The Church of The Sculls

St. John’s Kirkyard, Gamrie, Banffshire.
The view from the cliffs of the kirkyard, overlooking Gardenstown.

High on the cliffs above the small fishing town of Gardenstoun, or Gamrie as the locals still call it, sits the ruins of a kirkyard that was built on the site of The Battle of the Bloody Pits of 1004 where Norse raiders were slaughtered by the Scots. Like most parts of this coast, it is a place of sweeping beauty. We happened upon it out of curiousity– seeing the walls of the ruins from the town below.  Climbing up the lumpy path from the single track gravel road, I felt an eeire disquiet in this remote place, even before I learned more of it.

We know so little of these “raiders”. Christian historians have often distorted their history, reducing the Norse folk during the Viking age to cartoonish berserkers. We know that they are part of us– through recent DNA testing and before that, the fragments of language that have adhered to places– the the churchyard itself or “kirkyard”. Kirk, meaning church, is borrowed from Old Norse. That we have so little left of that time when the Norse people ruled an age of world-changing seafaring expertise, artistic and spiritual vision, will remain one of our great mysteries.

St. John’s Kirkyard commemorates the annihilation of a Viking party– built and rebuilt over centuries after the battle. Legend has it the Scottish general promised to build a church on the site if the Christian God could just prove that he was on their side. The church was built at the foot of the “Bloody Pits” where the Norsemen’s bodies where piled after the battle. This area earned its name from the carnage, and the scavengers who fed on the bodies. History records them as cattle raiders who were surrounded as they waited for a fair wind to aid them away. Skulls of the vanquished were displayed in the walls of the church behind the pulpit even into the 19th century, hence the its other name: The Church of the Sculls.

Angel or departing spirit on a grave in St. John’s Kirkyard.

One wonders what happened to the skulls of the Norsemen that were once on display. The surrounding area could be said to be one very large, unquiet grave, but the graves inside the walled yard are something else– some of the most fascinating examples of 18th century momento mori that I have seen are here, often coupled with the crossed femur bones, an hourglass and bell. The path I walked to get to the yard may have been an ancient corpse road, and was no doubt used by parishioners for 800 years who trekked over miles to worship there through all weather from the surrounding villages.

What a hard life is a fisherman’s. Standing in the ruins I thought of the sermon on Jonah from Moby Dick, where the pastor seems to be “praying at the bottom of the sea” and his voice was “like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog–”

“In black distress, I called my God/When I could scarce believe him mine/He bowed his ear to my complaints-/No more the whale did me confine.
“With speed he flew to my relief,/As on a radiant dolphin borne;/Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone/The face of my Deliverer God.”

The congregation sings, drowning out the howling storm outside the church.

And, here now, I feel a bristling in the wind from the hillock above. Without a familiar song to guide them, the other bones in their shallow pits turn.

Momento Mori in St. John’s Kirkyard.

Yule Blessings!

At the Nattie Fonten Well

Perchtenmaske, in "Haus der Natur", Salzburg Austria Date23 January 2005, 10:48:08 Source	Own work Author	MatthiasKabel, wiki commons
Perchtenmaske, in “Haus der Natur”, Salzburg Austria
Date 23 January 2005, 10:48:08
Source Own work
Author MatthiasKabel, wiki commons

Today is Yule, the second day of the 12 days of Yule.  Darkness has dropped its hold and light returns, one sliver at a time. Tonight is the Wild Hunt, where Father Odin and Frau Holle (sometimes called Berchta, Perchten or Bertha) lead their raucous company of the dead and the forgotten spirits through the sky.  Goddess help you if you should witness them!  you may very well hear them howling outside through this night.

Yesterday was Mother Night in the Heathen tradition and I was busy making preparations for the longest night of the year.

Mother Night or Mōdraniht was recorded by Bede as a heathen feast corresponding with the 12 days of Christmas, and of course this celebration is much older than this record.  Traditionally this night is celebrated the night before the Winter Solstice and honours female ancestors and spirits of the land.

