The City and the Stars (4) : The Ring of Brodgar

You look at the landscape around you… This magnificent place, where the natural features are as spectacular as the Neolithic discoveries, lies between two lochs surrounded by a natural amphitheatre. You are encircled on all sides by the hills and the monuments that make up the heart of Orkney’s Neolithic World Heritage Site. Welcome to the Ring of Brodgar, in the valley of the stars…

(1500 words, a twelve-minute read)

The Ring of Brodgar lies on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness. It is one of the best stone circles in the world and originally comprised 60 megaliths, of which 27 remain upright. It is a perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter.

It is breathtaking, and unlike many ancient circles, if you go at the right time, you can have it all to yourself… When we visited, in September 2020, there were less than twenty people there.

It used to be that theories of Neolithic Orkney were based around the Brodgar stone circle, but now, an entire complex of temples and dwellings, located just a few hundred metres away, have been added to the list of treasures to be found here. The Ring of Brodgar is likely to remain the central attraction, but with Skara Brae within a day’s return walking distance and the new discoveries matching the latter in style, the entire Ness of Brodgar is now being seen as a ‘spiritual city’, rather than just the place of the stone circle.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been here twice. I’ve documented many of our explorations of Scottish islands in these pages.

In May 2018, we fulfilled a life-ambition and, came to Orkney for a five-night spring break, travelling with some friends by train to Thurso, then by ferry across to Orkney – as with this present Silent Eye trip. Bernie had spotted, online, that there was a local pagan group who would be celebrating the Beltane festival at the stones. They had invited anyone interested to join them, asking for a few details prior to our arrival.

I count myself more a mystic than anything else, and wrote to tell them that, but they were pleased to have us present, and, in view of my personal history, offered me a small part in the ceremonial proceedings. It was a great honour.

(Above: from May 2018 – the Beltane ceremony)

This was on our second evening, and we hadn’t yet collected our rental car, so we took a taxi from Stromness to the Comet Stone, which marks the beginning of the Brodgar site. From there, we were inducted into the ceremonial process. It was a lovely event, with an open spirit and a celebration of the magnificence of the location and its importance to Orkney – past and present.

I will remember it most for the sunset. It was early May and we had expected little in the way of decent weather. But Orkney surprised us with the most golden sunset I have ever seen. Even after leaving the site, standing at the bus stop a mile away, we were still gazing mutely at the sky, enraptured that this could have happened.

The Orkney weather on the 2020 trip was overcast, so I have included shots from both visits to give the reader a flavour of that splendour in this most powerful of locations.

The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle. It is rare to find both in the same site. It is the only stone circle in Britain which is a perfect circle. Brodgar ranks with Avebury and Stonehenge as among the greatest of such sites. These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.

(Above: Ring of Brodgar – September 2020)

There are no known stones within the circle (unlike Avebury, for example) but there has never been a detailed excavation of Brodgar, and wooden structures may have been located within. The Ring of Brodgar was created later than most of the surrounding sites, such as the chambered mound of Meashowe and the nearby settlement of Skara Brae. It is likely that it represented the pinnacle of the work of these mysterious people, who may well have been the forerunners of the Picts.

The Ring of Brodgar is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, whose ‘Statement of Significance’ for the site describes its significance better than I could:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation…The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae’

(Quoted from Wikkipedia)

The Ring of Brodgar’s natural setting did not function alone. There is a final addition to the story of Brodgar’s sacred landscape. The mapping of the heavens carried out by the ancient priests required they mark the position of the winter solstice sunset… ideally against a feature on a hill in the landscape, as used throughout the Scottish Pictish world.

(Above: The Brodgar stone marking the winter solstice setting sun points to a valley on the neighbouring island of Hoy)

The chosen position (above) – a valley between two mountains – looks close to Brodgar, but is in fact on the neighbouring island of Hoy. A mysterious shrine, now known as the ‘Dwarfie Stane’ was constructed at the exact spot on Hoy corresponding to this line of sight from the Ring of Brodgar.

(Above: the mysterious Dwarfie Stane on the island of Hoy)

The information board at the Dwarfie Stane reads:

Dwarfie Stane

This unique monument has attracted attention for centuries and many scholars have visited it and theorised. It has been described as the dwelling place of giants, of dwarves, and as the home of an early Christian hermit.

It was actually a tomb, related to the many chambered cairns found throughout Orkney. It dates to between 3500 and 2500 BC. Its construction, carved from a single enormous block of stone, is without parallel in the British Isles. 

The labour involved, given the lack of metal tools, suggests that although small, it may have been of special significance.’

During the 2020 workshop, we did not have time to visit Hoy. But we were fortunate to have stumbled across it on our 2018 personal trip, during which we had visited the neighbouring island. Then, we had no knowledge of the link between Brodgar and the mysterious ‘natural shrine’ we came across on our way to the far side of that mainly uninhabited island.

(Above: from 2018 – Hoy’s dramatic west coast – the Old Man of Hoy is an hour’s walk from here)

(Above: Hoy is beautiful but bleak)

(Above: from 2018, the Dwarfie Stane looks back towards the Ring of Brodgar – lone sentinel of the winter solstice sun)

We took away some wonderful memories of that earlier trip to Hoy. Two stand out in memory. The first was a Persian inscription on the walls of the ‘Dwarfie Stane’, left by a Victorian artist, soldier and traveller, Willam Mounsey. On the outer wall of the tomb, he wrote, in Persian, ‘I have sat for two nights and have found patience’. To me, this immediately suggested a Sufi thought.

No-one knows what its meaning is. But Mounsey was a learned scholar who could speak and write in several middle eastern languages, including Persian and Hebrew. He is believed to have operated as a spy for the British Army. He was an accomplished historian and an authority on the Celts.

