Pacific Northwest Highland Games and Clan Gathering, Enumclaw, WA. - July 2004
Throughout history, every culture has had reverence towards natural formations, mountains or stones. Our ancestors felt these hallowed places were the umbilical from the birth of the world. A place of intertwined, yet opposing aspects of the female earth and the male sun and sky. Aligned in harmony to solar, lunar or stellar events, these places brought rejuvenation, spiritual enhancement, fertility or just plain luck to the folk who went there.
In hill and stone, there are many examples in human history of these unique sites. To the ancient Canaanites, Mount Tabor was the navel of the earth. The Aborigines of Australia venerated Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, as the spiritual and geographic heart of Australia and a pivotal point of the Dreamtime. To the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne, the Black Hills of North Dakota is the Paha Sapa, “the heart of everything that is”. Considered the womb of Mother Earth, for three thousand years the hills have been the location of ceremonies, vision quests, and burials.
The ancient Greeks believed the navel of the earth was at Delphi, where the oracles of Gaia and Apollo communicated with mortals in a sacred grotto via a stone, the Omphalos. For many centuries, the temple was the focus of the entire Greek culture. In Mecca, the Black Stone of the Kaa'ba is the spiritual center of the Islamic world. Of meteoric origin, the Kaa’ba was originally a shrine to fertility Goddesses of the desert tribes. In 700, The Prophet Mohammed dedicated the stone and shrine to Allah. For Muslims, every pious act, every prayer and every pilgrimage is directed toward it.
In the Celtic West, the Druids of the Carnutii tribe of ancient Gaul venerated a low hill and grove. Swelling gently above the fertile, the mound was the navel and spiritual center of all Gaul. In its grotto was a wooden icon of the ‘Virgini Pariturae’, ‘the Virgin who would give birth to a Divine Child’ - a Druidic herald of the veneration of Mary and her Son. In 50 BC, the Romans destroyed the grove, but in the early 4th century a Christian church was built over the grotto. In the 11th century, a great cathedral was built there and was dedicated to the Madonna. It held a cloth used at the birth of Jesus. In the nave of the cathedral, the tile floor is in a symbol of the spiritual or actual birth process – the form of a labyrinth. Even today, the French make pilgrimages to ‘the book in stone’, to the beautiful Chartres Cathedral.
In southern Britain, many stone circles predate the latest Celtic invasions. The first one that comes to mind is Stonehenge, with its alignment to the Winter Solstice. Even greater still is Avebury, with its stone circles and ditch-works. Not unlike the Snake Mounds in the United States, its long twin avenues represented a serpent of knowledge.
In Ireland, Newgrange was a manifestation of the birth process, expressed in stone and turf – painstakingly aligned to reflect a single shaft of sunlight in its depths on Winter Solstice. The hill and stone at Uisneach was the home of the Goddess Eriu, and was the sacred navel and spiritual center of the island. On May Day, it is tradition to extinguish all fires in Ireland and then on Uisneach hill, a sacred fire was re-lit at sunset. All other fires throughout Ireland and even southwestern Scotland were rekindled on hilltops in a fiery answering web of celebration of the coming of summer.
In Scotland, we have the standing stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis. Constructed before 2,200 BC, they are called ‘the Stonehenge of the North’ and are in the shape of a Celtic cross. Callanish is aligned towards the sunset at the Vernal Equinox and reflects the position of the Pleiades star system rising on 1, May 1550 BC! Local legend is that when the sun raises on Midsummer morn, Lugh the 'shining one' walks along the stone avenue. The Gaelic name of the stones is Tursachan - place of pilgrimage.
In Scotland and Ireland, stones were also used in the coronation ceremonies of local Kings and even the Ard Righ or High King, of both nations. For fifteen hundred years, one special stone has been the living symbol of Scotland’s collective national unity, her independence and heritage as a Celtic nation - the Stone of Destiny.
There are many legends that swirl down the centuries to us about the 330-pound yellow sandstone rectangle. That it is the very pillow on which the Hebrew Patriarch Jacob laid his head at Beth-El and dreamt of the destinies of the tribes of Israel. In honor of El, the Canaanite Sky God, Jacob changed his name to Isra-El, set the stone upright, and anointed it with holy oil. Another tells us that the stone was kept in the ‘holy of holies’ in the Temple Mount at Jerusalem. In 587 BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah and put the males of its ruling house to the sword. They laid waste to the Temple and many of the Hebrew nation were taken to captivity in Babylon. When the temple was destroyed, the stone was taken by the Prophet Jeremiah and two daughters of the royal House of David. They and the stone made their way to Egypt. Jeremiah, his servants, the two princesses and the stone then traveled to Sicily and to the Celtic tribes of northern Spain’s coast. From there, they followed the path of the Milenesians and sailed to Ireland.
The stone is again entwined with legend as Liath Fal, and placed at the geopolitical center of Ireland at Tara. For eight hundred years, it was the touchstone where Kings and Queens were entwined with the sacred sovereignty of the land, its Gods and its people. If the stone rang out or moaned, the King or Queen of the Land was fit to rule. The stone also gave the ruler youth and fertility. If it remained silent, the monarch was deemed unworthy. As the Palladium of Ireland, the stone was moved to the other provincial kingdoms of the island as a symbol of soveregnity, and was used at coronation ceremonies of local Kings and Queens.
Around the year 400, tribal and military geopolitics affected the northern Kingdom of Dal Riada in Antrim. Erc, the King of Dal Riada established a tenuous colonial foothold on the western coast of Mull, Kintyre and Argyll. In 450, Erc’s sons Fergus, Angus and Lorne continued their father’s wee colony across the Celtic Sea. With the blessing of Saint Patrick, the stone soon followed them to the little kingdom. Fergus’s great grandson Conall was aided in strengthening the tiny provincial kingdom by the political and evangelization efforts of Colum Cille, or Saint Columba. As Columba established the Celtic Christian church in Caledonia, the stone was then taken to a place which was sacred to the Druids and was now the holy center of the Christian Culdee Church – the Isle of Iona.
Through both wars and marriages, diplomacy and the sword, the tiny Dal Riadan kingdom slowly gained land from nearby Pictish tribes. The sacred stone followed, resting inland at the Dal Riadan stronghold at the hill fort of Dunadd. At Dunadd, there also is a large flat stone with a carved footprint on its face. The Kings of Dal Riada and later Alba took a sacred oath of kingship with their foot placed within the footsteps of their royal ancestors.
In 799 AD, Alpin Mac Eochaid, King of Dal Riada and Argyll forwarded his claim by Tanistry as the High King of all Cruithne Tuath - the country of the Pretani, or Picts. Alpin’s mother was a Princess of the senior Pictish royal family. Through political means, and the elimination of Scottish and Pictish rivals, Alpin’s son Kenneth united both kingdoms. As Ard Righ of the whole nation, he moved inland from the southwest coast and took the Stone of Destiny to Aber Thaigh, or Perth. Kenneth later installed the stone on sacred ground at the old Pictish capital of nearby Scone in 838, now the center of a newly united nation. The stone was said to once have been inscribed with magic Pictish sun-symbols, although around the first millennia it a Latin Cross was carved on it. It had iron rings bolted to it for poles and was carried about the seven sub-kingdoms of Scotland/Albany in royal procession or in battle like the Ark of the Covenant.
For over 400 years the stone continued as a living symbol of the age-old Celtic belief that “The Land and King are one”, serving in many coronations as a reminder of the oaths of pre-Christian sacral kingship. During the crisis of the three rival claimants to the Scottish throne, the last man to take his royal oath at the stone was John Balliol. The fierce dynastic struggles and turbulence that followed were quelled only by the bloody subjugation, sack and rape of Scotland by ‘Longshanks’ Edward Plantagenet of England. Edward I claimed Scotland was his right as ‘temporal overlord of all Britain’, and believed the Kingship of Scotland and the stone was his.
In an effort to strip Scotland of her King, her sovereignty and Celtic nationhood, the Stone of Destiny was wrested from Scone Abbey in the summer of 1296 and carted south. It was then wedged into a supine position below the seat of the English coronation throne at Westminster Abbey. This was the first mighty step in a struggle to subjugate Celtic Scotland, a struggle that ended in April 1746. Mute and silent, it waited for 700 years.
On early Christmas Morning in 1950, four Scottish nationalist-minded students broke into Westminster Abbey. They took the stone and drove north, reuniting it back home to Scotland. With England in a righteous uproar, it remained hidden for four months until left on the High Altar at Arbroath Abbey, quietly draped in a Saltire. It was that year the Scottish National Party was formed.
Some stories tell us that the stone was switched in the 12th century. Some stories say it was in the 20th. That turned thrice, the true stone remains hidden, awaiting Scotland’s hour of destiny. But, real stone or no, from Scotland or Canaan, it is the entwined history, symbolism and meaning of the stone that holds power in the hearts of all Scots, now as it has for over twelve hundred years.
On 4, July 1996, it was announced by then Prime Minister John Major that Her Majesty the Queen had given permission for the Stone of Destiny to be taken home at last. On Saint Andrews’ Day that year, with much fanfare it came home again to Scotland. It rests today in Edinburgh Castle with the other symbols of the sovereignty of the Scottish nation, the crown, sword and scepter of the Monarch of Scots.
On the Stone of Destiny, Scotland’s ancient rulers gave their sacred oath to the God of their ancestors. Surrounded by the men and women both great and small, they swore to uphold their responsibility and stewardship to the land. To honor their ancestors. To protect their kin, clan and tribe and the entire nation. To foster their culture and way of life. So long as they lived.
Tonight as we celebrate and carry on our ancient Celtic traditions, from the depths of our hearts, may we each in our own way also do our best to carry out those royal oaths given on the stone these past fifteen hundred years. With fire, and steel, and a brave heart, let us cry to the heavens as our ancestors:
Alba gu Brath!