Sunday, 18 August 2013

In The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies: A Visit to Aberfoyle Kirk and Doon Faery Knowe

A mass of ancient trees surround us, their presence is overwhelming. Roots break the skin of earth, tripping the unwary; roots which draw sustenance from deep underground, from another world. As we push deeper into the wood immediate silence envelopes our pilgrim line, the chatter and cough of grey backed crows; the insistent spitting chirrup of the robin – gone! For we are interlopers here: visitors on a suspect day-pass, watched by unseen eyes. We are on the cusp of the “between” which is not a void, a barrier to contact, but rather it is a space which has unique temporal and spatial qualities. It is as the between which is the pause between the inbreath and the outbreath, and which exists both before the breath  and after the breath. When Shiva speaks, in the ancient Sanskrit text Centreing, of the fusing of the inbreath and the outbreath this does not eliminate the between, rather it is transformed into a threshold between in and out, past and future, between the Inner and Outer realms, between each of the Three Worlds.1

This is what Iain Sinclair called “ a privileged memory-space”- albeit he was writing about the London Fields Lido, but his description resonates here “enclosed, tree-surrounded, off-limits: and therefore interesting”. There is a very palpable feeling of being “off-limits” here – in the midst of the ancient, deciduous woodland on the slopes of Doone Faery Knowe, just outside Aberfoyle in Scotland. The footsteps in which we are following are those of Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle in the late seventeenth century, and author of the most important book about faeries ever written: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. My interest in Kirk and all things faery was piqued in the 1990s by reading a series of books on Celtic and Underground traditions by R.J. Stewart. In Earth Light I first read of the Reverend Robert Kirk; how he had written The Secret Commonwealth, revealing the secrets of the faery realm situated in the Underworld; how his body was discovered on the slopes of the faery hill; and how this was an empty husk, a simulacrum, Kirk himself having been spirited away to the faery realm as revenge for his revelations.2 For anyone interested in following a shamanic path rooted in the earth of these islands, Stewart’s writing is essential reading.3

The lowering clouds created an appropriately gothic atmosphere on our arrival in Aberfoyle. First stop the Tourist Information office/STB shop to check out the info on Kirk; however, having combed the extensive resources on all things Scottish and Aberfoylian I had to accept that Aberfoyle’s most famous son was not represented in any way: no copy of  The Secret Commonwealth, no biography, no tea towel, not even a map of the walk we were about to undertake – in the words of David Byrne of Talking Heads  “same as it ever was”. 

Unaware of the circumstances, conspiratorial or not, which created this most glaring of omissions, we made our way out of the car park and walked towards the ruins of the Old Kirk. Just outside the iron gates a well-weathered board, by word and illustration, told the story of Robert Kirk’s involvement with Aberfoyle kirk. As the gates laboured and creaked a robin appeared on the path, a feathered guide. As I moved towards the ruin of the kirk it flew before me, flitting from gravestone to gravestone; from its demeanour it seemed to be in tune with both the kirkyard and my objective. However, I managed to miss Kirk’s grave on the way in, on which it must be said on reflection, Robbie had hesitated, chirruping a message before flying off in disgust. I missed it because I had misread the information board and thought that Kirk’s stone was inside the kirk: foolish mortal that I am!

From the kirkyard the tree-clad Faery Knowe was visible, irresistible: in thrall we made our way towards it. As we commenced our climb through the trees, I felt an overwhelming sense of strangeness and charm, of eldritch otherness, of having strayed off the beaten path into a time and place out of joint. But, of course, we had not strayed, we were on a quest (not a mission, a mission is different: patriarchial, dominating, forcing acceptance and change – one big negative, maaan!), a quest which by its purpose and orientation had supplied us with the suspect day-pass into the alternate reality of the “faery knowe”. The quilt of silence, which wrapped around us as we climbed, was occasionally broken by a far off rumble, like some great beast woken from its slumbers, but even this disappeared as we approached the hill’s summit. Here the silence was complete, and in its completeness it provided both comfort and threat; a tangible between signifying a threshold – sandwiched between worlds.

