Fairytales, folklore, legends and myths carry the values and beliefs of their culture of origin. In the pre-scientific world, unpredictable natural events and unexplainable occurrences were rationalized with an array of malevolent and benign mystical forces; faeries, gods and goddesses, angels and demons, all of which offered reason.
In history, swords were drawn most often where wheat stalks lapped against the peoples knees most abundantly and in Caithness, where was brought up in the far north of Scotland, between the 9th and 12th centuries, fierce battles were fought between Celtic and Norse cultures who clashed for supremacy over the regions wealthy agricultural lands and fish rich coastlines.
THE NORTHERN MYTH GENERATOR
In 2006, while undertaking a research project in Caithness I rented a cottage on Olrig Hill at Weydale, in the parish of Olrig, just east of Thurso.
I lived on the tideline between ancient Celtic and Norse worlds and the surrounding landscapes were awash with seductive tales of Celtic fairies and violent stories involving demonic entities from Odin’s demonic war cabinet. On the edge of the moor behind my cottage, a 9 meter (9 feet) high grassy hillock edged the surrounding flat fields; known by the unusual name Sysa Hillock, but locally it is called Faerie Hill. Sysa Hillock is located on an ancient route linking the towns of Wick on the east coast and Thurso on the north coast, and it can be found at Ordnance Survey grid reference ND169647.
Caithness is peppered with Neolithic burial cairns dated to 6000 years old and these are interlaced with crumbling Iron Age brochs dated to about 2000 years old. Sysa is located on the southern slope of the hill of Olrig and from the top of Sysa looking south it "gently rolls into a green hollow" where a healing spring once served the medical requirements of the local folk. This dominant position overlooking several miles of fertile wheat fields would have served well in agricultural rituals and ceremonies. Like so many before me I suspected Sysa was an unexplored Neolithic mound, and I was soon to find answers within local myths.
Two enduring myths are associated to Sysa Hillock. The first is of Norse origin and connects the mound with a powerful Viking warrior and the demonic Valkyries of Odin, but we will skip this tale for the meantime and look closer at a myth known in Caithness as The Piper of Windy Ha' . With roots in Celtic faerie lore, at a rudimentary level within this myth lie a set of astronomical archetypes, which towards the end of this article I will bring from the land of the Faeries into our real-world. But let us begin with the The Piper of Windy Ha'.
THE PIPER OF THE WINDY HA’
Chapter 2 of J.T. Calder’s 1887 book Civil And Traditional History Of Caithness recounts this story about a Caithness farmer being seduced by the Faerie Queen and vanishing into the Sysa hillock, never to be seen again. It goes...
A LONG TIME AGO… a young man called Peter lived in a farm, Windy Ha', situated on the north slope of the hill of Olrig. Around noon, on “a warm and beautiful day in the leafy month of June - on one of natures holidays“ Peter stopped to drink from the well of Sysa and soon after he felt “irresistible drowsiness, like that produced by mesmerism, stole over him, and he finally fell fast asleep till near sunset”. Peter was awoken by "a beautiful girl, dressed in green, with blue eyes and golden ringlets" . Unbeknownst to drowsy Peter, it was the legendary Faerie Queen.
Smiling at Peter kindly, “in a voice as soft and clear as a silver bell“ the maiden offered to help him make his fortune, but first and asked him to choose between a set of "magical pipes inlaid with silver" or a "gold-embossed bible". Peter would become either; a spiritually rich but materially poor man of the church; or, a rich and famous musician but seduced by the dark fruits of the material world.
Peter chose the pipes, and on his first attempt he "played them perfectly despite never having held the instrument before." Before the maiden departed Sysa Hillock she formed a contract with Peter and said "There is one condition, seven years from this day at the exact same hour of the evening, you must meet me here, by the well of Sysa." Peter swore that he would return in moonlight, on the very same evening, seven years hence.
Peter returned over the hill of Olrig to Windy Ha' and his parents strongly advised him to throw the magic pipes away and forget about the whole ordeal, firmly in the belief that the pipes had been cursed by the Queen of the Fairies. However, Peter knew better and proceeded to cash in on his new-found musical ability and gathered a small fortune performing at parties across Scotland, himself partying heartily along the way.
Seven years passed and as the sun began to set Peter and his dog headed south from Windy Ha’ over the hill of Olrig towards Sysa Hillock. Half way, Peter commanded his dog to return home and it howled loudly watching his master disappear over the crest of the hill for what would be the very last time.
