Friday, 17 February 2012

Holy Wells in Orkney

When I lived south in Hampshire and first met the man who was to become my current (third) husband, he told me about a healing well he knew of.  He showed me where it was on a map, it was marked in olde italics so I knew it was at least 300 years old, and he told me it was a “well of changes”.  I remember cycling out one summer’s day and managing to find it, it was very well hidden under an overgrown hedgerow and apart from a few “offerings” (clooties and little faerie figurines) was, to all intents and purposes, a water-logged hole in the ground.  I didn’t feel like drinking the water but I did make a prayer to the Lady Goddess and the spirits of the well, and I did touch the water to my forehead, my lips, my heart, my solar plexus and my genitals.

Did it create changes in my life?  Oh yes.  Oh yes indeed – I moved 900 miles north with this wonderful man!  Perhaps I was just ready for those changes to happen, perhaps the visit to the well was a powerful but symbolic message to my subconscious to start manifesting those changes in my life, perhaps I unleashed some ancient and potent magicks, but changes happened.  Before I left for Orkney, I took some other friends to the same place and helped them to perform the same ritual for themselves, they opened themselves to the power of change in their lives too.  And Mark and I visited together several times together.  After every time we visited, the changes seemed to speed up.

I like holy wells very much.  I’ve been to several in Britain, most famously the ones at Bath, Glastonbury and St David’s birthplace in Pembrokeshire, but my favourite are the tiny and almost forgotten ones.  These often seem the most sacred, almost as if their Blessing hasn’t been all used up by the pestering tourists, they remain persistent places of sanctity to the smaller Gods and lesser saints, still primed to perform minor miracles.

As an archaeologist, I am aware that this human fascination with water has quite an ancient pedigree.  Our modern predilection for throwing coins into fountains and wells probably dates from at least the latter Bronze Age (about 1000 BCE).   This is the same period that sees individual wealth being accumulated for the first time and when people seem to like to dispose of “offerings” in bodies of water.  And what they “offer” seems to be incredibly valuable items, particularly metal artefacts.  At Flag Fen, in East Anglia, for example, archaeologists have recovered precious item after precious item, all of which is suspected to have been deposited in acts of “conspicuous consumption”; in other words, these are not private offerings, but offerings where it is important to be seen to be disposing of great wealth, to be perceived as being able to “waste” lavishly.

To put some of these offerings into context, it has been suggested that the deposit of a bronze sword in a lake in prehistory may have made an equivalent financial statement to someone today donating a sports car to a charity.

This tradition continues into the Iron Age (about 500 BCE) and can be observed at sites such as Llyn Cerig Bach in Anglesey and the River Thames where, again, wonderful items of metalwork were deposited.  In the Iron Age too, there seems to be the purposeful disposal of bodies in watery peat bogs, perhaps to purposely preserve them and create bog bodies.  In the Roman period, in southern England, the deposits continue, as evidenced at Bath, where inscriptions on lead tablets are a favourite offering, now clearly communicating the terms by which the sacrifice is made to the receiving deity.

It is entirely possible that the final chapter of Arthur’s sword Excalibur, in which it is cast into the lake for the Lady of the Lake to catch it and return it to the watery depths, is a Bronze Age archetypal memory grafted onto a Dark Age legend.  And why not?  Another Bronze Age relic occurs when Excalibur is pulled from the stone: bronze swords were cast into stone moulds from which they were then pulled (I have seen this done in a round hut at Butser Iron Age Farm and it is magical).  

Water then, is of special significance in ritual in prehistory.  Perhaps this is not surprising, before metal, the only way to have ever seen your own reflection would have been in water.  Looking into water is like looking into a mirror and its mirror world.  Water is the route to another realm, a realm of ancestors, spirits and Gods.  And water is important in contemporary religions too: think ritual washing, baptism, the Ganges and so on.  Water, then, may be hard-wired into the human psyche as a way to the otherworld, a portal to the dwelling places of the Gods and the ancestors, perhaps explaining why it is still used in scrying and divination.

