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Ides of March: Prophecy & the Power of Belief

Julius Caesar, iconized and immortalized after his death, Ides of March 44BC

Julius Caesar, self-styled vanquisher of Britannia, those restless natives in the extremities of his empire, would be surprised to learn that, 2054 years after his death on 15 March 44BC, we still remember him, if only for the prophecy that warned of his demise. It is extraordinary that most of the English-speaking world – if they think about it at all – associates the middle of March with that ancient Roman calendar which named the beginning of a lunar month the Kalends, the day of New Moon the Nones and middle (or full moon) the Ides. And, as the Julian calendar had only been established and corrected to include months of 30 and 31 days two years before he died, it seems his prophesied murder had potency because it happened on a Roman full moon.

What is it about phases of the Moon and our need to believe in doom and gloom?

Nostradamus, French apothecary and seer Michel de Nostradame (1503-1566) was famous not only for thousands of quatrains, but for the obscurity and multiplicity of their interpretation. He wrote the following quatrain:

‘The Moon in the full of night over the high mountain, The new sage with a lone brain sees it: By his disciples invited to be immortal, Eyes to the south. Hands in bosoms, bodies in the fire’ Century IV number 31

French Apothecary and Seer, Nostradamus

It has so far escaped attribution. In recent years the most famous of his quatrains (Century I Quatrain 87) has been interpreted (usually by re-writing its context), to apply to the World Trade Center tragedy of 9/11, 2001. In the original it appears:

‘Earthshaking fire from the centre of the earth will cause tremors around the New City. Two great rocks will war for a long time, then Arethusa will redden a new river’

When rewritten to tie more closely into the the Twin Towers scenario, it reads:

‘Sea of fire at the world centre, The tower of the new city will tremble: Two great blocks will be at war for a long time, Then Arethusa will redden a new river

Lost in the thrill of proclaiming the French mystic’s ability to see five hundred years into the future with such precision, the interpreters failed to notice a suggestion by a contemporary volcanologist that Vesuvius is sited between two great massifs, did in fact tremble and erupt shortly after this prediction and Arethusa – a Greek mythological Neried who was turned into a fountain – appeared to influence ‘rivers’ of lava which cascaded down its slopes. Nearby Napoli/Naples, in translation does also mean ‘New City’.

Such is the nature of perfect prognostication.

Its interpreters may never agree. And yet it is human nature to ‘see’ the alternate reality, poised, ready to believe.

In the months following 9/11 public hysteria whipped up by veiled suggestion had books on Nostradamus and those quoting his work catapulted to best-seller status in both Amazon and Barnes & Noble reading lists.

In Nostradamus‘s time, the Scots-Gaelic equivalent of the French prophet was one favored by Clan Mackenzie in their talented son ‘Dun’ Kenneth (Coinneach Odhar), the Brahan Seer. While first reference to him in print does not appear until Thomas Pennant’s ‘Tour of Scotland’ (1769) “Every country has its prophets… and the HIghlands their Kenneth Odhar,” it is likely this refers to Keanoch Owir, ordered prosecuted by Rossshire authorities for witchcraft by two Commissions of Justice in 1577. Oral tradition says he predicted the fate of Fairburn Tower, seat of the Mackenzies overlooking great landholdings in Rossshire river valleys of the Orrin and Conon:

‘The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower.

Fairburn Tower where the Seer predicted a cow giving birth

The castle did indeed become a ruin and in 1851, when a cow calved in the garret, it was being used by a farmer to store hay. The prophecy was so well-known that people came by train to Victorian health-spa Strathpeffer and on by coach to see the cow. She had climbed up the tower following a trail of hay, had a good feed at the top and become stuck. She gave birth to a fine calf and both were carefully led down some five days later, allowing enough time for the incredulous to visit and see the prophecy fulfilled for themselves.

A laborer on the Brahan Seaforth estate, Kenneth was summoned by Isabella, Lady Seaforth to give her news of her husband, then on a visit to France. He saw in his mind the Earl cavorting with a Parisian demoiselle and wouldn’t answer his mistress. She threatened him with dismissal and insisted until he told her what he had seen. The revelation cost the oracle his life. Traditional reward for the bearer of bad tidings was death by ‘tarring’ in a barrel of boiling pitch. Before receiving his sentence, he threw his ‘divining’ stone into Loch Ussie and foretold the end of the male line and the extinction of the Seaforths.