The summit, with its multi-coloured cloutie trees, gave the impression of a Tibetan sky burial, an impression heightened by the presence of several Tibetan prayer flags.  I placed a small moss covered twig, which I had brought from the graveyard path below, at the base of the main cloutie tree – a simple ritual symbolically re-uniting the body and soul of the Reverend Kirk.

Lost in meditation, our imaginations literally “away with the faeries”, we spent some time– how much time I’m not sure, silently contemplating, communing, journeying deep into the silence on the knowe. I placed a small silver coin at the entrance, before returning down the root rocked path to the main track, where Robbie greeted us briefly, before speeding off to meet his next clients.4 

This is a place of undoubted strangeness, on the cusp between a reality restricted by the senses and a reality limited only by the imagination. If you do come here, and tread beyond the beaten track, take care to make your approach with respect, only leave – do not take, and may the  “faery beame upon you”.5

1. Centreing, an ancient Sanskrit text from the Vigyan Bhairava, the Sochanda Tantra and the Malini Vijaya Tantra – dating from approximately five thousand years ago, the elements of breath, the space beyond words and the between, are drawn together - centred. Taking the form of questions posed by Devi to his consort Shiva, “in a language of love we have yet to learn,” it is “about the immanent experience (and) presents 112 ways to open the invisible door of consciousness.” Even though Devi is already enlightened he asks the following six questions so that the unenlightened may benefit from Shiva’s responses: 

O Shiva, what is your reality ? 
What is this wonder-filled universe? 
What constitutes seed ? 
Who centres the universal wheel ?
 What is this life beyond form pervading forms?
 How may we enter it fully, above space and time; names and descriptions?
 Let my doubts be cleared. 

Shiva’s fist six responses are:                                                            

1. Radiant one, this experience may dawn between two breaths. After breath comes in (down) and just before turning up (out) - the beneficence.
2. As breath turns from down to up, and again as breath curves from up to down - through both these turns, realize.
3. Or, whenever inbreath and outbreath fuse, at this instant touch the energyless energy-filled centre.
4. Or, when breath is all out (up) and stopped of itself, or all in (down) and stopped - in such universal pause, one's small self vanishes. This is difficult only for the impure.
5. Consider your essence as light rays rising from centre to centre up the vertebrae, and so rises livingness in you.
6.Or in the spaces between, feel this as lightning.

2. In his new edition, Stewart lists the fundamental concepts to be found in The Secret Commonwealth:

There is another world or dimension that mirrors our own: it is located underground. The cycle of energies and events in that place is a polarised image of our own, thus they have summer when we have winter, day when we have night, and so forth.

The inhabitants of this world are real beings in their own right, and have certain 
               substantial supernatural powers.

Certain people, mainly male seers, are gifted with the ability to see such beings from the mirror or underworld, and to receive communications from them.

The subterranean people are able through signs and mimicry or dramatic actions to show seers what will come to pass in the human world. It is up to the seer to 
                develop means of interpretation.

Humans can and do physically transfer to the fairy- or underworld.

The subterranean people are linked to the land, each region having its counterpart in the underworld. Thus they are, in one respect, the genii loci of the ancient world.

The spirits of the dead and of ancestors are also found in this underworld, though they are often distinct from the Fairy Race themselves.

Both the subterranean people and the seers who perceive them retain fragments of
              ancient religious and philosophical tradition, often at variance with the religious                                                               
              and scientific viewpoints of the day.

There are spiritual or psychic healers in the human world who work through methods laid down by tradition, often using corrupted prayers and incantations to accompany their healing ceremonies. These are of a different category to the seers, and do not seem to receive aid from the subterranean or underworld fairies.

3. I recommend Earth Light, Power Within the Land and Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds (a new edition of The Secret Commonwealth with an excellent commentary by Stewart: all available via
 4.We used the excellent walk guidance notes provided on 
 5.From the Jackman’s Song by Ben Johnson included by R.J. Stewart in Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds

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