Over the Sea to the Fairies

The Isle of Skye. That’s the Old Man of Storr in the hills above, a beautiful rock formation visible for miles around. The island is a place of fairies: there’s a castle and a glen and a bridge… but first, back to another rock formation, specifically the one spied from the bedroom window of our holiday house.

‘That’s an interesting rocky outcrop,’ said I to husband.

‘Aye, we should walk up to it,’ he replied.

So we did.

And there was Dun Hallin, an Iron Age broch we had intended visiting but thought would be hard to find. Duns, or brochs, were a complex form of roundhouse, probably defensive, precursors to castles.

I loved Dun Hallin and the surprise of finding it like that. And the wonderful views of Trumpan Point.

Trumpan Kirkyard held surprise too. An ancient standing stone, Clach Deuchainn, the Trial Stone:

Trial stones were used to try a person. In this case if the accused could put their finger in the hole located on the stone while blindfold they were innocent. The stone is undoubtedly far older than this use; it is also known as the Priest Stone and the Heaven Stone.

There were some interesting graves too; these, and the gruesome history of the church can be read about here.

But back to the fairies. Firstly the Fairy Glen, an unusual land formation, which sadly does not have any old fairy folklore associated with it but it does feel otherworldly when you walk round it.

The rocky peak is known as Castle Ewen:

But it’s Dunvegan Castle we need for fairy legends!

Displayed inside the castle, so no photos, is the ancient and tattered Fairy Flag. There are many stories and traditions surrounding this relic and its origins. The tale favoured in the information provided to visitors is the one in which the Chief of Clan Macleod marries a fairy. The couple have a child together but the fairy knows she has to return to her people in Fairyland. She leaves the magical flag, imbued with protective powers, wrapped round the baby, and this she does a few miles away at the Fairy Bridge:

There are also Fairy Pools on Skye but we did not get to them this trip. We did manage a quick visit to Kilt Rock:

We also took in the Museum of Island Life, one of the few places on the island with good mobile internet which meant I was distracted by a sudden barrage of Twitter notifications!

Near to the museum is the memorial to Flora MacDonald:

One more fairy mention: the house we stayed in was previously owned by the writer Aileen P. Roberts, and full of books, so I read her novella Fairy Fire while there which was set in Skye and surprising and perfect.

The sun rises over Dun Hallin:

And sets at Trumpan Point:

Goodbye Skye! We’ll be back!

Walking with the Quines

Haddo House

Quine is the Doric word for girl. The Quines (or Super Quines as we have become recently) are a group of women that met on Twitter. I can’t recall the exact ways in which we all first started chatting, though these has been much hilarity from the start. I follow many local people as well as those who share various interests, and there’s a mix of that among The Quines. Last year some of us met up in person, out in the wider world, and we hope to meet our more distant living Quine one day too.

There’s been tea. There’s been talk. And walks, lots and lots of walks.

snowy beach

The most recent walk was on a snowy beach. Beaches feature quite a bit. Back in the summer we walked barefoot along golden sands and through a river to see a shipwreck:

sands

St Combs

Other coastal Quine walks have already been documented: Crovie (where we got lost in a pea field) and another day when we searched for Lord Pitsligo’s Cave.

Summer continued with Huntly Castle and a much thistled stroll along the River Deveron:

Huntly Castle

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A tall tower and a stone circle (Drinnie’s Wood Observatory and Louden Wood Circle):

tower

sun and stone

Autumn returned us to the Deveron. Alvah Bridge and the Earl’s Love Nest within (more on that here):

The Bridge of Alvah

Gothic window

The Lake at Pitfour Estate was nice and mellow, the old Temple of Theseus thankfully no longer housing crocodiles!

Pitfour

Sometimes social media isn’t all that social; it can be taken over by constant ads and spam and passive aggressive Facebook memes. But good things happen too. I deeply appreciate the caring and non-demanding friendship of The Quines. I value many others I’ve got to know along the Twitter path too.

So take a minute. Listen. Laugh. Tap those screens and sit and chat.

bench

The first picture in this post was of Haddo House; the one above was taken in the country park there too.

Up and Down and All Around

tree at Dunnydeer

This beautiful tree sits at the foot of the Hill of Dunnideer near Insch in Aberdeenshire. It’s a short but steep climb to the top; when you see the remains of the prehistoric vitrified fort and medieval castle you know you’re nearly there.

vitrified rock and medieval castle

The views make all exertion worthwhile. Click the pano for a larger version:

panorama of view from Dunideer

Down the other side:

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Nestled, and almost completely hidden, under a tree are the remains of Dunnideer Recumbent Stone Circle:

recumbent and flankers

stone under tree

split flanker

A few miles further West is Leith Hall with its wonderful walled garden:

colourful borders

Stone guardian at the gate:

lion

I love the Moon Gate, and in retrospect wish I had gone through it and taken a photo from the other side too. Oh well, next time!

moongate

three circles

Drum Castle

On our last visit to Drum Castle it was raining, so on the way to explore circles, we took a walk through the gardens. They were filled with the bright sights and scents of summer, the castle peeking round corners and through trees everywhere we went.

medieval tower

Next up: Cullerlie Stone Circle, unusual for Aberdeenshire in that it is not a recumbent circle. There’s only one photo as we were distracted by an elderly dog from the farm that wanted us to throw a stick.

Cullerlie Stone Circle

More animals awaited at Sunhoney; an excited herd of cows ran alongside the path with us…

path to Sunhoney

and then jostled and jiggled for the best view at the perimeter of the circle enclosure.

lineup of cows

I fear we were a disappointment. There were signs that other visitors may have danced (trampled grass) and provided snacks (rolled oats all over the place) whereas we mainly sat quietly and took photos.

Sunhoney Stone Circle

The recumbent stone at Sunhoney has many carved cup marks but lichen and light conditions were not helpful in capturing them on camera (note rolled oats though).

cupmarks

The cows gave us doleful looks as we left and did not follow us back down the path. There were no animals to greet us at Midmar Kirk Circle which is situated in a churchyard.

Midmar

While it was common for churches to be built on older sacred sites, it is unusual for the originals to have been left intact (almost, there are a few stones missing).

standing stone and graves

church and stones

Finishing with an apology to the cows – we’ll try harder next time – and the view from the roof of Drum:

window in Drum Castle roof

stone circles in winter

Aikey Brae stone circle

I love the way Aikey Brae stone circle seems to materialise as you step out of the dark woodland path. It’s my favourite circle; it feels like my ‘home’ one. I did used to live nearby so have visited it more than any other. This was Boxing Day.

frost and sun

It was bright and frosty and enchanted. There was chocolate.

A few days later, on the way to see a friend, I stopped by Loanhead of Daviot:

Daviot circle

The day was damp and dark and cold. The circle felt calm and steadfast. Timeless.

The double recumbent:

split stone

And then, in the new year, many weathers happened at Berrybrae circle. First there was sun (pictured below) before a gale blew up and brought horizontal sleet…

Berrybrae

Let 2015 hold more timeless enchantment (and chocolate) for us all than horizontal precipitation!

Culloden and Clava

Macduff, anchor and church

A bright blue sky day. Good for a journey up the coast and into the past. Above: I stopped to take a picture of the anchor on the hill in Macduff.

A couple of hours and many miles later, the skies had clouded. Culloden Moor:

Culloden Battlefield

The visitor centre at Culloden is high-tech, swish, clean and pristine, all the things the bloody battle of the past was not. The contrast always gets me. I sit on a soft red sofa looking out at the battlefield, eating my delicious lentil soup and enjoying decadent chocolate cake in comfort and warmth. Compare that to being one of the Jacobite clansmen, having marched across boggy rough terrain in the dark all night, exhausted, starving, about to be slaughtered in a fight so unfairly matched that it was all over in one hour. What would he think of Culloden Moor today and the nice day out it provides for families and tourists?

Out on the battlefield, things feel more authentic, more memorial. Red flags mark the government line:

flag

Stones are placed over mass graves:

clans stone field of the English

Old Leanach Cottage is dated about 1760, several years after the battle, but is said to stand on the site of an earlier cottage that was used as a field hospital for government troops:

cottage

People leave offerings:

tartan offering

After a little look at the peaceful, cud-chewing, Highland cattle, it’s off to the nearby Clava Cairns:

Victorian Grove

Here ancient burial cairns (estimated at about 4000 years old) are surrounded by circles of stone and trees. It’s the perfect peaceful place to visit after Culloden.

Clava Cairns

You can walk right into two of the three cairns, though the entrance tunnel would have been covered in the past: you would have had to crawl.

into the cairn

Some of the standing stones are high and shaped, rather like enormous graves:

standing stone rectangular

Let’s finish with one of the aforementioned Highland Coos. There’s four of them in a field next to Culloden.

Highland Cow

serendipity and stones and a little dance

seagull

The first serendipitous happening of the day was the haar (Scottish word for mist that rolls in off the sea) and its silvery filtering of the sunlight. Then there was the seagull that flew by as I took the photo.

Inland we travelled, to bright sunshine and summer colours and the stones of Castle Fraser. I’ve made the picture below clickable to a larger version; to the left are two standing stones and to the right, in the distance by the trees, is Balgorkar stone circle.

standing stones and a circle

I thought we’d have to just view it from the side of the field, but no, some naughty person had trampled a pathway through the crop, so we did no further damage by walking it:

illicit path

Recumbent and flankers:

stones

On to Castle Fraser itself, where I was meant to be doing research for writing on heraldry, historic dates and architecture. This took the form of running about taking photos:

Castle Fraser

Love the rooftop:

turrets

Then, after picnicking, with only half the day gone, we decided to head to ruinous Kildrummy Castle a few miles further on.

Kildrummy

In the reception was an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years. There was hugging and much talking. Other people got fed up waiting… but it was good. We kept saying it was amazing. My friend is currently doing a PhD in history, some of our conversation became spontaneous research. We finally moved to look round:

great hall

I do appreciate the use of the adverb ‘treacherously’ there; without it we might think Osbourne the Blacksmith to have merely made a mistake or had an unfortunate accident such as tripping with a pot of molten metal or dropping a freshly forged sword…

window

The day ended with a visit to Broomend of Crichie stone circle, Pictish stone in the middle:

Broomend of Crichie

This blogpost is ending in a rather unrelated way, with some ballet. It’s beautiful and romantic; only two minutes long. Scottish Ballet performing at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow earlier this week:

You can watch the entire ceremony here on the BBC iplayer, ballet is 1 hour and 27 minutes in.

Bennachie

Bennachie in the distance

Bennachie is a large hill that can be seen for miles in Aberdeenshire. Its craggy peaks seem to loom out of nowhere as you drive round twisty corners of country roads. I once climbed it three times in one day for charity; complainers of sore legs were reminded of that fact yesterday. The top of Harthill Castle, which was owned and restored by the late American writer Ann Savage, is just visible over the trees.

The start of any Bennachie climb – we took the easiest ‘Rowan Tree’ route – starts with a misleading forest stroll:

woodland walk

Then you’re out into the baking sun (sometimes; you are equally as likely to emerge into a dense Stephen King-esque mist) and views expand.

rock

Parts of the path are pure exposed rock, it feels like standing on the bare face of the planet. I like to kneel and kiss the stone; you do see some strange people on Bennachie…

steeper

The ascent gradually gets steeper, the sun gets hotter, but the Mither Tap nears. Big cairn, little cairn:

cairns

There’s a Pictish hillfort on the top, you pass between its walls…

hillfort

and then cling, terrified, to the side of the uppermost rocks as the wind buffets you. That bit is over quickly. The landscape soon owns your attention.

views

The Maiden Stone stands near the foot of the hill, a ninth century Pictish stone displaying a good example of the mysterious, much debated, ‘Pictish beast’. Swimming elephant? Dolphin? Kelpie?

The Maiden Stone

A few miles further on is Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle, the first recumbent circle I ever visited, beautifully cared for by Historic Scotland.

Daviot

uprights at Daviot

between the recumbents

Will I stop now? No, one more, then we can put our feet up.

circle

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

first pioneers to Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is a beautiful trail through history and, at 143 metres long, the longest tapestry in the world. Its soft sewn artworks filled three large rooms of Aberdeen Art Gallery and photography was allowed. Yes. I was happy. May you be too.

Despite the earliness of my visit, the gallery was crowded; I was not quite so happy about the angle of this next pic. Lovely, lovely stone circles though:

stone circles

Some of Scotland’s past is sad and terrible:

witches

Glencoe

war

Happier happenings:

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‘Fiction is to grown men what play is to the child.’ RLS

Robert Louis Stevenson

and strange ones…

Dolly the Sheep

There was something calm and nourishing about walking round this exhibition. Whether it was the gentle and warm art of needlework that hung everywhere in the rooms – there was also a lady demonstrating sewing techniques – or the many different styles from the 1000+ stitchers marking the constant change of the world, I don’t know. The overall feeling was reflective yet hopeful: happy.

The Tapestry is touring , mainly in Scotland at the moment but other UK and overseas venues are planned, see the website for details.

Great Tapestry

of towers and stones

tower

Rapunzel’s Tower appears over the trees, dark and mysterious, a fairytale setting at the top of a hill. No hair is let down in answer to my call. Maybe the newly installed CCTV reveals me to be neither Prince nor abusive mother figure so I am ignored? Or maybe the words on the council sign are true and the Drinnie’s Wood Observatory really is only open May-September.

Onwards and upwards. And downwards. Up the wrong path and back again. Up another, almost identical, path and ta-da! The elusive Louden Wood Stone Circle:

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It evaded me for years, this place. The entry to the narrow path is hidden by low hanging pine branches, and it wasn’t until the advent of Google Earth that I finally pinpointed its exact location.

I do like the white tree that stands opposite the large recumbent stone:

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Most stone circles in Aberdeenshire are imbued with a  deep peacefulness. This one seems alive somehow, buzzing with an undercurrent of ancient energy, like a radio still tuned to the past. Carved stone:

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Back to the present and a newly planted wind turbine, another tower I would like to look inside; see the inviting steps and door at the bottom? Surprisingly large up close – diagonal was the only way to get the whole thing in shot – and surprisingly quiet, whoosh-whooshing us gently into the future.

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