In its Georgian heyday, one mile west of Brahan House the grounds stretched to meet the A835 Dingwall-to-Ullapool road. A monument rests by the road. It was here that the Brahan Seer’s final prediction of the fall of the Seaforths became a reality.

When the last Lord Seaforth died (after his four sons) the estates went to his eldest daughter, Mary. She had married Admiral Hood, spending several years stationed in the East Indies. When the Admiral died, Lady Mary Hood, (later Lady Stewart-Mackenzie) returned wearing the traditional Indian white coife of mourning. In 1823 Lady Mary was in control of a pony carriage near Brahan accompanied by her sister, Lady Caroline Mackenzie. The ponies bolted and the carriage overturned. Lady Caroline was thrown out and died of her injuries.

Dun Kenneth’s last words before he was ‘tarred’ were that Lord Seaforth’s possessions would be

‘inherited by a white-coiffed lassie from the east and she is to kill her sister’

Two of his predictions remain, so far, unfulfilled:

‘One day black rain will fall on the City of Aberdeen’

Optimists hope this refers to North Sea Oil and not nuclear fallout. And

‘Rome was; London is; Edinburgh shall be’

While this could refer to the present condition of Scots parliament sitting in the Scots capital, it may imply a future time when Edinburgh becomes more important than the capital of Great Britain…

Scotland’s most famous seer, however, is 13th-century Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas Learmounth of Ercildoune (c. 1220 – c. 1298), from a district now called Earlston near Berwick in the Borders. There is documentary evidence of a Thomas Rimor de Ercildoun witnessing deeds in the 1260s.

Nearly all his sayings have been recorded, and were first published in 1603, but it is remarkable that in the handing down through oral tradition of his many prophecies, the rhyming and rhythm has been maintained, so that his legacy is indeed a series of poetic prognostication.

And, remembering that what a poet, bard or seer of the 13th century was usually expected to foretell was the fate or future of a great house or a noble family, his words have a way of telling an alternative history of ‘lowland’ Scotland stretching from the Moray Firth to the Forth.

Sir Walter Scott became fascinated by him and created the ‘Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer’ to include in his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border‘, 1802.

Syne they came to a garden green,
  And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
  It will give thee the tongue that can never lee.’ Thomas and the Queen of Fairyland 17thC Anon

The Queen of Elfland gave Thomas the gift of prophecy

The tale goes that Thomas Learmounth, while out walking near his Tower House of Ercildoune, sat to rest under the ‘Eildon Tree’, a hawthorn, known to have magical powers. While he slept, the Queen of Faeryland spirited him away to live with her, some say for three, others for seven, years and when he returned from what he thought was a nap of a few minutes, the world had changed by several years.

And he returned with the power of prophecy.

The Queen’s gift was bestowed on condition he should always speak the truth, but also on the strict understanding that he would return immediately at her summons.

His elf-given powers predicted some historically life-changing events:

The death of King Alexander III in 1296 in a fall from his horse
The succession of Robert the Bruce as King of Scots
The disastrous defeat of King James IV of Scots at Flodden in 1513
The defeat of Mary Queen of Scots at the Battle of Pinkie in 1567 and
The Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.

The downfall of many a great landed family was until the age of film and television attributed to the powers the Queen of Elfland had bestowed on Thomas the Rhymer. Now fantasy is the stuff of moviemakers.

However, some of his prescient pronouncements bear repeating.

The family of Gordon from whom George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (the poet Lord Byron) was descended, suffered in a typically Thomas fashion:

‘When the heron leaves the tree
The laird o’ Gight shall landless be’

On May 12, 1785, his mother Catherine Gordon of Gight, the last female descendant of an estate overlooking the river Ythan in Aberdeenshire, married Hon. John Byron. The estate was sold soon after the marriage. Tradition says that about the time of the marriage the falcons or ‘herons’ which had built their nest for many years in a ‘fine tree near the castle’, left and took up their abode in the woods of nearby Haddo. Gight is now a ruin. Another, that

‘At Gight three men a violent death shall dee
And after that the land shall lie in lea.’

This prophecy was also fulfilled.

