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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
of the Cailleach
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.