"The sun near its setting poured a flood of yellow radiance over the brown moor and in the succeeding moonlight, Sysa seemed to glow with more than earthly lustre"
Where Peter went that night, nobody will ever know for sure, but the folk of Windy Ha’ say the Queen of the Faeries herself dwelled inside the Sysa hillock and Peter entered this portal to the Fairyland to repay his debt for a moment of fame and fortune in this world. Locals still claim to this day that Peter's pipes can still be heard on moonlit nights.
INTERPRETING THE piper's journey
The myth tells of the vibrance and struggles of youth and of the negligence of parental guidance. It highlights the ego of a young man choosing short term wealth and fame over a contemplative spiritual life. On another level, the story cradles the reoccurring theme of a contract/bond between a human being and an otherworldly entity for a period of seven years which is found in endless folktales around Scotland; three good examples are:
A story told in the Scottish Borders features Tam Lin being being "stolen by the fairies and released after seven years of bondage". Andrew Lang's 1860’s book The Gold of Fairnilee, follows Randal Ker visiting a fairy well and the Fairy Queen “spirited him away to Fairy Land for seven years. Mollie Hunters 1972 novel The Haunted Mountain tells of a proud young farmer named MacAllister being imprisoned in the underworld of the fairies for seven years. Further more, Naomi Mitchison’s 1950 book The Big House tells of another piper being held prisoner in a fairy hill for "twice seventy years".
These stories are all symbolic of the journey though life, but several other mythological archetypes and motifs are shared by these four particular myths. The central male characters all have insights that are opposed to their parents. They all display courage and boldly face dangers which they alone understand, and must alone undergo. In each case a man denies a spiritual path over a material one; the Piper of Windy Ha' chose fame and fortune over the insightful words of the Bible. MacAllister in the Haunted Mountain planted seeds to expand his wealth rather than adhering to ancient superstitions and traditions about a taboo field.
Each of these human emotional themes are structured around contracts between human beings and the Fairy Queen for ‘seven year’ cycles of the sun. Why did Peter from Windy Ha’ and all these other farmers and pipers make seven year obligations with the Faerie Queen and not three, nine, 11 or 291 years?
THE NUMBER SEVEN in faerie lore
To understand why Scottish myths so often include cycles of seven years we must hold a basic understanding of why the number seven appears so frequently associated with ‘passing time’, in nearly all religions, myths, legends and fairytale systems around the world.
According to the Dictionary of Symbols by J. C. Cirlot there were "seven faerie types, one for each direction of space and time". Most ancient cultures corresponded the number seven with gods because seven heavenly bodies were observed in the sky with the naked eye; Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, which also defined the seven days in a week. Ancient Greek's expressed this in their Seven Sirens of the Spheres, which corresponds with the seven virgins in Cinderella and in Snow White who famously tried to sleep in the bed of each of the seven dwarves, but they were all too short or too long until she tried the seventh bed. According to Austrian-born psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim ‘there may be seven dwarves because Snow White herself seems to be distantly derived from the sun, suggested by her whiteness and consequently her radiance. And according to the ancients, seven planets circle the sun, hence the seven dwarfs.”
Expanding on the metaphysical interpretation of the number seven, in 1884 Friedrich Loeffler wrote “these fairies correspond to the seven Lipiki of Hindi esoteric thought, that is, the spirits relative to each plane of human consciousness: sensation, emotion, reflective intelligence, spirituality, will and intimations of the divine." The esoteric conclusion is that the human being is composed of seven spheres after the pattern of the heavens and this concept still being developed today under the general banner of The Seven Spheres of Consciousness.
There are many possible ways for us to interpret the number seven in relation to Scottish faerie lore, but to get as close as possible to correctly interpreting the original meaning of any such number, which appears repeatedly within myths, we must bind our conclusions as close to nature, farming, fishing and hunting as we possibly can. In Scotland, when a natural phenomena affected farming, fishing or hunting, traces of it can be found at the pulsing heart of fairytales, folklore, myths and legends. For example, the 28 day cycle of the moon is one of the most dominating factors in farming and sustained outdoor survival, and it is a multiple of seven.
Pleiades and the Faerie Star
Successful wheat fields required farmer’s day-to-day interactions with nature were controlled by predetermined calendars, and it was in early time keeping methodologies that myths were often generated. The constellation Orion ‘the hunter’ is the dominant feature in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky at winter. If you follow the stars of Orion’s belt upwards you will see the Pleiades constellation, and downwards is Sirius. These three prominent features in the night sky are found in the astronomical lore of religions across the world. They were reflected in the layouts and alignments of ancient stone megastructures, most famously the Pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and China.