One of the most famous tragedies to befall a family in Aberdeenshire was that of the hereditary Earls Marischal, (former Knights Marischal), Masters of Horse to the Royal Household from time immemorial. The honour was traditionally given to the house of Keith, earlier known as Keiths-Falconer, later Earls of Kintore, Lords Inverurie and Stonehaven, a family with hereditary lands at Dunnottar south of Aberdeen, and Inverugie near St Fergus in Buchan. Their medieval power was so great that when county boundaries were drawn up in the 12th century after Norman nobles moved north with the Court, St Fergus (and Inverugie) was allowed to maintain the status of being part of Banffshire, from where the family originated. It is to this day an enclave of ‘Banffshire’ within the confines of ‘Aberdeenshire’ in this Buchan corner.

Crown Jewels of Scots Regalia, hidden from Cromwell's soldiers in the cellar at Kinneff

The family had been immensely wealthy, with lands stretching from the Moray Firth (Banffshire and north Aberdeenshire) through Kincardineshire (the coastal fortress of Dunnottar) to the Esk river boundary with Angus and the Mearns: an area half the size of Switzerland.

They were trusted, loyal to the Crown, had held their hereditary position as protector of the King’s person and his stable for centuries. They were elevated to Earls Marischal after supreme acts of bravery on behalf of the Royal House, concealing the royal regalia – the Crown Jewels of Scotland – after the coronation of James II in 1650, from the eyes of Cromwell’s soldiers, whose most ardent quest was to remove and destroy them, as they had so recently melted down the English regalia.

Dunnottar - fortified promontory keep on the North Sea - where the Crown Jewels were hidden

The Knights Marischal were the trusted recipients of the precious Crown, Orb, regal Sword and Sceptre after the hastily-conceived coronation at Scone, and they concealed them at Dunottar until it, too, lay under siege. The situation became urgent. The ‘Honours’ were lowered by rope to a serving woman in a boat who took them to the nearby village church of Kinneff and hid them in the cellar. For this act of bravery and allegiance the Keiths – after the king’s “Restoration’ – were elevated to Earls Marischal and once again their power and position seemed untouchable.

Until some of Thomas’s prophecies started to bite.

One relates him standing personally within Inverugie Castle grounds on a huge prehistoric boundary stone revered as sacrosanct in his time:

“Inverugie by the sea
Lordless shall thy lands be
And underneath thy hearth-stane
The tod* shall bring her birds hame.”

*tod = fox

and

“As lang’s this stane stands on this craft
The name of Keith shall be held alaft’
But when this stane begins t’ fa’
The name of Keith shall wear awa'”

In 1715 the Inverugie property of the Earl Marischal at St. Fergus was ‘attainted’ (put in disgrace). This meant that by order of the Crown, descendants could not inherit. The estate at St Fergus was bought from the Crown by York Buildings Co. Trustees of that Company sold it in 1761 to George, Earl Marischal, son of the attainted earl.

The stone of Thomas’s recital was removed in 1763 and built into the church of St Fergus which was then under construction. This seemed to add to the family’s downfall. The ‘new’ owner went into debt and he sold Inverugie in 1764, the year after the stone was removed, to Lord Pitfour, one of the senators of the College of Justice. Inverugie has not been in Keith hands since that time.

Dunnottar, too, fell into ruin.

One of the family’s other houses was at Auchmedden, near Pennan in Aberdour parish on the North Coast.

“As long’s there’s an eagle in Pennan
There will be a Baird in Auchmedden”

Baird was another family name of the Keiths. In historical records of the House, a pair of eagles built their nest in the cliffs near the village of Pennan and the Bairds protected them with the greatest care and fed them by placing daily on a ledge of rock near their eyrie food and tidbits. Willam Baird joined ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie as an officer of his bodyguard at Culloden. He continued in hiding for some years after and then lived the remainder of his life at Echt House (central Aberdeenshire) where he died in 1777. Auchmedden was not confiscated, but Mr Baird had to sell it in 1750 to relieve debt contracted in support of the Stuarts. When it was bought by Earl of Aberdeen in that year, the eagles left.

There is one final Keith prediction which may be their death knell, although Thomas’s words do not specifically mention the family:

‘When Dee and Don shall run as one
And Tweed shall run with Tay
The Bonnie Waters o’ the Urie
Shall bear the Bass away.’

The Bass is a man-made medieval mound used to garrison troops of David I (1170). It is situated at the confluence of the Urie and Don in Inverurie which meets the boundary of the lands of Keith Hall, where the Earls Marischal built their glorious edifice after they were elevated and once more restored to royal favour. The Hall is a superb example of 17th century style and elegance and its surrounding woodland reminiscent of once-great royal hunting forests.

