Feature Articles – Glen Lyon: the valley of the Sun God
Glen Lyon, in Pertshire, is one of the most remote locations in Scotland, but also one of the few places where Scotland’s Celtic past was kept alive, particularly a veneration of the old Celtic deities, from the Sun God Lugh, to the Creator Goddess the Cailleach.
by Philip Coppens
Fortingall The small village of Fortingall is located at the entrance of Glen Lyon. The name Fortingall is for “Forter Cill” – Fort Church, but the parish is said to have been known as “Cille Bhrain”, St Bran’s Church, although the church is dedicated to St Cedd. Today, it is best known for its old Yew Tree, believed to be 5000 years old and hence the oldest living object in Europe – if not the world. The tree is also known as the “Tree of the Resurrection”, as the yew begins to “live again” after 500 years. It stands next to Fortingall Church and it seems logical to assume that the church marks an original pagan sanctuary – in which the yew may have played an important role. Evidence that Fortingall was an important centre can be seen just to the East of the village, where there is a field of megalithic remains. The standing stones stand next to the road, very much like the much more impressive stone circle of Croft Moraig, near Kenmore (in the direction of Aberfeldy). The stones of Fortingall stand on the banks of the River Lyon, placed in three groups of standing stones. Closest to the road are a group of four stones (NE) and a group of three stones (SW), while further into the field, closer to the river, is another group of three (S). All are water-worn, smooth, rounded boulders. In 1970, the two settings closest to the road (NE & SW) were excavated by archaeologists from Leicester University, including the famous archaeologist Aubrey Burl. It was found that both had been four-poster variants, each comprising of four large stones at the corners of a rectangle, with four smaller stones mid-way between the larger ones. In both cases, the missing five stones had been pushed over and buried deeply in prepared pits at some point in the nineteenth century. The date is known as one of the stones was found to have a Victorian beer bottle under it. Excavation showed that the Southwest circle originally had a floor of tiny pebbles within it, and stones of quartz were found by the SSW stone. To the Southwest of the circle part of an Iron Age jet ring was found. At the centre of the Northeastern circle, a burnt patch containing pieces of charcoal and cremated bone was found. The closest standing stone is just outside of the Glen itself, and outside of Fortingall, known as the “Bridge of Lyon standing stone”. A block of quartzose schist rises to a height of approx. 2 metres. In 1838, a cup marked stone lay a short distance from the standing stone, having been undermined about the end of the 18th century. This was possibly a second standing stone. There is some doubt concerning the original position of the cup marked stone. If it stood in close proximity to the standing stone, the stones could have been part of a stone circle. Opposite the village is the small Carn-nam-marbh. This Bronze Age round barrow was subsequently used to bury victims of the great plague. As recently as 1924, an annual Shamain fire festival was performed here on November 11, showing that the locals remembered their Celtic forefathers. Once in Christian times, Fortingall is believed to have been an important Culdee centre. Fortingall was linked with St Cedd, a bishop of Iona, who died in 712 AD. It shows a possible link between Fortingall and Iona. Glen Lyon The Glen, known as Gleann Dubh nan Garbh Clach, or the Crooked Glen of Stones, is approx. 25 miles long. At present, it represents one of the most remote regions of Scotland. 25 miles long, with a population which measures perhaps slightly more than 100 people – and mostly absent during the winter months. The name Lyon betrays its origins: Lugdunum, after Lugh, the Celtic sun god. As such, Glen Lyon is the Valley of the Sun God – or at least was. Like Fortingall, the Glen was a prime target of the missionaries from Iona. St Adamnan, also called Eonan, was Irish born and joined the Iona religious community and is famed for his biography of St. Columba. He lived in the 7th century and died around 704 AD. He set up his religious cell in Glen Lyon using nearby Dull (or Tulli, as it was then known) as a place of solitude and retreat. In his old age he returned to his beloved Glen and on his death was buried at Dull. Behind Dull’s church is a holy well, reputedly the site of miraculous cures. It is called “Tobar Eouan” or Well of Adomnan.
