Today, characters like Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore and Yoda have become icons of popular culture and continue to spellbind both children and adults. However, did you know that these fictional characters were inspired by a real life people who dedicated their lives to developing scientific thought, hermetic philosophy, divination and priestcraft over several thousands of years? By the 15th and 16th centuries every Royal Court in Europe employed at least one in-house alchemist who blended esotericism and natural philosophy with complicated scientific endeavours.
On my personal journey I have examined the lives of alchemists/wizards such as the 12th century Michael Scott (The wizard of the North), Sir Isaac Newton, John Dee (Queen Elizabeth I’s chief alchemist). Having explored many alleged burial sites of wizard, shamans, priests and witches I have correlated an interesting collection of artefacts, but none so captivating as that which I discovered in my home county of Caithness in a field at the east end of Loch Watten.
Over the years it has often fascinated me why the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 25″ map of Caithness (1871) depicts a dotted circle bearing the title Uaigh Mhurcha Riabhaich (ND 2454 5479). One afternoon I took the time to translate the old Scot's words and discovered they mean: Murdo Rivach’s Grave. In contemporary Gaelic Mhurcha Riabhaich’s name has been associated to this spot for over six hundred years and Caithness folk still tell the tale of this powerful wizard who was murdered, decapitated and buried in a circular grave.
Who was Murdo Rivach?
Records between 1350 and 1372 recount a story about Paul Macintyre of Creichmore venturing to Caithness to collect cows in loo of late rents. One year he sent his son Gillespie and a small militia of men led by Murdo Rivach Mackenzie. Heading south from Freswick with a herd of cows at the east end of Loch Watten a gang of Caithness men are said to have murdered Murdo and Gillespie. Murdo was decapitated and his body was burned where he fell, but his head was taken south with Gillespie's corpse. Crossing the Ord )A9 road) the party squabbled and Murdo's head was lost over a cliff and Gillespie's body was washed away while they tried to cross the River Helmsdale. It is written that Murdo's two handed battle sword was preserved for some time by the Budges of Toftingall who eventually returned it to Kenneth Mackenzie of Seaforth in 1688. Little more is known about Murdo Rivach other than that he was regarded as a brave outlaw.
The name Murdo was used predominantly in the Scottish language but it is Celtic in origin meaning ‘Sea Warrior’. Maybe the OS mappers were right and this is a viking (Danish) camp? Could the circular grave be that of an important Norse chieftain, priest or shaman? Only 600 meters upstream in 1954 archeologists discovered the grave of a woman from the Viking era and in William. F. Skene’s Celtic Scotland, 1886, he tells of a battle between Ljotr/Liot, a powerful 10th century earl (Jarl) of Caithness and Norse Orkney, and a Scottish earl called Magbiod or Macbeth which was fought at Skida Myre (Skitten Moor) in Watten. Ljotr was said to have won the battle but died of his wounds shortly after and he was buried at Stenhouse in Watten. His grave is said to be marked by a stone named Stone Hone which is located only 500 meters NNW of Murdo Rivach’s grave.
However, a few miles north in the parish of Bower (Grid Ref: ND222617) another standing stone called Stone Lud was the favoured marker for Victorian Historians trying to identify the burial site of Ljot. However, It can be said with confidence that both Stone Hone and Stone Lud were erected in the Neolithic era (3200-2000BCE) and neither are grave markers. I discovered a Witches Spell Stone at this location and you can read about that discovery in the opposite link.
Where exactly was Murdo buried?
The 1871 Ordinance Survey (OS) Name Book reads “This is rather a peculiar feature situated about 120 yards south from the S.E. end of Loch Watten, in a field close to the public road; its formation is circular being about 60 links (approx 391/2 ft) in diameter, possibly at one time trenched round“. The OS mappers suspected the site was possibly a Danish (Viking) camp because it was circular construction and made of a type of clay which was totally different from neighbouring fields.
The Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments (RCAHM) has several entries about this site: In 1872 it was recorded as a possible Danish camp (a circular construction of clay about 60 links in diameter, ) and noted that "a wizard named Mhurcha Riabhach was shot and buried here about 1720.” In 1963 a record states; the only trace of the feature is a very slight depression 13.3m in diameter, in an arable field. In 1982 there was no change to the previous field report and in 1995 it was noted that it was "a slight depression but covered in hay ricks.”
