Saturday, 31 December 2011

Going Underground

In Orkney, the thousand years or so between about 500BCE and about 500CE is known as the Iron Age (in England and Wales, the Iron Age ends in the first century CE when the Romans turn up and spoil things).  The Iron Age was populated by Iron Age peoples ... this politically correct term is used by archaeologists to avoid using names such as “Celts” or “Picts” which are deemed to be unspecific and politically loaded nouns.

These Iron Age peoples of Orkney were probably descended from the previous Bronze Age peoples and the Neolithic peoples before them – archaeologists are increasingly inclined to appreciate the stability and longevity of populations in general.

Please forgive my initial concerns to get my terminology “right” because all I really want to suggest is that it is quite likely, given the material culture (i.e. stuff / things) left behind by these people, that they were Picts – although whether they thought of themselves as such is another question entirely!

Whereas the Neolithic “religion” would appear focused on the sky, and in particular the sun, Iron Age beliefs seem to be concerned more with an underworld.  Indeed, this could be seen as a common theme for Iron Age beliefs in the British Isles: the Gods have gone underground and to commune with them, we need to join them down there.

One of the most intriguing sites in Orkney is Mine Howe (HY 513 059), explored fully in 1999 and excavated extensively, including (or as well as!) being the subject of a Time Team special.  Mine Howe appears in the landscape as a hillock, but it is not a natural feature, on investigation 29 stone steps were revealed which, half-way down, pause at a rock half-landing.  At this half-landing, two long side chambers open out, one above the other, and the stone steps continue down to the main rounded chamber which is just over a metre wide and four metres high.  The roof of this chamber is corbelled and the walls are constructed using dry-stone walling techniques. 

There is a small visitor centre at Mine Howe where, for a modest entrance charge, you can rent a hard hat, read about the excavations to date and enter the mound itself.  Wear very sensible flat shoes with decent grippy soles to visit this site because those mysterious 29 steps are slippery, wet and treacherous ... a little lighting has been put in and a rope hand-rail (unsympathetically in my opinion) but care is still needed.  These additions may have been required to comply with health and safety requirements (not that that usually bothers folk in Orkney), but they do ruin the ambiance a little!  The descent into the dark at Mine Howe is quite disorientating and the bottom chamber really only allows space for a couple of people at once – only two visitors are allowed in at a time so you will get the site to yourself for a while BUT it is worth trying for an off-season or inclement day in the hope that there won’t be a queue of folk behind you hassling you to hurry up!

The acoustics in this site are interesting – try drumming or chanting, male baritones have a particularly evocative effect.  Mine Howe is a place for retreating into the earth and being fully incumbent, but the atmosphere is eerie and otherworldly and this is one site where I definitely feel that I am an intruder.

In many ways, brochs are to Scotland what hillforts are to England and Wales – usually interpreted as defensive structures they were probably more about a display of impregnability and status than of much practical use in warfare.  It is likely that in Iron Age societies secular power was closely associated with religious power (as anthropologists observe for tribal societies in general) and archaeologists are increasingly finding that the function of prehistoric sites cannot be neatly labelled as solely domestic or secular but that there was an overlap of use.  Hillforts, for example, are just as likely to be interpreted these days as ritual centres as defensive ones, and it is possible to make similar deductions about brochs.

One of the best preserved brochs in Orkney is the Broch of Gurness (HY 381 268) in Evie on West Mainland.  This site is in the care of Historic Scotland so there is an admission charge but this is compensated for by the comprehensive interpretation displays.  This coastal site looks out over Eynhallow Sound to the islands of Eynhallow and Rousay, and is just along the shore from the excellent beach at Evie Sounds.

Inside the broch there is an underground chamber which is usually interpreted as a well.  It is not possible to go down this chamber but it is just possible to peer down and see enigmatic stone steps leading down into the darkness.  This can be a fairly busy site, so don’t expect to get it to yourself!

Likewise, at the Broch of Midhowe (HY 371 306) on Rousay there is a cellar in the interior of the broch with a well.  This broch is also in the care of Historic Scotland but there is no custodian on site and no entrance charge – even at the height of summer it is possible to have this site to oneself for a considerable amount of time, time enough to connect to the site in solitude.

In my opinion, this building of an underground chamber with stone steps seems an inordinate amount of effort for a well and the chambers themselves are reminiscent of the chambers at Mine Howe – which no one seems to have any problem interpreting as a ritual site.  These wells could indeed be wells, but I doubt that that was all they functioned as.  To access them involves increasingly entering into more private and enclosed space, first through the outer “village”, then into the broch tower, then down into the chambers.  Certainly this could be a veneration of water – akin to well-decorating – but I think it is the descent into the underground which is important.

At The Cairns (ND 456 871) in South Ronaldsay, overlooking the Bay of Windwick, archaeologists are excavating a broch structure at which they have found another underground chamber with an above ground structure.  The architecture, in the form of internal stone partitions, was apparently designed in such a way that anyone accessing the upper building would have been steered to move around it in a sunwise direction, but in an anti-sunwise direction once they climbed down into the underground chamber.  The archaeologists have suggested that a sunwise direction may symbolise life and an anti-sunwise direction may symbolise death or the afterlife.

Other underground chambers from the Iron Age period in Orkney include the earth-houses.  These are usually interpreted as domestic structures and originally they would have been associated with a round-house on the surface from within which it was possible to climb down into a long underground passage leading to a rounded chamber.  Elsewhere in the British Islands, these underground structures are known as souterrains and they are usually interpreted as storage / cellar facilities – it being cool underground – or areas in which to hide at times of danger.

Right in the middle of the industrial estate at Hatston on the outskirts of Kirkwall is Grain earth-house (HY 441 116).  This site is in the care of Historic Scotland and the key is available from the Ortak Showroom nearby but there is only one key and you may find someone already there or have to ask someone who looks like they might be walking back to return the key!

The cover to the entrance is modern and is accessed by a hatchway.  You can also borrow a torch from Ortak but it is best to bring your own torch as this site is dark and a bit of a squeeze to get into – don’t attempt this site it you are claustrophobic and don’t wear anything you wouldn’t want to get muddy or wet.  The steps down into the passageway are also modern but the original access is a vertical “chimney” which can still be seen to the side.  There is a “C” shaped passage to crawl along which is about 6 metres in length.  This leads into a rounded chamber over 3 metres long by about 2 metres wide.  The passage and chamber are constructed with monoliths and orthostats and dry-stone walling – this could be for practical reasons to do with access to available building materials but could also be a monumental reference to Neolithic tombs – note that for the folk who built these earth-houses, the peoples who built the Neolithic tombs were nearly as far back in their past as the earth-house builders are to our past. 

