by Stuart McHardy
Secrets of Ancient Scotland
Scotland is a country rich in mementoes of the past.
The regular shapes of hill-forts catch the eye from miles away,
standing stones and circles stand by roadways or in fields, stark
and timeless. History tells us little of such places and archaeology
can give us only technical data. Yet many such ancient sites are not
mute. Legends and stories have survived about them and offer us
tantalising glimpses of how our distant ancestors lived and thought.
Legends which survive because people continue to tell
them show us different aspects of our past. By their survival, like
our folk music, such tales are part of a living continuity with the
Some of the tales in this book might even be
thousands rather than hundreds of years old. What they all have in
common is that in one way or another they reflect the underlying
Celtic nature of Scottish culture. The stories range from legends
told about Pictish symbol stones to tales of the great Celtic
warrior heroes Finn mac Coul and Arthur.
There is the curious yarn of the nine maidens were
they all slain by a dragon or were they saints who had churches and
wells all over Scotland dedicated to their honour? Where can we see
a portrayal of a Queen's punishment for being unfaithful to her
husband and what curse did it unleash on generations of wives? Where
was Satan's bride turned to gold? Why did Kirk ministers say
islanders had been turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath and
where can we see these stones today? How did flames of fury kill off
a race of giants? What are the incredible secrets of the three bells
that have supernatural powers? What conditions did a ghost impose in
return for revealing the hiding place of priceless treasure?
After reading these dramatic stories you will want to
waste no time in visiting the places covered. Stuart McHardy gives
you directions on how to get there
The Picts, Scots and Britons were tribal peoples who
lived in warrior societies with cattle-based economies. Their tribal
organization was highly complex and only in times of universal
danger was there any degree of centralization. This happened when
the Romans came, stayed a while and left. Among the Celts the art
of the warrior was still based upon the skill and courage necessary
for single combat and had not degenerated to the organization of
Leaders came to the fore in times of danger and went
back to their normal everyday lives once the crisis was past. The
various levels of Celtic kingship were important for largely
symbolic and ritual reasons forming a focal point for the different
tribes and confederations of tribes.
For the Celtic peoples the division between the
temporal and spiritual aspects of society did not exist, to them all
life was a unity. This helps to explain their reputation for being
Much of their knowledge was concentrated in plant and
animal lore. For most of their history the majority of the Celts had
no knowledge of writing but their love of poetry and their delight
in heroic tales were the very foundation of their culture.
A great deal of what has been considered as
peculiarly Irish tradition was in fact common to the Gaelic culture
of Ireland and Scotland, living on in Ireland but dying out in
Scotland. This was partly due to the over-enthusiastic actions of
the Reformed Church and its followers. In Scotland north of the
Forth-CIyde axis and in the islands the culture was that of the
Gael. South of this until the 11th century the Britons were dominant
and their culture has survived, in part, in Welsh language and
By the 11th century the whole of Scotland ruled by
the last great Celtic monarch, Macbeth, was Gaelic-speaking. The way
of life and culture of the Gaels went into retreat with the victory
of the Anglicised Malcolm Canmore. He defeated Macbeth with an army
largely made up of English troops and Norman-French knights, thus
encouraging English designs on Scotland.
Martin's Stane and the Nine Maidens
About five miles north of Dundee at the foot of the
Sidlaws there is a Pictish symbol stone known as Martin's Stane. The
stone shows a serpent, a horseman and the strange creature known as
the 'elephant1 or 'cetus creature'. Above these three
symbols the bottom half of another horseman can be seen on a raised
section which has been broken off. Although we have no idea of the
real meaning or function of the beautiful and enigmatic Pictish
symbol stones there is a tradition that gives a remarkable
explanation of this one. A local rhyme sums it up:-
'It was temptit at Pittempton
Draggelt at Ba'dragon
Stricken at Strikemartin
And killed at Martin's Stane.'
It seems that in the far distant past there was a
farmer who had nine beautiful daughters. They lived at Pittempton
about two miles south of Martin's Stane. The eldest was in love with
a local lad called Martin. One particularly hot day the farmer was
working in his fields. Feeling thirsty he sent his eldest daughter
to the nearby well to fetch him a drink. After a while when she
hadn't returned he sent his next eldest to the well. She too did not
return and the farmer, getting thirstier by the minute sent all his
girls to the well one after another. None returned.
Sure that his children were playing a trick on him
the farmer eventually stormed off to the well himself. There a
dreadful sight met his eyes. Wrapped around the well was a gigantic
scaly snake-like creature and the dismembered bodies of his lovely
lasses lay strewn around it.
Howling with grief the farmer ran to summon
his neighbours from their work in the fields. Soon he had gathered a
fair-sized crowd armed with farm tools and clubs. As they approached
the hideous creature the foremost of the crowd was Martin himself
and over his shoulder he carried a mighty club.
Seeing them coming the dragon slid off northwards
through the muddy hollow at Baldragon closely pursued by Martin.
Running ahead of the rest Martin caught up with the beast just as it
was crossing the Dighty Water. The following crowd roared, 'Strike
Martin', and he dealt the creature a mighty blow with his club. A
village now stands on this spot, known as Strathmartine but
tradition says it was once Strikemartin.
by its injury the beast increased its speed still heading north.
Martin and some others got horses, mounted and pursued the fleeing
dragon. They caught up with it and killed it on the spot where
Martin's Stane now stands. The story however does not end here for
just a couple of miles to the north there is another story of the
In the 8th century a Pictish monk called Donald was
living in Glen Ogilvy which runs southwards into the Sidlaws from
Strathmore. In time Donald was made a saint but while in Glen Ogilvy
he lived in the company of his nine daughters. This was of course
before monks and priests were celibate. Together they shared the
simple life and plain food of the Celtic holy men and women,
devoting themselves to worshipping their God. It is said they ate
one meal a day, and that it consisted of very simple fare. At last,
at a great age Donald died but his daughters continued to live the
same simple and devout life, apart from other people.
The oak pilgrims
Before long word of the devout sisterhood in Glen
Ogilvy spread through Pictland and even King Eugen heard about them.
Impressed by their holiness and devotion the king invited them to
come and live near him in his capital at Abernethy. This
hey did and their reputation grew. When they died
they were all buried under a great oak at Abernethy and such was
their reputation that it became a centre for pilgrims from all over
the kingdom. In time, like their father before them, they were made
saints, and wells and churches were dedicated to the Nine Maidens.
The only sisters whose names were known were Mazota and Findoca and
they had churches dedicated to them individually. At least as late
as the 16th century people were still making pilgrimages to some of
the Nine Maidens' Wells.
At first sight there seems little connection between
the two sets of Nine Maidens.
However it is well known that the Christian church
adapted many of the deities as well as the sites of pagan religions
to their own uses. Many Christian saints are in fact disguised
Celtic gods and goddesses. One of the best known of these is St
Brigid who was originally the Celtic mother-goddess Bride. Tradition
tells us that when St Brigid came to Scotland she was accompanied by
Nine Maidens the eldest of whom was Mazota.