Commonly known as the seven sisters, through time, the Pleiades constellation attracted more attention and resulting mythology than any other. This particular constellation appears in myths on every continent which all adhere to the motif of seven humans being transformed into stars and/or being trapped in the otherworld.
In the faerie realm's of both Scotland and Ireland the Pleiades were associated with the magically imbued septagram, the seven pointed Faerie Star or Elven Star. According to faerie lore the seven pointed star was a gateway symbol signifying the bridge between this world and the faerie realm, but beneath the shape is an underlying geometric message: Three points on each side, unified in a seventh point, representing the 'incident' in space and time where the two worlds meet. In mythical religions the seven pointed star corresponded to the energetic/subtle body that moves between this world and other dimensions - concepts which today's scientists define with psychological terms such as the unconsciousness mind, the shadow and the Self.
THE hidden ASTRONOMY OF WINDY HA'
Having explored the ‘inner’ dimensions of the myth, an examination of the outer aspects is found to be equally as revealing. Plotting Peter's farmhouse (Windy Ha') and the Sysa Hillock on a map reveals an old track linking the two places, shown in orange on the adjacent map, revealing hitherto unobserved correspondences with the landscape in which the story is set.
In addition to psychological and cartographical content the myth is also loaded with astronomical information which is unlocked when we re-read the myth transposing the word ‘Peter’ with ‘Sun’.
1. Peter leaves Windy Ha' on mid-summer morning - The sun rises from Windy Ha' on the summer solstice.
2. Peter arrives at Sysa at noon and rests. The Sun reaches its meridian at noon.
3. Peter fell asleep all afternoon. The Sun sets all afternoon.
4. Peter awoke just before sunset when the queen of the faeries appeared. Just before sunset, the moon appeared, challenging the Sun's dominance in the sky.
5. For seven years Peter played the pipes and enjoyed fame and riches. For seven years the Sun shone generating good harvests.
Peters choice of the magic pipes over the Bible was spiritual armageddon, equal in relative terms to the sun vanishing forever and the crops failing. Many myths find at their essence the cataclysmic idea of the sun's light vanishing and being either captured or kidnapped by the rulers darkness. The Sun vanishing must have been among the worst possible scenarios that ancient peoples could have imagined and in ancient Scotland this story might have been 'heard' as a disaster tale threatening agricultural failure.
Peter is allegorical for the sun, further evident in that his south westward journey from Windy Ha' to Sysa Hillock corresponds with the course of the summer solstice sun. Plotting Sysa Hillock onto a 19th century map and drawing in the summer solstice rising azimuth (angle), which in Caithness is about 38 degrees east of north, reveals that to an observer standing atop Sysa on the morning of the summer solstice sunrise the sun would be seen rising directly behind the top of hill of Olrig - in perfect alignment with Windy Ha', Peter's farmhouse.
This important summer solstice alignment cuts through the agricultural heart of Caithness and was most probably first observed in the Neolithic period between 6000 and 4500 years BC. At this time, the summer and winter solstices were the most important astronomical occurrences in the annual calendar, besides the two equinoxes. This is evident in the alignments of their vast stone burial chambers and standing stone arrangements which often align with places on the horizon where the sun was seen rising and setting on the solstices, most famously the summer solstice alignment at Stonehenge in England.
Although it is invisible, the hill of Olrig solstice alignment offers a rare insight into the archeoastronomy and resulting cosmology of a culture of people who depended on and worshiped the sun to enhance successful harvests. This sacred geographic alignment is a commonly observed building format across Neolithic Britain and essentially unites the sun with the land, on the most important day in the agricultural year when the sun's first rays might have been perceived as fertilizing the female fields.
It is highly probable that in the Neolithic period Sysa Hillock was a viewing platform from which observations of the sun and the moon were conducted. If so, this grassy mound was a highly ritualized central feature in agrarian rituals and ceremonies focused on uniting the fertilizing energies of the sun and the moon with the land. This lost summer solstice alignment is an important cultural artifact uniting the Sysa Hillock with the summit of the hill of Olrig and Windy Ha'. Having been mythoologicalised, the alignment has been saved from the eroding powers of time and has survived in the oral myths, legends and folktales of Caithness folk.
This summer solstice alignment is a perfect example of a myth holding much older data about the astronomy, religious beliefs and greater cosmology of the ancient people who once inhabited these magical northern landscapes that we today call Scotland.