Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 7, Final) – Face to Face with Macbeth

It was time to come face to face with the man who may well have inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth…

We were standing in the car park near Drumin Castle. Dean was using the visitor map of the Glenlivet Estate to describe the day ahead.

The visitors map of the Glenlivet Estate with our two intended locations highlighted in red

We were to begin by exploring an ancient and little visited stone circle on the nearby slope above the river Livet – The Doune of Dalmore. After this we would cross the river to the nearby ruin of Drumin Castle before driving across the Glenlivet estate to its south-eastern edge to conclude our work on the elements at Scanlan; the home of a secret seminary.

It was expected that we would be able to finish our workshop in time to allow the usual local lunch, together, followed by our departure. Many of us had far to go before we got home on that Sunday. In our case, the journey even to Cumbria was going to take at least six hours.

Both locations for the planned day are marked on the photo of the Glenlivet Estate, above, and have their own maps within the text.

Glenlivet Estate: our first two locations are shown above. The Ring Cairn and Drumin Castle are described in the text. Map provided by the Glenlivet Estate on their notice board.

The Glenlivet estate comprises 23,000 hectares of some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and lies at the northern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, between the northern Ladder Hills and the Cromdale Hills. Two rivers – the Avon and the Livet run through its heart.

The land in Glenlivet is an elevated plateau and is always higher than 200m (600ft). Although remote, and on the edge of some of Britain’s highest mountains, the gentle landscape is easy to access and explore. People have lived and farmed this region since prehistoric times.

From the 1500’s to the early 20th Century, Glenlivet Estate belonged to the Gordon family, who became the Dukes of Richmond and Gordon. Their legacy can be seen throughout the region.

Crossing the river Livet

First, we had to cross the river Livet and begin the walk through the gentle meadows.

The hilltop of the Doune of Dalmore can be seen at the far end of the meadow.

It was an easy climb to the Doune of Dalmore. Soon, we were standing at the base of the ancient site.

The Doune of Dalmore – Stone circle and burial chamber.

The Doune of Dalmore comprises the ancient remains of a ring cairn – a prehistoric burial monument with an open central area – and a stone circle that surrounds it. This type of circle and ring is known locally as a Clava cairn. The cairn is 13m in diameter and 0.7m high. Four of the stones of the surrounding circle are now standing, but some others, which have fallen, lie where they fell.

The edge of the ring of stones

The day was mild and the weather kind. For the penultimate time, we assembled our ribbons into pentagrams, cornered with our special stones, and gathered in our groups of two to partner in inner vision and notation on the element of alchemical ‘Fire’. Fire is both potent and dangerous. It can work good and bad. Thoughts of the witches on the blasted heath came to mind; and also the essence of what they represented within the Macbeth story: they had no power to compel, merely to dangle before human ambition what ‘might be’.

In the distance… the home of the Wolf of Badenoch

And then it was time to turn and look across the valley of the Livet river to see our next destination. It was our final day… and we had to be open to conclusions – our own and that of the landscape we had ‘asked’ to teach us. With some trepidation, I looked across the clean, flowing water of the Livet to the ruins of Drumin Castle beyond… Drumin was the home of the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’, known in history as ‘Scotland’s vilest man’…

In the words of Scottish historians, “Scottish history has its fair share of deeply unpleasant characters, but Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, is a strong contender for the title of least pleasant of the lot.”

Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, but more commonly known as the Wolf of Badenoch, and the Celtic Atilla, lived from 1343 to 1394. He was the fourth illegitimate son of the future King Robert II of Scotland and of Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan, but became legitimised in 1349 upon his parents’ marriage. His life is a classic example of an egoic character provided with the means to destroy on a wholesale scale.

The element of Fire had well and truly returned to our presence with the glimpse of the life of this evil man. He systematically abused the power his royal father granted him and was fond of burning towns and sacred buildings to the ground. The town of Forres is an example of the former, the destruction of Elgin Cathedral is the worst example of the latter.

Drumin Castle as seen when you climb the steep approach by the river Livet – a forbidding aspect….

Shortly after, we descended across the meadows, re-crossed the river Livet and began the climb to the Wolf of Badenoch’s castle – Drumin. Scottish castles are usually compact structures. Drumin is strategically placed – overlooking both the river valley and the confluence of the rivers Livet and Avon (pronounced a’an).