Dull might now feature on Scottish humoristic postcards as “Scotland: not dull at all”, and though its current status might not necessarily agree with that conclusion, its past was definitely very important. Dull was the oldest collegiate college in Scotland and when it moved to St Andrew’s via Dunkeld in 1413, it became the origins of the famous university there. A saint normally goes hand in hand with a miracle, and Adamnan was no exception: The Black Plague hit the Glen in 664 AD. Summoning God’s help, he cast the evil spirits of the disease onto a rock on which he had placed his foot. The rock is by the roadside at Camustrachan and is named Craig Fhionnaidh – revealing its prior existence as a hill connected with the legendary Feinne, or Fions, who were said to have lived in the valley. The site is marked by a Bronze Age standing stone, with a crude cross carved upon it. Beneath a bush across the road lies the stone with the hole into which the plague was “ordered” to disappear. It should come as no surprise that Craig Fhionnaidh became the destination of a pilgrimage, with people climbing the site to pray, and to see the saint’s footstep imprinted in the stone.
Deeper in the Glen, Bridge of Balgie is no doubt still the “hub of Glen life”, however absent it may seem. Just over the bridge, taking the road towards Loch Tay, on the right hand side is “Milton Eonan”, which was the home of St. Adamnan: “Bridge of Balgie” was the location of his chapel and a mill. The little chapel supposed to have been built by St Adamnan was pulled down in the 14th century and a new one erected at a few hundred yards distance in the burial place of Brennudh. Investigations in 1969 could not locate the site of the original chapel. What attracted the Ionian saints to this part? It suggests that it was an important area, with many Celtic pagan sites that required their proper attention – and Christianisation.
Remains of circular stone towers are scattered along the length of the Glen. Tradition has associated these with the Irish giant Fiann MacCumhaill, or Fin MacCool (aka Fingal) and his warrior band of the Fianna. Legend has it that, near Loch Lyon, in the hamlet of Cashlie, the Bhacain, or the Dog Stake, was said to be the place where the Fianna tied their dogs after hunting. This stone on a mound near the road is about two feet high. According to legend, Fionn’s own dog, Bran, was tethered here.
The best remaining example of a stone tower is Caisteal an Duibhe (Castle of the Black Hero), on the roadside near Cashlie. Ordnance Survey maps have listed these towers as “homesteads” and there are two indicated on the map.
Near each tower was a moot hill, or meeting mound, as well as a “Testing Stone”, which consisted of a heavy, rounded boulder with a flat stone behind it higher up. The idea was that acceptance into Manhood occurred by lifting the lower stone and setting it up on top of the other. Only one set still exists, in a field opposite the House of Camusvrachan. A somewhat “adapted” version of a testing stone can be seen just to the west of Fortingall, in the entrance garden to The Dialhouse. According to several researchers, including Archie McKerracher, the towers are the remains of the Picts. McKerracher believes that Glen Lyon was a veritable stronghold of the Picts and argues that Glen Lyon, rather than Scone, might have been the centre of their kingdom. Like so many other things, it seems that kingdom has moved away from the Glen, towards the east and Fife. If Glen Lyon was indeed the centre of the kingdom, it could explain why Glen Lyon was thus named: the sun god was normally associated with the king.
McKerracher believes the Glen harboured the Pictish regular army, as it was located in a sheltered position which was nevertheless centrally located. Today, Glen Lyon might seem the most remote region in Scotland. But this is purely because of modern roads – a look on the map and the existence of paths show that Glen Lyon is indeed centrally located, close to Perth, but also close to e.g. Glencoe. As McKerracher writes: “Radiating from Glen Lyon is a line of conventional hill forts that ran eastwards to Dunnottar, near Stonehaven, while another, more widely spaced, ran north-west to the Great Glen and beyond, and a third swings south-east to Stirling.” Carbon dating of charcoal remains in the Glen believed to be linked to the Picts has indicated a date of the 7th to 10th century AD, which times perfectly with the Pictish rule over the area, which lasted until 847 AD. The Praying Hands Though many megalithic remains are found just outside the Glen, in Fortingall and near Loch Tay, the Glen itself is void of megalithic monuments – as the site of the Creator Goddess and the solar deity, the glen itself was sacred by its own nature. Truly sacred sites were normally left untouched by Celtic hands. One area within the Glen is however of specific importance: the so-called Praying Hands, or the “Praying Hands of Mary”. The name suggests that the site itself has been Christianised. Conical hills are always very important and the Glen has one specific example: Creag nan Eildeag, measuring 642 metres and hence perhaps not the most impressive of hills, were it not for its conical shape. Its shape is visible from the main road, e.g. around Ballinloan.
