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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 11 - The "Alteins" or Stones of Fire; Beltine or May-Day and Midsummer Festivals


The names which the first settlers of a country gave to the particular localities which they occupy, are not mere brands, they are significant appellatives. Such were the names of the ancient Palestine. They expressed some quality or incident connected with the town or valley or mountain which bore them, and despite the many masters into whose possession that land has since passed, and the diverse races that have successively peopled it, the aboriginal names still cling to its cities and villages though now in ruins. It is the same with Scotland. Its first inhabitants gave names in their vernacular to the localities where they reared, their wattled dwellings or dug their underground abodes. There have since come new peoples to mix with the ancient population of the land, and a new tongues to displace the original speech of its inhabitants, nevertheless the names given to hamlet and village in olden times are, in numerous instances, they names by which they continue to be known at this day; and these names carry in them the key which unlocks the early history of the place to which they are affixed. Some of these names are simply the footprints of the Druid.

Of these footprints one of the most noted is the term clachan. Clachan is a Gaelic word signifying stones. From this, which is its primary meaning, it came to denote, secondarily, a stone erection, and, in especial, a stone erection for religious observances. Gaelic lexicographers define "Clachan" to be "a villager or hamlet in which a parish church is situated."2 Before a hamlet could be promoted to the dignity of a clachan it was required of it that it should possess two things—a stone fabric and a place of public worship. But the curious thing is that in many of these clachans there is not now, nor ever was, a parish church or place of Christian worship of any sort. And farther, these hamlets have held the rank of clachan from a date when there was not a stone house in them, and their inhabitants dwelt in mud huts, or in fabrics of wattles. How, they came they by their name of clachan or "stones," when they had neither parish church nor stone house. Simply in this way, and only in this way can the name be accounted for, that they had a "stone circle," which was their parish church, inasmuch as they assembled in it for the celebration of the rites of Druidism. Hence to go to the "stones" and to go to worship came to mean the same thing. "Going to and from church," says Dr. Jamieson, "and going to and from the clachan are phrases used synonymously."3 Even till recently this was a usual form of speech in the Highlands, and is probably in use in some parts still. Thus has Druidism left its traces in the language of the people as in the localities.

Altein is another of these footprints. Altein is a name given to certain stones or rocks found in many districts of Scotland, and which are remarkable for their great size, and the reverence in which they are held by the populace, from the tradition that they played an important part in the mysteries transacted in former days. Altein is a compound word—al, a stone, and teine, fire, and so it signifies "the stone of fire." It is corrupted sometimes into Alten, Altens, and Hilton. One of these alteins, or "stones of fire," is found in the neighbourhood of Old Aberdeen. It is termed the "Hilton Stone," and stands a mile west of the cathedral, upon what have always been church lands. It is a truly magnificent column of granite, rhomboidal in form, each of its sides a yard in breadth, and measuring from base to top 10 feet. The religious use to which it was destined is certified by the near proximity of two stone circles, each thirty yards in diameter, and having, when entire, eighteen granite columns. The eastern circle remained untouched till 1830. Spared so long by tempests and other and worse agents of destruction, it was demolished in the year just named, and its monoliths broken up and utilised as building materials. The western circle, too, has all but vanished. It is represented at this day by but two stones, standing doubtless, in the position in which Druid placed them long ages ago. When entire, these two granite circles, with the grand rhomboidal "stone of fire" standing betwixt the, would form a tolerable complete Druidic establishment; and thence, not improbably, was borrowed the name of the neighbouring cathedral city, which is often spoken of as the Alten-e-Aberdeen, or, to render the Gaelic appellatives into modern vernacular, the stone of fire as the city on the mouth of the black river.4 Were the dead of seventy generations ago, which sleep in the neighbouring churchyards, to look up, they would describe for us the scenes that were wont to be enacted here, and in which they bore their part. They would paint the eager upturned faces of the crowd that pressed around this "altein" expectant of the fire which, as they believed, was to fall upon it out of heaven. And not less vividly would they picture the yet greater crowds, that, on high festival days, gathered round these "stone circles," and looked on in silent awe, while the white-robed Druid was going through his rites at the central dolmen. Victim after victim is led forward and slain—mayhap in the number is babe of some poor mother in the crowd, who seeks by this cruel and horrid deed to expiate her sin—and now the altar streams with blood, besmeared are hands and robe of officiating priest, and gory prints speckle the grassy plot which the granite monoliths enclose. The sound of the rude instruments waxes yet louder, till at last their noise drowns the cries of the victim, and the smoke of the sacrifices rises into the sky and hangs its murky wreaths like a black canopy above the landscape.

Altiens are met with in various parts of Scotland. Every locality to which such name is affixed, is marked by its great rock-like stone, on which the fire of Druid was wont to blaze in days long past. Here Druid no longer kindles his fire, but the stone remains as if to bear its testimony to the beliefs and usages of old times. There is the liateine, or stone of fire, in the parish of Belhelvie, corrupted into Leyton. A few miles to the west of Edinburgh is the parish of Liston. The name has a similar derivation and has undergone a similar corruption as Leyton and Alton. Liston is at once the compound and the corruption of Lias-teine, and being rendered from the Gaelic into the vernacular, signifies the "stone of firebrands." Thus translated, the name opens a vista into far back ages. It recalls the ceremonies of that eventful night, October 30th, on which as Druidic ordinance enjoined, the fire of every hearth in Scotland, without one exception, had to be extinguished, and the inhabitants of its various districts were to repair to their several "stone of firebrands," at which, on payment of a certain specified sum, they would receive from the hands of officiating Druid a torch kindled at his sacred fire, to carry back to their homes, and therewith rekindle their extinguished hearths.

The stone of Liston,5 at which this ceremony was wont to be enacted, is nine feet and a half in height. It is to be seen in a field a little to the east of the mansion-house of old Liston, not far from the stone circle and dyke which surround the mound called "Huly Hill." Other and more exciting scenes has this quiet neighbourhood witnessed than the ordinary rural occupations that engross its inhabitants in our day. Here Druid has left the print of his foot, and it is not difficult, and it may not be unprofitable, to recall the scenes in which he was here pleased to display the extent of his power and the mysteries of his craft, year after year, through long centuries.

The day has again come round. It draws towards evening, the last gleam of sunlight has faded on the summits of the Pentlands, and the shadows begin to lengthen and thicken on the plain at their feet. The gloom is deepened by reason of the absence of those numerous lights which are wont, on other evenings, to flicker out from dwelling and casement on the departure of the day. No lamp must this night burn, no hearth must this night blaze; for so has Druid commanded. And that command has been faithfully obeyed. In every house the inmates have extinguished the brands on their hearth and carefully trodden out the last embers. But it is not in the parish of Liston only that every fire had been extinguished in obedience to Druidic authority. The command is obligatory on every house in Scotland. Not a hearth in all the land is there that is not this night cold and black; nor dare it be rekindled till first the Druid, by his powerful intercessions, has brought fire from heave. Then only may the kindling glow again brighten hearth and dwelling.

And now comes the more solemn part of the proceedings. From all the hamlets and dwellings around the inhabitants sally forth and wend their way in the dusk of the evening across meadow and stubble-field, or along rural lane, towards that part of the plain where stands the "altein," or stone of firebrands. They carry torches in their hands, if so be, by favour of Druid, they may return with them lighted. They gather round the sacred stone, and await in awe the mysteries that are about to be enacted. A little knot of Druids have preceded them thither, and stand close around the "pillar of firebrands." All is dark,—dark around the stone as throughout the whole region. Anon the silence in the crowd is broken by a voice which is heard rising in prayer. It is that of a priest who beseeches Baal to show his acceptance of his worshippers by sending down fire to kindle anew their hearths. He cries yet louder, all the priests joining in the supplication, and lo! Suddenly, a bright and mysterious light is seen to shoot up from the "altein." The flame has come down from the heaven: so do the priest assure the awestruck crowd. Their god is propitious: he has answered by fire. The multitude hail the omen with shouts and rejoicings.

And now the people press forward around the "altein," and holding out their torches, kindle them at the sacred flame, and bear them in triumph to their several homes. Long lines of twinkling lights may be seen in the darkness moving in the direction of the various villages and cottages, and in a little space every hearth is again ablaze. From every casement the cheerful ray streams out upon the night, and the whole region is once more lighted up with the new holy fire.

These "stones of fire" form a connecting link between the early Caledonia and the ancient Phoenicia. Of this latter country, the pioneer, and to a large extent the instructress of the ancient Caledonians in the mysteries of fire-worship, the capital, Tyre, was as distinguished for its idolatry as for its commerce; and if it transmitted the alphabetic letters invented in Chaldea and Egypt to the western world, it transmitted not less to the Westerns the deities of Asia. These were but second-hand gods, though set forth by the Phoenicians as if they had been the divine aborigines of their famous coast; for the gods and goddesses of paganism start up in different countries with other names. Here Ashtaroth was born rising on her shell from the blue deep. Here her star or thunderbolt fell on the island, which afterwards became the seat of Tyre, and that city never forgot what it owed to her who had given so miraculous a consecration to its soil Here Hercules a local Adonis, reigned supreme. His dog it was that fished up the first murex from the sea, its mouth purpled with the dye. Here Adonis, killed by the wild boar as he hunted in the Lebanon glen, was mourned by Ashtaroth, the Phoenician Venus; and here rejoicing were yearly held in honour of the awakening of Adonis, the Phoenician Tammuz. These festivals of mourning and rejoicing were not restricted to the Phoenicians shore, they crept into the neighbouring country of Judea; hence the women whom Ezekiel saw in the temple "weeping for Tammuz." And here, too, as we have said, rose the altein.

The fire-pillars that blazed at the food of Lebanon burned in honour of the same gods as those that lighted up the straths of Caledonia. Ezekiel speaks of the "stones of Fire" of Tyre, and his description enables us to trace the same ceremonies at the Phoenician alteins as we find enacted at the Scottish ones.

When kindled, on the 30th of October, the Druid kept his "altein" alive all the year through till the 30th October again came round. It was then extinguished for a brief space, in order that a new gift of fire might be bestowed by his god. And as was the custom of Scottish Druid, so too, was that of the Phoenician Magus. His fires were kept burning, night and day, all the year round. Ezekiel depicts Tyre as "walking up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. For what purpose? To trim them and keep them alive, least should they be suffered to go out, the gods in whose honour they burned might take offence, and visit the State with calamity. They were guardian fires, and, while they shone, the glory of Tyre was safe, and her rich merchandise, spread over many seas, was guarded from tempest and shipwreck. Compassed about by these guardian fires, her invincible defence as she deemed them, Tyre believed herself secure against overthrow; but the prophets foretold that destruction would find entrance nevertheless, and the crowning feature in the prophecy—so full of magnificence and terror—of her fall, is the extinction of these "alteins," or fires 6—"I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire."7

The words of Ezekiel throw light on what was done in old time on the moors of Scotland. They pierce the darkness of long past time, and show us the ceremonies enacted at the "alteins" and stone circles" of Caledonia by our forefathers of three thousand years ago. Hardly can a doubt remain that the "alteins" of early Scotland, and the "firestones" of Phoenicia, were identical as regards to their character and use. We behold the same priests standing by them, and the same rites performed at them. Both were altars to Baal, or Moloch, or the sun-god. In both countries their ruins still remain, though the baleful fires that so often blazed upon them have been long extinct. In Scotland a better light has arisen in their room. On the Phoenician shore the night, alas! Still holds sway; and though there Astarte is no longer worshipped, she has bequeathed her "crescent" as the symbol of a new faith equally false, and even more barbarous.

The great days, or holy seasons of the Druid, still retain their place in our almanacs, and have a shadowy celebration in the observances of our peasantry, at least in some parts of the country. The 1st of May was wont to be known as Beltane, and to this day figures in our almanacs under this name. It is a festival of Druidic times, and its observance has not wholly ceased even yet. In the neighbourhood of Crieff there are the remains of a Druidic stone-circle, where a number of men and women were wont to assemble every year on the lst of May. "They light a fire in the centre," says a witness and narrator of the ceremonies; "each person puts a bit of oat cake in a shepherd’s bonnet: they all sit down, and draw blindfold a piece from the bonnet. One piece has been previously blackened, and whoever gets that piece has to jump through the fire in the centre of the circle, and pay a forfeit. This is in fact a part of the ancient worship of Baal. Formerly the person on whom the lot fell was burned as a sacrifice. Now, passing through the fire represents the burning, and the payment of a forfeit redeems the victim.8

The rites of this festival, as practised in the district of Callandcxer in the end of last century, have been described to us in yet fuller detail by the Rev. John Robertson, minister of that parish.

"Upon the first day of May," says Mr. Robertson, "which is called Beltan, or Bal-tein day, all the boys in a township or hamlet meet on the moors. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground of such circumference as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to one another in size and shape as there are persons in the company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal, until it be perfectly black. They put all the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Every one, blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit, is the devoted person who is to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they mean to implore, in rendering the year productive in substance for man and beast. There is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having been once offered in this country, as well as in the east, although they now pass from the act of sacrificing, and only compel the devoted person to leap three times through the flames, with which the ceremonies of this festival are closed." Mr. Robertson adds other facts in which we can clearly trace the rites of sun-worship. "When,," says he, "a highlander goes to bathe, or to drink waters out of a consecrated fountain, he must always approach by going round the place, from east to west on the south side, in imitation of the apparent diurnal motion of the sun. When the dead are laid in the earth, the grave is approached by going round in the same manner. The bride is conducted to her future spouse in the presence of the minister, and the glass goes round a company in the course of the sun. This is called, in the Gaelic, going round the right or the lucky way."8

Next comes Midsummer. Then again the Druid lighted his fires. Alike on the Chaldean plain and on the moorlands of Caledonia, the summer solstice was a noble and sacred season. In Assyria the midsummer fires blazed in honour of the return from the dead of Adonis or Tammuz.10

In Scotland this festival was celebrated with more immediate reference to the harvest, which Baal the sun-god was invoked to bless and ripen. "These midsummer fires and sacrifices," says Toland, "were to obtain a blessing on the fruits of the earth, now becoming ready for gathering, and the last day of October as a thanksgiving for the harvest. . . . It was customary for the lord of the place, or his son, or some other person of distinction, to take the entrails of the sacrificed animals in his hands, and walking barefoot over the coals thrice, after the flames had ceased, to carry them straight to the Druid, who waited in a whole skin at the altar. If the noblemen escaped harmless it was reckoned a good omen, welcomed with loud acclamations; but if he received any hurt, it was deemed unlucky, both the community and himself." "Thus have I seen," adds Toland, "the people running and leaping through the St. John’s fires in Ireland—the same midsummer festival—and not only proud of passing unsinged, but, as if it were some kind of lustration, thinking themselves in an especial manner blest by the ceremony."11 It is not in the cities of Phoenicia, nor in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom only, that we see men passing through the fire to Baal; we behold the same ordeal undergone on the soil of our own country, and doubtless in the same belief, even, that in these fires resided a divine efficacy, and that those who passed through them were purified and made holy.