On the island of Papa Westray (Papay) an entire loch is considered to be holy water.  We visited this site when we were on holiday, it is sacred to St Tredwell and up until the Victorian period was the main pilgrimage site in Orkney.   Legend tells that St Triduana was an eighth century nun from Northumbria, sent on a mission to convert the Picts.  The king of the Picts, Nechtan, fell in love with St Triduana and her beautiful eyes, so she plucked out her eyes, impaled them on a branch and sent them to Nechtan – her shrines subsequently became associated with cures for eyesight problems.

The chapel dedicated to St Tredwell is now on a peninsula, virtually a crannog, in the loch, but was originally an island.  The chapel dates from the twelfth century and is fairly ruinous, but underneath have been discovered a complex of buildings dating from the Iron Age, including a possible broch and earth-house – it is therefore likely that St Tredwell / Triduana was originally a Pagan Goddess who has been Christianised.  And with that “Tri” in Her name, perhaps she was a threefold Goddess?

And to effect a cure?  George Mackay Brown states:
“Then, whoever had bruised or blinded eye
Walked round the shore of Tredwell loch
Seven times, sunward,
And, for the gift of sight
left a small coin on the chapel step.”
Others stipulate that these instructions must be following in silence.  Getting across is a bit treacherous (good stout walking boots are advised, as always!) but worth the visit.  We cannot vouch for any miracles here, but the historical list of successes is impressive and includes Jon the Bishop of Caithness in 1201 CE.

The waters of the loch are also prophetic and are said to turn blood red to forewarn of a “disaster” befalling the “Royal family”.

Last year, Mark woke one late spring day having had a very powerful dream about holy wells and together we did some quick research and found one near Barony Mills, in Birsay, a short drive away for us.  Despite being equipped with a hand-held GPS and an OS 1:25,000 map, we couldn’t find Manswal and we called in at Barony Mills for directions.

This was a time in our lives when we were just coming through a particularly harsh Orkney winter and both of us were finding our jobs less than satisfactory – we were seriously considering quitting our dream and moving back south, accepting we had failed, that we would never fit in, and that the place we knew from holidays was not the same to actually live in.  Our visit to Barony Mills was one of those events that catch up with us every so often and remind us just why we came here, and how great it can be to live here – that day we fell in love with Orkney once again.

We drove into Barony Mills and were the only visitors.  This visitor attraction has recently been redeveloped by Orkney Islands Council, there is no entrance fee, and the guided tour is excellent, entertaining and free.  This is still a working mill and it is possible to buy the local and delicious bere flour from here (from which are made bere bannocks – one of the local delicacies which at first can be an acquired taste but are worth persevering with).  As stated, on the afternoon we visited, we were the only tourists and, although we asked about the well, the custodian was keen to give us a tour of the mills first and we succumbed – sometimes in Orkney, you have to let things flow, not plan too exactly, sometimes the best things happen by accident and this was one of the best things that had happened to us for quite a while.

What may be of particular interesting to the Pagan pilgrim is the drying floor upstairs in the mill.  In several of the older houses in Orkney, there can be found of evidence of “folk magick”, whether that be a mummified cat up a chimney or a corner set aside for the faerie, and there may be some evidence of folk magick built into the very construction of the drying floor – there is certainly a mystery here and not one we could figure out!  In each of the four stone walls, there is one stone that has been set purposely to jut out.  They are all at different heights so couldn’t be used to take a plank, and all of them are offset from each other.   It is difficult to think of any practical use for these, they could just be an intriguing accident (but it is the only place in the mill building where these features occur), or they might line up with key directions for sunrise and sunset at particular times of the year.  Ask the custodian to point them out to you and see what you think!

Over the road from the Barony Mills is a small side road, the holy spring / well is just up here.  If you have driven, it is probably best to leave your car at the mill and walk over because it’s not far but do take care when crossing the main road because there are a couple of blind corners there and it is a main road even though it looks like a country lane!  Manswal is marked by some stonework and some stone steps only.  The actual spring water comes out at the bottom of the bank and, in truly practical and characteristic Orkney fashion, has been channelled through an orange pipe of the type usually used to discharge sewage!  Don’t let this put you off!  This is clean spring water, safe to drink (probably safer by the sip than by the pint), and the orange pipe was probably simply conveniently available and utilitarianism is a way of life here ... there are a few stone steps down to the water and sometimes a jam-jar or similar is left to assist the visitor but otherwise the spring is unadorned.

