Snow was tickling the inland hills when I arrived at the ruined chapel at Kilmarie on the Craignish peninsula. It was early December and melancholy-grey; the sea and sky stilled after a weekend of violent storms. All was now holding its breath before a proper fall of snow. Overhead the sound of crows’ wing-beats and a curlew’s whoop seemed amplified.
Despite planes going over, the fishing boats out again after the storm, a radio playing on a nearby building site, there was a sense of ancientness here amidst the glister of wet rock and mottled gravestones, their ownership gradually being obliterated by lichen, grass and moss. I took a circuit of the church before entering; along its north wall and out to the high grassy platform of the promontory with views east and in each direction down Loch Craignish. I finished up where I’d started, so that I entered the church through the south-facing door; feeling safe and blessed despite the absence of a roof and in a church abandoned over 300 years ago.
Two slim, arched windows offered horizontal slices of muted land and sea at the east end where the altar would have been. Propped up around the inner walls of the church were great slabs of stone which had been brought in from the graveyard for protection and were carved with knights and swords and interlacing cabling. Here was ivy, air and sky, stone cists with decorated sides, and on the floor a huge flat slab with a central hole which was once a ‘mass clock’ or sundial, helping parishioners know when to attend.
Kilmarie Church was founded in the 12th or 13th century in the name of Saint Máelrubai, who came to Scotland from Ireland in the 7th century. Although the church was abandoned in 1692 its walls, at three foot thick, are still resisting collapse. It was a caption under a photograph in the Kilmartin House Trust book on ‘Scotland’s richest prehistoric landscape’ that drew me back here. It pointed out that in prehistory the position of monuments in relation to the sun and moon was more important than today – perhaps for fixing the time or calendar by reference to cosmic movements – and a memory of this may have been responsible for a comment in the minutes of the Argyll Synod of 1650. It recorded that parishioners were rebuked for ‘goeing sungates about the church before they go into the Kirk for divyne service’. In the Scottish tongue up to about 1700, ‘sonegatis’ or ‘sungates’ meant in a sun-wise direction, i.e. clockwise. These worshippers were clearly thought to be continuing a custom on foot, perhaps on a site and of a time once dedicated to a less Christian kind of god.
Such practices seem to have maintained their power for rural communities much later, according to the ‘Carmina Gadelica’, a compendium of prayers, charms, incantations, and other customs gathered from the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th century. It’s peppered with examples which dictate a sun-wise movement, including secular activities such as the direction the tweed was passed between women in a circle when waulking the fabric to thicken and finish it; and religious, as when guisers carried a ‘Christ-child’ wrapped in lambskin three times around the fire on Christmas Eve.
Before visiting the church I’d taken a wander further down the peninsula, out to the point and back. This south-westerly seeking nose of land is structured around twin stone spines running down to a complex shore, holding between them platforms of pasture and bog, the ridged remnants of lazy-beds. So my feet sought out the plateaus, dry rock and then ways trodden into suggestions by otters, deer, sheep. I was guided too by the chiselling effect of weather in variable bedrock that creates walls, ramparts and enclosures that tend to attract me on rough land because they seem at a distance to be man-made structures or buildings.
I can muse endlessly along a west-coast shoreline and this was not a walk in the sense of having any purpose or destination other than returning to where I began, to get back to the car. It was more of a case of using legs and feet to explore; to follow random interests. I poked at seaweed tangled with faded twine, milk bottle tops, hoses from boats, faded ice cream wrappers and gunshot cartridges. And when I reached the point itself I looked out across the still, grey water to the white outpost buildings of Crinan where neat, safe, canalised freshwater meets the hurly-burly of salt at a formidable, mythic-feeling gate, and where the day before I had been wind-lashed and ice-bitten. To the north east of it, I could see where the craggy hills either side of Kilmartin glen decline to the flat bog of Mòine Mhór, where the burn cuts down to the coast.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys the satisfaction of a circular walk as opposed to a ‘there-and-back’ and it seemed I had unwittingly kept a circle in mind as I explored (albeit an anti-clockwise one). Apparently we humans will naturally walk in circles when denied visual clues in a whiteout or a desert, even though we think we are going straight ahead. It seems to be that our accumulating deviations gather to create a tight loop, bringing us around to our own footprints again, just like Pooh.
