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Wednesday 21 November 2012

Corrimony Chambered Cairn: Bronze Age Crematorium

There are days that are made for exploring, and this was one of them. Waking up confused, caught in a tangle of dreams twined with long-forgotten memories, I found myself longing to escape down roads never travelled, heading to places never seen. And on that impulse I drove, dazzled by the autumn sun, until I came to the shores of the deepest, darkest body of water I could find – Loch Ness. And from there (after some moody staring into the whipping wind) to a place I’d been wanting to see ever since I knew it existed - Corrimony Chambered Cairn.

Situated 8 miles from Loch Ness, this ancient burial site is a gem. Built by neolithic farmers in the 3rd millenium BC,  it consists of a passage grave surrounded by a kerb of slabs and 11 standing stones - all of them wonderfully crooked, weathered and strange.

The entrance passage is aligned South West, meaning that the rays of the setting sun travel down it at the Midwinter Solstice. Similar cairns at Clava, a few miles east of Inverness, were built with the same alignment. In total there are nearly 50 cairns of this kind in the North East of Scotland. What was in the minds of the people who built them no one knows for sure, but it's possible that they had a belief in some form of journey for the spirits of their dead.

Archaeological evidence suggests that these sites were collectively  used by communities for cremations, serving more as shrines to the dead than as tombs. When Corrimony Cairn was excavated in 1952, traces of just one set of remains were found - an adult, probably female, lying in a foetal position and facing down the passage towards the entrance.

The entrance passage is short and not overly restrictive, but it's eerie all the same. It echoed with an unnerving hollowness under my hands and knees as I crawled through. The cropping of the sheep in an adjacent field merged with the slow dripping of water from the cairn to become shuffling footsteps following behind.

The crows called their warnings, but inside I felt safer than I’d expected. I was protected, not trapped - the walls are intact only to head-height, the roof having long since collapsed.

Part of what is believed to be the original capstone, huge and decorated with cup marks, lies near the top of the cairn.

I wish now that I had also thought to climb up the outside of the cairn to look into the chamber from above, as it seems that other people do so. I erred on the side of good manners though. The place seemed untouchable in its magic, and worthy of more respect.

My heart was lighter on the journey home. I was singing as I drove through drifting leaves, between blood-red banks of autumn Beech.

The ghost that had been hanging just out of sight in the corner of my mind was gone. I had taken it to an appropriate place, and left it there.

Friday 28 September 2012

Clootie Well, Black Isle

My advice if you're visiting the Clootie Well near Munlochy on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland is not to go alone. Not unless you have nerves of steel. It's damn spooky.

There are other clootie wells around the UK and Ireland, but the one at Munlochy is one of the better known (it even makes an appearance in Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead, an Inspector Rebus book).

Of ancient Celtic origin, the main function of a clootie well lies in the performing of a healing ritual. A strip of cloth, or 'clootie' or 'cloot', is dipped into the water of a sacred spring and is then tied to the branch of a nearby tree. The cloot may first be used to wash an afflicted area of the body, there may be words spoken, or the well may be walked around a certain number of times. Offerings of coins are also sometimes placed in the well.

Since it's being used to represent an illness, the cloot may be intentionally ugly or unpleasant. Others, left simply as offerings to the fairies, are likely to be more colourful.

At the Clootie Well on the Black Isle, despite being within sight of the road you're immediately in no doubt that you've entered a place that's distinctly 'other'. There's a claustrophobic sense of stillness, and an unsettling energy. On my first visit I got half way along the path before I turned and hurried back to my car, tripping over tree roots as I went. I have half a notion that the fairies were laughing at me.

I returned on another day feeling braver. This time I had brought company!

The spring is modest - barely a trickle emerging from the hillside to collect in a small concrete basin. The child's shoe hanging in the foreground of the above photograph will show you roughly the scale.