The connection between the two groups is probably
much older. The mystical fount of poetry and prophecy of the Celts
was the Otherworld Cauldron and its fire was kindled by the breath
of Nine Maidens. These Nine Maidens were most probably connected
with a form of moon worship in the far distant past.
I have heard it suggested that the slaying of the
dragon is a folk tale of the eventual destruction of the power of
the force that formed a ley line through Martin's Stane. Others say
that the ley line still exists and there is some evidence to support
Fragments of other stones connected with the legend
survived until the 19th century including one with the figure of a
man with a great club over his shoulder. Others had serpent like
creatures carved on them. Unfortunately these fragments have
The area of the Sidlaws that these tales come from is
dotted with wells, hillforts, cairns, a stone circle and many other
ancient sites have disappeared. They all speak of continuous
habitation for thousands of years but sadly tradition is silent
about most of them.
The stories of the Nine Maidens are very old and
provide a link with the ancient inhabitants of the area whose
monuments can still touch and inspire us.
Martin's Stane is in a field alongside the readjust
south of South Balluderon Farm. O.S. No. 375 375.
Vanora's Stone - treacherous Queen thrown to wild dogs
About 18 miles north east of Perth lies the wee
Strathmore village of Meigle. All too easily ignored by the traffic
going to and from the North-east this little place contains real
treasure for those interested in the ancient culture of Scotland.
The old school next to the kirk on the Dundee road
has been made into a museum unlike any other. It contains a unique
and beautiful collection of Pictish symbol stones most of which at
one time stood in or near the kirkyard. The others are from the
surrounding area. One of these stones has a legend about it that
links it with one of the great European literary and mystical themes
of all time the story of Arthur
The stone known as Vanora's stone was at one time
part of a group of symbol stones that stood in the adjoining
kirkyard on what is known as Vanora's Mound. The name Vanora is a
variant of Guinevere and these stones are said to have formed a
memorial on the grave of that faithless queen.
On the side of the stone bearing her name is a fine
example of a Celtic cross and in the middle of the other side is a
gowned figure being attacked by animals. The official guide book
tells us that this is a representation of Daniel in the Lions' Den
but local legend, unconcerned with the need to explain everything in
our past as being of Christian origin, tells us otherwise.
Before the French and English romanticists took the
Arthurian tales and turned them into florid fancies of chivalry and
honour these stories were an integral part of the Celtic culture
that existed throughout the British Isles. Like the cycle of
hero-tales about Finn Mac Coul the original Arthurian legends were
given local settings by the small communities that made up the
population. Examples of this can be found in stories and place names
from Scotland to the Scilly Isles. The ancient Celts often
incorporated actual historical events into the great tales alongside
older gods and goddesses given human form. This is how the
historical Arthur of the 6th century became involved in the great
mythological cycle of tales about his namesake.
The historical Arthur was probably not a king but the
leader of a band of warriors who was made a leader of the common
defence against the various invaders of his time. It was the
accepted norm in all Celtic societies that the most able war chief
would be given overall control of the army during a crisis,
returning to his former position once the danger was past. The role
of the actual king was more legalistic, ritualised and even
The story of Vanora's Stone has her as the queen of
Arthur, a 6th century king of Strathclyde. This kingdom stretched
from Dumbarton south as far as Carlisle. Although the whole of the
British Isles was at this time under almost permanent threat of
invasion Arthur decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was to
show his loyalty to the Roman church in its struggle against the
independent Celtic church of that time. Before leaving he appointed
his nephew Modred to act as his regent and rule in his place.
Disaster was bound to follow.
Though the Celtic peoples would unite in the face of
a common enemy their first loyalty was to their tribe and Modred was
a Pict. He was bound to make the most of the opportunity presented
to him by his uncle. No sooner had Arthur left the country than
Modred seized the throne and seduced his aunt, Vanora. Whether she
was a willing victim or had plotted the whole thing with Modred is
unclear but soon they were ruling as man and wife with Pictish
troops to enforce their rule.
It was only a matter of time before Arthur found out
what had happened and he immediately headed home to raise his
followers and have his revenge upon the faithless pair, The battle
where Arthur and Modred met is said to have been at Camlaan, near
Carlisle, and it is the site of an actual 6th century battle. True
to the old myths Arthur was victorious but in killing Modred he
sustained a mortal wound himself. Soon he died and with him went any
faint hope Vanora might have treasured for merciful treatment.
While Modred's actions were understandable given the
nature of the times Vanora had committed unforgivable sins. The
Celtic peoples laid great stress on the ritual and spiritual
importance of their rulers and Vanora had betrayed the most sacred
trust. She was guilty of treason and adultery and her fate was a
foregone conclusion death.
The manner of her execution had to be decided and
while the deliberations continued she was imprisoned at Barry Hill,
near AJyth, just a few miles north of Meigle. Originally an Iron Age
fort the site on Barry Hill was probably still in use in the 6th
century and was as far from the Hollywood idea of an Arthurian
castle as it is possible to be. At last Vanora was brought forth to
hear her sentence and it must have surpassed even her wildest fears.
Her treachery to her husband, king and people was so
bad that her death had to be as dishonourable as possible. She was
to be torn to death by a pack of wild dogs. It is this grisly scene
that is said to be portrayed on the stone.
After her gruesome death she was buried at Meigle
with the strongest possible curses and anathema being heaped upon
her grave in a manner reminiscent of Druidic ritual. More than
twelve hundred years after her supposed burial these curses survive
in the local belief that any young woman foolish enough to walk over
Vanora's Mound will become sterile. The curse is still remembered.
The Arthurian connection with Meigle is underlined by
some of the local place names. One nearby farm is called Arthurbank
and another was known till the relatively recent past as Arthurstone
which got its name from a 12 foot standing stone bearing the king's
name which is in the grounds of what is now Belmont Castle. At one
time this stone had a similar companion known as Vanora's Stone. As
late as the last century a 6 foot diameter quern or grinding stone
was to be seen on Barry Hill and it was called Vanora's Girdle.
It is possible that the legend and all the
place-names have in fact been inspired by a mistaken understanding
of the stone in Meigle Museum. However even if this is so the stone
has served as a focus for a legend that long pre-dates Christianity
and has helped to keep it alive.
The superb and awesome collection of symbol stones at
Meigle points to it having been a site of great importance to the
Picts and an investigation of Vanora's Mound would surely tell us
much more about our distant ancestors than the continuing
excavations of Roman signal stations which take up so much of our
Meigle Museum is on the A927 from Dundee just inside
Barry Hill is on the B954 a mile and a half north
O.S. Sheet No. 262 505.
Maiden Stane story of a bride tricked by Satan
In the shadow of the Hill of Bennachie in
Aberdeenshire there is a Pictish symbol stone known as the Maiden
Stane. This stone too has a local legend attached to it. In this
case the story seems to be an attempt to explain the abstract
symbols on the stone but it is none the less intriguing for that.
