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Issue 41 - Sacred Scotland

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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Sacred Scotland

There are numerous spiritual sites around Scotland, both ancient and modern. Liz Pickering looks at their significance.

The Very Reverend George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, described the Isle of Iona as a place where the divide between the spiritual and the material is tissue-paper thin, and perhaps the same could be said of other sites in Scotland.

It is a country that seems saturated with sacred places; standing stones, burial cairns, holy wells and hermits’ caves, as well as myriad abbeys, monasteries and churches in varying states of repair. The breathtaking landscapes of Scotland seem naturally imbued with spirituality, begging the question of which came first. Is the place inherently sacred, or is it made so by our instinctive reaction to its beauty and its past?

HOW SCOTLAND BECAME SACRED… The earliest signs of religious belief in Scotland are as frustrating as they are exciting. Archaeology rarely tells the whole story, and we only know about the artefacts that have survived the millennia, usually related to the people who were the richest and the most powerful. But the glimpses into prehistoric beliefs are always so tantalising, never revealing why here, why in this place?

Prehistoric rock carvings are found all over Scotland, but out of 12 similarly grooved cist slabs found in the British Isles (cists are small stone boxes, or coffins), 10 of them have been found near Kilmartin in Argyllshire.

Kilmartin Glen is crammed full of rock carvings, as well as monoliths and megaliths, cairns and henges. The concentration of carvings alone is extraordinary; more than 100 sites within a six mile radius of Kilmartin.

To put this in perspective, Kintyre has 12, and Lorn only has one.

There is evidence to show that these sacred places were used and reused for hundreds and thousands of years. People were buried in cists inside the Temple Wood and Ballymeanoch henge, hundreds of years after the monuments were erected. The monuments were long-standing places of spiritual significance, implying that part of what made the place sacred came from its past, its connection to the ancestors.

There are all sorts of theories on why standing stones and cairns were built in the way they were, but the common characteristics point firmly in the direction of a link to astronomy. Monuments have been deliberately orientated in certain ways, with most chambered cairns in Scotland having their entrance at the northeast, compared to south-eastern entrances in Irish passage tombs, and stone circles in Aberdeen including a horizontal slab that points southwest. No doubt we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but when we look at how stone circles often interact with solar and lunar cycles, designed to appear a certain way at a certain time of day, month or year, the evidence does seem quite compelling that there was a spiritual link with the movements of the moon, sun and stars.

Before Christianity came to Scotland, the pagan gods were mostly concerned with the natural world. People clearly depended on the fertility of the land, the right balance of sunlight, darkness and water. Three swords dating from around 700BC were found on Shuna, thrust (seemingly deliberately) into a bog. At about the same time, six shields were left in a bog in Ayrshire. All over the British Isles and beyond, there is archaeological evidence of collections of broken swords being left in rivers, implying something deliberate, perhaps a ceremonial sacrifice or a gift to the gods.

THE CELTIC MISSIONARIES For practical as well as spiritual reasons, the early Christians did what others had done before them and reused the earlier sacred sites, giving them new, Christian meanings. Perhaps it helped people to trust the new religion, reassuring them that their sacred places would be encompassed and complemented by the new faith, rather than destroyed. The writings of monks were added to the old oral traditions, and the songs and poetry about heroes and battles were adapted to celebrate the one God.

However Christianity might have absorbed the existing tribal traditions, keeping alive that sense of spiritual creativity in the intricate carving of stone crosses, metalwork and manuscripts, Christianity was nonetheless a more complicated religion. The missionaries were driven to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, reaching the remotest parts of Scotland in the hope of discovering a ‘place of resurrection.’ To today’s liberal mind, it might all seem a bit dark, the path of the early saints literally coloured by martyrdom. Irish texts referred to white signifying the martyrdom of exile, green for solitude and red for blood sacrifice.

In the relentless quest to keep travelling, to keep spreading the word of God, the early Celtic missionaries lived lives of extreme penance and self-denial, many of them retreating to remote caves for long periods of meditation and isolation.

They weren’t always welcomed with open arms. St Monire was said to have been driven out of Auchendryne (present-day Braemar), and the earliest martyrdom of a Celtic saint is thought to have occurred at Eigg, where a local Pictish queen ordered the massacre of St Donnan and his entire community of monks.

But even the Viking raiders who massacred hundreds of Christians eventually became Christian when they settled in Scotland, and Christianity’s survival has meant the survival of tales and legends surrounding those early missionary saints. Some seem rather comical today. For instance, it is said that St Cuthbert once emerged freezing cold from a night’s penitential prayer in the sea, only to be warmed by the fur of two otters that followed him and rubbed his legs. And that St Fillan’s left arm emitted a miraculous light, allowing him to work at night without the aid of candles.

MAKING YOUR OWN PILGRIMAGE Early pilgrims travelled by sea, followed coast roads, and ventured overland. The journey was in itself a voyage of discovery, as important as the experience of reaching the destination. Seeing all of these places could take years, but there are some popular routes still followed today. The sites of ruined abbeys and holy wells are still visited and revered for their historical and spiritual significance.

Rather than taking an ‘ad lib’ approach to the exploration of Scotland’s spiritual landscape, many people choose to visit the sites that are still in active spiritual use, and run programmes for pilgrims or offer retreats or the experience of time living in community.

Scotland’s multi-cultural and multi-faith make up are reflected on the Holy Isle near Arran, with its ancient Christian and probably pre-Christian spiritual significance, now run as a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. The oldest monastery of its type in Europe, Kagyu Samye Ling is open to people of all faiths or none, inviting people to stay at the Centre of World Peace and Health during an ongoing retreat and course programme.

Visitors are encouraged to work together and engage with the centre’s aims of promoting world peace and health. The east coast of the island has been designated as a nature reserve and 35,000 native trees have been planted to recreate a woodland habitat, while rhododendrons and bracken are brought under control to allow wildlife and native species to re-populate the island. All this is meant to restore the natural environment on which Kagyu Samye Ling depends.

For Christian pilgrimage, day-trippers and longer-term visitors flock to the isle of Iona, famous for its abbey and its association with St Columba. The Iona Community does not offer spiritual retreat, instead encouraging active participation in the running of the community, sharing of meals, worship and engagement with worldwide peace and justice issues. It is an inspiring place in which to challenge ideas of spirituality and faith, among people of all backgrounds from countries around the world. Guided pilgrimages are made around the island, and in the evenings both staff and guests let their hair down at concerts and ceilidhs.

There are several other spiritual centres operating throughout Scotland, including Findhorn, Pluscarden, Nunraw and NewBold. There really is something about Scotland that inspires people, affecting even the most pragmatic and sceptical person.

Perhaps George MacLeod had a point. The material and the spiritual are not so far apart in Scotland, and the veil between the two is simply ‘thin.’
Spiritual centres
Findhorn Foundation
The Park, Findhorn IV36 3TZ
Tel: +44 (0)1309 690 311
Iona Community
Isle of Iona, Argyll PA76 6SN
Tel: +44 (0)1681 700 404
Kagyu Samye Ling
Eskdalemuir, Langholm DG13 0QL
Tel: +44 (0)1387 373 232
NewBold House Community
111 St Leonards Road, Forres
Tel: +44 (0)1309 672 659
Sancta Maria Abbey
Nunraw, Haddington, EH41 4LW
Tel: +44 (0)44 1620 830 223
Pluscarden Abbey
Elgin, Morayshire, IV30 8UA

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