His work suggests to me that he had a ‘mystical bent’. It’s entirely fanciful, but I like to think he may have sat there, looking back along the line of sight to Brodgar and musing about the spiritual nature of the Celts who created this ‘line of light’.

The second memory is of a startled Bernie seeing a giant sea-eagle minutes later, in the telescope of a bird-watcher parked in the lay-by. He had been watching the eagle on its nest for many hours and offered us each a viewing. Only Bernie saw it… but what an end to the day it had provided.

At the time, we knew nothing of the visual link across Scapa Flow to the Ring of Brodgar, but, now, two years later and standing at the Brodgar marker stone, looking across at Hoy and remembering, I marvelled at how connected our human experience can be…

In the next post we will look at the remaining sites at or near to the Ness of Brodgar and summarise the incredible story of this heart of Sacred Neolithic Orkney.

To be continued.

Notes:

Link to William Mounsey.

Other parts in this series:

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

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Mellow moods for Autumn (8) the Levens Estate

When the leaves have all but gone, nature still has one or two colourful surprises left.

(220 words. A two-minute read)

Rivers are beautiful at any time of year. This one, the River Kent, flows through Levens Park on its final mile to the sea, joining three other rivers in its outfall into the north end of Morecambe Bay

Levens Park is the ancestral home of the Bagot family, whose grand house – Levens Hall – was passed to them via a tortuous route going back to Norman times, including once changing hands in a card game.

(Above: Levens Hall with its surviving Tudor garden)

Levens Hall boasts one of the few surviving Tudor gardens, but the park itself forms a beautiful landscape as it follows the long curve of the river.

At their finest in the autumn and the spring, the ancient trees are a delight, including a set of oaks that frame the best views of the river, below.

In the opening shot, an opportunistic fern has made its symbiotic home in the curve of the trunk. I had never noticed it, before, so I’ll be interested to see if it survives… and wishing it well.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning programme to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

The City and the Stars (3) : The City on the Ness

A ten-minute journey from Stromness, on Orkney, lies an ‘isthmus’ which recent excavations have shown to contain one of the richest archeological concentrations in the world… It is nothing less than an ancient spiritual city, lost to time until the early years of this century.

(1200 words, a ten-minute read)

An ‘isthmus’ is defined as ‘a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land’. It’s an old word, not seen often these days. Scotland – land of lochs, lochans and vast waterways has many of them. But this is a land beyond Scotland, yet just a few miles off its north-eastern coast.

(Above: the isthmus that is the site of five major archeological treasures from 5000 years ago. Picture Source)

We were in the final few days of the Silent Eye’s exploration of the land of the Picts, having reached the tip of the mainland and journeyed to the beautiful archepelago of Orkney – a place so far north you are on a line of latitude with southern Norway.

The arial image above, from the official archeological dig site of the Ness of Brodgar – one of several sites on this isthmus – says it all. It is a land within a land, a place whose location has such intense beauty that you can imagine why the ‘stone’ age priests who came here stopped and stayed to make it not just a home, but a spiritual city.

We have largely lost the sense and meaning of the word ‘Priest’. A priest was a wise one; a teacher of life, a way-shower to relationship. And that relationship was with the world around us. The heart of that relationship was our own individual sense of self, an ‘I’. Later, understood more deeply, the ‘I’ became an ‘I am’ and bore a deeper relationship with the beauty around us. Over time, organised religion has the unintended effect of taking away our relationship with what should be the vivid edge of our own existence. When that happens, we lose the chance to dissolve that barrier…

It is only with the advent of ‘object relations’ psychology’ that we are finally understanding the many facets of the ‘I’, and its importance in the development and maturity of the individual, transiting through separation to maturity… and for a ‘priest’, beyond.

The ancient priests of Orkney did not have the psychology of object relations; but they did have stories and myths; and for those of emotional maturity, they had ritual, an action they knew spoke to a deeper part of themselves, individually and collectively. It took a giant of psychology, Carl Jung, to show our modern age what we had lost in not talking and listening to our deeper minds, to translate the need and usage of ritual into modern language.

We can imagine families, grouped around a fire beneath a sky full of stars, sharing the wisdom stories that would act as a reliable canvas for the experiences of the maturing child, guiding her or him through play, then puberty and into sexual and societal maturity – each aware of their powers and their responsibility to the tribe, the land and, above all, to self. From that, all else flowed.

Thousands of years later, Shakespeare was to encapsulate that thought in Hamlet:

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…” (my italics).

For the ancient priests, the truth was written by nature into the world – as experienced by a self-honest human. The land had the properties of earth: it was solid and held the seeds of that which fed them. These were farming people, and the seasons of growth, fullness, harvest and fallowness were profound truths, whose existence was self-evident. Their own bodies were sustained by the air and the earth and the earth in turn was sustained by the seasons, powered in shorter and longer cycles by the moon and sun. The moon was strongly linked with women, the sea and the shorter cycles of sex and fertility; the sun controlled the longer cycles of life-giving energy that flowed from the sky onto the earth… and specially for humankind, into the daily miracle of fire, something no other creature seemed to possess.

The great story of this relationship with nature was told in the heavens. The priests, as with any civilisation, were deeply concerned with the constantly unfolding saga within which life on their given and fertile ‘earth’ was set. People’s natures were indicated – though not entirely – by the placing of the mysterious ‘wanderers’ in the sky – what we now know as the visible planets – ending with Saturn, the limit of unaided sight without magnifying lenses.

(Above: the constellation of Orion, the Hunter)

Within the city of learning that was built here, the isthmus, surrounded on nearly all sides by a soft and gentle sea, had a special relationship with the constellation of Orion – the hunter, which is bright and easily visible at these latitudes. The symbolic link, and the stories told of its significance to the ancient people of Orkney is lost to time…

The Ness of Brodgar is the name of the isthmus that separates the lochs of Harray and Stenness. The name derives from the Old Norse nes – headland; brúar – bridge and garðr – farm, and translates roughly as the “headland of the bridge farm”.

