I’ve just been away in Scotland for 6 days, hence my absence from the blogosphere. One of the first places I went to was Kilmartin on the west coast, which has about 650 ancient sites within a 6 mile radius. It is a wide valley, and its most prominent feature is a chain of 6 cairns, running in a straight line along the floor of the valley. I’d previously thought of cairns as small piles of stones gradually built up by travellers on the tops of hills. But these are giant, up to 40 metres across, and as usual nobody quite knows what they were about.
The first one I went to had a burial chamber in the middle that you could climb into. The second one - Temple Wood Circle - had much fewer stones, but what you could see here was a stone circle that was in the process of being gradually buried by the stones. Again, no-one really knows what these circles are about, or why it was getting covered with stones. One thing we do seem to know about many of these stone circles is that they have precise astronomical alignments: you’ll find, for example, a stone in the East that is exactly aligned with the midsummer sunrise.
I got a strong sense of this circle being a ceremonial place that symbolically contained the whole universe, the whole of life, with the astronomical alignments having not just the practical function of marking out the seasons, but also making a symbolic connection with the macrocosm.
Sweatlodges similarly have a circular shape with the various directions marked out, and they too contain the whole universe, they are the whole universe while you are in them. It was this that led me to feel that stone circles work similarly. I have been fortunate enough to have been in many Sweatlodges led in a traditional Native American manner, with the leader having decades of training behind him, and the flavour of such ceremony is completely different to anything I have encountered in the modern ‘New Age’ scene (or even around the modern, high-profile Native American teachers). I don’t want to discount what goes in these recently developed ceremonies, because in many cases they represent a serious attempt to bring ceremony back into our lives. And it’s the best that can be done. But there is a depth of knowledge, an invocation of the whole of life in all its inter-relatedness and beauty, a seriousness of purpose along with common sense and humour, a sense that these ceremonies really do matter, that I have only seen in traditional ceremonies.
So it was with this sort of background that I felt yes, these Celtic ancestors of ours with their stone circles were doing their ceremonies in an essentially similar manner thousands of years ago, and it was part of a connection to life and its cycles that has been lost.
A day or two later I noticed a sign for Glencoe, famous for its massacre, so I thought I’d drop in. In 1692 the Campbells, who were guests of the MacDonalds, treacherously murdered 13 of their hosts for political reasons, and the incident has been notorious ever since. I visited a monument to the massacre, and while I was there a South African couple turned up, and the man started telling me about how such an incident lays a curse on a family down the generations, but if you confess to Jesus, he’ll wash it away.
I replied that you can’t confess to something you haven’t done, and he agreed, but said that you can confess to Jesus on behalf of your ancestors, and this will remove the curse. We left it at that, but what he didn’t know was that one side of my family is Campbell, and I have sometimes wondered if there might not be something lingering on from the Glencoe massacre, even though I don’t know if we are direct descendants of any of the participants. So I think in his own way the guy was right, and if you believed in Jesus (which I don’t) what he recommended probably would work. I think these things do get passed down, but I’m not sure they are susceptible to a psychoanalytic approach. Some sort of ritual or act of atonement is probably what is needed. Such as confessing to Jesus! But it was strange that this guy should have turned up and said what he did while I was there.