There are various legends associated with this spring and they are all linked with St Magnus (he of cathedral fame).  The village of Palace in the parish of Birsay was originally the capital city of Orkney and St Magnus’ relics were enshrined at Christchurch in Birsay.  One legend tells that St Magnus’ remains rested at Manswal whilst being transported from the island of Egilsay (where he died) to Birsay, the other that his bones or body were washed here before being enshrined.  This well is really rather near to Birsay, suggesting that the latter legend is possibly more likely – a funeral cortege probably wouldn’t have stopped quite so near their destination but would have pushed onwards.

Traditionally, these waters were taken to alleviate a number of ailments, including blindness, leprosy and insanity, more recently there have been claims that these waters cure cancer and multiple sclerosis.

As stated, this visit was a turning point for us because we were reminded about why we moved here and how lovely it can be.  The Orcadians, on the whole, are amazingly proud and knowledgeable about their heritage and this is an incredibly endearing national characteristic.  They are also friendly and welcoming and it is too easy to forget that not everyone in the UK is – we had started to take these things for granted, and the seemingly boundless enthusiasm of the custodian reminded us that Orkney is one of the special places where community is still important.

I like holy wells and the power of water.  Water cleanses; it is associated with the emotions and with memories, and it is also incredibly powerful – as I write we have just had heavy rains and several places are flooded in Orkney – being an island we are often at the mercy of the seas. 

It is only recently I have started to think about what my life would have been like if I had not left my life in the south – I might still be teaching, but with funding for Further Education always being cut, it was quite likely that minority subjects such as archaeology would be perpetually under threat.  Yes, I liked my job but I can’t have liked it that much, because if I had, I would never have dreamt about living on a remote Scottish island.  Looking back more realistically, I admit that I found my job stressful and difficult, it also wasn’t “going anywhere” but was dead end: a job rather than a career.  And with every academic year it seemed I was being asked to do more and more without any increase in job security or remuneration.  Some of the students were brilliant; others (whilst I made a personal effort to find something I liked about everyone of them) were lazy, belligerent, antagonistic time-wasters and the causers of high blood pressure and premature aging.  I realise now that I had been looking back at my pre-Orkney life with rose-tinted spectacles.

I think we all have a tendency to do that.  We look back at how things were and wish we could put everything back in the box, undo mistakes (not realising they are opportunities to grow), and revert to our safe childhoods.  At the extreme, societies create a group collective memory of a mythological golden age.   

And my failure to gain the employment I had hoped for since moving here?  Probably best.  I know now that what I really want is to be at home – I like being at home, ideally I would like to work from home, certainly a job that regularly took me away from home would be sheer hell for me.  I am not particularly ambitious, well, I am, I am just not prepared to sacrifice my home and family life in order to get on in the way that ambitious people do – that is too high a price for me to pay.

What has motivated me throughout my life has been a quest for the inner, spiritual life.  I am by nature quiet, shy and introspective.  When I was much younger I chose to study “A” level Religious Studies because I thought I might be able to find answers for myself.  I converted to Christianity about the same time but never really liked being told what I should be experiencing by the Church – my spirituality was always experiential and highly individual.  At university I first learnt about Gnosticism and the mediaeval mystics, and by the time I was in my early 20s I knew that the way for me to true fulfilment and “happiness” was by some method of inner transformation.

My spiritual quest has been an undisciplined one and, now in middle age, I rather feel that I have wasted a lot of time.  Now on my third marriage (one at a time I must stress!), I know now that the “other half” whom I am yearning for is not, and has never been, in any of my husbands.  All of them were, and are, wonderful in their own ways but I must stop blaming other people when they do not come up to the impossible standard of what is missing in my life.  They are human and making their own journey.  The real “bridge-groom” for whom I yearn is my Inner Divinity and I acknowledge now that the reason why I wanted to move to a remote Scottish island was so that I would have time to contemplate, meditate, pray and evolve spiritually.  This may mean that I live a less usual life, one that is unconventional and possibly even financially precarious in comparison to what I could have had, but it is a calling that I can no longer ignore.