Within this small area of land are several ancient archeological sites. The image below gives an idea of the sheer scale of what has been recently uncovered.

(Above: one of the information panels from the Ness of Brodgar’s excavation site. These are freely downloadable as PDFs here. The site asks you to consider a donation to help it further its vital work)

The Ness is the centre of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The Ness is covered in, and surrounded by, ancient archeology. Until the start of the 21st century, this was best known as the location of the Ring of Brodgar. That changed in 2002 when, on the south-eastern end of the Ness, excavations revealed a massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings along with associated artwork, pottery, bones and stone tools. The design of the dwellings here closely resembles that at Skara Brae, and hence my suggestion that they may have been tightly linked.

The Ness is only open to visitors at specific times of year. The Covid restrictions meant that it was closed during our visit. But the websitehttps://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/about-the-ness-of-brodgar/ is rich in information.

The Ring of Brodgar is an open site and was not subject to Covid restrictions, apart from social distancing. Situated on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harry and Stenness. It is one of the best stone circles in the world and originally comprised 60 megaliths, of which 27 remain upright. It is a perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter. In the next post, we will examine it in detail.

(Above: The Ring of Brodgar)

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

The City and the Stars (2) : The Houses of Skara Brae

Skara Brae’s modern story began in 1850 when a violent sea-storm tore off the layers of grass, sand and soil that had covered what appeared to be two ancient and completely intact Neolithic houses. For 4,000 years, they had been lost to history, having been mysteriously abandoned.

(1000 words, a ten-minute read)

The local landowner at the time was William Watt, who lived at Skaill Hall, which is located next to Skara Brae and can be visited in its own right. Watt explored the two exposed houses and collected many objects. Like several other local explorers, Watt left few records of his work. In the 1860s, George Petrie, an able Orcadian historian and antiquarian, made frequent visits to the site and discovered there were other buried houses. He made copious notes and left them to public posterity. By the end of 1867, this dedicated man had cleared and documented the contents of Houses 1,3,4 and 6. – See key below.

(Above: Professor Gordon Childe)

This foundational work paved the way for the detailed excavations carried out by Gordon Childe, the first Professor of Archeology at the University of Edinburgh. It was due to Professor Childe’s work that Skara Brae became one of the foremost Neolithic sites in the world.

(Above: a modern schematic of the eight houses plus a ‘workshop’) at Scara Brae)

(Above: a modern drawing (Jim Proudfoot) showing how the settlement of Skara Brea is likely to have looked 5000 years ago)

The far side of Skara Brae is adjacent to the present beach of Skaill Bay. The sea level has risen and gradually encroached. When the village was occupied the bay was fertile farmland. The new outer wall is massively reinforced to protect the site well into the future. Skara Brae has been classified as a World Heritage Site and is cared for by Historic Scotland.

The whole site is around 100 metres across. It’s compact, and most of the houses are connected by internal paths and what appears to be stone plumbing! You can simply ‘feel’ the quality of the dwellings, as though something of their ancient spirit survives…

The long path from the visitor centre brings you to Houses 10, 9 and 7. The path narrows but continues around the site. It has been constructed at a higher level allowing visitors to look down and into the ancient dwellings. You can’t actually go into the houses, but you can get very close.

(Above: House 7, showing the central hearth, the alcoves for the beds and the ‘dresser’ on which the family’s precious objects would have been stored… or was there another purpose? More on this, later)

The entire village of Skara Brae was set into a midden, which had been transported from another site as a prerequisite to building the house structures. The midden was essentially a rubbish tip for organic waste – food, shells, carcasses of animals. As it decomposed it gave off heat and warmed the houses. It might have been smelly but it was warm! Humour aside, it showed the sophistication of both planning and living in this ancient settlement.

(Above: House 9, adjacent to House 7)

All the surviving houses at Skara Brae are remarkably similar to each other. The main building material was stone, which was locally available. For all the houses, the outer and inner faces of the walls are dry stone, meaning without mortar. The spaces between the walls were packed with additional midden material, as detailed above. The resulting wall was over two metres thick. The midden core of the buildings not only provided heat, it kept the houses waterproof as well.

(Above: House 1, the nearest to the present sea wall)

Historically, it had been thought that the roofs – possibly constructed of whalebone and cloth – were kept low because of the winds. But recent evidence suggests they were conical, high, and lined with eel grass which absorbed smoke, allowing a much more pleasant interior space.

(Above: House 5, close to the centre of the village)

Detailed excavation has revealed that each house had at least one ‘storage cell’. The larger dwellings had a large storage cell that linked with a central drain with running water. This points to the provision of toilets at Skara Brae, their earliest known use in Britain.

(Above: a central covered corridor linked most of the houses from the inside. Stone slabs formed the doors, and could be locked into position from the inside)

(Above: Structure 8, or the Workshop)

‘House 8’ was the only building in the settlement which was not actually a house. Whilst there was a central hearth, it lacked beds and a dresser. Known as Structure 8, it appears to have been a workshop for making stone tools and perhaps pottery, bone tools and wooden implements. The walls were thicker than the other houses because they were not dug into the midden for support and heat.

(Above: Another photo of Structure 8, a more detailed view of its segmented interior)

To my mind, the ‘dressers’ are the most curious aspects of the houses in the settlement. The guide book admits they may have been individual shrines, something I hadn’t read prior to this visit. Being close to them, again, there came the strong conviction that the dressers were holy places within the houses. Moreover, given the opulent nature of the settlement, I strongly felt there was a good chance that Skara Brae did not house ordinary farming people.