A long time ago a young woman lived with her parents
on the farm of Drumdorno. She was the most beautiful lass in five
parishes and was known throughout the area as the Maiden of
Drumdurno. She was wooed by a succession of young men until at last
she agreed to marry a local man called Jamie with whom she was much
The day before the wedding the bonnie lass was busy
in her mother's kitchen baking bannocks and scones for the following
day's festivities. Engrossed in her work and thinking of her love
she looked up to see a handsome stranger looking in the kitchen
window. The dark and well-dressed man commented that she did her
work well, looked good doing it but she was maybe just a trifle
The young lass said that few would agree with him but
felt a bit flattered by his attentions. After a few minutes of
banter the stranger said he would bet her that he could build a road
to the Tap o Bennachie before she could finish her baking. If he
succeeded she would have to marry him instead of her Jamie.
Laughingly she agreed to the obviously silly bet.
Smiling, the stranger left and the Maiden paid him no
more thought, her head being full of her imminent'marriage. She did
not know what she had done, in the evening just as she was about to
put her last batch of bannocks in the oven she
looked out of the kitchen window. To her
consternation and terror she saw a road stretching right up to
Mither Tap, the very summit of Bennachie.
As she stared the stranger came into view heading for
the farm. Mow she could see him as he really was the Devil
himself. She now realised how ominous her situation was and she fled
towards Pitroddie woods hoping to find help. There was none.
As she ran the Maiden tried to pray but no doubt due
to the closeness of Satan she found she could not form the words.
The road ahead was completely deserted. Just as the fiend was about
to seize her the prayer she had been unable to utter was answered.
She was turned to stone on the spot and the De'il was left with a
small piece of stone that had been her shoulder. The devil was
thwarted and the Maiden's honour and soul were saved though her life
A variant of the tale clearly shows the fiend's
intent for he was assisted in his roadbuilding by his wife. She is
said to have gathered the stones he needed but sadly nothing is said
of her reaction to helping him in his attempted seduction. At one
point his wife, who was gathering the stones in her apron, let fall
a pile of boulders which formed a hill on the far side of Inverurie.
At a later date the Ark became stuck on this hill during the Flood,
Noah stuck his head out of a window and told the boat to sail by and
ever since the spot has been known as the Hill of Selby (Sail by).
This would make the Maiden Stane old indeed.
The abstract symbols on the stone are said to be the
baking implements which the Maiden was still holding when she fled
from her pursuer.
The story ties together the Pictish stone with the
much earlier road and fort on Mither Tap. It does seem to have been
inspired by the carvings on the stone but says nothing about one of
them which it has been suggested is a cauldron. Satan is a
peculiarly Christian personality and is here tied up with the much
older Celtic idea of the Maiden who is undoubtedly the great Celtic
mother goddess in her fertility aspect.
figure of Satan has been developed from the original angel who was
thrown out of heaven for questioning God's authority. This angel had
no horns, tail or cloven hoofs and certainly no wee pointed beard.
These attributes were grafted on to the Christian devil from the old
Celtic god Cernunnos who was the horned Lord of the Animals. This
was probably done to help stamp out the old pagan religion and its
Cernunnos was the Celtic equivalent of Pan and it is
likely that it was to him that the witches prayed. Some of the
ancient Celtic religion survived in the rituals of witchcraft and
identifying the God of the witches with Satan allowed the Church to
persecute the old religion in the name of stamping out evil. Thus in
the Christian war of good against evil the Kirk encouraged the
malicious persecution and ritual slaughter of groups of people who
were, at best, the practitioners of an ancient system of knowledge
and healing, and, at worst, were merely defenceless women who did
not conform to rigid norms.
While the Devil as portrayed in the story of the
Maiden Stane seems to be Satan himself it is not definite. He seems
to be motivated more by the human weaknesss of lust rather than a
satanic need to do evil. For in Scotland the idea of the Prince of
Darkness has never been dominant. The names used for him like Auld
Nick, Auld Hornie or Clootie suggest a rather more approachable
figure than the Christian Satan.
The area around Inverurie is rich in Pictish symbol
stones and the remnants of even earlier peoples. Bennachie itself
has been a holy place since long before the Christians came.
Although the story of the Maiden Stane seems to be much younger than
the stone itself the story has perpetuated the name of the stone.
The association of the Maiden with all aspects of fertility has long
been accepted and is part of a continuity with the past that
continues as long as such stories are remembered and told.
The Maiden Stane is at O.S. N J 704 274.
Callanish 'sinners turned to stone.
Scattered throughout the British Isles there are
nearly a thousand stone circles. They range in size from a few yards
across to the vast circle at Avebury, Wiltshire, England which is
more than 400 yards in diameter and encloses a small village. Much
older than the superb Pictish symbol stones these circles date from
around 33001800 B.C. and many of them have been shown to be
Even two or three centuries ago there were hundreds
more of these circles but vast numbers have been dug up or blown up
by farmers and developers whose concentration on short term profit
blinded them to the significance and importance of such relics of
Although the circles predate the arrival of the
Celtic peoples by more than a thousand years the Celts showed
respect for the traditions and beliefs of those who lived on the
land before them. They incorporated these ancient structures into
their own religion and ritual, thus preserving a link with our far
distant past. Of all the circles of standing stones in Scotland
there is none to match Callanish in complexity of construction or in
its hold upon the imagination.
Situated overlooking Loch Roag on the west side of
the Isle of Lewis, Callanish is the focal point of a whole series of
circles and standing stones in the immediate area. The main circle
which was probably built between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C. has a series
of legends associated with it which serve to underline the
singularity of this isolated and awe-inspiring monument.
Just as the more famous Stonehenge was erected on a
particularly useful site for solar observation Callanish's position
was of great relevance for its function as a lunar observatory. It
could be used to calculate the moon's nineteen year cycle and thus
to predict lunar eclipses. The common perception of the people of
Scotland as being savage primitives until the arrival of the
"civilizing" Romans could hardly be further from the truth.
The earliest legend about Callanish tells of a great
Priest-King who arrived in Lewis a long time ago. He came with a
group of lesser priests in a fleet of ships which were crewed by
black men. It was these black men who actually built the circle.
Within the circle they buried several of their number who died
during the construction. This recalls the ancient and world-wide
practice of hallowing a site by burying someone within it. After the
stones were raised the black men and some of the priests departed
leaving the Priest-King and a few companions to spread the new
religion they had brought.
It is said the priests wore robes made of feathers
and skins of birds, that of the chief being white with a girdle of
mallard neck feathers. The lesser priests' robes were
multi-coloured. Such a form of dress exists today among the
surviving shamans of northern Europe and Asia. The chief priest was
always accompanied by a wren. This bird, known in Scotland as 'the
Lady of Heaven's Hen', was long associated with Druidic practices.
The association with sacred Celtic birds continued.
Even in the 19th century it was believed on
Midsummer's Day that "The Shining One" walked down the northern
avenue at Callanish, heralded by the call of a cuckoo. "The Shining
One" was the Celtic sun-god Lugh and was here seen as the
personification of fertility and hints at some lost ancient ritual
among the stones. The Celtic peoples thought that the cuckoo came
from the land of Tir-Nan-Og, the Otherworld of Youth and Spring
where all went after death. It was also thought that all cuckoos
coming to Lewis first visited Callanish and flew round the stones.
Just over a hundred years ago the stones were still
the scene of Beltain rites. These were held on the first of May
which along with Samhain, the Christian Halloween, were the two
greatest feasts of the Celtic year. At Callanish a 'priest'
conducted the ancient ceremony of the needfire. A
flame was ceremoniously kindled, probably with a bow-drill, after
all hearths in the area had been smoored, or smothered. Each family
would then approach the priest and light a peat from the sacred
Carrying the burning peat the head of each family
would circle their fields and crops to 'sain' or sanctify them
before returning home to rekindle the hearth fire for another year.
Other rites took place including the consummation of marriages
within the circle itself. Such activities were frowned on by the
Kirk and throughout the Gaelic-speaking areas the ministers spread
the story that stone circles were in fact sinners who had been
turned to stone for such heinous acts as dancing on the Sabbath.
Thus many of the circles came to be known as Na Fir Bhreige,
the false men.
Rivals in love
Other tales are told about the great circle. One such
concerns the rivalry between two local lasses. Both loved the same
man and one of them consulted a nearby witch to find a way of
overcoming her rival. The witch gave her a belt and said that
whoever wore it would be snatched away by her 'master' never to be
seen again. This was presumably the Devil. On reflection the
lovesick lassie baulked at such an act but did not know how to rid
herself of the dangerous object.
At last, in desperation, she fitted the belt around
one of the stones of the Callanish circle. Immediately the stone was
engulfed in flames and the air was filled with a great clamour of
flapping wings, clanking and howling. The lass ran home in terror
and fainted on her doorstep. The next day she gritted her teeth and
went back to the circle. The stone on which she had clasped the belt
lay broken with scorch marks where the belt had been. These are said
to be the marks which are still discernible on the stone on the east
side of the southern avenue just outside the circle itself.
Another story concerns a magical white cow which came
out of Loch Roag and walked up to the circle. This was just after a
Viking raid had laid waste the surrounding crofts and the cow gave
endless milk to everyone except one local malevolent witch.
Spitefully she sent another woman to milk the cow into a bottomless
pail thus destroying its magic and stopping the flow of its milk.
It is little wonder that these various tales about
Callanish have survived. The circle and standing stones still retain
a sense of power and sanctity and seem almost to stand outside of
time. It is as if, like King Arthur and his Knights in so many tales
the stones 'are not dead, but sleeping.' Such feelings allow of no
so-called scientific measurement but we ignore them at our peril,
for without respect for the past how can we have hope for the
Callanish is at O.S. NB 212 355.
Ossian's Grave: flames of fury kill off giants
Throughout the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland and
beyond for hundreds of years stories have been told of the exploits
of Finn Mac Coul and his warriors, the Fenians or Fianna. Like the
Arthurian tales of the British and Welsh peoples the tales of the
Fianna hark back to a distant past when the warrior hero was the
ideal of all Celtic societies. These tales survived for centuries
alongside the more recent Christian gospels as the raw material for
the story tellers and poets gathered round the hearth fires through
the long dark nights of winter in Scotland.
Like Celts everywhere the people told the tales among
themselves putting the actions of their heroes into local settings
and often incorporating the relics and monuments of even older
peoples into the tales. The tales themselves were said to have been
written or structured by Ossian, son of Finn and bard
of the Fianna. When in extreme old age Ossian was
offered a place in the Christian heaven by St Patrick he refused as
he wouldn't be re-united with his long dead companions in such a
Between Crieff and Amulree the Sma' Glen runs through
the foothills of the Highlands and this area is rich in stories of
the Fianna. High up on the east side of the glen entering it from
the south there is a cave on the escarpment known as Eagle's Rock.
This cave, now known as the hermit's cave, was for a long time
associated with the most tragic of the Fenian tales. It was formerly
known as Garaidh's cave.
Garaidh was one of the Fianna and he was extremely
vain. His greatest pride was his long fair hair which he wore in
braids hanging down his back. One day he was left in charge of the
fort of the Fianna which was situated on Tom-an-Die, the Hill of
God, while his companions went hunting. This hill is at Fendoch just
south of the Sma' Glen. The womenfolk of the Fianna were thus left
in Garaidh's care. It was a warm summer's day and Garaidh lay down
in the sun and was soon fast asleep. While he was asleep the women
decided to play a trick on him.
They carefully but firmly pinned his long fine
tresses to the ground and retreating to the door of the fort they
all shouted together.
Garaidh sprang up, sword in hand, wrenching his
braids clean out of his head.The women burst out laughing at their
coarse practical joke. Garaidh, blood streaming from his head and
roaring with fury ran at them with his sword raised. Quickly the
women shut and barred the door, still laughing. Incensed with fury
Garaidh set fire to the fort and all the women were burned to death.
Seeing the smoke from afar the rest of the Fianna
raced home from the hunt to find the fort a smouldering ruin and all
their loved ones dead. The days of the Fianna were now numbered for
like the men the women were of giant stature and now no more
children would be born to the Fianna. At once they tracked Garaidh
to the cave where he was hiding and Finn slew him. A new fort was
built overlooking the glen, and here they lived out their long
At last only Ossian was alive and when he in his turn
passed on it is said he was buried in the glen and the massive
boulder known as Clach Ossian was placed over his grave. The
reverence in which he was held lasted for a very long time indeed.
In the late 1730s General Wade had already started to
open up the Highlands with his roadbuilding and his men entered the
Sma' Glen laying the road from Crieff to Amulree. The general
himself was absent when his men came across Clach Ossian directly in
the path of their projected route. On removing it they found
underneath a stone cist coffin containing bones of a remarkable
size. The officer in charge, believing this to be a Roman grave,
ordered a halt to the work and sent a messenger to inform the
general. Nothing was to be touched without Wade's approval.
That evening a lone sentry stood guard over the
grave. As darkness fell he saw a great wavering light approaching.
It was a crowd of people in a torchlight procession and as
they neared the grave the soldier fled. The crowd, made up of locals
and many of Wade's Gaelic-speaking troops, had come to ensure that
Ossian's remains were properly treated. To the accompaniment of the
bagpipes the bones and the coffin were lifted and ceremoniously
carried to the fort of Dunmore and re-buried with all due ritual and
Winter's night tales
The burial would appear to have been much older than
the Celtic legends of the Fianna, possibly dating back to 2,000 B.C.
or even earlier. The legends are thought to date back no further
than 500 B.C. As in so many other instances the Gaels in the area
had incorporated this ancient site into their own traditions much as
the Christian church was later to do with Celtic
legends and deities. The Celts had a deep
understanding of and great reverence for nature and had developed a
view of their world in which it was impossible to separate the
secular and the religious.
The Fenian stories and legends were an integral part
of that world view and there is an old Gaelic saying, "If the Fians
go twenty-four hours without being mentioned, they will rise again."
Such legends were much more than entertainment for the long winter
nights. They were the very life-blood of Celtic culture. In the 16th
century Bishop Carsewell of Argyle complained that the people would
rather hear the hero-tales than the gospels. The same stories were
told everywhere and each time set in the storyteller's own area.
Even in the 19th century the tales retained much of
their importance. Communal work such as land-clearing or
ditch-digging would rarely commence without one of the assembled
workforce reciting a tale or Sgiulach. The strength of this
oral tradition combined with the natural gifts of the storyteller
must have delayed a great deal of work. It was this deep respect and
love for their own literature and ideas among the Gaels that
doubtless inspired the much quoted modern piece of Gaelic wisdom
that goes: An old crofter on being asked for the Gaelic equivalent
of the Spanish 'manana' said, 'Och, there's no word in the Gaelic
with quite such a desperate sense of urgency to it.'
What the tales teach us today is that though our
native culture has been overlaid by a succession of foreign ideas,
underlying them all is a continuity of oral tradition that stretches
back thousands of years. The stories of a band of ancient freelance
warriors enamoured of hunting and delighting in feats of physical
and mental agility encapsulate the essence of the Celtic spirit
which retains the power to inspire us.
If by gaining a truer sense of our own cultural
heritage we can learn to adopt some of the ancient Celtic respect
for our mother earth and all her children then we can perhaps have
hope for the future of our planet as well as our nation.
Clach Ossian is at O.S. FS N 895 307.
Norrie's Law a ghostly warning and destruction of priceless
On the northern shores of the Forth estuary stands
Largo Law. This striking natural feature is the scene of many
legends and was once a site of great ritual importance. One of the
stories connected with it has had a hold on local imagination for a
very long time. It concerns Largo Law and an ancient tumulus or
burial mound a mile to the north, called Nome's Law.
Well into this century children were playing a
well-known game involving the story of Nome's Law. One of a group of
bairns would stand before the rest and say, Tl tell you a story,
Aboot Tammie o Norrie, If ye dinna speak in the middle o' it, Will
ye no?" The object of the game was to lure another child into saving
"No" at which point all the others would shout, "The spell is
broken, ye hae spoken, Yell never hear the story o' lang Tarn o
Norrie." The game is played with different words throughout the
British Isles but the story of Norrie's Law is unique.
A long time ago Largo Law was haunted by a ghost. It
was believed that this wraith was condemned to roam the earth until
he could pass on the secret of the gold that was buried somewhere on
Largo Law. The shepherd on the nearby farm of Balmain became
obsessed with the hidden treasure and resolved to try and get his
hands on it. After months of frustration roaming the slopes of the
Law at last he saw the ghost. Summoning all his will power he
approached the spectre and asked what kept it from its rest.
The spirit looked deep into his eyes, chilling him to
the marrow, and then it said "If Auchendowie cock disnae craw, An
the herd o Balmain disnae blaw, I'll tell ye whar the gowd is on
Largo Law." The time set for this revelation was eight in the
evening the following day. The shepherd thought he now had the gold
within his grasp.
That night all the roosters on Auchendowie farm were
mysteriously throttled. The following morning the shepherd was up at
dawn and ran to Balmain. There he threatened Tammie o Norrie and
told him not to blow his horn to summon the cows home that evening,
on pain of death.
Having done all he could to fulfil the ghost's
conditions the shepherd could do nothing but wait. At last the
appointed hour came and he headed up the Law to meet the ghost. Just
as the wraith was about to tell him where the gold was, the sound of
Tammie's horn came from the north. On hearing the sound the ghost
spat out these words, "Woe to the man that blew that horn, For out
of that spot he shall never be borne."
Mad with rage the disappointed shepherd ran north to
have his revenge upon the cowherd. Eventually he reached the spot
where the horn had sounded. He could hardly believe his eyes. There
stood Tammie o Norrie, horn still at his lips, but turned to stone.
The ghost's curse had literally petrified the unfortunate cowherd.
Try as they might the local people couldn't move him and eventually
they simply heaped a cairn over him which was then known as Nome's
Tales of hidden treasure associated with ancient
sites are common enough and often refer to their former spiritual
rather than financial value. In this case however the story of the
treasure was true. It wasn't gold but silver and is associated with
an even older legend about Nome's Law.
This story was that the tumulus actually contained
the body of a Danish king killed when raiding the Fife coast. His
name was said to have been Norroway and it was believed he had been
buried astride his dead horse and clad in a complete set of silver
armour. Much of what used to be considered Danish or Norse remains
were in fact purely native, dating from long before the time of the
Vikings. In the midst of these conflicting tales some startling
facts eventually emerged.
In the late 1830s a quantity of small pieces of
extremely old sitverwork were donated to the Museum of Scottish
Antiquities. It was immediately obvious that they were parts of much
larger pieces. They were given by the widow of the late General
Durham whose estate included the farm of Balmain. The hoard,
consisting of pieces of a sword, scabbard, helmet and suit of chain
mail had come from Nome's Law.
In the early years of the 19th century a local cadger
or carrier had decided to use the material of the tumulus for some
building of his own. While removing it he had found the silver
armour. Over the next few years he broke up most of it and sold it
piecemeal to a dealer in Cupar, thereby destroying a priceless
archaeological treasure. Eventually conscience got the better of the
jeweller and he passed the few pieces he had not melted down to
General Durham. It was made known that the cadger had also found a
great hoard of silver coin but that had also disappeared.
The surviving pieces quite clearly show that "Norroway"
was no Scandinavian raider. The decoration on these artefacts are
quite beautiful examples of Pictish art. In some cases they show the
exact same abstract designs so common on the Pictish symbol stones.
Nothing like these few surviving pieces of armour have ever been
found. Further inquiries and excavation of the tumulus proved
fruitless. The cadger had stripped it of everything of value.
Many ancient legends and stories survive through the
centuries because they contain a kernel of spiritual or
psychological truth that is of relevance to local populations. Their
continuance in the oral tradition illustrates this. Such relevance
is often of a mystical or magical nature reflecting the thoughts and
ideas of our distant ancestors. The story of Nome's Law shows us
that such legends can also be of direct assistance to the more
factual archaeological investigation of these ancestors.
site of Nome's Law is at O.S. NO 409 073
Kentigern straight out of great Celtic hero tradition
Glasgow Cathedral, the ancient hilltop city on
Traprain Law in East Lothian and the wee village of Culross on the
north shore of the Forth are connected by their association with one
of the most fascinating personalities of all Scotland's history. He
was Kentigern, better known as St. Mungo. As patron saint of
Scotland's largest city St. Kentigern is probably the best known of
all the Scottish saints other than Columba.
