On Offa’s Dyke: ‘the landscape flowed away, back to its source’

On Offa’s Dyke: ‘the landscape flowed away, back to its source’
Offa’s Dyke path: looking west to the coast

The weather map in the morning paper said it all: one oval isobar, a lazy ridge of high pressure lapping at the shores of the British Isles. Nothing like it for the whole of this damp, drab summer. Early on, with the dog in the park, there had been frost, now the sky was an expanse of blue, transmitting from beyond the city, as Robert Macfarlane put it in The Wild Places, ‘a longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac’.

In my mind I saw an upland ridge, expansive views across peaceful vales to mountains and the sea: and so we headed out of Liverpool, thirty miles to the Clwydian hills, and one and a half millenia back in time to Offa’s Dyke.

We followed fast roads down through the Wirral, across the ruthlessly canalised river Dee at Queensferry, via Mold through the villages that hug the northern flank of the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding National Beauty.  In Afon-wen we followed the single track lane that leads up to the Moel y Parc TV, radio and mobile phone transmitter.  Leaving the car, we climbed to the section of Offa’s Dyke path that, for 20 miles or so here, follows the ridge of the Clwydian hills south from Prestatyn to Llangollen.

Offa’s Dyke path: looking south to Snowdonia

From the ridge the views extend, uninterrupted, in all directions.  Southwest, across the Vale of Clwyd rose the peaks of the Snowdonian range; in the other direction we could see the whole reach of the Mersey estuary, stretching from the wind turbine array offshore from Crosby to the Runcorn bridge.  The Anglican cathedral shouldered its way above the Liverpool skyline. To the east stretched the hazy blue line of Pennine outriders.  To the west lay the coast, from Rhyl to the Great Orme at Llandudno.

One day past the autumn equinox, the fawns and browns of late summer were scattered with the  pink of heather and rose bay willowherb, brilliant red splashes of rowan berries, and delicate blue drifts of harebells.  Above us a buzzard hovered, and ravens tumbled and dived, their guttural croaking echoing around the hills. Down in the valley we heard the call of a curlew and the cough of a pheasant.  Small flocks of finches swirled above bright yellow gorse.

Once you’re up on the Clwydian hills, the walking is easy along the gently undulating ridge of grass, heather, bilberry and bracken, and the views take your breath away. Six Iron Age hill forts are strung out along the highest points of the ridge, dating from about 800 BC to 43 AD. They vary in size, from the massive Penycloddiau (which we traversed on the first stage of this walk ) to the more compact Moel Arthur, the next peak along the ridge. They dominate the landscape now as they must have done in the past, though very little is known about these sites and their relationship to each other.  They probably served several functions – as military fortifications and villages, summer grazing land, meeting places and sites of ritual, and symbols of status.

Penycloddiau: Bronze age burial chamber at the summit

Penycloddiau was built around 2,500 years ago – the largest hillfort on the Clwydian Range, and one of the largest in Wales.  There is a pond in the centre of the hillfort which may have provided water for the people living inside. Archaeological work has uncovered evidence of clusters of wooden roundhouses within the shelter of the banks and some around the pond. Farmers and craftspeople, skilled at weaving and metal working, would have lived in them.

Penycloddiau has wide sweeping views up to the coast, so is likely to have attracted traders. There may have been regular markets where people came to buy and sell their wares: wool, hides, meat, elaborately decorated jewelry, weapons and tools.

And there is evidence that there was a human presence here long before the Iron Age. At the northern end of the hill there is a Bronze Age burial mound which dates back at least 4000 years – almost two millenia before the hillfort.  A plaque on the side of the mound records that the grassy mound was reconstructed in 2010 to  protect the site of a Bronze Age burial chamber, built around 4000 years ago. The site would then have been a place of prayer and ritual where the cremated remains of important figures in the community were laid  to rest in special pottery beakers.  Like their descendants in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age people were farmers and the pond near the summit would have been highly valued and considered sacred. People gave offerings of livestock and  goods to the water gods to ask for protection and a good harvest.