Nothing is permanent – not even stone walls this thick…

Alexander Stewart died in 1394. He was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral. His tomb is, ironically, one of the few to have survived from Scotland’s Middle Ages. The details of the ‘Wolf’s death’ are unclear, but, as so often happens, the folk legend sheds light on both his life and death.

Ironically, the Wolf of Badenoch’ tomb is one of the few surviving from the Scottish Middle Ages. Image Source: Undiscovered Scotland

It is said that on the 24th July 1394, a black robed visitor arrived at Ruthven castle and challenged its owner to a game of chess. During the night that followed the castle was battered by a terrible storm, with intense thunder and lightning. In the morning the castle servants were discovered dead outside the castle walls. The Wolf of Badenoch was found dead in the great hall. His body was unmarked…but the nails in his boots had been torn out. This may have been a reference to Christ’s execution – Alexander Stewart’s being the opposite.

There was no sign of the dark stranger… Play ‘chess’ with the devil at your peril…

The modern garden of Drumin castle provides a place of peace amidst the terrible history

Shakespeare would have liked the story. There is no direct proof that Macbeth was based upon Alexander Stewart. Witchcraft was rife at the time of James I (James VI of Scotland) and the King lived in terror of it. Shakespeare based many of his plays on real historical figures. It is reasonable to propose that the Wolf of Badenoch was the fictional twin of the ambitious psychopath who brought such chaos to this part of Scotland.

The Community Garden – produce available to all…

There was a pleasant end to our visit to to Drumin castle. Part of the garden (see above) has been given over to allow the creation of Glenlivet’s Community Orchard – a place of mutual industry and kindness.

Soon, we were driving across the length of the Glenlivet estate to a place close to its south-east border.

Our final destination. The location marked “Walk 2” shows Scanlan Seminary

We were headed for the isolation of the Braes of Glenlivet; specifically, The Scanlan, a former and secret Catholic seminary for the training of priests and young men set to become priests.

Scanlan Seminary – now a quiet and (usually) infrequently visited place…

During the 18th century, ‘The Scanlan’ was the only place in Scotland where young men could be trained to be priests – they were named the ‘heather priests’. During the period 1717 – 1799 over a hundred were trained, despite the persecution by Hanoverian soldiers following the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion. The location of The Scanlan was a closely guarded secret, and the site – at the head of a remote valley – was impossible to see until you were close to it.

Dean had visited the site of Scalan Seminary several times. He said that, often, he was the only one visiting. He had considered – given its remoteness and usual emptiness – that it would be an ideal basis for us to gather for our final exercise with the ribbon-based pentagrams.

The Scanlan still has no interior electric. Heating and lighting are as they were in days gone by…

But the ‘witchy fates’ had other ideas. Having made Findhorn beach disappear, and conjured mysterious winds to drag apart our ribbon pentagrams, they pulled off a spectacular strike on the final act in our ‘Macbeth play’.

How Scanlan used to look. For much of its later life it was a farmhouse, prior to its restoration as an historic museum.

The college played a vital role in keeping the traditional Catholic faith alive in northern Scotland. It’s name derives from the Gaelic word for a hut made of turf pieces – which is how the initial building at Scanlan was constructed.

A spartan interior…

In 1799, the religious training work of the Scanlan was moved to a less remote site, Aquhorthies College, near Inverurie. In researching this blog, I discovered I had a personal link to the tradition begun at Scanlan. My father’s eldest sister married a Glasgow man of the Catholic faith. The local church were helpful during the upbringing of my seven cousins, whom I used to visit every summer. The eldest son (my cousin) eventually left Glasgow to study to become a priest at Blairs College, in Aberdeen. Eventually, he left the priesthood and became a successful lawyer in Glasgow.

The most recent building (and now museum) is on the left. The old stone structure on the right replaced the original, secret turf hut. The bend in the stream to the right is the location of an ancient well.

Blairs College had taken over the work of training priests from Aquhorthies College in 1929 and continued this work until 1986. It is, now, also a museum. There was therefore a strong, religious and cultural link between where I was standing at the end of our weekend and my cousin’s life… But I didn’t know at the time.