Old Wives Well, aka Nattie Fonten. The Rag Well of the North York Moors
Old Wives Well, aka Nattie Fonten. The Rag Well of the North York Moors

We traveled to Nattie Fonten, the sacred well in the North York Moors. I was heartened to see someone before us had cleaned the well, but was discouraged to see myriad plastic twine “offerings” on the branches of the guardian tree there.  Rag Wells, or sacred “wishing” wells are often honoured in this way- a small cloth or item of clothing is left as a gift to the well, usually in exchange for healing.  IMG_5044Whoever left the rope obviously didn’t understand the tradition, and it felt to me to be a desecration of the site. If the plastic ropes are still there on my next visit I will take them down. I cleared away an empty local honey jar and left my own gifts before filling my flasks with the holy wild water for my work that evening.

The offerings of the overzealous. Plastic ropes on the sacred tree overwhelm the genuine "rag" offerings.
The offerings of the overzealous. Plastic ropes on the sacred tree overwhelm the genuine “rag” offerings.

I have written about Nattie Fonten on the blog before:

 According to Whelan and Taylor, there is historical evidence that Wade’s Causeway, the old Roman road on the moors, ran by this spring.  Wade’s Causeway is one of my favourite places on the moor, and perhaps the earth. Some say this road is not Roman at all but prehistoric, or perhaps Medieval, and that it has also been called the Old Wife’s Way. The giant Wade had a wife named Bell, and he built the road for her so she could go milk her giant cow in Pickering, or so the legend goes.  So maybe she is the old wife and this is her well. And maybe she is many other things, as the old wife is always the ancient Pagan Earth mother, but I digress.

Crystals charged with sacred well water and the moon of the longest night.
Crystals charged with sacred well water and the moon of the longest night.

Last night we burnt the old mistletoe posy that has guarded us since Yule of last year and laid out all my crystals, not only my personal ones but many that will be made into jewellery and tucked into parcels in the coming year. They were smudged with herb smoke and bathed in the water of Nattie Fonten and left for the bright waxing moon to bless.

Now Yule has come, most of my orders have been sent out, things are slowing down and we get to enjoy the season with twelve days of rest, as our ancestors have done. What will you be doing in the long nights of Yule?

At Nattie Fonten, sacred well, North York Moors
At Nattie Fonten, sacred well, North York Moors

Slavering Sal of East Witton

Slaverin' Sal, the gargoyle head on Diana's Well, East Witton.
Slaverin’ Sal, the gargoyle head on Diana’s Well, East Witton.
Me at Diana's Well
Me at Diana’s Well

Diana’s Well in East Witton is a long ramble up from the village, into a forest ride called “Castaway Ride” which is actually gated with a “Private: Do Not Enter” sign. The well is about a half mile deep into the woods, but easy to find because it’s enclosed in a 19th century well house. According to Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor in my much-referred-to copy of Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, the well house was built by the Earl of Aylesbury, and the inscription on the entrance marks the date as 1821. They propose the stonework came from the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey, not far away.  Before the dissolution, the monks there were famous for horse breeding and they introduced cheese making to the region, now famous for its Wensleydale.

Another fragment from the abbey is the distinctive face  on the outside of the well house. Water is piped in from the basin inside, out to this stone countenance, dripping through the mouth which is now covered with a thick beard of moss– so that its face resembles a green man or woman.  No doubt it’s this face that earned the well’s local name “Slaverin’ Sal” which Whelan and Taylor argue is a “folk echo of Sul or Sulis, the Celtic Water Goddess.”  Sul was worshipped in Bath by the Romans as Sulis-Minerva. Linguistically, sul may stem from the word for “eye or gap” in Old Irish.  Michael Graves has argued for a symbolic parallel in neolithic earthworks where the shape of the eye rhymes with the shape of the vulva.  You see it up close in the winking eye of Sal here at the well, and the gap at the mouth, now upholstered in luxuriant moss, is unmistakably a font of fertility. Though the growth of moss and lichen has obscured the eye carving, it’s clear that in previous illustrations of the font, Sal has two eyes.  It seems that perhaps the other has been chipped away, blinded by vandals.

