the prisoners were moved to Skipton in Yorkshire for repatriation back to Italy.

Only Chiochetti stayed behind…to finish the font; the final piece on which he was working.

After the war, he returned with his wife to show her the Italian Chapel. Descendants of the Italian POWs still visit and contribute to the church with donations and new objects, such as the stations of the cross, above.

(Above lower) A picture of Chiochetti and his wife visiting the church in 1960. What a moment that must have been for them both…

It is fitting that Orkney has protected and preserved the Italian Chapel. Long before it became a tourist destination, it symbolised the human spirit’s determination to rediscover the core values of love, tolerance and compassion. Orkney stands apart from the rest of Scotland. It is ancient and understands isolation, just as it understood the creation of the Italian Chapel.

The Italian prisoner – quoted in a previous section – finished his sentiments about the statue of St George Slaying the Dragon with the following words:

“It is the symbol of a will to kill all misunderstandings among people of different cultures. As the St George monument was built to express the physical and psychological pain, so was the chapel conceived to meet a spiritual need.”

In a world now ravaged by a different kind of war, I can’t think of a kinder nor more fitting sentiment.

This is part of a series of ‘betweens’ from the Silent Eye’s recent workshops in the Scottish Highlands and Orkney.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Notes: Original colour photos by the author. Black and white historic images photographed from the Information Boards at the sites, unless otherwise stated.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of The Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning course to deepen the personality and align it with the individual Soul.

Mellow Moods for Autumn (3): Heysham shadows

Heysham village is a delightful outlier of old Lancashire…

Its main street curls up from a one-alley access road for a stony shoreline to become a row of beautiful stone cottages that have stood there for hundreds of years.

Near St Peter‘s Church – there since Anglo-Saxon times, the road bends and climbs. This cottage dominates the corner; and today, the light and the shadows it cast were perfect for a monochrome shot.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is A Director of The Silent Eye, a distance-learning school for the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the individual soul.

Two journeys, one destination (6) : a Pictish horizon

With the wonderful Portmahomack behind us, it was time to meet the three Pictish stones that marked the horizon line of the Tarbat Peninsula. These would originally have been visible from the sea, and boats approaching from the Moray Firth would have known they were approaching sacred Pictish land – centred on the monastery at Portmahomack.

On this second day of the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail weekend, our plan was to work our way back from Portmahomack along the spine of the Tarbat Peninsula towards Inverness, viewing each of the major standing stones and ending with a visit to Rosemarkie – across the Cromarty Firth on the Black Isle.

Our first stop was at Balintore, a village that looks out over the Moray Firth. There, we saw signs for the nearby Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. I was eager to see this famous stone, about which we had read so much in the Tarbat Discovery Centre. I knew a little of its history, but the truth was to be more fascinating than I could have envisaged…

This Pictish stone at Hilton Cadboll was created at the Portmahomack Monastery to the classic design of a what we now call a Pictish Class II cross-slab. One side would have contained symbols from the older Celtic (pre-Christian) religion, mixed with local glyphs of the sponsoring family. The other would contain Christian iconography.

The cross-slab was erected here in about AD 800. Sadly, it broke soon after, under the pressure of high winds. The stone was re-erected, on the same spot; the lower portion being buried to form a new base. It broke again in 1674, and a further section was left in the ground. This beautiful stone has not enjoyed a happy history…

In about 1676 the entire Christian cross-face was chipped off by a local laird to create a family grave slab! By 1780 the surviving half of the stone was recorded as being near the ruins of a now-vanished chapel which is presumed to be located under the mound of earth next to the present stone.

(Above: the mound that covers the ancient church and, possibly its hamlet)

100 years later the stone endured a somewhat ‘political’ journey via Invergordon Castle and the British Museum to be returned to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the original is now located.

The local people were not happy at the loss of their precious stone, but accepted that it was now safe from harm and, at least, back in Scotland. Its original base and thousands of broken fragments were extracted from the site in 2001. But the local population were so supportive of their folk-history, they paid for a magnificent replica to be carved, in situ, over a five year period. The work was carried out by local sculptor Barry Grove.