The Earl of Kintore, in his traditional rôle as Chief of Clan Keith

It lies on the edge of the modern town of Inverurie and the town is encroaching.

The river floods regularly and in these last floodings, the Bass got its feet wet.

Within the last decade, the great Hall was sold and converted into a condominium; while the Earl and Countess of Kintore remained on the estate – making a comfortable residence in the Stables – they both seemed to have ‘lost’ something in the move.

Lord Kintore then ‘lost his seat’ in Tony Blair’s insensitive reshuffle of the House of Lords and the light went out of his life.

The Countess contracted cancer and was given a few months to live. One Hallowe’en, before events could progress too far in that direction, the Earl took his own life. His wife died within the year. Their son, the present Earl, no longer makes his home in Aberdeenshire.

The lands are walked upon by Inverurie passers-by who use the once-great ‘hunting forest’ to promenade their dogs on weekends, in the evenings; in fact at any time of the day or night. How many of them are aware of the great history that lies under their feet?

“The name of Keith shall wear awa'”

has come true in ways even Thomas could not have imagined.

So, did the Queen of Elfland ever summon Thomas back? Maybe so.

He disappeared one day in 1298 after walking out of his Tower House and was never seen again.

According to legend, he will return and come to Scotland’s aid in the hour of her greatest need…

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March 15, 2010 Posted by | ancient rites, calendar customs, culture, earth changes, history, New Earth, popular, Prehistory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Party games and Mnemonics

Angel of the Festive Spirit

The festive season is here.

It’s the time for feeling peaceful, sharing joy and being merry; it’s also time for exercise: not of the body perhaps, but of the mind.

Trivial Pursuit used to be very fashionable; Scrabble keeps the cogs oiled, but old poems and rhymes that jog the cogs have a place too.

Whichever way your mind works, the mnemonic that fits the season is one that comes from the far north: its about wood and logs and burning those valuable resources we now cherish so much and burn less frequently. In Scotland, where we still burn logs in woodstoves and open hearths to celebrate solstice and Yule – Christmas and Hanukkah – wherever it is cold enough to warrant a blazing fire, this poem is not only something to remember the season by, but to remember the value of each yule log that we consume. Precious resource, indeed, but what joy it brings.

Wood for the Season: log burning rhyme
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new-cut holly laid beside;
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for years ’tis stored away;
Make a fire of the elder tree,
A death within the house you’ll see

But ash green or ash old
Is fit for a Queen with a crown of gold.

Fires of the Festive Season

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last;
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
Dangerously the sparks will fly;
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread;
Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold;

But ash wood green and ash wood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.

Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter’s cold;
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Apple wood will scent the room,
With an incense like perfume.
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom;

But ash green or ash dry
For a Queen to warm her slippers by.

According to my grandfather, a childlike lovable old churchman who never wished to stop learning, the Victorians were great ones for mnemonics: for the wind and compass directions in clockwise order:

Never Eat Shredded Wheat

to remembering which side of the ship you were on on an ocean voyage:

The ship’s left port

or, more obscure,

Port wine should be left alone when it is red

This suggests port (left) red, so starboard (right) green. However, my grandfather also liked an occasional glass of port himself and his explanation was that as after dinner port is always traditionally passed around the table to the left; the “port” light is always red, just as port wine is always red.

His many interests included classical languages, the rivers of the world, the seven hills of Rome and how to remember them. While I doubt that too many reading this will have a need for mnemonics for such trivia, you never know; it might come in handy one day.

Firstly, the World’s greatest/longest Rivers:

NAM-MI YACH-Y

Nile (Africa) – 4,145 miles
Amazon (South America) – 4,050 miles
Mississippi-Missouri (USA) – 3,760 miles
Irtysh (Russia) – 3,200 miles
Yangtse (China) – 3,100 miles
Amur (Asia) – 2,900 miles
Congo (Africa) – 2,718 miles
Huang-Ho or Yellow (China) – 2,700 miles

Capitoline to the Aventine - hills of Rome

The Great Lakes from West to East:

Sam’s Horse Must Eat Oats

The Seven Hills of Rome:

Can Queen Victoria Eat Cold Apple Pie?
To remember the seven hills of Rome

and for those of us who might have to look that one up: they are:
the Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, and the Palatine hills.

Roman numerals, too, in ascending order, for the classics scholar with a bad memory:

Lucky Cows Drink Milk

L = 50, C = 100, D = 500 and M = 1000.