It is on its slopes that rise the so-called “Praying Hands”, an enigmatic rock formation that has captured the imagination of many. Two huge stones rise sideways, with a narrow split between them: as if they were two hands, held together without the fingertips touching, as if in prayer. The formation seems man-made. As no apparent archaeological research has been performed on this formation, one would suspect that it is man-made, rather than natural. The Praying Hands “pray” towards the conical Creag nan Eildeag. Like all conical hills, they are the symbol of the “primordial hill”, the first hill created on Earth – the navel of the Earth, its shape mimicking the shape of the belly of a pregnant woman. In Egypt, the conical hill was identified as a “primordial hill”, on which the solar deity masturbated, to create the world. In Celtic countries, a very similar event occurs, though it is more correct to say that the solar deity Lugh had impregnated the Cailleach, hence the conical shaped hill expressing her pregnancy. How to reach?
To reach the Praying Hands, it is best to acquire the Ordnance Survey Loch Tay & Glen Dochart (number 51) map. Park the car at the Bridge of Balgie (near the Post Office), and cross the small bridge (the road that will take you back to the A827 via Ben Lawers Visitor Centre). Take an immediate left hand turn, towards the Meggernie activity centre. Follow this path, through its various gates, until you reach a cluster of two houses and a large shed in front, listed as “Roroyere/Balmenoch” on the map. Just past the second house, the track turns into a road again and crosses a small bridge. Just before the bridge, a small path leads up the hill. Follow this path as it makes its way up, past a first “terrace”, with a sheep’s pen to your right. Continue along the path, which follows a small river. The path on the map is next to a description of “Gleann Da-Eig”. The top of Creag nan Eildeag now continues to appear as a conical hill to your right. Along this path, no more than 10-15 minutes away from the sheep’s pen, make sure to keep checking your right, as about 50 yards to your right, the top of the “praying hands” can be seen. My “marker” is a black and white lichen covered rather square stone on the left edge of the path – the top of the praying hands is best visible from there. Note you will only spot the top of the praying hands when walking up the slope. If you have missed it, and walked too far (where the cone of Creag nan Eildeag becomes rather “dull”), backtrack to the sheep’s pen and begin your climb again. A little intuition will go a long way in locating the Praying Hands… House of the Cailleach The Cailleach was the Celtic creator goddess, encountered throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. In the Lothians, she is particularly linked with another conical hill, Berwick Law. But deep inside the Glen, an almost unique structure can be found to the creator goddess: the house of the Cailleach, or the Tigh Nam Bodach. This small stone structure, located high up the mountains at the head of Glen Lyon, is probably the only surviving shrine to the pagan Mother Goddess, the Cailleach. Until his death some years ago, the last “servant” of the Mother Goddess was Bob Bissett, head stalker of the Invermeran estate. The house was the home of the Cailleach (Mother Goddess), the Bodach (old Man) and the smaller Nighean (the Daughter), while two smaller children remained inside the house. The Creator Goddess only lived in her house from May 1 to October 30, from Beltane to Halloween, the Celtic festivals that mark the beginning and end of summer.
The Cailleach and her family is symbolised by very heavy water-worn stones shaped like dumb-bells. The Cailleach herself is some 18 inches high, while her Daughter is only 3 inches tall.
The Cailleach resided past Loch Lyon, up Glen Cailleach, named after her. Fresh thatch was placed on the roof, and the stones were brought outside to watch over the herds during the summer. When the herds moved in October, the divine family were sealed up for the winter and the house was made weather tight. The ritual was said to have been performed for centuries until the pattern of farming changed, and as sheep replaced cattle, and the people moved away, the cult diminished – but Bob Bissett continued the custom.
The two glens show the relationship between the Mother Goddess, the Creator, Cailleach, and the Sun God, Lugh, Glen Lyon. That it is in this remote region that worship of the Cailleach has persevered into the 21st century should not come as a surprise. The name of the House is known both as ‘Tigh na Cailliche’ (A L F Rivet, 1961) or ‘Taigh-nam- Bodach’ (A C Thomas and A Ross), depending on which deity would take precedence, the Cailleach or the Bodan.
Archaeological reports from 1967 stated that originally, there were 12 stones inside, which one source felt could be linked with St Meuran and his eleven disciples. If this was ever the case, it is clear that it were the locals trying to put some Christian veneer on their pagan worship – and not the other way around…
The house is measured at 2.0m x 1.3m with walls 0.4m high, with an entrance to the east, and roughly roofed with stone slabs.
In 1962, two other possible shielings were visible to the east and north-east, but they were deemed to be too ruinous for certain identification. Loch Tay Just to the South of Glen Lyon is Loch Tay, which also seems to have been part of the original megalithic complex. Stone circles are rife along the slopes of the lake, where the area around Kenmore seems to be of primary importance. Along the A827, from Aberfeldy in the vicinity of Kenmore, is Croftmoraig stone circle, as well as other standing stones nearby. On the south side of Loch Tay, near Kenmore, are the Falls of Acharn. The Falls are close to where the lake has remains of crannogs, wooden buildings built on poles in the lake – one being reconstructed in the Crannog Centre. The Falls have what is described as a “Hermit’s Cave”, a cave-like structure that looks over the Falls. Though the cave seems more like a modern folly enlarging a natural cave that might have served as a refuge for a hermit, offering a nice vantage point of the falls, further up the hill are the remains of a definitely genuine stone circle, sitting along the path.
The stones of the Falls of Acharn circle are arguably the best-positioned in Perthshire. Standing at a height of 378m above sea-level, the site commands breath-taking views across Loch Tay towards Ben Lawers and Schiehallion. Apparently formerly within a plantation, the stones now stand out in the open, and even a dry-stane dyke bisecting the circle doesn’t diminish its impressiveness.
The site is much disturbed site, no doubt a consequence of its well-known, exposed location – yet far away that anyone up to mischief is able to perform it. Of the original nine stones, four are still upright, while two others lie close to their original positions. Amongst debris from the dyke are what look like the broken-up remains of the missing three stones. This side of Loch Tay has several intriguing remains of its pagan and megalithic past. Kenmore Church occupies the prime position at the centre of Loch Tay’s east end, standing on a mound-like ridge. The church is probably Christianised a former sister monument of the Killin circle at the other end of Loch Tay, marking the two extremities. The place where the rivers entered and exited the lochs were no doubt important locations.
The lake is famous for its salmon fishing and the annual festival is closely linked with Kenmore’s church and village centre. Each year, the salmon fishing season is still opened by a parade along Kenmore’s town centre.
The salmon is a fish which in many ancient cultures had important connotations. Salmon are also important in Ireland, specifically in the Boyne Valley, with Newgrange as its most famous centre. At Loch Tay, the salmon might also have had specific importance in the religious calendar of the ancient inhabitants – as well as in its rituals. The lake near Kenmore also has an important island, the “Isle of Maidens”. The island is just off the northern shore of the lake, and there are excellent viewpoints from the bridge in Kenmore, as well as the Black Rock viewpoint on Drummond Hill – the hill that separates Fortingall from Kenmore. From the top of this hill, you can also see the standing stones of Fortingall, along the river Lyon. Kenmore used to have a fair known as “Geill nam Bann Naomh” – Fair of the Holy Women, named after nuns that lived on the island. The procession would arrive at the cross or centre of the market, where an official proclaimed the “Peace of the Fair”. The fair took place on July 26 and lasted until the turn of 20th century.
Long before the end of the Fair, the “Nine maidens” were expelled and travelled to Portbane, at Kingharry. Above Acharn is a hillock named “Faire nam Ban”, the Nun’s Watch, where legend has it they looked one last time to their former home. The nine women are known throughout history and the Vestal Virgins in Rome are probably the best known example. In Egypt, the concept was known as the Ennead, though not identified with virgins as such. The “nine women” were normally one old woman and eight virgins. In Egypt identified as the “Nine Principles”, they were indeed the “principles”, or “components” of the Cailleach, the Creator Goddess. In Celtic countries, the Cailleach was said to be seasonally “old”, but would be reborn – from old to fertile, from “old hag” to “virgin”, underlying the change of seasons. Mount Schiehallion In modern times, the fame of the Glen has been eclipsed by another fairytale: Mount Schiehallion has been described as the hill of the Daoine Shi, the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians”, betraying a history with the “fairy people”. The area is therefore one where legend has it that people have been whisked away to the “Otherworld”. At 1083m (3547 ft), Schiehallion is Scotland’s 57th highest mountain and one of the best known. Many visitors, including Queen Victoria, have gazed at Schiehallion’s broad eastern flank across Loch Tummel from what is now known as Queen’s View.
Despite its “fairy connections”, the mountain also holds a unique place in scientific history. In the 18th century, the mountain was the location of experiments which led to the calculation of the earth’s mass, which involved the first mapping of contours. Of particular connection with fairy mountains are their symbolism as entrances into the Otherworld, normally negotiated by caves. There are two main groups of caves on the north side of the mountain: Foss caves near the Braes of Foss car park, and Lassintullich caves, about 2 km northwest of the summit. A third group is in Gleann Mor, on the south side of the hill, beside shielings on the left bank of the Allt Mor. The Ordnance Survey map names one of the group, the Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fir (cave of the great man of the bushes).
It is the best known of approximately 26 caves that have been discovered in the limestone, many are no more than tiny potholes, but some are more than 40 metres long. It is this cave that has been identified as the entrance to the Otherworld. Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fir is known as the cave where fairies loved to dwell. Folklore has it that “there, it is said mortals from time to time dwelt among them, and interesting stories are told of the strange ways in which they were rescued from their power.
Malcolm Ferguson in ‘Rambles in Breadalbane’ (1891) stated that “if all the tales one hears related by old natives of Rannoch could be fully relied on, Schiehallion in days of yore used to be a favourite resort of the fairy folks, and more especially once a year, when all the various tribes throughout Glenlyon, Rannoch, Strathtummel, etc. congregated. Here they used to assemble in large numbers and hold their annual convocation, presided over by the beautiful and accomplished Queen Mab, gorgeously arrayed in her favourite green silk robes, with her abundant crop of beautiful golden-yellow hair waving in long ringlets over her shoulder down to her waist. It is said that there are a long series of mysterious caves, extending from one side of the mountain to the other.” Queen Mab, the Queen of the Fairies, was none other than the Cailleach, the Mother Goddess. The caves were literally entrances to the Otherworld, where the fairies resided. The walls of the caves were entrances through which the soul passed, similar to the rock faces in the caves of our ancient ancestors in France’s Lascaux or Spain’s Altimira – or the more modern “Black Mirrors” of the medieval alchemist. Schiehallion is also home to a (ruined) holy well that is said to have healing powers. Visitors on Beltane (May 1) would leave offerings to the fairies, suggesting how events everywhere in Scotland and in the region, such as Beltane, were practised in different manners in different locations. Like the Eildon Hills in the Scottish Borders is connected with legends of King Arthur lying in wait, behind Schiehallion, again, on Creag Chionneachan, is one of the spots where the old Fingalian warriors were supposed to lie on their elbows awaiting the third blast of the horn that is to raise them to life again.