Many tales were told of his miraculous powers. From
an early age he showed such piety and diligence that he earned the
jealousy of the other students of St. Serf at Culross. Serf himself
became a notable saint. When their holy teacher's pet robin was
accidentally killed the other students blamed Kentigern. His
response was to pray to God then, taking the dead bird gently in his
hands he breathed on it and it came back to life. Another time when
it was his turn to watch the fire he fell asleep and the fire went
out. As it was midwinter this was serious indeed but the young
Kentigern put some frozen leaves on the hearth and kindled fire with
An even more striking instance of his powers happened
one harvest. The cook had died and egged on by the other students
St. Serf told the young Kentigeren to take over the kitchen or
restore the cook to life, as he had done with the robin. Kentigern
prayed, God listened and the cook came back to life. St. Serf now
realised his student's true worth and started calling him Mungo or
Eventually the time came for Kentigern to leave
Culross but Serf tried to stop him going. The old saint followed the
younger one when he at last went and to stop him Kentigern crossed
the Forth then raised a storm to prevent Serf coming after him. Such
action seems more Druidic than Christian and in later centuries many
so-called witches were burnt at the stake for having done no more.
Immediately after this the young man met an ancient holy man called
Fergus. It had been prophesied that Fergus would not die until he
had met a young man destined to be a great saint.
This was of course Kentigern and after receiving the
young saint's blessing, Fergus died. Placing the body in an ox-cart
Kentigern vowed to found his own church where the oxen stopped. They
eventually stopped on the banks of the Molendinar river and he
buried Fergus and built a simple church. Tradition tells us that
this is where Glasgow Cathedral now stands.
Kentigern was known for his control over animals, at
one point even ploughing his fields with a wolf and a stag yoked
together. The most famous of his miracles concerns a salmon and a
ring which belonged to the Queen of Strathclyde. This lady was
having an affair with a young warrior and foolishly she gave him a
ring which she had been given by her husband. One day the king was
walking by the Clyde when he saw the queen's lover asleep. On his
hand was the ring the king had given to his lady.
That night at dinner before the entire royal
household the king asked the queen where the ring he had given her
was. She was not wearing his gift. Claiming she had mislaid it the
queen contacted her lover. His tale horrified her. While sleeping by
the river someone had stolen the ring. Neither knew the king had
thrown it in the Clyde.
Realising that the king must be aware of her adultery
the distraught queen went to consult Kentigern. After listening to
her story the saint prayed for guidance. He then told the queen to
send her most trusted servant to fish in the river and to bring
back the first fish caught. This turned out to be a
fine salmon and following the saint's instructions the queen had it
cut open. There in the stomach of the salmon was her ring. That
night she showed it to her husband and thinking he must have been
mistaken in his suspicions he apologised to her.
In later years Kentigern lived for a while in Wales
where he met St. David and founded a monastery on a site chosen for
him by a wild white boar. The white boar was especially sacred to
the Celtic pagans. Eventually he returned to Strathclyde and had a
miraculous meeting with Columba, who noticeably treated Kentigern as
Like all the early Celtic saints Kentigern lived a
simple, even frugal life. He ate sparingly and wore clothes of
coarse haircloth and goatskin. His pillow was a large stone. He was
noticeably impervious to cold, often preaching sermons while up to
his neck in rivers or burns, even in the middle of winter. Rain or
snow miraculously avoided him, a benefit often shared by those next
to him. At last at the age of 185 an angel came and told the aged
holy man to take a warm bath. This he did and passed on into the
company of the God he had worshipped so long and devotedly.
Many of the magical aspects of the tales about St.
Kentigern are obviously inherited from pagan pre-Christian ideas. It
is when we look at Kentigern's family that the underlying Celtic
themes of his life become obvious.
Over the cliff!
His mother was Thenaw, daughter of King Loth of
Lothian who had his capital on the summit of Traprain Law. The
innocent maiden was cruelly seduced by a son of the King of Cumbria
but refused to marry him when it was discovered she was pregnant.
Angered at his daughter's refusal to do as she was told Loth tried
to marry her to a swineherd. She again refused and this so angered
her father that he had her tied into a chariot which was then driven
over the cliff face of Traprain Law. The chariot floated gently to
the ground and Thenaw was unharmed. Even this miracle did not blunt
the king's anger and he then had his daughter set adrift on the
Forth in an oarless coracle.
The boat drifted across the estuary to the Isle of
May where it was surrounded by a vast school of fish which magically
escorted the coracle and its passenger to Culross, on the Fife shore
of the Forth. St. Serf was already teaching and preaching here and
when Thenaw gave birth he baptised the infant Kentigern and took him
into his care. Thenaw became a Christian and she too in time became
a saint. Although we know little about Kentigern's father his
mother's family were straight out of the great Celtic hero
tradition. Her mother is said to have been Anne, daughter of the
great Other Pendragon and thus sister of King Arthur. Loth himself
is mentioned in all the earliest Arthurian sources and his two sons,
Kentigern's uncles, were major Arthurian figures.
They were Modred and Gawain. Modred is of course
Arthur's rival and usurper while Gawain was one of the Knights of
the Round Table in the later romances. In the story of Gawain and
the Green Knight there is a truly ancient theme much older even than
the tales about Arthur. Loth, Cither, Gawain and Modred are figures
from the earliest Celtic myths upon which all the subsequent stories
and romances about King Arthur are based.
Thus we have this famous Christian saint who was
actually the nephew of the great Celtic mythological hero Arthur.
During the 6th and 7th centuries Christianity was spreading into
Scotland and here we have a clear case of the absorption of older
pagan figures into the Christian canon. They were using old models
for new teachings.
The story of Kentigern's meeting with Columba
illustrates this further. Just as Kentigern seems to step out of the
ages-old British tradition so Columba represents the ancient Celtic
culture of Ireland and Scotland. At the Council of Drumceatt in
Ireland in 575 Columba spoke in defence of the Filidh. These
were the bards of Ireland and the keepers of ancient knowledge
and tradition which they had inherited from the old
Druidic religion. There are also various aspects of the life of
Columba which echo themes from the oldest of the Celtic myths.
Like Columba, Kentigern is a Christian saint whose
roots seem to be entirely Celtic and derived from pagan traditions.
The early Celtic Christian church was in many ways based upon older
ideas and customs. Even after the Synod of Whitby in 663 which
ensured the dominance of the Roman church these ancient connections
were not entirely broken although the Celtic Church went into
retreat. A century later Roman dominance was complete, on the
Pilgrimages to wells and other Celtic holy sites
continued as did celebration of the great Celtic holy days of
Beltain, May 1 st, and Samhain, now known as Halloween It wasn't
until the onset of the Reformation and its excesses that such
practices were seriously threatened and began to die out, though
some fortunately have survived to this day.
St Merchard the cow and
three magic bells
Long before the time of Columba there were Christian
missionaries in Scotland. The first of these was probably St.
