My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture, and things in the broader realm of the Gothic and darkly Romantic. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

Goth is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, the expression of that in Goth rock. It looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, et al) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. The Gothic should not be limited by what is already within it; inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Clava Cairns Revisited

Another instalment of my 'Gothic Travels', which is something I want to focus on this year. Today's visit is to a 4,000 year old burial ground in the valley south of Culloden. I've been there before, and you can see the previous post (with really terrible photographs!) about when I went there for a Pagan gathering ::here::.

On February 4th, my partner Raven and I visited Clava Cairns near Culloden. We drove there, and parked up at the carpark on the site, which only had a couple of other vehicles. I was surprised that there was anyone else there at all on such a cold and frosty Monday afternoon; the carpark was iced over with compacted snow for the most part, and while it wasn't utterly freezing, it was cold enough not to melt the settled snow particularly fast, and even in what is a sheltered valley there was as a certain chill - perhaps the damp air from the river that runs under the viaduct further along. [The viaduct is pretty impressive, similar to the Glenfinian Viaduct made famous in Harry Potter, and it too has a railway crossing a valley, but this one is pink rather than grey; I will give it its own post]. 

Long shadows from a low sun beside the ring cairn; photograph by me.

I apologise for the lack of clarity and resolution in my photos - my camera broke last summer and I haven't been able to afford a replacement since then, so I'm just using the camera on my phone, which is average at best. Please click on photographs for expanded versions, especially the thumbnails.

Pile of rocks in the carpark. Photograph by myself.

There's what appears to be a small cairn in the carpark, just outside the boundary to the main complex of cairns. As it's not listed on the maps, and it's not in the enclave, I think it might just be a pile of rocks from levelling a flattish plot to make the carpark, or maybe an 19thC folly addition, or even stones removed in the 19thC excavations of the cairns; basically I don't know what it is at all.

Frozen meltwater in a depression. Photograph taken by myself.

Raven and I; cooperative selfie.
Clava Cairns is specifically 'Balnuaran of Clava', as there are other groups of cairns known as 'Clava Cairns'. There's also a ruined chapel and another cairn at the far end of road, which I have visited before in the past, but didn't visit that day. Nearby there are two other cairns in an overgrown field across the road from the enclave run by Historic Scotland, and also a standing stone in a field that sometimes has I think cows in it. Either way, the other two monuments and the standing stone are not open to the public as monuments, and while there is some freedom to walk in Scotland, these fields often have livestock, so going in them could cause a problem (Highland Cattle/Heilan' Coos are very cute but they are large animals with big horns! Be considerate of cattle and farmers if visiting.

The setting sun makes for a beautiful light over the cairns.

Reflected sunlight on ice.
Photograph by myself.
The enclave around the cairns is of old trees, planted between 1870 and 1871 by the land-owner at the time, who had the Romantic notion of the cairns being a 'Druidic temple' so wanted to plant it into a 'Druid Grove' - I think there are a few Neo-Pagans (Celtic, Druidic and otherwise) who are quite grateful for that, because it really does give the site a beautiful atmosphere of being encapsulated by nature, something simultaneously apart from the world and deeply within it. I'm certainly neither the first nor the best photographer to take advantage of the late afternoon light streaming between the branches and trunks of the trees, and I felt that the melt-water and ice from where the snow had been defrosting certainly did something to make that extra-special.

Sunlight streaming through the trees across where the snow has melted.

Near-to-carpark cairn. My photo.
The cairns are approximately 4,000 years old, and they were used as mausoleums of a sort. There are three large cairns and one small kerb cairn. Two of the large cairns have passage entrances aligned with the setting sun on the winter solstice, and the centre cairn is a ring cairn - a central sealed chamber with no entrance, a sort of stony donut. I've read that the stone circles around the cairns were set after the cairns ceased to be used for new burials. The ring cairn in the centre of the three is almost a wheel design, with the ring cairn as the hub and low stone walls as spokes out to the standing stones beyond. I think the standing stones are also on a celestial alignment.

