My latest adventure had been over a year in the planning and many years in my dreams. Finally the day came to leave for my Mysteries of Scotland tour. I visited Scotland with Hamilton in 2009 but it was a short visit and I had a few important places still to visit. So my friend Val set up a tour and we gathered some friends to join us on a mystical pilgrimage to the holy land of Scotland. There were three great mysteries we all wanted to experience: standing stones, nature spirits and Celtic Christianity. All three weave together in a unique way in this enchanted land far away on remote islands in the north Atlantic.
I want to start with ancient standing stones. The world is very familiar with the iconic and immortal Stonehenge and maybe even Avebury in England. But our ancestors left many more of these monuments to the cosmos. There were five stone circles on the itinerary for our pilgrimage so come along with me as we explore these magnificent sacred sites.
The first stone circle and the smallest on the journey was Croft Moraig. This 5000 year-old double circle is just by the side of a narrow road in a sheep field in Perthshire, an hour north of Edinburgh. We silently approached and each person took the time and space to experience the deep knowing of land and stone. We had the circle to ourselves and were able to really experience what was for many people their first time inside an open cathedral to the Universe. Although stone circles still have many great stories to tell, we do know they are places of ceremony for our ancestors, aligned to the sun and stars as observatories and serve as acupuncture points for the energy meridians of the Earth. Most of all, these mighty stones hold the memory of place and time and therefore become the timeless watchers of the land.
Our first stone circle fed our souls and after lunch we went to see the 5000 year-old Yew tree just up the road and another set of stones nearby. On our entire trip this was our only stop in the rain: otherwise the weather was perfection. But we all agreed that the rain was part of Scotland and felt nurtured by liquid sunshine that couldn’t dampen our joy.
The next day we met the third set of standing stones, very different from the first. Clava Cairns is just east of Inverness and very close the famous battlefield of Culloden. We drove right past this place of suffering and went to the peaceful stones and the ancient burial mounds. Clava Cairns is now more popular because of the Outlander series but, on the day I was there, it was cool and clear with a light breeze and just a few other people visiting. As usual I just quietly wandered around and entered the big burial cairns and touched the stones in the circle. The trees surrounding the site are beautiful and add to the gentleness of the place.
The following day we made the long drive to the most important of the stone circles in Scotland and a place I have long desired to visit— Callanish. You can’t get there from here. It takes some serious effort but I was determined and like all pilgrimages the journey and anticipation is just as important as the arrival. We drove to the little port town of Ullapool on the upper peninsula of the Highlands then took a 3 hour ferry ride across The Minch, the body of water separating the islands from the mainland. Fortunately, the water was calm that day and we finally arriving at the town of Stornaway on the island of Lewis which is northern-most island of the Outer Hebrides. The bus was the first to leave the ferry and we were off down narrow, one-way roads with just pull-outs for passing. The final 45 minutes of the trip is through increasingly barren and windswept land. Then there it was, Callanish. The stones rose over the horizon where they have stood for millennia. There was nothing to block the view, no trees or buildings, just the stones standing strong in such a harshly beautiful environment.
The bus pulled into the parking lot and we all made our way up the steep path to Callanish. There were a few other visitors there admiring the stones. I felt like I was at the ends of the earth and these stones were the last outpost. I took my time and skirted around the edge for I wanted to work my way slowly into the center. I walked to the furthest point which are two stones that began the ceremonial entrance to the main stone. I walked up the avenue that narrowed as I got closer. It felt like entering the great temples of Egypt by walking up the avenues lined with sphinx. The circle has four spokes coming from the center and I went to each one and looked out over the land to the nearby lake and then distant hills. What did the stones witness? What did they know? I eventually made my way in to the center and just enjoyed my moment at this beautiful place. Our guide Tracy pointed out the solstice alignment and I took pictures of my fellow pilgrims. Others started wandering back to the visitor’s center for a cup of tea and postcards but I moved off to the side and found a low stone to sit on. I just looked at this majestic monument and listened to some music and took in every part of the moment: the smell, sight, feel, sound. I bathed in the ancientness. It was finally time to leave but I had my moment in time in the timeless. I will be back.
The final stone circle on the tour was also the last stop before returning to Edinburgh to say our goodbyes. I had visited Kilmartin before in 2009 and never forgot it and was happy to be returning. I remember on the first visit when I touched the stones it felt like they were touching back. This visit held the same sensation and I felt very welcome to be back in their presence. It felt like the perfect closing, a benediction for my remarkable days in enchanted Scotland, where the mysteries are there to be touched and experienced without barriers, physical or spiritual. Just me and the stones together on the earth.
Tree shaped by the stone circle–Kilmartin