sacred sites


Aberdeenshire Gold

Tap o' Noth Caledonian hillfort stands guard over Pictish power center at Rhynie's Barflat in Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC Brittonic heroic poem

It has always been our contention that Aberdeenshire gold mined at Rhynie in early-historic times which found its way into Pictish hoards (Traprain Law, Edinburgh) and later melted to form delicate tracery in the Crown Jewels of the King of Scots was one of the major reasons for Rhynie’s importance. After all, a Pictish sub-King who had gold mines on his doorstep and whose pre-Christian ancestors had built no fewer than 10 (Neolithic) stone circles within a radius of as many miles, descended from a great lineage which was responsible for maintaining important sacred traditions. Rhynie’s local mountain, Tap o’ Noth, with its supremely defensive Caledonian triple-ringed hillfort, can be seen for 30 miles in all directions. It is an Aberdeenshire landmark.

Craw Stane, single AD5thC Pictish carved stone left standing at Barflat, ©1856 Stuart drawing 'Symbol Stones of Scotland'

Below, in what is now a lost hinterland, the ancient township of Rhynie clusters on the banks of the Water of Bogie, its market square set within pre-Christian sacred surroundings, with a pre-Reformation churchyard, several stone circles, Neolithic causeways and carved Pictish stones — burgeoning evidence of its prehistoric importance.

It is gratifying, therefore, (but no surprise) to learn that this summer the Universities of Aberdeen and Chester have found definitive evidence of three fortified enclosures south of the town — a triple power center — in Rhynie’s ‘Royal Mile’ at Barflat, where an unprecedented total of eight Pictish (AD5th-6thCC) carved stones have been unearthed over the years, under the unseeing gaze of Caledonian Tap o’Noth.

It is speculated that the famous — and unique — Roman battle of Mons Graupius (AD83) was fought near here. The foothills of the Grampian mountains’ massif begin within two miles of the outskirts of the town.

A sponsored excavation was finally made possible this year after investigations begun in 2007 by Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), in a collaboration between the two universities’ archaeological departments, led by Dr Gordon Noble (UA) and Dr Meggen Gondek (UC). Their interest was piqued by positive resistivity surveys taken in 2005 and 2006, but they were unable to raise sufficient backing to begin. They have discovered three giant enclosures standing close together, one of them a ‘Peel’, surrounded by a massive pallisaded wooden structure of spiked tree-trunks: the ultimate impenetrable fence.

2011 excavation by REAP uncovers large fortified Pictish Power Center at Rhynie. Famous Craw Stane marks south flank of a ceremonial entrance on the East of the pallisade

The dig’s leaders recently gave interviews to national press when it was discovered that, spread over a single summer in 2011, (with only 5% of the site unearthed) the artefacts found on-site ranked among the most important ever to be discovered in Britain.

Dr Gondek said: “Some of the material culture we uncovered is exceptional. It is one of the most significant finds of early medieval imported goods in north Britain.”

Finds include part of a Roman amphora — a large pottery vessel from the eastern Mediterranean used to hold wine or oil; a pair of amber ear-drops — clearly high-status objects — bronze pins, a fragment of 6thC blue glass drinking bowl, Roman pottery and other drinking vessels — all indicating strong links with other cultures well beyond the shores of mainland Britain.

Amber ear-drops, jewellery of status, found inside the Aberdeenshire power centre, courtesy REAP

Because these artefacts could be dated to the AD5-6thCC, this implies that the Pictish chieftains/sub-Kings –whose stronghold this was– were powerful enough to have a flourishing trade route direct to Rome and the Mediterranean.

It has been speculated many times before on prehistoric sites such as this that the Caledonian (Iron Age) fortress on Tap o’ Noth is itself named for an important prehistoric chieftain called Nocht. Etymology of the name is not a misspelling derived from the wind direction! Tap o’Noth overlooks a remarkably dense cluster of ancient sacred sites (Nether Wheedlemont, Upper Ord, Mill of Noth, Clatt, Percylieu to name a few) rivalling the Wiltshire heartland and Salisbury Plain. It has maintained anonymity because of its remote location in western Aberdeenshire, where high mountain routes to the grouse moors and Grampian hills are regularly cut off in winter.

This remote status may be about to change.

Rhynie Man, a six-foot Pictish caricature from the 6thC dug up in a field in 1978. It is presently housed in Council HQ, Aberdeen, but a Rhynie initiative to have it returned is underway

Choosing to focus their investigation in arable farmland around Rhynie’s last remaining (in situ) Pictish carved Craw Stane at Barflat, they made use of decades’ worth of aerial photography by past investigators who had not followed up on provocative evidence of large enclosed fortifications situated in the Barflat fields, alongside a continuous stream of discoveries of a remarkable eight Class I (5-6thCC) carved stones in the same location.

Even when the then farmer at Barflat, Gavin Alston, demanded ‘treasure trove’ payment from Grampian Regional Council (Archaeology) in 1978 in exchange for his freshly ploughed-up Pictish ‘Rhynie Man’ (presently housed in Aberdeenshire Council’s HQ at Woodhill House, Aberdeen), right, there was no follow-up to discover why so many Pictish stones had surfaced in a single 30-acre field. Now his son Kevin Alston crows: “This will put Rhynie on the Map.”

While the excavation revealed a number of structures and foundations associated with buildings at a shallow depth below the ploughing level, the relatively undisturbed context of both jewellery and drinking vessels imply a stronghold, even a ‘palacio’ which was more common in the 6-7-8thC Pictish capital of Forteviot in Strathearn. This is exciting because the Rhynie artefacts were found within the remains of what would have been an elaborate system of defensive enclosures, including two deep ditches and a massive timber palisade — alongside remains of extensive wooden structures and fortified buildings. Early power centres of the Picts are scantily documented. The Pictish Chronicle, whose Latin original is lost, and whose various 12thC copies have been ‘tampered with’ by Scots successors to Pictish wealth and culture, gives much detail of names and historic events, particularly in AD7-8thC. But Scots addenda and manipulation of text and some names has traditionally made historians unwilling to depend on it. The Rhynie revelation provides an exciting opportunity to find out more about how the kingdoms of powerful Pictish warlords were consolidated in the North.

Another of the 8 Pictish symbol stones found at Rhynie-Barflat; a fragment stands in the pre-Reformation kirkyard showiing (royal) dolphin, part of sword, top of mirror-comb symbolizing matrilineal succession, drawing courtesy RCAHMS

From historians like Bede, a contemporary of late7th-early8thC Pictish King Nechtan (ancestral lands in Fyvie, Gight, Derley, eastern Aberdeenshire, but ruling from Strathearn), it is known that the Picts established a direct connection with Rome, with the intention of Christianizing the remote North. A string of Pictish symbol stones stand in what may have been Pictish strongholds in locations such as Tyrie in Buchan, the ‘Kingdom’ of Forgue, Huntly in Strathbogie, Mortlach in Banffshire and Inveravon in Moray where such stone (‘white’) kirks were established by this evangelizing king and his Pictish successors. From contemporary Gaulish and Roman documents it is known that his distinct Christianizing influence throughout the northern kingdom in the following century was far in advance of the backward Scots culture on the West. It is often speculated that this very high-status powerful connection with Rome and with other cultures of the European mainland was the bait which fueled the very real jealousy and ambition of Kenneth MacAlpine and his Scots-Irish line in their takeover of the Pictish kingdom in AD843. It remained only for them to destroy all written evidence (historical, Chronicling, church archives) of the northern nation’s wealth and power for the Scots to obliterate a memory of Pictish law and customs in the minds of the people and their new kingdom of Scots was assured. It is ironic that present-day Scots Law still retains elements of Pictish Law known to have been drawn up alongside a version of Roman Law in the time of Nechtan (Bede).

Predecessor to Rhynie Man: ceremonial stone figure, Barflat#4, currently in the town's Market square

Dr Noble reiterates the old litany that ‘the Picts are a mysterious people’, but other scholars researching contemporary chronicles from other Brittonic tribes who held the Scots in low esteem — including Old Welsh archives (and the Gorhoffedd top) — suggest, as our sister site writes:

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth

It is anticipated that further excavations in future years at Rhynie will prove this case conclusively. We welcome all results from the REAP project and also applaud the Rhynie community in its initiative to bring back to their own doorstep those Pictish stones and relics which were previoiusly removed without their permission.

Bravo.

©2011 MCYoungblood/Derilea/Devorguila

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At the head of Glen Lyon, hidden away from the unseeing eyes of modern man–and his pragmatic concepts of our pre-Celtic sacred past–is a pre-Christian shrine whose tradition has been maintained through the centuries. A sacred ritual, kept from time immemorial–and still maintained to this day on Beltane and Samhain (May Day and ‘All Hallows’) by a few descendants–ensures that the Crooked Stones of the Black Glen (Gaelic,Gleann Dubh nan Garbh Clac) come out of their hole into the sunshine of summer and return to their hole for winter months. That ‘hole’ is the sacred bosom of the Earth Mother herself whose traditions long pervaded pre-Celtic culture of the North Britons. When Christianity came to the northern shores, some of these traditions were shielded from prying eyes–but ritual continued–other traditions were ‘lost’.

On the Feast Day of Bride
The serpent shall come from its hole
I shall not molest the serpent
Nor shall the serpent molest me

This is an almost forgotten rhyme (original in Irish Gaelic) which was spoken on the Feast Day of Bride (Imbolc, Oimelc, Candlemas, February 2, St.Brigid’s Day), at the first glimpse of sunlight after the long winter months. the serpent (so demeaned and debased by the Christian church as evil betrayer) is symbolic both of knowledge (medical caduceus) and the Kundalini Lifeforce of the Spirit and simple rising sap in Nature. Bride was the pagan goddess of the Earth in her Virginal-girlhood guise. She is seen as the Mother goddess during summer months when she provides all the bounty of the Earth; and as the Crone, or Cailleach (‘hag’) in the waning months of the year. She is the Cailleach of the Stones at Glen Lyon when she returns to her ‘hole’ on November 1st.

The Glen Lyon ‘hole’ is a rough shelter (Tigh) to house the stones–a lovingly-tended shelter which speaks volumes about its unsung guardians. In comparison with such ‘shelters’ erected at massive cost to the taxpayer by government agencies for other stones, this little shelter is a miracle in time-honored tradition alone.

Jamie Grant, secretary of Glen Lyon History Society has lived in Glenlyon, known in Gaelic as Gleann Dubh nan Garbh Clac (the black Glen of the crooked Stones), for the last ten years. During this time he loves to visit one remote spot more than any other.

To reach it you have to drive to the road’s end at Pubil, where the Lubreoch hydro-electric damn (sic) holds back the waters of Loch Lyon. From here a small track skirts the north shore of the loch, into the Glen’s most westerly marches”

“This land between Loch Lyon and the Bridge of Orchy feels truly wild. Miles from anywhere the mountains, scored with tumbling burns, take complete hold over the landscape. Scramble to the summit of Beinn á Chreachin on a clear day and you can see the Ben Lawers massif, Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe and even the humped cap of Ben Nevis in the far distance.”

Planning was lodged last month for four run-of-river hydro schemes on the Auch Estate in Glenlyon. One of these proposed schemes in Gleann Cailliche threatens an ancient and uninterrupted link to our fast-diminishing heritage of pre-Celtic Pictland/Scotland.

Glen Lyon views and rare Arctic-alpine habitats are suberb. There is already a dam feeding much needed water, but any increase in road traffic or development will forever mar what the locals enjoy. They have–philosophically– learned to live with the alternative over the centuries: man’s encroachment.

Particularly now in 21stC, road-making and access-provision equipment is no longer manufactured on a scale which takes the environment into consideration. Sixteen-wheelers are the ‘norm’ in deliveries from household coal to house ‘kits’.

Jamie wrote the following about the proposal for the new accesses and hydro-electric pylons which are planned for erection. All dowsers know of the disruption to ancient geomatric energy when an electricity supply crosses over an ancient sacred site–in particular one where sacred honoring and tradition have been maintained.

Pylons to be erected with high-voltage wires strung over this site will destroy its unique connection to the very landscape it seeks to honor.

While planning objections had to be lodged before March 18th, 2011, there is still time to make one’s opinion heard: The First Minister, Scots Parliament and Historic Scotland should be approached, if you feel strongly enough to save this unique sacred spot.

Glen Lyon's Tigh Nam Bodach sacred site, its water-formed figures, with Ben Nevis on the horizon

“Tucked away in Gleann Cailliche, a hidden glen of boggy heath and mist, is the ancient shrine of Tigh nam Bodach. The shrine is made up of a modest stone structure that houses a family of bell shaped water stones from the river bed of the Lyon. The largest represents the Cailleach (old woman), accompanied by the Bodach (old man) and their daughter, Nighean.