(Above: the seaward-facing side of the Hilton Cadboll slab-cross. This was re-created by the sculptor using his knowledge of similar stones)

Barry says of the reconstructed stone:

“No Pictish tools survive. At our Iron Age bonecarving workshop, Jim Glazzard used a Viking tool box as his basis for the iron tools. The Hilton of Cadboll stone also provided some evidence. It snapped and blew over several centuries ago, and the remains of the base and lower areas of carving became buried.”

Remarkably, during an excavation taking place prior to the erection of Barry Grove’s replica, the original base (from AD 800) was found preserved by the soil – which also revealed the nature of the Pictish carver’s chisel marks. This provided the sculptor with a basis of authentic design and technique for the reconstruction of the missing cross face. Using what he had as clues, Barry Groves spent a month on the design, then began what would be five years of stone carving. The rediscovered original base has a secure home in the local Seaboard Memorial Hall in Balintore. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit.

It’s a remarkable story of a small community succeeding against the odds…

(Above: the upper face of the ‘Celtic’ Pictish design, showing a noble woman leading a hunt, which includes several men in the group on foot. This is deemed to show her superiority. She may well have been the sponsor of the Hilton of Cadboll stone. Above the hunt scene, the upper face contains the traditional twin discs and ‘V-Rod’ design, which will be commented on later in the post.

Standing before the ‘restored’ Hilton Cadboll cross-slab is a profound experience. You can view the stone as original Pictish ancestors would have seen it over 800 years ago. Standing in front of it in the sunshine, with the sea at your back, is quite an experience…and freely given. There is no charge.

It is believed that all such stones were originally painted. The image below shows how the centre section of the Hilton Cadboll cross slab would have originally looked. The use of colour makes the symbols a lot more ‘familiar’.

But what of the Pictish symbols, such as the ‘V-Rod’ and the twin discs, both of which feature on the Hilton of Cadboll stone? It is unlikely that we will ever find a ‘Rosetta stone’ that gives a word for word translation. But there’s nothing stopping us looking at the symbols and letting our conscious (and possibly subconscious) minds having a go…

Symbols are universal. If they ‘speak’ to us, then there’s a reason. We can relax and let them share what they are. We don’t have to be archeologists to sit with the symbol and let it talk. If we take a child’s approach and ‘say what we see’, then insights can happen.

Take the upper symbol above – the V-Rod. When I did this, earlier, the two halves of the rod suggested an arrow. But it’s not broken in two, just bent… at what looks like a precise angle; a little greater than 90 degrees. Lets take a guess and examine what 100 degrees looks like:

That looks quite close… So, as fingers have been around for a long time, and the Picts clearly had a strong grasp of numbers and geometry, we could say that the V-Rod might represent 10×10 fingers – or ten ‘men’. The arrow may indicate that they were warriors, so we have ten warriors, which may have had symbolic significance. It might have been short form for an army, for example.

The crescent looks moon-like to me, but it might also present the bowl of the heavens. Also, it seems to contain waves. This might alter the overall interpretation of the symbol. Also, the lower curves in the crescent remind me of the bowed shape of a sail. We might be looking at sailing warriors, then. Masters of the craft of sailing long distances, possibly using the moon or stars for stealthy navigation? Or perhaps the moon is simply a symbol for the sea, with which it is intimately connected?

I’d better go no further with this, as I seem to be making a good case for one of the leading families being Viking!

My specifics may all be baseless, but it’s the kind of open-minded approach that can bring novel insights. But we should move on… We had a timed entry at the museum in Rosemarkie, due to Covid restrictions, and we’d yet to visit Shandwick and Nigg.

The Hilton Cadboll stone is a dream to photograph…unlike our next location; which is a classic example of an intact Pictish cross-slab that has stood in its original position for over a thousand years…

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

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

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

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.

Stromness by night

A series of short ‘betweens’ from the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ and ‘Ancient Orkney’ workshops.

We’re having an after dinner walk along the night streets of Stromness, Orkney’s main ferry port and link with Scotland. My wife and I have stayed here once before. The ‘Ancient Orkney’ part of this Silent Eye trip has been so packed with exploring that this may be our only chance to wander along this fondly-remembered, but slightly deadly, ‘main’ road. Most of the shops are here, too; somehow squeezed and slotted into the irregular and curving stone contours.

I agree; it doesn’t look like a highway, but it is…

Orkney is an archipelago of islands, some connected by bridges, others by ferries of various sizes. Stromness is the main port for the west of the ‘Mainland’, as the largest island is called, and welcomes the majority of foot and car passengers coming to Orkney from Thurso’s port Scrabster, at the north-eastern tip of Scotland.

The historic main street is an organic and historic lane that curls and winds just behind the entire length of the seafront. It’s not even one-way, so vehicles and pedestrians are often to be seen doing a well- practiced dance of mutual avoidance…

It’s etched into the town’s history, and I suspect a badge of local pride, that, in 1814, Sir Walter Scott complained that the town couldn’t be navigated with a horse and cart because of the many steps built into the main street. The steps have gone, but were you to visit Stromness on a quiet day, you might feel that little else has changed….

Stromness is the most ‘different’ place I’ve ever been to. This main street (under no less than five different names) stretches for over a mile along the shore of Hamnavoe, an inlet of Scapa Flow protected by the islands of Outer Holm and Inner Holm. Scapa Flow was famously the home of the British Naval Fleet during the two major wars of the last century and has seen triumph and disaster.

The main thoroughfare, under whatever name you’ve reached on your stroll, is criss-crossed by smaller streets, lanes and passageways that on one side climb steeply up Brinkies Brae, the 300ft granite ridge that lies above the town, and on the seaward side, lead between close-packed buildings to the private wharves and docks that seem to lie behind every dwelling.

(Above: the view back to the port is never far away. Detour down any alley and you’ll find it!)

But the historical significance of Stromness does not rely solely on times of war. It featured strongly in the exploration of the northern seas, the Arctic and the relentless search for the Northwest Passage; the sought-after link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For centuries, ships heading north had made Stromness their final supply point before braving the increasingly icy waters beyond.

(Above) The main street finally emerges into a small water-side park area from which you can look back and see the whole of the port. We turned round, here. It had been a long day, and we needed to have an early start for what would be the final full day of the Orkney trip.

Returning the way we came, we emerged opposite the main dock of the ferry port from which we would, later in the week, sail back to Thurso on the Scottish mainland.

The town square opposite the main ferry dock (above) is home to one of Orkney’s proudest monuments – that of the explorer Dr John Rae. We were nearly back at our hotel, but stopped to review the story of this local hero.

(Above: Dr John Rae 1846-1854, Artic explorer. Portrayed in native Canadian Inuit dress)

Dr John Rae was born to a prosperous family on the Orkney island of Orphir. He became a respected surgeon and accepted an offer to accompany expeditions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, learning from the native people how to survive in the Canadian Arctic. He led three of the four expeditions in which he took part, travelling an astonishing 3,645 miles on foot and 6,700 miles by boat while tracing 1,765 miles of unknown Arctic coastline.

(Above: the routes of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic)

In 1854, he discovered Rae Strait, the last link in the first navigable Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Sadly, Rae’s reputation was damaged when, having examined the skeletons of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, in which all had perished, he pronounced, correctly, that the starving officers had resorted to cannibalism of the dead in order to try to survive.

The comments, though subsequently proved to be true, were vilified in the press and within the Admiralty. Franklin’s widow encouraged Charles Dickens to write about the conditions faced by Franklin’s crew in a way that scorned Dr Rae’s accurate findings.

Dr Rae was also disliked because he learned many of his survival techniques from the native Inuit people, with whom he mixed extensively. Despite discovering the final part of the Northwest Passage, Rae was never honoured with the usual recognition: a knighthood. Yet two of the senior officers of the failed Franklin expedition were posthumously knighted…

Dr John Rae’s reputation has been slowly reinstated by a determined local group on Orkney. His body is buried and honoured in the magnificent St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital.

St Magnus’s Cathedral was originally a Viking Christian building. The monument was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of Dr Rae’s birth.

Stromness is a pleasant and unassuming town. You wouldn’t think that it is a mere ten minutes by car from what was once the centre of a Neolithic civilisation with monuments more important than Stonehenge. The details of this will be covered in the normal sequence on the Silent Eye website: as posts entitled ‘Two journeys, one destination’.

©️Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning organisation that offers a three-year journey of deepening the personality and aligning it with the soul.

Mellow moods for Autumn (2) The Secret Path

There are three ways back from the centre of Kirkby Lonsdale to Devil’s Bridge, where most visitors park their cars, if they’re just there for the views and, possibly, a coffee.

There’s the river path, itself, with the steep descent down Mill Brow to the Lune Valley; there’s the main street out of the town to the south; and there’s this – the tree-lined path that takes a while to find if you’re new to the town. It’s an ancient way, and cuts right through the town centre, running, unseen, behind the main street until it reaches St. Mary’s Church.

It’s long, mysterious and quite wonderful. And, halfway down its gradual slope, there’s this tree…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning school for the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the soul.

Two journeys, one destination (5) : blood and stone

Writing without the other hand to steady him was hard, but the other was clamped on his thigh, holding back the flow of blood.

The words on the vellum were like the wanderings of a dying bird… he smiled at the thought, despite the pain. Through eyes filled with hot and salty water he read what he had written:

‘They came at the end of the night, as the first light of day was seeping into the darkness. Four longships, sixty men or so… the smoke woke us, then the screams, then the stench of blood. When my fellow monks were lined up to face their deaths, the Norsemen began breaking the holy stones.

They are all dead, now. Somehow we escaped, half alive, into the vellum hut; just the master, Patternex, and me. “Write that the talking stones are still here,” my master commanded. “They are scattered but can be reformed..” He did not speak again, but I felt I could still hear his voice. His apprentice gazes at him with love, now, soon to follow him into the quietness.

Do not fear death,’ he taught me. ‘For what gives life brings death, and that brings life, again.’ He’d drawn a strange double curl in the sand, and pointed at the place in the middle where the lines crossed, saying, ‘When you die, you are here.’ His finger had slid sideways then, into the fullness of the other space… wordless, like now.

I have written on this vellum tablet what he… or his spirit, commanded. The red water of life seeps through my fingers and drips down through the timbers of the still-smoking hut. I hope it reaches the sea… ‘It is important that you wrote it,’ he said. ‘It may never be read, but it is of importance that it was written…’

No one knows exactly when the Vikings came to Portmahomack – sometime after AD 800 is the likely date. Skirmishes were frequent, but the final one seems to have been planned to destroy the monastery. The Norsemen did not like the survival of other people’s sacred traditions… Perhaps they feared them? It is ironic, because, having established their new kingdom on the archipelago of Orkney and in the extreme north of the Scottish mainland, they went on to embrace Christianity…

We will meet the Norse Earls of Orkney, soon. But for today, the Silent Eye’s group are studying the restored treasures of what their Norse forebears smashed, as we wander around the artefacts of the Tarbat Discovery Centre, during the last half-hour of our time-restricted visit, due to Covid regulations.

Smashed and scattered…. But the workings of intelligence, and particularly high art, have a habit of being found… It was always known, by the local folk of Portmahomack, that small fragments of carved stones often appeared during ploughing. But then the team from York University arrived, and spent the next few years carefully removing the layers of time, and cataloguing what they they found. There were no surviving large single cross-slabs at Portmahomack, but the excavations produced many fragments of smaller crosses and gravestones, all belonging to Pictish times.

(Above: a large slab grave stone from one of the monastery’s important graves. Above it is the Dragon Stone, found lying next to a wall in the excavated crypt. Below: Some of the important fragments from the monastery’s ancient past.)

(Above: Portmahomack, the regional centre for stone working, did have its own Pictish cross slab, but it was destroyed by Vikings. Only this lower fragment remains…)

The sculptures that stood on the Tarbert Peninsula in the eighth century are amongst the most accomplished anywhere in early mediaeval Europe. The centre of carving was at Portmahomack, where a dozen different monuments were made from the local sandstone. Many were simple grave markers carrying a cross. One was the lid of a great sarcophagus; likely the tomb of an eminent person. The most spectacular were giant cross-slabs set as markers for seafarers along the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas. These were to be our next port of call after Portmahomack.

The cross slab design, type II, was known as the Cross of Christ, it followed a similar pattern on all such Pictish carved slabs. After Portmahomack, we planned to see two of these crosses – at Shandwick and Nigg. If time allowed there might be three…

Above is the Discovery Centre’s large photograph of the Nigg Cross – one of the most important on the coast and a classic of the Cross of Christ type II – Christian cross on one side, and local (and more ancient) symbols on the reverse. Later, I was to give thanks to the impulse that made me photograph it…

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘Z-Rod’ design)

(Above: the grave of an important chieftain was found beneath the crypt. This is a reconstruction!)

There were also at least four monumental crosses which once stood by the early church and at the edge of the monks’ cemetery. A further cross had a dragon on one side and the four apostles on the other – a recurring motif for the later Picts.

(Above: a classic Pictish ‘V-Rod’ design)

Large pieces of these Viking-smashed crosses were built into the foundations of the mediaeval church. Without the York University excavation work, they would never have been re-assembled. The fragments were found scattered over the burnt out rooms of the vellum working area.

(Above: the next stage of our journey mapped out in Pictish symbols – from Portmahomack to Shandwick, then on to Nigg and the Cromarty Firth)

The mysterious symbols, unique to the Picts, may well have represented holy men, warrior chiefs or powerful families associated with the settlements at Portmahomack, Hilton of Cadboll, Shandwick and Nigg. We may never know their real meaning…

(Above: the Pictish Comb and Mirror glyph – a female symbol)

There were almost certainly other ministries founded from Portmahomack in the proximity to the Moray Firth – the Picts’ stronghold. The nearest neighbours lay at Edderton, Rosemarkie and across the Forth of Moray at Burghead. All these have remarkable stone carvings which can still be seen today.

We cannot end the story of our visit to Portmahomack without mentioning two final exhibits: the beautiful metalwork section; and the finding of the ‘Oldest Pict’.

(Above: Sacred vessels and precious jewellery)

During the 7th to 9th centuries A.D. royal residences and ministries, such as Portmahomack, were centres for the production of bronze, silver and gold objects. Here, skilled metal workers created some of the finest treasures ever found in Britain and Ireland.

In order to celebrate the rites of the church, special objects were (and are) required. These included sacred vessels for the Eucharist – for example the chalice for the wine. The manufacture of these required great individual skill, given the simple forging methods of the time. The monastery at Portmahomack was one of the most important metalworking centres in the whole of northern Scotland.

Objects made of precious metals were a mark of status and success. The photo above shows elaborate brooches for use as treasured possessions of the Pictish wealthy.

Sadly, nothing produced by the monastery’s foundry survives. The examples here were made in Celtic Ireland during the same period, and are known to be faithful replicas of common styles across Insular (Irish) and Pictish lands.

We had seen so much, already, and it was only mid-morning…

The group took a break for a coffee and we reflected that there were two regrets. The first was the desire to ‘touch’ the Pictish civilisation in a deeper way – to feel some shared human connection with these civilised and sophisticated forbears. The second was to know the basis of their beautiful, symmetric artwork; to be able to see into the ‘mathematical mind’ of the Picts and see how they conceived and drafted their intricate designs.

Of course there’s no way to meet someone from the 7th century AD..

Or is there? I’m not talking fantasy; flesh, blood and bone do not survive alive… But the bones remain…

The west coast of the Portahomack Peninsula looks out over a vast, sheltered bay towards Dornoch. It’s a peaceful spot, and back in Pictish times, the ridge down the spine of the peninsula was a popular place to be buried. Many of these graves lie within the present village of Portmahomack, and several have been the subject of a careful excavation. The Discovery Centre has a fascinating section on ‘Our Earliest Pict’.

He was found in in a group of three graves. A lot is known about him from scientific analysis. The Discovery Centre has been able to use expert help to reconstruct, from his skeleton, how he would have looked, and what kind of life he led.

The grave was topped by a large slab of sandstone. The sides of the grave were lined with eight upright slabs, three to each side and one each at the head and feet. Within these lay the skeleton, on his back with his feet to the south-east. His arms were aligned along the sides of the body, the right-hand lay palm down, the left palm up, slightly cupped with the thumb across the palm. His legs were crossed at the feet. His head lay turned towards the south, the place where the sun was strongest.

The relaxed position suggests that the burial party laid him out carefully, but without a shroud. The method of laying down may have been a part of their pre-Christian religion. The head facing the sun suggests this.

Forensic work on the bones shows he was a youngish man, between 26 and 35, and stood 5’ 7” tall. Radio-carbon dating indicates he died between 420-610 AD, making him the earliest known member of Portmahomack’s Pictish community.

He was not born locally, and arrived here in his late teens. His life was physically hard, and placed his back and shoulders under heavy strain. He may have been a sword-wielding warrior or have worked with heavy rocks. He could have been a stone craftsman.

At the time of his death he suffered from arthritis and damage to the knees – probably through constant squatting, which is how you would have sat when there were no chairs and the environment was damp. He was left-handed, which would have made him much in demand for complex tasks. He was part of a settlement that ate beef, but also grew a variety of cereals: wheat, barley, oats and rye.

(Above: The face of Portmahomack’s first Pict emerges…)

(Above: And how he is likely to have looked..)

He belonged to the first community at Portmahomack, and may not have been a monk. The group of graves contained the metallic remains of intricate iron pins and a beautifully decorated roundel. They were horseriders who ate well and had high status. Although not necessarily Christian they were people of faith. Their major cultural investment was the making of these massive slab-sided graves, so they believed in an afterlife. Only in the next generation did they become spiritual professionals, the first monks of the Portmahomack monastery.

As we were leaving the Tarbat Discovery Centre, we examined the museum’s section on the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, which has copies of Stevenson’s (as in the lighthouse builders, not the railway engineer) original plans for constructing the lighthouse, and a gallery of interesting astronomical photographs taken by local astronomer Denis Buczynski.

The Stevenson Lighthouse is located at the North West tip of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. It was built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson and has an elevation of 53 metres; with 203 steps to the top of the tower. It was too close not to visit. Back in July 2017, I wrote a detailed post about a Scottish visit to another of this famous engineer’s lighthouses.

We bought some books from the store and said our goodbyes to Margaret, the manager of the centre. Twenty minutes later, after a short car drive, we were standing near to the lighthouse and taking photographs. We only had time for the briefest of visits. If we were to stick to the day’s plans – and there was a lot of it left – we needed to be on our way.

The road along the spine of the peninsula returned us to Portmahomack. As we turned to leave the village, we caught site of the Discovery Centre’s manager, Margaret, walking along the road with a young man’s arm in hers. We stopped to wind the window down and give a final greeting…and to say how much we had enjoyed our visit.

We noticed her companion’s bright eyes upon us… He was smiling with pride.

Robert, the ‘voice from the upper floor’ during our visit, turned out to be a Down’s syndrome young man, and his undoubted intelligence had been put to good use at the Discovery Centre as one of their best volunteers. It was now lunchtime, and Margaret was taking him for a well earned meal at the local cafe – the Centre being closed for an hour.

[The names of Margaret and Robert have been changed to protect their privacy.]

We waited as they walked off, arm in arm. It was one of the most touching scenes. Beyond anything we had glimpsed in the distant world of the Picts, this sense of presence and kindness left us with a golden feeling as we drove the few miles down the spine of the twin peninsulas towards Shandwick, Where, beneath protective glass, there stands one of the best Pictish cross slabs – intact and in all its glory.

To be continued…

Other posts 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

The Old Men of Hoy

I remember the ferry poster. May 2018 and we were on our way to Orkney for the first time.

Four of us had travelled by ScotRail up from Glasgow to Thurso, a few miles west of John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland.