A cleft stone - was it split by time and ice, or is it a pair?
Photograph taken by myself. 
Scarf to keep my ears warm.
Selfie by the larger cairn.
The far cairn is the smallest full cairn other than the kerb cairn. There used to be an infographic explaining the sunset alignment at the cairns, but I can't remember if it's still there, and if it was, it was buried under snow. I think the far corner cairn has a cup-mark in a stone within it, and was re-used as a columbarium around a thousand years after they were made, in approximately 1,000BCE. It was excavated in Victorian times, but it wasn't excavated with the modern techniques of archaeology, and a lot of data was missed, lost, or destroyed. I don't know if they disinterred any remains, and if so, what happened to the person who was buried there, but from what I gather, the cairn was the victim of overenthusiastic dilettante archaeology in the 1870s.

The far cairn, aligned with the sunset. Photo by myself.

In South East England, where I grew up, there was a theory relating the placement of barrows to either be prominent on the brows of hills, or to be near rivers, and while I think the builders of the cairns at Clava may have been culturally different, the cairns are hardly on a hilltop, but they are in a valley with the River Nairn flowing through - but I'm not an archaeologist (yet... I'm doing my second undergraduate degree part-time, studying joint History & Archaeology), and it is something I would have to read up on. There's been some interesting papers on the placement of chambered cairns on the Isles, but I don't know about the mainland. Definitely something I need to look into. 

Frosty ground. Photograph by Raven.

The Cairns are very popular in recent years due to the success of the show 'Outlander', as apparently there is some connection to the series. I haven't watched much of it, and the opening scene with early 20thC 'Druids' was filmed on a set on a hillock with foam stones, and Clava Cairns is apparently not the site mentioned in the books (a better candidate for that would be the stones that remain of the cairn at Dunain, which I mentioned in my previous blog entry about Ostara), so I'm not sure what the exact connection is, but it's something to do with magical standing stones as part of the time-travel in the story, from what I gather. They've actually become too popular, and have been damaged by people climbing on the stones, and on the cairns, dislodging parts of the rock walls of the cairns. Large coaches and heavy traffic have also caused an access issue for the garage that runs recovery/road-side assistance from a little further down the road - and therefore for the clients they were off to rescue from mechanical trouble. If visiting during busy season, I would suggest parking elsewhere and walking down, as it is a pretty and pleasant walk (there are also several B&Bs, chalets, etc. nearby for accommodation.).

A rather rectangular stone. Photo taken by myself.

Raven. Photo by me.
The ring cairn was buried under snow, as was a stone with cup-marks tooled into it. When we got to the far end of the cairns, a tour-bus arrived with a medium group of tourist, and the peace of the place felt broken, so we walked off to get a better look at the viaduct instead. I must go back there again this year, and take photographs in different weather and seasons. I follow #ClavaCairns on Instagram, and a lot of beautiful photographs turn up in that hashtag, which is quite inspiring. Hopefully I'll be able to afford a new camera soon, and thus able to work on bettering my photography. For now, I am doing my best with my smartphone and some basic editing software. 

Snow in the dying light; photograph by Raven 
As a historical site, I thoroughly recommend visiting them, just to get a sense of the size and scale of these cairns. As a Neo-Pagan, I visit to reconnect with the sense of place, with spiritual ancestors and those past practices that inspired me to a nature-based spirituality. 

We made a tiny snowman made from two snowballs with twigs for arms. 
It's also just a pleasant place to be. There are some picnic tables near by, plenty of wildlife lives in the area, and the trees are rather lovely. Apart from solemn contemplation, it's nice to enjoy yourself, and I don't think it is any disrespect to those who were buried there thousands of years ago - as long as that doesn't spill into the sort of exuberance that could damage the monuments or make it so other people can't enjoy their time there too.
[My apologies for the formatting errors with the pictures; the blogging wizard keeps putting breaks/paragraphs where I don't want them, even when I remove them in the HTML editor...]

Friday, 8 February 2019

Imbolc II: Our Home Altar

Detail of a watercolour painting I did.
Sprouting seed in the nook of a statue.
This painting is next to my altar.
I know Neo-Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft aren't inherently Goth or Gothic topics, and this is a Goth blog, but it's also my personal blog, and these things are a big part of my life. There are also a lot of Goths interested in these topics, and I would say that in terms of percentages, a greater percentage of Goths are interested in these topics than of mainstream people. Witchcraft is also trending in younger Goth circles, and a lot of younger people are thus being introduced to Witchcraft through Goth, so I'm trying to show what this witch actually does, to counter some of the misconceptions and to inform people.