The ruin of the second generation Scanlan…

But… the witches, the tricky fates…

No sooner had we arrived ( a twenty minute trek along the land from the car park) than others began to arrive, too. By the time we had taken a quick look at the museum there were upwards of thirty people gathering in a pagoda outside the main door. One glance at the approach track showed there were hundreds more arriving.

It transpired that there was an annual (and well-dressed) pilgrimage to Scanlan… and this was the day…

In deference, we retreated to a point out of sight and over the next small hill, there to lay out our humble pentagrams and perform the last movements that would resolve our work of the weekend, bringing our inner strengths and vision to help dissolve our perceived limitations. All this was focussed on a set of inner symbols that grew into a composite image which we were to take away with us as a lasting focus and token of the work done.

It was beautiful.

By the time we had battled the incoming tide of visitors, and regained the road system, it was five in the afternoon; several hours later than intended. But everyone felt we had enjoyed an excellent weekend among the hills and valleys of this beautiful Scottish landscape.

The oyster-catchers were never far away, and their beautiful calling accompanied our entire weekend.

Our thanks to Dean for the great amount of work that went into planning and realising the three days. We look forward to further Scottish adventures, including “On the trail of the Picts”, our workshop for September 2020.

End.

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six,

This is Part Seven

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 6) Beyond the Blasted Heath

And then the worlds around us literally fell away…

We were all tired; it had been a wonderful day, and the weather had been kind – which is not always assured in Scotland… The brain tends to switch off, which is no bad thing when you are in a ‘holding’ group and the whole idea is to engage a different (deeper, gentler, non-analytical) layer of consciousness.

The path was very straight and shaded with overhanging trees. I could sense the beginning of dehydration, and resolved to drink a little of our remaining water supply when we arrived at the wide path to the place of our workings. I voiced to Dean how good the route was; he chuckled.

” Straight and well-kept? Yes – It’s the old railway line between Grantown and Elgin…”

I laughed back. The tired brain reacts to defend the idiot it has become but I let the smiles play out, without response. The art of silent acceptance is a rare thing in a world where everything must be reacted to… but those moments can trigger a state where the outer self – the personality – is made quiet.

The timing was good… because, at that moment, the trees on either side ended and the world fell away. The splendour of the Spey Valley spread out below us like a detailed picture.

Suddenly, the green glory of the Spey Valley was revealed hundreds of feet below us…

It was a beautiful surprise; and we could see why Eva and Michael had suggested it. The track that was the line of the old railway had led us to one of its highest viaducts, and this was to be the place upon which we would carry out our ‘Air’ exercises. What could be more perfect…

But beautiful locations often bring their own challenges, as we had found out when the well-researched and perfectly suited beach at Findhorn had disappeared at the high-tide! The challenge on the viaduct was the strong breeze, despite the otherwise warm and perfect day…

The breezy viaduct over the River Spey…

There is a well known saying that (to paraphrase) real life is what happens when you’re making plans for how you should live. One of the principles we emphasise in the Silent Eye work is the importance of being conscious of everything that is happening to us – whether important or seemingly trivial. Deeply significant movements in our lives can be mirrored in the small things of life. Humour is most definitely a feature of the spiritually-inclined life, as is the upsetting of perfect plans…

Like the wind on the viaduct… and ribbons. 

We had become quite skilled in the rapid assembly of our ribbon-based pentagrams. But five minutes of desperate ribbon-chasing later, we gave up and looked at Dean.

“Stones?” Our mock-exasperated expressions asked. When faced with the same problem in the dunes behind Findhorn beach, we had resorted to constructing the pentagrams by simply laying out five stones to mark the pointy bits. When you’re practised with pentagrams you can mentally pick out the paths that exist between them. Textured and coloured stones reflecting the attributes of each element (earth, air, fire, water and their summation – spirit) had been given to us in our first location by the River Spey on the Friday evening. Now, they were the only way of continuing our ‘elemental’ work.

As we laid them out the ‘breeze’ increased. By the time we had finished, and each of the pairings had recorded the other’s comments, we were ready to leave. We took a final look at the glory of the landscape below and headed back along the old railway line.

Our final action, prior to a group dinner back in Grantown-on-Spey, was to revisit the witches and for the ladies to carry out some more Macbeth ‘acting’; this time upon an actual ‘blasted Heath’. 

