The Tomnaverie Experience
Ros, Jamie & Grahame camp it up in the Highlands!
This all started last August at the Oak Dragon eclipse camp, where Ros and Jamie were the 'facilitators' for our little western circle.
As part of one of the camp's geomancy sessions, we did a meditation where you visualised the earth spinning beneath your feet, and the energy grid linking sacred sites all over the globe. You then looked for a powerful spot from which you could draw energy. I got Glastonbury Tor, but Ros got a spot in Aberdeenshire. She didn't know where exactly, as she'd never been there. But after the camp, she did some map dowsing of the area, and identified a particular stone circle 'near Aboyne'.
When she wrote to tell me about this, I guessed she meant Tomnaverie (she did) and did some research in my library and on the net. I discovered that the circle was in a ruined state with many fallen stones, some even lost in an old quarry that had been dug around three sides of the circle, to within 3 feet of the stones in some cases. Still, Ros had felt strong energy in the place, and in January when she got my letter containing my results she did an energy-raising meditation and 'sent' it to Tomnaverie.
So now we fast-forward nine months to this May when Ros and Jamie finally made it north of the border, and the three of us drove northwards from Glasgow to see what had been birthed at Tomnaverie.
It was about 4.30 in the afternoon when we finally arrived at the stones. Driving along the road towards Tomnaverie, we could see a scaffolding tower erected on the hilltop where the circle is. The sort of tower archaeologists use when they are on a dig, so that they can get a plan view of the site. Something was clearly going on . It was with some excitement that we climbed the hill to get our first view of the circle.
We found to our astonishment that it had been completely restored! All stones re-erected, fresh earth newly raked over the circle, and not a footprint on it. This had just happened by the looks of things, and we seemed to be the first visitors. What a privilege. The energy felt very jumpy - it was all over the place, as though the circle was in shock at finding itself whole again after being ruinous for so long. I dowsed some very strong but chaotic energy lines and spots. These registered as 'unhealthy' (I don't like calling them 'negative' or 'black' as I think those terms are overly prejudicial). Jamie (who is pretty sensitive to energies naturally) went over to the recumbent stone to get a better sense of things.
I should explain about recumbent stones briefly....the Aberdeenshire circles are all of a variety called Recumbent Stone Circles, or RSCs. They feature a large stone in the SW, lying on its side with the top angled so that it is flat. Usually, it is set up to mirror the hills on the skyline in the background. On each side of the recumbent are two tall vertical stones, the flankers. It's not always clear, but the right-hand flanker sometimes is pronouncedly phallic, whereas the left-hand one has a more feminine aspect. This is very obvious at Loanhead of Daviot, where the LH flanker even has oval cup-marks where the 'eyes' of the Goddess-stone would be.
The rest of the stones in these circles usually diminish in size, with the smallest stone opposite the recumbent. From there, the major and/or minor southern standstill moonsets occur over the recumbent, between the 'horns' of the flankers. RSCs are only found in the Aberdeenshire area, as it's the best location in the UK for observing these lunar events because the moon appears closer to the horizon at the standstills.
After dowsing a little more, I spent time checking out the astronomical alignments of the stones with my compass, and was pleased to find that they seemed to check out. Lunar standstill rising and settings, equinox sunrise and set, winter solstice and possibly Beltaine/Lughnasadh rising and settings too. I couldn't be completely accurate as I wasn't compensating for elevated horizons, but each alignment of two stones across the circle appeared to have some corresponding skyline notch or ridge.
As the evening was getting on, we went on a short distance in the car and investigated a nearby wood Ros had picked from the map, with a view to making a campsite. We soon found a spot not visible from the road and next to a fairly new-looking waymarked footpath.
After setting up the tents and a cup of tea, we walked back along the road to the stones to watch the sunset, which sank into the side of a conical hill Morvern, and almost in alignment with two of the stones. It would have been correct a Beltaine a couple of weeks beforehand. Jamie played his didgeridoo to the recumbent and flankers, its pulsing drone echoing across the fields as the sun slowly set. Our vigil was briefly interrupted by a husband and wife photography team, who drove up hurriedly almost at the last minute, and rushed up the hill with cameras and tripods, before frantically snapping away trying to catch the last rays of the sun through the stones. At this point we had Jamie sitting on the recumbent didging, Ros right in the centre of the circle, facing the sun with eyes shut and arms raised overhead, singing softly; and me walking round the circle dowsing with my aurameter. Still, they could have asked us to move out of the way so I guess maybe they liked the 'colour' in the shot!
