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Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: Walking with the Dead

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2015

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Walking with the DeadTwilight arrives late this far north in mid-summer, well after eleven o'clock p.m. This fact always catches me by surprise, as it did this past June traveling through Scotland, although by now I should know better. Like the haunting half-light of a waning solar eclipse, when finally darkness arrives, the shadows do not so much lengthen across the landscape as they envelope everything at the same moment. Everything fades from view, including the Ballymeanoch Standing Stones which stand just a few hundred yards from where we were bedding down for the night.

Driving through the Kilmartin Valley of Argyll, on the western coast of Scotland, twenty-five years ago, I had wondered what it would be like to sleep among those sacred stones and cairns, henges and burial cysts, some of which were constructed a millennium before the Egyptians began to build their great pyramids. Darkness as thick as black pudding came over the landscape replacing the retreating twilight, and I was getting a sense of exactly what this would be like as I looked out the window of a house only a few hundred yards from the Dunchraigaig Cairn. This is one of the darkest places on earth, especially on a night like this with clouds blocking out the light of the moon.

The cattle that were bedding down beside the standing stones disappeared into the darkness, oblivious to the significance of their pasture. As we curled up to sleep, the bedroom curtain open so we would see the stones at first light, I thought back to previous visits to this valley during the many years we have gone there.

On one of those visits, I recall standing on the terrace beside the village church. Below me for a couple of miles down through the valley stretched what has come to be called the "linear cemetery," an avenue of burial cairns and cists, standing stones and other monuments running for a mile or more through the glen. The "modern" church is old enough that it would earn a couple of historical markers if it were anywhere in the United States, and it was certainly not the first church on this site. The original church for the village, a medieval structure, was constructed beside the even older Celtic standing crosses which served as a preaching point for priests of that faith almost 1,500 years ago. But even the early Celtic Christians who lived in tiny "beehive" cells in the surrounding hills were Johnny-come-lately.* Or, perhaps, I should say our Christian faith is the latecomer to the area, since I wouldn't be surprised if there are people there today who carry the DNA of the folks who arrived in this area from Continental Europe sometime after the last ice age retreated. And the ice age ended about 15,000 years ago.

Standing beside the church, I was struck by the awareness that throughout the human occupation of this valley (and human beings are known to have been in this valley for some nine thousand years) and through several successive religious faiths (in most of which we have no idea what the people believed or what rituals they practiced), this valley has been considered holy, set apart, somehow sacred. This is the thinnest of thin places.

During the centuries from the construction of the henge which stood outside my bedroom window and the building of the first circle in what we now call Temple Wood, and through the use of this valley as a burial place for the families who lived in the vicinity (from roughly 3500 BC to 1800 BC), it appears that the people who built this sacred landscape did not live amid the monuments they built. They made their homes at the boundaries of the valley, just outside the sacred precinct.

It is sometimes hard for us to get a sense of just how tangible holiness might have been for people like those who built these monuments. For me, this numinous quality was communicated well in a story that one of our guides told us about a burial in one of the cairns. It appears that only one person was originally buried in that particular cairn, whereas in others it seems whole families, perhaps even for several generations, had been buried, and that these successive generations of families entered the cairns periodically for ceremonial purposes. Not so with this cairn, said our guide.

Our small group stood inside the cairn around a single burial place, a tomb constructed of slabs in which a single body had been found long ago. We were given a few clues as to the identity of the man buried there. Most telling were the multiple carvings of axe heads, such as were emblematic of the Bronze Age, all over the surface of a huge slab that had covered his tomb. The guide told us that it is believed the person buried in that tomb was not just a tribal leader or a shaman, though he may have been both, but a metal worker. He knew how to make implements of bronze.

"Think about it," said our guide. A metal worker possessed a singular craft only recently discovered. He knew how to turn solid stone into liquid in a fire and how to create from this flowing liquid solid tools like axe handles. This was not just industry. This was magic. Awe surrounded his craft.

There was no sharp line dividing sacred and profane in that world. The production of bronze tools touched at the very heart of sacred mystery. And it produced not just respect, but awe and fear. The tribe's respect for the bronze worker may be why he was buried in this large cairn all alone. But fear, it is believed, is why the ancient tribe placed several huge slabs on top of the enormous decorated one that covered his tomb. Magic was strong in this man. And no matter how much they respected him, even revered him, once he was dead, they didn't want him getting out of his tomb again. Which is why his tomb is so different from another tomb we entered further down the valley.

I have never been anywhere else where you can be gripped by such an overwhelming sense of the vastness of scale of a sacred landscape. (Within six miles of Kilmartin there are over one hundred sites with ancient carved rocks and some twenty-five sites with standing stones, many of which are almost two thousand years older than Stonehenge.) Yet, in the midst of this vastness, you can suddenly find yourself breathless with claustrophobia in an ancient burial cairn, your limbs compressed and contorted, your breathing constricted as your chest feels it is being physically crushed by the weight of the ceiling above you and the walls around you, the damp earth and stones, just inches from you on every side. Every sense, smell, touch and sight, tells you that you have crossed the boundary from the land of the living to the abode of the dead.

Each of our little group dropped down into the next burial cairn, allowing ourselves to slip down the steep tomb wall at one end with the assurance from the guide that we would be able to extricate ourselves from the tomb at the other end. What he didn't tell us going in was that we would be crawling out of the tomb through a hole just large enough for our shoulders to pass through, and only by a process of the most subtle physical twisting and turning. But walking through this tomb made the claustrophobia and gymnastics worth it. Making my way along the passage, it was impossible not to imagine the use of this cairn for centuries upon centuries, not only as a final resting place for loved ones, but as a place in which families communed with that which lies beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

At the end of the afternoon, as I made my way up the hillside, climbing back to the terrace on which stands the present village, after this summer's sojourn among Kilmartin's avenue of ancient monuments, I wondered what it might mean that the sacred has been experienced in this place for thousands and thousands of years and through God only knows how many different religions?

At the very least, it must mean that we would do well to hold our beliefs a little less tightly, a little less dogmatically and with a lot more humility. This is the first thing I learned walking with the dead of the Kilmartin Valley.

There is at least one thing more I learned from them. Despite the expanse of years that separates us from the men, women and children who lived and died in that place over the millennia past, as we examine the evidence they left behind and deduce from it what we can about their families and societies, it is clear that these were people we would recognize. They were intelligent, inventive, creative people. They liked to eat foods we still eat. They may well have been our first story tellers. They cherished one another, of this we are certain, giving gifts to one another in life and honoring one another in death. They were reverent people. These were people like us. And they believed that they were brushing against something holy in this place. I suspect they were right.


*Kilmartin gets the "kil" in its name from the "cell" in which a priest lived. Indeed, wherever you come to a village or a church in Scotland or Ireland with this prefix, you have come across the remembrance of a priest's dwelling.

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