Once in the chamber, turn off the torch light and experience the darkness fully!

There is another accessible earth-house at Rennibister (HY 397 125).  This is on private land but is in the care of Historic Scotland and access is allowed at reasonable times.  The same conditions apply as to the site at Grain in terms of safety.

At Rennibister there is an “S” shaped passage to shuffle along which is about three metres in length and which opens into a rounded chamber about three metres long by over two metres wide.  This chamber originally had a corbelled roof – perhaps another architectural reference to the corbelled roofs at Mine Howe and the Neolithic tombs.   There are also recesses and shelves in the walls which are a possible memory of those at Skara Brae and other Neolithic structures.  Sadly, a modern hatchway allows light into this chamber so it is not possible to experience the darkness.  When this earth-house was excavated in the 1920s it was found to contain the skeletons of at least 18 people, of which 12 were children.  This is usually interpreted as a secondary usage of this structure and an atypical usage of earth-houses but, it may not be.

All of these structures have their own atmosphere although they all differ in their accessibility for the spiritual pilgrim.  There are, however, some common characteristics which I have attempted to draw out in my descriptions.  They are all monumental structures, built with skill and care and utilising construction techniques which possibly have symbolic references to ancestral structures of the Neolithic.  Many are commonly interpreted in a functional manner without reference to ritual – except for Mine Howe which seems to evade any functional explanation.  I would argue that these underground chambers all had a ritual function in common because they are constructed too well and in too stylised a manner to be purely practical in function.  The passages of the earth-houses in particular prompt the question of why they weren’t straight – straight would be economically sensible, underground passages are not easy to build – but curved means that light can be excluded, and possibly sound too.  From the central chambers at all these sites, I would suggest, based on my own observation and personal experiences, that these were places where sensory deprivation could take place and where auditory phenomena could be used to induce an altered state of consciousness.  Once in an altered state of consciousness, the Gods in the ground could be communicated with.

For any spiritual pilgrim who can get these sites to themselves, it is possible to achieve such states yourself very easily as these are amazingly trance-inducing places.  For those sites where you have company, or which you cannot access, place their memory in your mind’s eye and travel there astrally latter – you won’t be disappointed.  Promise.


Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ode to the Old Cockerel

(This article was originally published in TouchStone, the journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Issue 185, April 2012)

The old cockerel came free of charge with the six young bantam hens we bought for £30.  When I agreed to buy the hens, I was asked:  “I don’t suppose you want a cockerel too – it’s just I’ve got a spare who I don’t want and he’s got too much character to wring his neck – he’s old, but he’s a good cockerel – he’ll look after the hens, stop them from attacking each other, and take them out to the best places to forage every day.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time ... I am always attracted by the word “free” and I was reassured that he was unrelated to the hens who were all sisters.  I’ve since discovered that every keeper of poultry in Orkney has an old bantam, full of character, going spare.  Even farmers have a soft spot, although it may take some digging around to find and will usually be kept well hidden.

When old cockerel turned up he was a bit battered – his feathers had got bent in transit but he soon perked up.  We were worried about him at first as all his hens flew up to roost, whereas old cockerel just flopped on the hay underneath, but once Mark had built him a ladder up to his ladies he was able to join them.  We were told to keep them all in the henny hoosey for the first three days, to make sure they always remembered it as home and knew where to return to.  When we finally opened their door, they wouldn’t come out – admittedly, it was October in Orkney, it was cold, windy and perpetually raining – food and water were inside, they had no reason to come out.

When they did all venture out, finally, I watched them peck excitedly around their pen.  A couple of hours later, at sundown, I noticed that the hens were missing and old cockerel was pecking around by himself.  I assumed that the younger hens had all flown out of the pen, leaving the old boy behind (despite promises that their wings had been clipped).  I went in, looked into the hen house with a torch, only to be met with six pairs of eyes all peering down at me in curiosity and fear.  I tried then to get old cockerel back into the hen house so I could put them all away for the night, but he was having none of it.  As I chased him around and around the pen, I got my first inkling into his canniness – this was a survivor.

The young hens started laying eggs in February and we let them all out to free range over our garden.  Old cockerel did as promised and predicted and looked after them all, taking them around for the best insects and worms.

We knew he was doing what he was mainly kept for because he would periodically pin one of his ladies to the ground and impregnate her with all the amorous finesse of an automatic stapler.  Then one of the hens went missing and a few weeks later waddled out of the rosea bushes with fourteen chicks.  She only lost one, with an amazing thirteen chicks surviving to adulthood – astounding for a little bantam hen who could hardly get all her brood under her at once.  The following month another hen went missing, finally reappearing with another six chicks.

Old cockerel ignored the chicks as they grew, continuing to keep a watch over his ladies.  The chicks grew and fourteen of the nineteen were gradually revealed to be male.  We sold seven, killed and butchered six (for Christmas dinner, since then I have returned to being strictly vegetarian), and we kept one as a “spare” cockerel.

It was obvious that old cockerel experienced some relief at this cull, not having quite so much competition from his male offspring, but young spare cockerel was clearly vying for the job of alpha male.  Young cockerel had a deeper call and would impregnate a hen whenever he got the sneaky chance.  Occasionally, old cockerel would chase young cockerel around the hen house and Mark and I would watch, singing along with the Benny Hill theme tune.

Old cockerel in front with new cockerel behind and some of their ladies in attendance.

We knew they fought, old cockerel soon lost all the feathers around his neck, but old cockerel was still very much king.  At five years old (he was three when we got him) he was old for a bantam but in good health, as were all of them, even though, periodically, their claws would get encrusted in the bantam shit, sawdust and mud they constantly walked around in – although usually a few days of Orkney rain would loosen the problem.

In late July 2011, old cockerel got quite mud encrusted and he started to limp.  We were very busy with weddings and it was a week after he started to limp that we got around to catching him, bathing his foot in water, scratching off the encrusted shit and mud, drying his claw with tissue paper, smearing on Savlon, and then wrapping his toe with a plaster (I couldn’t make this up!).  He whimpered when we caught him but permitted us to do what we needed to do, almost as if he knew we were trying to help – despite the indignity!  Mark has always had a way with animals – they love him, all manner of injured beasties come up to Mark to be touched by his healing hands.  Old cockerel was no different.

Old cockerel went limping off, we thought we’d let him see if he’d survive, after all he was still eating and shagging (when he could catch a hen!) so he clearly still had a life impulse; he hadn’t given up and neither had we.  Mark put ladders into the hen house so he could get in and out more easily, and we made sure there was water and food inside and out as he’d taken to not leaving the hen house but just gazing balefully out.  However, his foot was massively swollen and he must have been in considerable pain.

