Fairytales, folklore, legends and myths carry the values and beliefs of their culture of origin. In a pre-scientific world, unpredictable events and unexplainable occurrences were attributed to, and rationalised with an array of malevolent and benign mystical forces; faeries, gods, goddesses, angels, demons and spirits, all of which offered reason.
In history, swords were drawn most often where wheat stalks lapped against the peoples knees most abundantly. I was brought up in the remote northern landscapes of Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, where between the 9th and 12th century fierce battles were fought between Celtic and Norse cultures who clashed for supremacy over the regions wealthy agricultural lands and fish rich coastlines.
What I have rediscovered and presented in this article, is a simple yet rare artefact, ancient Scottish sacred geography - in its rawest form.
THE WEYDALE MYTH GENERATOR
In 2006 I undertook a research project in Caithness is northern Scotland so I rented a cottage 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 brutal, violent stories involving demonic entities from Odin’s demonic war cabinet.
On the edge of the moor behind my cottage, a 30 feet (9 m) high grassy hillock edged the surrounding flat fields known by the highly unusual name 'Sysa Hillock' or 'Sysa', but locally it is referred to as Faerie Hill. Located on an ancient route between Thurso and Wick, Sysa can be found at Ordnance Survey grid reference ND169647.
Caithness is peppered with Neolithic burial cairns, some dated to 5500 years old, and these are interlaced with crumbling iron-age brochs dated to about 2000 years old.
Like so many before me I suspected Sysa was an unexplored Neolithic sepulchral mound, but all evidence thus far points to it being a natural hillock.
The mound 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. Sysa's dominant position overlooking several miles of fertile wheat growing fields would have served well in agricultural rituals and ceremonies. Only at the end of this article, after I have presented all my evidence, will you truly appreciate how accurate that last assertion actually is.
For over fifteen years I have struggled to understand the meaning of two particular myths associated to Sysa. The first is of Norse origin and connects Sysa with a powerful Viking warrior and the demonic Valkyries of the god Odin, but we will skip over this tale for the meantime as it will be featured in my next article.
The myth which is the focus of this article has roots in Celtic faerie lore and is known in Caithness as The Piper of Windy Ha'. At a rudimentary level within this myth I have made a set of new astronomical observations which towards the end of this article I will bring from the Land of the Faeries into our real-world. But for now, this is the multi-layered story of 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 the story of a Caithness farmer being seduced by the Faerie Queen and vanishing into the Sysa hillock, never to be seen again.
A long time ago a young man called Peter left his home, Windy Ha', on the north slope of the hill of Olrig. Around noon Peter stopped to drink from the well of Sysa on “a warm and beautiful day in the “leafy month of June - on one of natures holidays“. Peter soon felt “irresistible drowsiness, like that produced by mesmerism, stole over him, and he finally fell fast asleep till near sunset”. He was awoken by "a beautiful girl, dressed in green, with blue eyes and golden ringlets" - unbenownst to Peter, it was the legendary Faerie Queen.
This is the old drove road from Windy Ha' to Sysa which Peter travelled several times throughout the story.
The Faerie Queen smiled at Peter kindly and “in a voice as soft and clear as a silver bell“ she offered to "help him make his fortune". She asked Peter to choose between a set of "magical pipes inlaid with silver" or a "gold-embossed bible", a decision that would mean he would become a either; a spiritually rich but materially poor man of the church, or a rich and famous musician.
Peter chose the pipes and "played them perfectly despite never having held the instrument before." Before the maiden departed Sysa she told Peter "There is one condition - seven years from this day, at the exact same hour of the evening, you must meet me by the well of Sysa." Peter swore that he would return in moonlight on the same evening, 7 years hence.
Peter returned over the hill of Olrig to Windy Ha' and upon learning how he had obtained the pipes his parents strongly advised him to throw them away and forget about the whole ordeal because the pipes were cursed the Queen of the Fairies. However, Peter knew better and cashed in on his new-found ability to play the pipes, gradually gathering a small fortune performing at parties across Scotland, himself partying heartily along the way.
Seven years had almost passed and as the sun began to set Peter and his dog headed south from Windy Ha', over the hill of Olrig to Sysa, but half way there he commanded his dog to return home, and after doing so it howled loudly watching Peter disappearing over the crest of the hill of Olrig - never to be seen again.