And finally…. the ‘blasted heath’, home of Macbeth’s witches.

There comes a certain time in such a day when the ’rounded glow’ of a day well spent merges with the warmth of sheer fun. Give people in this condition a few bits of Shakespeare to enact – on a real blasted heath – and they will rise to the occasion. We smiled and laughed a lot. The ladies playing the witches were simply magnificent; and, if we were the only ones in the gallery, then that was enough.

The travelling company of players finally conclude their day and head back to the cars… and dinner

Finally, it was time to head back to Grantown; but via a slight detour that would take us back along the shores of Lochindorb.

One of the castles of the Wolf of Badenoch; the “Vilest man in Scotland’s history?”

Sadly, the pre-booked dinner in Grantown-on-Spey allowed us no time to stop and photograph, even given the last hour of the sun against the stunning vista of the Cairngorm mountains in the south.

The beautiful Glenlivet estate

Lochinborb is home to one of the castles of the Wolf of Badenoch, whose life and works we were to encounter on the following and final day within the beautiful setting of the Spey Valley around Glenlivet – home of one of the most famous single malt labels… and so much more.

Sunset in the streets of Grantown-on-Spey

The sun was setting over the town’s buildings as we arrived back in Grantown-on-Spey and our traditional Silent Eye Saturday dinner. Food and wine were shared amidst much laughter and camaraderie. It had been a very fine day, despite the determination of the ‘mischievous’ spirits whose presence – like Macbeth’s witches – seemed ever present…

Would they play a part in our Sunday – the final day, and the setting for our departure and long journeys home?

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 5) Stone in the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult to photograph through the darkened glass, but magnificent.

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

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

The description reads:

Shadwick Stone (near Tain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 4) Sea and Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

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

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

 

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (Part 3) Headland of the Picts

Headland of the Picts – Burghead and, beyond, the expanse of Findhorn Beach

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

The vast Moray Firth; a small section of which formed the northern boundary of our Silent Unicorn weekend.

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

The mighty Moray Firth, stretching northwards towards Scandinavia.

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

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

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

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

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

Above: An unlikely route to a magical location.

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

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

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

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

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

Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1828

A strange descent to the well-chamber below….

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

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

It is described as a ‘Pictish puzzle’

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

Even after millennia, the construction is still resilient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, Part Two, This is Part Three

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (2) Coast and Castle

Above: Looking down into the Spey valley below – the 7:00 am beginning of our workshop Saturday

There has to be a dawn… I’m not being flippant. Our Silent Eye ‘spirituality in the landscape’ weekends always have at least one early morning event during which we gather somewhere beautiful and greet the dawn. It’s a joy and also a discipline: something that tells our inner self that ‘we mean it’. Sometimes we might read poetry or even enact something from esoteric literature. Sometimes we just gaze and drink it in…. Nature often responds… Once, in the Silent Eye’s ‘birth’ weekend we had a lamb follow us up the side of a field. Hard to better that one…

Above: The ‘good sky’. Soon to be overtaken!

But, to do so in the locations around Grantown-on-Spey would have meant getting up at around three in the morning…. so we settled for a 7 am start, instead; to be followed by breakfast back at our ‘budget’ hotel.

Dean had picked us a beautiful location. The oyster-catchers thought so, too! Their beautiful calls rang out across the hilltop. Only a few minutes drive from our base town of Grantown, yet, with a short walk into a field, giving a view down the valley of the River Spey in all its beauty. The sun had long risen, but we took a few moments to greet it, and its life-sustaining power. Then it was down to work…

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

In the symbolic ‘pre-solstice dawn’ we were to consider the ‘element’ of Air, which is strongly associated with our mental aspects and thought. Aided by a reading of the Macbeth scene where Lady Macbeth tries to wash the imaginary blood of Duncan and Banquo’s murders off her skin, we took a moment to consider what our symbolic ‘Air’ meant to each of us. In my own case, I pondered the power and the weakness of ‘thinking’.

Thoughts are powerful tools: they empower ordinary ‘working-day’ consciousness. We may think about the spiritual, yet our experience of it lies beyond thoughts. From ancient times it has been taught that we must find the gap between our thoughts to seek the ‘opening’ the other world of our spiritual consciousness. Put like that, it’s not that complex – which further illustrates the power of thought to ‘inner chatter’ about the way… but only the theoretical way…

Above: The ‘good clouds’ had gone… The car roof was about to come in handy.

We scribbled in our notebooks and shared what we were comfortable with. Perhaps other thoughts had made us consider aspects of ‘Air’ at a deeper level… Eventually and in an unhurried manner – considering the darkening sky – we left to embark on the next stage of our Saturday adventure. Dean had fashioned a content-packed weekend.

Above: The ‘triangle’ of our weekend had its upper boundary along the coast between Elgin and Findhorn – marked in red. Map: Google Maps.

After a surprisingly good breakfast, we gathered again for our trip towards the north coast. The upper part of our ‘triangle’ was about to fill the rest of the day, with the Findhorn Coast and the largest Pictish standing stone in Scotland forming just part of the agenda.

But first we had the delight of Duffus Castle… a symbolic part of ‘Macbeth country’.

Above: Duffus Castle as you see it from the car park.

Duffus Castle was originally constructed in the twelfth century by a Flemish mercenary named Freskin. He was an ‘incomer’ who was granted Scottish land by King David I. The king was trying to reinforce his own authority by making land grants to those loyal to his military ambitions.

Above: When you get closer the structure of Duffus Castle becomes clearer.

The original building was wooden and nothing survives except its site. 

Above: Panoramic photo shows the side-view of the castle.

The present structure, though a ruin, is a classic example of a medieval motte and bailey castle – a raised mound with a less defended lower area; the latter designed to protect both supplies and craftsmen and (in much greater luxury) the owning gentry. The accompanying image, below, taken from the Historic Scotland notice board, illustrates this, showing the lord’s dwellings at the highest point.

Above: The schematic from the Historic Scotland notice board shows how the medieval Duffus stone castle, with its Motte (1) and Bailey (2) construction would have looked.

The rebuilding – in stone – was carried out around 1305 when Sir Reginald Cheyne was granted ‘200 oaks’ from the royal forests of Darnaway and Longmore to ‘rebuild his manor of Dufhous’. The wood would have used for flooring, roofing and scaffolding in the otherwise stone structure.

Above: A stone passageway shows the thickness of the walls.

The main residence was the tower on the motte – the keep. The more comfortable rooms – hall, dining and bedrooms – were on the first floor; with shared accommodation for the household on the floor below. The windows were few and small, the only entrance was via an easily guarded portcullis.

The internal spaces of Duffus castle are a contrasting mixture of light and dark…

Sadly, the heavy castle was constructed directly on the ruins of the former structure. Eventually, the north wall of the tower slid down the hill. The lord had to move his quarters to the lower parts of his once-splendid castle.

Above: The sad fate of the lord’s upper rooms. Use of the older ruins as a foundation meant that the castle could not support its own weight, and the upper level fractured and slid down the internal hill (Motte).

It was time to make use of our Macbeth theme, again. This time Act III, Scene I, which begins with Banquo speaking his thoughts that the dreadful prophesy from the witches on the ‘blasted heath’ (which we were later to visit) had all come true… Macbeth was the Thane of Cawdor, Glamis and King. And Banquo had good reason to fear the newly-elevated tyrant… his former friend. There is much of great depth in such storytelling, and it fits well with a modern approach to the psychology of mankind.

“Thou hast it now, king. Cawdor, Glamis, all. As the weird women promised, and I fear thou play’dst most foully for’t…”

Our volunteer ‘actors’ were enthusiastic – we all took turns through the weekend. The group was at ease and good-natured. We smiled, yet considered the deeper side of Macbeth’s wilful ambition. How did it relate to us? Dean had selected Duffus castle to be the pentagram point of ‘Earth’. In his new system, this was the place of the Potential Self.

It was very suitable. Alchemical Earth is all the things that are foundational and basic – but essential. Without the earth in which organic things grow we would be nothing. We do not demean the earth symbol as being in any way lowly – in the same way that astrology does not – but it is the home of our bodies and of sex. Also the home of the lower emotions such as Macbeth’s twisted ambition….

Duffus was a fitting symbol of Macbeth; a man who ‘o’er reached himself’. The castle, built on insecure foundations – like the Thane’s rise to kingship – fell into the mud, there to languish as a lasting symbol to us all… A sobering thought!

