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The Stone of Destiny

16 Nov

This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.

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The Bones of Avalon

10 Aug

Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.

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The Ghosts of Haddon Hall

7 Jun

Haddon Hall, perhaps the most simple and understated of English stately homes, is also one of the finest medieval manor houses in Britain. Nestled in the heart of the Peak District National Park, it certainly enjoys a picturesque setting, two miles south of Bakewell (known for its eponymous tarts) on the banks of the River Wye. In the mid-twelfth century the hall passed from its Norman founders to the Vernon family, who owned it for four hundred years until the most famous event in its history occurred. In 1558 the sole remaining Vernon heir, Dorothy, married John Manners, scion of another powerful family who later became Dukes of Rutland. Their union is commemorated in their joint tomb in Bakewell church, but the romantic story of their elopement may be apochryphal. Dorothy Vernon was 18 at the time and it is said that the couple eloped during the wedding of one of her sisters. There must have been some sort of reconciliation, as Dorothy and John later became owners of Haddon Hall. The hall has been owned by the Manners ever since then, but curiously enough has never been sold. The mansion fell into two hundred years of neglect from the start of the eighteenth century until the 9th Duke began restoring Haddon Hall when he moved there in 1912. No one quite knows the reason for the building’s neglect and seeming lack of interest to buyers – although this may have something to do with the fact that the ghost of Dorothy Vernon is said to appear there on a regular basis, usually seen on the steps leading up to Haddon Hall, as if being chased.

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The Demon Countess of Anjou

10 May

The House of Plantagenet was an Anglo-French royal dynasty that came to prominence in the Middle Ages. Although the Plantagenets transformed England from what was essentially a realm ruled from abroad under the earlier Norman kings into a powerful and independent kingdom in its own right, they came from dark and uncertain origins. The roots of House Plantagenet can be traced back to the House of Anjou, usually referred to simply as the Angevins, a family of Frankish origin descended from a ninth-century noble named Ingelger, who were Counts of Anjou since 870. The chronicler Gerald of Wales, however, borrowed elements of the Melusine legend to give a demonic origin to the Angevins. Melusine was a figure of European legend and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, and is said to possess eternal life as the result of a curse. Over the centuries tales of Melusine have been told by chroniclers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, Felix Mendelssohn and A S Byatt. Melusine’s demon blood partly explains the commonly held belief that Lady Elizabeth Woodville – wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower – was a witch. At any rate the Angevin monarchs never shied away from their supposedly supernatural origins. The famous English king Richard the Lionheart was reputedly fond of saying that his whole family “came from the devil and would return to the devil” as a result of their descent from the demon countess of Anjou.

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The Lost Souls of Mingulay

9 Mar

There are few places in the British Isles that are more grim, isolated and ill-omened than the barren isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides. Located 12 miles south of Barra, it is known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs. Today, iron age remains on the island offer mute testimony to the two thousand years or more of continuous habitation that Mingulay once knew. The culture of the island was influenced by both Vikings and early Christians and between the 15th and 19th centuries Mingulay was part of the lands of Clan MacNeil of Barra. These are merely footnotes in history, however, for the island has now been more or less deserted for more than a century. The island was abandoned by its residents in 1912 and has remained virtually uninhabited ever since – today it is no longer used even for grazing sheep. Whatever happened to the lost souls of Mingulay?

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The Stones of Callanish

3 Nov

The wild and windy Western Isles off the northwest shore of Scotland – also known as the Outer Hebrides – boast some of the country’s most alluring scenery, from windswept golden sands to harsh, heather-backed mountains and peat bogs. An elemental beauty pervades each one of the more than two hundred islands that make up the archipelago, only a handful of which are actually inhabited. The Hebridean islands were first settled by Neolithic farming peoples in around 4,500 BC. They lived along the coast, where they are remembered by scores of incidental remains, from passage graves through to stone circles – most famously at Callanish on Lewis. The standing stones at Callanish rival even those at Stonehenge in their inscrutability and the majesty of their setting. The dozens of stones and the chambered cairn in their midst were quarried locally and raised into their present position some 4,000 years ago, but for what purpose is likely to remain forever an enigma. The stones, which are planted roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross, seem to align with other circles and standing stones in the area, but it is possible to read almost any meaning into them. Theories abound as to their purpose and it has been suggested that the stone circle may have been a king’s mausoleum, an observatory – or even a UFO beacon.

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Nutcrack Night

20 Oct

October 31st, known as Halloween to most, is also called a variety of other names in different parts of the world, including Samhain, Mischief Night and the Day of the Dead. In the Gaelic diaspora, the holiday is also traditionally known as Nutcrack Night. As the chill of autumn pervaded their homes, people would sit around their fires, eating newly harvested hazelnuts or chestnuts. Several fortune-telling customs grew up that involved throwing nuts into the fire, hence giving rise to the name ‘Nutcrack Night’ or ‘The Oracle of the Nuts’. It was a time, for example, when young people put nuts on the hearth to see if their sweethearts were true to them. If the nut burned normally, all was well, but if it burst or rolled away the sweetheart was, alas, untrue. In ancient times nuts were also an early divination tool, in the absence of more modern accoutrements such as crystal balls, tarot cards, runes and other arcana. The reason for this was simple – around the end of the harvest season, often there was not much left in the fields. However, nuts were often plentiful, making them the perfect medium for divination in the dying embers of autumn.

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The Curious Case of Lord Kitchener

6 Oct

It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.

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The Knights of God

21 Apr

The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?

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Rasputin, ‘The Mad Monk’

10 Mar

Grigory Yefimovich Novych, the man who would come to be better known to history as the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, is a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue, conspiracy theories and the darkest of legends. He came to prominence as the Siberian peasant and mystic whose uncanny ability to improve the condition of Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, made him an influential favourite at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. He was also reputed to be a murderer, sorcerer, libertine and chronic womanizer – his eventual moniker of Rasputin literally means ‘debauched one’ in Russian. Unsurprisingly, Rasputin made many enemies in the course of his relentless rise to power. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, culminating in the events that led to his ‘death’ in 1916. I have used quotation marks because in the opinion of many – conspiracy buffs and historians alike – the life of Rasputin may well not have ended there. Even during his lifetime, there was considerable uncertainty over Rasputin’s actions and influence, as accounts have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay and legend. Despite the fact that Rasputin’s body was discovered after he was killed by conspirators, rumours persist to this day that his death was faked and that somehow, bizarrely, the Mad Monk may have survived his apparent execution.

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