I have had hints at how to contact this “inner Self” in various books and rituals and practices.  Particularly appealing is the Abra-Melin ritual, famously performed by Crowley, but I think I lack the spiritual discipline to keep to this.  I recall Jesus’ “Knock and the door will be opened unto you” and I suspect that my Inner Divinity wishes to communicate more directly with me as much as I do with “it”.  I have tried so many paths with initial “success” only to then get put off by the personal resolve required.  The message coming through at present is to choose one path, one method, and stick with it, really work it, persevere.

I have also realised recently that how I think about a thing, changes how I experience that thing.  For example, I would not want to clean toilets for a living but I don’t mind cleaning my own toilet at home – both acts involve cleaning toilets, but in one scenario it is something I am being “made to do” and in the other something I am choosing to do because of the beneficial outcome.  Coming to Orkney may seem on one level to have been a lot of doors shutting in my face, opportunities being curtailed, but on the other hand can equally be seen as my having been steered in a particular direction.  That direction has been one of spiritual evolution – sometimes we don’t get what we want, but what we need.

There are several other holy wells to visit in Orkney and I shall post new articles once I have visited them - I am confident that each will bring it's own healing experience to my life, feelings and memories.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Knowes of Trotty – a meditation on power

Whilst the Neolithic in Orkney could possibly be considered a bit of a “Golden Age” (lower sea levels, bountiful coastlines for natural resources, higher average temperatures for crop yield) and potentially the instigator for the agricultural package elsewhere in the UK, the Bronze Age is generally considered to be a bit of a “Dark Age”.

More than one archaeologist refers to the Bronze Age in Orkney as a time “when it rained a lot and not a lot happened”.

About 1100 BCE, Orkney goes into a bit of decline in several aspects.  Like elsewhere in the UK, the magnificent monumental architecture of the Neolithic ends and there appears to be widespread environmental deterioration caused by global climate change – the evidence is in the dendrochronology records which show poor growth in tree rings for about a decade – the average temperature drops and precipitation rises.  Quite possibly as a social response to these disasters, it is possible to see the rise of an elite: communal tombs go out of use and individual barrow mounds replace them, and increasingly there are personal items of adornment found in the archaeological record, gold, amber and jet being especially popular.

In some of the old Neolithic power bases such as Wessex in southern England, burial mounds proliferate in barrow cemeteries, often making spatial reference to earlier Neolithic monuments.  Barrow mounds occur in Orkney too, but not in the same numbers or tremendous variety; in Orkney they appear in similar locations, several are around the Ring of Brodgar, for example, others occur on marginal land, at what would have been the edge of fertile farming land.  The mounds in Wessex are particularly “rich” in terms of “grave-goods” recovered from them, to the extent that rich barrows are often classified as belonging to the “Wessex culture”.  The barrows in Orkney tend to occur singly and don’t tend to be particularly “rich” – although differential antiquarian explorations (i.e. grave-robbing) make account for this – and they all tend to bowl barrow type.

It could be argued that this is evidence that, whilst Orkney was some sort of epicentre for agriculture and the agricultural package – including Neolithic ritual beliefs and practices – spreading out to the British Isles, by the time of the Bronze Age, Orkney had slipped into being a bit of a back-water.  Certainly very little bronze is recovered from this period in Orkney.

One barrow cemetery has been identified in West Mainland at a site known as the Knowes of Trotty (HY 342172).  This is a linear barrow cemetery of 16 barrows formed into two lines, but on the OS map it is shown as one line of 3 barrows and the other of 4 barrows.  This site was excavated in 1858 and more recently re-excavated in 2005.  These barrows have been tentatively identified as being of Wessex type because gold in the form of flattened sun discs have been recovered from one of them, plus amber beads.  By Orkney standards, these are extremely wealthy barrows!  But they pale into insignificance when compared with sites such as Bush Barrow near Stonehenge, for example.

It is possible to visit the Knowes of Trotty today and there are even recent signs providing some guidance to the motorist, but it is best to be equipped with a 1:25,000 OS map.  The signs direct the visitor to a farm, and when the instructions say “go through the farm”, they mean it!  Park up (considerately) (at HY 334164) and walk (considerately) between the farm buildings to the style and cross to the barrows, some of the largest of which are quite obvious.  The barrows are currently covered in heather, making them a little difficult to make out, and this is where a large scale map is particularly useful, or even better download the topographical survey that is available on-line (refer:  The barrows nearest to the farm are the largest.