FSinian who arrived in the 4th century A.D. in the south-west and
over the next hundred years the Christian Gospel message spread far
into the north. One of those who went north in the 5th century was
Merchard. The stories which survive about this early saint are from
in and around Glenmoriston which runs eastwards from Loch Ness.
Glenmoriston links together many of the oldest themes
of Scottish myth and legend. There is an Iron Age hillfort
overlooking the glen called Dun Dreggan said to have been built by
Finn Mac Coul. This was after the hero had killed a great dragon
which was laying waste the countryside and he built the fort to
defend the people of the area from any cubs the dragon might have.
There are other tales concerning spirits and elementals from all
over this area.
When Merchard got here he was entering an area
already rich in ancient lore and tradition. He had been born at
Kincardine O'Neill on Deeside and after journeying all the way to
Rome he returned to Scotland to preach the gospels. His first
mission was at Crinaglack in Strathglass near Inverness and he lived
here with two fellow monks. Here they lived the simple life of the
early Celtic monks uncluttered with ideas of hierarchy and
influence. One of their main tasks apart from prayer and preaching
was the tending of the small herd of cattle they kept.
One day when Merchard was watching the herd he
noticed that one beast was acting peculiarly. It was a white heifer
and it spent the whole day looking straight at one particular tree,
never dropping its head to graze. At night however this cow gave as
much milk as any of the others. This continued for several days.
Though the tree the cow stared at seemed no different from other
trees Merchard decided to investigate.
After looking at the tree for a while he took up a
spade and began to dig at its foot. To his wonder and delight he had
only dug a few inches down when he found three bells. They were
brand new. Immediately he knew what he must do. He called his two
companions and told them his intentions.
The cow had obviously been under divine guidance and
there could be no doubt that the bells were for the three of them.
They must now separate, go off in different directions and each
found a church wherever the bells rang for the third time.
This they proceeded to do. One of them founded his
church at Glenconvinth, between Drumnadrochit and Beauly, and the
other companion raised his at Broadford in Skye. Merchard set off
south. His bell rang for the first time on a hilltop, long known as
Suidhe Mherchard or Merchard's Seat, the second time
at Ballintombuie in Glenmoriston. This was the site of Fuaran
Mherchard, Merchard's Well. Merchard's bell rang for the third
time farther down the glen at Clachan Mherchard, and it was here he
raised his church, it was on the site of what was later a burial
Here in the shadow of Dun Dreggan Merchard lived out
his life, spreading the word of the Christian gospel among the
natives. When at last he died his instructions were that his body
should be placed on a cart drawn by two oxen and he was to be buried
where they stopped. Sadly where this was is forgotten but Merchard's
bell lost none of its miraculous power with his death.
Bell rings out to
trap a murderer
It was said to cure all disease in whoever touched it
and whenever a funeral party was approaching the burial ground at
Clachan Mherchard it would ring of its own accord. The bell was
thought to have a life of its own and its habit of ringing out at
the approach of the dead helped solve a grisly crime. One dark night
when the people of the glen were asleep in their beds the bell began
to ring out.
Grabbing their clothes the locals dressed and hurried
to the kirk. There in the kirkyard they found the body of a
freshly-murdered man. Unable to escape in the pitch dark the culprit
was soon caught and dealt with according to the custom of the time.
He was hanged.
Like other magical bells from the days of the Celtic
church, Merchard's was said to always return to its home at the
Clachan if it was removed. After the original church was replaced
the bell was put in its replacement building. This happened several
times down the years until the last church fell down in the 17th
century and the new one was built elsewhere. The bell remained in
the kirkyard, resting on an old tombstone until it was stolen in
1870 by strangers. This time it did not return.
The locals believed that the bell could float on
water but always remembered Merchard's warning just before his
death. He had said, "I am Merchard from across the land, Keep ye my
sufferings deep in your remembrance, And see that ye do not for a
wager place this bell in a pool to swim." However it wasn't just the
bell that continued to exert a beneficial influence in and around
the glen. More than a thousand years after his death St. Merchard
intervened in local affairs to dramatic effect.
A cruel custom
One of the crueller aspects of the old Celtic laws of
clan life was the right of the chief to exact the each-ursainn
or horse-fine. This was a fine or heriot that the laird could
demand from a family which had just lost one of its members. The
fine was a horse or livestock to the value of a horse. It was no
doubt descended from the old obligation to fight on behalf of the
clan when called upon by the chief and was meant to help replace the
loss of a warrior.
A poor crofter in Glenmoriston died and his widow had
a visit from the law-officer, the laird's policeman. He told her he
was taking the each-ursainn and went off with sheep to the
value of one horse, leaving the poor woman virtually destitute. That
night the law-officer was awakened in his bed by a thundering voice
which said to him, "1 am great Merchard of the miracles, passing
homeward in the night. Declare thou unto MacPhatrick that the
widow's sheep will never bring him good."
The terrified flunkey slept no more that night and
first thing in the morning he ran to tell his master, MacPhatrick,
what had happened. The outcome was that the widow got her sheep back
and the laird never again tried to exact the horse-fine from his
Like much of the substance of the stories about the
old Celtic saints this tale shows us a priesthood who were involved
with the people and community as a whole rather than allying
themselves with those with power and influence only. Like many of
the early saints Merchard seems to have personified a continuity of
tradition within the community which stretched back into pagan
The white cow and the repeated emphasis on number
three serve to illustrate the underlying Celtic aspect of Merchard's
magical exploits. Cows and oxen often figure as sacred animals in
the old tales and the spiritual and philosophical importance of the
number three to the Celtic peoples is impossible to overstate.
Although a separate Celtic church was doomed after the Synod of
Whitby much that gave it its unique viewpoint continued, as the oral
tradition continues to show.
Glenmoriston - O.S. NH 450310
Kinnoull Hill, a diamond, and the cloak of invisibility
Kinnoull Hill stands overlooking the Tay at Perth.
The castle-like structure on its summit is in fact a 19th century
folly built by the then Earl of Kinnoull. He was a great admirer of
the castles overlooking the Rhine in Germany. Like too many of his
contemporaries he turned his back on Scottish history and sought
inspiration beyond our borders.
This was doubly unfortunate for Kinnoull Hill is a
place steeped in ancient myth and legend. Of the many tales about
this ancient site the most intriguing, and oldest, is that of the
dragon who once had its lair in a cave overlooking the river.
Traditon tells us that back in the 6th century this
dragon was terrorising the district, slaughtering cattle and
abducting the most beautiful of the local lasses. The people were
helpless before the mighty creature. At last they sought help. A few
miles to the west there lived a holy Christian monk, St. Serf. This
was the same saint who was later to educate St. Kentigern or Mungo,
and he had built himself a church at Dunning.