When we caught young cockerel attacking old cockerel, we penned off a corner of the run, giving old cockerel his own nesting area with fresh hay, own water, grain and some bread.  We hoped that not having to walk through shit and mud would give his claw a chance to heal.

But old cockerel desperately wanted to get out.  His hens flaunted themselves before him; every night for two years he had called his hens to roost, now he was stuck outside.

Whilst washing up and looking out the kitchen window, I noticed he’d tried to fly out of his penned area and had got himself hooked up on the chicken wire whilst trying to escape.  He was hanging from the netting by his injured foot – he must have been in agony – we released him and he limped off to his separate nesting box, defeated.

When I judged all his hens were in – young cockerel was proving rather ineffectual at calling them to roost – I went to shut the run, but old cockerel was missing.  I looked into the hen house and found him.  His hens had all roosted with young cockerel and were up in the rafters, old cockerel wasn’t able to get up with them but he had got out of his pen and he had joined them, he was in one of the nesting areas on the ground but he was with his ladies.  I looked in on him.  “Put put” he said pathetically, “leave me here, please” I translated, and left him alone.

I awoke as usual about 7am (courtesy of cat).  The voices in my head had been telling me to sort out the bantams for about an hour before but I had been ignoring them because I wanted a lie-in.  At 8am I could no longer ignore the voices.

I went out to the pen and for the first time ever all eleven hens and a young bantam cockerel came running to the door of the run.  The young cockerel was rather full of himself, like a cat that’s just caught a mouse.  I looked in.  Something was wrong.  And they all knew it.  There was a real sense of guilt and anticipation in the flock.

Old cockerel was on his back, at the end of the run, covered in blood, totally still, both claws in the air.

Horrified, I called to Mark and he came out to help.  Old cockerel was dead.  Killed by young cockerel who had finally got his revenge and was currently prancing around as the alpha male he now was. 
I should have gone in the night before and taken him into his penned off corner.  We should have left the main door of the run open so that he had a chance of escape.  I was disgusted with young cockerel now strutting around, he’d always been sweet, calling for food and coming quite close, but now he was a murderer, performer of patricide, and he had a suspicious brown liquid splattered on his legs.

We gathered old cockerel into a bin bag and moved him into the garage where he couldn’t be pecked anymore and where the crows and ravens wouldn’t gather for him.

The dynamics had changed in the flock, young cockerel was so arrogant but not used to command.  The hens were a bit rebellious; he obviously had further contests to endure before he gained their respect.

In the afternoon, Mark dug a grave and lined it with stone slabs, a cist.  We laid old cockerel in it and placed with him a feather from one of his ladies, a slice of bread for the journey, and some flowers from a wedding as a gift from the land.  A grave to truly confound any future archaeologist!  I asked Mark to take off the plaster from old cockerel’s claw because a hero bantam should not enter the chicken summerlands wearing a plaster.  When Mark took it off, we saw that the swelling had gone down – old cockerel had been healing.  We covered the grave; by the late afternoon, young cockerel was scratching over the disturbed soil for worms.

The king was dead, long live the king.

Spirit is a little golden bantam who does not want to be shut away from his harem.  Defiance is a brave old cockerel who gets out, somehow, and chooses to be with his ladies, even though he is in danger from his younger son.  Pluck is a little old cockerel who does what is needed, what has to be done, even though it is not in his own best interests.

We salute you, old cockerel, you were a good cockerel and we miss you.

Perhaps it is how you would have preferred to have died?  Perhaps you would have preferred to go out fighting rather than fading away in pain and succumbing to an infection?  Perhaps the nursing we did gave you a fighting chance at the end?  Perhaps young cockerel had to kill you in order to have your spirit enter him, so that he could be king cockerel – although he messed up getting your hens in for quite a few nights to follow!

Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Too many unknowns, and what ifs.

Old cockerel, you had a good long life.  You lived for five years, which is good for a bantam.  For one of those years, you had six hens.  You passed on your DNA and in your last year you shared eleven hens with your son, staying top cockerel until the last week of your life.  You were brave, you put protecting your ladies above your own self-interest.

Did you suffer?  I hope not, but the fact that I found you on your back, with your feet in the air, vulnerable and submissive makes me think you did suffer at the end.  When we examined your body, your head was covered in blood and there was a big hole on the back of your neck that had been pecked out.

I hope it was quick.  I suspect it was not.  But I think you went out like a hero warrior and I salute you, brave old cockerel.  May your spirit walk in peace on our land and protect us.  May your life and your death be a lesson to us.

Monday, 26 December 2011

How I became a muckle black wallowa

(This article was published in SPIN - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine - winter 2011)

My previously mentioned love / hate relationship with Orkney largely derives from an incident that arose when I first moved here just over two years ago, when I failed to gain employment in my area of expertise, despite having received emphatic reassurances that I would.  Since then, I have “only” managed to find work that is administrative in nature and I have at times felt rather under-utilised (in the midst of a recession, I am fully aware that this is an ungrateful attitude on my part!).  It is only very recently that I have realised that the only person still being hurt by my continuing to carry around my frustration, anger, bitterness and resentment at this, is me.

But back when I first moved to Orkney, this loss at no longer being able to describe myself as such-and-such a professional was a tremendous shock (to my ego) and I went into an extended period of bereavement and grief and general ego-stripping that my (!) plans were not happening as I (!) had planned.  I realised fairly quickly that this was one of those quaint spiritual lessons our Gods periodically enjoy bestowing upon us for our own good and growth, and I asked for a bit of guidance as I felt a bit lost on so many levels.  I was, after all, effectively an immigrant, albeit a legal one, a refugee, and I had yet to grow roots which would stabilise me in my new home.  I was disturbed, too, to find that the spirits of the land, which I had found so easy to connect with whilst on holiday here, were now, apparently, ignoring me and I felt truly abandoned on so many levels, entering into a spiritual depression akin to a mystical “dark night of the soul”.

I don’t think I was pleasant company at that time! 

But, in my despair, I returned to what had always comforted me and I started to research the witch tradition in Orkney.  In doing so, I discovered the Spae Wife characters.  Not only did I research but, by the usual synchronicities, the Spae Wives kept cropping up in conversations.

Spae Wives were diviners and dispensers of advice relating to the community's welfare, marriage and childbirth; they also sold wind to sailors and charmed away milk from cows.  In the Tankerness Museum, in Kirkwall, for example, in the Victorian exhibits, there is a little leather pouch, supposedly having once belonged to a Spae Wife, which wouldn’t look out of place in the pocket of a “modern” hedge witch: it contains some folded paper, a couple of thorns, and a pin.  Instant spell kit!