Above: Dean pointed the way – through the ‘twisted window’…. Ahead lay the coast.

We were only part-way through the morning, yet felt like we’d had a day of activity. Walking out of the castle and past the long wall of Duffus, we listened to Dean’s description of our next place of inner and outer discovery – a holy well set deep in the ground of modern Burghead; a place with a rich and fascinating Pictish heritage. A place of sleeping water… and perfect acoustics.

Above: The long wall of Duffus castle. We said our goodbyes…

To be continued….

Other parts in this series

Part One, This is Part Two

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Three Days of the Oyster-Catcher (1)

We were standing close to the River Spey in the grounds of Strathallan church a few miles from the centre of Grantown-on-Spey: one of the gems of the north-eastern highlands of Scotland. The previous hour had seen us all meet at a tea room in the centre of the town. We discussed the plans for the weekend, drank tea and had cake…

Strathallan church is famous for its beautiful location by the river. But it is also the site of an ancient pictish stone; one that bears markings related to the mysterious number at the heart of the pentagram – Phi.

The Pictish stone in the graveyard of Strathallan Church

The call of the nearby oyster-catcher rose till it was overwhelming.

“A lone female,” the groundsman of the nearby church explained, as he prepared to wield his petrol strimmer against the long grass around the neighbouring gravestones. “Down to one surviving egg,” he shouted, lowering his ear mufflers. “Makes a terrible racket!”

Whatever else he was trying to convey to our suspicious-looking bunch of clipboard-wielding visitors was lost in the mayhem that followed. You have to wonder if the oyster-catcher was chuckling…

You get days like this in the pursuit of mystical experiences…

Luckily, our guide and teacher for the weekend, Dean Powell, was used to dealing with adversity. We have shared many an adventure, he and I. This, the Silent Unicorn weekend – a union of the Silent Eye and his Scottish Lodge – was to be one of the best.

Dean introducing us to the local landscape on the Friday evening

We stuck the twin noises as long as possible, then moved to the edge of a high wall, near the river, against which we could begin our construction of ‘pentagrams from ribbons’. We had no plans to enact moonlit rituals! To start with, there’s precious little darkness this far into northern Scotland so close to the summer solstice. Darkness lasts a few hours at best, and the dawn is about 03:00.

The pentagrams were to be the basis of a psychological analysis of ourselves. Their five-pointed shapes would come to represent our journeys of self-enquiry as we let rationality slip away within the glorious green of the Spey valley, the Findhorn coastline, and the mysterious castles of Macbeth country…

The river Spey’s course is just over one hundred miles long and is the fastest flowing river in Scotland. Its beautiful landscapes are famous for salmon fishing and the production of Scotch whisky. It flows northwards, ending in the Moray Firth a few miles west of Buckie. We were to see many of its beautiful faces as the weekend progressed.

Map showing the course of the River Spey as it flows towards the Moray Firth. Source: Wikipedia, licence SA 3.0

The groundsman’s strimmer fell silent. The oyster-catcher’s urgent protest stilled. We would be reunited soon enough.

Dean pointed to our first-attempt pentagrams and allocated names to the five points; later backed up by a comprehensive set of handouts.

The pentagram has long been a symbol of both the human and the place of the human in the scheme of creation. In other posts, I have detailed the unique geometric properties of its shape. The primary mystery of it lies in the embedded ‘magical’ number Phi. Phi allows the division of a ‘whole’ into two parts such that the child pieces retain their relationship with their dimension of origin. Phi is the ‘seen’ symmetry in plants and seashells, and can be found throughout nature. Famous artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, based much of their work on this mysterious number.

Dean’s use of the pentagram was as a map of the human self, using the headings of:

  • Core
  • Potential
  • Limited
  • Boundary
  • Weak/Defect
  • Shadow

The meanings of these would unfold within the beauty of the landscape. We were in for quite a weekend…

To be continued….

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Five Faces of the Macbeth Human

Exploring the faces of the ‘human condition’ should be consuming our world at the moment. We might reasonably conclude that understanding the heights and depths of our shared experience, as we drain the planet of its living life, would be of interest to us.

But we don’t…

Instead, if we ask any questions at all, we spend months looking at things from a political perspective – from power; assuming against expectation, that somehow, the political process will throw up something good for our world.