"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"
The folk of Windy Ha’ firmly believed Peter had been carried away to the Fairyland by the Queen of the Faeries herself who dwelled inside the Sysa hillock. Locals claim his pipe can still be heard but skeptics attribute the eerie sounds to the wind whistling though the radio masts on top of the hill of Olrig.
INTERPRETING THE journey OF THE PETER
Before revealing the new astronomical observations encoded within this myth, we must first understand the mythical archetypes which underpin this particular folktale. It tells the story of the vibrance and struggles of youth and the negligence of parental guidance. It highlights the ego of man choosing wealth and fame over a contemplative spiritual life and it cradles the reoccurring theme of a contract/bond between a human being and an otherworldly entity for a period of 7 years.
These primary underlying motifs or mythological archetypes are reflected in several other folktales from different parts of Scotland, for example:
A famous Scottish Borders story tells of Tam Lin, who was "stolen by the fairies and released after seven years of bondage". In Andrew Lang's 1860’s book The Gold of Fairnileeis, on Midsummer day Randal Ker of Fairnilee visited 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 who is imprisoned in the underworld of the fairies for seven years. Naomi Mitchison’s 1950 book The Big House which tells of another piper being held prisoner in the 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 myths. The central male characters all having insights that are opposed to their parents. They all display courage as they boldly face a series of dangers which they alone understand, and must alone undergo. In each case a man denies a spiritual path in favour of a material one'; the Piper of Windy Ha' chose fame and fortune over the insightful words of the Bible and MacAllister planted seeds to expand his wealth rather than adhering to ancient superstitions and traditions about the taboo field.
But above, below and within all of these human themes, each of these myths has been structured around a 7 year cycle and a contract/bind between a human being and a spiritual entity from the Land of the Shide - the Kingdom of the Faeries. Why did Peter and all the other pipers make a 7 year obligation with the Faerie Queen? Why not 3, 4, 9 or 791 years?
THE NUMBER SEVEN in faerie lore
Don’t worry, I’m not about to spin off into a load of subjective numerical nonsense about the importance of the number seven over all other numbers. I would never do that to anyone. However, to understand why Scottish myths so often describe a cycle of 7 years, we must hold a basic understanding of why the number 7 appears in nearly all ancient religions, myths, legends and fairytales around the world.
In most ancient cultures the number seven was attributed to the gods because 7 heavenly bodies were seen in the sky with the naked eye; Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter.
There are 7 days in a week after the 7 planets and thus the number 7 appears so often in fairytales, for example; the Ancient Greek's Seven Sirens of the Spheres correspond to the seven virgins in Cinderella.
Snow White famously tried to sleep in the bed of each of the 7 dwarves, but they were all too short or too long, until she tried the 7th 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.”
According to the Dictionary of Symbols by J. C. Cirlot, there were "seven faerie types" in faerie lore "one for each direction of space and time".
Expanding on this metaphysical interpretation, 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 that the human being is composed of seven spheres after the pattern of the heavens is a concept still being developed today under the general banner The Seven Spheres of Consciousness.
There are many possible ways for us to interpret the number 7 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 a myth, we must always attempt to 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's a multiple of 7.
the Pleiades and the Faerie Star
When it comes to deciphering myths many researchers begin in the heavens and work downwards! I on the other hand work from the ground up, starting in the wheat fields with the hardy farmers, who in their day-to-day interactions with nature created the agricultural processes and calendars upon which myths are built.
The constellation Orion, the hunter, is the dominant feature in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter night sky.
If you follow the stars of Orion’s belt upwards you will find the Pleiades and if you follow them downwards you’ll get to Sirius.
These three prominent features of the night sky are found in the astronomical lore of religions across the world and they were reflected in the layouts and alignments of ancient stone megastructures, most famously the Pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and China.
Through time, the Pleiades constellation has attracted more attention and resulting mythology than any other constellation. It is commonly known as “the seven sisters” and they appear in myths on every continent, all of which adhere to the motif of seven humans who are transformed into stars and/or trapped in the otherworld.
