Sunday, 21 November 2010
Kinnoull Hill has been part of my life since early childhood. Its tall cliff face surmounted by a small tower looks over the River Tay, and dominates the Perth skyline. The first time I climbed to the top, my father held onto me, as I was determined to walk right up to the sheer edge and watch the world drop away into nothingness. The winter of 1963 Munia, Jim and I sledded down the slope facing Perth. Though not a sheer drop, the slope is steep enough to generate enough speed to bring your heart into your mouth.
Whenever Amber and I visit the old nest in Scone, we try to fit in a walk up the Hill. There’s something unearthly about the place. It feels like a temple, a place of magical power, more majestic than anything built by human hands. Though the Hill is not a tall mountain, it makes you feel small, coming face to face with something vast; not unlike the sensation that may arise when you stand at the foot of a Giant Sequoia. There’s rarely a time after a climb up the hill when I don’t feel refreshed and ready to take on the world. On the Hill daily troubles and concerns retreat to where they appear paltry.
On the summit, there’s no barrier to prevent anyone from jumping over the cliff, and some people have. There’s only a wooden sign that reads, “Dangerous Cliffs.” Unlike the United State, Scotland doesn’t have serious litigation problems. If you want to take your life, nobody is going to stop you.
I’ve long felt that such a place has many stories to tell, and I set myself the task of uncovering them. The small tower, known as the Folly, was erected in the 19th century by the fifth Earl of Kinnoull, who wanted replicate the castles he saw overlooking the Rhine. Built as a ruin the tower never had any other practical purpose. According to some sources the hill was the site of an earlier castle, long gone by the twelfth century, however the site has never been excavated.
Less generally known are the early legends, about a dragon that, back in the sixth century, had his lair in a cave below the summit. True to his nature, he slaughtered cattle and abducted beautiful girls. Supposedly he was slain by the Christian saint. St. Serf. I say supposedly, because what’s more telling is that the dragon was consecrated to Belinus, the Celtic sun god. The great festival of Belinus is Beltane that is celebrated on May 1, one of the two main Celtic festivals, the other being Samhain --- or Halloween. On Beltane, people celebrated the birth of the sun, with fires, dances and debauchery. Even all marriage vows were suspended for one day. Beltane was celebrated on Kinnoull in a small hollow below the summit called Windy Cowl, a place reputed to have of multiple echoes and eerie sounds. Finally in the sixteenth century the Scottish Kirk, declaring Beltane to be mostly frequented by papist monks and other unsavoury characters, put an end to the fun.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that a dragon is associated with the Hill, as the dragon appears frequently in British mythology. He’s often called “The worm”. Many places whose names contain the phrase “worm” or “orm” are named after a local dragon.
The following site, Mysterious Britain, contains links to many British dragon stories.
I suspect that the dragon’s legendary wickedness is as undeserved as the big bad wolf’s rapacious reputation, and is more a result of the attempts of monks and priests to Christianise the old religion of Britain. In China, where there was no attempt to suppress the early beliefs, the dragon is a benign force --- celebrated with song and dance. The great worm appears to represent overwhelming power that we have no control over, often disruptive like a gale storm or earthquake that periodically changes our lives. If we're religous or spiritual, we might attribute that power to a deity or deities. Long ago that power was believed to reside in prominent physical features of the land: mountains, caves, or a stone circle such as Stonehenge.
Kinnoull Hill is such a place. Its dragon also bore the distinguishing feature of a stone in the centre of its forehead. Whoever possessed the stone would himself have the power of the dragon, including the gift of invisibility. Back in the seventeenth century a certain James Keddie found the stone in the cave. For a while he enjoyed being invisible; playing pranks on his friends, but he eventually lost the stone, and it hasn’t surfaced since. Perhaps it’s in a cave, waiting for Bilbo Baggins to drop by.
Today we inhabit a different world. Dragons and magical stones of invisibility belong to the world of fable; we’re most comfortable relegating fables to Halloween or Harry Potter movies. Ours is a rational world that values working a job, no matter how humdrum, and making money. We imagine that we’re in control and that we don’t need to propitiate any deities. I’m not sure that we are in control. Life has its way of dealing us the unexpected. Nor can we dismiss what the dragon stands for --- an awesome power that makes itself felt in our psyche, whether we invite it or not.
Take a climb up the hill and you’ll know what I’m talking about.