Last Sunday was a day of soft light and gentle wind, and it felt as if the Earth might finally be stirring after a long sleep. A perfect day for looking at stones – well, admittedly, every day is perfect for that! A few minutes’ drive took us south into Kilmartin Glen, where time really seems to slow down and you feel guilty if you drive through without stopping.
We walked around the Nether Largie standing stones, tall and angular, with enigmatic cup marks and an interesting alignment that I’ve described before on The Hazel Tree. You’re never far from water here – the path to the stones crosses two bridges, one over the burn and the other over a drainage channel, and the ground is either spongy or muddy beneath your feet. Lichens grow in tangled profusion alongside deep cushiony mosses, miniature gardens on trunk and stone.
Just beyond Nether Largie is a grove of trees that surrounds another ancient site – the three stone circles of Temple Wood. While Nether Largie is exposed and open, Temple Wood feels more private and enclosed, although this is more likely to be the result of Victorian tree planting than anything else. It does, however have a feminine feel to it, a softness and stillness, especially at the heart of the main circle which has the remains of a burial cist. It feels reassuring and grounding, like a gentle flow downwards into the Earth.
The area around each circle is heaped with cobble stones, and these are splashed with lichen in paintbox colours. Wandering around the perimeter wall I stopped to try and identify some trees, always a challenge in winter, and in surprise I found myself gazing at branches adorned with scraps of ribbon.
A clootie tree? Wishes had been made on it, that’s for sure, but some time ago as moss was already growing over some of the ribbons. And what species was it? I was puzzled but Colin had no doubt. “An elder,” he said, as if he saw them all the time, and pointed to the deeply fissured bark. To prove his point, he told me to snap a fallen twig and look for the soft, pithy wood inside. An elder it was. And it certainly had character, rising from the base of an oak tree which was leaning away as if afraid of the intimacy, and reaching boldly towards the stone circle with a network of gnarled limbs.
I knew very little about elders, but something told me they’d have their roots immersed in folklore. Some sources believe the name is derived from ‘hylde-moer’, a matriarchal tree spirit of Scandinavian legend. This is a protective tree, and, like the rowan, if it grew next to a dwelling it was thought to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. It has plenty of medicinal properties, and of course its flowers and berries are picked to make delicious cordials and wine.
Even the word ‘elder’ suggests a wise and respected veteran, a guardian of some half-forgotten wisdom. It’s hard to tell how old this particular tree is, but it has certainly held a significance for visitors in the past, and probably continues to do so.
The first leaves of bluebells were emerging from the grass, promising a beautiful spectacle here in a few months’ time. Meanwhile even the early spring flowers such as celandine were absent and I can’t really blame them – the wind these last few weeks has been bone-achingly cold. I guess the season will turn in its own time, and meanwhile the merest hint of warmth from the sun was very welcome.
Our next stop was at Carnassarie Castle, an imposing 16th-century ruin that stands atop a hill overlooking Kilmartin Glen. More in my next post!
Photos copyright © Jo & Colin Woolf