On being asked, he agreed to help, pausing only to
pick up his staff before heading eastwards. He was taken to the cave
where the dreadful creature lived and at once called it forth. As
soon as the dragon appeared St. Serf called on his God and slew the
beast with his staff. In honour of his brave action the locals are
said to have instituted the annual Festival of the Dragon. These
rites continued at least till the late 16th century but there was
little, if anything, Christian about them.
The dragon we are told was itself consecrated to Bel
or Belinus, a Celtic sun-god whose priests, or Druids, held their
ceremonies here before the advent of Christianity. What is certain
is that the Festival of the Dragon was celebrated on the 1st of May,
Beltain. This was the Celtic celebratory feast for the beginning of
summer and was the most important day of their year. Great bonfires
were lit on prominent hilltops the length and breadth of the British
Isles, all of them kindled from the sacred needflre.
Like many fabled dragons all over the world the beast
at Kinnoull was thought to have had an enormous diamond-like stone
in the middle of its forehead. This diamond, or carbuncle as it was
known, was considered to be the source of much of the dragon's power
and was a great treasure. Its magical powers included that of making
its possessor invisible!
A story is told that around the year 1600 a certain
James Keddie of Perth found this remarkable gem where it had lain
for over a thousand years. Sadly, after picking it up and realising
what it was James lost it again while trying to play a trick on his
friends under the cloak of invisibility.
At this time Kinnoull Hill and the Dragon's Hole were
very much 'in the news.' The worthies of the Reformed Kirk had set
themselves the task of uprooting all sacrilegious and idolatrous
practices among the people. The fact that many of these practices
had been continued for more than a millennium was of little
consequence to the 'richt yins.' They kent the Lord's wishes and
nobody would stand between them and their duty.
In 1555 an Act of Parliament was passed in Edinburgh
which banned all 'mummeries and debaucheries.' This referred to the
rites of Beltain and the 'Robin Hood' games of Lowland Scotland in
which society's roles were reversed. The poor became rich, the weak
mighty and vice versa for one day a year. These games were descended
from ancient pagan festivities and were the scene of much enjoyment
However the Elders of the Kirk were intransigent in
the enactment of their duty and the act gave them the right of
imprisoning defaulters for up to five years. This was in addition to
the normal sanctions of arraignment before the congregation and the
barbarous ducking-stool. It is against this background that we have
an actual eye-witness account of the Festival of the Dragon at
Kinnoull Hill on the 1st of May 1559.
That morning Oliver Tullideph was nearing Perth from
the east when he saw a strange sight. A fantastically dressed
figure, draped in garlands of flowers, was standing at the entrance
to a cave at the foot of the hill. A group of young men was trying
to approach him up the scree-covered slope below the cave. If they
got close the figure in the cave shoved them back down. A large
crowd of onlookers was shouting encouragement. All were wearing
their holiday best and there was a fair sprinkling of monks among
Oliver asked an elderly respectable-looking bystander
what was going on. He was told that it was the annual Festival of
the Dragon in honour of St. Serf. His informant further told him
that the whole thing was probably an invention of the Papist monks
from a nearby monastery as a cover for their adulteries and
debaucheries. He was certain that such disgusting practices would
soon be wiped out. In the meantime he was keeping an eye on the
Fury of the Kirk
Oliver then went about his business leaving the
locals to get on with their festivities. Despite the censure of the
Kirk and repeated sermons from local ministers the May Day
festivities continued. In 1580 there are records of David Rollock
being fined £10 Scots for his part in the debaucheries and slowly
the Festival of the Dragon succumbed to the Kirk's assault.
It is unclear if the bigotry of the reformist zealots
saw the singing and dancing with their attendant courtship and
wooing as licentious debaucheries. Perhaps some of the participants
still continued the ancient fertility rites in their entirety. These
involved the removal of all marriage vows for the duration of the
festivities and even widespread acts of public and communal
lovemaking. These actions in pagan times were seen as a sacred
celebration of fertility and were also a means of releasing tensions
and ill-feelings in small tightly-knit communities.
The more spectacular orgiastic happenings are said to
have taken place in a deep hollow on the top of Kinnoull Hill near
the place known as the Windy Cowl. This is a narrow crevice where
the wind can create spectacular effects and near which there is a
spot where an echo can be heard nine times. Mine was a number of
great significance to the ancient Celts and suggests that this site
was in use in pre-Christian times.
The meaning of dragon stories has been the subject of
many theories. Some say they are symbolic of the destruction of
pagan religions by Christianity while others point to the recurring
theme of the dragon in zodiacal and astrological ideas. Yet otners
see them as symbolic of the power of ley-lines, those mysterious
lines of force that criss-cross the countryside and are the source
of so much speculation themselves.
The dragon is also often interchangeable with the
serpent which is seen as symbolising knowledge in widely-different
societites all over the world. It is a truly universal symbol.
The understanding that such symbolism hints at has
much to do with how we see ourselves in relation to our common
mother, the Earth. At a time when mankind is in danger of destroying
all life on our planet by an insane adherence to violence or equally
otiose pollution the understanding that our ancestors possessed can
perhaps be of assistance to us.
that we can tell of the ancient peoples of Scotland points to the
fact that they tried to live in balance with nature whereas nowadays
we are subjected to the results of men trying to bend nature to
their will. The Dragon is often portrayed as eating its own tail
which is a symbol of the cyclic processes of time. Season follows
season, life follows death. Such an awareness was central to the
philosophy and everyday life of the Picts, Scots and Britons. In his
arrogance modern man has turned his back on the accumulated wisdom
of millennia. As time itself is cyclic perhaps such wisdom and
awareness will rise again before it is too late.
Kinnoull Hill is now part of a municipal park in the
city of Perth. O.S. NO 136228.
HOW TO GET THERE
Go north from Dundee through Downfield and Bridgefoot
on the road to Tealing. Martin's Stone is in a field on the west
side of the road between Wynton asnd South Balluderon farms.
Meigle Museum is on the left of the A927 road to
Dundee next to the church.
The Maiden Stone.
Go north west from Inverurie on the A96 to Insch.
Take the turning first left to Chapel of Garioch. Proceed through
the village and the Maiden Stone is on the left of the road about a
mile further on.Callanish.
From Stornoway take the A858 heading west and turn
right at Garynahine. The stones are to the west of Callanish village
overlooking Loch Roag about fifteen miles from Stornoway.
Head east from Crieff along the A85 and turn onto the
A822 at Gilmerton. Head north past the Foulford Inn. The stone
marking Ossian's Grave lies by the road on the right just through
the narrow entrance of the Sma' Glen.
Take the A916 from Windygates to Cupar heading north.
Go through Kennoway and 3 miles north, just past Foggieleys, turn
right towards Largoward. The fourth turning on the right leads to
Bonnyton Farm. The tumulus is on the right about 200 yards up this
Glenmoriston runs west from the A82 Loch Ness road
about 28 miles south west of Inverness.
Now a public park, Kinnoull Hill overlooks Perth from
the east. It can be reached by taking the road to the monastery half
way between the bridges on the east bank of the Tay.
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