Land of the Gods 

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The Lothians’ sacred landscape

Philip Coppens

 

Cairnpapple, Arthur’s Seat, Traprain Law: the three main Neolithic sites of the Lothian region, the area around Edinburgh. A new discovery reveals how the three sites are intricately woven together, in an astronomical light show.

Traprain Law

Stonehenge used the Heel Stone to determine specific solar alignments. Archaeologist Alexander Thom and others, however, have shown that in a more mountainous setting (the Stonehenge landscape being notably flat), distant prominences, such as conical or pyramidal hills, were used as markers. Stonehenge had to resort to the use of artificial markers, as there were no natural markers in the landscape. However, in the Lothians, hills such as Berwick Law and Traprain Law, could be used as markers; a drive through the Scottish Borders, will make people aware that the Eildon Hills, and to some extent Rubbers Law, could be used in similar fashion.
Martin P. Nilsson wrote that the early nineteenth-century Norwegian farmers noted the solstices by using a stone embedded in the earth, from which the Sun’s extremes of rising and setting would be observed with reference to selected mountain peaks. Finding the equinoxes and solstices was definitely not a search unique to the Lothians; it ranged from the northernmost region of Europe towards the southernmost, indeed, across the entire globe. Other considerations were also taken into account. The Minoan Temple at Knossos was positioned in relationship to the twin-peaked mountain of Jouctas, due South to the Palace. Greek mythology linked the mountain with the burial place of the Greek supreme deity Zeus, who in life had reigned from another mountain, Olympus.

One solar phenomenon has been observed at Cairnpapple, no doubt the Lothian’s most famous and complex megalithic site: the equinoctial sunrise. Sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes, 21st March and 21st September, are always due east and west, wherever one is on earth. This knowledge is therefore a fundamental building block in a “solar calendar”. But what is important is that the sunrise on 21st March as seen from Cairnpapple is not just an ordinary phenomenon: the sun rises over Arthur’s Seat, as well as Huly Hill.
We know that elsewhere, specifically the Knocknarea region in Ireland, such phenomena have been observed and thus became part of a “sacred landscape”. At Cairnpapple Hill, this phenomenon might very well have been the reason why the hill was made “sacred” and became the site from which to observe the equinoctial sunrise.

Far less famous than Arthur’s Seat, Huly Hill is actually a misnomer as it is not a hill, but a burial cairn. The name Huly Hill is Scots for Gentle Hill, though an older name for the site was Heelie Hill, heelie being a variant of huly. Measuring approximately 30 metres in diameter and 3 metres high, it is surrounded by the remains of a stone circle, which consists of three standing stones, which are roughly aligned along the east-west line, i.e. Arthur’s Seat, Castle Hill and Cairnpapple.
In March 2001, in the middle of the development of a new industrial building site, a rare Celtic chariot was discovered. It was found intact, although the wood of the wheels had not stood the test of time. Still, ingenious methods were developed to lift the area of the wheels from the site, for further laboratory analysis. Dated to 250 BC, it was the first intact chariot burial found in Scotland, such burials being rare in Britain as a whole. Most other British examples are found in East Yorkshire, which was settled by the Gaulish Parisii at the time, but there, the chariots were dismantled before being interred. It was only in early December 2003 that a similar find was reported from West Yorkshire, where in Ferrybridge, during work on the A1(M) motorway, the Iron Age chariot was discovered. Unlike the Lothian find, the “Iron Age chariot burial” did make the BBC National 6 o’clock news. The Times did mention that the Ferrybridge chariot was the second such discovery in Britain – but they failed to mention where the first had occurred, instead opting to call the Ferrybridge discovery the “first English example”.