The energy calmed down a lot after sunset; I dowsed several times, and little spirals emanating from several spots within the circle replaced the chaotic energy spots. This was a new dowsing reaction for me - I'm still getting used to using the aurameter. I would get a small clockwise reaction from the pointer at one point, and then an anti-clockwise reaction at another point about 9 or 10 inches from the first, but at a higher or lower level. I tried this several times, and eventually came to the hypothesis that I was dowsing a rising spiral vortex of energy. The circle also had a strong circumferential energy line that had been lacking earlier. We stayed long enough to watch the moonrise, and walked along a section of the same waymarked footpath that led into Tarland, the local village, where we eventually found the bar at the Aberdeen Arms Hotel. Here they were selling an excellent new real ale from Perth that was called 'Thrappledouser'! It means throat-quencher, but the 'douser' part seemed quite appropriate so of course we had to have a couple of pints of that before staggering back along the road to our campsite. The locals were very friendly, and knew where we were camped (obviously we'd been checked out already!) but weren't bothered; indeed they were quite excited by the fact that we were working on the stones.
Next morning we returned to the circle by walking along the new waymarked footpath running past our campsite which, we'd discovered, actually led to the stone circle! Two locals in Historic Scotland overalls were half-heartedly raking barrowloads of soil over the circle, prior to sowing grass seed. We'd come at a good time, they said, as it had just been finished and the scaffolding tower was to be dismantled the next day. One of the two was a real old pixie type, bushy white beard and twinkly eyes; he was very interested in the dowsing and energy work we were doing, telling me that he'd been round with his 'copper rods' and had dowsed lines radiating out from each of the stones. His mate was quite taken with Jamie and his didg, and we learned a fair bit about the archaeology team from Reading University that had rebuilt the circle, led by Prof. Richard Bradley. They had begun with an excavation trench, then Historic Scotland decided that, since they were digging it up anyway, they might as well rebuild the circle. The reconstruction work had started in February...shortly after Ros's energy sending, it appeared! (N.B. I've since corresponded by email with Prof. Bradley who told me that the positions of the stones had been very clear from their socket-holes and packing stones, but that no attempt had been made to check stellar alignments. I'd like to see a more rigorous check made on those at some point.)
After this visit, we returned to pick up the car and spent the rest of the day driving to as many sites in the area as we could fit in. First up was Culsh Souterrain, which is basically a fogou by another name. The blurb says 'an underground cellar next to a roundhouse, probably used for storing roots and grain for the community....' Bollocks! If that's the case, why is the entrance so low that you have to really crouch on your knees to get in (difficult carrying a sack of grain), and why is it aligned to the major southern standstill moonrise? The passage is lined with large stone blocks, getting smaller towards the top, which opens to about 6 feet as it curves round to the far end. The whole thing roofed with even bigger stone slabs. Mostly granite, but at the entrance and at the end of the chamber they seemed to be porphyry, an aggregate stone. Energy-wise it was very pokey; mind you on this visit none of us had light so it was done mostly by feel. Marked this down for a return visit. We checked out another souterrain in the area, but it was collapsed and overgrown.
Driving onwards, we saw Pictish carved stones and many other stone circles, some of which were reduced to just the recumbent and flankers, like Ardlair (left). Stunning views from here towards the sacred hill of Tap O'Noth, which many of the sites seem to be focused towards. The weather wasn't all that favourable to us today, with some heavy showers interspersed with sunshine. We managed to time things so that we got 20 minutes to half an hour at the sites, then you could see the rain sweeping in so we'd dash back to the car and drive to the next place.
