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Wednesday 15 February 2017

The Mysterious Bernera Goddess

The Bernera Goddess

Her home was once the sea (she is carved from the vertebra of a whale). Her expression is as ambiguous as the Mona Lisa’s smile.

The Bernera Goddess is an artefact so mysterious that there’s almost nothing to say about her. Her provenance is hearsay. Even her name has come to her as an arbitrary guess.

The gentleman who acquired her for Inverness Museum was told only that she had been found in an unnamed burial cairn somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, and that she was cursed. That’s her story in its entirety, with no details left out.

It’s tempting to believe the poor man was the victim of a hoax. And yet the Bernera Goddess has a striking presence, and a beauty that transcends the crudeness of her features. If you lean close she may even whisper something you find you needed to know. She seems wise – or is that a trick of the museum lighting?

My friend Sine in conversation with the Bernera Goddess

It’s difficult to believe her capable of harbouring a curse, this goddess with the gentle smile. She’s remarkably serene for a cursed object. You have to suspect that the supposed curse was thrown in by the vendor just to swing the sale. But then you never can tell….

Whose hand was it that carved her, and for what purpose? To her maker what was her significance? Does she even have any significance at all? It seems unlikely we’ll ever know anything more about her than we know now.

The Bernera Goddess's enigmatic smile

She is a beautiful enigma. The most non-specific of deities. She asks us to believe in nothing, to buy into no mythology. She brings us no scripture or doctrine. She just exists.

In an era of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news, when information comes at us too fast and from all directions, it can be difficult to know what to believe, or whether it’s possible to ever really be certain of anything at all.

Perhaps the counsel of a vague goddess is exactly what we need, to remind us that our hearts and minds are free. And that we do know after all what’s right.

Just lean in and listen carefully, open your mind….

Sunday 25 May 2014

Aberlemno Sculptured Stones

Entwined waterhorses, Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab (Aberlemno II)

Situated in the village of Aberlemno in Angus, Scotland, these stones are really quite something, and well worth seeing if you're ever within visiting distance.

The group consists of five very impressive Pictish carved standing stones. Three of the stones stand beside the B9134 Forfar to Brechin road, within recesses in the dry stone wall. One is in the nearby Aberlemno kirkyard. And one other is on display at the McManus Museum and Gallery, Dundee.

Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab (Aberlemno II)

Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab (Aberlemno II) from the road

Believed to be mid-9thC in date, this is a magnificent red sandstone cross, standing 7½ft high. It’s one of the finest of all surviving Pictish carved stones.

The cross is only just visible from the road, which is at a lower level than the churchyard.

But up close it gets a whole lot more impressive....

Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab (Aberlemno II)

The cross is elaborately ornamented and flanked on either side by zoomorphic figures and intertwined beasts.

Intertwining beasts on Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab

The carvings on the back of the stone appear to be a narrative account of a battle fought between an army of men with long hair (presumably Picts) and an army of men wearing helmets.

Recounted in 4 scenes running from top to bottom (with the fourth scene being in the far right bottom corner), it is believed to be a depiction of the battle of Nechtansmere, fought in 685AD at nearby Dunnichen. King Ecgfrith of Northumbria was killed in the course of this battle, ending the Anglian occupation of the south of Pictland. The final scene appears to show a slain Northumbrian, possibly King Ecgfrith himself, with a raven pecking at his face - lovely!

Back of Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab (Aberlemno II), detail

By all accounts this battle was one of the most momentous in Scottish history, and if the Picts had lost, Scotland might not even have existed as a nation - everything was at stake.

At the very top edge of the back of the stone you might just be able to make out two confronting dragon-like heads.

Open-mouthed dragon-like heads at the top edge of Aberlemno Churchyard Cross Slab

What intrigued me most about this stone was the hole that has been bored through it. It reminded me of stones through which people once claimed to be able to see the future. I wondered whether anyone had ever tried it and if so what they had hoped to see. Disappointingly however the hole was made in relatively modern times, in order to make the stone easier to move. I still like my explanation better!