And while on number, he had a mnemonic to help him remember the exact decimal value of Pi to the twentieth place! Counting the number of letters in each word of the sentence in order gives the value of Pi = 3.141592653 etc.

Sir, I send a rhyme excelling
In sacred truth and rigid spelling
Numerical sprites elucidate
For me the lexicon’s dull weight.

I prefer the simpler version of Pi to a mere seven places:

May I have a large container of coffee?

His wide reading brought him into much more esoteric branches of learning, which I won’t elaborate on – such things as Pythagorean theory, [a very non-pc version: ‘The Squaw on the Hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the Squaws on the other two Hides’] Lord Nelson’s injuries(!), remembering the names of world oceans and continents, and the date of the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight.

The Colours of the Rainbow are worth quoting:

Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain

which my mother (his daughter) abbreviated to the acronym: ROYGBIV.

Henry the Eighth’s six wives:

‘Divorced, beheaded, died;
Divorced, beheaded, survived.’

They were: Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard and Katherine Parr.

The Bayeux Tapestry recounts the Battle of Hastings

His greatest mnemonic was, for me, the poem of the succession of the Kings and Queens of England from William the Conqueror, 1066. Not the Scots, or Kings of Picts, mind you; something I wished for at the time and tried in later life to create a mnemonic for and failed miserably. [It is quite difficult to place King Dubh, Kings Aedh, Custantin, Fergus and King Nechtan into a rhyme!]

This one is still popular and while you have to remember another rhyme to insert each monarch into his/her houses, (Plantaganet, etc.), it has a ring to it:

Kings and Queens of England from 1066
Willy, Willy, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard Two,
Harries Four Five Six, then who?
Edwards Four Five, Richard Three,
Two Harries, Edward and Bloody Mairee;
Elizabeth the Virgin Queen
Two Jameses with Charlies in between

Coronation of Alexander III at Scone

[sometimes:
Mary, Bessie, James ye ken,
Then Charlie, Charlie, James again)

William and Mary, Anna Gloria
Four Georges, William and Victoria
Edward Seven next, and then
Came George the Fifth in nineteen ten
Ned the Eighth soon abdicated
Then George the Sixth was coronated
After which Elizabeth
And that’s all folks until her death.

The Royal Houses to which those monarchs belonged:

No Plan Like Yours
To Study HISTORY Wisely

(Norman (1066-), Plantaganet (1154-), Lancaster (1399-), York (1461), Tudor (1485-), Stuart (1603-), Hanover (1714-1901), Windsor (1901/1917-present))

Like Winston Churchill, whom he admired although a younger man, he could recite by heart: Greenleaf Whittier’s Ballad of Barbara Fritchie, a stirring epic from the American Civil War.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

It goes on for another thirty verses, but its most poignant couplet tells of an order from Stonewall Jackson himself:

‘Who touches a hair of thon gray head
Dies like a dog. March on,’ he said.

It is a fact that Winston Churchill, while visiting Frederick, Maryland in 1943, held up his own welcome party while he stood in front of the house where she is said to have waved the Union flag in Stonewall Jackson’s face; and recited the poem from beginning to end. It is not reported whether his hosts were particularly pleased by this recitation; but my grandfather was!

Of course the old minister would recite from every verse of ‘Remember, Remember the Fifth of November’, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Wreck of the Hesperus and he was particularly fond of ‘Peter, Andrew, James and John, Hold the Horse while I get on’ -a mnemonic for the first four of the 12 disciples.

With such a mentor, is it any wonder that my education was, to say the least, eclectic?

I don’t have to repeat the mnemonic for the months of the year because I think that is one rhyme which has filtered down through oral tradition into the consciousness of now. [Unless someone really doesn’t know and writes me a comment/request to that effect!]

However I think my grandfather would have loved to hear a hurricane rhyme which I learned in the Bahamas in the early ‘sixties: in these times of changing world climate and strange seasons, it is reassuring to find the hurricane season stays (roughly) the same…

Hurricane Season
‘June, too soon;
July, stand by;
August come it must;
September, remember;
October, all over.’

My grandfather had ways of remembering the Arabic names of stars and constellations, too, but I think we’ve covered enough ground for one festive blog. Those gems will have to wait for another time.

Happy solstice.

December 14, 2009 Posted by | ancient rites, culture, history, popular, seasonal | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments