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The Carnyx, the Games—Aberdeenshire’s Royal Farewell to Summer

THE CARNYX, THE GAMES—ABERDEENSHIRE’S ROYAL FAREWELL TO SUMMER
or The Royals know where to Party for End of Summer Fun

First Wednesday IWSG Party Time for Insecure Writers and other Scribes

March of the Lonach Men recalls the 1745 Rebellion, when wearing of the kilt was outlawed for 100 years

This Saturday, September 6th, 2019 finds the human Scots-Collective rallying at Braemar in extreme-inland-and-upland Aberdeenshire for the ‘Games’—the Braemar Gathering and Highland Games—in the 12-acre Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in the town, attended by HM the Queen and her immediate family. It is her last (holiday) appearance in Deeside—and Scotland—before her return at the end of the month to business-as-usual in London.

Aberdeenshire’s Other Summereve’s Celebration

Braemar, on the river Dee, follows a rival tradition—over the mountain and through the pass to Donside—where the (178th) Lonach Gathering and Games was held last Saturday, August 24th in Bellabeg, on the banks of the Don.

Beloved of Lonach fans, Robin Williams at the 2001 Gathering at Bellabeg, Strathdon Aberdeenshire

Known as the Alternative Gathering because of its attraction for Hollywood stars and in-the-know Royals, the Lonach is more of a society promenade than a competitive event. Yes, caber toss, hundredweight lugging and tug-o’war with dainty Highland dancing are all going on within the stadium enclosure, but the action is where international alliances are being forged on the ‘champagne picnic circuit’ ringing the field. Scots actor Billy Connolly is not alone in having a gracious country house within spitting distance of the grandiose Beer Tent; and his international guests are legend—Steve Martin and Robin Williams among them.

It’s an excuse for the remote glen to entertain as many famous international guests as they can squeeze into the valley for their last summer party—and the noble families of Donside hinterland open their houses in force. Sir James Forbes, Bart, cousin to Lord Forbes, head of clan Forbes, leads his green-kilted warriors to pipe and march from 8a.m. until they reach the field at 11a.m. Other pipers and pike-carrying members of the Wallaces and former rival-clan Gordon—join them, swinging in down the winding track.

No Historial Reenactment—Lonach Men March Three Hours through the Glen

Sir James Forbes of Newe, Bart, Patron of the Lonach Highland & Friendly Society, Bellabeg Strathdon

“Scotland in 1823 was on the cusp of monumental change, finally emerging from the bleak post-Culloden years to resume her rightful place in the World. With so much change in the air our ancestors saw the need to preserve their heritage, whilst still embracing the new.

“This is no historical re-enactment. The Lonach March represents an unbroken link from our forefathers to the 21st Century. Encountering the Lonach Highlanders for the first time takes you back to pre-1745 Scotland.”
Sir James Forbes of Newe and Edinglassie, Bart.

The Forbeses were once premier barons of Donside and Mar. Today, despite dwindling fortunes and a rich, punishing history—but unlike rival Gordons—a Forbes remains in possession of the clan’s oldest stronghold, Druminnor—the original 1429 Castle Forbes, seat of Chiefs of Forbes for 500 years. The Gordons rose to become Marquesses and Dukes, lording it over Strathbogie and the North, but Huntly Castle is a ruin and the feud has gone into the history books. Nowadays Lonach Men march together as one.

Flying threadbare standards gifted by Queen Victoria (tattered replaced by new, 2011), the Lonach Men stop at several remote dwellings on their way through the pass, each marcher toasted in whisky, given a dram and ‘haste ye back’, before the next halt. By the time they reach the playing field three hours later, they are in fine fettle.

Drunk or sober, it is the pipers’ duty to play after the day is done, too. They beat the retreat at 5:30p.m. when everybody—upwards of 8,000 souls—starts packing up champagne bucket, shooting stick and cucumber sandwich leftovers, to drive home. There have been years when it took four hours to reach Aberdeen and the coast—42miles away—in single-track traffic from Newe. [For perfectionists, it’s pronounced N-y-ow, like Meow with an N].

Rallying Call to Battle Gathering—Pipes or Carnyx

Celtic continental influence in Roman Scotland, Deskford’s Carnyx battle horn rallied Caledonian troops to march—as haunting a sound as Lonach bagpipes

On a magnificent cloudless late August day, it is tempting to compare the faint haunting call of the pipes as the Lonach Men march into the valley with the battle cry of Pictish hoardes described by Tacitus in A.D.79 at Mons Graupius.

A recent collaboration by Aberdeen and Euro continental archaeologists, comparing the few examples of bronze-cast sacred battle horns—Roman carnyx—allowed a replica to be made which sounds authentic—John Kenny plays, photo left.

Its weird high-pitched call (to battle) is hauntingly similar to the sound of the pibroch from a single piper’s drone on a high mountain pass. The Deskford carnyx , found in 1816 Banffshire (now Aberdeenshire) was ritually buried (on a battlefield?) with gold, silver, bronze bell, the battle horn itself a stylized boar’s head with upturned snout, signifying bravery of an indomitable superior race.

Sacred to the Picts, carved Boar stone from Donside, Aberdeenshire approx. A.D.420-700—earliest clan animal of Forbes and Gordon, courtesy National Museums of Scotland

Pictish Symbols Distilled into Clan Heraldry
Roman legions called them the painted people. In A.D.4thC Ammianus Marcellinus’s historical accounts Dicalydones were northern tribes: one of two branches of Picti, Picts, Roman chronicler Tacitus’s Caledonians who inhabited modern-day Moray, Banff and Buchan. The second group were the Verturiones who occupied southern territories of modern Fife, Perthshire, Forfar (Fortriu) and Lothian. Carnyces have turned up in sacred settings along Roman routes through France to northern Baltic. There is a famous carnyx series embossed on the silver Gundestrup cauldron found in 1891 in a Baltic peat bog in Jutland, dating to around 2nd Century B.C. Its boar-headed shape has the same curvature, and was the work of Iron Age Celtic Franco-Germanic artists.

My fellow IWSG-ers and our Cap’n at the Helm, Alex will agree that we writers who have the advantage of Space-Time awareness, courtesy of our ancestral lineage, know how the power of sound/music—certain plaintive notes—can trigger a rush of joy, inspiration, fresh creativity.

Danzig Willie’s Craigievar William Forbes, creator of Craigievar Castle in Upper Donside brought the style of France to the Aberdeenshire hinterland, 1686

It may be my historical-fantasy-bias that drives me to compare the pale single note of an ancient Pictish battle horn against Roman battalions in rural Banff, with an even fainter soul-wrenching skirl of bagpipes played on a high mountain pass in Corgarff, but the heart beats faster when both are sounded.

Is my historical desire to link the fantastic Pictish family of animal symbols with the conquering (Scots) lineage A.D.845 so farfetched?

Forbes tradition has it that their ancestor, Pictish chief Ochonochar, trapped a boar which was terrorizing the neighborhood. Their emblem shows stylized muzzled boar. The House of Gordon has a similar legend for their boar crest worn by the Cock o’ the North. Pictish Class I Boar stone, as late as A.D.700, above, was a Donside symbol—just as the Pictish Bull is mainly associated with Burghead and Moray.

IWSGers with Scots-Irish ancestry, even when writing deadlines hover—today is Anthology Contest—know we all enjoy a dip in the gene pool.

Have fun. Take a last wild plunge before summer ends. Let me know how it feels.
Thanks for listening.
©2019 Marian Youngblood

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September 4, 2019 Posted by | ancient rites, authors, blogging, culture, festivals, history, popular, publishing, ritual, seasonal, traditions, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arbor Day and Earth Week

Trees: without them and our wilderness, we as a species are lost

‘Archetype of our oneness with the earth’

We used to call it Arbor Day. On the hinge between Aries and Taurus, when the Sun enters this celebratory earth sign in the western zodiac calendar: that’s the day John Muir was born in 1838. A native Scot who emigrated to the United States and changed the face of a nation, Muir was the original arborist: lover of trees.

Wolves being hunted to extinction following a change in legislation to the US Endangered Species Act

It wasn’t easy. In early 19th-century Britain or the US, wilderness wasn’t a concept naturally entertained by Victorian huntin’ shootin’ choppin’ mentality. [It still isn’t, one might argue, when considering the recent Obama administration’s upholding the Bush cancellation of sections of the Endangered Species Act: which has resulted in wholesale wolf-massacre in the US States of Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Alaska].

Muir had similar adversaries. A naturalist and explorer of nature, his favorite wildernesses were in northern California, and it is there that his perseverance eventually paid off.

His activism was instrumental in saving swathes of western wilderness which eventually became the National Parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite Valley and Sequoia NP. The Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892, is now the most important (and vociferous) conservation organization in the United States.

