Lost origins of stones. A walk around Lauderdale.

Lockdown has now lasted for some five months, with the opportunity to spend only very little time spent outside of our small village.  The early enthusiasm for walking, cycling and the great outdoors has dwindled a little, as the repetition of the walks became too frequent and too familiar.  Instead, trashy movies, trashy books and chocolate digestives seem to have taken up more of my spare time of late, meaning shorts and t-shirts have become a little less roomy.

With waistbands tightening at an alarming rate,  I thought it was time to become reacquainted with the great outdoors, so have set off on a few slightly longer walks recently.

One walk, organised by the great Scottish Borders Walks group, started off in the small town of Lauder, some five miles from home.   Socially-distanced and limited in size, I was lucky to be part of the group of a dozen or so participants in this five hour gentle walk.  Covering around ten and a half miles, the walk invluded roadside, moorland, fields and woodland.

Starting on the outskirts of Lauder, we walked around the estate of Thirlestane Castle – an interesting building and once home to the mighty Earls of Lauderdale.  Lauder itself is a pretty wee town, a Royal Burgh, no less, and one that is blessed with picturesque architecture and independent businesses.  Special mention to Flat Cat Cafe and Gallery and Purple Plum, both of which have been managing to survive the difficulties of the last few months.

Thirlestane Castle
Thirlestane Castle

We then slowly climbed upwards, skirting the plantation known as Elsinore (?!) then passing by the intriguingly-named Wanton Walls farmhouse which was marked as a castle on Blaeu’s famous map of the 17th century.  It can be clearly seen as Wantonwaes.  The hills that dominate the map, under the title Thirlstain, are more rugged and stern than the rolling hills that actually exist, but artistic licence is forgivable given how evocative and intriguing Blaeu’s maps are.

Many of the farms, castles and churches shown by Blaeu have long-since vanished or, at least, have become less obvious.  Wantonwaes is seemingly hidden beneath where the solid farmhouse is today.  Many of these had lasted for centuries, but the advance of larger estates and agrarian improvements from the 18th century onwards brought about the demise of hundreds of medieval farms and townships across the south.

Lauderdale. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654.
Detail from ‘Lauderdale’. Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

We continued towards our destination, the tallest hill in the area Dabshead Hill.   Dabshead gives impressive views of the surrounding country, looking down to Lauder and Thirlestane Castle, towards the Lauder Common which leads to Stow and beyond.  The hill is also one of the hundreds in the Borders which feature the remains of a prehistoric fort.  Dating back some 2-3,000 years, the fort here is of an impressive size: 600′ by 435′.  The earthworks which once were ramparts are clear, although very difficult to capture on camera on the ground.

In the centre of the fort is a odd-looking ‘standing’ stone, although ‘drooping’ may be a better adjective.    Placed here in the 19th century to celebrate a local aristocrat’s wedding, it is suggested that the stone itself – wherever it came from originally – is a much older monolith.  There are several supposed cup marks on the stone, which will be familiar to anyone interested in prehistoric art.  Original?  Opinion seems a little divided on this.  Given that the stone was set up here, on a new mound of rubble with iron supports (now rusted and failed), that’s understandable.   One suggestion claims that it may have stood next to a nearby neolithic burial site, at Borrowston Rig.  There bronze urns have been found under a low-lying stone circle, near a small number of cairns and further cup-marked stone.

This gives a possible origin of the droopy stone, in which case it has had a very long history indeed and is linked to the unknown rituals or knowledge of our long-forgotten ancestors.

The hilltop may look very rounded, soft even, from the valley floor, but the views are truly worth the climb.

qXK7JQMEQhOVZgvyKG0GHw

We then proceeded downwards, towards the hunting lodge of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the many aristocratic landowners who own much of southern Scotland.    His lodge at Burncastle stands roughly where another old peel tower once stood – the tall, gaunt defensive castles of the Borderlands, which can still be seen throughout southern Scotland and northern England.  Burncastle, which also appears on Blaeu’s map, has disappeared apart from some tumbledown foundation stones in the grass.  So too has has the adjacent medieval village of Earnscleuch at the head of the small river that shares its name.

After a fairly shoogly crossing of the Earnscleuch Water by way of old, shiny stepping stones, we followed a track alongside the Duke of Northumberland’s grouse fields.  I was delighted to later discover, but wish I’d known at the time, that we were now following the Herring Road. This is a historic route, used mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries by the herring cadgers, carriers, walking from Dunbar and East Lothian to the Lauder marketplace.  Quite a journey of some 28 miles, carrying creels of herring!  More information can be gained through the wonderful Heritage Paths website.

Leaving the Herring Road, we walked close by the medieval farmsteads of Newbigging, and Huntington – with its prehistoric barrow – and crossing the Lauder Bridge back into town.

This was a great walk, organised by passionate, enthusiastic people and I’m very glad to have taken part.  It reinvigorated my love of walking and encouraged me to go out again.  It also reminded me just how much history – hidden history – is to be found just in front of our eyes.  All we need to do is look.

Green Men. Part two.

The origins of the ‘Green Man’ which can be seen in medieval churches, Victorian graveyards and New Age shops, is one that has many contradictory versions depending on where you look.

To some, as mentioned in the previous post, he represents a nature spirit; to others, he is an echo or remnant of the head cult of the the ancient Celts.  To others, still, he is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, whether that of Christ or of the world.

Supposedly one of the, if not the, oldest depictions of a Green Man in a Christian setting can be found in the Church of Ste Hilaire, in Poitiers, France – a basilica dating to the 10th century.  The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and can be found of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

saint-hilaire      download

Church of Ste Hilarie, Poitiers

Carved on a tomb which is suggested as dating to the  early 5th century CE, the face of a green man looks at us clearly,  after so many centuries.  A Christian appropriation of an earlier symbol?  Possible, as Christianity adopted the places and trappings of Pagan worship as it advanced across Europe.

5th century Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul, on the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople,  show a face we could recognise as the Green Man, but to the creators of these beautiful images, they may  have known him as: Achelous, the God of Water and Rivers in Greek and Estruscan culture; Bacchus, Roman God of wine, fertility and agriculture, whom the Romans borrowed from the Greek Dionysus and whom may have been a Hellenic version of Osiris…; a Wild Man, representing the Pagan and therefore uncivilised, barbaric heathens yet to be enlightened.  No-one knows.  But, given the reach of the Empire and the geographical location of Constantinople, it’s not a great leap of faith to see direct links and similarities with the mosaic face and the earlier Hindu carvings of the Indian sub-continent or Parthian Empire of the Middle East, which show similar designs.

dd77b1da9b0fbd533cf6b8889aea3b9f      220px-Hatra-Ruins-2008-3

Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Instanbul (left).  Hatra, Iraq,  2nd century, CE (right) 

Whoever he is, his image has been carved thousands of times.  Perhaps, he is nothing more than a style of decoration, an artistic motif.  Just like, say, a stylised sun with a face, or a moon, a creative design that proved popular and so was replicated.  Scotland, an ancient European nation with cultural links to the continent and further afield, would see churches and monasteries built through the centuries, often by craftsmen from the continent.  They brought with them their skills and their craft, but also their ideas and cultural influences.

In Culross, Fife, we can see more Green Men.  At the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey, built in the 13th century on the site of an older monastic site, a carved frieze survives. Two green men, at either end of a vine? branch, can clearly be seen.  Like so many similar designs, they have foliage sprouting (or vomiting?!) from their mouths.

4daf46e63ea9e4ecc6fab357a822f351

Culross Abbey

Interestingly, the older religious community at Culross was said to have been founded by Saint Serf, adoptive father of Mungo – later canonised as Saint Kentigern – who would go on to baptise Merlin! (More on this later!)  Early Christian stones found here date back to the 700s or 800s, showing that the site was religiously important for many centuries before the Abbey was built.  The Protestant Reformation of 1560, the religious revolution that converted Scotland from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, saw the Abbey closed and allowed to fall into ruin.

Similarly, Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire, fell into ruin after the Reformation.  Here, another Green Man can be seen, although somewhat eroded.   Melrose was also a Cistercian Abbey – the first in Scotland – and founded by King David I in 1136.  One of the finest examples of medieval religious architecture on the island of Britain, it is well worth visiting.  In addition to the Green Man, the heart of Robert I The Bruce lies here and there are many other beautiful carvings to see.

9e50403befc37cf3999de69157b35048    bagpipe-playing-pig-at

Melrose Abbey, Selkirkshire 

The Green Man here tends to be overlooked by visitors who are searching for a better-known carving on the facade of the church: the bagpipe-playing pig.  This is understandable, as this happy looking porcine musician is a fun reminder that church-builders had a sense of humour!

The High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles’ Cathedral, claims to have 66 Green Men, although I confess to having missed virtually all of these the last time I visited.  Once the Covid-19 lockdown ends – hopefully – I’d like to go back and try to discover them all.

e928b8edb117d959627aa3354ab48805      f838daf0bd99a8a305e47b8415521d16     c8bbdadb2ce8ad59009ab15d24fc86e3

(l-r) St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh; Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian; Roslin Glen, Midlothian.

The Holy Grail (!) for Green Men spotters, though, must be the magnificent Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian.  Famous worldwide as a result of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, much has been written about the mysteries of this spectacular building – with its elaborate carved interior.  One hundred or so Green Men can be found inside, with the most famous looking more than an little mischievous (above).  Less well known is the more naturalistic Green Man, carved into living rock in the valley below the Chapel, Roslin Glen.  The legends concerning the glen would fill a book, with everything from sightings of Robin Hood – yes, him again! – to hidden temples, spectral hounds and UFOs!  You get your money’s worth here, if you like that sort of thing!  I’ll feature Roslin again, sometime soon.

The Green Man is a symbol which can be interpreted in different ways, to suits people’s own beliefs.  It seems likely that a figure which is part-human, part-vegetation in its most basic form illustrates humanity’s dependence or interdependence with the natural world, divine or otherwise.  The Green Man’s origins may be lost in time, but in the second half of the last century and now into our own, the appeal of a spirit of nature and of man’s vital reliance on the environment, is a compelling one.  As we endure years that are routinely hotter than every previous one, as climate chaos moves us ever closer to near-future scenarios that we pretend are unthinkable, the totem of an Earth deity is one we may cling to more fervently than before.  With extinction rates increasing and global warming already near the point of no-return, perhaps, we all need to be the Green Man.

 

Isolation in the Old North

We are very lucky to live in a beautiful, peaceful place while the current limitations on travel exist. I hope before too long we’ll be on our way again and life will return to some form of normality, after this dreadful virus has been contained.   However, lockdown has allowed us to explore our village and nearby places. I’ll share some views of them and stories from here with you over the next few days but to begin with, here’s a little about Hodge Cairn fort.

According to the wonderful PastMap, Hodge Cairn is the site of  the remains of a large prehistoric oval fort on the slope of White Hill.  Obscured over the centuries by farming and tree planting, there’s enough left to spot from the roadside, which I did, puffing up a hill on my bike during my daily exercise.

There are wonderful views of the ramparts and ditches which remain here, which clearly show the remains of the ancient buildings that were once inside.  There are dozens of similar hillforts and medieval farmsteads in the hills surrounding the Gala Water, reaching back to the very early history of the land, before the Legions of Rome would arrive.  The ancient peoples who lived  here would have known the vast Ettrick Forrest that once covered these hills, clearing many trees to make way for the their homesteads and forts like this. 

When the Romans arrived in the First Century, they called the inhabitants of this land the Votadini.  Later, this Latinised name would be recorded in Old Welsh, the local tongue, as Guotodin, then Gododdin.  This part of what is now Scotland was the territory of the ancient Cumbric-speaking Britons – the ancestors of the modern Welsh, Cornish and Bretons and cousins of the Picts. 

The Welsh would come to tell tales of Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North –  when remembering their ancestors here.  Indeed, one of the earliest poems to have survived in Britain, Y Gododdin, recalls the people of this ancient kingdom.   Supposed to have been written by the bard Aneirin, perhaps court poet to the Gododdin, it recalls the bravery and defeat of the Men of the North in battle c. 600 AD against the Angles of the south.   The poem may also include the earliest reference to King Arthur as a paragon of bravery, although this is argued over.  From their fort at Din Eidyn (now Edinburgh), the warriors travelled south, to annihilation at the hands of the Angles, a battle which saw the kingdom of the Gododdin disappear into the Angles’ Northumbria.  It’s a (very!) long poem, but worth a look

In later times, the Guardian of Scotland, William Wallace, launched guerrilla attacks on the English invasion forces from Ettrick, during the first Wars of Independence.

There is so much history in this part of Scotland, hidden beneath the grass of the rolling fields in now tranquil countryside.  I’ll share more with you again soon.