I practice a mixture of 'Celtic' spirituality (from a range of 'Celtic' regions and time-periods, hence the umbrella term), Druidry and Wicca. Wicca was my introduction to Neo-Paganism, and I like the Wiccan formats for a lot of the ceremonial aspects, but I'm not Wiccan. I currently use the term 'Celtic Witch' as it's nebulous and ill-defined enough to cover a lot of what I do and my interests, especially as my attitude to spirituality is organic rather than dogmatic, so those things and the balance of them both shift. I have been a Dedicated (as in went through a rite of Dedication) Pagan for 17 years, and had an interest in such things since I was a child, so this is something that has been an important thing to me for a long time. I've been Pagan longer than I've been Goth!

Imbolc altar, mostly in full. 
In our house, we have a permanent altar - it is on a wooden serving trolley that has wheels and a drawer (presumably for cutlery) under the table top, with a shelf half-way down its legs. It's pretty useful because we can wheel it into the middle of the room for rituals. Around it are various bits of Pagan iconography, and the pentacle shelving unit I ordered from CAS Designs (review of that ::here::). While the altar is permanent, what is on the altar changes with the seasons. This post is about what I put on it for Imbolc, and why.

I will start from the bottom up. I have two altar-cloths layered - partly because I know I will spill at least a little wax, and I'd rather not glue my altar-cloths to the wood, especially as it has old varnish. Beyond the basic practical purpose, they have an aesthetic purpose and a symbolic one. The aesthetic purpose is simple; they look nicer than the scruffy table-top of the trolley. The symbolic purpose is multiple. Partly, the act of placing a cloth on the trolley is marking it as something more than an old bit of wooden furniture I salvaged from the discounted section of a charity shop, it's an act of respect, it helps signify that this is an altar and not a wheeled table. The second part of the symbolic aspect are the colours - the light yellow represents returning light, life, and the future daffodils that will bloom in a few weeks; it is a lively spring-like colour, but not as rich as gold, not quite as vividly solar as amber. The darker green represents the sort of foliage that is emerging - it isn't bright luscious green like the leaves of later spring plants, it is the darker green of snowdrop stems and buds that have yet to open, of pines that have been green all winter but are now starting to put forth some new needles. This altar-cloth was actually spring green and solid black on solid green when I bought it, but the first time I washed it, the green faded dramatically, so I re-dyed it.  I tie-dyed it, with the ties arranged to match the print - I feel the varied colours are a little more organic. 

The third aspect is the knotwork print I selected. As I mentioned above, my practice involves a lot of Celtic deities, spiritual beings (faeries/sidhe/sith) and the like, as well as connections to the land (I am in the Scottish Highlands, land of both the Gaelic folk that came with Dal Riada and the Brythonic Picts) and my ancestors (English and Breton) and my wider family (Welsh and Irish). The design is knotwork, and anthropomorphic, a style that was a fusion between Celtic art and Norse art, common in Ireland and Scotland in the early medieval, and which emerged from the positive interaction between the two cultures - it wasn't all raiding and pillaging by Vikings! The Norse element reflects my partner's heritage and beliefs (although he is not a Heathen).

At the back is a large-ish pentagram candle-holder. It holds two sets of 5 candles - at the points are soy-wax votives in purple (top; Spirit/Energy), yellow (middle right; Air/Gas), red (bottom right; Fire/Plasma), green (bottom left; Earth/Solid) and blue (middle left, Water/Liquid). I've listed both the four elements as commonly conceived in Neo-Pagan cosmology, but also five states of matter and energy, as a way of linking that to something more tangible than the usual correspondence tables. There's something a bit more literal and concrete about four states of matter and energy - those things are all observable, solidity is am observable quality whereas the idea of something being 'earthy' is often more reliant on association and metaphor. I have both because I like both the mindset of recognising things as they are, and of being poetic about them, and I feel that these two things - the scientific and rational, and the poetic and spiritual - are best in balance with each other. So far, I'm the only Pagan that I know that has this dual approach to the 'five elements' idea.

Lantern with my Sacred Flame.. and a lot of waxy bits.

The lantern is my 'sacred flame' of Brigid - the same candle as I had up on the brae by the cairn at Dunain, but unfortunately not the same flame. For safety reasons I had to put it out when boarding the bus. Maybe next time, I will not venture quite so far. The glass is not crackle glass, it's just covered in little waxy flakes because as I carried the lantern down off the hill, it was a rough walk over uneven ground, with my slipping on the ice a couple of times, and the molten beeswax in the tealight splashed and splattered onto the inside of the glass. I have no idea how I'm going to clean it because it's a top loading lantern, and there's only a narrow tea-light diameter opening at the top. Maybe I will soak it in hot water and try and melt the wax out, but I imagine that will still leave a residual film! I use that lantern a lot - I took it with me on several Pagan gatherings in the last couple of years!

The association of flames with Brigid starts with a more concrete attribution to St. Brigid of Kildare, who started a sacred fire or flame (not sure if a candle or hearth fire) at the convent she founded in Kildare, where the Brigidene Sisters maintained the fire for years after Brigid herself. St. Brigid was Christian convert, and she was likely named after the pre-existing Goddess of the same name, and in the way Christianity often ended up syncretic with local traditions, it seems that there was some conflation between the saint and her pre-Christian namesake. Sacred flames have existed long before Christianity reached Ireland - and chaste nuns tending a sacred flame has definite echoes of the Vestal Virgins in Rome. Whether it was a similar idea that just happened twice, or whether somehow the concept got transmitted from Rome to Ireland - either from tales of ancient Rome brought by those who came from the Roman church, or through some earlier syncretism (Romano-British paganism often mixed the local gods of the 'Celtic' tribes with similar Roman deities, and it is possible that this approach crossed the sea to Ireland with some notion of a Vesta-hybrid goddess), I do not know. My knowledge of the history of this is muddier than I would like. It's one of those things that a lot of non-scholarly Neo-Pagan books mention, but not something I've yet read more scholarly material looking into - neither the history of St. Brigid (or St. Bridget as she is sometimes Anglicised) or the goddess. 

Spell candle, cauldron and oil burner.

At the very front of the altar is a little yellow beeswax roll candle. I burnt the candle all the way down as part of a spell for renewal and recovery with some mental health issues I have been experiencing recently. Many practicing witches will probably recognise the type as the sort commonly made for spell-candles. All the candles I use for my ritual practice are from natural materials as I think it goes against the spirit of a nature-orientated path to use candles made from paraffin wax when paraffin is a petroleum derivative; i.e a non-renewable fossil fuel. I currently prefer beeswax to soy, as there are issues with over-cultivation of soy, but also a problem of a lack of bees - and more demand for bee-keeping means more bees, even if they aren't wild bees, but a lot of bee-keepers let their bees buzz where they want, or have them at farms to help pollinate specific crops. A lot of the beeswax candles I buy are from small businesses, and there's some you can get in Wales where the supply chain is very local; the beeswax comes from small-scale apiary/hives just outside the village where I buy the candles. The candle is in what is actually an incense burner in the shape of a five-point star, but the recess for an incense cone was just the right diameter and depth for the stubby little candle.

Behind the spell candle is my cauldron. Cauldrons are associated with the Welsh witch/goddess Ceridwen, who in the Mabinogion made the potion of poetry and wisdom in her cauldron. The Irish goddess Brigid is also connected with poetry, and in modern Neo-Pagan art at least, there's some syncretism between the two; Brigid is often depicted much like Ceridwen, with a cauldron. My cauldron of hammered copper and iron is fitting to Brigid's association with smithing. The cauldron as a symbol of the pregnant belly, or the swollen seed, is very in line with the celebration of Imbolc as the time when the dormancy of winter gives way to germination - and for Imbolc my cauldron is not a cooking pot but a flower-pot, with snowdrops bought that afternoon at the farmer's market. 

Snowdrops with the tealights of the pentagram behind.

The oil burner I chose (I have a few that I have collected over the years) was also selected because the shape made me think of that pregnant-belly cauldron shape, and it is also a warm-hued stone that has a cheery sort of glow when lit. The pentagram motif is pretty obvious in its selection.

My altar is approximately laid out in the traditional Wiccan way (particularly influence from the set up in Janet & Stewart Farrar's ::'A Witch's Bible'::), with Earth and Water attributes put on the left side, and Air and Fire attributes put on the right side. Traditionally, this is seen as a feminine/Goddess side on the left, and a masculine/God side on the right, but personally I feel that this doesn't align with the nature of the Celtic deities, plus I think some of the attribution of  'feminine' and 'masculine' to objects and attributes reinforces gendered stereotypes (women are nurturing and emotional, men are active and intellectual). I'm not designating a sword (or athame) as masculine when the Goddess I have the greatest connection to is the Morrigan, who herself very much carries a sword, especial in her aspect of Nemain the battle-fury, but also as Macha the sovereign queen. This is where I diverge from Wicca, as in Wicca the athame and chalice become part of the symbolic Great Rite, where the athame represents a phallus, and the chalice a vagina. I don't see sexual union (symbolic or otherwise) as the core of the generative, creative universe - especially when the universe is much more than the animals that reproduce by mating in that manner. It can be a useful metaphor, but there's something of the parthenogenic Earth Mother, too. I do also have an appreciation for the metaphorical union of the Earth and the Sun, too, but it's not something I'm going to work into the basic structure of all my workings - just those where I feel that exploring that concept is relevant (eg. Beltane). I don't think a cauldron is inherently feminine either, but I feel it is useful to use it that way for Imbolc - it can be associated to masculine things, too, as it was the boy Gwion Bach that ended up as the bard Taliesin through the process of transformation that started with three drops of cauldron potion, even if it was Ceridwen who prepared the ingredients, Gwion was the one attending to it (and got splashed by it).  

As mentioned above, I do still use the left and right arrangement for Earth/Water and Fire/Air, but just not as specifically gendered. The chalice is an elemental tool for me (attribution being water), but it is not inherently feminine. In this case I'm using a green one - that same deep green as the altar-cloth - and rather than wine, it had elderflower fizz, because I can't drink alcohol. I used it to drink a toast to the coming spring. On the left side are both mine and Raven's wands. I used mine for casting circle for my Imbolc ritual.

I haven't detailed my ritual here; that is personal. Some of what I did is hinted at here, and in my account of my trip to Dunain and the cairn that is in my earlier post ::here::. There are plenty of ritual scripts available in many of the better Neo-Pagan books, but I like to craft my own personal ones, and I write a new one for each celebration, each year (although there are certain poems and elements that I re-use). I think writing your own ritual makes it more personal and connected. Neo-Paganism is for the most part non-dogmatic, with no orthodoxy; some traditions have a set way of doing things, but many don't, and many Neo-Pagans walk their own idiosyncratic path because a strong element of Neo-Paganism is that it is an experiential religion, based on your own spiritual practice. In that manner, what I have on my altar is just the way I personally set things up, this particular time - there is no singular way of doing things, just a lot of things we do in common, or similar-but-different. There's no heresy in Neo-Paganism, well maybe except if someone twists it into something with an ulterior and evil agenda (eg. running a sex-cult, or using it for racist propaganda). 

Imbolc I: The Ruined Cairn & The Well of the Spotted Rock - Ritual At Dunain

Cairn stone.
This Imbolc I celebrated alone. Initially I was going to go to a semi-public ritual, then I was going to go to a group gathering, then the group gathering fell through and I missed my chance to sign up the semi-public one, so I ended up heading up Dunain hill alone, high above Inverness, near the Pictish fort of Craig Phadraig, and above the building works currently converting the old Craig Dunain Asylum. I mention the old Craig Dunain, because the turning circle/roundabout outside it is the bus stop to get off at if you're heading there from somewhere other than Leachkin/Kinmylies suburbs of Inverness (I took the bus to Inverness then took a local Inverness bus from the city centre up to Craig Dunain), although if you're happy to walk up a steep hill through suburbia (that admittedly does offer some nice views) I guess it is a couple of miles out from the city centre. 

The Victorian asylum had pre-empted the notion of occupational therapy, and had parkland, gardens and even apparently a small farm to keep the patients occupied and help them recover through meaningful work. I took part in several gardening and conservation work schemes when I was really suffering with my mental health, set up to help people through doing meaningful, rewarding work, and it definitely helped me, but I don't know how these things were run in Victorian times. The estate stretched part the way up the hill, and included a pond, cemetery for pauper residents (which I have blogged about ::here::) and quite a bit of land that is now housing estates. I headed a lot higher than that, and already from near Craig Dunain you have an amazing view out across the city. 