Diana's Well, Well House, East Witton
Diana’s Well, Well House, East Witton

Named after the Roman Goddess of the moon, childbirth and the hunt, I wonder when it began to be called Diana’s Well. Is this a 19th century folly of a name? A pastoral whimsy? Regardless, it was never Christianized, though it was the original water supply for the village of East Witton.

The Well House, Diana's Well
The Well House, Diana’s Well

According to Gary R. Varner in Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning and Mythology of Holy Wells and Waters, many holy wells sprang up where the head of a decapitated saint had fallen. The beautiful St. Winifred’s Well in Wales is one such place. (Her head was actually reattached and she lived, so the story goes.) St. Winifred’s well in Shropshire has the same legend attached to it. In fact, Varner summarizes many 6-7th century legends which begin the same way– an attempted rape– and end with a decapitation and creation of a sacred spring. For some wells the healing was said to be amplified if the water could be drunk from a skull– the skull of a suicide in particular.  Varner argues these are remnants of the Celtic “head cult” surviving through ancestral memory and folk fragments. Edna Whelan goes into some depth on the Celtic head cult and wells in Yorkshire here.

The basin of Diana's Well-- cold clear water flowing
The basin of Diana’s Well– cold clear water flowing

This well has a history of a wishing well, where pins were thrown as an offering to the genus locii. Another name for this well is the “Castaway Well” and according to OutofOblivion.org, the name derives from this practice of throwing an offering into the water.  This well has been taken care of– there’s even a new roof on the well house. Watching the rivulets catch the sun as they trickled down the moss-laden sides of the dark house, the light glimmered and flickered, like a fairy fireworks display– it was mesmerising– staring at it I felt that I was indeed in a sacred place– away with the fairies.

The Wishing Well at Osmotherly

The Saint John's Well, Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire
The Saint John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

Last weekend Mike and I went looking for one of the “lost” water shrines in North Yorkshire. There are many of these places, though they are fast disappearing– blocked up, trashed and forgotten.  Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor, now out of print, is a wonderful resource.  Though the information in this gem of a book is now over twenty years old, it is still and invauluable aid to finding these magical places.

Mike in the bluebell glade
Mike in the bluebell glade

To reach Saint John’s Well, also called “The Wishing Well” one must traverse a forested hill misted with bluebells–a marker of ancient woodland. The equally ancient path, no doubt trod by countless well-wishers, is now blocked by many felled trees. The hike is not easy but also not impossible.

The photo above shows the well house secreted away in its gully now densely upholstered with decades of leaf mould. The water inside was clean and clear, though leaves blocked the entrance. It resembles a little house with a fairy door. It is not hard to imagine that this was built to house a genius loci.  One is tempted to return and clean this place– it wouldn’t be hard to return it to its former order.

The water here formerly supplied Mount Grace Priory–itself a sacred site. The restored Lady Chapel behind the Priory is said to be a site of miraculous healings. (See Yorkshire Holy Wells site).  The well predates the priory as a water shrine.  Though there is no written record of this, the landscape and folk customs make their own argument.

William Grainge in his 19th century writings on the Vale of Mobray explains that this well was the depository of wishes: “Even yet to this font come young men and maidens to breathe or whisper or wordless sigh the secret but ardent wishes of their heart…” This ritual included an ivy leaf with a bent pin stuck through it, tossed into the water.

Me at the well house, St. John's Well, Mount Grace Priory
Me at the well house, St. John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory

Many wells are called “pin wells” because of this practice. Why bent pins? Altering an ordinary object, destroying its original use, marks it as a talisman. In the Middle Age coins intended as offerings were bent in order to mark them as such– this practice continued for hundreds of years. It appears in the nursery rhyme–

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Throughout my journeys to various sacred sites I have often found little poems, flowers or coins left on stiles or near the sites themselves. Could the crooked sixpence be an offering left? And the crooked man and his odd cat and house be a cunning one (Ok, some say this rhyme is about Scotland and England in the 17th century, but could it be about something else as well.)

Some say the bent pins were offered to the fairies as elfshot. We found no such offerings in the dark water that day but the generations of longings and hopes left here for safekeeping were unmistakably present.

Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop
Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop