Feral Words

Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends

The Last Temple of the Celts

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The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe, by Edward Atkinson Hornel & George Henry

The west of Europe used to be full of Celtic temples. In every settlement, every holy grove, every mountain top and ring of stones that held any import for the peoples of old there would have been some structure marked out as holy, a place to connect the people to the spirits who lived alongside of them. There were statues of gold and idols of stone, rings of trees wreathed with cloth, wells encircled by the swirling patterns of the art called La Tene. A vivid, distinct and technically accomplished culture did as all such cultures have done; piled up in its holiest of holies the greatest achievements of its civilisation, to honour the gods that it worshipped.

The afterglow of their achievements still hangs on the horizon. The illuminated gospels of Ireland, the giant carved stones of the Picts and the mythic tales of the Welsh all carry within them a multiplicity of relics of that older ideology; the triskel wheels recalling cup-and-ring marks that coil round Latin letters; the enigmatic Pictish symbols that adorn the stones; the lingering legends of an otherworld that have no roots in Christian thought, all bear the mark of that which went before.

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Such things, however, are echoes only. The twilight hangs in the sky, but the sun itself has set, long ago. The temples have been torn down, and churches erected on their ruins. The holy groves have been felled, and the forests that housed them have faded into memory. The high stones sit abandoned on empty hillsides; the legends of those who raised them are distorted into fairytales that now only half make sense. The allusions to holy mysteries that were concealed in those legends are now reduced to jarring incongruities; obscure components of narratives that serve simply to confuse, now that the key to their code has been lost.

New religions and new ideas flowed up from the south and the east and, one by one, the fires in the temples died. The flickering constellation of the lights of the dreamworld slowly died away, stars blinking out one by one, to leave behind a blank and empty night.

All that remains are ruins. Dead places; archaeological digs and tourist attractions, museum pieces and quaint abstractions of something that has undeniably ended. Something that belongs to the pages of history, and has no real place in the modern age.

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Except…

It is not quite so, not just yet.

There is one place where the old world never ended – one place only. One place where a shrine remains that houses the idols of the old gods. A temple that has never fallen; idols that have never been cast down.

One remnant, one survival.

One boulder on the floodplain.

One pine on the mountain.

One snow-patch in the corrie.

One branch on the tideline.

One star in the twilight sky.

One glimmer in the dark.

One, and one only; a place that is, truly, the last temple of the Celts.

Let me show you the path to Glen Cailliche…

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We stepped off the train at the little settlement of Bridge of Orchy. My companion for the journey was to be, once again, Hanne T. Fisker, a Danish photographer who’s been good enough to come along on this developing project. Her facility with images far exceeds my own limited talents; those photos we’re saving though, so on this post you’ll have to make do with mine. I hope they manage to bring out something of the spirit of the place…

Bridge of Orchy lies on the southern fringes of the great plateau called Rannoch Moor, deep in the Grampian mountains of Scotland. Only one road and one railway track cut across this region; the high mountainsides and deep bogs hereabouts are inimical to the works of man, and do not easily permit passage. The road was driven along the western fringes of the Moor by the British Army in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, when a tribal horde had spilled out of the Highlands and made it halfway to London before being obliged to return home to harvest the autumn oats. So horrified was the British establishment by this last, unexpected eruption of a barbarian army into civilised Europe that they imposed upon the Highlands the policy of military occupation and ethnic cleansing that was to become infamous as the Highland Clearances. The road across Rannoch Moor carried the armies of the south into the Highlands; the bridge at Bridge of Orchy carries that road over the tumultuous river which drains the south of the Moor.

All around us, mountains rose up. The peaks that fringe Bridge of Orchy are already higher than any in England or Ireland; within a few miles rise more that are higher than any in Wales too. These are high lands indeed; but the valleys that run between them cut deep, down to just a few hundred metres above sea level. The difference in elevation is part of what gives the place its sense of drama; great, bleak slopes soaring upwards from a base where spring was commencing, to culminate in heights where the grip of winter had still to loosen. Snow blazed upon the summits, a crown of white framed by a shining sky.

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This winter past, storms have owned Scotland. Unusual weather patterns sent powerful winds billowing across the Atlantic, pouring immense waves onto the western shores and emptying a deluge of rain across the mountains. Bridges have everywhere been swept away; paths that had been easily passable in summer now require you to wade through icy torrents of snowmelt. The season had not been easy.

On our arrival, however, the weather chose to break. The skies stilled, and the clouds parted. Sunlight poured across the land, illuminating the barren mountainscape in a fashion it had not done for months on end. It was so fortuitous as to be absurd; after all that had gone before, it felt a little as if the mountains were welcoming us in.

From the station we hiked southwards, following the course of an abandoned section of the old Military Road. A few miles on, we turned east, ascending up the valley called, in Scots, Glen Auch. In the more poetic Gaelic it goes by the name Gleann Achadh-Innis Chaileinn; “the valley of Colin’s patch of pasture”. We passed under the soaring viaduct of the West Highland line; a grand monument to the engineering works of the Victorian era. For the creation of this route through the wilds of the west, its creators had paid a heavy price; driving the lines across the bogs of Rannoch Moor exposed the builders to the hazards of deep mire and the periodic overflows known as bog-bursts, and a great many were killed. Those who died were sucked down into the morass of peat, where their bones still remain – the Moor exacts a heavy toll for passage.

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The viaduct was to be the last substantial trace of modern civilisation we were to see for some time. Ascending Glen Auch, human habitation vanished. The region is pasture for sheep and deer, and poor pasture at that; scant herds roam across the fenceless hills, subsisting on low, wiry grass and the leaves of shrubs. Scattered here and there are a few tiny patches of trees; a memory of a time when a forest clothed this landscape, cut down long ago to feed the appetites of industry.

At the top of the Glen we reached a fork in the road. Here there sit a series of low hillocks on the base of the valley, called drumlins; these are deposits of soil that built up beneath the glaciers that once filled the valley. It was the winter that shaped this glen and, indeed, the entire country; the long, hard winter of the Ice Age that gripped the land for millenia before humans first arrived, whose icy hammer blows battered the rocks of the mountains into the stark shapes they now hold.

One of these little hillocks, close by the ascending track, bears the name of Sithean. We paused here for a brief while, to drink cold streamwater, eat a little, and restore our strength.

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The presence of the sithean marks the first component of the sacred character of the landscape. Sidhe is the name given in the Gaelic languages to the spirits that inhabit the Celtic otherworld; there are places in the landscape where they are supposed to dwell, mounds and mountains that were believed to house subterranean settlements of the world’s other inhabitants. Such places are called Sithean. In Ireland they are generally identified with the great burial mounds of the neolithic and the bronze age; in Scotland they are more often natural features, prominent outcroppings of rock and mound-like hills. There are two set by the fringes of Glen Cailliche, at the places where each of the tracks leading into it commence; sentry points for the interior, garrisons of invisible guardians observing those who would pass by. This was the westernmost of the pair.

We rested briefly, soaking up the sunlight and looking out over the valley. We then set out, uphill, heading for the pass that leads to Glen Cailliche.

Hanne forged ahead, caught up in the drama of the place; her own inner world of dream aligning very easily with this dreamworld of a place. I tramped along more slowly after her. As I do this kind of thing with a greater regularity, I had taken it upon myself to transport most of the supplies. A week’s worth of food and assorted cold weather gear formed a heavy burden on my shoulders, and the uphill trek into the pass bore down heavily on legs that had spent too much of the winter resting. For all that, though, the ascent was still wonderful. It’s hard to really suffer when in the presence of beauty.

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Soon, we reached the snows. The pass reaches 650 metres at its summit; at this time of year, this far north, more than high enough to lie firmly within the grip of the winter. Hanne slowed so we would not become separated in these more hazardous conditions, and we began to make our way carefully through the white world.

Before too long, the track we had been following vanished entirely, and we found ourselves walking across broad slopes of pristine snowfield. Initially the going was hard; with the weight on my back, my every step sunk deep into the snow, and I found myself wading through a mire of clinging cold that crept into the gaps in my waterproofs and chilled my legs thoroughly. As we moved higher, though, the surface formed a thicker, more heavily frozen crust, and after a while I found it sufficiently strong to bear my weight.

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The stillness on the snowfields is profound. Nothing can live up here under these conditions; all the food there is to be found is buried deep beneath the white blanket. The only wildlife present is passing through, itinerant travellers like ourselves; ravens soaring from valley to valley; a set of light tracks betokening the passage of a fox. The air is pure and crisp to inhale, stripped of scent yet filled with the sensation of winter nonetheless, as it breathes the metallic lifelessness of the ice into the body. No wind tormented us; the air hung still and chill around us, permitting the silence to blossom without the interruption of the whistling songs of the breeze.

We walked on through this empty world for some time, slowly cresting the summit of the pass and beginning the descent down, into Glen Cailliche itself. The valley that opened out ahead of us was far whiter than the one we had left behind; ringed by high mountains, Glen Cailliche is sheltered from the light of the low winter sun, and so the frost lingers here late. It formed an island of winter amidst the rising tide of spring flooding up the nearby valleys; a place where the spirit of the cold season remained strong and unyielding. Seeing it so, I began to grasp a little of how it had gained its name.

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Glen Cailliche is named after a goddess; the Cailleach herself, a Gaelic word meaning the old woman or, less kindly, the Hag. She is known also by the name of Beira, a word that in origin may mean the sharp or jagged one.

The Cailleach is, in the Highland tradition, the queen of the winter and the ruler of the wild places. She is described as a hideous old woman with one eye, whose skin is blue from the cold, and who wears a great hooded cloak wrapped around her body. She is the archetype of the witch; the potent, female magical force that lies beyond the edge of civilisation, drawing its power from capricious heathen energies. The deer are considered to be her cattle; down into recent centuries it was the custom of hunters to offer her a portion of the venison they caught in exchange for her assistance on future forays. She dwells on the summits of certain particularly high mountains, where the winter never really ends; Ben Nevis, Cruachan, Beinn a’Bhric near Corrour and Beinn na Cailleach on the isle of Skye are among the mountains most associated with her. She is the leader of a coven of nine other hags, who together drive the storms of the winter. They ride out from the mountains on giant black goats, coursing through the air on the tops of black clouds; when the weather turns fierce and cold, it is because of their passage.

By tradition, it was she who shaped the landscape of Scotland. She is armed with a hammer the blows of which bring the frost, sucking the heat from the world. With this weapon she beat out the shape of the mountains, and carved out the valleys. The great boulders that lie scattered on the landscape are stones that fell from her basket as she worked. She is also the mother of the giants of Highland legend, many of whom seem to represent later rescensions of old pagan gods. As such, she may well have been considered at one time both creator of the world and the mother to the gods; and, insofar as many of the old Celtic genealogies show men descending, ultimately, from gods, she may be the grandmother to us all. She was on all these counts figure of tremendous importance in the mythology of the Celtic Highlands. It is this significance that may explain why so many traditions of her have persisted, where the memory of the other gods has faded away; down to the 19th century, there were still reports of people encountering the Cailleach in the Highlands, in much the same way the ancient Greeks would encounter the Olympian gods. As the central figure of the old pantheon, her memory was the strongest; the hottest of fires take the longest to fade.

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In the figure of the Cailleach, we may be encountering an aspect of the Great Goddess who was once worshipped widely across Europe and beyond. In the Celtic pantheons, the gods are named as descendants of a mysterious female figure, named Danaan in Gaelic and Don in Welsh; it is tempting to see in the Cailleach the shadow of this figure, who managed to retain a greater significance in the traditions of Scotland than she did in those of Ireland or Wales. Whether this identification may be true or no, what does appear to be the case is that the Cailleach was the dominant deity of the late, syncretic paganism of the north; and that her importance once extended far beyond the Highland line. In the lowlands of Scotland she was described as the Carlin, Nicniven (“daughter of Ben Nevis”), or Queen of Elfhame; whatever the name, she was always the ruler of the heathen spirits who inhabited the otherworld. Carlin placenames extend beyond Scotland; in northern England they are found also, alongside legends of similar hags. In the Scottish lowlands, her worship was suppressed during the witch-craze of the 16th century; in the confessions extracted at that time, tales of encounters with the Queen of Elfhame are just as common as are those of encounters with the Devil. The punishment meted out to those who encountered her at that time consisted of burning; in the face of such persecution, her prominence swiftly faded. In the Highlands, however, her worship lingered on.

Standing on the heights, looking down into that white-gripped valley, it was easy to see it as the dwelling place of the witch-queen of the winter. The mountains sealed it off perfectly from the outside world, keeping out any hint of the modern lands that lay beyond. The primordial wilderness had not ended here; the Cailleach’s rule still extended over the place, preserving it as a sanctuary. Within, all was stillness and snow.

It is a strange coincidence, that mythology should ascribe to the spirit of winter the task of shaping the landscape of Scotland – for we now know that this was actually, in a way, the case. It was the ice that shaped Scotland; the forces of the winter of the Ice Age that carved out the mountains, and scattered the boulders over the plains. It raises the hint of a question, as to just how old is the memory of the Cailleach? Is it fair even to call her by a name as recent as Celtic, or does her worship in fact extend so far back into the stone age that it bears the imprint of older peoples; of the hunters who watched the last glaciers fade from the corries, chasing down deer in the shadows of ice-bound mountains? People who would have seen how ice shifted on the rock, and how a glacier receding leaves a boulder-strewn valley carved out behind it? There is no way to know, so coincidence it must remain…

We walked down into the valley in the fading light of early evening, carefully navigating our way across the snowfields to avoid plunging into watercourses concealed below the surface. As the blue of the sky deepened towards black, an eerie illumination shone through the valley; the remaining light reflecting up from the snow in a tone of faint, faded blue. We strode on, drawing ever-closer to our destination.

In the last of the light we reached it. Here, the snow had faded sufficiently for there to be clear ground upon which to pitch our tent. We set up camp swiftly, and arranged our winter sleeping bags. As the sky darkened the temperature dropped at a swift rate; a hard frost descended on the grass outside, chilling the breath that spilled like mist from our lips. Hanne swiftly ensconced herself in her layers of protection; a double-layer of two sleeping bags, the enclosing bulk of which left her resembling some form of very snug blonde caterpillar. A thorough appreciation of the importance of warmth may be one consequence of coming from a cold country – strangely, however, this is a lesson us Scots seem to have failed to learn. I went for a little walk…

Outside in the night, my feet crunched through the brittle frozen grass, and across patches of snow. Below me, I could hear the gurgling of water in a stream swiftly icing over. Apart from that, there was no other sound at all. No animal calls broke the night silence, no hum of distant roads; or passing airplanes; stillness. I made my way over to a little structure that stood perhaps 50 metres from the tent, and looked at it for a little while in the night. Then, I lifted my gaze to the heavens.

Above the valley where had camped, directly to the north, rises the mountain of Beann a’ Chreachain. The name means “mountain of the rocks”; in daylight it’s easy to see why, for its slopes are far stonier and more rugged than the great smooth expanses of the hillsides we had earlier passed. Just now, however, none of this was visible. The mountain appeared as nothing more than a great pyramidal silhouette jutting into the night sky, visible more as an absence of stars than a shape in its own right. It was those stars that really commanded the attention.

The island of Britain is a place with a lot of streetlights. Anywhere near civilisation, you will never catch a clear glimpse of the night sky because of the sheer volume of light pollution. Out in the hills this isn’t a problem; but in the warmer months, because of the northerly latitude at which Scotland lies, the daylight lingers exceedingly late in the night sky, obscuring the fainter glow of the stars. Factor in the considerable cloud cover we experience, and the opportunities to get a clear view of the night sky in its full glory are singularly rare.

So, when nights like this one happen, it makes us appreciate them all the more. There was not a cloud anywhere overhead to obscure the show. The cold had stripped the moisture from the air, leaving it clear and crisp; and we were far enough from civilisation that no lights were able to intrude. Directly over the peak of Beinn a’ Chreachain the Milky Way commenced, roiling across the sky overhead like a river of light pouring across the heavens. Around it stars blossomed in numbers as great as any I have ever seen. Every single little patch of sky seemed covered in a thousand tiny pin-pricks of light, twinkling in a moving tapestry overhead. A shooting star coursed past. I stood there a long time, turning slowly in the darkness. There are nights that stay with you. This was one.

***

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When morning broke, we awoke into the Ice Age. Overnight, the temperatures had plummeted to well below minus ten. A thin layer of frost had accumulated on the interior of the tent and on the surface of our sleeping bags. The water bottle appeared to have a small glacier forming in it. With some difficulty, I extricated myself from the warm insulation of my sleeping bag, swiftly enswathed myself in every layer of cold-weather clothing I’d brought with me, and ventured out into the morning.

The clean light of the dawn filled the valley, illuminating the white world all around us. The sunlight itself had yet to reach the floor of the glen, which was still enfolded by the shadows of the mountains. Above us, however, the summit of Ben a’ Chreachain reared high above the rim of the surrounding range. The sun’s beams spilled over it, and it blazed like a spear of light thrusting into the heavens.

Now was the time to visit that which we had come here to see.

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My feet carried me over the crunching grass once again, to the little structure that lay just uphill of our tent. I walked around it, observing its shape clearly now, where the night before it had lain wreathed in shadows. Then I sat down before it, to give it my full attention.

It is called the Tigh nam-Bodach; “The House of the Old Man”. It is also known by the name Tigh na Cailliche. There is no real distinction between the two names; both figures reside here, housed within the little structure.

The Tigh nam Bodach is a shrine, pure and simple. It is a low structure, standing to chest height, roofed in turf. It’s walls are composed of drystone. At the front, a doorway is visible, surmounted by a lintel of wood; this portal was blocked up by stones, neatly arranged to form a solid drystone wall.

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At first glance, the structure appears simple, basic; a barbarous thing of little refinement. With closer attention, however, details start to emerge – details that reveal an aesthetic in its composition, a method of constructing beauty that is, though alien to our normal conceptions, still nevertheless capable of summoning a response from the recesses of the soul.

Simplicity is the key to the Tigh nam Bodach. All the component parts have been assembled from the valley region; it is formed, literally, of the stones of the glen. The rocks that have been selected for its construction are not uniform; rather, there are a range of colours and textures involved, that turn the construction from a simple exercise in drystone walling into a mosaic formed of the varied colours of the earth. Bright crystalline chunks of quartz are stacked between blocks of blue granite, slabs of purple-red sandstone and chunks of rock of an orange hue. Atop the structure, further rocks have been placed upon the roof in a decorative pattern; again, the pieces chosen exhibit a range of colours and tones. At the rear of the roof sits a particularly large block of quartz crystal, glittering white in the morning light like a chunk of glacial ice fated never to melt.

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For all its simplicity, the Tigh nam Bodach captures perfectly the spirit of the valley. It assembles the notes, tones and component parts of the place into a centrepiece, a symbol;  shrine to the essence of the valley that is entirely a part of the landscape from which it came and which it honours.

It could have been constructed in the Stone Age. In reality the physical structure  isfar more recent; the local people have always maintained it, and continue to do so to this day. They do so, however, in a simple fashion, one in tune with the landscape and tradition. There are no parts of the structure that make use of metal; no evidence of the decorative arts of later civilisation to interfere with the expression of a spirituality that feels almost Mesolithic in its depth. This is how all sacred places were once, before the nets of a wider social system brought exotic materials to decorate them and trained artisans to civilise their shape. No such wider society exists, however, to adorn the Tigh nam Bodach; there are no longer any pagan craftsmen to honour the Cailleach, no priesthood to commission statuary or pay for coloured cloths to swaddle it. Deprived of a wider culture to sustain it, the spirit of the pagan religion has here returned to the wild, cold places that gave it birth, and clad itself in the matter of its origin.

I shuffle close to the doorway, and press my face in against the stones. The drystone structure is entirely without mortar; between the rocks, little gaps are present through which it is possible – just – to gaze into the shadows of the interior…

Within, wreathed in an old darkness, are the idols of the gods. They stand at varied heights, the largest rising to the height of a human thigh. They are chunks of riverine sandstone, eroded by the force of passing water into shapes that strangely evoke the human form. A head sits atop a slender neck; a bulbous base alludes to the form of a body. No human craft went into their construction; they are entirely the creation of the landscape, nature shaping with its own forces the forms and suggestions of the image of man. There were once twelve; now their numbers are reduced to seven. Each has a name; the two largest are the Bodach and the Cailleach, the Old Man and the Old Woman, with the smaller ones representing their children. The third largest of the stones is also female; she is called Nighean, the daughter.

There are two rituals performed at the Tigh nam Bodach; one at Beltane, the Celtic festival marking the commencement of the summer, and one at Samhainn, the day when winter starts. They are carried out solely by a small number of local people. There are no pilgrims; no fanfare, no grand ceremonial panoply. What happens is, simply, that on Beltane the door is opened up and the idols placed in the daylight outside of the shrine, while at Samhainn they are returned to the interior and the house walled up once again. The participation of outsiders is not encouraged; it is an experience shared between the landscape and the people who inhabit it alone.

The purpose of the ritual is little discussed. It summons, in the most general terms, good fortune; influencing the weather and invoking the spirit world’s assistance in making the year a good one. The participants are not eager to speak of the ceremonies; understandably, given the scepticism toward such practices traditionally exhibited by the Protestant clergy who dominated the region for centuries. Instead, there are passing references and brief, vague descriptions; the shadowy traces of something that has never been fully shared.

The fullest account that remains to us was recorded by Dr Anne Ross in her book “Folklore of the Scottish Highlands”, originally published in 1993. Dr Ross records an oral tradition conveyed to her by the shepherd at that time responsible for carrying out the rituals associated with the shrine. The story he conveyed to her was this;

“Briefly, the fragments of her cult legend which have survived orally tell of an event which happened ‘many years ago’ when, in an unusually fierce snowstorm, an unnaturally large man and woman were seen coming down the mountain-side of the upper glen. They asked the people who were still settled there for hospitality and shelter. These were willingly given to them. This pleased the supernatural pair well and they took up residence in the glen when the inhabitants had built a thatched house large enough to accomodate them.

“The woman was pregnant and in due course gave birth to a daughter. The weather was always favourable when they dwelt there. The stock flourished and the crops were always of the best. Then one day the time came when they must go. Before doing so, they promised that as long as they were remembered and their house kept in order, and everything done as they themselves had done it, they would bring it about that winters would be mild, the summers warm, and peace and prosperity would always be with the people who had been so generous to them. In memory of this event of long ago a small shrine in the form of a house was constructed and every May Day the three stones representing the three deities would be taken out of the house and placed facing down the glen. There they remained until the house was re-thatched and made warm and comfortable for the winter and they were returned to the miniature house on the eve of the 1st November, Hallowe’en. When the upper glen was flooded and the people moved away, it became the shepherd’s duty to continue this ritual and this was faithfully carried out. It was thought that with the death of Bob Bissett the end of this archaic custom had come. It is therefore extremely heartening news to learn that the new shepherd has every intention of carrying out the ritual as it has been handed down for no-one knows how long and it now seems to be assured, from local enthusiasm in Killin, that the tradition will survive for many years to come.”

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We spent a long time that morning sitting near the shrine and walking around its immediate environs. We watched the light of the sun slowly creep down the rocky face of the mountain, to eventually flow over the floor of the valley and bathe the Tigh nam Bodach in a blaze of gold. We saw elaborate formations of ice crystals corruscating in the stream. We watched the shifting of water beneath the ice-wall of a frozen waterfall. We found the knotted remains of the roots of the forest-trees that once stood here, clawing at the sky from out of the dark peat. Great antlers of wood they were, rearing up from the memory of the forest past into the clear, crystalline air of Glen Cailliche.

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Our luck with the weather was extraordinary. The contrast between these days and the winter that had gone before was absolute; days as sunlit, bright and perfect as this are rare enough in the Highlands, and to find them in the midst of the winter of storms of 2016 was a stroke of fortune almost beyond belief. Hanne’s photos, when they are ready, will be stunning; even my own amateurish efforts posted here are not half bad. For the considerable blessings we’d been given we were suitably grateful; before we departed, I left a few oatcakes for the Cailleach, by way of a salute and a thank you. If it should be that she found them, I hope that she found them fitting.

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After a long, slow, lingering breakfast by the edge of the ice-rimmed stream, we gathered up our gear and set off out down the valley. We had, in truth, found everything that we had hoped from the journey, and a little more. Had that been the end we’d have been as happy as could be; yet, as it turned out, Glen Cailliche had one final parting gift for us, before we moved on with the rest of our journey.

As we descended the glen we joined a track running around the head of Loch Lyon. This would carry us back down to Bridge of Orchy by a slightly different route to that on which we’d come. Heading along the path to the lochside, it became apparent to us that we were to receive one last inordinate stroke of fortune; the scene that unfolded before us came straight out of a dream.

We reached a promontory over the loch, and paused there. Ahead of us stretched away the mountains that fringe Glen Lyon, the longest of the glens of Scotland. Snow lay thickly on their summits, bright in the sun of a clear blue sky. Between them, the loch stretched off into the distance. No wind disturbed its surface, no ripples broke its peace; it lay before us as a perfect, flat mirror, reflecting back in every detail the shapes that soared above it. A dual world stretched out ahead of us; a world above and a world below identical in every detail, shining the image of a wild mountainscape into the deep places of our memories where it will linger forever.

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The Celts believed the water was a gateway to the otherworld, using it as a portal to send offerings to the spirits. On that day, it was easy to see why, easy to understand how an entire other land, the mirror of this one, could be believed to lie beneath the bright face of the waters. Illusion or vision or feat of the imagination, whatever it may be; that morning we saw the mountains of the otherworld shining up out of the deep

By the side of the road, on the route out of the valley overlooking the loch, there sits a stone. It is unusual in shape; a bulbous, abstract base from which arises a long neck, surmounted by a head. It resembles almost perfectly the stone idols that sit in the darkness of the Tigh nam Bodach. In the house there are seven stones, where once there were twelve. Looking at this stone, standing sentinel over the path, it is perhaps possible to guess what happened to one of them. It’s presence here is too perfect, its positioning too neat to feel like coincidence. We nodded to it in passing, then made our way on; leaving it behind at the edge of that wild old world; the lonely idol of a forgotten god, contemplating the other world that lies behind the mirror.

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***

There is a postscript to this story. If you have enjoyed the tale of the Tigh Nam Bodach, I’d encourage you to remember the name – for the place may, possibly, need you to recall it. A few years ago, the Auch estate’s owners put in place plans to build a miniature hydro-electric scheme in Glen Cailliche. There were protests at the time from the locals, and a little attention garnered in the Scottish media; but the plans themselves were approved, and would have gone ahead. Fortune alone intervened, albeit in a singularly unfortunate form; though only 50, the estate owner experienced health problems and was unable to continue, eventually withdrawing the application just a week before he died.

Some of the local people say that a curse will fall on any who try to disturb the glen; that the Cailleach will guard over her holy place. Well, this may be so; but it is a singular fact that none of the thousands of other such holy places that once covered the Celtic world were successfully protected by the spirits that called each of them home. One by one, all fell; all were reconsecrated, torn down, or abandoned.

This is the last; the only one. There are no other structures housing statues of the old gods that are still honoured anywhere in the Celtic world. Whether you believe in such things or not, the Tigh nam Bodach still represents the last survival of a vital piece of our own ancient heritage. It is a window into the primordial past of our peoples, into the minds of our ancestors and the wellsprings of our culture. It must be preserved. It is not impossible that the plans to develop Glen Cailliche will be resurrected in the future; it is currently not classed as a scheduled monument, and the planning framework for the region merely commits the landowner to undertake development work “sensitively”. Examples are rife in Scotland of development riding rough-shod over such regulation, so such limited safeguards are best treated with suspicion. If a threat to develop the glen should arise, it is imperative that as many people as possible should raise their voices to prevent it from happening. In my own opinion, the best solution would be to take the Auch estate into public ownership and see it devoted to a project of rewilding. There could be few fitter places in which to construct a sanctuary to the spirit of the Scottish wilderness than this.

It was remoteness and secrecy that preserved the Tigh nam Bodach for all these years. Remoteness and secrecy are now, however, no longer sufficient shelter. The tide of civilisation is creeping higher and higher up the mountains, and their wall is not high enough to keep it out forever. Should it be the case that that tide should threaten to wash the stones away, please remember what you have read here, and raise your voice in objection. If this post helps a little in securing that end, then the fortune we experienced in the course of our journey will have been paid for in full.

One candle burns in the winter night. Don’t let it flicker out, not just yet.

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© William Young and Feral Words, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

96 comments on “The Last Temple of the Celts

  1. gav mcadam
    January 14, 2019

    …just come by this, william; i’ve visited the glen a number o times and visited the cailleach. to say it’s atmospheric and unique would be the understatement of the century! am no religious/spiritual in any way, shape or form but this place affects ya, end of! lovely words, does the place justice. for info of anybuddy else visiting, one of the most recent custodians o the cailleach, bob bisset, is buried nearby…well, his ashes are…on the shoulder o beinn a chreachain, lookin back doon towards the loch, is a cairn erected tae bob and his wife peggy; a wonderful, humble, hospitable and amiable couple who lived in glenlyon for years, bob cared for the cailleach for decades. if yer ever up there, seek oot the cairn, gan and visit and say hi fae me…all the very best.

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    • williamayoung
      February 5, 2019

      Thanks very much indeed for that tip, Gav! That’s something I will make a point of doing. I’d have liked to meet Bob Bissett, and to have heard his thoughts about the Tigh and the glen, and how things have changed over the years. Shame I won’t have the chance – but a reason to take a walk across Beann A’Chreachain is something I’d thoroughly welcome 🙂

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  2. doktorbebop
    April 21, 2019

    Absolutely brilliant! What a pure delight to read.

    It is a very moving piece and struck a chord in my heart. I know I shall return and reread it many times.

    Thank you very much.

    Like

  3. Jim
    July 9, 2019

    Hello William. That was a tough trek in winter and too camp out also. I was there many years ago, 30 or maybe as much as 40. I tramped the same route as you but I did it in the early spring. When I was there Bob Bissett had already taken the family out for the spring and summer. Later that year I went to visit Bob in his house just below the dam and we talked about Glen Mearan and the highlands and other things.

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  4. Veronika Groke
    November 15, 2019

    A Scottish friend alerted me to this post a while ago, and I found it fascinating as well as strangely uplifting to know things like this still exist. We actually planned an expedition to visit the site, but then it never happened. 😦 I’m very glad I got to read about it though, thank you for writing it.

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This entry was posted on March 13, 2016 by in Celtica and tagged , , , , .
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