Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Range Castle – An Iron Age Hill Fort





Range Castle from Moss Castle

Range Castle sits on a rise of rugged hills, overlooking the Annandale Valley. 
As you can see in the pics, this is a ring fort, and it is figured to have three walls. The outer dyke has been cut into the hillside, through the rock, and was most likely banked up and palisaded when it was in use. Unfortunately no archaeological digs have been done there to date. Canmore lists Range Castle as an Iron Age fort and speculates that over three periods the fort was altered. However, the Iron Age is a pretty wide period of time to deal with. 

The fact that many hill forts have triple defences appears intentional: three was a sacred number to the Iron Age peoples of Britain and Ireland. Not far to the north, Barrshill is another Iron Age fort with three walls. It's possible that triple defences were believed to add a level of magical protection. 

Another possibility is that the fort served a variety of functions and defence wasn't its primary use. Perhaps its location was also the product of ritual and the place served as a temple. It could also be that the owners had more material concerns: safeguarding their cattle from other tribes' raids. It could also be possible the fort served all these functions. Although an enclosure might be marked as a fort on a map, this doesn't mean that's what it was. The map is not the territory. 




Perhaps Range Castle's location, not far from Moss Castle (a possible settlement site, on a neighbouring hill, also guessed to be Iron Age), and the fact that these both front the hills, affording a view over the valley below, are important factors. The oppidum of Burnswark is visible across the valley to the east. Burnswark was besieged and captured by the Romans in 140 AD. I wonder if the peoples of Range Castle witnessed the siege,  and if so did they sent help, or watch helplessly as the Roman military machine took the fortress, certain they were next? 



Hawthorns growing inside the main trench, south of the entrance.


Range Castle's western entrance is aligned with a large cairn that squats atop a neighbouring hilltop. This tumulus is known as Cairnhill, or Hound Hill, according to the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. Although the cairn is much older than the fort, perhaps its presence played a role in the minds of the people who lived upon the hills. We know that ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age sites were seen as magical places: the homes of ancestors and gods. In Ireland the ancient tumuli of the Boyne region became the legendary sidhe: the homes of the Tuatha De Danaan. 





This is the aerial view captured on Maps.
You can clearly see the main trench,
which would have had a wall either side.
The central enclosure appears to
be split into three areas.



Range Castle maintains a defensible position, surrounded by the remnants of an ancient oak forest (very much depleted now due to sheep grazing). However, these marginal lands, rising from the Annandale valley, were once very much inhabited. The valley, through which the River Annan snakes, is still subject to frequent inundations. In the Iron Age the low lying areas would have been boggy marsh and a nightmare to traverse. It’s easy to imagine trackways linking up the numerous settlements that dot the higher ground. To this day the hills surrounding the fort are marked with cairns, embankments and field systems from the past, hinting at a lost landscape belonging to a time when the hills were more inhabited.



OS Map View of the Site








Monday, July 12, 2021

As Above, So Below – Cairns & Constellations

 


Shot of my OS map -
showing a 3 cairn triangle in Auchencairn forest




More thoughts on the ancient Cairns I’ve been trekking to. These are marked on OS maps around the Ae and Auchencairn forests. Although the cairns in these groupings are situated are in prominent locations, they’re not always on the highest hills. Some are visible from other mounds. 


Again I find there’s a propensity to groupings of three (sometimes aligned in a row, sometimes triangular). However this doesn’t mean there are others that have been lost, either beneath the foresters’ machinery or buried under heather.


It’s supposed that ancient peoples viewed the heavens as a great dome, upon whose surface the stars moved. Whether or not this is true, the stars played an important role in the lives of our ancestors. After thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, navigating by the stars, stories grew around the constellations. These myths involved fabulous creatures, and superhuman beings. 


Back then all the earth was ‘dark sky’: there were no cities or electric lights to dim the night’s panorama. The heavens have always been the domain of the divinities and most cultures break up the cosmological schema into three: Underworld, middle world and the realm of the gods. 


I wondered if the groupings of cairns, mounds and possible ‘sacred’ enclosures, might have been purposely orchestrated in their positing. This isn’t a wild assumption by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s face it, if the stars are your go-to, then mirroring that which adorns the heavens makes sense. As above, so below. The idea was to create powerful locations on Earth that related directly to the myths told about the heavens. 