Chambers informs us, in his Picture of Scotland,12 that a fair is held regularly at Peebles on the first Wednesday of May, called the Beltaine Fair. It has come in the room of the feast of the sun. "To his hour," says Toland (1720), "the lst of May is by the original Irish called La Bealtine, or the day of the Belan’s fair."13 "These last," May and Midsummer eve, says Owen (1743), "are still continued in Wales without knowing why, but that they found it the custom of their ancestors:" as are those on Midsummer eve "by the Roman Catholics of Ireland," says Toland, "making them in all their grounds, and carrying flaming brands about their cornfields." "This they do," adds he, "likewise all over France, and in some of the Scottish isles."14 The custom of passing through the fire was also observed in these countries. "Two fires," says Toland, "were kindled on May eve in every village of the nation, as well as throughout all Gaul, as well as in Britain, Ireland, and the adjoining lesser islands, between which fires the men and the beasts to be sacrificed were to pass. One of the fires was on the carn, another on the ground. Hence the proverb amongst the people, when speaking of being in a strait betwixt two, of their being between Bel’s two fires."15 "The more ignorant Irish," says Ledwich, "still drive their cattle through these fires as an effectual means of preserving them from future accidents." The identity of these rites with those practised in Phoenicia, and in Judea in its degenerate age, and in lands lying still farther to the east, cannot be mistaken.

As the midsummer festival was one of the more important of the Druidic observances, care was taken that it should be kept punctually as to time. Outside the stone circle it was usual to set up a single upright pillar. This was termed the pointer, and its design was to indicate the arrival of the summer solstice. It stood on the north-east of the circle, and to one standing in the centre of the ring, and looking along the line of the pointer its top would appear to touch that point in the horizon where the sun would be seen to rise on the 22nd of June. When this happened the Druid knew thate ancient Dan. These stones were the clocks of the Druid: they measured for him the march of the seasons, and enabled him to observe as great exactitude in the kindling of his fires and the celebration of his festivals as the sun—the god in whose honour his sacrifices were offered—in his annual march along the pathway of the zodiac


FOOTNOTES

1.We have no intention of constructing a genealogical tree of the gods. Pagan mythology is a truly labyrithic subject. What is the use of expending time and labour in tracing the genealogy and relationships of a class of beings that never existed, and which are the pure invention of the priests and poets of the pagan times? It is true, doubtless, that these deities never existed, but the belief of their existence exercised for ages a powerful and fearfully demoralising influence on almost all the nations of the earth. Their ceremonies, moreover, were interwoven with the life and history of the nations, and so furnish light, not infrequently, by which we are able to explain the past, and to account for the present. Not unworthily, therefore, nor uselessly, have some great scholars devoted their life to researches into this subject. To give even the briefest summary of what they have written on the gods and goddesses of antiquity is here impossible. We mention only a few leading facts—that bare outline of the mythological tree—to enable the reader to understand the allusions tin the test. It is agreed on all hands that the first form of idolatry was the worship of the sun and moon. These were adored as the types of the power and attributes of the Supreme Being. The first seat of this worship was Chaldea. In process of time the Sunof the mythological tree—to enable the reader to understand the allusions tin the test. It is agreed on all hands that the first form of idolatry was the worship of the sun and moon. These were adored as the types of the power and attributes of the Supreme Being. The first seat of this worship was Chaldea. In process of time the Sun came to have his type or representative on earth, to whom divine honours were paid. This was the founder or monarch of Babylon, who was worshipped under the title of Bel or Baal, which signifies the supreme lord. Baal became the supreme god to all the pagan nations, but under a different name in the various countries. He was worshipped as Baal by all the Semitic nations—the Assyrians, Arabians, Hittites, Phoenicians &c. By the Greeks he was adored as Zeus, and by the Romans as Jupiter, Apollo, Saturn; that these are names of the same god has been shown by Selden, "De Dis Syriis." cap. i. p. 123. The wife of Baal was named Beltis, which is the feminine form of the word. She was the Rhea of the Assyrians, the Istar of the Persians, the Astarte and Ashtaroth of the Syrians and Phoenicians, the Venus of the Greeks and Romans. Her worship was widely prevalent. The Jews at times offered cakes to her as the "Queen of Heaven."

2. Drs M’Leod and Dewar. Dict. Of Gael. Lang. Word "Clachan." Glasgow, 1831.

3. Jamieson, Hist. of the Culdees, p. 27.

4. Not auld town of Aberdeen, but altein-e-Aberdeen. "We never," says Mr Rust (Druidism Exhumed, pp. 50-57), "say Altein-e-Edinburgh, or even Aulton o’Edinburgh, but auld toun o’Edinburgh. The two words auld and town are never abbreviated into the compound altein or aulton".

5. The term ton (town) may have been added to lis or lios by the Scotch when the Gaelic meaning of the word was forgotten.

6. Ezekiel, xxviii. 14,16.

7. Phoenicia was a chief seat of fire-worship. The Phoenicians came direct from the primitive seat of this worship, and made their new country a second Chaldea. Herodotus says that they passed over from the Persian Gulf to the Shore of the Mediterranean. The Kaft, says Conder, which are known from the bilingual decree of Canopus to be the Phoenicians, appear on the Egyptian monuments as the neighbours of the Hittites, as early as the 14th century B.C. The term Phoenicians means Lowlanders. They were so named in contrast to Giblites, who occupied the mountain, and were spoken of as mountaineers. They were the founders of Carthage, Cadiz, Marseilles. The fishers on Lake Menzaleh, Port Said, and the Neapolitans are believed to be descended from them.

8. So did Lady Baird, on whose property stood the circle, assure the late Lord John Scott, from whom the Rev. Alex. Joseph of Arbroath had the anecdote. See "The Two Babylons," by Rev. A. Hislop, p. 148, Edin., 1862. When we mention this work, we do it no more than justice to say that it is one of vast erudition on the subject it discusses. It merits the study of all who wish to understand the structure and genius of pagan mythology with reference to Papal worship.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. Xi., pp. 620, 621. Edin. 1794. Beltane. We are happy to be able to insert the following note kindly sent us by the accomplished Professor of "Celtic Languages and Literature" in the University of Edinburgh:--

"Beltain—beltane (Bealltainn in modern Gaelic). The attribution to Baal, whether scientific or not, is very old.

"The earliest explanation of the meaning of the work known to me is that given in Cormac’s Glossary (edited by O’Donovan & Stokes, Calcutta, 1868) (Cormac, 831-903, was prince and bishop of Cashel)—‘Belltaine, i.e. bil-ten, i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring cattle (as a safeguard) against the diseases of each year to those fires.’"

10. There are some who find the basis of the whole of the pagan mythology in the early history of the race as recorded in the first pages of the Bible. The deities of paganism, they hold, are the patriarchs and fathers of mankind exalted to gods, and worshipped under other names (see Bochart), and the traditions, allegories, and mythical narrations respecting them, are disguised or veiled accounts of the services they rendered to their descendants. They hold, too, that the Creation, the Fall, the Deluge, the promise of a Redeemer, and even His death and resurrection, are all set forth and exhibited under the mythical veils which priests and poets have woven around these doctrines and facts. Ingenious and elaborate interpretations have been given of the heathen mythology on these lines. The recent discoveries in Assyria, which show that the early post-diluvian races had a fragmentary traditionary knowledge of the creation, the fall, and the deluge agreeing in substance with the Bible, lends some countenance to this theory, and shows that pagan mythology may not be wholly the product of the crafty of priests, and the fancy of poets. But if these things be mythical representations of the great facts of inspired history, and the great doctrines of revelation, they are exhibitions which mystify, invert, desecrate, and utterly darken the facts and doctrines exhibited, and not only do they frustrate the end for which these doctrines exhibited, and not only do they frustrate the end for which these doctrines were given, but they are charged with a meaning and spirit which make them work, out the very opposite end.

11. Toland, The Druids, pp.107, 112.

12. Vol. i. 178. Edin., 1827.

13. Toland, pp. 101, 103.

14. Ibid, p. 107.

15. Ibid, p. 104.


 

 


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