In the 1880s, folklorist Walter Traill Dennison recorded the following ritual by which a Spae Wife obtained their powers:  At full moon, at midnight, go to a beach alone and turn around three times against the sun, then lie down on the sand on the ebb – between the high and low tides – stretch out your arms and legs, place a stone between each limb, plus further stones at your head, chest and heart, so that you are enclosed by seven stones, then say aloud:

“Come tak me noo, an tak me a',
Tak lights an' liver, pluck an' ga,
Tak me, tak me, noo I say,
Fae de how o' da heed, tae da tip o' da tae.
Tak a' dats oot an' in o' me.
Tak hare an hide an a' tae thee.
Tak hert, an harns, flesh, bleud an banes,
Tak a' atween the seeven stanes,
I' de name o' da muckle black Wallowa!”

(Anyone having trouble with the Orcadian dialect?  Just read it aloud, and it makes more sense!)

The would be Spae Wife then lies quietly for a while, opens her eyes, turns onto her left side, and flings the stones one at a time into the sea, sending a curse with each one.  I couldn’t find the words of the curses to be used but apparently they are quite terrifying with overtones of demonic invocations.  One can only use one’s imagination, although some folklorists believe that these are more recent additions designed to purposely set an association with the devil that was never present in the original and underlying ritual.

So, having been so sure that I was “meant” to be in Orkney for a definite reason, and now feeling equally sure that I had deluded myself because all my (!) plans were falling apart, in desperation I turned to a rededication.  Thus, in early September 2009, on the evening of a full moon, at low tide, I set out for the Sands of Evie.

The Sands of Evie are not only the nearest sandy beach to where I live in the parish of Harray (Harray is the only parish in Orkney which does not contain any coastline), they are also another rather lovely and special place in Orkney.  They lie on the north-east coast of West Mainland, facing the island of Rousay, with Eynhallow Sound running between.  The mysterious island of Eynhallow can be seen to the north-west, and just along the coast to the north is the Iron Age Broch of Gurness.

 Rather than midnight, I purposely chose the liminal time of dusk, which I personally find much more conducive to magical Work.  The weather was fine but, being September in Orkney, chilly and windy (it is always windy in Orkney ...).  I wore plain black hooded robes and bare feet, parked the car, and immediately spotted the perfect location: a sand bar, only visible at lowest tide, jutting out into the bay.  Surrounded on three sides by water, joined only to the shore by a thin strip of sand, the sand bar was quite an exciting place to Work – I wondered if I would be finished before I would have to get my feet wet ... just how far would the Gods’ cosmic joke extend?  This added to the atmosphere of tension considerably.

I chose the stones from the beach carefully and lay down on the sand as the ritual instructed, placing the stones as directed.  It was dusk, just before sunset, and there was no-one else around, just me, the noise of the sea, and the plaintive call of gulls.  

In Orkney we don’t tend to have an autumn.  August is summer, September drops straight into winter, especially after the equinox when the nights close in extremely rapidly.  The winds are so strong here that the leaves on the trees don’t get a chance to turn red, but rather as soon as the leaves start to die, they are blown off and away.  So early evening in September, on a beach, in Orkney, in thin cotton robes, it was cold – too cold to hang around, too cold to hesitate about my rededication decision, just get on with it and get back into the warmth.  And besides, I really didn’t want wet feet, or wet anything, and that tide was certainly coming in ...

So I said the words and spend a few anxious and shivering moments awaiting the amazing insight, the flood of spirituality, the appearance of spirits and elementals, and the acknowledgement from the Gods of my new status.  Nothing!  I threw the stones into the sea, not making up curses (although I was tempted), but instead throwing away from myself those aspects of my character that I no longer needed; part of me was to die so that other parts of me could live.

Then I turned to go and realised that I had attracted an audience!  A group of about seven black seals were watching me.  They were very curious because one of them came right into the shallows, only about ten metres from where I stood on the sand bar.

I wondered if they thought I was a Selkie ... about to peel off my black-robed skin and slide back into the waters to play with my seal kin once again.  I watched them watching me for a while until the cold on my bare feet won.  I bowed to each quarter and to the site and its guardian spirits.  I said aloud: “Thank you, Lady, I am Yours”, because it felt right, and then I left, feeling that the audience of seals was very much an endorsement of what I had now become, that they had been sent as  emissaries to acknowledge and welcome me.

And what had I pledged to become?  What is a “wallowa”?  Orkney folklorists suggest that it is a word derived from Völva – a Norse shamanic seeress, a carrier of a magical wand.  In my experience, the Norse Gods are only a recent veneer in Orkney; far darker, primitive, archetypal and ancestral Gods are just about discernable underneath them, and the Spae Wife Works with those older powers.

I certainly didn’t feel different at the time but looking back now to then, and with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I realise that the past two years have been a period of intense spiritual growth for me, albeit one through which I have at times been dragged kicking and screaming whilst I desperately sought to continue to hold on to my pessimism, cynicism, and pig-headed insistence that my (!) plans were best, resorting to immature sulking at the unfairness of life when I couldn’t get my own way!

And this, for me, is the nature of Pagan initiation – perhaps all initiations? – the ritual is only the original catalyst, the actual initiation comes after and tends to be associated with more general testing times but rooted in “this reality”.  And often it is only in looking back on what we were that we realise how much we have changed, how parts of us have died, how our skins have been shed.

And my love / hate relationship with Orkney?  Well, just perhaps the love comes from Orkney and the hate has come from me, the old me, who tried to force a new life into an old skin and was hurt when it did not fit ... the transition to wallowa, to Völva, is still very much a Work in progress.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

What's so marvellous about this Orkney place then?

Loch of Harray - summer sunset

Sea bird prints on sandy beach - "having a bit of a gad-aboot"

Bay of Skail

Amazing blues (no filter this is natural light)

Walkmill Bay - amazing light effects

Hills of Hoy from Stenness Loch
Ring of Brodgar

All photos are copyright to Orkney Pagan Weddings!


(This article was published in SPIN 60 - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine - summer 2011)

I must confess to at one point having had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Orkney, with the hate bit slowly having festered during the two years since I first moved here in self-imposed exile from the Hampshire rat race. Indeed, there are still times when I deeply regret moving here and would gladly sell my soul and pawn the cat if only I could turn the clock back three years and wake myself from the ridiculous day-dream of “if only I could live on a remote Scottish island …”

The things I miss most about "sooth" are the simple daily conveniences (in Orkney you cannot buy almond croissants, Welsh cakes, or applicator tampons in an absorbency smaller than regular), the fact that it can get a bit “island fever” here, and the sheer environmental determinism of our winters.  And then every so often, something will happen which will remind me of why I came here and why it would be such a painful tug to leave.