His essays, letters and books have been read by millions.

At first, however, his petitions to conserve large areas of natural beauty were ignored. In the USA, it was a time of railroad expansion, the explosion of large cities, and big business in politics and in agriculture.

In his opinion, the high Sierras and other wild mountainscapes were being ravaged by livestock grazing (especially sheep, which he termed ‘hoofed locusts’). He personally spent weeks, sometimes months, in this high country, documenting and writing about the need to allow areas of such magnificence protection from grazing and (by analogy, its later counterpart,) the human and vehicular footprint.

He was persistent and he was inspired. The wild nature of California captivated him, from his first moment of exposure to its awesome grandeur.

Yosemite by Ansel Adams

“We are in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us” John Muir

He had, after all, grown up in rural (but ‘tamed’) Scotland, where the wildcat was close to extinction, where wild boar no longer existed outside zoos, and where in his grandfather’s time a royal patron, King George I (‘Big Geordie’), had commissioned a granite bridge over a tributary of the River Dee at Invercauld, so he could be wheeled from Ballater to the hide to shoot; and where, incidentally, he is credited with killing Scotland’s last wolf in 1722.

Muir saw huge vistas of the Cairngorms, Deeside, Donside and the Ladder Hills have their natural tree populations annihilated by sheep, deer and rabbit. He dreamed of a world that might be otherwise.

Grandeur of Yosemite inspired Muir's lifelong work for wilderness

Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868, and immediately set out to spend a solitary week in Yosemite. He later built a cabin there, where he lived for three years. For months at a time he would wander alone in the wilderness, making notes, carrying ‘only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson.’ It is here that he and his correspondent-in-Nature Ralph Waldo Emerson eventually met in 1871; Emerson traveling from Harvard to meet the man who lived the life he merely wrote about. His visit lasted only one day, but he promised assistance, and offered Muir a teaching position at the prestigious university, which Muir declined. ‘My work is here’, he said.

In 1872, the first National Park was created by federal legislation, on the strength of Muir’s efforts, at Yellowstone, Wyoming. It was to be the precursor of many others in the continental United States, including a total of nine national parks, now administered within the State of California by the National Parks service.

After his meeting with Emerson and over the following twenty years, Muir gathered, collated and compiled volumes of data on geology, natural history and plant and animal life populations of the Sierras. He envisioned Yosemite and the Sierra mountain range as pristine lands where original wildlife might roam, breed and proliferate, unimpeded by artificial (human) regulation. It was a difficult concept to instill. And his vision suffered throughout his life, wherever conflict surfaced between wilderness and ‘business.’

In one respect he was visionary, in doggedly hounding US Congress, and in writing for pro-conservationist magazines and organizations.

‘“Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts, and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”


In 1873 and 1874, he made field studies along the western flank of the Sierra Nevada, on the distribution and ecology of isolated groves of Giant Sequoia, one of the few redwood groves left in the world in virgin stands. In 1876, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published Muir’s paper on the subject. In his personal essays, however, he valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities.

Mount Whitney, at 14,500ft, the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail

His work inspired countless Americans, whose culture at the time was focused on the growing phenomenon of sky-scraper building and nationwide travel. He got them out of cities and back to nature. His work inspired photographers like Ansel Adams, painters such as Bierstadt, Jorgensen and Virgil Williams and he might even be seen as the father of the naturalist movement ‘EarthFirst‘. In the words of his biographer Steven Holmes:

“Muir has profoundly shaped the very categories through which Americans understand and envision their relationships with the natural world.”

John Muir in 1907 - wildman to the end

In 1903, after an inspirational (but chilly) night in a tent at Glacier Point with President Teddy Roosevelt, whom Muir was invited to take ‘to the wilderness’, the President rearranged bureaucratic legislation, and consolidated the boundaries of Yosemite, which had been split and decimated for earlier conflicting ‘business interests.’

Many wilderness areas are named after him: from Muir Woods and Muir Beach in Marin County, north of San Francisco, to the 211-mile John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite through King’s Canyon NP and Sequoia National Park, to the 14,500-ft peak of Mount Whitney in central California. A glacier in Alaska bears his name. He was instrumental not only in establishing the structure which became National Parks, but in the resulting expansion of National Forests, including areas with protected ‘Reserve’ status. In addition, State Parks now proliferate throughout the US. California, alone, has twelve regions of state parks (CSPs) administering 278 parks on 1.4 million protected acres.

So, what has happened in the bigger picture?

John Muir would be delighted to know that in 1964, the US government passed the Wilderness Act, to protect around nine million acres of wilderness. Arbor Day was traditionally a celebration conceived in the midwestern state of Nebraska (a treeless zone), as a springtime event to encourage the young to plant a tree. And two Earth Days appeared on the American calendar–one ratified by the United Nations and celebrated on equinox, March 21st–when both hemispheres receive equal amounts of light and dark and when the sun appears to stand directly overhead on the equator; the other, April 22nd, has gradually superseded Arbor Day; their celebrations now interchangeable.

Recently, with the advent of the blog, acceleration of internet communication and a focus on Earth-related activities, New Earth consciousness, Earth Day has expanded into ‘Earth Week‘. That, too, would please Muir.

But what of his homeland? the sheep-munched treeless wilderness of northern Scotland?

Cairngorm National Park

Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003, the largest of 12 national parks in Britain at 1400 square miles, literally 10% of the landmass of Scotland. Stretching from Grantown-on-Spey (north) to Glen Clova in Angus (south) and from Ballater on Deeside in Aberdeenshire (east) to Laggan and Dalwhinnie (Aviemore) on the A9 (west). Its supporters describe great vistas, mountainous peaks (all less than 4000ft) and the Tourist Board of Scotland heralds it a shelter for a quarter of Scotland’s threatened species, and home to 25% of its native trees.

That in itself is disturbing.

Its ‘Angus glens’ the ‘haunt of red deer and golden eagle’; ‘heather moor vivid with summer color’, and ‘wild tundra of high mountain tops’ tell the story.

Every last vestige of hunting forest put to the torch by Robert Bruce, 1308

Brief historical recap: in the early 14th century, Robert the Bruce murdered his (Comyn) rival for the throne of Scotland and pursued his son through the hunting forests of Aberdeenshire until he cornered him in his coastal Buchan fortress and – having proclaimed himself monarch – confiscated what was left of Comyn lands. On the ‘royal’ progress north, every last indigenous native Caledonian pine was either burned to the ground or used as live torches to light the way of the conquering army. This deliberate extinction of the species–and the wildlife it harbored–was Bruce’s way of destroying the Comyn hunting forests, themselves a symbol of wealth and source of self-regenerating food and fuel supply. His act (colloquially called the ‘Herschip o’ Buchan’, harrying of Comyn lands in Buchan) totally changed the face of Aberdeenshire, from which it has never recovered.

What Robert Bruce’s actions created – a treeless raised beach from the Grampian mountains to the sea – was not replanted. Except for small pockets on landed estates where tree regeneration was encouraged, an agricultural zeal took over the desolate wasteland, capitalizing on open countryside with few obstructions.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Highland estates cleared out their resident employees–crofters–to make way for agricultural innovation: turnips and sheep. While these ‘clearances’ were more specific to Caithness, Sutherland and the western portions of Scotland, some effects were felt in what is now the Cairngorms National Park. Where sheep were introduced, trees died; were not replanted; not allowed to regenerate. Where deer population had been nurtured and maintained in small numbers in remnant natural forests, for hunting, with the exit of human monitors, they overpopulated and devastated their own environment.

Thus, the Tourist Board’s ‘heather moor with vivid summer color’ and ‘wild tundra’.

Tree planting has begun again in the agricultural hinterland

The tourist brochure’s proclaiming its 1400 sq.miles as “harboring one quarter of the nation’s native trees” is also misleading. One tenth of the landmass containing one quarter of the nation’s pine, birch, aspen and alder? sounds a little drastic. Especially if compared with John Muir’s Yellowstone. Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, or 3.5 thousand square miles, has more trees per acre than all of Scotland put together. It is true that Aberdeenshire, a region half the size of Switzerland, still has fewer indigenous trees than it should–for its kindly climate–support. But that number is growing: private plantations are beginning to take hold again.

The good news is the story of Glen Affric: and Trees for Life. This Scots charity has gradually (through donation) been purchasing 600 square miles of ancient Caledonian remnant forest west of Inverness, and has begun the mammoth task of replanting original species of oak, alder, Caledonian pine, juniper, birch and rowan (mountain ash).

Regeneraton of Caledonian pine -- a rewarding task

While their goal is not to service the forestry industry, but rather to provide habitat for original animal, insect and plant subspecies, (with the possible future reintroduction of wild boar and wolf being tentatively suggested), the group recognize that some felling and forestry operations may be appropriate.