The first path is used is also an access road to both the old water tanks and reservoir pressurising Inverness' water system, and to some of the new water tanks. The hill works as a natural water-tower through its height and steepness, one of the last hills of the Great Glen Way before the Moray Firth opens out. There's a reservoir that serves also as a pond right near the top of the hill (which I will talk more about later), and a small reservoir pond from the old system that makes a tiny pond that seemed quite thoroughly frozen. The access road also passes a pair of abandoned cottages and several broken and ruined street lamps that are quite eerily bent out of shape, like they were snapped by a huge monster.

Beyond the access path I was onto footpaths, which as I got up the hill became snowier and snowier. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I think a lot of children had been up the hill to go sledding and dog-walkers had headed up there too, and the snow had been compacted into slippery ice. I was glad I had good boots and my walking stick with me! There were some interesting stones, including something that might have been part of the old fort, but it was cold and I didn't want to stop for photographs until I got to the cairn. The area is managed by ::Dunain Community Woodland:: project, and they have built steps, paths, etc. 

The view from Leachkin Ridge at Dunain

The cairn is a ruin. There is not much of it left - it is a few standing stones from what was a centre chamber. According to the Dunan Community Woodland website, it used to 70 feet in diameter, but now there's nothing left of that. I wonder what happened to the stones used for it, whether they were recycled into the fort, into field walls, or what. Unlike Clava Cairns and the cairns on the other side of the Ness, it is of a different design, built on a hill and of the type found around Cromarty, but also on Orkney. It would have been a passage grave, angled North East, perhaps to the winter Solstice, and would have had two chambers within it connected by passages. I would imagine entering it would have been quite a magical experience. I have been in the West Kennet Long-Barrow, but that is quite a different sort of burial mound, and I haven't been in anything like it might have been.

The remains of the cairn. Only one stone remains as an upright.

There are no remains left in the cairn - and I don't know what happened to whoever was buried within it. It makes me sort of sad, that there's this trace of what was once a memorial that had considerable effort put into building it, but who it was meant to commemorate is gone, and any notion of who they were. 

Sacred Flame for Brigid, wand, cauldron, incense stick, and yellow candle.

My 'ritual' wasn't much of a ritual, it lacked ceremony. All I did was sit by the cairn ruins, with some snowdrops that I had bought just before in the Inverness Farmer's market (a lucky find) which fit perfectly into my little copper cauldron, and play a short improvisation of growth and emergence on my recorder, a beeswax tealight in my lantern and a beeswax roll candle tucked into the earth of the cauldron. I folded my bright yellow scarf (useful if you wear mostly black and don't want to be hit by traffic) as temporary 'altar cloth', folded double to pad beneath the iron feet of the cauldron and whatever much lighter metal the lantern is made of, so that I wouldn't scuff the stone. Children and animals climb on them and they're exposed to the elements, so maybe it's futile really, but I felt this was more respectful. 

Close-up of tools

People walk their dogs there, and I expected to be interrupted, so I had to keep things simple. I played my tune when I couldn't see anyone about, and spent the rest of the time contemplating quietly. My cauldron went back in the tote bag when I heard someone approaching, but I suspect that I still looked peculiar (especially in my long black woolly coat and winter hat) walking off with a lantern instead of a battery torch (flashlight). 

The tree seat. 

After my little 'ritual', I walked down to a wonderful bench built around a big tree. I would imagine it is particularly nice in summer, a good shaded spot and with an excellent view all year around. I sat down and set down my cauldron as an object of meditation, a focus and symbol - the cauldron as the 'womb' of the earth, the snowdrops growing from it the coming spring. Imbolc is Brigid's day, and I know that cauldrons are more associated with Ceridwen. Snowdrops are a common symbol of the new spring as they are one of the first flowers to emerge and bloom - there are some 'wild' ones growing and blooming in the park in Inverness, so some cultivated ones are not too far off in their timing! 

Hard to make out, but the lantern is suspended in a tree.
The dark area at the bottom is the water of the springhead.

On my way down from the seat, I walked over to the reservoir, which was frozen over with a good layer of ice, and very picturesque. There were still birds on around the small 'lake' that it forms, and it has an island in it and trees around it, so it looks quite natural - apart from having at least one straight side! Near the far corner of the reservoir is a springhead, and that springhead is 'the Well of the Spotted Rock', a fairy well, and once a clootie well, with a stone surround, but the stone surround was deliberately smashed a few years ago. Last time I was the well, people had left glass pebbles, trinkets, and a few clooties on the tree above - I left something myself, too - but when I was there that evening, I couldn't see any of the objects remaining. Admittedly, as the photograph shows, it was getting quite dark. The spring had obviously been flowing quite profusely recently, so perhaps some of the things left there were just washed down stream. I anointed myself with some of the 'well' water, and used a little to water my new snowdrops, then headed downhill. Conveniently, there was a bus waiting at the turning circle when I got there! 

My next post will be about my Imbolc altar at home. I have a post about Clava Cairns coming up soon, too!

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Sacred Well and the Howling Moor

This year I hope to put up more posts based around Gothic tourism - visiting places such as ruined castles, ornate graveyards, ancient monuments, great cathedrals, etc. Today's post is of a windswept moor - which if you have read 'Wuthering Heights', you'll know is a very Gothic sort of landscape. To get there, I went up through Culloden Woods, which has a clootie well now dedicated to St. Mary. Culloden Wood also has a ruined mausoleum once home to the remains of various members of the Duncan Forbes family of Culloden House, but I forgot to walk to that part of the woodland and take photographs - this I apologise for. As usual, click to enlarge thumbnails.

My intention was to walk all the way up to Culloden Battlefield, but I left too late in the day, and it was getting dark by the time I was up near the Battlefield, and I wanted to get back to the city before dark (especially as I didn't want to wait around in the Battlefield carpark for a bus, as it is windy and exposed up there, so quite chilly). Culloden Woods is easily accessible from Inverness City Centre by bus. There is also a bus up to Culloden Battlefield directly, as implied earlier. The weather was wet - drizzle and sleet down in the city, but snow up on the hill with the moor. The precipitation came in patches and flurries, with still moments in between. The skies were low and grey, and the sun seemed dim and always closer to the horizon than I wanted it to be.

The Bridge with the oak tree growing on it.

Culloden Woods is forestry pines - cultivated for timber, but it seems to be transitioning to more natural woodland, with areas of birch and more native pines, as well as the new 'Douglas Wood' section that is intended for children and is dog-less (hence the name; naming things with puns is pretty common up here!). There's a railway line cutting the woodland in half, and over that railway is a handsome Victorian railway bridge... with an oak tree growing on it!

St. Mary's Well in the rain.

Clootie well. Click to enlarge.
What I wanted to visit in the woods was the clootie well. A clootie well is a well where 'clooties' or cloth strips are hung around the well for some folk-magic or quasi-religious purpose. With St. Mary's Well at Culloden, the water is supposed to have healing properties, and to use them, you must tie a clootie dipped in the water to a tree above the well, with the sickness or disease disappearing as the cloth decays - I hope all those who hang non-biodegradable things on the trees around the well don't hope for healing! (I imagine there are many that are tourist mementos). There's more to the 'ritual' -if you would call it that - than this, but I can't remember all of it. I think there was once a plaque explaining how to 'use' the well, but it's now gone. 

Clooties on a tree near the well.

St. Mary's Well is not the only clootie well near Inverness - there's also the Well of the Spotted rock above Craig Dunain on the opposite side of the city, and a few others a bit further afield (Munlochy and Avoch both have one), plus there are other springheads with cultural distinctions of one sort or another - bits of history or folklore attributed to them. Clootie wells seem quite common in Gaelic countries - plenty in both Ireland and Scotland - but there are a few in England too. Wales has sacred wells, too, but all the ones I have come across do not have the practice of tying cloths near them, and are more specifically attributed to saints - usually 'Celtic saints', early saints from the Christianisation of the area. Perhaps I will visit more of the local sacred/special wells, and write about them on this blog. I already have a brief mention of the Well of the Spotted Rock planned for my next blog entry.

Blurry photo of a burn (stream)
There's several burns running down crags, which are both rather beautiful and fill the forest with the enchanting sound of running water. When I was there, it was raining, and very slippery, so I didn't get to photograph the crags well as I was slipping and sliding all over the place, hence there being only one rather mediocre photo of the burn near the path up the hill. Maybe if I go back up there, I'll take some more pictures of the forest itself.