Aberlemno Roadside Cross Slab (Aberlemno III)

Aberlemno Roadside Cross Slab (Aberlemno III)

This stone is imposing at over 9ft high.  Badly weathered but still very beautiful, it is a ringed cross, flanked by angels with bowed heads (for this reason this stone is sometimes called ‘The Mourning Angels’). There are also animal figures at the base, too eroded to be identifiable.

Back of Aberlemno Roadside Cross Slab (Aberlemno III)

The back is difficult to photograph because of its proximity to the dry stone wall that protects it from the field behind - I did my best! It shows a hunting scene with 4 men on horseback, 3 stags and 3 dogs. Above this there are also beautifully carved Pictish symbols of a crescent and V-rod, double disc and Z-rod. 

Centaur on the back of Aberlemno Roadside Cross Slab (Aberlemno III)

Separate panels at the bottom of the stone depict a centaur (very weathered - you might need to squint and use your imagination) and King David fighting the lion.

Aberlemno Southern Roadside Stone (Aberlemno V)

Aberlemno V

This stone is highly eroded. It may bear traces of a curved symbol but it's difficult to make out - I didn't see it.

It was found in the field behind its current position.

The Serpent Stone (Aberlemno I)

The Serpent Stone (Aberlemno I)

This is a truly beautiful stone, also found in the field behind its present position. It bears several Pictish symbols: serpent, double disc and z-rod, mirror and comb.

Back of Serpent Stone (Aberlemno I) showing cup marks near base

The back of this stone has prehistoric cup marks near the base, suggesting that it was an earlier monument that the Picts reused.

View from the Serpent Stone (Aberlemno I) back towards Aberlemno V and Aberlemno III

Aberlemno Flemington Farm Stone (Aberlemno IV)

Photo: Catfish Jim and the soapdish

One further stone is on display at the McManus Museum and Art Gallery in Dundee. It was discovered in 1961, approximately 30 yards from Aberlemno church, and bears some damage from ploughing.

There are 2 symbols on this stone: a horseshoe and a Pictish Beast. No definitive interpretation of Pictish symbols has ever been made, and the Pictish Beast remains one of the most mysterious.


Altogether these are wonderful stones in a beautiful setting. I highly recommend a visit!


Aberlemno is 6 miles NE of Forfar. The Aberlemno churchyard cross slab is easily accessible, with plenty of parking round at the side of the church. The roadside stones are also easily accessible at the side of the B9134 Forfar-Brechin road, and there is easy parking outside the village hall nearby, well signposted. However, to help prevent further weather-damage, the stones are covered with wooden boxes during the winter months (from the last working day of September until the first working day of April)

Aberlemno covered - Photo: Trish Steel

Note of Caution:

Please do take care if visiting the stones with young children or dogs, or anyone who might be unsteady on their feet. The B9134 Forfar-Brechin road isn't very busy and has a speed limit of 30mph but there are no pavements. Also, although the verge where the stones stand is not tremendously high, it is quite steeply sloped.


Historic Scotland: Aberlemno Sculptured Stones

Tuesday 27 August 2013

The Cannich Puma: Felicity, Alien Big Cat of the Scottish Highlands

There’s an alien big cat in Inverness - I’ve seen her myself and she’s a beauty. She gazes out serenely from her glass case in Inverness Museum, a grand old lady, calmly keeping the secrets of her mysterious origins to herself.

Wherever Felicity began her life, she ended it in captivity, captured in 1980 near Cannich, 12 miles west of Loch Ness. Police had previously searched in vain for the ‘lioness’ that farmer Ted Noble had seen stalking his ponies.

For over 2 years he had been losing livestock, mainly sheep, finding them savaged and with their bones crushed. The mystery beast had been sighted a number of times not only by himself but by other local people. Eventually, frustrated by police reluctance to make a further search, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He erected a purpose-built steel cage near his farm and baited it every day with fresh meat. Returning to it on October 29th 1980 he found he had caught a 5ft female puma.


Unanswered questions remained however and there were even suggestions that Mr Noble was the victim - or the perpetrator - of a hoax. This animal was curiously tame, elderly and arthritic. Doubts were raised as to whether she could possibly be the same creature responsible for attacking and carrying off livestock. Felicity, as she came to be named, even allowed experts who examined her to pet her behind her ears – she was hardly the ferocious wild beast they had expected. And, most intriguingly, the big cat sightings and livestock losses continued even after her capture.

Nonetheless, analysis of her faeces in the first hours of captivity showed that Felicity had recently fed on deer, rabbit and sheep, suggesting that despite her advanced age and tameness she had indeed been hunting and surviving independently in the wild, possibly for some time. The question is, did other big cats remain at large in the area? To this day the Highlands experience an abundance of sightings. I recently met this lovely lady who saw a big cat near Dornoch in Sutherland in 2011 - I'm very envious!

Sightings of big cats in the UK are far too numerous to even begin to give any general account of them here, but here’s one other interesting case from 1927, again from the Scottish Highlands. Following the finding of strange footprints and the slaughter of a number of sheep and goats, an Inverness-shire farmer killed ‘a large, fierce, yellow animal of unknown species’. The livestock losses and footprints continued until a second similar animal had been shot and a third one trapped. When a body was sent to London Zoo for identification it was found to be that of a lynx. (Source: The Complete Books of Charles Fort, p.600, quoting Daily Express, 14 Jan. 1927)

Anomalous big cats aren't just a modern phenomenon of course - reports are spread throughout history (and across the continents).

The idea that such creatures are roaming the British Isles is often scoffed at. Sightings are dismissed as misidentified domestic or large feral cats, hoaxes or just general silliness (and perhaps they often are). Surely if there were big cats living, possibly even breeding, in the UK, we would know it beyond a doubt. Where are the bodies? Where is the evidence?

Inverness Museum for a start.... There's also the Canadian lynx shot in Devon in 1903, recently rediscovered in storage and now on display at Bristol Museum. And Lara ('The Beast of Barnet'), a European lynx captured in a hedge in a Golders Green garden by staff from London Zoo in 2001.

Felicity lived out the remainder of her days in comfort at the Highland Wildlife Park, Kingussie, finally dying of old age in 1985. She was subsequently stuffed and put on display at Inverness Museum where she continues to be one of its most cherished exhibits. ‘You really love that cat, don’t you!’ someone commented as I took my umpteenth photo. (He was from North America so probably not too surprised by the idea of a puma on the loose.)

I do love her. How wonderful it would have been to see her in the wild.

Although I doubt anyone would have believed me....


Audio recording of Felicity growling in the cage at the time of her capture - Am Baile: highland history and culture

Obituary of Donald Alexander 'Ted' Noble

Scottish Big Cats

Big Cat Monitors UK

Australian Big Cats: On the track of the big cat mystery in Australia, and around the world

Suggested reading:

Williams, Michael and Rebecca Lang - Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers, Strange Nation Publishing, 2010

Shuker, Karl, Cats of Magic, Mythology and Mystery, CFZ Press, 2012

Shuker, Karl, Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts, Robert Hale, 1989

Francis, Di, My Highland Kellas Cats, Jonathan Cape, 1993

Francis, Di, The Beast of Exmoor and Other Mystery Predators of Britain, Jonathan Cape, 1993

Francis, Di, Cat Country: The Quest for the British Big Cat, David and Charles, 1983

McEwan, Graham J., Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland, Robert Hale, 1986

Bord, Janet and Colin, Alien Animals: A Worldwide Investigation, Harper Collins,1985

Thursday 20 June 2013

2013 Neil Gunn Writing Competition

I was delighted to win Second Prize (prose) in this year’s Neil Gunn Writing Competition for my story 'The Calf''! The award ceremony was held in Dingwall last week, and since I'm (very) local it felt surreal for it to suddenly be happening right on my doorstep. It was my usual gentle 5 minute commute to get there – quite odd!

It was wonderful to meet the other winners – most of the UK winners managed to attend, coming from as far away as the south coast of England. (Those who were unable to be there were announced and applauded heartily in their absence - in case they were wondering.) It was especially lovely to watch the proud faces of the schools sections winners (and their parents) as they went up to receive their certificates.

By strange coincidence, both the 1st and 2nd adult prose prizes were won this year by parents of children on the autistic spectrum. The First Prize winning story, 'Fault' by Andrew Broadfoot, is excellent – when the hook goes in, it goes in very deep.  Even to a mind rather jaded on the subject (autism is my normal, my everyday, my wonderful, the isolating moat around my life, my shrugged ‘so?’) his story about a severely autistic child in hospital made a huge impact. Worth reading. I wish I’d had longer to talk to Andrew at the award ceremony before we were interrupted by the press photos.

In fact I wish there had been more time to talk to everyone – it was a whirl of names and faces, without having had a chance to read the stories yet.

It was also a great delight to meet lead judge the Scottish poet and author Jackie Kay, someone who lights up any room. Full of heart and humour, she was hugely entertaining and engaging, projecting enormous warmth and personality. With my habit of lurking in the background hoping not to be noticed, I'll need to adopt her as my role model.

Overall my thoughts on the day? That was fun. I’d like to do it again. (Maybe next time I’d manage to worry less about whether I was about to trip over my new shoes when my name was called.)

And this was my favourite bit of the day – a wee hug and photo with the lovely Jackie Kay.

Ever backward at putting myself forward, I was the very last in line to ask for a photo before she was whisked away back to the airport. I’m so glad I did – it absolutely made my day! Which was already just grand.


Winning and commended entries in the 2013 Neil Gunn Writing Competition

Thursday 28 March 2013

Smoo Cave - Gateway to the Otherworld ...

... unsettling, disorientating and impressively odd.

Near the village of Durness at the hauntingly beautiful far North West corner of mainland Scotland lies Smoo Cave, the largest coastal cave in Britain and also one of the most spectacular. The Rock Doves that nest in its high upper nooks and crannies must be quite used I suppose to the steady stream of visitors it attracts - around 40,000 a year - and to their echoing shrieks.

I’m not generally one of life’s screamers, but I screamed in Smoo Cave – it was impossible not to. In the darkness, the volume of noise from the waterfall was overwhelming, and terrified screaming was the inevitable involuntary response!

On the day I visited, the waterfall was in particularly fine, thunderous, drenching form and the water was too high for the boat trip into the third chamber.

Perhaps on another visit I’ll take this short boat trip across the pool and under a low arch of rock that leads into the third, otherwise inaccessible chamber.

Photograph by welshmackem
Sir Walter Scott, describing his visit to Smoo Cave in 1814 and his own boat trip into the third chamber, wrote that the effects of his lamp on the dew covered stalactites were as ‘the effect of ten thousand birthday candles. The cave was covered with stalactites and stalagmites. A water kelpie or an evil spirit of aquatic propensities could not have chosen a fitter abode and to say the truth I believe at our first entrance and all our feelings were afloat at the marvelling of the scene the unexpected splashing of a seal would have routed the whole dozen of us. Impossible for description to explain the impression made by so strange a place.’

A longer, quite wonderful, account of his expedition into the cave ('Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott' by J.G. Lockhart, Diary Vol.4, 19th Aug, 1814) can be read HERE.

Legend has it that Smoo Cave is a gateway to the Otherworld – or into the faery realm – and that it's guarded by spirits. And indeed, quite fittingly, a pothole in the third chamber leads no one knows where. Divers have only ever explored the first 40m of it because a fine, peaty silt quickly reduces visibility to zero. The cave system may well extend hundreds of metres further into the cliff.

Smoo Cave is unusual in having been formed by the action of both fresh water and the sea. The peaty waters of the Allt Smoo flow off the moors, tranquil until they vanish into the darkness of a gaping sink hole.

The stream plunges 25m, hitting rocks as it thunders into an inky black pool in the cave below.

Steps lead down to the cave entrance - not as daunting on the way back up as they look as they’re broad enough to allow plenty of space to stop and catch your breath!

From here there’s a fine view of the banks of the inlet, where visitors' names have been spelled out in 'graffiti' laid out in white stones taken from the beach.