Psychopaths are having a field-day. Across the globe, they are running things, some of them even showing us how deluded we are to worry about this; that it’s all nonsense…

The story of one of the most successful psychopaths in fictional history was set in northern Scotland. A hardy group of us are shortly to spend a day driving to the town of Grantown-on-Spey, in the northern Cairngorms, to work out our personal and mythical relationships to Macbeth – Shakespeare’s fabled warrior, who, assisted by his wife, Lady Macbeth, rose from glory to bloody dominance before being toppled by forces from within himself – and herself, if you widen the mystical interpretation of the story.

We will carry with us the means to construct our own ‘Guiding Star’ – a five pointed figure well known to everyone as the pentagram.

Throughout our history, scholars have questioned the source of the negative side of being human. Since ancient times, geometric figures have been used to explore and question human nature, often being viewed as somehow ‘magical’ when they were simply an aid to what we now call psychological understanding. The value of such figures – derived from the properties of the circle – is to show how forces that act upon us – psychologically – are related to each other, and do not act in isolation. That, alone, should give us food for thought.

Within the Silent Eye, we use another figure – the enneagram, which is ‘nine pointed’ – as the basis for our self-exploration. But the pentagram is older, and considers the inner and ‘magical’ nature of mankind within a mapping of five qualities: Air, Earth, Fire, Water and one other…

Mystically, these are called the Elements. Although they derive from an age in which modern science had not thrown its analytical light on the atomic and vibrational nature of matter and energy, the philosophers of that age did not see a valid division between the inner and outer worlds experienced by our consciousness.

Because of this, the four elements were seen to be both subjective and objective, coming together in a fifth – Spirit- which opened the door to mastery and harmony in which the created and the creator were re-united, within the creation; the world in which we live and breathe and have our being.

At a simple level, the element of Earth may be seen as our foundation of physicality. It is slow and cold in its operation. Without animation from others elements, it cannot evolve.

Air is what we breathe and also how we communicate. It provides one of three elements of what makes our biology work: the other elements being the intake of Water (also emotions) and the stability of the foundational Earth. Fire is something different and is closely aligned with energy and transformation; burning off the dross of the lower forms of mortality.

The sequential alignment of the self with each of these Elements is a key process in so-called ‘magic’. For magic, we should read self-transformation; a concept for which we now have deeper psychological understanding, though psychology still does not acknowledge the deeper implications of this approach.

The key is the sequence used, and the fundamental attraction generated with what turns out to be higher aspects of the self; known as the Self. Implicit in this approach is the presence of the famous golden ratio – an intrinsic property of the pentagram, and one of the basic dimensions of biological life.

In a triangle of landscapes between Grantown-on-Spey, the highland coast at Findhorn and the historic Macbeth castles near Inverness, we will explore these relationships and the potential for alignment with the Self, using prompts from Shakespeare’s famous play. The story of Macbeth, seen as an allegory, is the story of our own confrontation with materiality and the wrong kind of ambition.

Dean Powell, who is based in the north Cairngorms, runs a local esoteric group: Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba. Dean will be leading our group through his adopted Highland landscape in an exciting journey of self-discovery shared by all.

The Silent Unicorn is the name of a workshop (14-16 June, 2019) which will bring together the work of Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba and the Silent Eye into a weekend of physical and spiritual exploration in the setting of the Scottish Highlands.

If this blog has given you an appetite to join us, there are still a few places remaining. Send an email to rivingtide@gmail.com and we’ll provide more details.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

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

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

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

Pen of the oyster-catcher

Portmahomack, a fishing village on the north shore of one of the fingers of land that jut out into the North Sea, thirty or so miles north of Inverness.

There is something perfect about it.

Somewhere close, our collie dog, Tess, is barking, playing with the waves. I follow the waterline, ensuring that only the thick soles of my boots get wet. It is March and that green-grey sea is icy, here on the Sutherland coast. We’re an hour’s drive from John o’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland. Had it been May, I might have paddled…

I am here to write, not play on the beach; though the early mornings and evenings will be devoted to making sure that the collie has lots of exercise and that I don’t become dull by sitting too long at that old wooden desk in the hotel room; the one that smells deliciously of ancient wood and generations of preserving polish. It even has a hole where the inkwell used to be.

