All I ask is a tall stone and a star to steer her by…

M and I have returned from the Orkneys, and now that I have internet access, I can write about it.

We spent 10 days traveling around Aberdeenshire, visiting standing stones and traveling around the Orkney Islands. There, we ate the local bread called bere bannock with mild Orcadian cheese and lots of amazing local beer. We also crawled around a lot of neolithic tombs.

Once you get the hang of finding neolithic sites on OS maps, there is a danger of being a sort of trainspotter about it. Traveling by car, one can easily forget these ancient places are part of the local imagination– living, distinct and fantastical sites.

But on occasion there will be a stone circle that will remind you of this– one such circle was outside an abandoned farmhouse in Aberdeenshire. There were the usual territorial bulls about, but what bothered me was something else. Once, while I was climbing a hill fort in the South of England, I had the strangest sensation of something riding on my shoulders– an odd little gleeful being, only slightly malevolent. It was a disturbing feeling, and I didn’t shake it until I’d reached the roadside.

This circle had a similarly sinister, fey aspect. In the long wet grass surrounding the circles– which were now in wild disarray– no flowers grew, but inside the ring flowers bloomed in nodding white and yellow bunches. Charming, if there weren’t such a forlorn feeling pervading the place. I think often when Neopagans visit sites they infuse them with something, new folklore, new stories and hopes. And I think these things linger. But some circles are hardly visited at all, except by the things we can’t see or know. This circle belonged to such things. Approaching it I felt a cold pull inside, and a dizzy feeling. I decided to hurry back to the car, my skin all gooseflesh, but M went on without me to the recumbent stone circle, climbing over barbed wire to get to the next circle beside it, and I watched him go, uneasy.

Of course nothing happened. Except that while I waited cows called pathetically into the wind. This is beef country and I find it difficult to reconcile the sufferings of these animals, even if they are not being factory farmed.

Some stones are visited by too many people– overly husbanded by the National Trust. Stonehenge is the worst example of this. Other stones are visited mostly by creatures, and still others are kept company by the alien and “conquering” faithful. Christians. This recumbent stone circle, pictured above, had a churchyard built around it, despite or perhaps because of its horned stones flanking the altar. In Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, he describes this circle as looking like the horned good surfacing from the earth, and that’s no lie. It makes the the brittle headstones around it look like chessmen lost on the board of a forgotten game.

I’m sure this is why I keep coming to these places and why they haunt me– that sly feeling of triumph. Everyone wants to be affirmed by an iconographic landscape, something that codes your beliefs into the land and makes them bigger than the notion of the self or even of time.

All around this country, lichen covered blood-red stones count the stars, and they have marked our travels.

And, tomorrow, it’s on your knees, pilgrim

 

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