This is a landscape encrusted with evidence of sorcery, witchcraft and magic. Only 900 meters to the south of Murdo’s grave are the remains of an early medieval chapel where archeologists recovered several decapitated skulls set into alcoves in a wall. On a later excavation they unearthed more skulls with the 7 vertebrate still attached and at the time of writing nobody can determine what on earth these skulls were used for. Only 200 meters south of Murdo Rivach’s grave is Graystones Farm where a single standing stone penetrates a field. At one time this was a standing stone circle and the remains of a another stone circle is located only 600 meters upstream.
Discovering the Adder Stone
On a recent visit to Caithness I set out one weekend to locate Murdo Rivach’s Grave. In one of life's strokes of irony I pin-pointed it 800 meters from my parents back garden door. No shit!
When I began measuring the diameter of the circle this curiously shaped lime stone peered at me from the top soil, only a matter of 3 feet away from what I had established as the centre of the circle.
The edges of the stone appear to have been worked with a file but it might be the case that these marks have been caused by ploughing or an endless number of other natural causes. The three holes which form the eyes and mouth appear to have been formed naturally suggesting the stone spent many millennia in the sea. On one edge of the stone a second face has been formed and albeit less symmetrical than the first face, it's infinitely more menacing.
It is virtually impossible to determine how this sea-stone got to the site of Murdo’s Grave. Ettlinger mentions holed stones were regarded as magical as early as the beginning of the second millennium BC (Murray, 1943). In addition to this we are told "Perforated stone amulets were not only seen as hostile to the multifarious crafts of witches but also “…protective against the much dreaded evil eye.” (Elworthy, 1903). The stone may be a Neolithic artefact once revered by the farmers who emerged in the area around 4500 BCE. But its more tantalising to consider that it might be a talisman or magical amulet which has resurfaced, after 600 years of ploughing, from the grave of a medieval wizard.
Similar stones have been discovered around the world but particularly in North Germany, Egypt and Scotland where “stones with natural holes in them were formerly believed to have magical powers of various kinds.” (Hole, 1980; Edwards, 2008). In Egypt stones with natural holes used in rituals and ceremonies were called aggry or aggro. In the UK they have a wide verity of names: holey stones, witch stones, mare-stones, wish stones, hag stones, druids’ stones, druids’ egg and serpent eggs. In the south of Scotland they were adderstanes and in the north, where Scottish Gaelic prevailed, they were called ‘Gloine nan Druidh’ – ‘Druids Glass’.
Adder stones were sometimes placed in fields and on doorsteps to protect people, animals and harvests against curses/hexes and belief in their healing properties was widespread, especially their ability to cure snake bites. When worn as an amulet/pendant around the neck they were though to aid overall healing and ease painful wounds. In the South West of England they were worn for protection against witches and witchcraft and they are still used today by superstitious fishermen.
Historically in Scotland they were used to protect people and their possessions against negative forces and were most often hung in windows and doors. They were also placed above beds to protect against nightmares in a similar way to how native American’s used dream catchers. All over Europe people believed that by holding one of these stones to your eye a new dimension appears, populated with mythical creatures like Fae folk, elves, demons and spirits. But the perceived powers of these stones varied from place to place depending on the local customs and traditions. While farmers needed to protect their fields from demons spreading disease and wolves attacking their livestock, mariners guarded against angry sea witches and fatally seductive fin-folk (half seal-half human creatures in Norse mythology).
Ordnance Survey Name Book, Watten Parish.
ii. Concentric Earthworks, G Leet, Caithness Field Club Bulletin, April 1997, Vol 6, No 2, p28.
iii. The Gunns by Thomas Sinclair, 1890, page 193.
iv. Origines Parochiales Scotiae, Vol 2, Pt 2, Creich Parish, p685 & p689.
v. Origines Parochiales Scotiae, Vol 2, Pt 2, Cannisbay Parish, page 812.
Bouquet, M. & Porto, N. (2005). Science, Magic and Religion: The Ritual Processes of Museum Magic. Berghahn Books, Oxford, 2005.
Britten, J. (1881). Amulets in Scotland. Folklore Record. 4, (1881).
Dalyell, J. G. (1834). The Darker Superstitions of Scotland. Curry & Co, Dublin, 1834.
Moule, H. J. (1895). On Holy Stones: Notes and Queries. Folklore. July, 1895.
Skeats, W. W. (1912). Snakestones and Stone Thunderbolts as Subjects for Systematic Investigation. Folklore. XXIII, March, 1912.