“The Tigh nam Bodach is recognized as the oldest site of uninterrupted pagan ritual in Britain–some say in all of Europe. For centuries the family of stones are taken out of their house every spring and stood to face down the Glen. At the beginning of November they are carefully shut back up inside their house, where they shelter through the winter. The ritual coincides with the two great Celtic fire festivals, Beltane (May Day) and Samhain (‘All-Saints’ Day), and once echoed the annual migrations of the Highland cattle to and from the summer shielings.”

[Samhain was the beginning of the Celtic calendar year. Ed]

“The shielings may be long abandoned, but the practice of tending to the stones is still observed to this day. Residents and other visitors who know of the stones also walk to the site throughout the year. The Tigh nam Bodach is a unique part of Glenlyon’s heritage and an unbroken connection to our pre-Celtic ancestors.

“The Cailleach, or divine Old Goddess, is a potent force in Celtic mythology.

First recorded as the Cailleach Bhéarra of the Beara peninsula in southern Ireland, she was once revered across Ireland and Scotland. Commonly associated with wild nature and landscape, in the Western Isles, the Cailleach is credited with creating Scotland’s elemental fringes (including the Hebrides).

A local legend says that Loch Tay was formed when she forgot to leave a flagstone lid on a magical spring well.”

“A fearsome Cailleach was said to live on Perthshire’s Beinn à Ghlotha. In legend she was a terrifying hag that could take the form of any wild animal and loved nothing more than to drown travellers in pools of water with the lure of false treasure.

“Glen Lyon’s Cailleach is more benign. She is remembered for looking after the cattle that once grazed these high grounds. ‘Strange and terrible’ things are said to happen to anyone who dares disturbs her wintering grounds in Gleann Cailliche.

Planning permission recently lodged for four hydro electric schemes will forever transform the Gleann Cailliche and the surrounding landscape.

Existing tracks will be upgraded to take heavy traffic.

Power houses will be constructed, borrow pits dug and fresh tracks will be carved into the steeply sided slopes to weirs.

An overhead power line will be run past the Tigh nam Bodach and down the side of Loch Lyon.

Jamie Grant continues:

Typical government-agency 'greenhouse-cooked' shelter for Sueno Stone, Forres, Moray. cf rude shelter in Glen Lyon

“And what will become of the Tigh nam Bodach? No doubt some archaeologist in Perth or Edinburgh will earn his or her salary by insisting that the stones are not touched. The shrine will be cordoned off with a strip of high vis tape while the diggers work the surrounding ground.

“What the planners are unlikely to appreciate, for all their cleverly worded ‘mitigation measures,’ is that the Cailleach represents the whole landscape.

“Of course, these run-of-river schemes have their benefits. They generate much needed renewable energy to help tackle climate change. They are far less visually-intrusive than vast onshore windfarms. They also help support cash-strapped estates at time of financial uncertainty. But for all the positives, I am still convinced that a few of our wildest places should be kept free of industrial development.

“Surely Gleann Cailliche, with its unbroken link to our deep past, is one of them.

“We would do well to remember that in Celtic legend the goddess of the wilds was not immortal.”

“In one old tale from Mull the Cailleach immersed herself in the waters of Loch Bà every one hundred years to replenish her youth and beauty. As she descended one morning out of the hills to take the loch’s elixir of life she heard the bark of a shepherd’s collie (representing the domestication of animals and landscape). Pausing to listen, her hundred years timed out and she stumbled and died just short of the water’s edge.”

In Jamie’s view and the view of the Historical Society of Glen Lyon:

“To me the development that has finally reached the Tigh nam Bodach after centuries of seclusion in these remote hills is symptomatic of what is happening in so many of Scotland’s wildest places. Listen carefully and you might just hear the collie’s bark in The Black Glen of the Crooked Stones.”

Send an email to developmentmanagement@pkc.gov.uk (quoting the reference 11/00061) if you wish to raise your concerns about the Allt Cailliche Hydro Scheme.

Plans for all four schemes are available on the Perth & Kinross council website.

Our thanks to Glen Lyon History Society for this alert. When so many cultures worldwide are regaining their connection to the Earth and relearning the ways of their ancestral traditions, it is important that we in Scotland do a little to uncover the importance of our own past. Ed.