This is a delightful site that is quite isolated and where you won’t be disturbed if you plan to meditate or contemplate.  Because it is on heathland, some of the wildlife is quite magnificent, including bird species and don’t be surprised to see hen harriers and kestrals.  This is a lovely spot and well worth a visit for the atmosphere of a forgotten and temporal grasp at power and status and wealth.

Various items in the past have been considered to be “high status”.  In the Neolithic they seemed fond of stone mace heads.  Often beautifully shaped and polished, these items were probably never “used” in any sense rather than as something to carry around to denote status.  In the Bronze Age they liked shiny things, like gold and things that looked like gold such as amber.  Gold is a fairly useless metal unless you want to conduct electricity.  It is useful if you wish to make food look stunning because you can eat gold without doing any damage to yourself, your body won’t absorb it and you’ll just excrete it naturally (I have never knowingly tried this and I presume this is small amounts of gold used in gilding for example!).  Gold is soft enough to work without heating and it can be flattened and shaped relatively easily just by hammering.  Gold keeps its shine – probably the main reason why it is chosen for wedding rings – unlike other metals such as copper and silver.  Gold and amber are serious prehistoric “bling”.

The gold and amber found at the Knowes of Trotty displays links with both the Baltic and Wessex, in both raw material and style.  These are what archaeologists call “exotic” items – they are not indigenous, they have been brought in.  These people were showing off not only the wealth they had, but also their contacts ... this is name-dropping and fashion-following on a grand scale!

In the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, gold abounds in the Bronze Age displays.  It is quite easy to see why the legend of the leprechaun arose ... a convenient story for the Victorian peat-cutter who fortuitously stumbles across a buried hoard perhaps?   It is clear from some Wessex burials that a lucky few were accumulating vast quantities of wealth and developing with it the need to retain that wealth through the acquisition of weapons.  The Bronze Age has been identified as an “arms race”, a minority gaining power and struggling to hold it.  And whenever a minority gain power and struggle to hold it, a majority must, by definition, be diminished.  This is the problem with capitalism.  The sell is the dream, the reality is that someone has to fail, to lose, not everyone can win.  And if that is the case, then no matter what you get, you will always be scared of being delegated to loser status, to having it taken away from you – so everyone, in effect, loses.

As an archaeologist, I have seen many things which different people and cultures have considered to be valuable in the past.  From shells to particular metals, ridiculous and dangerous fashions, fancy and even poisonous food and drink.  People have used envy as a tool to gain status for millennia.  And most of the stuff, in my opinion, is no more than tat.  It is useless and often ugly, but no one wants to be the one to tell the emperor about his new clothes.

Power and inequality are increasingly in the news at the current time of writing and neither archaeology nor spirituality operate in a vacuum.  When I sit at places like the Knowes of Trotty, I think on the princelings (and princesslings) who thought they could “take it all with them”.  How many slaves were exchanged for those gold discs?  How many ill or disabled or old people – those not fully productive – went hungry so that there was a surplus of food to trade for the amber?  How many of those of lesser status had to provide time to construct the barrow, torn away from their own land perhaps?  What were the consequences for their dependents that their land wasn’t subsequently as productive as it might have been?

And for what?  An eroding mound.  A forgotten ritual.  A disposal of an anonymous body.  All gone, all gone to nothing.  The irony is that The Knowes of Trotty, in a direct line, is not too far from our peedie (=little) house; it is quite possible that the folk buried in all their finery under those mounds once “owned” the land that we now “own” because the County Archaeologist for Orkney has advised me that our land (now covered in heather and peat bog and fairly useless for anything “productive”) may be a preserved Bronze Age farming landscape.

Some archaeologists think that capitalism has its roots in the Bronze Age.  I believe that there is a change in the human brain / mind at this time and that this was when the modern ego developed, when people started to think about “me” rather than “we”.  When people started to really get to grips with ownership and exploitation.  This is illustrated by the rise in demarcation of territory which goes on during this period, particularly in the form of field boundaries: this is mine, not yours, keep out of mine.

I am too political for my own good.  A child of the 1960s, I was inculcated with idealistic ideas that I could change the world through radical behaviour and anarchic protests.  I am mature enough now to know that I cannot, but I am still far too opinionated, on everything.