Arthur's Seat

The most prominent hill towering over Edinburgh is Arthur’s Seat. From Edinburgh Waverley train station, it peaks just over the surrounding landscape, but from anywhere else, its majestic height is impressive, described by many tourists as “unique”. This ancient volcano is now intimately linked with the stories of King Arthur. Donald A. Mackenzie, in “Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life”, stated that one tale told of Arthur’s Seat stated that Arthur and his men were sleeping inside the hill, awaiting the call to come forth to the aid of Scotland. It is not the only hill named after Arthur. There is an Arthur’s Seir, between Ross and Murray, which comes from “Ard nan Seir”, the “height from which to launch ships”. Other Arthur’s Seats are at Dumbarrow Hill, Angus, and east of Liddesdale, in Cumbria.
Despite this connection, mystery surrounds the origin of the name. In the earliest records, it is just called “the Crag” and it has been suggested that the romantic name may be a corruption either of the Gaelic Ard-na-Said, meaning “height – or temple – of arrows”, possibly referring to the dark age hill fort and hunting grounds erected on its slopes, or of Ard Thor, meaning the “height of the thunderer”. Many ancient gods were identified as the thunderer, including the Canaanite Baal and the Greek Zeus, who reigned from Mount Olympus and headed the Greek pantheon with eleven other deities. Both the Greek Olympus and the Scottish Arthur’s Seat could therefore have been identified as sacred mountains, on which “god” resided. This might explain why later, the name became linked with a mythical hero, and king - Arthur.
This interpretation could be independent or it could be linked to a play on words, as Ard-na-Said is somewhat similar to Suidhe Arthair, literally Arthur’s Seat. Furthermore, suidhe is similar to sidh, which identifies a fairy hill, and Arthur was the mythical king of the fairies. Most of these explanations are playing on words, but this is one approach which myths have always used to “explain”.

As Cairnpapple and Arthur’s Seat lie on an East-West axis, this means that the sunrise on 21st March – and 21st September – is visible over Arthur’s Seat from Cairnpapple – as observed by eyewitnesses. It implies that the sunset on those days, as seen from Arthur’s Seat, is observed over Cairnpapple.

Cairnpapple

But that is not all. When we extend the line to the east, there is a further surprise in store: the East-West axis crosses over Traprain Law as well. And Traprain Law is the enigmatic hill at the heart of East Lothian, the residence of that mythical “King Loth”, who gave his name to the region – and who makes an appearance in the Grail stories.
This means that the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes as seen from Arthur’s Seat rises over Traprain Law and results in an intriguing solar spectacle: from Arthur’s Seat, the sun rises over Traprain Law and sets over Cairnpapple Hill, not just on any day of the year, but on the spring and autumn equinoxes.
That is not all. The distance between the three sites is largely equidistant. The distance between Cairnpapple and Arthur’s Seat is 28.875 kilometres, and Arthur’s Seat to Traprain Law is 30.36 kilometres. As all three features are natural hills and modern techniques are much more precise than our ancient forefathers, it is fair to say that this “virtual equidistance” must have cemented the sacred connections between the three sites.

Some sceptics might speculate whether or not all of this is “just a coincidence”. The answer is a definitive “yes”. This east-west alignment of three natural hills, however enigmatically sculpted, was a natural occurrence. But to our forefathers, these alignments, the resulting solar phenomena, the equidistance and the unusual shapes were cause enough to classify them as “sacred”. For it were not random geological events that had created these hills: the gods had created this landscape.
The comparison with the Aboriginals is apt: their belief centres on the Dreamtime Earth, a flat expanse on which the Giants walked and created the sacred hills, including Ularu. The same concept can be transposed onto the Lothians, where these three hills became divine hills. We know that the various surviving traditions make it clear that Traprain Law and most likely Arthur’s Seat were important religious sites for the early settlers. Cairnpapple Hill was definitely an important site in Neolithic times, though its fame is not supported by a rich body of folklore – unlike the two other locations. But though the body of available evidence is diverse, it is nevertheless substantial and definite.

Furthermore, from other locations we know that such sacred hills and incorporated alignments were the backbone of the Neolithic symbolic landscape. Jack Roberts comments on Irish examples: “The astronomical orientation of hundreds of monuments has been documented throughout Ireland and their alignments with significant solar positions clearly affirms their astronomical purpose.”
One example involves Ireland’s sacred Croagh Patrick. 6.5 kilometres to the east of Croagh Patrick is a remarkable stone outcrop, the Boheh stone, decorated with prehistoric inscriptions. Amateur archaeologist Gerry Bracken detected that on 18th April and 24th August, the setting sun hit the top of Croagh Patrick and instead of setting behind it, slid down the northern slope, as if “rolling” down the hill. This phenomenon is similar to the double setting of the sun around the Paps of Jura.
But the parallel does not end there. Cruachain is the ceremonial centre of Connacht, and is specifically linked with Queen Medb. Cruachain was also the seat of the local ruler, putting it on a par with Traprain Law. It is known that a historical pathway led from Cruachain to Croagh Patrick, the original name of which was Cruachain Patrick, the Peak or Eagle of Cruachain. The mountain is visible from Cruachain and from here it is aligned to the setting sun on Lughnasa, when traditionally the pilgrimage to the mountain was carried out. This alignment reveals how the interplay between various sites can work over great distance. In Australia, we noted how the Aboriginals believed that all tribes made one large collective, which was the “sum of all the parts”. Many have argued for the same division of Ireland, in four parts, radiating out from the “sacred centre” of Ireland, Uisneach.