There isn't much left but the huge recumbent and flankers at Aulton (left), but note the phallic-shaped RH flanker. Aulton has a stunning view of the other sacred hill in the area, Dunnydeer. This is a very prominent Tor reminiscent of Glastonbury, an old hill fort with some remnants of vitrified stone walls and a forty-foot high ruined wall of a later castle on top. The wall has a large gothic-arched window in it that from a distance looks remarkably like a dolmen and makes the hill look smaller than it actually is. This hill is also very prominent from many of the other sites in the area. Julian Cope, in 'The Modern Antiquarian', provides a very good overview of the sacred landscape of the region and shows how these two hills are at the heart of the whole layout.
Perhaps the most isolated site we visited that day was Candle Hill. The circle was located in a dense wood of rowan and gorse that covered a hilltop. A dry-stone wall surmounted with barbed wire enclosed the whole hilltop. Access, and then finding the stones in the dense undergrowth and uneven terrain was not easy, but the very isolation gave the one or two remaining stones an ethereal, almost fairy-like feel. By now we were all feeling pretty drained, and headed back to our campsite.
That day was full moon and Ros had wanted to do a rite at Tomnaverie, but the weather wasn't going to hold out. By the time we got back to camp the sky was completely overcast with dark clouds. So we spent a far more productive evening in the pub again, where Jamie was asked to play his didg (which went down a storm), and found out some more information about the dig at the stones. An old local with a baseball cap and about 3 teeth, whose accent was so strong even I had trouble understanding him, chatted up Ros. Ros just smiled and nodded a lot, although nearly got herself in trouble by doing this after he'd just asked her "to be sure and give me a wee treat before ye leave tonight"! He was actually asking here if she would give them a song, but it was quite funny when I told Ros what he'd said!
Lots more sites the next day, including some of the showpiece ones, Midmar Kirk (left), Sunhoney, Easter Aquhorthies and Loanhead of Daviot. These have all been restored and all are worth visiting. Very different energies at each one - this was something we all noticed; how different they all felt.
Midmar Kirk felt very "domesticated", as it was well tended and in a churchyard. One or possibly two of the stones had been removed, but it still felt pretty strong. I tried dowsing for positions of missing stones, and got reactions in three places. However, the third one wasn't a point but more of a line, and closer inspection of the ground revealed a buried electrical cable running from the church! It wasn't connected though, so I guess I was picking up on the copper wiring?
Sunhoney was in a more natural and slightly overgrown state surrounded by trees, and its recumbent, although fallen, was covered with cup marks. However, there was a set of overhead high-tension electricity lines running past right outside the circle, and consequently the energy felt a bit strange - 'buzzy' to say the least. It was also harder to check alignments here due to the trees, but there was a particularly interesting alignment to the equinox sunrise, where the easternmost stone of the circle was shaped with a little shoulder to mirror the hills on the horizon skyline. It also had one stone that I noticed was slightly magnetic, although I don't think this was the only circle where this happened - possibly just the only one I noticed. An outlying stone appeared to mark the northern major standstill moonset.
Easter Aquorthies was quite funny in that a herd of cows in the next field all came over to the fence when Jamie started didging - apparently cows really like the sound. They were all lined up with their heads bobbing about as they listened. Here an older couple, who Ros tried to talk to, joined us. Apparently the woman was pretty open-minded, and told us they had a son who was very into ley-lines. He had OS maps covered with pencil lines that he would work on. The husband was a different story, however. He only came to these sites to photograph them, which is what he was busy doing. Clearly not impressed with our dowsing and didging! The woman told us that they'd been to Avebury a few months ago, and he was disgusted that there were people actually HUGGING the stones! Still, he clearly felt drawn to visit these places, even if it was only to take pictures
This is a well-restored site, and some of the stones are quite striking. A spectacular red porphyry stone in the SE seemed to align over an opposing, diamond-shaped stone to mark the northern minor standstill moonset. Dry-stone walling containing a raised earth bank, almost like a henge, surrounds this circle. Jamie and I both felt that this possibly contained the energy better and certainly I could dowse strong concentric energy bands within the circle and radiating out from the recumbent. A small stone in the bank outside the circle marks the equinox sunset (this seems to be a feature of many of the sites - at Tomnaverie a small pointed stone just next to the RH flanker serves the same purpose).
Loanhead was strangely anomalous to the rest, as the main circle was filled with rocks like a cairn, apart from a small area in the centre. I've already mentioned the God and Goddess flankers, but the most striking feature is the recumbent, which is split in two lengthways.This created an interesting resonance when Jamie played his didg into the space; so much so that Ros and I joined in humming and toning. After this there was a noticeable increase in the energy field given off by the recumbent. After this, Jamie commented that the RH flanker had a higher resonance than the recumbent, with the LH flanker lower still. He continued checking this at other sites after this, and they all seemed to have this property.
Next to the circle is another stone ring, identified as a 'cremation area', and other intriguing stones in the corner of the field which almost feel like they could be another circle. These certainly dowsed energetically enough. Here again, an outlying stone marks the equinox sunset.
Our final site that day was another ruined RSC at Kirkton of Bourtie. Many of these circles have been destroyed in the past to make room for crops, and here only a massive recumbent, one flanker and two other stones remained in the middle of a ploughed field. Attempting to dowse the circumference of the missing stones, Ros and I dowsed as we approached the circle. We both got reactions at the same points as we walked towards the stones, and repeated dowsing indicated five concentric bands of energy outside the original ring. We hadn't tried this before, but it also occurred at other sites when we repeated the experiment. I got reactions for a possible five missing stones, but of course it is impossible to confirm these without excavation.
That evening, Ros decided to do the postponed ritual, but we all thought that the souterrain would be a better location; so about 21.45 we left the camp as it was getting dark and set off into the gloaming. We took the footpath to the circle, but instead of turning off to the stones, we carried on another track round the back that would take us eventually to the road the other side of the circle. In places the track was hard to find in the near-dark and it seemed to take ages to get there - Ros said the pixies were definitely out that night! We had another bovine encounter when a herd of cows decided to come and investigate these strangers walking along the edge of their field, and the entire herd started galloping over to us in a huge cloud of steam that glistened in the moonlight. I wasn't too worried as we were fairly close to the gate by that point, until I noticed there was another herd of cows in the next field, and they had access to our field by the gate and yes, they were coming over to see what was going on too! However, they weren't that threatening and stopped about 10 feet away. Jamie played a bit of didg to them, which calmed them down.
Having finally reached and crossed the road onto what was a clearly marked path on the OS map, we soon ran into trouble in the form of a big barbed-wire fence with a four-foot nettle-filled ditch behind it, and a further fence after that. It looked like the bridge over the ditch had long gone, and the farmer had decided just to cover the gates either end with barbed wire and forget about it. Jamie takes this sort of thing as a personal affront, so very gingerly we negotiated the obstacles and found ourselves in a ploughed field with no sign of the path. However, we were at a corner of the field at this point, so followed the edge until we got to the next stream, somewhat wider than the last one. Luckily the old bridge was still there where the path should have emerged, so we got across that to find ourselves in someone's back garden...clearly a few more houses had been built since the OS map was printed.
But after this the going became easier, mainly as we stuck to lanes and minor roads. The moon was rising higher in the sky - actually casting pretty strong shadows - and pretty soon we were at the souterrain.
Here, we lit candles and incense, set up a little altar, and Jamie led a guided visualisation where we each contacted the guardian of the place, received a gift, and were shown something of what the place was used for. My guardian looked somewhat like an extra from Braveheart with straggly hair and strange, diamond-and-line blue patterns on his face, like woad or tattoos. I was given a wand with two bird feathers on it and a bird's claw affixed to the end. My guardian then led me into the souterrain, where a similar wand was being used to tattoo a Pictish-style bird design on the left shoulder of a young boy. I wasn't very clear what bird it was; I thought eagle at first but it didn't seem that big. Jamie suggested it might have been a curlew, as this had been the most common bird we'd seen on the trip so far. I'll have to look out for a Pictish curlew design and consider getting a tattoo.
I had also felt that the rituals in the souterrain would be timed so that one would emerge to see the rising moon, and then process down the hill to Tomnaverie to watch the moon set over the recumbent. There is a clear alignment on the map that runs through Tomnaverie and Culsh souterrain, and not coincidentally this is also the line of the solstice sunrise/sunsets. Still visible are the remains of a processional pathway on this line on the hillside below Tomnaverie. The exposed rocks have several cup-marks.
It was therefore disappointing to find the return of the dark clouds and no sign of the moon when we emerged from the chamber of the souterrain. However, as we were walking down the road towards the village, two long gaps opened up in the clouds to our left. The lower gap revealed a bright star, and the top one showed us the moon, which illuminated the distant landscape eerily, making it look like a misty sea with rolling hills popping out of it. Simply stunning, like a view of Annwyn, Jamie said. Further on, as the moon had dived into clouds again, we could see isolated patches of landscape lit up, and could actually see the moonbeams through the clouds. I'm not sure if I can remember actually seeing moonbeams before - it was quite breathtaking. It was a little difficult walking whilst looking left all the time, but somehow we made it, and it was with a strong reluctance that we forced ourselves on into the suddenly horrible sodium streetlighting of the village. Once past the village we were at the start of our waymarked footpath, and I felt a strong pull to go up to the stones again. We still had work to do there. As we turned to walk along the footpath, the moon again revealed herself directly in front of us - it's like she was beckoning us towards the stones.
It was very peaceful when we got there. I placed a large quartz crystal (bought in Florence) on the recumbent, and it positively glowed in the moonlight. Since I'd carried the didgeridoo from the souterrain, Jamie let me make the first noise with it. Not easy on his didg, which is quite short, but I managed a good long note after only two squeaky moments! That was the first time I'd played a didg, and it was quite entrancing and empowering. It really is an energy instrument. That's something else I have to get now.
On dowsing, the circle seemed very settled and the energy was pulsing nicely from the recumbent, so we held hands in the centre of the circle and had a bit of an "ommm" to finish things. During the silence afterwards as we still held hands, the most amazing cacophony of birdsong started up, circling around us. There must have been over a dozen different birdcalls; it was like a dawn chorus except this was about 3 in the morning and still dark. As we released our hands and broke apart, the birdsong faded away. Satisfied, we declared the circle officially open, and went back to camp, getting to bed around 04.30.
Bit of a late start the next day, and we only went to two circles, Craigevar and North Strone. Craigevar was marked as a full circle on the OS map, but when we got there not much was left. One big stone left standing (one of the circle stones) had a drill-hole in the back of it, as though someone had tried to break it up but failed. One of the flankers remained, lying down - it had cup marks on it - and the recumbent lying broken in two in the hedge nearby. A couple of piles of stones were all that remained. Still, it didn't feel bad energy-wise; it had more of an old and tired feel. A retired circle, we thought.
The other one we went to because it was described in the Burl book in positively lyrical terms like 'elfin'. The stones were a stunning mix of white quartz and red porphyry, with a few red granite ones. But the whole thing was on a smaller scale, as though fairies or errant children had built it...and it was set in a rowan wood. However, we knew something was wrong as soon as we parked the car beside a JCB at the bottom of the hill. Walking up, we could see that the entire wood had been devastated, either by blight, fire or humans wasn't clear. There were very few trees left, and they looked stunted and barren; all the way up the hillside we passed huge (20ft+) piles of grubbed-out tree roots. This was what the JCB was doing. A foreboding sense of desolation infected us all.
The circle too felt very dark on approach, and on entering the circle we all three of us got instant headaches. Only 3 stones remained upright, the rest were fallen. Four of them looked recently trashed - we could see the socket holes and packing stones underneath the stones, and they weren't overgrown at all. Ros immediately wanted to start putting them upright again, and if we'd had some ropes and levers with us I dare say she'd have tried. I didn't do much dowsing as I didn't feel like spending much time in the circle, but instead walked around the outside checking alignments as best I could with my compass. Jamie played some didg to the recumbent, but this rape of the hillside and the stones visibly upset him. He went off for a while, returning with a piece of wood on which he'd carved a very strong protection and blasting rune, which he left propped against the recumbent as safeguard against further vandalism. Quiet and slightly depressed, we made our way back to the car.
Interesting that both the sites we did that day were completely opposite to the ones we'd seen before....it was like a reminder that there was still much for us to do in that area, although clearly we'd done good work on Tomnaverie and the other sites. I feel strongly that we'll be going back there soon.
Grahame is a professional lighting designer and production manager. He is also a witch and budding Geomancer. He lives in Glasgow, but tries to get down to Glastonbury as often as possible, and is planning to attend the MAG European Geomancy School.