Penycloddiau: the reconstructed Bronze age burial mound

The excavation at Penycloddiau in 2010 that revealed the Bronze Age burial was carried out by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.  The mound had been heavily eroded by the Offa’s Dyke trail, which runs across the top of it and through the centre of the hillfort. Although no dating evidence was found, archaeologists could distinguish the mound as being Bronze Age.  One of the most obvious discoveries was a ‘robbers’ trench’ – a large hole where the burial should have been – including a rectangular shape cut into the bedrock directly underneath the trench.  Unfortunately for the archaeologists, the robbers were good and took everything, not just treasure.

It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of Penycloddiau: it covers 64 acres of fairly level grassland along the ridgetop.  Ambling slowly, drinking in the astonishing views, it can take half an hour to walk from the northern portal to its southern wall.  This aerial photo gives some sense of the extent of Penycloddiau.

Penycloddiau Hillfort: aerial view

Leaving the southern ramparts of Penycloddiau, we followed Offa’s Dyke path towards the next peak, Moel Arthur. Offa’s Dyke is a massive linear earthwork that stretches 182 miles from Prestatyn to Chepstow in the south, roughly followed by parts of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet high. Its construction was ordered by Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796, one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon times, though his reign is often overlooked due to a limitation in source material.

Offa’s Dyke path: looking south towards Moel Arthur

We continued on the Offa’s Dyke path as it descended steadily from Penycloddiau before passing through a stand of conifers to a valley where there is a parking place on a lane that leads back to Nannerch on the A541.  From here, the path makes a steep ascent to the summit of Moel Arthur.  We decided to leave that for another day.

We retraced our steps, climbing back up to Penycloddiau.  As I walked, treading ground harbouring the remains of human settlement over at least 4 millenia – the Bronze Age burial chamber, the Iron Age fort, the old Roman road that also crosses the ridge, and Saxon Offa’s Dyke – the distant views were of 21st century intrusions into the landscape: the wind turbine arrays off the Welsh coast and in the Mersey estuary, the TV and mobile phone transmitter mast on the ridge, and, on the Cheshire plain, Jodrell Bank radio telescope, searching the universe for evidence of the beginning of time.

In Geoffrey Hill’s poem Mercian Hymns – in which history and memory are mixed, episodes from the life of Offa blended with memories of Hill’s own childhood, his experience of the Second World War and contemporary images from the time of writing in the late 1960s – there is a line which captures this sensation of time flowing through the landscape:

the landscape flowed away, back to its source

Mercian Hymns is a sequence of thirty prose-poems inspired by the remnants of Offa’s Mercia in the landscape. In Old English Mercia meant ‘boundary folk’, and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders.  The main purposes of Offa’s Dyke seem to have been to define the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, and to control trade by limiting movement across the border to defined routes through the earthwork. It may have had an additional defensive purpose, but historians think that would probably have been incidental. Only unchallengeable power could have allowed such a great undertaking, and only in a climate of relative peace between Wales and Mercia could a work of such a scale be achieved. This has suggested to historians that it must have been an agreed frontier.

In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns sequence of prose-poem hymns, the first hymn is a panegyric – ‘The Naming of Offa’ – and echoes the accolades that begin such poems in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.  Offa is similarly introduced with accolades: ‘King’, ‘overlord’, ‘architect’, ‘money-changer’.  Offa was a ‘money-changer’ in the sense that he introduced a new type of coin which became the standard for all subsequent coinage in the Old English period, and even after it.

Offa’s coins demonstrate that he was a contemporary of the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne and sought to stand up to him as an equal. The portrait on a typical coin shows Offa in the style of a Roman emperor with an imperial diadem in his hair.

Offa reformed the Mercian coinage in the 760s to bring it into line with the new-style Carolingian penny. The broader, thinner silver coin became the standard denomination for some six hundred years. From now on all coins would carry the name of the ruler.  These coins weighed the same as Charlemagne’s and could have traded internationally at the same value.

But even more significant is a unique gold coin minted by Offa, now in the British Museum.  It is one of the most remarkable English coins of the Middle Ages because it imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty. It has been suggested that the coin was designed for use in trade. Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.