In the faerie realm's of both Scotland and Ireland the Pleiades were associated with the magically imbued seven pointed Faerie Star (or Elven Star) - the septagram. According to faerie lore the seven pointed star was a gateway symbol, signifying the bridge between this world and the faerie realm, but the shapes underlying geometric message is: 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 terms 'psychology' and 'consciousness'.
THE hidden ASTRONOMY OF WINDY HA'
After many years contemplating the psychological, metaphorical and archetypal elements with the legend of the Piper of Windy Ha' I turned my attention to looking for any underlying astronomical information within the myth. This was to prove highly rewarding.
I can now confidently assert that the characters, locations and events featured in The Piper of Windy Ha' are guardians of a deeply buried message. A sacred astronomical secret which reunites, spiritualises and reactivates the geography and locations featured within the story. Lets re-read the myth, but every time Peter is mentioned think of the Sun.
1. Peter leaves Windy Ha' on a 'mid-summer' morning ~ the Sun rises from behind Windy Ha' on the 'summer solstice'.
2. Peter 'arrives at Sysa at noon' and 'rests' - the Sun 'reaches its meridian at noon', and having stopped climbing in the sky 'it rests'.
3. Peter fell asleep 'all afternoon' - the Sun sets 'all afternoon'.
4. Peter awoke 'just before sunset' when the queen of the faeries appeared - 'the Moon appeared' at sunset and challenged 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, allegorised by Peters successful misdemeanours. But his choosing pipes rather than the Bible would ultimatley end with the sun vanishing forever. In ancient Scotland this story would have been 'heard' as a threatening tale of agricultural armageddon. Many myths find at their essence the cataclysmic idea of the sun's fertilising light vanishing, being either captured or kidnapped by the lords of darkness. The Sun vanishing must have been among the worst possible scenarios that ancient peoples could have imagined.
6. After seven years Peter walked south from Windy Ha' and disappeared into Sysa - viewed from Windy Ha' the summer solstice sun was seen setting behind Sysa.
Peter's south west journey from Windy Ha' to Sysa corresponds to the summer solstice sunrise.
Having established that Peter's journey to Sysa was allegorical for the mid-summer sunrise I plotted Sysa onto a 19th century map and drew in the summer solstice rising azimuth (angle). In Caithness is about 38 degrees east of north. Standing atop Sysa on the morning of the summer solstice sunrise, the Sun was observed rising directly behind the top hill of Olrig - in perfect alignment with Windy Ha'.
This illustrated map explains why Sysa and the Windy Ha' were united in the myth of the Piper and the faeries. queen.
This important summer solstice alignment, which cuts through the agricultural heart of Caithness, was probably first observed in the Neolithic period between 4000 and 2500 B.C.E.. At this time the summer and winter solstices were the most occurrences in the annual calendar. This is evident in the alignments of their vast stone burial chambers and standing stone arrangements which often aim to the place on the horizon that 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 alignment offers us a rare insight into the archeoastronomy and resulting cosmology of a culture of people who depended on and worshiped the sun for successful harvests. This sacred geographic alignment is a commonly observed format across Neolithic Britain and essentially "unites the sun with the land" on the most important day in the agricultural year. In contemporary cultures the sun's first solstice rays were perceived as fertilising the female fields, thus generating fruitful harvests.
It is highly probable that in the Neolithic period Sysa was a viewing platform from which observations of the Sun and the Moon were conducted. As such, it would have been ritualised, and a central feature within outdoor agricultural rituals and ceremonies - which focused on uniting the fertilising energies of the sun and moon with the land.
This lost summer solstice alignment is a very important cultural artefact uniting Sysa, the summit of the hill of Olrig and Windy Ha'. Having been mythoologicalised it 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 rare 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, we today call Scotland.
If you are a first-time reader its best you know that I normally write the Conclusions section around the main observations and discoveries discussed in the article. In this case however, we have skipped the light fandango and I can think of no better words to summarise this article with than those of physicist Niels Bohr in The Art of Genius, 1998. I believe this sentence holds the secret psychological key we need to access the Land of the Faeries.
“If you hold opposites together in your mind, you will suspend your normal thinking process and allow an intelligence beyond rational thought to create a new form.”
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