At the foot of the steps are the ruins of a stone cottage, thought to have been built by an 18thC Orkney merchant builder. He traded out of the inlet while building nearby Smoo Lodge, and is said to have employed local women to carry sacks of meal up the cliff, paying them with oat biscuits.

Smoo Cave continues to grow deeper into the limestone cliff - the sea laps at its back wall, though only now at times of unusually high tide.

A narrow inlet has formed as the roofs of a series of progressively deeper caves have collapsed. Eroded pillars of rock which once supported these long-vanished earlier versions of Smoo Cave still remain. The cave entrance is now 600m from the sea, and it’s impressive. At more than 15 metres high, it’s the biggest entrance of any sea cave in Britain.

A 360˚ view of the cave entrance can be viewed HERE

The first chamber of the cave is more than 60m long and 40m wide. A wooden walkway leads from here into the second (scream provoking) chamber.

The second chamber is smaller, about 21m by 9m. The waterfall soaks you with spray when it's in full flow, and the darkness, dampness and deafening din create an assault on the senses that is powerfully disorientating.

Neolithic, Norse and Iron Age artefacts found in an ancient midden in the main chamber suggest that the cave was inhabited throughout many periods of history. Anecdotally, even some proof of Mesolithic habitation has been found, although the physical evidence has since been lost.

Smoo Cave has seen a lot of activity over the course of human history (and far more than we'll ever know), much of it unpleasant. 16thC highwayman McMurdo is said to have murdered his victims by throwing them down the blow hole into the main chamber of the cave. Grisly!

On the other hand, a wonderful but unlikely legend tells that a 17th C nobleman known as Donald, the Wizard of Reay, was involved in creating these same holes in the cave roof. Donald apparently met the Devil whilst on a trip to Italy and accepted his invitation to study the Black Arts. It was the Devil’s practice to claim the soul of one student from each class - always the last student to leave the classroom at the end of term. On finding himself the last to leave, Donald escaped by tricking the Devil into snatching only his shadow instead. When he returned to Scotland it was observed that he indeed cast no shadow. Furious at being tricked, the Prince of Darkness lay in wait for Donald in Smoo Cave. Our man Donald was heading into the cave just before dawn (why on earth, I wonder??). When his dog ran into the darkness ahead of him and returned to him howling and hairless, he was given cause to hesitate. It was just long enough for the sun to rise. Rendered powerless by the sun’s light, the Devil and the 3 witches who were with him escaped by blowing holes in the cave roof and flying away. So that's probably what happened then....

Sometime around 1720, the cave was the scene of a massacre. The Clan Gunn from the borders of Sutherland, having made a raid on the Durness area, were lured into the caves by local residents who pretended to seek refuge there. It was a trap, and the marauding clan were slaughtered to the last man.

Two Inland Revenue officers were also murdered by 'accidentally' being drowned in the waterfall as they tried to search the caves for illicit stills in the mid 18thC. One of the bodies was never recovered, and the ghost of the lost man is said to haunt the waterfall, appearing in the foam stirred up when the water is at its highest and fiercest.

If anything, I’m surprised that there aren’t many, many more stories of the supernatural associated with Smoo Cave. It’s an extraordinary, quite uncanny place and the same can be said for the surrounding landscape, which is all white sands and black peaty soil, wild flowers dancing in the wind and strange rock formations cast in every shape of faeryland. It's a place that fills your soul with sweetest peace and darkest fear in equal measure.

The ideal way to experience Smoo Cave would probably be alone at night, by the light of an oil lamp or flaming torch, and with an overactive imagination!

A couple of random facts:

- The name ‘Smoo’ doesn’t in fact refer to smoke or spray from the waterfall, as might be assumed. It’s thought to derive from the Norse word ‘smjugg’ or 'sumvya', meaning creek or cleft.

- John Lennon spent many childhood holidays between the ages of nine and sixteen with his cousins at nearby Sangomore. I imagine he would almost certainly have visited Smoo Cave. He always had a great love and enthusiasm for this part of the country and it's said that this was what inspired fellow Beatle Paul McCartney to buy his farmhouse on Mull.