Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Tobar Odhran and an Image of Sloth

Over a year has passed since my last visit to the Hebrides, and another may pass before I return. I have spent some of the year writing, but most of it relaxing on my recliner. And as I do so I am the perfect image of sloth. 

Would an image of sloth be worthy of a statue? I hope so. I can see myself being immortalized in stone; resting comfortably in front of the TV, a beer in one hand, a remote in the other. I wonder if I can find an artesian with the skill of Michelangelo to chisel my lazy image in stone. Probably not. But someone centuries ago did immortalize two images of sloth in the Hebrides. They are known as Dealbh na Leisg, which can translate as either the image of laziness, or the image of sloth. Sloth, laziness, either would be appropriate for how I’ve spent much of 2020.

But I have to say my form of laziness is not quite like that depicted on these stones (not for many years, anyway). One of them is mounted high on the tower of Rodel Church on Harris. It shows a man laying on his back, passing the time, not with a beer in hand, but grasping his manhood. In the nineteenth century the Countess of Dunmore, not caring for the explicit nature of the stone, had it used for target practice. As a result the three-dimensional aspect of the stone has been, shall we say, circumcised. The stone is an odd thing to find on a church, but not this church. Just around the corner is the carving of a naked woman.

The second carving of sloth is on the island of Colonsay. It is a stone pillar that dates to the 8th century. Originally placed next to the chapel of Riasg Buidhe, a village abandoned after WWI, it was moved to Colonsay House garden in the 1890s.  The carving on the front of the stone is exquisite: at the top is the face of a monk, whose body is created by whirling designs similar to the rock art of Dalraida, terminating in what looks like a fish tail. The end result is an enigmatic fish-cross crowned by the head of a bearded monk.

The front of the stone is shown in countless books on the sculpture of the Hebrides. What’s never shown is the back side. That’s not just because of the subject, but also because the image is so worn it does not show up well in photography.

At first glance, aside from a lozenge shaped object near its rounded tip, the back of the cross appears undecorated. But there is a faded image, perhaps purposely worn off; one hinted at by its name, Dealbh na Leisg, the image of sloth. The subject of the decoration is further hinted at in this excerpt from Kevin Byrne’s book Lonely Colonsay; Isle at the Edge: “The reverse seems to be associated with a more virile tradition, possibly a symbol of fertility or potency.” Byrne goes on to quote a writer from the 1880s, who slyly remarked that “the stone is dressed only in front, undressed on the back.” This bit of undressed stone is a phallic symbol. A mixture of Christian on one side, pagan on the other. You can see a line drawing of the stone at this CANMORE link.

I wanted to see this unusual stone up close. So on a visit to Colonsay long ago I made my way to the garden. Looking over the garden wall I could see the stone, twenty feet away, standing watch over Tobar Odhran, St Oran’s Well. The holy well is covered by an old millstone, and if you lift it (which I did not do) you will discover the well is constructed of coursed and mortared rubble masonry, with steps leading three-feet down to the water. Set in the eye of the millstone cover is something odd. It may have been part of the axle for the millstone, but to me it looked like one of the pre-Christian water-worn bodach and cailleach stones, such as those found on Gigha and in Glen Lyon.

St Oran’s Well, in its garden setting under the watchful eye of the monk-stone, is one of the sacred sites of the Hebrides. I am no expert in what defines a thin place, where the border between this life and the next mingle; but whoever placed the stone here created a divine space: the cross with the face of a monk watching over the well, while the powerful image of Dealbh na Leisg wards off those who might not be intimidated by a cross; an example of a merged Christian and pagan talisman, all the protective bases covered in case one fails the test.  Maybe. Perhaps. Read into it what you will. 

Even though thirty years have passed, the fragrances of the Colonsay gardens pop into my head whenever I think back to the day I hopped over the garden wall (shame on me) to see Dealbh na Leisg. I will surely return to the isles of the west, but right now I’m going to recline in my chair, grasp something with one hand, a beer, and with a remote in the other see what’s on.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Crògary Mòr and the Cave of Gold - North Uist

The old peat track up Bealach Maari looked inviting. As I strolled up the track the sun blazed intensely down, and so I stopped to take my shirt off. After a minute of savouring the cooling air the midges found me. I put the shirt back on. My destination was the summit of Crògary Mòr, five miles east of Vallay Island. I had wanted to walk over to Vallay, but the tides were not right for a daytime return, so I decided to get a view of the island from the summit of Crògary Mòr; at 590 feet one of the highest hills in the area. I was also doing something I love to do on a walk, following in the footsteps of an author. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor climbed Crògary Mòr in the 1920s, and wrote the following:

Not a halt do I allow myself until my brogues are feeling the rocky summit of Crogary Mòr, and the eyes of me searching for the cave of gold reputed by the isles-folk to contain of precious metal the fill of seven cow’s hides . . . And I see, too, where the moors of Eaval appear to slip over the horizon into the great North Ford. And the Isle of Benbecula lies beyond, like a ruby set in a sea of glittering sapphire. 

Erskine Beveridge also wrote about the treasure of Crògary Mòr:

A tradition is locally current to the effect that one of the MacQueens of Oronsay buried a golden treasure in a foal’s skin near the summit of Crogary More at a spot from whence the sun can be seen shining upon three forts at the same time. These conditions infer a hiding-place on the north face of the hill, within view presumably of Dun na Mairbhe, Dun Aonghuis, and Dun Rosail.

Hmmm . . . A secret location where the sun can be seen simultaneously shining on three prehistoric forts. Exciting stuff. Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Hopefully there would not be any deadly booby-traps waiting to spring on someone unworthy of the treasure (like me). And as for that treasure, there is a bit of a discrepancy in the descriptions. Would the amount of gold fill the hide of one foal, or seven cows?  And what exactly is a ‘hide-full’ in the metric system?

Crogary Mor seen from Loch Aonghais

The top of the hill was a steep, bald hump of bedrock. As I climbed to the summit I kept an eye out for the cave of gold, but saw nothing. On reaching the top I took out a map to pinpoint exactly where the three forts were that Beveridge mentioned. The one known as Dun na Mairbhe, dun of the dead—a good name for a zombie movie—could be seen a mile to the north on an island in Vallaquie Strand. Also visible was Dun Aonghuis a mile to the northwest, and Dun Rosail, two miles to the northeast.

But no matter where I stood on the hill the sun was shining on all three forts. Perhaps Beveridge was thinking of the wrong three. The bottom line was that I had to give up my hunt for gold. So for all you treasure seekers there, start plotting the locations of the duns of North Uist, all five-hundred. Then see if you can figure out another three that are visible from one spot on Crògary Mòr.

What I could see from the summit was the isle-studded sea; Vallay, Oronsay, and myriad islands beyond, including St Kilda on the far horizon. 

Looking northwest from Crogary Mor

The hill known as Maari, nearly as high as Crògary Mòr, lay a half-mile to the west. The pass between the two hills is called Bealach Maari, and at its southern end is a seven-foot standing stone. The stone may be a boundary- or way-marker, but it could have other roots. I say that because on the western slopes of Blathaisbhal, two miles to the southeast, there are three other standing stones. This trio is set in a linear alignment that points directly to the stone in Bealach Maari. Perhaps all of them are markers left to guide someone who knows the secret to the cave of gold. 

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to search for the hidden gold of Crògary Mòr. If you find it, kindly forward me one cow’s hide worth as a commission for the idea.

Stone alignment at Blathaisbhal - the hills Maari and Crogary Mor in the distance