One of the things that I really like about Orkney is how difficult it is to be materialistic.  Oh sure, there are folk with fancy cars, but if you drive an old banger you won’t be judged for it and the small garages up here will try to fix it for you.  Likewise, you can wear the smartest clothing but when the rains start it had better be waterproof.  Big houses cost a fortune to heat and our petrol is roughly 15p a litre more than off-island, at those prices you learn to think carefully about every car journey.

I don’t shop as a hobby any more.  The lack of most “high street” stores in Orkney has meant less opportunities to window-shop and this has helped me to differentiate between what I want and what I need.  I no longer have things suggested to me by advertisers; I resist being taught that my life is lacking all the time I fail to own a particular item.  I still live well, incredibly well by most of the world’s standards, but I live on a lot less than I used to before I moved here, and I have learnt to waste less too.  I’ve always been into “saving the planet” and recycling, but it was not until I was forced to that I became “green”.   And I have had plenty of time to reflect that absolutely nothing material that I have has ever brought me more than a transitory happiness, and some of it has brought me regrets.

It often isn’t until I explain my life to others that I realise just how alternative my lifestyle is.  I have a weekly trip to a local builders’ skip, for example, where I am allowed to take out any wood.  I do this before I go to work in the mornings.  The builder is happy – costs him less to have the contents of the skip taken away – and I get free fuel for the wood-burning stove, even the scraps make kindling.  I shop when I know food will be discounted and I keep a well-stocked freezer; previously I would throw excess food away, now I cook less and freeze more.  And I mend my clothes!!!

I’m not sure if this has necessarily made me “happier”.  I still remember the buzz from a bit of retail therapy, the short enjoyment of an acquisition, but that happiness was illusory and brief.  I am pleased that I rule my spending and not the other way around, this gives me a sense of control and freedom, but I think even that is a part of the dreamscape and it is possible to go beyond that self-congratulatory ego state: we are never fully in control!

In many societies, wealth and power are usually partners and as well as these thoughts on my changing attitudes to money, this burial site has also led me to contemplate power.  In many ways, moving to Orkney and leaving so many support systems behind, was an experience of power-loss for me.  I enjoyed the status of the job I had before, I liked telling others what I did, and I was proud of it because it was so interesting.  I enjoyed my friends and family near me too.  I had a lovely home in a good location.  I lost all of those things when I moved to Orkney – it was the ultimate bridge-burning exercise.

That job, in many ways, gave me power.  It was responsible, it was respected, it was professional, and it was reasonably well-rewarded (wealth).  I had not fully acknowledged this before as power is something which I suspect I have tried to shove into my shadow.  Outwardly, I would tell you that I don’t like and don’t want power, more truthfully, I don’t want responsibility: everyone wants power – until they get it and realise what a pain it is to hold onto it and how much responsibility it is!

I have never been shy of admitting that my first steps onto the Pagan path were far from noble ones – I started off by studying magick far more than being interested in any Pagan religion or spirituality, and I did so because I wanted stuff and (being even more painfully honest) vengeance.  Yes, I was young and naive and fully immersed in Malkuth, this material world which we initially perceive as the one and only reality.  It worked too!  I was enriched and empowered and some quite weird coincidences happened which led me to question quite how potent these forces were, especially when stuff would suddenly appear – like magick!

Over the years, I started to use magick more to heal, bring positive changes, and more recently (embarrassingly recently since I’ve been at this for 20 years) to change only myself.  I find now that I need to do less and less magick, in many ways, everything is already perfect just as it is.  Or it sorts itself out if I resist the urge to tweak and fiddle ...

When I moved to Orkney, the post of Local Organiser for the Scottish Pagan Federation was vacant and I volunteered (a post I share with my husband).  The key word here is “organiser” – I found that very little was being organised for Pagans in Orkney and I started to plan monthly Moots and celebrations of the seasonal rituals at the Ring of Brodgar.  More recently, I have been forced to reflect on whether this was simply another bid of my ego to grasp at a semblance of power and status or whether it was to truly serve the Pagan community.  I know what I like to think but I suspect far more changes will be required before my ego stops charging in to grab some of the action at every opportunity ... I remain, very much, a spiritual work in progress.