But circular rituals have a certain resonance, and I returned to Kilmarie Church with my mind rambling over the idea of circuits and circles and human bodies describing such shapes, even when stationary. Writing after the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Ahdaf Soueif described how Muslims encircled a church to allow worshippers safety, and Christians provided the same protection for Muslims at prayer; two communities united in mutual protection against a regime determined to set them against each other. In December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the six mile perimeter fence of the Greenham Common air base, in protest against the decision to site American cruise missiles there. It was a symbolic act which brought spider-legged trails of women to Berkshire from all over Britain. I was one of them and I remember the power that seemed manifest in that unity.
But what of circles of humans that also move? Pilgrimages are the antithesis of my convoluted and random wander around Craignish point; they are deliberate journeys defined by a purpose and often by a site-specific tradition. And they are not all linear. In ‘A Mountain in Tibet’, Colin Thubron wrote about how in his eighth decade, he joined pilgrims of several religions on a 32 mile circumambulation of Mount Kailash, on his own secular and unusually personal journey. Braving thin air, and harsh weather, some pilgrims add prostrations to the austere mix. Hindus and Buddhists go clockwise. Followers of the Jain and Bönpo religions go the other way, and many other religions have a practice of circumambulation. Pilgrims to Mecca walk seven times against the sun around the kaaba, the most circled structure in the world, appearing as a great human whirlpool when seen from the height of a minaret. The whirlpool pauses at prayer times, when small birds and angels are said to take over the circling.
In Britain in a seeming overlap of tradition between Christian and pagan practices, holy wells or sacred trees might be circled, or objects associated with an early saint. The parishioners at Kilmarie walked sunwise around their church, and perhaps if we’ve grown up within a whisper of superstition, we might feel a shiver at the associations of walking the opposite way, ‘widdershins’, to end up in Elfland for example, or encounter the devil.
Saint Fillan’s pool, near Crianlarich in Perthshire, was reputed to cure mental illness and a ritual, practised for many centuries, was still underway well into the nineteeenth. Towards the end of the first quarter of the moon each month, people gathered there to be immersed in the waters; one pool for men and one for women. They carried out from the water nine stones and returned to the bank to walk sun-wise three times around each of three cairns, dropping a stone on each one at each circuit, together with a piece of clothing. Their treatment was then continued at the ruins of the Priory a mile or so away, where they were lashed down with their head placed in the font under a pile of hay and the ‘Bernane’, a cast bronze bell, relic of Saint Fillan.
Anyone visiting Iona will have seen the shifting labyrinths laid out on the shore in rough stones at Saint Columba’s landing point on the southern point of the island. Often taking a circular form, labyrinths are another ancient form offering a walk with intent. Leading from only one entrance in a series of often regular curves, there is no choice to be made and the journey to its centre and back can be a means of making a mini-pilgrimage. The cathedral at Chartres has a famous one, but a friend who’s a Unitarian minister in Plymouth recently showed me how her congregation have planted one in shrubs next to the church, offering a miniature journey of which she says: ‘It has an ‘arc’ that first draws us steadily inwards along one arm, step by meditative step, perhaps taking a question for the divine with us. At the centre we are encouraged to pause in stillness … before returning mindfully outwards again, back to the outer life. This journey, too, can slow our minds and bodies and offer the possibility of transcendence, from one state to another, such that we return slightly altered.’ Whilst not religious myself, I understand the appeal of such a walk; its limits perhaps freeing the mind for the spiritual or sacred.
Later that day, having stepped an unplanned ramble and a tight circuit around a church emulating a ritual, I walked an avenue of pre-history on the other side of the loch at Kilmartin. A series of five cairns are laid out in a line north to south over 2.5 miles of the valley floor. Each of these was once visible to the others, and the arrangement is a sort of ‘linear cemetery’. The oldest is over 4,000 years old, and between them they have given up treasures including remains of human and animal bone, a jet necklace, flint arrowheads, and fine pottery. A woman’s grave at Glebe Cairn is thought to have been spiritually protected by two concentric stone circles. Many of the monuments would have been specially orientated in response to specific light effects at times of the day or month or year. There was little doubt here that I was walking a sacred line as I stepped out southwards, wrapping up against the bite of cold air and keeping an eye on my watch.
With the light glowering, apart from a teasing gleam in the west, and snow clouds darkening inland, I arrived down this wide green valley at Nether Largie where a processional line of stones remains with the sense of a gateway at each end made by pairs of upright slabs, some marked with cups and rings. Halfway along, on my way to the final ‘gate’, I came to a small circle of stones. Without thinking, and feeling like I was doing a dance, I turned around it. I made sure to do it in a sun-wise direction. And for good measure, I circled it three times.