A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
The first writers from the bright-lit lands of the Middle Sea, gazing north into a gloom of silver clouds and fog and endless trees, described how the peoples of the cold world worshipped not in temples, but in groves in the forest. They wrote down travellers tales describing them, brief snapshots of rituals and half-understood ideas; a tapestry that was already filled with holes before the destruction of the scene that inspired it. Following the travellers went the legions, a different kind of visitor, steadily marching their way north into the forest to cut down the groves, slay the priests, and overthrow their blood-stained altars. In their wake in turn came the priests of the new religion; a second tide surging up from Rome some centuries later, to overthrow the last remnants of paganism and oversee the creation of the Christian civilisation of Europe. In frozen Caledonia, at the uttermost end of the earth, the creed of Christ was established in all its might in the 560s by the sainted Columba. The bright light of the gospels shone into the north to burn away the mists of superstition and usher in the reign of truth. The groves and the mounds and the stones were abandoned, and the people walked in from the cold to the heat and light and illumination of the churches. Thus states the record of history.
And it is this record, that is the fairy-tale.
The church stands empty, roofless. Where parishioners once streamed down the aisle rainwater now streams over bare rock. Gravel has been placed over the floor to prevent grass and trees from taking root, yet even the gravel is fighting a losing battle against the ever-encroaching green of the moss. Lichen grows on the interior walls; gravestones have been erected where the pews once stood, memorials to life now departed.
This is the Old Kirk of Aberfoyle. The small settlement bearing this name sits on the Highland Line of Scotland; the fault where the lowlands end and the Gaelic highlands begin. Its name is older even than Gaelic; the first part, ‘Aber’ signifies a place at the mouth of a stream in the Brythonic Celtic languages that were spoken on the island of Britain when the Romans first arrived. In more recent centuries, this region marked the southern edge of the Gaidhealtachd; the region where the Gaelic language still reigned supreme, and where the Celtic culture remained strongest.
Few visit the Kirk now. Its congregation departed for a newer, larger building north of the river in 1870. Since then they have diminished mightily in number. The Old Kirk is now little more than an archaeological relic; a protected example of the habits of religious construction of the middle ages. Most of the people who walk past it are following a footpath that leads somewhere else; to a tree-covered hillock that rises to the south.
I arrived here in the depths of the winter. There was neither snow nor frost upon the ground; the day was, instead, one of those drear, damp days from which time in the Highlands is so regularly composed. Against the grey of the sky the forest stood out in the brown-grey-green of leafless Scottish woods in winter, a tone of mixed bark, moss and encrusting lichen. At one sole point did a deeper shade of green arise; at the very summit, where the deep, dark hue of the needles of a pine were visible. Its tip soared above the smaller broadleaf trees like the silhouette of a cairn atop the mountains; its height and its prominence speaking of its antiquity.
Following the path southwards, I walk into an eerie place. The moisture of the air leaves the trees thick with vegetation; blue-green lichen thickly coats every branch, turning them broad and bright like skeletal fingers. The discarded leaves crunch below my feet, forgotten fossils of the forest’s summer garb, now cast off and abandoned before the severity of the cold months. The trees huddle beneath their mossy coats, their sap buried deep within their cores.
The path curves and twists upwards and inwards, bearing my feet towards the top of the hillock. It doesn’t take long to reach it; this is no highland hill, simply a mound of earth buried beneath trees. Arriving at the centre and the summit, however, this little hillock reveals itself to be something a little different- and something as impressive as any of the peaks that rise to the north.
There is an open space atop the summit, a broad circle of ground clear of undergrowth, surrounded by broadleaf trees. It would not be in the slightest inaccurate to refer to it as a grove. In the centre rises the pine-tree; an old Scots pine, a relic of the ancient native forest of Scotland, whose race once thickly clad the hillsides before they were hacked down to feed the fires of industry. All around the trees, the pine and the surrounding broadleaves, hang coloured pieces of cloth. There are ribbons, scarves, flags- underwear even. Beneath and among them small images and objects have been placed. There are coins, stuffed toys, garden gnomes; little sculptures of an eclectic and eccentric variety. The whole scene is florid, alive with colour even in the depths of winter.
In amongst the ribbons hang memorials. They are not old stones, the relics of another time. They are pieces of paper sealed in protective plastic ; computer print-outs and newspaper articles, stories commemorating the passing of people whose families have chosen to bring them here, to this hill, in order to remember them. Despite the brightness and the colour this is not a frivolous place; it is a shrine to the dead.
Welcome to the inversion of conventional thinking; to a place where the churches lie decaying and empty, while on the hilltop above a Celtic holy grove sits in serene splendour. Which is more alive, which more vital, is left in no doubt at all by the varied efforts applied to their decoration. The ghost of that cut down centuries ago is, here, giving a very convincing imitation of life.
Now, let me be clear- the presence of this shrine does not mean that the good people of Aberfoyle have apostasised en masse and reverted to an ancient pagan creed. School assemblies do not involve circle-dances around the pine-tree; there is no local Lord Summerisle to preside over the village gala day. Even suggesting to the residents of Aberfoyle the notion of belief in ancient Celtic gods would be met with comprehensive incredulity and, quite probably, derision.
What is represented here is the notion that this place is an appropriate place to remember the dead; and that it should be decorated in this fashion in accordance with tradition. The decline in belief in the legends of Christianity has not eroded these other traditions, which are rooted in tales bound tightly to this place. They are a part of the story of Aberfoyle, a ghost in the town, a genius loci. The decline of the competing narrative has allowed them to rise in prominence again; what would once have been heresy is now affectionately viewed as a picturesque splash of colour to leaven the drab grey of a Presbyterian heritage.
The exact details of the story that animates this place, that has allowed it to remain and revive in a form so redolent of paganism, are somewhat surprising. They carry all the normal ingredients of ancient survivals; of roots in the legendary Celtic Otherworlds, of non-Christian spirits, of ancient gods transmuted into characters of folklore. In this they are not unusual at all- what is unusual about them is the role played in their perpetuation by a Christian priest. The reason the grove in Aberfoyle throngs with more life than the abandoned church is down to the work of the former Minister of that self-same church; it is the legacy of a man named Reverend Robert Kirk.
Robert Kirk lived during the 17th century, a century before the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion saw the destruction of clan-based society in the Highlands. His grave now sits in the abandoned Aberfoyle Kirkyard, the stone marking which bears the following inscription; “Robertus Kirk, A.M., Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen”. The title translates from Latin as “Light of the Gaelic Language”; a language that was then still called Hibernian by the Lowlanders in recognition of its Irish roots. He won this title by virtue of his pioneering efforts at translating Christian texts into the Gaelic vernacular, so that they might be read, in the Presbyterian fashion, in the language through which the people found them most comprehensible. However important they may have been in the history of the Church, however, it was not for these texts that he was to become most famous.
The world in which Robert Kirk dwelt was still one of blood feuds, duels and cattle raids; he was a rough contemporary to the famous outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. It was a world that would have appeared not unfamiliar to the writers of the early Irish sagas; a violent, heroic world, and one riddled with superstitions. Belief in non-Christian spirits, in prophecies and in supernatural powers, were still rife in the Highlands- and to such beliefs, Reverend Kirk adopted a somewhat atypical attitude.
There can be no question but that Robert Kirk was a good Christian pastor. He held a high standing among the Presbyterian clergy, and was accepted into the upper echelons of its scholarly community. He was also, however, a convinced believer in the existence of the supernatural beings of Highland folklore. To him, this presented no contradiction; he believed firmly that there were sections in the Bible that affirmed the existence of a non-human spirit-world, and that such passages thereby justified a belief in the spirits of his native culture. In fact, he held that belief in such supernatural forces helped to safeguard the people from the perils of atheism, by ensuring they maintained their faith in powers beyond those merely mundane.
Armoured with such convictions, Robert Kirk became not merely an exponent of the gospel to the Gaels, but one of the foremost advocates of Celtic folk-religion to the English-speaking world. For the purpose of spreading a belief in the powers of prophecy, and in the reality of the spirit-world, Reverend Kirk compiled a book that has become one of the classics of Scottish folklore. He passed away before he was able to see it published; but the great Walter Scott obtained the papers, and himself had it published in the early days of the 19th century. The title given to the book was “The Secret Commonwealth”, and it outlined a view of the world that would not have been out of place in the pages of the Tain.
In his book, Robert Kirk described how the world was inhabited by a race of ethereal beings called the Sith, who fell halfway between man and angel. They were unholy creatures, with little regard for the Christian religion, who would interfere in the lives of men in a host of different ways. They would appear at funeral feasts, to poison the food of the living. They would fire invisible arrows causing illness and death. They would fight with the living, and fill the air with a language of pure, clear whistling.
Such creatures did not die, but lived for an immense duration of time. Kirk describes how, among them, it was an article of faith that time was cyclical; that all that lived would transfer its life on into some other form, and that nothing would ever cease forever. He also described, this time with some suspicion, how some believed these Sith to be the departed souls of men, who had crossed over into another world. In this notion, the mounds of the Sith were located close by graveyards, so that the souls of the dead might travel there to await resurrection. These assertions, however, were too clearly un-Christian for even he to endorse- though it should be noted that he still chose to report them.
The supernatural world the Sith inhabited was conceived as a mirror of this one, with the earth the surface of the glass separating between the two images; this world above, the Otherworld below. When there was plenty above, there was famine below; and when men had little, the Sith had much. Each man alive had his double in the Otherworld- and the glass was not impermeable. The mirror-men, or “co-walkers” would appear in the world of the living sometimes, to mimic the actions of men, or to interfere in their lives for their own inscrutable purposes. With the proper rites it was possible to contact your double, and to make a pact with your shadow-self; though on the details of this process Kirk makes little remark.
Kirk also chose to describe the means by which men might gain access to the world of the Sith; the process of acquiring “Second-Sight”. This power was one both of prophecy and of perceiving the spirit-world, and entailed much risk on the part of the performant. One rite involved a senior seer initiating the new one, by placing his right foot over the left of his student, and his hand upon their head. The student looks over his teacher’s right shoulder; and if he is unfortunate, a host of the Sith will be seen rushing in to kill him.
An alternative version Kirk reports also, in which the man desiring to attain the second sight may do so by gazing backwards between his own legs at the progress of a funeral retinue. In this version, he is required to wear around his waist a tether of hair taken from the bindings of a corpse, which is plaited into a “helix”. If he does these things, and the direction of the wind changes during the performance of the ritual, then he must fear for his life.
It should be noted that both of these versions involve intertwining patterning. The use of the helix in the shamanic knot woven by the seer explicitly echoes the imagery of the Celtic knotwork so prevalent in the Highlands. Whether this is coincidence or not is unclear to me- but it raises the possibility that a great deal of the old ‘Christian’ art of the Celtic world may be the invocation of something quite unexpected.
All these details represent but the briefest summary of Reverend Kirk’s work. A full version may be found here, with a transliteration into modern orthography here that makes for easier reading. I recommend it to you, as a fascinating insight into a worldview wholly at odds with what we conventionally consider to be western civilisation. It bears more than a trace of the scent of the druids…
This, then, was Robert Kirk’s literary legacy; an invocation of the spirits of the ancient Celts conducted, bizarrely, in the name of the defence of Christ. Its extraordinary, comprehensive character explains why Reverend Kirk’s name is still notable to this day.
It does not explain, however, how there comes to be a holy grove upon the hill of the Sith beside Reverend Kirk’s old church. That entails one final chapter to this tale…
It was Reverend Kirk’s habit, in the evening, to go wandering in the woods upon the hillock to the south of the Churchyard. He treated the place as his own back-garden. So comfortable was he there, in fact, that he would wander among the trees in his dressing-gown and slippers. People whispered that it was on these journeys that he had acquired much of his knowledge of the Sith- though Reverend Kirk made no such claims himself.
One evening in 1692, Reverend Kirk did not return home from his walk at the normal hour. His pregnant wife, concerned for his well-being, dispatched some neighbours to look for him; and in due course, they found him. He was lying upon the floor of the forest, still and silent, apparently dead. When his body was checked for a pulse or breath, none was to be found. In great sorrow, the neighbours bore his body back down the hill, to deliver his remains into the hands of his widow.
Robert Kirk’s body was interred in the Kirkyard at Aberfoyle. This was not the end to the story, however- not remotely. The legends state that, after Robert Kirk’s demise, his exact double appeared at the dwelling of his cousin, Graham of Duchray. Entering the dwelling, this personage- ghost or mirror-man- informed the terrified Duchray that Kirk was not in fact dead at all. He had been taken by the Sith, and the body left behind was but a likeness. He was trapped in their world now, a punishment for writing down their secrets; but could be released again by one operation. At the baptism of Kirk’s posthumous son- the son of the dead man- a double of Kirk would appear again through the doors of the church. If Graham could throw an iron knife above the head of the apparition as it made its way through the church, the Sith would relent and the Reverend would be released. Having told its tale, the double disappeared back into the night, and Duchray was left with his cousin’s fate in his hands.
It is unfortunate for the Reverend Kirk that Graham of Duchray turned out to be an idiot. On the appointed day, during the baptism, the door of the Kirk flew open, and the image of Reverend Kirk walked brusquely down the aisle. Graham of Duchray, however, failed to throw the knife correctly; either through the effects of terror, or through sheer lack of ability. The spectre passed on, out of the hall; and the soul of the Reverend would dwell for evermore in the Otherworld.
There are some who say that Reverend Kirk now serves as Chaplain to the Queen of the Sith; the Christian priest of a pagan goddess. That he should be transformed into a figure of the very mythology he recollected is a peculiarly appropriate thing; and a thing peculiar to the mythology of the Celts. It is a recurring theme that those who tell tales of the Celtic spirit-world end up taken by it. Like the incipient seer, invoking the Otherworld, gazing into the land beyond carries risks. For Reverend Kirk, so the legends state, they were to prove mortal.
There is one further suggestion, that remains attached most forcefully to the landscape of Aberfoyle. Standing amidst the grove on the summit of the hill of the Sith, in the heart of the woods, is the old grand pine previously mentioned. It is older than any other tree in the vicinity, and taller- yet, despite occupying the highest point on the hill, it has never been struck by lightning. The broadleaf trees grow thickly all around the slopes of the hill; yet on the summit, beneath the shadow of the pine, none have managed to take root.
There is a legend, strong in Aberfoyle, that the spirit of Robert Kirk dwells within this particular tree; that it is imprisoned there, to serve the Sith for evermore. It’s roots extend deep into the earth of the hill, running in amongst the halls & chambers of that race that are believed to catacomb the mound. Unseen their city lies dormant beneath the earth; and the roots coil about it. For this reason, to this day, the one tall tree upon the hill is known as “The Minister’s Pine”; in honour of its prisoner. Whether this be a better monument to the man than the stone in the Kirkyard, I leave it to you to decide…
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