The Scribe in Me.

The Scribe in Me.

Un petit coin de France ~ A little corner of France

Leaving an old house for a new one is daunting at the best of times, stressful too some would argue. To further complicate matters the old house was a new house really, I was there when it was built, know every creak it made, while the new house was built in the sixteenth century and has many unfamiliar noises. My move has been seamless though, the hardest part was making the decision. A week in and I berate myself for not having done it sooner, much sooner, but you live, and you learn.

I live now on the north east edge of a bourg, which in France is a hilltop village that has a certain architectural plan centred around a water source and a church. It is eye wateringly rustic and charming. This old village of Xaintray is a myriad of winding streets, which are more paved and cobbled alleyways really, one can almost hear the rattle of horse and cart. The stream called the Chancelee runs past the 12th century sandstone church dedicated to St Martha and aside from the obligatory statues to her, St Michael the Archangel and Joan of Arc, it is without adornment.

In 2019 the Census recorded 232 people living here, I guess that is 233 now. I wonder will I meet many of them? Actually, aside from my landlady I have only met one fella. He came upon me admiring a tree. Well, I was trying to decipher what type it was, and surely, I stood out like a sore thumb. Anyway, later he knocked on my door and delivered me some walnuts, complete with a very scary looking implement to prise them open with. I’ve since deduced it was a walnut tree.

This place agrees with my bones, hard to believe it has been a week already. The weather is glorious, a tad too hot for my Celtic skin really, 24 degrees is about my limit and the days here start at 27 degrees and soar upwards, the searing temperatures alone made one adopt a slower way of life. Thankfully the sandstone walls of my kitchen remain constant and cool and the two-hour break at lunchtime is very welcome, though most of what I am doing, is done on my laptop exactly there, on my lap.

I discovered in lockdown the key to being on ones own is to set routines. I wake, shower, walk, eat, attend to whatever housework is pressing and then set to writing. When I need a break I make tea, the odd time coffee and sometimes I will sit in the sun for no more than ten minutes at a time in the vain hope that all of my freckles will join up and I will have a tan. Then I set to writing some more and drink a lot of water. Sometimes I Bluetooth the radio onto my speaker and listen to some radio programme from back home, more times I do an hour on Mango Languages, free through the library service, to improve my French and in the evenings, I swim and then I read. Presently I’m reading a memoir by Deirdre Bair - Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and her. It has a French flavour.

I am surrounded by arable land, set to crop cultivation mostly, it is beautiful and fertile set between mountains and sea. My nearest town Champdeniers, is the place where I can get just about everything I need and there is an air of tranquillity around the place. The valley is served by the Égray river, which mysteriously disappears beneath it and remerges to work mills downriver. The Égray valley is the exclusive domain of the Farfadets, the mischievous elflike creatures of French folklore. The word translates variously as "Sprite", "Imp", "Leprechaun", or “Pixie”. Maybe it is they that are creating all of the odd noises in my medieval house, who knows? The washing machine turned itself on the other night for example and there was a day last week when the fridge took to making strange noises, so much so that at one point I thought it was going to combust. I know one thing is for sure I won’t be trifling with them Farfadets and have already taken to leaving offerings by the rose bushes for them. I wish them no harm and when they get over my intrusion we will become friends, of this, I’m sure.

Ascend or Descend?

The Initiation Well at Sintra, in the Mountains of the Moon, to the West of Lisbon is a most perplexing place, and as such I was compelled to visit. Located in the grounds, or rather beneath the ground, some 88 feet deep into the bowels of the earth, of Quinta da Regaleira. Called the Initiation Well, it isn't even a well at all, for at the base, where is normal to a well, one expects to find water, there isn't such a source here. Legend has it, that this was actually built, not as a well, but for secret ceremonies. Now, please know that there are no written sources to verify this, just rumour that has become legend if you know what I mean. As ever though, you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

A Quinta is defined as a country villa or estate especially in Portugal.  This whole site began construction in 1904 and while there is an air of aged mysticism about the place, it really isn't all that old.  This well features a spiral staircase supported by carved columns, that leads down to the bottom through nine landings. It is believed that the spacing of these landings, as well as the number of steps in between, are linked to Tarot mysticism and Masonic principles. At the bottom of the Tnitiation Well is a compass over a Knights Templar Cross. 

The gardens are leafy and green and teem with birdsong and wildlife and the shade and the shadows offer a real respite from the searing temperatures and water trickles from fountains in a pleasing distraction. It is a special place for sure, and took a lot of money and effort to construct. I couldn't decide from which end to enter the well, to ascend or to descend. You see, ascend is the antonym of descend, they are opposites. You cannot do both at the same time. I was caught between the conundrum of whether I should ascended to heaven or descended to hell, and I wasn't going to symbolically do either in some mysterious initiation well, was I?  In the end I just took myself to either end and looked both ways with fascination.

The nine small landings which have fifteen steps between each one, evoke references to Dante's Divine Comedy and some say they represent the 'Nine Circles of Hell, the 'Nine Sections of Purgatory' and the 'Nine Skies of Paradise.' And sure maybe they do, who knows? In a way it represents a journey into the depths of Mother Earth or a rise up into the light, the  death/rebirth allegory like a rebirth through Mother Earth’s womb. 

Masonic symbols have no real place in my heart, but my druid heart loved the nature of this place, the mystery, and the aura. For me there is a fine line between splendour and ostentatiousness and this place skirts that boundary. Bless the people who plan gardens for future generations to enjoy though, for they had special insight. 

 

Bucket Lists

 

Bucket Lists are the means by which I set the goals, dreams and aspirations of places I want to see and experience. 

Below my list, ticked as achieved with accounts of those visits and experiences.

January 2020 Bucket List

 

1. The Helix, Home of the Kelpies, Falkirk, Scotland. (Tick)

2. Abernethy Round Tower & Symbol Stone, Kinross, Scotland. (Tick)

3. Brechin Cathedral Round Tower, Angus, Scotland. (Tick)

4. Tobar Bhríde, Co Kildare, Ireland. (Tick)

5. Janus Figures, Boa Island in Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh.

6. Cathair Crobh Dearg, Co Kerry, Ireland

7. Sky Garden, Skibereen, Co Cork, Ireland,

8. The Yew Tree, Muckross Abbey, Co Kerry, Ireland.

9. Aberlemno Sculptured Stones, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland.

10.  The source of the Nire River, Co Waterford, Ireland.

12. Tobar Segais, Co Kildare, Ireland. 

13. Mary Magdaline stuff in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, France.

14. Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland.

 

 

 

4. Tobar Bhríde,

Co Kildare, Ireland.

(Tick)

I visited this site on a sunny spring afternoon. There was just me and Brigid. She is the Celtic goddess of fire, poetry, unity, childbirth and healing and daughter of Dagda. 

The well is fed by a spring that flows underground before appearing again under a stone archway. The stones below the archway are known as St Brigid's slippers. It is a very peaceful place and I left an offering and took away some water. 

 

 

3. Brechin Cathedral Round Tower,

Angus, Scotland.

(Tick)

There are only three round towers in existence outside of the Island of Ireland; they are a uniquely Irish construct and export. Two are in Scotland and one is on the Isle of Man. Earlier this year I found myself exploring Brechin in Angus in Scotland where stands one of the two very fine examples of round towers in Scotland.They were called cloichtheach in Gaelic, which means bell-house. Their functions are shrouded in mystery though and none of them contain bells, so perhaps that is a misnomer. They are thought to have acted as libraries and treasuries; and places of refuge in times of trouble. They are sited at monastic settlements of note and most date back to the Viking era, late 800’s early 900’s. The origins of Brechin Cathedral are thought to date back to around 600AD. By the late 800s it seems that a religious order known as the Céli Dé (or Culdees) had set up a church in Brechin.

I love these Celtic sites; they always had an older pre-Christian origin. This Cathedral contains many interesting artefacts, including Pictish art inscribed stones, Celtic Crosses and a Viking Hogback Stone. Óengus the Culdee lived in the last quarter of the 8th century and is best known as the author of the Félire Óengusso "the Martyrology of Óengus". He founded Dísert Óengusa near Croom in AD 780. Maelruan, under whom Oengus lived, drew up a rule for the Culdees of Tallaght that prescribed their prayers, fasts, devotions, confession, and penances. Fedelmid mac Crimthainn king of Munster (820–846) was said to have been a prominent Culdee. In Scotland, Culdees were more numerous than in Ireland, and was one of the chief houses in Scotland. The Culdees occupied sites that had a Druidical reputation. They wore white like the Druids and utilised many pagan symbols. They had a tradition of hereditary priesthood. They had female sanctuaries, male only sanctuaries and even mixed ones.

The tower was originally free-standing, but is now incorporated in the framework of the cathedral. Brechin round tower is 106 feet from base to tip. There are seven floors, the third and fourth floors have small windows facing east and south and the top floor has four windows. The doorway of Brechin round tower is unique in construction, and the rich decoration is also unique.

 

 

2. Abernethy Round Tower & Symbol Stone,

Kinross, Scotland.

(Tick)

The Picts were a Celtic tribe that lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde in Scotland during the late Bronze Age early Medieval Age. They had their own language culture, governance and society. They had very close links with the Irish kingdom of the Dál Riata and both societies merged around 900AD and had "wide connections and parallels" with neighbouring communities. Pict is said to mean ‘painted or tattooed people’ and we know from what illustrated Pictish Stones that have survived, that they were very skilled and artistic as a people. The Irish annals record that there were 7 Pictish kingdoms with their centre or capital being in Abernethy in Perth and Kinross. I find them fascinating because it is thought that they practised matrilineal kingship succession. The Picts were farmers, lived in cluster communities and had huge associations with sea pirating.

I was drawn to Abernethy because of the roofless round tower that stands there one of the two remaining in Scotland and one of only four round towers which exist outside of Ireland. There is also an intriguing Pictish Symbol Stone that drew me there, two for the price of one so to speak. I was not disappointed. Standing in the grounds of Kirk Bride – Kirk means Church and Bride is from St Brigid the Irish saint. The church is said to have been founded by Darlugdach, second abbess of Kildare and dedicated to Brigid. The tower stands 74 ft (23 m) high, being built in two stages and said to date from the 11th or 12th century. It has been remodelled as a clock tower which was inserted in the late 1800’s and at its base it a carved Pictish Stone.

Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves and many of their standing stones have Ogham script. So for a stone mad woman Druid scribe, there are obvious links and things about their sites that would draw me to them. They stem from a polytheistic culture that evolved into Christianity and traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Pictish art appears on stones, metalwork and small objects of stone and bone. It is La Tène style in style with the Christian symbols being of the Insular Art tradition. The symbols and patterns consist of animals including the Pictish Beast, the "rectangle", the "mirror and comb", "double-disc and Z-rod" and the "crescent and V-rod." In the 8th and 9th centuries, after Christianization, the Pictish elite adopted a particular form of the Celtic brooch from Ireland (similar to the Tara Brooch) and in my mind’s eye I see them fastening their cloaks with same.

It is a quaint little town with many beguiling charms, the least of which is the round tower. The location "Afarnach's Hall" referred to in the earliest mediaeval Arthurian literature is usually identified as Abernethy. The town has a long and eventful history. There are remains of a petrified hill fort on the outskirts of the village as well as remains of a Pictish fort. The site of a Roman camp is nearby in the river valley. In the 7th century Irish missionaries bringing Columba’s and Brigid’s message from Iona and Kildare settled in Abernethy before Scone became the centre of religious life in the area with its monasteries and religious houses. It was here too that Malcolm III of Scotland paid homage to William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. So it is a place steeped in history and clearly a geographically significant site. Such places fascinate me and I am compelled to dig deeper to peel away the layers to see what is revealed.

So what of this ancient Gaelic named place. "Aber" derives from mouth or fort and the Nethy Burn flows down from the Ochil Hills past the present village. Clearly it means "Fort of the River Nethy" The Monastic Kirk or church was founded by an Irish Abbess closely linked to the Irish St. Brigid of Kildare. Brigid shares her name and feast day (Feb. 1) with a Celtic goddess. It is thought that she was the last high priestess of the goddess Brigid, both Brigid’s are identified as one deity. We know that she was raised by Druids at a time when Christianity was taking hold in Ireland and was ordained a Bishop by St. Mel, Bishop of Ardagh such was her standing. Her monastic settlement in Kildare was a double monastery and welcomed both women and men and was a noted refuge for women. Darlughdach served as Brigid’s ambassador to the Pictish King Nechtan. She was also her “Anam Cara” or soul friend. The two women were so close that they slept in the same bed.

After Brigid turned 70, she warned Darlughdach that she expected to die soon. Her younger soulmate begged to die at the same time. Brigid wanted her to live so she could succeed her as abbess. Brigid died of natural causes on Feb. 1, 525. The bond between the women was so close that Darlughdach followed her soulmate in death some years later on Feb 1st. Nechtan Morbet the Pictish king was said to have reigned for twenty-four years. In the third year of his reign, Darlugdach, abbess of Kildare, came as an exile to Britain for the sake of Christ. The second year after her arrival Nechtan dedicated Abernethy to St. Brigid, and Darlugdach, who was present, shouted Alleluia in respect of that offering. Nechtan had been driven to Ireland during the reign of his brother Drust, and, having sought St. Brigid, she prayed God for him, and promised that if he returned to his country he would possess the kingdom of the Picts in peace. ’ It was for this reason that the king established a church in her honour. We must remember these chronicles and annals were transcribed by Christian Monks and thus are severely biased so we have to see through another layer here. Darlugdach name means "daughter of Lugh" (Lugh being a Celtic deity, making it likely that Darlughdach, like Brigid, was originally a Celtic Goddess who was later "translated" into a Christian nun).

The Pictish Stone present at Abernethy, is a fragment of a stone which measures H 0.84m, W 0.56m and is granite. It sits at the base of the round tower with a stone for a cap which protects it from the elements. It is incised with the tuning fork symbol, flanked by a hafted hammer and an anvil, and below there is the upper left part of a crescent and V-rod with an internal double-spiral design and is said to date from the 7th century. There are about fifty major Pictish picture-symbols. Some are easily identified as animals or mythical creatures; others are completely mysterious, such as the 'crescent and V-rod' and the "double disk" emblems.

Bottom line, the symbols have not been deciphered, and their meaning has perplexed researchers for centuries. I have some ideas though that might float,, fascinated as I am by symbols. The ‘crescent and v-rod’ is an extremely common symbol, the ‘tuning fork’ less so. The ‘tuning fork’ is a particularly enigmatic. A tuning fork is a double pronged piece of steel usually, that resonates at a certain pitch. Musicians would use these to tune their instruments in the past, and if the same tuning fork was used to tune all of the instruments, then they would all be perfectly tuned together. They would have been used in prayer and meditation. I am sure there was or is a God frequency in sound. As a symbol it was also used in cultures like the Picts, to show that a particular site was part of the sacred geometry of the area activated by sound as opposed to sunlight. The hammer and the anvil are symbols of the god Goibniu, (Goban) and symbolise the union between male and female. They are also a symbol of Brigid who is associated with blacksmiths. Marriages ceremonies are carried out at Gretna Green over an anvil, but it is not entirely clear what the origins of these are.The V-rod appears to be a bent arrow superimposed on a crescent; it is assumed to be a symbol of death: In astronomical terms, this is clearly representing something related to the moon. Precisely what remains unclear. The stone predates the tower by about 400 years, dating to about the year 600 A.D and possibly dates from the foundation of this church. Here is something fascinating though; Brigid is associated with smiting, so the hammer and the anvil could be a nod to her.

In Irish mythology Brigid appears as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán. She is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, and poetry and smith craft. She is known as a woman of smith's work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. It is perhaps a mighty leap, but sure someone has to make it. I like how it fits though.

 

 

1. The Helix,

Home of the Kelpies,

Falkirk, Scotland.

(Tick)

Capaill or Kelpie? On the 3rd January 2020 I awoke from a dream at 3.33am. I’d sleep through a hurricane and rarely remember my dreams. This one though came to me in the form of an amber eyed horse nuzzling me awake and given that the time was so peculiar, it got me to thinking that it might have a deeper meaning and something that Carl Jung would have had a field day with.

Some people believe that we all have a spirit guide that takes the form of an animal, a totem animal as it were. I sometimes think mine is a heron, more times a hare, often a raven, but, if I were to choose a spirit guide, mine would have to be tht of a horse. Very few animals convey such majesty, power, pride, and nobility of spirit as the horse. In Irish myth there is a mare known as ‘fíorláir’ or ‘true mare’ – the seventh consecutive filly foal born to a dam, which was safe from all evil and its rider safe from all harm. My amber eyed dream horse was trying to tell me something. I firmly believe there is a little bit of truth in every myth, we just need to decipher it.

In fact, horses dominate myth. Enbarr of the Flowing Mane is a horse in Irish Myth which could traverse both land and sea. Owned by the sea-god Manannan Mac Lir but provided to Lugh Lamh-fada to use at his disposal. Epona the Great Mare is a fertility goddess and was revered by the Druids. In Welsh mythology Rhiannon is a figure from the Otherworld, she rides an uncatchable white mare. Liath Macha (‘grey of Macha’) and Dub Sainglend (‘black of Saingliu’) are the two chariot-horses of the hero Cúchulainn. One, the king of horses dies with his master, the other avenging his death. Niamh of the Golden Hair arrives from the Tir na nOg on a white horse, declares her love for Oisin, and they ride off into the sunset together. Similarly, when Cliodhna fell in love with Ciabhán, she appeared on a white horse from over the sea. Étaín, is identified as a horse goddess in some versions of Irish Mythology.

I flew in mid-afternoon, hired my car and made the first jaunt into my 2020 of trips. I was heading to Aberdeen to spend Nollaig na mBán with my favourite woman in the world. She is known as Freedom. I wasn’t long on the road when I got a phonecall from said woman informing me she was in Falkirk and could I go that way please. As I love the road less travelled by, I was happy to oblige. We met for dinner in a place called The Bruce and whiled away a pleasant evening reminiscing. I mentioned my horse dream and she exclaimed, ’Oh my Gawd you have got to see the Kelpies!’

A kelpie is a shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish legend. Its name may derive from the Scottish Gaelic word ‘capaill’ meaning horse. Kelpies are said to haunt rivers and streams, usually in the shape of a horse. They have been immortalised in steel in Falkirk. So, now the dream began to make sense. This was no coincidence, this was the universe and sychronisity.

In our folklore, the importance of horses is reflected by the otherworldly powers assigned to them. They are credited, for example, with the ability to see ghosts, and there are many stories of horses refusing to ride past a haunted spot despite the exhortations of the riders. Creatures that live in water, but can shape-shift into horse form, feature in the entire Celtic world. Pwca is such a horse creature in Welsh myth. It is a spirit that appears linked in origin to the Irish Púca and Cornish Bucca and the Scottish Kelpie. The Kelpie is decidedly malevolent. It most commonly appears as a beautiful horse near or in running water and can be identified by the mane that seems to represent seaweed.

Horses have been immortalised in sculpture too. The Gaelic Chieftain by Maurice Hannon on the Boyle Bypass in Co. Sligo, Ireland is particularly significant. While ‘An Capall Mór’ depicting a Gaelic warhorse wearing a unicorn like spear helmet by sculptors O Donoghue and Ross in Clonkeen in Co Kerry, is also particularly captivating. There are no sculptures though that can surpass the Kelpies in Falkirk in Scotland. I would say they stand head and shoulders above all others if that weren't such a cliche.

Towering over a new canal extension which links the Forth & Clyde Canal to the North Sea. They stand 30 meters high, and are the largest equine sculptures in the world, as a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage. These works of art, created by artist Andy Scott, have become iconic on the landscape after being modelled on two Clydesdale horses, Duke and Baron. The Kelpies represent the lineage of the heavy horse of Scottish industry and economy, pulling the wagons, ploughs, barges and coal ships that shaped the geographical layout of Falkirk.

I have to say, hand on heart, they were mystifyingly alluring and standing beside them, walking between then and even entering the belly of the beast was almost like a religious experience. It was a rare day in January, when the sky was cloudless and blue and the sun cast shadows in the glint of steel and on the ripple of water and I was very captivated. I wonder which of them woke me up? What was the message, what was I to glean from this symbolic encounter with these two Kelpies?

The legend goes, the Kelpies are shapeshifting malevolent creatures from the other world. There is a Kelpie story associated with every body of water in Scotland, the most famous being the Loch Ness monster. They are black and their mane resembles seaweed or sea serpents and they wear their horseshoes backwards and a silver harness about their necks. They are said to have the gift of speech and their sole function is to lure you onto their backs from where upon there is no escape. They promptly dive beneath the waves and eat you.

There are three known ways to escape their clutches, the first is to cut your hand off where you first touch one, the second is to relieve him of his silver harness which gives you powers to change him into human form, though it is not known if he is any less dangerous as a man. The third way is to shoot him with a silver bullet.

I guess that says to believe in my own freedom, make my own choices. We are never really forced to do anything. Even though I did end up in the belly of the kelpie, I did so by choice, and I was utterly fascinated by the construction of his innards, thousands of pieces of steel, no two the same. Woman and beast enter a silent contract acknowledging mutual respect and awareness of responsibility to each other. I’m on a journey, his presence and pool of water is my 'imbas', my well spring of inspiration, the horse totem will guide me. And I have the means to best him, should he turn rogue.

“No mortal ear could have heard the kelpie passing through the night, for the great black hooves of it were as soundless in their stride as feathers falling.”Mollie Hunter, The Kelpie's Pearls