I headed back down from the clootie well to the path along the forestry track, which leads out into cleared land that has reverted to a sort of moorland. It's windy and open, but quite beautiful. It had snowed a few days before, and the drainage channels redirecting burns through the land had frozen, and then started thawing, so there was fractured ice floating. It snowed again properly a few days later. There were a few patches of snow on the cleared land, but I didn't get any pictures. The low shrubbery and wild plants seem to close in around you, despite the wind blowing across and the distinct lack of trees other than a few lonely deciduous trees, birches mostly, stand scraggly and stranded out in the open.

View out of Culloden Woods into the cleared land.

One thing out on the open land that I don't want to either romanticise or sensationalise, but I feel should be mentioned because it is a part of the history of that land is the Prisoner's Stone. This isn't something I want to promote as something to visit because it's 'cool and spooky' or something, it's a place to pause and reflect on an atrocity that may have happened over 200 years ago, but which a lot of local people still feel strongly about today.  It's a site where something really horrible happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden - 17 Jacobite prisoners were executed there, for being on the wrong side an 18th man was spared to spread word of what had happened. There's a bench, inscribed in both Gaelic and English; 'Murder of frozen souls here - marvel that I remained alive, to tell' is the English translation. I don't know if being killed on the moor was better or worse than the fate of those taken prisoner and forcibly marched to be 'tried' and executed in London, many of whom died on the journey. All of it is awful.

The Prisoner's Stone

The same surnames on the clan markers on the Battlefield are the surnames of co-workers, friends, and neighbours; there are still people for whom the dead are names in the family tree. It wasn't something I knew people felt very strongly about until I met some of these people at a protest against luxury housing being built on land that was part of the battle and likely has corpses on it, who were very upset because it was members of their family who died in the battle, and who couldn't collect their sons, brothers, husbands etc. after the battle because of fear of the Hanoverians, even if they died centuries before and had never met. They spoke quite passionately, and before that I didn't realise that it was such a personal thing for some still. Ancestry is very important to some people, even if it's not something that's as meaningful to me; I've always felt sort of detached from my long-dead blood ancestors, but a deeper connection to figures in history who align more with how I think, some of whom I am quite sad I can't write letters to! Since meeting those people, I've felt like it's important to treat it as a the site of something nasty in history, and while I think tourism is an important part of transmitting history, it shouldn't make the nastiness seem 'fun' - I think the bench is a good idea; gives people somewhere to sit and reflect on what happen, and what can get people to feel justified in killing each other.

The Gaelic inscription on the simple bench.

Beyond the Prisoner's stone is plenty of cleared forestry land, leading up to the road. The path I took wasn't that one, however, as I went between some leafless fruit-trees along a more sheltered footpath that runs alongside a farm track to the main road, and is part of the official Culloden hiking/walking trail.  

Walking towards the clouds on the moor.
After crossing the main road, I took a path continuing the hiking trail that leads past some houses to more cleared forestry land, windswept and dreary with snow-clouds closing in. There are stands of pines still (mostly) standing, except for those blown down by the wind. I continued out, and every now again the forestry path turned walking trail would open out onto glimpses of the valleys and snow-covered hills below. This far up the hill, there were plenty of patches of snow left and even when the breeze was light, it felt chill. The clouds were not just dimming the sun, but faint hues in them made me suspect that it wasn't rain, but more snow that was to fall.

The sun begins to set over the dregs of snow.

Along one path I took, all the trees that had been the exposed edge of the stand of pines had blown over, and the craters left by their roots had filled with water - meltwater, I would guess. The land there is moorland, crossed by a multitude of burns that I could hear, but could not see through the dense scrub (mostly whin bushes, a type of gorse, but with all sorts of other more damp-loving plants between, and then the odd young and bushy pine), and a mixture of hard and rocky patches of uneven glacial land and wet ground that tried to steal the boots off my feet each time I stepped in it (I tried to circumnavigate a section of path that was flooded, ended up taking a detour that led nowhere useful, and headed back). It's an eerie place to be. 

Snow clouds and felled land. 
I had headed off in the opposite direction to the battlefield to admire the scenery first, and maybe find a shortcut to Clava Cairns, but my detour delayed me and between the heavy cloud and the rapid decline of afternoon into evening, I was loosing daylight so I headed home - or at least to a bus stop first!

I have several more posts in the 'Gothic Tourism' category to go up - Clava Cairns, Brodie Castle, and several graveyards, ruins, etc. that I visited last year but never had the time to process the images from.