(Above: the symbolic and all-important ‘dresser’)

I consider it possible that the whole of Skara Brae was a ‘school’ for a priesthood whose central authority was a few miles away at the Ness of Brodgar – next to the famous Ring of Brodgar. I will go into more detail in the next post. The picture of Orkney thrown up by the continued sophistication of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar has changed, dramatically, and there is world-wide interest in its potential to change the history of this part of the world.

The more you learn about Orkney, the more it is evident that, in Neolithic times, it was the centre of a pivotal civilisation. It is likely that these people were the forerunner of the Picts, driven south by some unknown force or, possibly, warring armies from pre-Viking Scandinavia.

The group, quiet with the depth of the experience, moved back to the cars. We had important things to consider, and the Ring of Brodgar was only a few miles away and our next stop…

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, This is Part Two

The Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

Mellow moods for Autumn (7) Bonfire

There’s something wonderful about an autumn bonfire. It brightens the darkening evenings, and mirrors an inner process taking place as we respond to the end of the bright months…

(300 words; a two minute read)

We had ‘light from Nature’ during the long and bright months of the summer. We didn’t have to do anything to be a part of it, just step outside, take a walk with the dog, even stand at the window gazing at the beauty of a sunset.

Now, as the days become saturated with rain (here in Cumbria, at least) and the ground turns to mud, we cannot adopt a casual approach to the psychological need to take nourishment from the world outside.

We have to work at it a little more…

When I sit on our doorstep and perform the very physical act of putting on my long socks and wellingtons, I smile at how the easy days of the lighter months have most certainly gone.

On such days, a bonfire is a friend. We don’t have them for the sake of it; we have lots of trees and shrubs. There is always a pile of cuttings and blown-down branches to make the next fire.

I like to stand before it, gazing into the flaming heart. It mirrors the act of finding our own inner fire; adjusting to the departure of the summer and resolving that our own contemplative flame will pull us through the months of relative darkness.

The fire flares up, as though catching my thoughts. I watch its highest flames climb into the midnight blue sky.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

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The City and the Stars (1)

With the Pictish Trail weekend a long car journey and a boat ride behind us, we had awakened in Stromness to the early morning of an overcast Orkney day – The excavated and intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae was a few short miles away…

(1300 words, a ten-minute read)

We had not expected to be here at all. Visiting Orkney for the second part of our Pictish Trail journey had seemed impossible because of Covid restrictions. But there were signs that things were relaxing and even re-opening. Our potential companions for the extended weekend had urged us to keep trying, so we’d put ourselves on every visitor ‘notification list’ possible.

In the end, we couldn’t call it with any certainty, and simply contacted everyone who was interested and asked if they’d be prepared to risk it… Everyone said yes; that it was worth it just to go to Orkney, regardless of what was open or not… In the largest sense, there was an act of faith, here…

Our ferry tickets and accommodations in Stromness were booked. There was no going back; we’d just have to make do with what we could achieve on each day. Stromness and Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, were worth at least a day each, and we only had three. Then we got a message saying the Neolithic village of Skara Brae had opened for a limited number of bookings which were to be strictly time-controlled. Within minutes, Bernie had responded and we had our visit: 10.00 am on the morning after our arrival. Getting off the ferry, with our hotel just at the end of the quay, one of our party was so excited, she was literally hopping from foot to foot…

We had only a few days to give our group a taste of this wonderful archipelago, situated just a few miles off the coast of north-east Scotland. It’s a world of its own – especially in terms of its ancient history. We’d been here once before and couldn’t wait to share it. In addition, since I was here last, work done on the Neolithic civilisation on Orkney was being revolutionised by the new findings at the Ness of Brodgar. I had my own views on some of it…

Now, we were at Skara Brae, just a few miles from Brodgar, on the Orkney Mainland. There was a queue to get into the visitor centre of this 5000 year old ‘village’. We’ll come on to why I’ve put that in quotes, later…

We were awaiting our timed entry to access the walkway down to the actual village when I read the graphic above. It puts everything into perspective. I’ve reproduced it here:

You have come to a village which started life around 3100 years BC. Before Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids of Egypt were built. This is the oldest village in Europe where you can still see the houses with their original stone furniture intact.

For reasons I’ll go into later in these posts, I’m not sure it was an ordinary village. I think it was something far more exciting.

Then the hour turned and we were socially-spaced and walking through the descriptive graphics, towards the sophisticated reconstruction of one of the eight houses beyond. The visitor is not allowed to descend into the real dwellings, but a landscaped walkway around the entire village has been constructed to allow close visibility – from above, in most cases.

To compensate for this, the reconstructed house at the entrance of the site is an exact reproduction that you can enter to immerse yourself in Neolithic life. I had been fascinated by it on our visit in 2018 and couldn’t wait to see its effect on our companions.

But, sadly, it wasn’t open…too small an enclosed environment to accommodate the restrictions on social distancing. However, I do have photos from our first trip, so here’s a visual journey through what would normally be available.

(Above: The replica house at Scara Brae is modelled on House 7 (see map) and gives the essential feeling of height not apparent from looking down at the real houses from the walkway. House 7 was excavated by Professor Gordon Childe in 1928 (below). When he found it, it had no roof. He dug down through the sand to find the layers where people had lived)

(Above: Gordon Child, the principle archaeologist who excavated Skara Brae in the years 1928 to 1931)

(Above: The real House 7 is shown on the site map: bottom row, middle. We would be visiting that next)

(Above: the reconstructed ‘sail-cloth’ and timber roof)

(Above: the central hearth contained ashes and red clay)

(Above: there are two box beds, The fireside slab of one of the beds had carvings on it, worn away in the middle, as if by people climbing in and out of the pen. A decorated pot was also found in the bed. Above the beds are cupboards set into the wall. Intriguingly, skeletons of two women were discovered buried partly under the house wall behind one of the beds…)

(Above: the ‘dresser’ – my italics – The top shelf of the dresser was found to be bare, but on its lower shelf were pieces of pottery and burnt bones. There was a storage cell in the room, but it may have been linked to drains found under some of the other storage cells in the village. The astonishing possibility that they may have served as indoor toilets cannot be ruled out)

Near to the ‘model house’ is an information board that sets the scene for the actual village, which lies a few hundred metres away, on the edge of the sea. Here are two useful excerpts.