Rags have been tied throughout a sprawling area of woodland and continue up the side of the hill to a clearing at the top. It's a deeply strange place and one with many aspects. At times it feels comforting and embracing. In its own way it's beautiful. Amongst the Rowan berries, the cloots were as festive as bunting.

Catch it from another angle though and it's terrifying. A bit like the fairies themselves I imagine!

Many of the rags are tied to branches that are not connected to the trees at all but are rather tethered, suspended in the knots of cloth. I wonder whether when the snows come the woods echo with the eerie cracking of overburdened branches, or whether people have tied in the extra branches intentionally. It's difficult to say. Nothing here comes with an explanation.

The cloots are most often handkerchiefs, but also flags, towels, t-shirts and sweatshirts, dusters, socks, shoes and even underpants. If for any reason you should ever feel the need to view a whole lot of mossy grey-green underwear this is definitely the place to visit.

Many of the items tied are synthetic materials or plastic that have little hope of degrading quickly, contrary to the original premise of the workings of the well.

Some items appear to have been left simply as decorative offerings to the fairies.

Others are baffling. Did you rub THAT on your afflicted area?

Many are modest, even minimalist.

Others, like this duvet, are bolder.

Some people use the well as a kind of memorial garden, leaving RIP messages written in marker pen on cloths strapped around tree trunks. Out of respect I didn't photograph any of these, or the mementos lodged high into the trees that hint at the most terrible of tragedies and losses.

I have no criticisms to make of anyone's use of the well, the choice of rags tied or the offerings left. In a way the Clootie Well is whatever people need it to be. However, it has to be said that the plastic, the trainers, the synthetic fabrics and the metal screws used to fix some of the cloots to tree trunks (why?) are unfortunate in their longevity.

I've occasionally heard mutterings from people who think the site should be cleaned up, and you can't really argue that the place isn't as disgusting as it is wonderful! But clearing the site would be a harsh move indeed.

Perhaps there only needs to be a quiet reminder from time to time that the offerings aren't meant to be permanent. Clootie wells are hopeful places, representing a longing for change. They're about the easing of pain and grief over time, and the possibility of healing. The cloots are meant to fade and disappear - that's where the magic lies.

My companion/heebie-jeebie buffer took our visit unexpectedly seriously and insisted that we tie rags ourselves. I didn't ask what her wish was, and similarly my own wish is best kept between myself and the fairies. But I can tell you that it's surprisingly soothing knowing that my little scrap of cloth is there now quietly disintegrating. In fact more than soothing, it's profoundly satisfying.

(My cloot appears in one of the above photographs, as anonymous as all the others.)

Healing Wells and Springs in the Highlands and Islands - an entry on Am Baile by Janine Donald, with a list of some of the springs, lochs and wells in the Highlands and Islands which were, and for some people still are, believed to have healing powers.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Hermit of Kinpurney Tower

Kinpurney Tower in Angus, Scotland. Built as an observatory in 1774
by local landowner James Mackenzie. Image: Calum McRoberts

According to a disturbing Scottish legend, a young poacher by the name of David Gray lost his youth, his health and ultimately his life in a bleak and horrifying act of bravado. All for a wager of £100.

He agreed to be locked in Kinpurney Tower for seven years. Another version of the story states that it was for a year and a day. Whichever it was, it was for too long.

Standing atop the 345-metre high summit of Kinpurney Hill,
the tower is a very familiar landmark, visible for many miles.

Kinpurney Hill from the nearby village of Balkeerie

The hermit of Kinpurney Tower succeeded - he won the wager. But by the time he was released he was in a desperately frail state. All those who came to witness his victory were shocked to see that his hair was now waist-length and grey, and his fingernails were so long that they were like a bird's talons. He appeared to have prematurely aged and, most dreadful of all, he had lost the power of speech and was only capable of grunting.

Though he was put in the care of doctors in Dundee, the young man died shortly after leaving the tower.

No one would ever know for sure what exactly had happened to him in the tower. What secrets had Kinpurney Hill muttered to a soul in solitude? What eerie songs had the wind wailed through the long dark nights? And what phantoms had invaded his mind?

The answers would have to be left to their - and to our - imagination.

Many of the details of the story are unclear - the year it's supposed to have taken place for instance, and whether David Gray had contact with anyone during his incarceration. Was he free to come and go from the tower or was he locked inside it? Why did no one try to rescue him?

And of course there's the most important question - did David Gray, the Hermit of Kinpurney Tower, ever exist in reality? Perhaps after all it’s just a story.

A version of the legend was printed in the Kirriemuir Free Press in 1918, and reprinted in September 1953 - it gives his stay in the tower as seven years. Another version, which says it was a year and a day, was a re-telling by Colin Gibson in the Dundee Courier of 28th March, 1970. The legend gets another very brief mention in the Readers Digest 'Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain', 1977. And it also appears in 'Newtyle: A Planned Manufacturing Village' by William Murdoch Duncan, published by the Forfar Historical Society in 1979. 

I can't tell you what truth there is in the tale, if any - I can only present it to you as a legend. It may be a real event embellished, or it may have been entirely invented. It feels true though, as all the best stories do. What I can tell you for sure is that there’s something unnaccountably forlorn and forbidding about the tower on Kinpurney Hill.

Interior of Kinpurney Tower. Image: Calum McRoberts

Just 20ft by 30ft, and 40ft tall, originally it had a slate roof and a wooden floor, a fireplace and a small alcove cupboard. With walls 3 feet thick it should have been a cosy enough refuge.

A family photo taken at Kinpurney Tower in 1977 - that's me in the
white t-shirt. The tower had just recently been restored, in 1974.

Roofless since 1840, and for a long time derelict, Kinpurney Tower is anything but cosy. Perhaps it’s those rows of blind windows. Or the wind winnowing through the dark, empty doorways. Or just the unutterable sense of desolation. Even on the sunniest of days, it's not a place in which you want to linger for long.

The tower is an exhausting, very steep 2-mile hike uphill.

The surrounding landscape is beautiful - as soft and leafy and sweet as the raspberries and strawberries that the area is famous for. The views are panoramic - across the Strathmore valley to the Grampian hills, and to Dundee and across the river Tay to Fife. The remains of an iron age fort - once an ancient signal beacon station - ring the tower.

Me again - looks like I found the hermit! (It's just my dad.)

One solitary larch tree grows on the summit - a descendant of another that stood on the spot before it. All around are the whisperings of nature, in the swaying of the grasses and the distant rippling of the barley as the wind slowly chases itself in circles.

On Kinpurney Hill you feel on top of the world. 

As a poacher, David Gray should have been in his element, having as he did the necessary skills to make sure he didn't starve. And yet somehow he still withered away to a shambling wreck. Did the life and strength ebb out of him so gradually, so insidiously, that he didn't notice that his chance to save himself was passing and being lost? Did he die from just not knowing when to give up?

The tragedy of the story is that he must have believed that his suffering would be worth it.

Under a blazing sun - view from Kinpurney Tower , 1977

It's interesting to note that 1918 may be the first trace of the legend in print. As the nation struggled to comprehend the terrible losses of the First World War, was this exactly the kind of story to catch hold in the local consciousness? Could this, after all, be the origin of the legend - did David Gray simply represent the bitter sadness of a victory that had cost too dear? Whether the legend had previously existed or not, this horrifying story of the pointless waste of a young man's life surfaced at a time when it must have particularly resonated.

Just a fireside tale perhaps, but a haunting one.

Note: Kinpurney Hill is also variously known as Kilpurnie, Kilpirnie, Kinpurnie, Kinpirnie and Kynprony Hill – from the Gaelic kin-faurin or ceann buerne meaning the head of the small streams. As far as I can tell, Kinpurney is the most commonly used spelling.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Strathpeffer – Victorian Spa Town of the Scottish Highlands

There’s something highly restorative about a visit to Strathpeffer. Here in its sheltered glen, 25 miles NW of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, the air is pure and sweet, the pace of life gentle, the views stunning. But the wholesomeness of the atmosphere shouldn’t be a surprise. Strathpeffer was once a bustling spa town of such popularity and elegance that it rivalled even Harrogate. Between 1870 and 1939, it was one of the most popular health resorts in Europe.

Among its famous visitors were Mrs Pankhurst, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Aleister Crowley and Robert Louis Stevenson to name just a few.

It’s a curious place. Huge stone-built villas and hotels peep coyly from behind lush curtains of shrubbery and trees. Much of the architecture here is so odd that the town could almost be mistaken for an alpine resort. And the veil separating the Victorian era and the present day often seems remarkably thin.

Strathpeffer’s heyday may be long since past, but it’s still a popular stop on the tourist trail. Some kind of spell hangs over the town however because even its coach loads of summer visitors barely stir a ripple in its tranquillity.

A few seem unprepared for its quiet, quirky charms – you’ll invariably meet someone walking back from the town square with a bewildered look on their face. Where are the shops? The sights? The excitement? What can you do here?

Strathpeffer's main square

Me, I think Strathpeffer's a small slice of heaven. And most other visitors apparently think the same – they come back year after year. It’s all here if you look - the tiny museum of childhood, the historical exhibits at the spa pump room, the little craft and eco friendly shops, the wee Art Deco cafe that screens silent movies on its back wall, and the chemist’s shop with its window display of Victorian dispensary paraphernalia.

All this, and the Strathpeffer and District Pipe Band performing in the square every Saturday (May-September). What more could you ask for!

The waters of the sulphurous springs can still be sampled - I haven’t tried them so can’t report on their palatability. But I could hazard a guess! They’re the most sulphurous in the UK, hence their one-time popularity. Discovered in the 1770s, they were believed beneficial for digestive and kidney complaints, heart conditions, rheumatism and skin disorders.

The pavilion was used as an American naval hospital during WWI

Strathpeffer Spa Pump Room Museum
Mrs Mitchell’s first day at the spa – getting a peat bath

There are actually five mineral wells in Strathpeffer, containing both sulphur and iron. At one time, guests would be offered water from one tap, which was then topped up by a guide with water from another tap. As the iron and sulphur mixed, the water would turn inky black. The same change could be seen before and during storms. It was said that the devil himself washed in Strathpeffer, but I assume that was meant tongue in cheek!

**An interesting aside on the subject of the devil and Strathpeffer - infamous occultist, magician and poet Aleister Crowley, ‘the wickedest man in the world’ and self-styled Great Beast 666, met his wife Rose here in Strathpeffer in 1903. She was engaged to someone else – an arranged marriage that she was eager to avoid. Instead she eloped to marry Crowley in the neighbouring town of Dingwall, after only a short acquaintance.**

Café tables at Strathpeffer  Railway Station

The railway arrived at nearby Dingwall in 1862. High Society began descending on Strathpeffer for ‘the season’ and its popularity soared, only to wane between the World Wars. The station in Strathpeffer opened in 1885. The line was closed for good in 1946.

Strathpeffer Railway Station

Green Kite fair trade shop, Strathpeffer Station

Highland Museum of Childhood

Come for a stroll with me through the pavilion grounds. I recommend that you take your time, breathe deeply and relax. At some point if you’re lucky there may be an eerie lull in the already sleepy traffic. An unexpected feeling of serenity may descend upon you. And if you listen hard enough, I swear you’ll hear the conversations of the ghosts as they stroll by. The gardens are now semi-wild and thick with moss, Strathpeffer’s grandeur has faded, but its ghosts are still as elegant as any you could ever hope to meet.

Chairs at the bowling green

NB I highly recommend visiting Strathpeffer in the tourist season, as many of the local businesses either reduce their opening hours or remain closed during the quieter winter months.