My visit to Eynhallow last summer was one of those consolations.

Today Orkney comprises about 70 islands.  These are really just one larger partially sunken island, of whose hills we now live on top of.  Most of the island names end in “say” or “ay” – old Norse for “island” – hence Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Burray, Papay, Sanday, Westray, Eday … you will note that Eynhallow does not.  This provides us with an indication that its name is either very early Norse, or pre-Norse, possibly Pictish, a relic of language from the Iron Age peoples who lived here about 2000 years ago and probably spoke proto-Gaelic.  It has been suggested that Eynhallow means “Holy Island” and the linguistic lineage of its name hints that it has been sacred in some way for some considerable time.

Eynhallow is an island off the northern coast of mainland Orkney, south of the island of Rousay, lying in Eynhallow Sound which is infamous for its strong tidal surges so treacherous for fisherfolk.  It is about 75 hectares in area (you can walk around the entire shoreline in about two hours) and currently unpopulated (by humans).  Eynhallow was cleared in 1851 but in the middle ages there was a church and possibly a monastery (hence “holy”); now it is home only to echoes, memories and seabirds.

The legend of Eynhallow is that it was the summer home of the Finfolk, part of their Hildaland, magical vanishing islands which can sometimes still be seen, far out to sea.  Tales of mysterious and magical  creatures abound in Orkney, with one “species” being the Finfolk, a sea-faring, shape-shifting people with incredible occult powers and not well-disposed to humans.  Folklore describes how Eynhallow appeared once, from out of the mists, but a canny Orcadian farmer quickly landed and spilt salt all around the  shoreline, ensuring that when the mists came back down, Eynhallow stayed put, trapped forever as part of Orkney.

There is no regular ferry service to Eynhallow but private boats can be chartered and once a year, in summer, the Orkney Heritage Society commandeers the Rousay-Egilsay-Wyre ferry for an evening trip.   These trips are advertised in the local weekly paper once a year around July and sell out extremely rapidly.

When I went to Eynhallow last summer, the ferry trip started in an especially auspicious way with the ferry unnaturally speeding up (speed is not generally associated with Orkney) because a basking shark had been sighted in Eynhallow Sound and they wanted to bring the ferry up as close as possible, shut the engines, and provide a photo opportunity for our delight and delectation.  It is not unusual for ferries to spontaneously follow pods of orcas and suchlike in Orkney, throwing timetables to the winds, but then it is also not unusual for deck-hands to be studying part-time for a PhD in marine biology either.

Basking shark fin

The shark was indeed a good omen for the evening, with a blessedly calm crossing and a temperate breeze promising a magnificent sunset. We had about two hours ashore, time enough to walk the circumference, and it immediately felt appropriate to do so in a sunwise direction.

Black seals

Even with another eighty or so fellow passengers, the atmosphere of Eynhallow easily seeped through their chit-chat and company and I soon found myself in a dreamy reverie – an altered state of consciousness which I associate with trancing.  Eynhallow is seriously “spinny” – a term I use to describe the effect on me of some places of power; usually, for me, these are prehistoric sites such as cairns, stone circles and portal places.  When I experience “spinny” sensations, it is like being slightly drunk, slightly drugged, “not all here”, betwixt and between, neither fully in this reality nor in the Other, but aware of both and their profound overlaps.  Usually this feeling creeps up on me and I then have to “Work” to recreate it, forcing myself to be receptive to it and feeling out the specific places where it is triggered, but not on Eynhallow.  On Eynhallow the “spinny” was the norm and instead I had to work at being in the here and now, and I’d be jerked out every so often by someone passing to say how wonderful the fulmar colony was and I’d answer, but then be straight back into the altered state of consciousness.  There were voices, presences too, back and just out of perception, which I strained to hear but missed, but knew I was setting off memories, beings from other realities, energies and spirits.  They were far more aware of me than I of them and I only had a brief chance to meditate whilst awaiting the ferry to return, despite being conscious of not giving the impression of being too weird with so many folk around.  Trust me, no-one would want to be known forever more as “the one who was doing that weird thing on Eynhallow”.  They take a long time to forget here!

The evening finished with a stunning Orkney sunset with its strange all-pervading illuminating light that penetrates and saturates all things, rendering them almost translucent.  When everything becomes like a light-body and you can start to imagine that it is possible to live on sunlight alone, and that sunlight has the potential to supply all your needs and nourishment.

It was an amazing evening and one which I can thoroughly recommend if you find yourself in Orkney at the right time of year and are lucky or organised enough to get a ticket (about £20 each).  There is something about being on an island that is so special, as if you are putting distance between yourself and the rest of the world, both physically and emotionally.  Like the image on the six of cups in Tarot or that folk saying about witches not being able to pass over water, crossing to an island seems to symbolically make you leave part of yourself behind, providing a sense that no-one can get you, safety in distance.  This sense is even more so when you travel from an island to another island as you do when you travel from mainland Orkney to Eynhallow (or any of the other islands in this archipelago – all other islands in Orkney tend to look towards mainland Orkney for their centre, their axis mundi, rather than to Caithness).

I took a stone home from the shore.  Partly, I think because I wanted to see if I could actually get it home or whether it would disappear before I could do so, taken back by the magical Finfolk, or would they use it later as a locator to find me?

I still have the stone but I have since learnt I wasn’t being too cautious about the Finfolk.  As recently as 1990, 88 were counted off the ferry to Eynhallow but only 86 were counted back on. A massive air and sea search was launched, including the use of heat sensing equipment, but the missing tourists were never found.  Plenty of folk here think they were really returning Finfolk.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Ring of Brodgar

(Parts of this article were originally published in Pagan Dawn, Samhain 2011)

A popular saying in Orkney is that you only need to scratch the surface of the land and it bleeds archaeology.  It is also an incredibly spiritual place.  The two are probably connected – Orkney is one of the places in the UK where the Neolithic transition from hunting and gathering to farming really took off, so some of the earliest monuments are found here.

Orkney consists of an archipelago of almost 70 islands.  About 7000 years ago, when the sea levels were much lower than today, there were just a couple of larger land masses.  When the sea levels rose (with global warming), all that was left above water were the tops of the hills – forming the islands.  The largest of the islands is named, in typical Orkneycentricity, as Mainland.

