Monday, 5 November 2018

Stepping Stones to Standing Stones

This piece was written in response to a Therapeutic Writing exercise to find stepping stones or moments in your life which have informed your  lifepath  …..I thought I would like to share it as it is a while since I have written on this blog and it shows where my love of landscape and sites came from. 

It was a time when I was feeling trapped in further education having returned to teaching and getting a management job which was very stressful; it was the summer holidays and I realised I would be working; preparing timetables, interviewing students, and lesson planning for classes I had not even met yet made to complete a year’s preparation in advance which felt ridiculous. I was feeling very trapped as the job wasn’t what I had thought it would be and I decided to get away on my own for a holiday to the Outer Hebrides. I had been longing to return to Scotland having visited Mull and Iona and travelled on the West Coast railway from Glasgow to Fort William and Oban. 

The calling to do another pilgrimage to The Outer Hebrides a skinny narrow finger of four islands the joints between them being small waterways one crossed by passenger ferry was pressing and in particular the idea of visiting and standing within the stone circle west of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis called Callanish. I was fascinated by the ancient stone circles, archaeological sites and their links to the heavens and the wheel of the year, their position on lines of energy leys and their alignment to other sites in the landscape as well as their being joined by ley lines across the country. Lewis was one of the farthest places from West Cornwall I could have chosen to visit apart from Orkney and Shetland which I still reserve for another trip.

 I had begun this fascination as a child following my dad to digs of hut circles collecting flint arrowheads, scapers and bronze age and neolithic pottery as well as spindle whorls and clay pipes in our back garden. Dad had an instinct as deep as the ancients rooted in his veins and could dream a site which next day he would find accidentally by jumping a granite wall into a farmer’s field to retrieve a Roman coin from the reign of Hadrian or being called to walk up to our local Carn Brea after his day job as an ambulance driver whereupon he found three flint arrowheads on a granite boulder just there not hidden as his dream had foretold. This early influence of my father hit me in my late twenties and thirties when I was living in West Penwith at Madron with its own Mother Church and ancient holy well complete with healing spring and clouties upon the surrounding blackthorn trees. And thence to the ancient sites of West Penwith and on to, Bodmin moor, Dartmoor, Somerset and Glastonbury, Avebury, Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Maiden castle and sites associated with the Goddess Brigid or Bride in Dorset, on to The Lakes and Peak District with Arbour Lough and Robin Hoods stride as well as its white and dark peaks and then to Wales and the border country castles and dissolved abbeys. History had been my love at A level and during my studies of Literature at university I had always maintained a lively curiosity for the times in which an author wrote as well as being taught in the FR Levis tradition which looks at literature in its context and at the growth of writing from Greek theatre to the present day. I had also started reading lots of literature about stones my favourite being Julian Cope aka Teardrop Explodes with his weighty book of pilgrimage to sites ‘The Modern Antiquarian’. I followed in his footsteps as he had photographed and written about every site in the UK and also Europe, including poetry and personal musings over a decade or more. His quest inspired my own, especially as I had always enjoyed his music in the early 80’s ‘Reward’ and ‘Treason’ being two of my favourites as a teenager. Other inspirations were Hamish Miller’s dowsing of ley lines throughout the UK in his book ‘The Sun and the Serpent’, Craig Wetherell’s ‘Bolerian’ and ‘Cornovia’ where he catalogues all the ancient and more modern sites in Cornwall from cliff castles and ancient settlements to church crosses, and also Cheryl Straffon’s ‘Pagan Cornwall Land of the Goddess’ where she shows the influence of the land as female, fecund, fertile and forever changing from maiden to mother to crone, as well as the influence of early female deities in the shaping of the landscape and its sites. Monica Sjoo’s art compliments this and her book ‘The Great Cosmic Mother’ was a revelation to me in terms of her showing the beginnings of goddess culture in Africa and thence to Europe and beyond, showing the links of the sites to the cycles of birth, fertility and death which parallel the three stages of womanhood from maiden to mother to crone.

 I had also travelled to Malta to stay on Gozo and see for myself the ancient goddess temples that people these islands with their link as a trading and resting place between mainland Africa and Europe. I had also visited numerous sites in Greece from the Acropolis in Athens to Olympia, Mycenae and the wonderful healing site and theatre at Epidaurus, as well as Crete with its Minotaur and ancient Knossos to Skopelos, Skiathos, Corfu and also Hydra. Then Turkey with the wonderful ancient city ruins of Ephesus. Yes, I certainly had a fascination for stones and ruins which began in the simple act of digging in my own back garden with a little metal child’s red trowel with a wooden handle and a plastic slide box filled with cotton wool to store my stone found treasures.

Callanish predated Stonehenge by 500 years and  aligns with the cycles of the sun and moon, particularly at the winter and midsummer solstice. The stones resemble grey striated fingers narrower and much more elegant and tall compared to our squat granite Cornish circles.. here was what seemed a temple of great significance positioned as it was on peat bog to the Northwest of Scotland and yet near to Norway and the Arctic circle far far north in a magical cold climate and landscape of wide skies and stark hills. They are made of Lewisan gneiss a striated grey and white stone and form a cruciform with an avenue of stones leading toward it. They resemble tall bards overseeing the land, guardians of loch and moor; here in this spacious landscape of ever changing wild skies with running clouds and waving seas there is a dramatic interface of light and shadow. At the time I was single, and yearning for space meaning and time to be free and wild, to be rooted and in touch with the earth and the goddess of the land and also to try a small adventure independent and able to map my own route and travel at my own pace without the distraction of having to take on the responsibility of someone else’s needs and agenda.  I think all too often when single, I felt I needed a companion to somehow justify my own being rather than being able to travel independently and have faith in my self and my own instincts. Independence is a luxury which I have fostered since these early forays and now have the yearning to follow again. 

I remember booking into a stone croft hostel and having it all to myself for three days in the North of the island of Lewis, hiring a bike and peddling out for a Sunday visit to a black house only to discover that the locals were all Presbyterian and that it was a sin to drink and do anything really, but go to church on a Sunday. It was a strange dark land of abandoned crofts, houses and black houses from the clearances and just pure poverty being so far away from civilization; inland lochs buzzing with midges and peat bog cut for turfs for fuel. The local road signs were often in Gaelic as this was the main language. There were four main islands Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist and Barra to the far south with its sandy landing strip for aeroplanes and its castle in the centre of Castle Bay, as well as its Kirk and Indian restaurant on the quayside which was a welcome sign of diversity and some alternative food. The Machair was everywhere; fertile plains and dunes lined the coast and kept the ocean at bay adorned in purple and yellow flowers, as well as the rare purple Scottish orchid; it is a rich source of wildlife as well as being grazed by wandering herds of highland cattle and sheep who also pastured on the white sand beaches leaving their dung behind them. I remember the wide, empty, white curving shorelines and the sense of beauty; a wild, magical beauty of isolation and primitive longing. I felt a sense of deep belonging here, even to the extent where I looked keenly in estate agent’s windows for properties to let for a year and maybe a job as a teacher there. Remote, far out, isolated and ancient full of their own singing soul; a Gaelic tongue still spoken, sung and promoted in the crafts of the islanders who had led a harsh close knitted life suspicious of incomers still. Barra and Uist were fiercely Catholic compared to the Presbyterian Northern Islands and were not touched by the Reformation in the rest of the country. Compton Mackenzie set ‘Whisky Galore’ here, I remember visiting his grave in a lonely grey churchyard on Barra and also trekking in the hills and stumbling across cottages abandoned in the clearances. I felt brave and miles away listening to the waves on the shore and talking to my family on the phone; there was a signal near the rocks where I walked in the evening with only the call of birds and hoarse cries of seals for company. I made my way by bus through the islands, catching ferries between and rail and aeroplane to and from. I was alone, but enjoying it, not feeling lonely and meeting the odd person and chatting as I travelled, including a nice young American couple in the hostel in Barra who I walked out with on a Sunday and shared a night out at the pub along with a Ceilidh eve with the locals.

 I can see that I craved soulfulness and meaning and that the space and ancient connection of the Outer Hebrides was exactly what I needed. I needed that sense of homecoming, rootedness, freedom, wildness and the adventure was my own; not timetabled or scheduled. I could roam and follow my own rhythm and motion which was really important as well as getting healthy and not needing a car or a daily routine. I was also fulfilling a dream of going to a place I had often visualised. I can see here just how much I gained from the stepping stone and that I stepped from one time frame into something completely different a natural 'me' time and an ancient time, where the clock was the change of the sun, moon, skies and tides and I was outdoors, not trapped behind four walls. I am also aware that this is how I feel now, happy at home but longing to escape the imposed time schedule of my job  so I need to consider my next step, visualise an adventure and a quest for meaning and motion once more to find growth and more about myself because this trip taught me I can be independent, there are other worlds where I feel at home and other places to be alive and free. I need the outdoors, open space, nature, travel, history, learning and to discover new vistas and follow my interests and passions as here is where the true creative flow lies.

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