Standing on Penycloddiau it seems extraordinary that beneath our feet are the remains of a kingdom that, nearly two millenia ago, linked traders who passed along and through the Dyke here with the rest of Europe, the Middle East and beyond.  And yet, as Geoffrey Hill observes at the conclusion of Mercian Hymns, Offa himself vanished from history, leaving behind coins … ‘and traces of red mud’.

Gold imitation dinar of Offa

From Mercian Hymns:


King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’



The princes of Mercia were badger and raven. Thrall to their freedom, I dug and hoarded. Orchards fruited above clefts. I drank from honeycombs of chill sandstone.

‘A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers.’ But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness; gave myself to unattainable toys.

Candles of gnarled resin, apple-branches, the tacky mistletoe. ‘Look’ they said and again ‘look.’ But I ran slowly; the landscape flowed away, back to its source.

In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and knees garnished with impetigo.



Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.

Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.

Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.

Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.



And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us      he vanished

he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.

See also

Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims

Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims

On Arran you sense time, the accumulation of thousands and millions of years, more intensely than anywhere else I’ve been: the deep geological time of rock formation along with signs of thousands of years of human presence in the landscape.

The first people on Arran to leave visible signs of their life and times lived in the Neolithic era, between 4500BC and 2000BC. They were farmers, and have left traces of their field systems, stone circles, standing stones and cairns. Megalithic monuments were built over a long period of time, stretching into the Bronze Age (roughly 2000BC to 600BC).  It was people from the Bronze Age who erected the enigmatic stone circles on Machrie Moor which I described when we first visited last September. I have never felt a sense of millennial time so intensely as on Machrie Moor: a track leads across open moorland to a series of standing stones made of red sandstone or granite.  In the words of Seamus Heaney, in ‘A Dream of Solstice‘, they stand

Millennia deep in their own unmoving
And unmoved alignment

This was a place to which we had to return.  This time we found a party of primary school children studying the stones and writing poems inspired by the place.  We distracted them for a while with our spaniel, which disappeared in a scrum of adoring girls.  After they had left, an intense silence descended, leaving the moor as it was and will be. Millenia deep.

An interpretation board tells visitors:

You are standing in a sacred landscape, where a complex story of belief and ritual has unfolded over thousands of years. This moorland is rich with signs of human life, belief and death. People lived and worked here for many thousands of years. Hidden in the peat are the remains of their homes, marks made by their ploughs, and the outlines of their fields. The land in this valley was fertile and attractive, and the people who lived here were farmers. Their ancestors had hunted and fished, but from about 4000 BC people began to clear the land for farming.

These enigmatic stone circles have long fascinated visitors and locals alike. In the 19th century they were investigated by probing through the peat with metal rods and eventually the peat was removed. However, most of our knowledge of them comes from scientific excavations carried out in the 1980s.

From about 2000 BC families lived here in round houses built of wood or stone. They grew barley and wheat, and kept animals like sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. Meat, vegetables, bread and cheese were produced and they made their own tools and clothes from the resources around them.  Around 4,500 years ago (at about the same time as monuments like Stonehenge were being built elsewhere in Britain) people erected elaborate timber circles . The timber later decayed and the land was cultivated, but the sites remained important.  Five hundred years later two stone circles were erected on the same sites as the earlier wooden ones. Probably at the same time four other circles were erected, one with a double ring of stones.  The result was an impressive and significant ceremonial centre for those who lived or travelled here. There may be other remains still hidden in the peat.

Although experts can’t agree about how the circles were used, the rising sun may give a clue. This particular location offers an early view of the midsummer sunrise at the head of Machrie Glen. It’s possible that important ceremonies took place here at the midsummer solstice.

When excavated between 1978 and 1986, the ground was shown to be criss-crossed with marks made by ards – early ploughs which cut through, rather than turned over, the earth.  Earlier in the day we had visited the Arran Heritage Museum at Brodick where we saw this display of ards excavated on the island.  These differ from stone ard shares found elsewhere – being heavier and shorter.

Also on display in the Museum were these two replica gold ornaments: a pennular ring of solid gold – probably a cloak or dress fastener, and a gold ‘lockring’ for holding back a lock of hair. The originals were found at Whitefarland (on the northwest coast of Arran) and both are now in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow.

The larger, wealthier and more hierarchical communities of the Bronze initially used copper, extracted from small surface deposits in Mid-Argyll. Soon, tin ores from Cornwall were being imported and alloyed with copper to make bronze which was much harder and made more effective weapons.  Considerable organisation was required to produce these objects, and they always retained a high status position.

On another day we walked the coastal way from Clauchland Point at the north end of Lamlash Bay as far as Corriegills Point, before turning inland and returning to our starting point along quiet lanes and through patches of old wildwood.

At the start of the walk along the shore was a board explaining that a large section of Lamlash Bay is now a No Take Zone – a designated area of sea and seabed from which no marine life can be removed. Decades ago, Arran was renowned for its fishing, when cod, haddock, hake, dab, plaice and turbot were plentiful in the waters of the Firth of Clyde. Today the white fish have gone, leaving only prawns and a dwindling stock of scallops. Concerned about the damage caused by trawling, campaigners formed the Community of Arran Seabed Trust and spent 15 years lobbying for a No Take Zone. Iain Stewart explained its significance  in his series for BBC TV Scotland, Making Scotland’s Landscape.

If the establishment of the No Take Zone is a positive development, the walk along the Clauchland shore provoked less optimistic thoughts.  All along the shore was strewn with plastic debris of all shapes and sizes – a large drum, a big fish storage tray, and many, many plastic bottles that once contained water or fizzy drinks.  The shoreline is strewn with boulders that have become overgrown with turf at the high tide line.  I began to notice, however, that every few yards, the turf underfoot would sink and squeak where the grass had overgrown a plastic bottle.

The Bronze Age left us their standing stones, the Iron Age their forts.  The traces of our civilization seem likely to consist of discarded plastic objects.  I pondered the accumulation of this debris along this shore on the Firth of Clyde, downstream from Glasgow.  I imagined wave after wave of discarded plastic bottles drifting from the city, swirling and turning endlessly in the Firth until swept ashore during a a storm or at high tide in a place remote place such as this.  It brought to mind the ‘Trash Vortex’, an area the size of Texas in the North Pacific, in which an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slow degrading garbage, swirls slowly around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds which get snared. Some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.  As Greenpeace observes:

Take a walk along any beach anywhere in the world and washed ashore will be many polythene plastic bags, bottles and containers, plastic drums, expanded polystyrene packing, polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net and discarded lengths of rope. Together with traffic cones, disposable lighters, vehicle tyres and toothbrushes, these items have been casually thrown away on land and at sea and have been carried ashore by wind and tide.

The walk finally brought us to the Iron Age hill fort at Dunn Fion, superbly situated on the very edge of a high cliff facing the sea, with commanding views of Brodick Bay in one direction and Lamlash Bay in the other.

The fort is small, but in this advantageous position it probably served as a secure home for an extended family at a time when intertribal conflict and attack were a constant threat. Archaeologists have determined that on the flat summit was a small oval fort little bigger than a hut circle, surrounded with a sizeable five foot thick earth and stone wall.  On the southerly slopes, where access was easiest, a defensive ditch was dug enclosing cultivated natural terraces.

An interpretive board explains that the site would have been fortified with ramparts using local natural materials, typically slabs and blocks of stone, rubble, boulders, earth and turf.  This fort would have presented an impressive profile on the sheer northerly cliff at a time when appearance and status were of great significance – this show of strength a further defence against cattle rustlers and tribal conflict. From evidence collected at similar forts on the island it seems likely the occupants of Dun Fionn would have kept cattle, sheep, goats, horses and pigs, and grown cereal crops such as barley.  The circular hut dwelling would have been made with timber and thatch, typically bracken and heather.  Inside, along with the sleeping area, a fire and a loom, a circular quern would have been used to grind grain.

A triangulation point now installed at the summit detracts somewhat from the atmosphere of the place.  Across the water lies Holy Isle, which I was to explore the following day.

A little further on, there is a Second World War pillbox, or look-out shelter, one of those erected in 1940 during the scare about a threatened invasion.  Standing in the pillbox, I gazed out across Lamlash Bay at the distinctive shape of Holy Isle, with its twin peaks –  Mullach Beag and the higher Mullach Mor.

The island has an important religious past, dating from the 6th century when Celtic Saint Molaise lived there as a hermit.   Since 1992, the island has been owned by a Tibetan Buddhist organisation that has established a Centre for World Peace and Health that offers a variety of courses, retreats and environmental programmes.  It is not a Buddhist community, but is run by the Rokpa Trust that also manages the Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre in Eskdale which we visited last year.

There is a regular ferry service from Lamlash pier, and the following day I made the crossing on my own, leaving partner and dog behind  since you aren’t allowed to take animals onto the island.  Visitors who simply wish, like me, to explore the island are welcome, while anyone willing to abide by the Five Golden Rules may stay in the Centre for retreats and holiday breaks. I can honestly state that I did not break any of the rules while I was on the island:

  • To respect life and refrain from killing
  • To respect other people’s property and refrain from stealing
  • To speak the truth and refrain from lying
  • To encourage health and refrain from intoxicants (including alcohol, cigarettes and drugs)
  • To respect others and refrain from sexual activity that causes harm

There is a clearly marked circular walk that leads over the two peaks before descending to the western shore (the whole east side of the island is a Nature Reserve and off limits).   I set off up the path from the jetty, past Buddhist prayer flags and stupas and up through an area of woodland with young birch trees.  There’s a steady climb to the top of Mullach Beag, 759 feet above sea level, with expansive views across Lamlash Bay.  From here it was possible to appreciate the commanding position occupied by the Iron Age fort at Dun Fionn just across the water.

I had been the only person coming across on the 10 o’clock ferry and I felt a sense of profound solitude as I stood at the first peak. The path then descended a little, before climbing again to the windswept crest of Mullach Mor, 1026 feet above sea level. Here, at the highest point, unexpectedly, I encountered a small party of teenagers sprawled around the trig point at the peak.

The views from the peak were stupendous: to the southwest was the broad sweep of Whiting Bay with Ailsa Craig looming out of the haze beyond Dippin Head.  To the north, Goat Fell was shrouded in low cloud.

I moved on, and soon the solitude enfolded me once again, and I was accompanied only by the cry of the gulls and the distant murmuration of the waves far below.  The climb down from Mullach Mor is fairly steep and at one point the path leads past hidden crevasses that have been marked by blue ropes.

On the descent, two lighthouses are in view.  On the eastern shore stands the outer lighthouse, or Pillar Rock, built in 1905 and the first lighthouse built with a square tower. It had a fog horn and a revolving light that was lit by paraffin. In 1877 the inner lighthouse (facing Arran) was designed by Thomas Stevenson, father of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The path finally returns to sea level, and the last couple of miles is a level walk along the grassy raised beach.  The inner lighthouse cottages now accommodate the Inner Light Retreat for women, and the retreat and adjacent gardens are closed to the public.  On the hillside are several newly built semicircular retreat pods and an accommodation unit for the retreat master.  Here individuals can follow a traditional Buddhist retreat of three years and three months.

Along the shore several rocks are painted with Buddhist images. The Holy Island website explains:

 In Tibet it is traditional to carve and paint depictions of the Buddha and saints on rocks and cliffs along pilgrimage routes and at holy places, to remind and inspire everyone who passes of the spiritual vision towards which to strive.  A Tibetan monk living in Samye Ling has carved several figures on the rocks along the path to the south end of the island, depicting key historical figures of the Kagyu Lineage and other significant images. They are carved and painted according to the traditional proportions and colours of Tibetan art.

Walking along the path, you encounter depictions of White and Green Tara. For those not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, the Centre website explains:

Tibetan Buddhism recognises many different tantric deities, each of which represents a different qualities of enlightened awareness. Tara is often seen and described as a Mother, because her compassion is so great that every being is as precious to her as a child to its mother. She is also described as Mother of all the Buddhas, because she is seen as the embodiment of perfected Wisdom.  In the form of White Tara, she can help preserve and protect one’s precious human life and cultivate wisdom. As Green Tara, she helps to overcome fear and to remove both external and internal obstacles on the path. She is quick and fearless in her activity – her outstretched right leg shows her readiness to spring into action whenever she is needed.

On a stone beneath the painting of Green Tara, those who had passed by had placed various offerings.  These were largely natural objects gathered on the nearby beach – though, for some inexplicable reason, someone had left a golf ball.  For some who passed by, their journey might have constituted a pilgrimage.  This desire by individuals to set out on a pilgrimage, and to leave tokens of their passage, is something discussed by Robert MacFarlane in his new book, The Old Ways.  On Saturday, in The Guardian, he wrote an article, Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival, considering why more and more people are setting out on pilgrimages, for religious, cultural or personal reasons:

Across faiths and denominations, down the green lanes of England, along the dusty roads of Spain, up the cobbled streets of Alpine towns, through the marl deserts of Israel and the West Bank, around the sacred peaks of the Himalayas, over the frozen lakes of Russia and along the holy rivers of India, millions of pilgrims are on the move: bearing crosses, palm branches, flaming torches, flower garlands, prayer flags and over-stuffed rucksacks, clutching scuffed wooden staffs or shiny trekking poles, and tramping, prostrating, hobbling, begging and believing their ways onwards, travelling by aeroplane, car, bus, horseback and bicycle, but most often on foot and over considerable distances – for physical hardship remains a definitive aspect of most pilgrimage: arduous passage through the outer landscape prompting subtle exploration of the inner. This pilgrimage revival is not only religious in nature; it also extends widely and fascinatingly into secular culture and art. […]

Everywhere I went on these journeys, I encountered men and women for whom landscape and walking were vital to life. I met tramps, trespassers, dawdlers, mourners, stravaigers, explorers, cartographers, poets, sculptors, activists, botanists, and pilgrims of many kinds. I discovered that walking is still profoundly and widely alive in the world as a more-than-functional act. I met people who walked in search of beauty, in pursuit of grace or in flight from unhappiness, who followed songlines or ley-lines; I witnessed walking as non-compliance, walking as fierce star-song, walking as elegy or therapy, walking as reconnection or remembrance, and walking to sharpen the self or to forget it entirely. […]

Not long before I went to Spain, I read an essay in the journal Artesian by a Czech writer called Vaclav Cilek, cryptically entitled Bees of the Invisible. Cilek – himself a long-distance wanderer – proposed a series of what he called ‘pilgrim rules’, of which the two most memorable were the Rule of Resonance (A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a place of great pilgrimage) and the Rule of Correspondence (A place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.) ‘The number of quiet pilgrims is rising,’ he observed. ‘Places are starting to move. On stones and in forests one comes across small offerings – a posy made from wheat, a feather in a bunch of heather, a circle from snail shells’. I had come across such DIY land-art often myself: the signs of unnumbered “quiet pilgrimages”, of uncounted people improvising odd journeys in the hope that their voyages out might become voyages in.

Just after the last of the Buddhist images, at the foot of the red sandstone cliff, is St. Molaise’s Cave.  Molaise was born in Ireland, the son of an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. Rejecting his princely upbringing, at the age of 20, he chose to live a secluded life as a hermit in this cave.  He was later ordained in Rome, before returning to Ireland.

Centuries later, in 1263, the Vikings arrived in Lamlash Bay. King Haakon of Norway brought a fleet of ships to the shelter of the bay, before fighting the Scots at the Battle of Largs. Vigleikr, one of his marshals, came ashore at Holy Isle and cut runes with his name on the wall of St. Molaise’s cave. Several carvings can just be distinguished on the wall – simple crosses, perhaps made by pilgrims, and carved personal names. I don’t know whether the symbols carved into the rock face in my photo (above) are actually Vigleikr’s runes – I just made a guess.

From the cave, it is only a mile of flat walking back to the jetty and the Centre, where meditation courses take place.  As I walked along, just after midday, I began to meet individuals walking out from the direction of the Centre.  I smiled and greeted the first two or three with a cheery ‘hello’, but received only a glimmer of a smile in response.  Then I realised – they were probably on a silent meditation programme.  So I limited my further acknowledgements to a smile.