(Above: a more detailed scale map of Scara Brae)

‘5000 years ago the villagers who decided to settle at Skara Brae did so for good reasons.

This was a land of plenty, with rich fertile soil for grazing cattle. The temperature then was a few degrees warmer than it is now, making it easier to grow crops. In the uncultivated land wild deer and boar roamed.

Birch Hazel and willow trees formed sparse scrubland. Wild berries and herbs grew. The lochs and sea were stocked with fish. Driftwood from the virgin forests of America was regularly cast up on the beach.

The cliffs supported colonies of sea birds important for their meat and eggs. Seaweed provided a plentiful supply of fuel. The abundant stones, clay and pebbles were useful building materials.

Today the landscape differs in one important respect: 5000 years ago the sea was much further away from the village. Land once covered the area which now forms the adjacent Bay of Skaill. This area of land held a loch or lochans which gave the people a vital supply of freshwater. Over hundreds of years the cliffs were gradually eaten away by the sea and sand dunes formed. This process of erosion was already beginning in the early life of the village…’

(Above: the elevated walkway snakes around the Skara Brae village, allowing a thorough visual exploration without actually entering the 5000 year old dwellings)

The reproduced House 7 and the information boards had served us well. Everyone had taken what little time the visitor centre would allow to study what was coming. Now we had a few hundred metres to walk to get to the real Skara Brae. As we walked, there was a palpable but delighted feeling of disbelief that this was actually happening…

To be continued next Tuesday.

To be continued…

This is Part One of the City and the Stars – a continuing mystical trip through north-east Scotland and Orkney on the trail of the Picts.

The Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

Light in their eyes…

(Image Pixabay)

You might think they had little to smile about. Covid-19 was inflicting its worst levels of disease and death since the epidemic began. The most powerful economy in the world was, in the words of several media commentators, ‘tanking’.

And yet, when Joe Biden stood up and finally acknowledged he was to be the next President of the United States, backed by his family and the active and able Vice-President, Kamala Harris, I felt a pride quite disproportionate to my status as a British citizen and therefore outside the US election, looking in.

I, and many of my friends felt a closeness to the recent American political process in a way that had not happened before. Something tangible and dark was trying to end a world, and the thinking people of America had rallied.

I have always been interested in the politics of the USA – my uncle lives in California and I have been a frequent visitor to its shores. My happiest memories there include my wife and I travelling the entire length of Highway One up the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle. We didn’t do this in one trip, rather over a series of visits that we would tack on the back of the computer trade shows at which we exhibited on a twice-yearly basis.

My mother was a passionate socialist. I absorbed this growing up. But then, after my computer science degree, I began a series of jobs with American computer firms… and found them exciting and productive places to be. Decades later, I established my own software company in Manchester, and there followed twenty-three years of learning to survive and eventually prosper in business. I feel I can have a reasonably dispassionate view of what works, one that combines the ‘social’ and ‘business’ worlds.

The efficiency and motivation of a thriving ‘American’ style’ environment is second to none. But it’s not the whole story…

I believe that we need equal focus on both entrepreneurial and social actions. I no longer subscribe to the ethic that ‘private is always best’. It isn’t. Anyone who travelled on the wretched urban railways of the north-west of England over the past thirty years will tell you that. Our NHS delivers amazing and free care on an unimaginable scale, and could not possibly be replaced by a combination of private enterprises – something President Obama was trying to replicate, to some degree in the USA, before being thwarted by Congress.

My uncle is Republican; his daughter and my cousin and her partner are Democrats. Over the years of business and social travel, I have listened to their various views, trying to discern the essential ‘signature’ of political thought on each side. John McCain was one of of the Republicans I most listened to. The inherent ‘nobility’ of the man was indisputable. He had never traded on his many years as a prisoner in Vietnam, though others had not forgotten his selfless stance.

He bore its physical and political scars quietly. I remember him facing up to Mitch McConnell – who was standing in front of him to psychologically ‘block’ his way while the Senate voted on yet another of the President’s steps in destroying President Obama’s Affordable Health Act. McCain voted against the Republican bill and ended up having Trump’s hate and the spite of his lackeys heaped upon him, shortly before he died.

The President called him a ‘looser’, this from a man who didn’t serve his military time because of a ‘bone-spur’. I remember an interview with a Republican from Arizona who said that they would remember this comment about one of their favourite sons… The recent vote suggests they did.

McCain had a ‘light in his eyes’. The people dancing in the streets of New York when it was announced that Joe Biden was now President Elect had a light in their eyes, too. I view that light as a very real thing. It is a reflection from within. All people of whatever political persuasion who do their best to live by the truth have this shining in their eyes, however subtly.

In my opinion, Joe Biden has it, too. When he and Kamala Harris stood up to acknowledge their victory, you could see and feel that truth. There is nothing easy about what they are inheriting. America will continue to face challenges, no less than we do in the UK. Sadly, we will face a singular future, having been torn from our ‘United States’ of Europe by the same forces that have just lost the presidential race in the USA and now find themselves hopelessly floundering in the face of a renewed America’s pro-EU stance.

Perhaps the light of that truth will one day shine again in our eyes… I certainly hope so. It was beautiful to watch on those bright American faces.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the needs and goals of the soul.

Mellow moods for Autumn (6) Misty Gorge

If you’re a canoeist, the half-mile of the River Kent that descends, thunderously, through the limestone levels of this part of Cumbria is well known as an extreme test of skill… but there are other reasons to visit…

(400 words; a five minute read)

Our village, Sedgwick, owes its existence to the River Kent, which rises in the southern Lakeland mountains around Kentmere and flows out into the northern end of Morecambe Bay. The name derives from the ancient Viking language, meaning ‘Place of the River’. The Kent has many faces; some deadly, some beautiful.

For me, the river is at its most beautiful in the autumn. The gradual fading of colour is nearly complete by the early days of November; but the mists have just begun.

I was lucky with this shot, which wasn’t planned beforehand. I had taken Tess, our collie, for an early morning walk before I had to leave to visit my mother, sixty miles south in Lancashire. I didn’t really have the time to take a photographic diversion, especially with the dog in tow, but the sight of mist over the river drew me down from the frisbee-throwing fields to stand at the only road bridge across the Kent.

And there it was… the hint of faded autumn colours in the pale light; the dark waters surging with their overfilled load from nearly two weeks of rain. The silvery flow of streams pouring into the main channel added to the magic, as they joined the thunderous flow a scant few metres before the whole waterway drops by a good ten metres and brave canoeists risk their lives in the ‘white water’ descent.

There weren’t any canoeists. It was still early morning, and I suspect that even the most skilled would have been imperilled by the torrent of flood-water.

I’ll stick to photography, I think.

Here’s the other side of the bridge, for completeness. For all the noise of millions of gallons of rushing water, there was nothing but beauty in that place.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

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Two journeys, one destination (9) : Dunrobin Castle

The beautiful vision of the ‘fairytale’ Dunrobin Castle, seen here from across the bay during our visit to Portmahomack, had tantalised us with the reported splendour of its architecture and gardens. Now, we had arrived at the gateway of its estate.

(1800 words, a twelve minute read)

(Above: Dunrobin Castle through a long lens…)

Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands, having nearly two hundred rooms. It has been home to the Earls, and later, the Dukes of Sutherland since the late medieval age. It lies just north of the beautiful coastal town of Dornoch, on Scotland’s far northeastern coast. It is said that, in terms of Scotland’s history, Dunrobin is ‘about as connected as you can get‘.

Leaving the Inverness region behind, we were finally on our way to Orkney to begin the second part of the trip: Ancient Orkney, but not without stopping to see this masterpiece about which we had heard so much. It wasn’t entirely a diversion from the Pictish Trail, the castle actually marks its most northerly point.

Dunrobin has its own museum, which houses one of the best collection of Pictish stones on the whole coast. The clarity of the markings on these stones is said to be unsurpassed, so we were excited to be coming face to face with some of the best examples anywhere in the world.

(Above: the Pictish stones of Dunrobin’s museum. Sourced from Undiscovered Scotland’s website )

The original building at Dunrobin had been a much simpler square-section fort. The family wished to create a house in the Scottish Baronial style, which had become popular among the aristocracy, who were inspired by Queen Victoria’s new residence at Balmoral. From 1835 onwards, two leading architects were commissioned (at different times) to work on the re-design of the castle: Sir Charles Barry, who was responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London; and Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Their work speaks for itself, and, though the subsequent image of Scotland’s highland culture was largely manufactured during Victoria’s reign–to the delight of the monarch–the beauty of Dunrobin speaks for itself.

The towering conical spires stand out on the horizon, as we had seen from the Tarbat Peninsula across the waters. Now, we were approaching them from the rear of that view, down the long drive which forms a rustic entrance for visitors.

There is no town of Dunrobin. The castle is located near to the attractive village of Golspie, on the main A9 route to the northern tip of Scotland. We had tickets for the evening ferry from that coast to Orkney’s main port of Stromness, so we couldn’t afford to be late. No-one in the party had driven that far north before, but we knew the final fifty miles of the journey involved steep winding roads that hugged the rugged coast and took longer than a glance at the map might suggest. It was sobering to think that we were now on the same latitude as southern Norway…

(Above: our run of good weather had ended. From here to Orkney we were to be rained upon, in true Scottish fashion!)

Ahead of us was the entrance to the castle. We donned our Covid masks and signed into our time-slot. We had exactly one hour to take in as much as we could. Sadly, this would be aided by the closure of the museum, as there were not enough staff available to keep it open during the current period of the virus. Our borrowed photographs (above) would have to suffice. No, matter; Orkney was to provide a rich harvest of archeological treasures of the people who, in their movement south, became the Picts.

(Above: the staircase up from the entrance room does not disappoint – nor does the rest of the castle)

Dunrobin Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The Earldom of Sutherland is one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland, and the Sutherlands were one of the most powerful families in Britain with many important matrimonial and territorial alliances.

(Above: Dunrobin is, inevitably, a historical celebration of hunting; something I have little time for if it is done as a ‘sport’. However, taken in the context of history, it is an important element of life on the Sutherland estate)

The Earldom of Sutherland was created in 1235 and a castle appears to have stood on this site since then, possibly on the site of an early medieval fort. The name Dun Robin means Robin’s Hill or Fort in Gaelic, and may have come from Robert, the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427.

To do justice to the sumptuous interior of Dunrobin would take several dedicated posts. To make this review shorter, I have restricted my reporting to a few of the rooms, leaving room for what is beyond them on the seaward side!

(Above: the beautiful library, ornamented by the ‘rugs’ on the floor, but true to the aristocratic history of its time. The guide did point this out, cautiously, so there is a consciousness of modern sensibilities within the team at Dunrobin)

The Library is a classic example of the interior of Dunrobin Castle. It was converted from a principal bedroom by Sir Robert Lorimer, The entire room is lined with sycamore wood. The Library’s focal point is the portrait by Philip de Laszlo of Duchess Eileen. Born Lady Eileen Butler, elder daughter of the Earl of Lanesborough, she married the 5th Duke of Sutherland in 1912. The Duchess, who was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, died in 1943. The romantic story is a classic example of the complex bloodline of those who have lived here.

(Above: The music room. Still in use for small concerts, it also houses a collection of fine paintings, including the portrait of a Venetian Procurator by Tintoretto)

The earlier castle’s keep was encased by a series of additions from the 16th century onwards. In 1785 a large extension was constructed. Remarkably this early keep still survives, much altered, within the complex of the later work, making Dunrobin one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland.

(Above: the dining room is the foremost example of a major Victorian public room. It is laid out for dinner in exactly the same way it would have been in 1850. It contains an extensive collection of family portraits)

I took many more photographs, but space will only allow so many. But there’s another reason to be economic with the interior’s real-estate here: the magnificent gardens… even in the drizzling, cold rain that was now a continuous backdrop to our exploring.

My wife, Bernie, was with us on this trip. She is a trained horticulturalist and had dearly wanted us to visit Dunrobin, if only to see the world-renowned gardens. Even the rain didn’t dim the splendour.

(Above: it’s quite shocking… you turn a corner of the balcony terrace and suddenly, as the castle’s ground base drops away, there’s this!)

The gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the Victorian extension to the Castle. One look from above shows that inspiration came from the Palace of Versailles near Paris, and they have changed little in the 150 years since they were planted, although new plants are constantly being introduced. Despite its northerly location, the sheltered gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants, including, at the foot of the steps leading to the garden, a huge clump of Gunnera manicata, a native rhubarb of South America that has eight foot leaves.

The gardens provide the cut flowers for the displays throughout the Castle. A visit to Dunrobin’s garden is an excellent education in the design of a formal Victorian garden.

Sir Charles Barry was a man of many talents, and had previously designed a large Italianate garden for the 2nd Duke of Staffordshire’s estate at Trentham, in Staffordshire. Dunrobin’s gardens have changed little from Barry’s design of 150 years ago, although new plants are constantly tested, then introduced if hardy enough.

(Above: a few more steps and it broaden to this full view of the parterre landscape below)

Make your way down the stone steps and there emerges a jewel of a garden, full of colour, interest and unexpected features. From below the towering castle provides a splendid backdrop.

(Above: one of the parterres in all its glory…)

The design is much as Barry left it but there have been recent exciting refurbishments to the planting and ornamentation. This includes avenues of Tuscan laurel and Whitebeam and the construction of wooden pyramid features. The old method of tree culture – pleaching – has been re-introduced.

Despite Dunrobin being so far north, the Gulf Stream of warm sea water that flows from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic brings sub-tropical conditions to the UK’s western gardens, from the Isles of Scilly to the North West Highlands, from where it goes on to sweep round Cape Wrath and John O’Groats before making its final landing at Dunrobin. The sheltered and warmed gardens are able to support a surprising range of plants.

(Above: and throughout this, you can look back at the castle and be constantly delighted by the thousand different views)

(Above: that’s Bernie, sheltering under the terrace in the distance. unaware of the cameraman at the end of the avenue, she was actually texting to tell me that our hour was up…)

Knowing we had a long drive ahead, we decided to risk a short visit to the cafe in the castle before setting off. A cup of tea and a piece of cake seemed in order – we’d not had time for lunch, and were due for dinner in the quayside hotel in Stromness, “If the boat was on time,” they’d said, ominously!

We were glad we did, because the cafe is built in what was the estate’s private fire station, and the photographs are some of the best of the trip…

A brief twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, bound for the port of Scrabster and the Islands of Orkney beyond… The Pictish Trail was over. Everyone had loved it. Now, tired but happy, we were on our way to a much more ancient land with an entirely different ‘feel’.

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),

Part Eight, This is Part Nine.

©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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Helmsdale : haven of the far north

Not far south of John O’ Groats – the most northerly point of the British Isles – lies a beautiful fishing village with a vibrant present and a fascinating history

(A twelve minute read, 1500 words)

(Above: Helmsdale’s modern outer harbour. It has two…)

We’ve finally caught up with ourselves – this twin-telling of the central and incidental places on the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail and Ancient Orkney workshops intersects here, just off the main A9 road to the very tip of north-east Scotland.

This thread is the one we’ve worked backwards, from Orkney to Inverness rather than the more serious and sequential Thursday blogs (see below) which tell the story in chronological order. This Thursday’s post will see the story of the Pictish Trail coming north to Dunrobin Castle and then on to the magical island of Orkney, with its incredible place in the ancient world, prior to the Vikings.

This anarchic series of side-stories tells the incidentals, the out-takes, the places of beauty, shock, warm-heartedness… and just plain surprise. And occasionally something as wonderful as a chip butty when you’re at your most hungry!

I’ll get to the chip butty… It was life-saving at the time but it’s trivial compared to the beauty of this lovely fishing village whose story is linked to one of the darkest episodes in Scotland’s history – ‘The Clearances’ – the forcing from the land of thousands of poor farmers; ‘crofters’, whose simple and barely subsistent lives prevented the Scottish gentry farming large flocks of lucrative sheep.

(Above: Helmsdale is located in Sutherland, near the very top of Scotland. The islands above are the archipelago of Orkney, from which we have travelled in these stories, and to which the Thursday blogs are headed for the serious stuff…)

But, unlike the Clearances, this is not a tale of darkness, rather one of compassion and care. Helmsdale is linked to an aristocratic lady who was moved so much by the displacement, hunger and destitution of the poor crofters that, in an age dominated by men, she did something about it…

Helmsdale lies a few miles north of Dunrobin, one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles and the Scottish ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland… and our very special lady: Elizabeth Stafford.

(Above: Dunrobin Castle, home of the Dukes of Sutherland. Our forthcoming Thursday blog will highlight this wonderful place)

Helmsdale is named after its river. There has been a port at Helmsdale since 1527. Historically, the North Sea offered plentiful herring fishing, which helped sustain north-eastern Scotland for millennia.