More and more evidence is coming out now that proves that stone circles, henges and other megalithic sites were used to observe, and honour, certain constellations and planets. However, there seems little research available as regards the positioning of other sites, such as cairns. There are suggestions that certain stars and constellations bear relevance to later Celtic deities, themselves possible derivatives of earlier deities.



One of the triangle -
the green mound in the distance is a cairn on Gawin Moor



Having been wandering the hills, tracking lost cairns through heather and forestry plantations, I decided that it was time to lay out a map and plot the places I’d been to. But when I looked at this map, and compared it with the snap shots of the night sky, my heart sank. The paucity of cairns and enclosures is pretty evident (especially in relation to constellations). Also there’s no guarantee that the enclosures were in existence at the same period. So going on cairns alone, then the results are pretty fragmentary, and although there no doubt exist archaeological remains of that era, they remain to be found (for example, a wooden platform for inhumation would hardly leave a trace). 



The cairn on Queensberry Hill, looking toward Criffel.



Perhaps the cairns were not positioned as part of some overarching schema, but were localised, focusing on sections of the night sky, which were prevalent in the night’s diaspora 4,000 years ago when these things were being made.

 

It might be that the cairns were positioned as the living passed away, or that the intent was set, like we mark graves in a plot. Again, nothing can be said with certainty, but I wanted to entertain the idea. To me it seems logical that, out in the liminal spaces, closer to the realm of the gods, there might have been some effort to locate burials in relation to the patterns that shone from the heavens. 




Monday, May 24, 2021

Triple alignments in Southwest Scotland

Clava Cairns
Clava Cairns


Recently I’ve been wandering around the hills in my local area, with an old OS map in my hands, looking for ancient cairns. It’s good fun trying to locate these solitary monuments. Many are hidden amongst the pine plantations around the Ae forest and surrounding environs. It’s all part of my hunger to explore the idea of the sacred landscape.


I’ve noticed a few instances of triple alignments in my wanderings of late. 


First, a place that has long puzzled me, and for which I can find little reference, lies on the exposed flank of Kirkmichael Fell, near Parkgate. There is evidence of a settlement and, above the remains, there are three smaller sized rings (which are themselves roughly the same size to each other). I’m not sure of their age and can find little archaeological information, which leads me to think the area just hasn’t been examined in detail. The Canmore website entry has aerial shots that reveal the extra rings clearly. I’m surprised that I find no references there of them. The rings aren’t easily visible from the settlement itself. The size and number leads me to conclude that they are significant.



Aerial View of Kirkmichael Fell, revealing the extra rings to the left of the larger settlement




A few miles North West of this location, on Gawin moor, there are a series of three cairns. Again they do not form a straight line, but are similarly skewed as the above example. They are aligned SSW-NNE.



Gawin Moor
Top Cairn of the Gawin Moor Alignment



Gawin Moor Cairn 3
This is the 'excavated' bottom Cairn of the Gawin Moor sequence.



The third example are the Dyke Row stones, near Moffat and several miles to the North east of Kirkmichael Fell. These three standing stones are graded in height, with the smallest to the north.  They also fall into a SSW-NNE alignment. 



Plan of the Dyke Stones




Here I’d also leap out of the area to another site I’ve recently visited: the Clava Cairns. These 4000 year old cairns sit atop a natural terrace, above the River Nairn. The three main cairns form a skewed set of three. Again the alignment is slightly skewed, and two are closer with a third set slightly further apart (the same phenomena occurs at Gawin moor). They run N.E to S.W. – tying them into the midwinter sun.



Clava Cairns
Clava Cairns, Inverness


Three is the number par-excellence in ancient cultures. I believe it was a number that later cultures, such as Celtic, adopted. I’ll go into greater detail about the significance of this number in a future post. However, it seems to me that something obvious is being overlooked. We know the sun and moon played important roles in ritual, but so too did the planets and constellations. We know that so much mythology from the ancient world are stories that explain certain constellations. The night sky, untouched by light pollution, would have been like a movie screen, across which heroes and gods performed their roles. 


Could it be that the sets of three conform to such a star sign? Orion springs to mind, but there are other triads of stars. This triad is so important to ancient Celtic mythology and is grounded earlier in human thought. Surely we should reflect on the appearance of such ‘triplets’, and on the likelihood of alignments reflecting planetary formations. Could it be that this too was part of the sacred landscape? That to gain power, or to honour whatever deities were associated with each star sign, some chose to create such alignments?





Resources:


Canmore - a great resource for historical.


ScRAP - Scotland's Rock Art Project


The Megalithic Portal - A huge database of sites UK and Europe

Wednesday, May 5, 2021



There too upon the plates of purest gold was it duly marked in lettered runes,

Set forth and declared, for whom that sword was fashioned first, 

That best of things of iron with wire-wrapped hilt and snake-like ornament. 





This has been on my mind of late because I’ve been chewing my way through Lila, by Robert M. Pirsig. I’d written a post inspired by his book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Lila, Pirsig unveils a grand philosophical outlook revolving around the ideas of value, quality and meaning. I am interested here from the perspective that objects can possess a value deeper than just financial. 

 

It wasn’t only the gods who possessed objects of power: Odin with his ring, Draupnir, and his spear, Gungnir, or Thor’s mighty Mjolnir, Freyja’s gold jewellery, Brísingamen — just as these supernatural powers enacted their roles in the higher realms, affairs were mirrored in the world of humans. The most famous objects were given names, they had pedigrees, history and power. Weapons were blessed with magical qualities and even personalities. Such items made powerful gifts, cementing relations between communities. 

 

Smiths put a vast amount of skill, time and energy into the objects they created, they wielded uncanny levels of expertise and these skills linked them and their creations with the otherworld in lore. Their craft was regarded as magical and their artistry was more than purely decorative. There are examples in literature, such as Beowulf, of swords possessing great renown. The medieval scribe, Saxo Grammaticus, tells us of a mighty blade called Skrep, which was hoarded away by the Danes and only taken up in times of great peril. 

 

It wasn’t only weapons that held such honours. Ceremonial accoutrements and jewellery were amongst the mix of special items. Some of these items might be inscribed with symbols, sigils, animal ornamentation, runes, etc — all part of the aspect of the item’s history and its power.   



Bronze disc from Venetia region, Italy. 



 

Within shamanic practice, many cultures use objects that are ‘possessed’ of spirits. For example, the Barama Carib shaman counts certain pebbles amongst his spirit helpers: these are the ancestral spirits of past shamans. Other tribes use rock crystals or carved totems.  Whatever the medium, the Shaman draws power from them.

 

In all these examples the objects are not just lifeless material, they are alive and carry great prestige. They possess a value beyond the monetary. In our materialist society, value is set at a financial level. Yet, as Mr Pirsig points out, value is not an empirical quality. This type of Value and Quality don’t exist, you can’t hold them in your hand, you can’t measure them, even at a quantum level, yet they exist and we acknowledge them. This is an important point. The materialist quandary has always been that abstract concepts exist, and yet from the reductionist viewpoint, concepts shouldn’t exist at all, or should be written off (like philosophy). 



References:



1 - Beowulf - Trans. J.R.R Tolkien

2 - Iron Age Myth & Materiality - Lotte Hedeager

3 - Lila - Robert M. Pirsig

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Odin Knows That Baldur Must Go






Baldur - Artwork by Dave Migman


Baldur's Dreams



As a youth, Baldur was plagued by nightmares. Visions of his death assailed his dreams and he went to Asgard for help. The gods were aghast; how could the mild natured son of Odin suffer so? Baldur of the radiant brow didn’t have a bad bone in his body. His father, Odin, would surely be able to put meaning to his dreams. 

 

Odin decided to go the land of the dead, for he knew well the ways of the dead. But an issue such as this, so close to his heart, urged drastic measures. He readied Sleipnir and charged along the road to Niflhel; a realm of dank mists that lay deeper than Hel’s abode. After slipping past the realm’s guardian, Odin entered by the eastern door. Beyond it he came to a hall decorated for a festivity. 

 

He sought the grave of a wise seeress and cast his magic to raise her. Odin announced himself as Vegtam, the Traveller, and asked her for whom the hall was made ready. Reluctantly the seeress answered his questions: the high chair was prepared for his son and it would be Hodr the Blind who would kill Baldur. Another of his sons, Vali, would avenge Baldur’s death.

 

Baldur’s mother, Frigg, devised a plan to save their son. She would travel the nine worlds and take a pledge from everything there was not to harm their son. Once her task was completed, the Asgardians tested the ploy by making Baldur stand in a field, while they cast different missiles at him. It worked; spears glanced from his skin, rocks bounced harmlessly from his radiant brow. He was invulnerable.

 

Loki was unimpressed. He disguised himself as an old woman, bent and buckled under her shawls. Visiting Frigg’s hall, Fensalir, he spied on the goddess until he learned that Frigg’s quest hadn’t totally gone to plan — there was one thing that hadn’t sworn the oath: mistletoe. It had looked too young to ask and therefore Frigg left it alone. Loki left the hall. 

 

He took a sprig of mistletoe back to the field, where the gods were still making sport of Baldur. He offered the blind god, Hodr, his sprig to cast. “Don't worry, I will guide your aim,” Loki assured him. Hodr tossed the sprig at the target and it pierced Baldur’s chest clean through. The radiant one fell dead upon the field. Odin not only felt the depth of the grief for the loss of his son, he also knew what Baldur’s death foretold. Ragnorak would surely come now. 

 

Baldur’s Brother, Hermod, sped to Hel at the instigation of Frigg. She reasoned that, with Hermod as emissary, they might broker a deal with Hel herself and ransom Baldur. Borrowing Sleipnir, Hermod departed for Niflhiem. 

 

Baldur’s funeral was attended by many others from across the nine worlds.  His still corpse was placed in his sun-ship, Hringhorni and the Aesir prepared a funeral pyre beneath the body. But when the gods tried to shift the ship toward the shore, it would not budge. A giantess, Hyrrokkin, was summoned from Jötunheim. She shoved the boat into the ocean with ease. At the sight of her husband’s body, Nanna, Baldur’s wife, dropped dead and was placed on the boat beside him. As the flames were set, Odin took his magical ring, Draupnir, and placed it on his son’s corpse. 


 



Hermod Rides to Hel - Artwork by Dave Migman



Who Won't Weep for Baldur?


Meanwhile Hermod rode to Hel and after riding nine long nights he reached the Hel-gate. There Hermod met with Hel. She had great power in that realm, more than Odin himself, for her minions were all the dead that didn't die in battle. She wasn’t going to surrender her new acquisition easily: If Baldur was so greatly loved, then he would only be returned on condition that everything in the nine worlds, dead or alive, wept for him. Baldur led Hermod from the hall, giving to him Odin’s ring, for remembrance.

 Trees wept, flowers wept, even the stones shed tears for Baldur – all except Thokk, a frost giantess. “Let Hel keep what hold she has,” she grumbled, and so Hel would do exactly that. Of course, Thokk was Loki in disguise, but the damage had been done and Baldur remained in the underworld. However, it was told that after Ragnorak he would be released, returning to the world of men in the new age that followed.  

 

Meanwhile another son of Odin, Vali, avenged his brother by slaying Hodr. The Aesir hunted down Loki, capturing him, they bound him in a cave, where a serpent spewed poison over his face. 




But What Does it all Mean?


 

This is a deeply significant story – Baldur is associated with the sun, not the sun itself, but brightness, light or radiance (some also suggest his name suggest has links with fertility too). He is a god of peace and virtue. Many petroglyphs of sun boats can be found Scandinavia, dating to the bronze-age, when solar cults were popular. There is even one example in which a giant lifts one up, evocative of Hyrrokkin’s role in shifting Baldur’s ship.  The tale is loaded with clever symbology, such as when Odin reaches Niflhel, entering via the eastern door — for though the dead are said to ‘sail out west’, entry to Hel’s domain is by the east. 

 

In many ways the tale parallels myths from other cultures and tells of the sacrificed god, who descends but is ultimately reborn. He is a solar deity, plunging into the underworld during the winter to stand in the court of Hel. He does not come there as one of her minions, but is set upon a high seat, honoured by his followers, the ásmergin, who provide him with food and sacred mead. The event is part of a cosmic cycle, and his killing and descent are necessary, for the cycle must be completed. Despite the efforts of his mother, his descent cannot be halted. 

 

Perhaps Loki understands this: Baldur is depleted. He stands in the field while the gods make sport flinging things at him — a scene that is hardly conducive with Baldur’s description as the fairest of the gods, for it’s almost as if they’re mocking him. Does Frigg’s word not stand alone, that they must take it upon themselves to test it out?  When Hermod seeks him in Hel, Baldur does not plead to be released, or protest his descent, in fact he and Nanna offer gifts that symbolise otherworldly fertility: Draupnir, a golden ring that begets more rings. Gold is also directly associated with solar-symbolism. 

 

It’s also of interest to note where Baldur goes when he’s slain. He does not perish in battle, so the hall of his father, Valhalla, is ruled out, he goes to Hel’s realm — but there he is honoured. 

 

The cycles of nature persist, even the gods cannot halt them. The Alfather knows this well. Gifted with prophecy and foresight, he knows what Baldur’s descent presages, the twilight of the Gods will come, all with be sundered. But the cycles persist, they are part of ancient culture. The new age will arise and Baldur will ascend once more.



 

Odin - Stone Carving by the Author, Dave Migman

 


One Last Mystery


The tale holds one final mystery, concerning the father and the son. In a riddling contest between Odin (disguised as Gestumblindi) and the viking king, Heidrek, the question is put forth by old One-eye: “What did Odin Whisper in Baldur’s ear while he was borne on the pyre?” Suddenly seeing through Odin’s disguise, Hiedrek cries in fury at his failing, for only Odin knows the answer to that question.


Read about Odin HERE



References:


1 - Encyclopaedia Mythology - Arthur Cotterell

2 - Encyclopaedia of Norse & Germanic Folklore, Mythology & Magick - Claude Lecouteux

3 - Encyclopaedia of Ancient Dieties - Charles Russell Coulter & Patricia Turner

4 - Norse Mythology - A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals & Beliefs - John Lindow

5 - The Poetic Edda - Various Artists

6 - The Prose Edda -Snorri Sturlusson

7 - Heathen Paths -Viking and Saxon Pagan Beliefs - Pete Jennings




Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Sacred Landscape of the Ancient Scottish Past - An Investigation

The Queensberry Hill from the Ae Forest
 


Queensberry - What’s in a Name



Seen from Dumfries and the Annandale valley, the Queensberry is a conical hill, rising above the foothills of the Ae and Kinnel Rivers. It sits alone, and is distinct from the other hills, rising like a fecund belly. 

 

I believe that landmarks, such as the Queensberry, were singled out as ‘manifestations’ of the divine in ancient times. In Scotland, the names of some hills, such as Caisteal na Caillich in Aberdeenshire, and hills called paps, are references to an ancient goddess. 


This being the case, my idea about the Queensberry isn’t so outlandish. 

 

But this hill had me stumped: did the Duke of Queensberry, and his estate, come from a family name, or was he named after the area? I set to work, ploughing through local antiquarian society records. From 1882 there is a reference to Queenshill, or Queensberg, in the description of a members’ outing. I also discovered that the first Earl of Queensberry, Sir William Douglas, was Viscount of Drumlanrig (1637-1695). The land was bequeathed to him during a visit by King Charles I, in 1633. Douglas built Drumlanrig Castle, but lived in Sanquhar castle.


I figured that I needed to find out if the hill’s name was Queensberry before William’s title. The best way to check this was to rifle through the National Library of Scotland’s online map vault. This is an amazing resource for anyone interested.

 

After much trawling, I found a hand drawn map by Timothy Pont, dated between 1583-96. Pont was a Fife man, who studied at St. Andrews in the 1500s. He undertook a mission to produce maps of Scotland and get them published, creating the first proper maps of the country.  In the sketch of the area in question, Pont names the conical hill as Queensberry - so the hill existed before the title. With a large grin on my chops, I ticked that box and moved on. What next? How about looking at the origins of the name? 

 

Etymologically let’s break it down: 

 

 Queensberry, Queensberg, Quenysbery, (c. 1485, Wallace).

 

 

Queen -  cwēn, Old English = a particular queen, or simply meaning ‘woman’. 

In Proto-Celtic: Ben, proto Indo-European, *gwenh = woman. 

Anglo Saxon - cenē, plural, cweneēs. Prot Germanic - *kwenō - kwenōniz = Queen

Old Irish ben, Irish - bean, Celtic bena.

 

Berry - Berg, Old English = A hill.


 

Queensberry from the Blue Cairn



The History of the Land 

 

The area was once Old Welsh speaking and of Brythonic Celtic origin - culminating in the kingdom of Rheged, which stretched as far as Carlisle and Stranraer. However, by the 6th Century A.D. the kingdom had fallen under the rule of the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. 


The lands around the Queensberry, which includes the Forest of Ae, are still very much wilderness. The foothills that skirt the fertile Vale of Annandale, bordering the Kinnel to the east of this wilderness, and the the hills that gird Nithsdale to the west, are dotted with settlements, hill forts, enclosures and other archaeological remains. Cairns, such as Long Cairn, are situated in the heights. The rugged foothills have been lived on for centuries, for the lower ground was mostly bog and marsh.

 

Where ancient settlements existed in the pre-Christian past, we must assume that there was provision for each community’s needs; shelter, trade, food and worship. The Celts were known for their religious groves, but less so for their temples. It was said they worshipped in the open air. Geography, not buildings, were of importance to these tribespeople, especially pre-iron-age. 


It is nature that governs the choices of the sacredness of the terrain. A distinct landmark draws symbolic anchors. The stories carried by the peoples was transposed onto their settled locations, and, as new stories came, these were similarly woven into the landscape. The earth was no dead thing; it was animate, alive. Everything had its spirit, every fold in the land desired explanation. Some places just have presence. They affect us, draw us, almost inexplicably, like a mountain peak, a shard of rock. Heights draw the eye. 

 

The Queensberry hill, isolated from other hills, and therefore iconically distinct, formed a symbolic centre. I feel that this sacredness is hinted at in the name, and also location of the hill. 



Queensberry rising above the forest and the windmills



The Otherworldly Heights

 

The highlands, the peaks and the wilderness possessed an otherworldly aura to the ancient tribes. Here the liminal zone was one where boundaries between the mundane and the sublime were crossed. There’s a reason that the Bronze-agers chose to bury their dead on the hilltops. This was the realm of the gods and spirits, to which they consigned their ancestors, thus weaving their communities into the drama of the living land. These places were where commune was possible with the dead, with spirits and even their deities.  


This is not to single the Queensberry out as the only such hill. Of course not. The landscape of Greece abounds with sacred landscapes references - mountains, springs, rivers, etc - the Bronze-age British landscape was no different. There would be many sacred landscapes, pivoting on a sacred central point, with other sites radiating from it, according to myth and religious needs of the community. This template is still found in tribal societies and known from others in antiquity. 

 

This idea is important. In an age where everything it steadily commoditised, we need to regain this sense of sacred linking with the land. If we did see the landscape with a sense of awe, surely we'd respect it better? If the stories of your ancestors were woven into the basic tapestry of the land (your gods, your spirits), wouldn’t this make you less likely to abuse it? 


We can gain an immense sense of wonder at the science of it all, for sure. But when I walk amongst the wild, and walk the silent tracks, the Queensberry nudging into view, until it squats like a giant tumulus across the span of the horizon, I feel a sense of that awe that is ‘other’. The awe that is immeasurable, unconfined and wells from deep within.







Reference:

1 - The Transactions & Proceedings of the Dumfries & Galloway Scientific, Natural History Antiquarian Society - 1880-83, 1896-7, 1993 


2 - Celtic Place Names in the Borders - May Gordon Williamson


3 - An Etymological Lexicon of Proto-Celtic - Matasovic


4 - The Anglo Saxon Charms - Felix Grendon


5 - Gallo-Brittonic Etymological Dictionary - Edward Hatfield


6 - European Paganism  - Ken Dowden


7 - Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic; Landscapes, Monuments & Memory - Mark Edmonds


8 - Cosmos & History - Eliade Mircea