The main concentration of Neolithic ritual monuments in Orkney is on the narrow isthmus which runs between the Harray and Stenness lochs in West Mainland.  Although ritual sites occur all over Orkney, this thin strip of land is the only place where henges were built.

The largest of these henges is the Ring of Brodgar (OS Ref HY294133), which also has an internal stone circle and dates from around 2500 BCE.  A henge is defined as a circular monument consisting of an internal ditch and external bank with one or more “entrances”, although Brodgar does not have a recognisable external bank.  The stone circle may originally have had about 60 stones, it currently has some 36 stones, some of which have fallen or been broken.  At a diameter of 104ms, this stone circle is the third largest known (only Avebury and Stanton Drew are larger), although it was probably the henge ditch, dug into the bedrock to a depth of 3m and a width of 10m that was more imposing and which took more hours to construct.

As with other large henge sites elsewhere, particularly those in Wessex, Brodgar lies in a low-lying landscape surrounded by hills, the topography thus forming a natural cauldron of land, possibly reflected in the construction of the henge – with the monument perhaps being intended as a symbolic world in miniature, a microcosm in which power and energy could be created and manipulated.  With wet and marshy land to either side of Brodgar, adding to the liminality of this site, it is possible that Brodgar was the focus of the ritual landscape – it certainly remains the favourite choice of Pagan couples getting married in Orkney today.  In the mid nineteenth century it is recorded as being known as The Temple of the Sun and couples would visit to perform a complex "engagement" ritual (refer to "Orkney Wedding Traditions" blogged on 9 July 2012).

The Ring of Brodgar is very much my “cathedral”.  I find it the most sacred site in Orkney and an incredible privilege to live only 3 miles from.  I love performing ritual there, whether it is the eight open rituals we now celebrate which anyone is welcome to attend, or sacred weddings.  I go to Brodgar whenever I really need to contact the Gods because I find them the most accessible there.

My spiritual journey really began a couple of weeks after I moved to Orkney.  As stated in my previous BLOG, I had assumed that I would be getting my dream job, in fact I had been invited to apply.  Just days after moving here, I learnt that I hadn’t even been short-listed for interview.  My world literally collapsed and I spiralled into a major panic about what I would do and what I would live on, knowing that I couldn’t go back, I had resigned from my job in the south and a replacement had been found for me.  I was totally shocked. 

Whenever trauma happens in my life, I feel at the most distant from the Gods.  This appears to be a common religious / spiritual experience.  In Christianity it is illustrated by the “Footprints” story … a man dreams he is walking along a sandy beach side-by-side with God, a metaphor for his life because as he looks back he notices that sometimes there are two sets of footprints and at others, the most traumatic times, only one set.  He asks God why this is so, questioning whether it was because God abandoned him at those most trying times, so leaving him to walk alone.  God replies: “No, my son, those were the times that I carried you.”

Some Pagans tell a different version, a feminist, edgy version ... a woman dreams a dream and in her dream she is walking along a sandy beach with the Goddess.  The woman looks back at their footprints and also notices that sometimes there are two sets of footprints and at others, the most traumatic times, only one set.  “Ah,” says the woman, “that must be when you abandoned me, Mother!”  The Goddess shakes her head.  “Ah,” says the woman, “then that must be when you carried me, Mother!”  The Goddess shakes her head again and says: “No, my Sister, those times when you can see only one set of footprints are when we both went a bit insane and hopped along on one foot for a while …”

I prefer this version.  It is less comforting, certainly, but it reveals a different relationship with deity, one in which we are mutually reliant and in which we co-create each other.  It offers no explanations for why when we are low, we feel most alone.  It just is.  Accept it.

What I do know is that, for me, after trauma comes a new blossoming of spirituality, trauma becomes a growth period for me.  Perhaps, most of the time, I am simply too dumb to grow without trauma?

Back when we first moved to Orkney, I spent a lot of time at Brodgar.  I sat on one of the fallen stones and meditated.  I think I may have become a feature on the tourist map for a while.  In waiting at Brodgar, letting the others come and go, I got to experience the place with a fresh intimacy and I met the genus loci, the spirit of the place.  She was a tiny brown woman, thousands of years old, and she kept changing her age, sometimes wizened and sometimes very girlish.  She didn’t say anything to me, possibly because I wouldn’t have understood her language, and she was quite wary of me, but she was definitely some sort of guardian spirit of the stone circle.  I felt she was Neolithic and one of the elders of the tribes.  She is still there and looking after the place.

Our first Samhain in Orkney was a full moon night and both myself and my husband went to Brodgar in the small hours of the early morning when it was still pitch black, very cold, and we were totally alone.  This was the only time I have ever been in the centre of the stone circle.  There are all sorts of signs asking folk not to go into the centre and for good reasons: the heather is ecologically sensitive and home to lots of protected wild creatures.  It simply wouldn’t survive an onslaught of thousands of tourists tramping across it.  Don’t do this yourselves please; as stated, I did this once only, by myself and without anyone knowing (until now!) so I wasn’t encouraging anyone else to do it, and I walked extremely carefully and slowly – giving the little wild things time to scurry away.  That night I gazed up at the full moon and had an epiphany moment: I needed to pray and only three words could I utter: “Sorry” and “Thank you”.  It was all that a prayer ever needed to be and totally genuine.  The energy from the moon shot through me and I understood what it meant to draw down the moon.

I have been known to stomp off to Brodgar by myself at night after an argument with Mark.  The return journey is 6 miles in total and I usually come back sodden wet, exhausted with sore feet, and feeling very sorry for myself.  What I like is the fact that I can walk around at night by myself without any fear of being attacked (by humans) and I note that Brodgar exerts such a strong pull on me that my first thought is always to retreat there for solace whenever I need it.  The Gods still don’t answer me when I am there in anger but I suspect they are keeping out of the way of my temper because they are back in my head by morning (although usually not until I have apologised to Mark).

To the north of Brodgar and uphill, just visible on the near horizon, lies the Ring of Bookan (OS Ref HY283144) which is usually interpreted as another henge site but has no obvious entrance.  In the centre is a cist suggesting that Bookan could instead be an eroded chambered cairn or possibly even a disc barrow.  Looking downhill to the south from this site provides an amazing vista over the whole ceremonial complex.  I am not convinced this site is a henge myself because it doesn’t feel hengy enough!

To the south of Brodgar lies the third henge of the complex: the Stones of Stenness (OS Ref HY306125), dating from c3000 BCE.  This henge is 44 ms in diameter with a ditch that was originally 2ms deep and 7ms wide.  There are now four stones still standing, of the original twelve, although these may not be in their original settings, and a central “hearth” from which an acoustic effect is still easily produced.  There may have been other stone and timber settings initially.  In the mid nineteenth century it is recorded as being known as The Temple of the Moon (possibly because of the crescent moon shape that the remaining stones make) and couples would visit to perform a complex "engagement" ritual (refer to "Orkney Wedding Traditions" blogged on 9 July 2012).

There are a number of standing stones around Orkney, including some on the outer islands.  There are three in the Brodgar area: the Comet Stone by Brodgar (OS Ref HY295132), the Watch Stone by Stenness (OS Ref HY305126), and the Barnhouse Stone to the south-east of Stenness (OS Ref HY312122).

Sunday, 6 November 2011

How I got to be here ...

Here are essays and articles about some of the most spiritual places in Orkney ... some of them are well known sites, even famous, but most of them are "off the beaten track".  These are necessarily subjective, personal and autobiographical insights which I share with you, the reader, and you may well gain different feelings when you visit these sites - but I hope you are inspired to visit these sites: come up to Orkney, get out and about, and sense these magickal islands for yourself!

Use this site for interest, as an alternative tourist guide, or even to choose where to get married ... if I've missed something out then please let me know!  If you want to ask questions, then please do - I'll reply as soon as I can.

Blessings xxx


I moved to Orkney for a number of reasons.  The main reason being that I was running away, but I have been running away from something or other for most of my life.

I have lived in a state of high anxiety for almost as long as I can remember.  I was always terrified of my dad, physically and mentally.  Physically, because my dad was bigger than me.  Mentally, because my dad had an absolutely brilliant way of making me feel ashamed, especially over spending money.  Dad didn’t like spending money and he didn’t like anyone else doing it either.  Now that I am an adult myself, I think he equated money with his equivalent hourly rate – he hated his job, like most people do, and if he saw someone waste a £1 for example, he saw it as “that was an hour I didn’t need to work.”  Subsequently, we didn’t have much fun as a family and much of what we did was done on the cheap.

Because I was so terrified, I have spent most of my life being scared of any authority figure including bosses, managers, teachers, doctors, the police, security, and anyone interviewing me.  Because I am always terrified, I am always perceived as weak, so I tend to get bullied – at school, at work, and in relationships.

So, in coming to Orkney, I was running away from all the very many things that threatened me in the big bad south of England.

I was running away from my ex-husband, from my job which was going nowhere and killing me with stress, from the threat of crime, from traffic jams and road-rage, from stupid house prices, insecure work, an eroding greenbelt, floods, rampant consumerism, greed, and other people in general.

I had always dreamt of living on a remote Scottish island.  One of my favourite films is “Local Hero”, one of my favourite TV programmes is “Monarch of the Glen”.  I used to holiday in remote and inaccessible places.  Why?  To get away from people, to have a bit of space and a lot of quiet, to be peaceful, to join a community and work with others, with genuine friends rather than just compete, to be at one with nature, to be more self-sufficient and to get by with less.  I also wanted more time to develop spiritually and I was putting this off until I was in the right place.  In hindsight I realise how very idealistic I was being!

I discovered Orkney for myself in the early 1990s when I flew up by plane, having to transfer twice from Southampton!  Like most other southern English people at that time, I had been contemplating moving to Wales where property and land were cheaper and yet still accessible for getting “home” – but Orkney was so beautiful and watching the sun set at Yesnaby remained my dream “first destination” if I ever won the lottery.   

In my head, Orkney took on mythic status as my special safe place, my sacred grove, my Avalon.
I went back to Orkney in 2007 on a perfect holiday with my new partner, Mark, who shared my love of archaeology and all things Pagan, to “sell” it to him as a relocation destination.   I still remember Mark’s first sight of Orkney as we waited on the north-eastern tip of Caithness for the ferry.  I pointed to the islands which were tantalisingly close and said that was Orkney.  Perhaps I need to point out, for any non-archaeological readers, that Orkney is incredibly important to archaeologists, particularly those with an interest in British prehistory (for reasons to be explained).  Through his studies, I knew Mark had learnt about Orkney and seen its important sites in textbook after textbook; having the chance to see them in person was a real treat for him.  He could not believe that Orkney was so near, so visible from Caithness, that it would not be long before he would be able to see for himself what he had previously only read about.

On that day the Pentland Firth was like a mill-pond and the sun was dazzlingly bright.  There is a certain wonderful excitement about travelling to an island which must be archetypal, there is the anticipation of the ferry and the sense of passing to somewhere different, inaccessible, safe.  Islands turn up in all sorts of myths and getting to them is always an adventure, getting there a specific destination.  Back then, that first sight of Orkney for both of us, from the coast of northern Scotland, looked like an inviting sanctuary, a haven of warmth and peace and light, our heart’s desire after a long and tiring drive.

Mark took a couple of days to share my enthusiasm for Orkney as our new home, but once he had been “infected” we started to plan our escape.  We returned the following year to get married at Brodgar in a legal Pagan ceremony and we started to house-hunt whilst on honeymoon.  

It was idyllic.  Our first holiday and then our honeymoon were perfect and blissful.  The people were friendly.  House and land prices were reasonable.  There was a sizable population of incomers also escaping the south, many of them actively exploring their spirituality or creativity.  Crime was low.  There looked like there would be plenty of work for people in our specialities.  Health care and education were brilliant.  The scenery was magical and the low golden sun was full of every fertile promise as it draped the land in a sheen of plenty.  The sense that this was in some way “the right thing for us to be doing” was mesmerizingly strong.  We had found our Shangri La, our little piece of heaven on earth, our own paradise.

And there was a definite sense too of it being what we were meant to be doing – there were, for example, signs and portents.  When I was younger, much much younger, I had had a dream that had a special meaning for me.  Not very often, but every once in a while, I will experience an extremely vivid dream, one which stays with me and won’t depart.  Sometimes the dreams are so real and haunting that I wake from them, other times the dreams occur at the time just before I awaken and they disturb my day.  In this dream I was in a pub and I was receiving a divinatory reading from a Tarot reader, an old woman, cloaked over so I could not see her face, and she was reading for me, but these were not Tarot cards – or at least not of any deck I recognised.  She turned over a card for me, the card showed a hare: “Follow the hare in the morning mist”, the reader advised me.

The hare, for most Pagans, is a symbol of the Goddess and the Moon, sacred and feminine, rare and beautiful.  I had never seen a hare whilst in the south of England except on television or in books, but I had always looked out for them.  I had interpreted the instruction to be a symbolic one and that I was to follow the Goddess in her guise as a hare and encouraged to be more spiritual, but in Orkney, whilst on honeymoon, I saw lots of hares, everywhere, and they were majestic.  To follow them I would have to move to the one place where I had ever seen them, surely?

We planned our move over the next two years, being careful to make ourselves as employable as possible by taking any training we could get, and prudently saving as hard as we could.  The whole time our goal was Orkney.  Our sentences would start “When we get to Orkney ...” or “That wouldn’t happen in Orkney.”   If there were news of Orkney on television, we would watch avidly, tears coming to our eyes as we pined for where we were not.  It got to the point where it hurt us to not be in Orkney and we were dissatisfied with everything that was not Orkney.  It was as if we had eaten with the gods and in comparison with the heavenly ambrosia we had been fed on, all earthly delights were grey and tasteless.

We have since learnt that this siren call of these islands has not only affected us.  Other incomers have described to us how, once hooked, they simply could not stay away.  One of my closest friends described to me that when she first moved to Orkney, she would lay in bed at night and feel as it something was physically tugging at her heart to stay.  Orkney is the sort of place about which it is possible to become quite obsessive as it beguiles with promises to satisfy your every need.  Like Glastonbury and Lourdes and the Boyne Valley it exerts a gravitational pull on certain souls, leaving them unable to function in the “real” world any longer.  And, just like Glastonbury and Lourdes and the Boyne Valley, sometimes Orkney spits out those it subsequently rejects.

Since being here, on a remote Scottish island, surrounded by blissful scenery, I have learnt several things, most of which I could just have easily and more cheaply learnt in my previous life if I had only taken the time to bother.

In running away to Orkney, I forgot that it is not always possible to totally leave everything behind.   Previously, I had been so busy that I didn’t have time to think over my life and reflect on my problems, now I had all the time in the world and issue after issue raised its malign head.

The main problem was that I hadn’t anticipated how remote, remote Scottish islands actually are.  This may seem naive now but I had envisaged being able to live frugally and cheaply without my southerly extravagance.  The problem is that remote Scottish islands are an expensive place to live – it costs a lot of money to get anything here and that cost is passed straight to the end-consumer.  It is cold and dark for most of the year, it isn’t unusual to need heating on for 8 months (sometimes even 10) of the year.  This is the reason why most public sector jobs carry a Distant Islands Allowance to try to offset some of these costs.  The DIA still exists when the London allowance has long disappeared.  It is also incredibly expensive to leave the island, even for a day-trip, which can lead to a definite sense of being “trapped”.

As I moved into the realisation that I had moved to Orkney because I was scared, I started to examine my less than noble motivations in life.  I had been scared that society was about to implode and that I would lose everything.  So it was me, me, me.  Instead of serving community, I was getting out – out to a place which I perceived of as one of the last lifeboats.  In hindsight, I now realise that being on one of the last lifeboats is not much better than drowning, if all there is, is a lifeboat.

As a Pagan, I had always felt that I had an affinity with nature.  I liked being outside, I loved my garden, I found walking in the country the best way to relax.  I hated being trapped in an office, stuck in a traffic jam, or trolley-rammed in a packed supermarket.  I needed to breath fresh air, to feel a storm stir, and the gentle warm caress of summer showers upon my upturned face.  When you live in a city, nature is benign.  Nature is a manicured park, a diverted stream, a carefully arranged woodland.  Nature is a haven, a place that is quieter than the city, less crowded than the city, more peaceful and generally removed from the city.

But, let me tell you, when you live in the middle of nowhere and it is just you and open swathes of untamed country, then nature is not benign, rather She is capricious, even malicious, and extremely powerful.

There have been times when I have been too scared to leave the sanctuary of my man-made house.  The wind has gusted here up to 125 miles per hour, when you cannot even stand up against it.  The temperature has dropped to minus 14 when everything just freezes (even your own hair!).  I have seen mists roll in from the loch and take the form of armies of spectres, crowding at the limits of our garden.  In winter, the nights are long and the days are so short that you beg the sun to return, reborn.  I have known it rain so hard that the house looked as if a water cannon had been used against it water has got in everywhere, through the tiny cracks in the door, down the chimney, even working its way around the window frame.

Orkney is not a kind place to live in winter.

Nature does not suffer fools gladly.  For a while, a beautiful young hare visited our garden, eating all the longer, richer grass growing around the compost bins where the mower could not reach.  We found her dead and dissected by gulls not so long ago.  It’s a dog-eat-dog out there and it’s not only each other we need to fear.  Where I had envisaged I would feel safe, I felt terribly threatened.

This posting sums up my first winter in Orkney.  The place which I had escaped to, that I assumed would be safe, actually became somewhere that was intimidating and threatening.  Somewhere that had seemed so welcoming and friendly whilst on holiday, now seemed hostile once we had committed to living here.  I felt conned and tricked.

The job which I had expected had not materialised.  The fitting into a friendly community was just not happening as seamlessly as I had planned, and even living closer to nature was an experience of rejection.  Everything that could go wrong was going wrong and I realised I had made a terrible mistake.  This was not a safe haven, rather it was a stark and unwelcoming prison of disappointment.

During my first winter in Orkney, I plunged into a terrible depression that reflected the barren environment I found myself in.  As the evenings gathered in, so did all those demons that I thought I had left behind but which had all hitched a ride northwards with me.  In the dark, which I had always feared, the demons hunkered down and conspired against me, gaining strength.

I was at such a loose end that winter.  I had managed to find some work but only part-time and not using many of my skills, and very poorly paid.  Mark was also working part-time but his shifts were constantly moving and we weren’t always off work at the same time, my plans to study more had also been cruelly scuppered, and I discovered that Orkney wasn’t as friendly as I had been led to believe: either folk were too busy to pop by for a social chat, or they were doing the very Orcadian thing of checking that I was staying before committing to any sort of relationship.

With so much time on my hands and often nothing to do except snuggle down by the fire, I decided to do what I actually really liked doing and I read more and more self-development, spiritual and occult books.    I found to my surprise that I didn’t want to read what I was “meant” to read and what had previously fascinated me – I didn’t want to read about the past, about archaeology.  Everything that was or had been me was being stripped away:  no real job, no friends, no relatives, no status, no money: what I was and had been was no more.  This was ego-stripping on a grand scale and as such, I identified what I was going through – an initiatory crisis: a spiritual transformation.

This Blog and these postings are about how I found my way back.  How I rediscovered my inner core and personal strength.  How I fell back in love with this place.  How I started to become creative once more.  And how I made many beautiful friends.  I hope that in reading this Blog, you too will be encouraged to come to Orkney and discover it’s many treasures and let it work it’s spiritual magick on you, because it really is a place of pilgrimage.