From Thurso, we were booked onto the evening ferry to Orkney, landing in Stromness around ninety minutes later.

I saw the poster of the Old Man of Hoy just before we boarded the boat. It brought back the memory of a tense TV program in my childhood. This was in 1966, and before the days of widespread affordability of colour television. Looking back, the black and white pictures simply added to the death-defying drama, not that we knew any different.

(Above: two images from the BBC’s programme The Great Climb)

Three British mountaineers, Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey were attempting the first ever climb of a 500 foot sea-stack of rock located just off the Orkney island of Hoy. The sea-stack – a vertical section of rock that used to be part of a cliff face, but had weathered to form a separate peak – see poster – was being filmed from the adjacent cliff by a BBC outside broadcast team. 15 million people tuned in to watch The Great Climb, breathless and with ample tea and biscuits, as the three climbers made their slow ascent over three days.

Ever since then, I’d wanted to actually see The Old Man of Hoy, but getting there is difficult, as it’s not even on the main island of Orkney. You have to take an inter-island ferry from Stromness to Hoy, then drive to the other end of the island and walk for two hours to get to the cliff-top that looks out at the Old Man… followed by the same journey in reverse. You’d need a car, and you might just do it in day.


We had been told that the ferry from Thurso passed by The Old Man of Hoy on the way to Stromness – Point A on the ferry’s route, above. On a good evening, you could get a reasonable view from the deck of the boat, sufficient to take photographs – which was what I really wanted to do. On that occasion, we were lucky, and with nothing more than an iPhone, I managed to get the shots below:

Fast-forward to 2020, and the second journey in our Silent Eye workshop. We had concluded our ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend and headed up to Thurso, with a two-hour stop at Dubrobin Castle. You can read the posts of the Pictish Trail weekend here, its story is being told in parallel to these ‘out-takes’.

The picture sequence, above and below, tells the tale. When we left Thurso, the light was falling, but the weather was fine, and we hoped there would be enough to capture an image or two of the Old Man of Hoy. For this trip, knowing it might be my last chance to get a really good shot of the sea-stack, I had brought along a DLSR camera with a long lens. The chance of a good image of the Old Man was really the only reason I’d packed it, given that the new iPhones are so capable of dealing with the rest… at a fraction of the weight.

As we approached the time where the Old Man of Hoy should have been off the starboard bow, the weather took a distinct turn for the worse…

By the time we were alongside the The Old Man, I was the only idiot still on deck. I was soaked and my ‘good camera’ was inoperable… you just couldn’t see anything in the sodden viewfinder, especially as my glasses were sodden, too. Suddenly I felt decidedly old.

I considered abandoning the attempt, but decided to get my trusty iPhone out of its pocket and stand against the deck rail, staring miserably into the rain… just in case. I was already as wet as you could be.

Just then, there was a slight gap in the deluge and I managed to get the outline of the Old Man:

And that was it…

Life as a dedicated amateur photographer is like that… You take the rough with the smooth and give thanks when something wonderful happens.. which, clearly, wasn’t today!

There was a return journey, of course, but, the light on that morning was ‘flat’, meaning it robbed the shots of any depth. Even edited, afterward, this was the best of the miserable bunch:

It was with some humour that I realised that the older photo, taken with my previous iPhone two years prior, was the best of the bunch.

You can follow the full story of the Pictish trail and the subsequent trip to Ancient Orkney on the Silent Eye , but here’s a couple of tasters…

Here are some of the posts from the Pictish Trail weekend:

Part OnePart TwoPart Three,

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a three-year, personally mentored, correspondence course in self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of how our sense of ‘self’ is built by life and can be turned to self-discovery of the individual soul.

Click here for more details…

Mellow Moods for Autumn (1)

A series of seasonal shots for Sunday, in either monochrome or with the colour reduced to give that mellow mood…

The mists and the lane.

The first mists gently fill the spaces between the trees at the end of the lane. So ‘soft and special’ you want to run out and take the shot before the shafts of sunlight disappear…

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning school for the deepening of the personality and its alignment with the soul.

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