This argument is based on mythological accounts. Many authorities have now accepted that Ireland was indeed divided according to principles of a religious nature, rather than “pure luck”, as most of the world’s provinces or states have been.
Nemhedh is credited with lighting the first fire at Uisneach, the centre of Ireland. He pushed the Formorians - giants with one eye, one arm and one leg - to the coastal fringes. The followers of Nemhedh eventually dispersed across Europe and they were succeeded by the Fir Bolg, who are said to have come to Uisneach, and from there they divided the country up into its five Cuigedh (fifths) or provinces. Four provinces still radiate from that central point at Uisneach, with the fifth division being the land around Westmeath. Each province was ruled by one of five brothers responsible for prosperity, order and justice for all. To quote Carry Meeghan: “This formed the basis of sacred kingship, a concept that survives to this day on some of the islands and in certain remote parts of the country.” Again, it echoes the sacred division of the land in smaller, “tribal” parts.
Uisneach is a 181 metres high limestone outcrop west of Mullingar. Ritual fires were lit from here and it is said that these were followed by those on the hills furthest away. Beacon fires could indeed be seen in over a quarter of Ireland, and in most directions the hilltop fires on the horizons could relay the message of the beacon as far as the sea-coast. Archaeological digs have revealed that huge fires were indeed burnt here from Neolithic times onwards. Uisneach’s festival was Beltane, and on these occasions, taking the lead from Uisneach, all the major ritual fires across Ireland were relit. Consequently, two concentric beacon rings around the central Uisneach fire point were created, a phenomenon which has been identified as a “fire eye”, which has been discovered on megalithic depictions, such as the “Hill of the Hag” at Loughcrew. The eye symbolism has been traced as one of the key images of the Neolithic period across the Near East and Europe. That such events did occur has been confirmed by John Totland, who in 1740 recalled such chains of fires, “which being every one […] in sight of some other, could not but afford a glorious show over a whole nation.” According to Totland, a pair of fires was lit at each site, “one on the cairn”, “another on the ground”, together evoking the rising sun. “I remember one of those Carns on Fawn-hill […] known by no other name but that of Bealteine, and facing another such Carn on the top of Inch-hill”, in his native region of the Inishowen peninsula. Other observers from his time confirmed that such events did indeed occur at Uisneach, at Beltane.

The Loth Stone, with Traprain Law in the background

Like Knocknarea, Uisneach is believed to have been the burial place of a goddess, Eriu, or Erin. Legend has it that she is buried underneath the Cat Stone, on the south-western slope (intriguingly, the Loth’s Stone, said to mark the burial place of King Loth/Lugh, is also to the southwest of Traprain Law). Uisneach is also linked with the Celtic deity Nemhedh, who arrived in Ireland with his wife Macha and four sons. Above all, however, it is important to Lugh, who came here to rescue his mother’s people from the heavy taxes demanded from them by the Formorians. After their defeat, Lugh ruled from Uisneach, and it is said he died here also.
This brings home the concept that the king ruled from the sacred hill, in the centre of his land, Ireland. From this mythical hero’s rule, Uisneach remained the seat of kingship, where political and fiscal matters were resolved, as well as rituals, races and celebrations. It is recorded that each provincial king, when attending these assemblies, had to wear a “hero’s ring of red gold” which he left behind on his chair as a tribute for the High King. Later, the High Kings had their seats at Tara, and it is here that St Patrick entered into a power struggle with the Celtic elite, by lighting a rival Spring Equinox ritual fire on the Hill of Slane, as direct competition to the ritual fire lit from Tara. Again, Tara’s light was supposed to be the first light, but Patrick pre-empted him.

There are some direct parallels between Uisneach and Arthur’s Seat. Both were sacred sites for Beltane fires. The dew and the sacred well at Arthur’s Seat are identical to the sacred well on the slope of Uisneach, which was labelled the “navel of Ireland” and from which twelve rivers were said to originate. Arthur was a mythical king who ruled from his seat of power, just as the mythical god-king Lugh ruled from his seat at Uisneach. Arthur’s Seat was not the only site of Beltane fires. It is known that other hills in the Lothians, such as Berwick Law, and the Eildon Hills in the Borders, were also the scenes of Beltane fires. It is speculative to propose which one of these hilltop fires might have been lit first, the cue from which those on the other hill tops were then set ablaze. Was Arthur’s Seat that “first fire”? We do not know, but there could be a parallel to the Irish Beltane fires.

What makes the Lothian alignment more special, more “sacred”, is that it sits on the east-west axis, and thus marks a key calendar point - the equinoxes. In its movements the sun seems to “wheel around” the equinoxes, creating an East-West axis; it travels North and South of this, towards the solstices; but day and night are of equal length on the equinoxes, and this phenomenon occurs everywhere on Earth.
This East-West alignment puts the Lothian alignment in the same league as those around Knocknarea. According to Martin Byrne, at the equinoxes, “if you stand on Maebh’s cairn, the sun rises over Lough Gill to the East. The dawn light reflects off the water, creating a sea of brightness. Lough Gill means the ‘lake of Brightness’.” Conversely, when the sun sets at the equinoxes, you can stand on the western cairn at Cairn Hill, just west of Lough Gill, and watch the sun setting over Knocknarea. As mentioned previously, the western cairn is identified with Daghdha, the consort of Maebh, and father god of the Celts. Not only does the Knocknarea alignment sit within the same category, there are various parallels.

Cairnpapple. Sunrise on December 21.

I am not the first to propose a sacred design to the Lothian landscape. At one point Steve Sweeney-Turner proposed that there might be “a kind of symmetrical plan underlying the whole of Gododdin/Lothian, dating back from the pre-Celtic period and throughout it.” Sweeney-Turner thought the shape was that of a diamond, from Cairnpapple in the West to Traprain Law in the East, and with Arthur’s Seat at its epicentre. Though this is indeed the same as the “Lothian line”, Sweeney-Turner was not aware of the equinoctial connotations of this line, nor – it seems – of its specific East-West alignment. His approach was derived purely from looking at the sacred monuments of the Lothians, and trying to bring these into a pattern. Sweeney-Turner stated: “The pseudo-symmetry includes both deeply ancient ‘religious’ sites like Cairnpapple and later military sites like Traprain. Within the internal areas of the ‘diamond’, we generally find the ancient farming lands.” Shortly afterwards, he abandoned the concept of the “Lothian Diamond”, as he felt that the most important land of the Celtic tribe was outside of this area.
It is tempting to read more into this line than is required – and expand it to various shapes. And before settling on the “Lothian line”, I determinedly tried to find out whether or not there was more to it. What made this research all the more tempting was that Arthur’s Seat is incorporated in landscape geometry involving the 15th century collegiate church of Rosslyn Chapel, as outlined in my previous book “The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel”. However, there is no evidence that that landscape geometry is prehistoric.
Before the publication of that book, I discussed my findings with one person who, rather than appreciate that single aspect of the landscape geometry, immediately started to incorporate it into a “Sacred Rectangle having the same dimensions of the Temple of Solomon” which was somehow hiding in the Lothian landscape. Despite trying to find that double square, there was literally nothing to be found in the Lothian landscape to indicate that such a “Temple of Solomon” was imprinted on the landscape. Still, she could not be convinced that her conclusions were erroneous. As far as she was concerned, there had to be a temple, hence a temple there was, even though nothing indicated that there might be one.

Finally, it should be realised that the “Lothian line” is not a “real line”, nor is it a leyline. Leylines are perceived lines in the landscape which are believed by some to be “energy lines”. In the past decade, a true revolution has occurred in the field of leyline research, led by one of its chief promoters, Paul Devereux. He argued that the energy line concept promoted in the 1970s was a fallacy, and that leylines were a reality, but only in those places where there was sound evidence to suggest that ancient pathways had existed where rituals involving the dead, specifically moving them, had occurred. Furthermore, that leylines were relatively short, no more than a few miles, not hundreds of miles as some have proposed. To sum up with a remark from an archaeologist, answering a leyhunter’s question on Scottish leys: “I do understand your quest for knowledge, but please, please beware of the whole leyline question. It is so easy to draw lines and make assumptions, from prehistory onwards, but that way madness lies.”
The “Lothian line” is merely a name to describe the solar phenomena that play between the various sites, and that make them into a larger whole. It “connects” the various phenomena, but does not involve energy, nor should it be expanded into larger designs, or longer lines.
The light of the sun, the light of the sun god, Lugh, locally transformed into Loth, played with the land that he had created at the beginning of time, perhaps by “walking it”, following the tradition of the Australian Dreamtime. What other name could be given to this land than the land of Loth – the Lothians? The three sacred hills of the Lothians were there to reveal the power of that sun god, and life was to be lived accordingly.