I clean my teeth in water drawn from a cold well;
And while I brush my clothes, I purify my mind;
Then, slowly turning pages in the Tree-Leaf Book,
I recite, along the path to the eastern shelter.
…The world has forgotten the true fountain of this teaching
And people enslave themselves to miracles and fables.
Under the given words I want the essential meaning,
I look for the simplest way to sow and reap my nature.
Here in the quiet of the priest’s temple courtyard,
Mosses add their climbing colour to the thick bamboo;
And now comes the sun, out of mist and fog,
And pines that seem to be new-bathed;
And everything is gone from me, speech goes, and reading,
Leaving the single unison.
‘Reading Buddhist Classics With Zhao At His Temple In The Early Morning’ by Liu Zongyuan (China, 773–819)

On the field in front of the Centre a flock of the ancient breed of Soay sheep was grazing.  They are found only here and in the Outer Hebrides on two of the three main islands of St Kilda: Hirta and Soay, which is Norse for ‘sheep’, giving the breed its name. No one knows how or when the sheep arrived on St Kilda, though archaeological evidence suggests that they have been there since the Bronze Age. Soay sheep are thought to be one of two ancestors for all domesticated sheep, and are very hardy animals, not dependent on people for anything.

There are two other kinds of animals on the island which I did not see on my walk.  Eriskay ponies are the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies from the Hebridean Isle of Eriskay (south of South Uist), and have ancient Celtic and Norse origins. The ponies are a hardy breed with their dense and waterproof coat, enabling them to live comfortably in the Scottish climate all year round.  There are also white Saanen goats with impressive horns, possibly brought here originally by the Vikings.

The poet Kay Hathway has written a poem inspired by seeing a woman on Holy Island practising T’ai Chi, the ancient martial art now widely followed to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity.  It draws on the concept of the Taiji (the ‘supreme ultimate’) found in both Taoist and Confucian philosophy, representing the fusion of Yin and Yang.

A westerly wind whispers through sea grass,
each blade bends in continuous cadence.
A woman lifts her arms shoulder high, past
the horizon, angles her foot and leans
forward, turning her right hand to ramparts
from where guillemots dive for fish and spread
selvedged wings underwater to dart and
seize in sequence. The woman’s inner strength
is yin, yang for gentleness of  movement,
her limbs the extension of swallowed depth
for solitude seekers. The attendant
animation, a rhythmic form of self.
Bird and woman pursue related goals
to fuel the belly and to feed the soul.

I waited at the jetty for the ferry that would take me back across the water to LamlashGoat Fell and the ridge of peaks above the town were now clear of cloud: after a chilly start, the day had turned out warm and sunny.

I was not alone on the crossing: the teenagers I’d met at the summit were returning on the same ferry.

Reunited with partner and dog, that afternoon we walked out to Kings Cross Point, the headland at the northern end of Whiting Bay just across the water from St. Molaise’s Cave with its Viking runes.  Our aim was to explore the  substantial Viking grave that is located on the headland.  Although the site has been damaged in the past, this burial mound is of a type rare in Britain.  It represents a cremation burial in a boat of one of the early Vikings who landed here in 1263.  When the site was excavated it was found to contain fragments of burnt bone and charcoal, whalebone, iron rivets and nails as from a boat, and a bronze coin minted in York in 850.  It’s possible to just make out the boat-shaped outline of the burial mound (below).

The sign back at the road that points to this site reads ‘Viking Fort’ – a confusion that has arisen, no doubt, because right next to the Viling burial is a small Iron Age fort.  From here, the people who lived within the fort’s enclosure could look across the bay and see the fort at Dunn Fion, described earlier.

An ancient Irish poem called ‘Agalllamh na Senorach’, first recorded in the 13th century, perhaps captures the island and its attractions as it would have been experienced by those people.

Arran of the many stags
The sea strikes against her shoulders,
Companies of men can feed there,
Blue spears are reddened among her boulders.
Merry hinds are on her hills,
Juicy berries are there for food,
Refreshing water in her streams,
Nuts in plenty in the wood


See also