The Oyster Catcher will do nicely for the evening meal. A latté, by itself, for breakfast – the mild hunger helps me think – and, at this time of year there’s nothing better for lunch than a steaming bowl of fish chowder with a chunk of locally-baked bread. I’ll see if I can persuade the hotel to do it; perhaps swap them a glowing review on Trip Advisor… It’s worth a try.

But food is for later. For now, I just want to drink in where I am, a writing castaway in this quiet and relatively unvisited place – at least I judge it so, as we are, as far as I can see, practically alone in Portmahomack.

We each have our own writing triggers. For me it’s a combination of sky, landscape, beaches.. and some inspirational music. Sometimes, I find a place that combines them all… This is one such. I’m looking forward to meeting a few of its residents, but not too many. Maybe a couple of beers, or a glass or two of wine after the evening meal, then an early night with one of my current books – I’m studying how William Boyd writes such apparently simple novels, yet hooks you into the plot early in the first chapter. Try ‘Any Human Heart‘ if you want to sample his best.

It helps to fall to asleep reflecting on how great writers do it… and wake refreshed and determined to have a go…

I’ll set the alarm so that I wake about six. I will open the curtains and look out at that vista, listen to the sea and drink in the the sheer wonder of being here. The start of the day will see me making a rubbish cup of tea from the contents of the wooden tray in the wardrobe, before taking Tess onto the beach across the road. Then I’ll sit down to begin the writing, knowing, at the end of the first couple of hours’ creativity, that a delicious coffee awaits at the tiny cafe along the quay. Later on, someone might be making chowder with home-made bread in the Oyster Catcher.

Sky, landscape and beaches… You can see from the photos how lovely this part of Scotland is, but none of them convey the sheer size of the Scottish sky. We’re less than an hour north of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland, yet we could be in a different world and in a different time. Most of our previous trips have been to the western highlands, which are glorious; but this part of the highlands has been a revelation. We are told that there are far fewer midges here in the north-east of the country. Depending on the time of year, this can be a life-saver.

Across the waters lie the mountains of South Sutherland – which don’t appear to have a generic name – but that may just be my lack of knowledge. We are well north of the famous skiing region of the Cairngorms and the landscape is very different. Golden beaches seem to be everywhere; most of them empty. Good to walk on and Collie heaven…

It’s not so much a question of writing a book as finishing one. Several years ago, we ran a Silent Eye weekend workshop called ‘River of the Sun‘, a modern mystery play, told in five acts, and set against the backdrop of the 19th Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The man who would become Pharaoh Ramases II is sailing back up the Nile to be at the bedside of his dying father – the, arguably, greater Seti I.

Ramases knows his father has little time left, yet he seems in no hurry to return to the royal palace. Instead, he mounts a night-raid on one his father’s favourite temples on an island in the Nile, run by a high-priestess the son suspects of heresy… The audacity and spiritual violence has far-reaching consequences…

The workshop was a success. Several people commented that the plot would make a good novel. As a test I serialised the first part of the book as a series of blogs (see list at the end of this post), but time has passed and I have yet – and inexcusably – to complete it. Hence being here…

We have reached the quayside. It’s quite windy and the farther out along its length we go the more we get blown. We do not linger… but return to the shelter of the village streets. Other days will dawn and the wind will have abated.

From along the beach, my wife, Bernie, calls… Tess barks for our reunion. My wandering reverie is broken. With a sigh I turn the corner of the quay and begin my walk back to where she and the Collie are waiting by the car for us all to depart. In a second, my fantasy of a creative break in this newly-discovered haven vanishes. It is not that it is impossible, just that it will have to be another time, as we are staying in a cottage forty minutes south of Portmahomack, not here.

I take one last look at this idyllic fishing village and get into the car. Tess licks my face and Bernie smiles at my wistful expression.

“A writers’ paradise?” she asks.

How well she knows me… But I will be back, though some other writing room may witness the creative conclusion of The River of the Sun.

For now, there are other places to visit on this lovely winter tour of north-east Scotland. Who knows what other writer’s dens I may encounter in this magical land.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school 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.

Index to opening chapters of River of the Sun:

Chapter One – Gifts From the River

Chapter Two – An Agony of Sunset

Chapter Three – The Dark Waters

Chapter Four – Touching the Sky

Chapter Five – The Fire Within