By the 1800s the Scottish Clearances were well under way. The origins of this program of near-genocide were complex, and involved the royal and political powers in England and Scotland, who saw the replacement of simple croft-farming by sheep husbandry as not only a route to riches but also a method of breaking the power of the traditional Clan system, whose existence had resulted in so many uprisings against England.

Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, was the wife of the Duke. She was moved by the plight of the simple farmers, who, with their families, were driven into homelessness and destitution by the Clearances. With the backing of her husband, she envisaged a programme that would see many of the displaced Sutherland crofters become fishermen. This was not a simple task for two reasons: the early harbour at Helmsdale was neither sheltered nor deep enough to support the landing of larger boats; additionally, the crofters needed education in the more advanced fishing method to make the project viable on a larger scale than the inshore fishing of the time.

(Above: the original plans for ‘Elizabeth’s harbour’ at Helmsdale)

In 1814, the Duke (Marquis of Stafford) covered the cost of creating an inner harbour; a vast figure for those times of £1,600.

(Above: The inner harbour created by the compassionate vision of Elizabeth Stafford)

The work was carried out by local engineer George Alexander who built a quay with a small rectangular basin on the north bank of the river. This harbour survives today, and was the basis of the growth of Helmsdale, whose fish processing and smoking operations grew up the hill behind it.

(Above: A heritage boat typical of the advanced designs of the early 19th century. Elizabeth’s vision was to re-train the crofters to use such deep-water boats, thereby making Helmsdale viable on a much large scale)

To provide the skills, Elizabeth brought in experienced fisherman from further south to teach the local men to catch fish out at sea, instead of the inshore methods used by smaller boats of the time. It was a dangerous way to make a living. Some crofters elected, instead, to be trained in land-based jobs like curing and coopering. Women were also employed, mainly as herring gutting girls. Helmsdale diversified around its fishing core and grew, rapidly.

(Above: Alexander Simpson’s fish curing yard, located behind the new harbour)

Success brought streamlined methods. A man named Alexander Simpson became the first herring merchant in Helmsdale. His fish curing yard was built for him by the Sutherland Estate, at the behest of Elizabeth, who continued to watch over the project until her death.

Helmsdale narrowly survived a cholera epidemic in 1832, inching its way back to viability after being abandoned for several years. Eventually, Helmsdale became one of the major Scottish centres of herring fishing. The herring were known locally as the ‘Silver Darlings’.

‘Elizabeth’s harbour’ flourished until 1892, when a deeper harbour – as seen above – was constructed to modern fishing standards. A dramatic change occurred in 1972 when the new road bridge was built to carry the faster and more streamlined A9 trunk road.

(Above: the old (inner) harbour in its entirety. It’s hard to believe that, at its height, over 200 large boats of the time were crammed into its modest space. Ironically, the modern A9 road spans the old harbour entrance with this new bridge)

The Fifie Fishing boat (below) came to Helmsdale in 1990 from Findochty. The boat, on display near the old harbour, is over 100 year old. The Fifie had a vertical stem and stern, two masts and was very fast. It was carvel-built, meaning that planks of the hull meet each other end to end. At the height of the herring boom in the mid-nineteenth century, two-hundred such boats were crammed into the small inner harbour.

And so to the chip-butty… It’s a pile of chips dripping in salt and vinegar between two slices of well-buttered bread. On the day we went to Helmsdale, we’d travelled all the way from Orkney by early morning ferry, via Scrabster, Thurso and John O’ Groats – where we were expecting at least a coffee and sandwich. It was still only nine in the morning when we got there, but nearly five hours into our day.

John O’ Groats was closed… all of it. We journeyed on, and by the time we saw signs to Helmsdale, two hours later and along a very attractive part of the Sutherland coast, we were tired and very hungry. Our final destination of Inverness was still a further two hours away.

We’d never visited Helmsdale, before. Didn’t even know of its existence, to be honest. The sight of the lovely harbour, glistening in the sunlight of a September morning, stole our hearts and we turned down the valley towards the sea. Opposite the harbour wall, there were a few wooden tables with printed menus, outside what appeared to be a cafe. We scanned the menu quickly. Covid-19 rules were in force, so the take-away serving point was a caravan with a hatch in the garden of the cafe.

(Above: The famous chip butty – a north of England speciality we did not expect to find in Sutherland… But we were very glad we did)

It turned out the lady owner, Helen, had been listening to our hungry conversation. She greeted us in a broad Manchester accent. “Will that be chip butties all round then, love?”

We have happy memories of Helmsdale, and plans to return to study and explore it a little more. The story of Elizabeth Stafford is inspirational, and remains, for me, one of the highlights of the trip.

I couldn’t manage another of Helen’s chip butties, through… well, maybe one more for old time’s sake.

Other posts in the Pictish Trail series, here and on the Silent Eye blog:

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

©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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Mellow moods for Autumn (5) : sounds of the forest stream

We’re lucky to live close to two forests. The first is a few minutes’ walk away, the other is further and larger, the main path taking the walker in a slow ascent through the ancient Sizergh estate. At the highest point, you emerge into the open air within a few hundred metres of the local organic farm shop and cafe.

Tess loves the walk. I’m partial, too, and it’s not just the coffee as reward.

The larger forest has this lovely stream running through it. The path meanders as it climbs, crossing the stream several times. Subjectively, it’s as though there are three small rivers, each one with its own sounds…

Autumn adds its own voice: the crunch of leaves under boots, the quietness of the trees, the occasional howl of delight as the collie charges off to chase a squirrel and inevitably ends up gazing at her faster target high above, gazing back down at the slow, crazy dog.

There’s a wonderful sense of presence about a forest stream; as though you have entered a different relationship with time through its flow. Bubbling, swishing, trickling: the same but always subtly unique… completely in harmony with the surroundings it has helped create.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning program to deepen the personality and align it with the soul.

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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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