The history embedded in the stones that surround us has a refreshing permanence to it. Like signposts or a blog from the past, rocks can still carry meaning and lessons from history in our age of transient media. Tales that hark back to an era where superstition took precedence over science. These stories are old and have, no doubt, weathered over time – but the stones remain. Here are a few to entice you.
A graveyard on the Isle of Canna was the location for the discovery quite recently of one of Scotland’s only Bullaun stones. This ancient cursing stone was used by Christian pilgrims more than a thousand years ago to bring harm to their enemies. The round stone with an early Christian cross engraved on it would be turned clockwise while praying or when laying a curse, and these were often to be found on sacred pilgrim routes. Traditionally, the pilgrim would turn the stone clockwise, wearing a depression or hole in a bigger socket stone underneath. In this case, the stone was found to fit exactly into a depression located near the islands large, sculpted, Canna Cross. The stone has been worn smooth by constant turning, these early pilgrims must have had a lot of enemies. Regardless of the weirdness of Christians laying curses, it just goes to illustrate how even today impressive new discoveries about ancient traditions are still being made.
Witches didn’t have an easy time of it in the good old days. The lucky ones would be confined in the specially built witch prison in Aberdeen. Justice for the unlucky would mean being rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel. If such an ingenious punishment were not enough entertainment, then survivors were set alight. On the A86 just outside Forres Police Station you can still find a rather large stone that marks the spot where one of these barrels stopped rolling after being launched from nearby Cluny Hill. This particular stone is supposed to have been split in 3 and used as building material in a nearby house. When the occupants fell ill with fever the house was said to be bewitched and was demolished. The stone was then salvaged, re-joined and returned to its original position, a gruesome reminder of medieval savagery and belief but also an important piece of history.
Once you have killed your witch in whatever inventive manner you could come up with, there comes the problem of disposal of the remains. Torryburn on the south west Fife coast was the scene of one such dilemma. A witch had committed suicide while awaiting trail. Lilias Adie who confessed to having sex with the devil could not, according to local custom, be buried on consecrated ground. This problem was solved by digging a pit between the high and low tide marks and covering it with an enormous flat stone. This it was believed would prevent her being raised by the devil to once again torment the living. Parish records of the time cover all of this in exquisite detail, enabling the aforementioned slab to be identified recently by local archaeologists. At low tide, go look for yourself. There is one footnote to this already strange tale: In the 19th century some enterprising locals dug up Lilias to sell bits of her. Her skull, went to St Andrews University Museum where it was photographed more than 100 years ago. You can still see the photographs today in National Library of Scotland.
Sailors have always been a superstitious lot. In Orkney they would traditionally visit an old, weird, woman called Bessie Miller, who would sell winds for six pence each. On the west coast however, good weather, which was imperative to your survival as a mariner, was a lot harder to come by. There is one particular stone that was revered by sailors and which was traditionally used to procure a favourable wind.
The island of Fladda off the coast of Skye has a long and sacred history, something even recognised by the native puffins, who Druids believed would always circle the island three times sunwise before landing. This tiny uninhabited island has a ruined chapel dedicated to St Columba. At one point, the original alter stone of the druids, also known as the weeping stone (because it was always damp) was to be found here. Fisherman would land on the island and wash the stone with a clam shell of seawater and say an incantation, a ritual thought to guarantee a favourable change in the wind. The bizarre footnote to this story is that in 2002 a nuclear submarine ran aground here. It is not recorded by the MOD whether bad weather was a factor.
One of the most famous historical curses was uttered by the Bishop of Glasgow in 1525. At over 1000 words long, it is indeed almost poetic in its grand scale and was intended to be read from every pulpit in the land.
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head,” said the bishop. “I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth. May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah, rain down upon them.”
The focus of this curse was the Border Reivers, responsible at the time for all kind of rape, murder and pillage along the border between Scotland and England. This curse was later immortalised by being painstakingly engraved on a rather large boulder and proved to be surprisingly powerful. In an attempt to lift the curse, frenzied locals afflicted by floods, fires, disease and murder wrought upon them, appealed to the clergy and petitioned to have the stone on which the curse is presented destroyed, purified or transported to a more hostile environment. The Vicar of nearby Scotby wrote.
“The stone is a lethal weapon. Its spiritual violence will act like a cancer.”
People often laugh when I relate this story to them, it is after all easy to poke fun at the ill educated and ridiculous superstitions of our ancestors. But this did not happen in the 1520s at the time of the actual curse, but in 2001. The stone in question is still on display for all to see in an underpass in Carlisle, a slightly ghoulish art project to celebrate the millennium that, despite the best efforts of local residents, still continues to exert its malevolent influence. Such is its occult power, it is believed to have caused the relegation of the local football team and has so far resisted attempts by the clergy and local council to exorcize, bless, consecrate and destroy it.
As you travel the Highlands you may come across a stone with a date. Such as the one in Dornoch where the last witch in the British Isles was murdered in 1722. And we say murdered as that is what these witch hunts were. They accused of devil worship but what more devilish, than the torture suffered by these women. Often just gifted women who could heal with the use of herbs – until it didn’t work.folklore, highland stones, macabre scotland, myths, scottish history, unusual places to visit scotland, witches scotland