‘We envision our work to restore the Caledonian Forest as not only helping to bring the land here back to a state of health and balance, but also having global relevance, as a model for similar projects in other countries.’

Other small parcels–once adjacent to hillfarms, and escaping the ‘set-aside’ agricultural brainstorms of the 1980s–were maintained by individuals, and planted with pines, which are now starting to look mature.

John Muir would indeed be proud of his ancient heritage and the inspiration it has given new groups to start again.

Old growth 1000-year old redwoods felled in early 19thC lumber operations

The best news, however, is back in California.

In Muir’s time, after the (1848) Gold Rush, California was inundated with new immigrants. His beloved trees came under great threat. In the 1880s four hundred sawmills north of San Francisco were churning out lumber from felled redwood giants–a process which accelerated after the 1906 earthquake–in a need for timber to rebuild the city. In 1920, however, the Save the Redwoods League began purchasing groves that would become the backbone of California’s redwoods parks. It continues adding to this day.

In the 1950s–the post-war boom–lumber mills were cutting in excess of one billion board-feet of timber per year, a level maintained until the mid-1970s, when clear-felling vast acreage of virgin trees was still allowed.

…Until science and sense stepped in.

Science argued, but the battle was won by 1990s tree-sitters, those brave souls who camped out in makeshift treetop platforms while Caterpillars, chainsaws and chokesetters bumped and strained and devastated beneath them.

To explain:

Old growth virgin redwoods now protected in State and National Parks

In 1905, the Murphy family started Pacific Lumber, believing that by leaving some of their old growth redwoods standing, they could sustain an industry, well into the 21st century. But Pacific Lumber was purchased (by hostile takeover) in 1985, by Houston-based Maxxam, and clear-felling became the norm. Like the Amazon rainforest, Maxxam were clear-cutting eighty acres of California redwoods at a time–eating into the company’s (and the State’s) last remaining virgin stands. When CEO Charles Hurwitz attempted to clear-cut the largest remaining block of old growth redwood, in Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, in 1990, tree-sitters — ‘Forest Defenders’ — scaled remaining giants the size of a Boeing 707, and moved in.

They were supplied food and refreshment by allies via pulleys, by night, their hoists and ropes removed and burned by loggers, by day. Tempers ran high; lives were lost; protesters murdered. But State legislature listened and stepped in.

Headwaters Forest was purchased in 1999 by State and Federal government agencies, and put under permanent protection. Clear-felling practice was legally reduced to a 20-40-acre maximum.

The logging industry finally sat up and paid attention. Its own resource was decimated; salmon runs and ecosystems had suffered in a mindless race for economic gain, with only ‘table scraps’ left, in the view of Humboldt State University forest scientist Steve Sillett. ‘The challenge now is to improve management on the 95% of redwood landscape (felled) that is just starting into regrowth.’

Sequoia sempervirens, redwoods as big as a Boeing 707

Growing trees like a crop of grain is no longer the enlightened view. Scientists from HSU have discovered that the older the redwood, the harder and more disease-resistant is the wood, and the tougher its ability to withstand weathering, damage; i.e. you get more value out of one 1000-year old tree than a thousand 10-year olds. Forestry attitudes are changing too. Heavy Caterpillar earthmoving tractors, that caused such erosion (skid trails) and consequent pollution to streams and spawning pools, are being replaced by smaller, lighter shovel loaders on tracks which leave the forest floor intact. State law now enforces a mandatory buffer zone of trees, along streams and rivers, and salmon and other fish are returning.

They are on target to create new forests (in one hundred years) like the ones protected in the Redwoods National and State Parks. Muir is by now roaring with delighted laughter in his (redwood) coffin.

So, when they ask you ‘what did you do for Arbor Day, Mummy or in Earth Week, Daddy?’ it may no longer be adequate to say you took the dog for a walk or raked leaves off the driveway. With renewed focus on the Earth, a show of determination coming from youth groups and in education, we may be inspired to show our ability to replenish, regenerate and restore parts of our planet we’ve been gifted as custodians, to bring back to life.

During Earth Week at least, the gardener in us is being asked to wake up.
©2010-2012 Marian Youngblood

April 23, 2010 Posted by | authors, calendar customs, culture, environment, gardening, history, nature, New Earth, organic husbandry, seasonal, sun, trees | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments