Ancient Curses Uncovered In Two Countries

ancient curses, curses, curse, Carlisle
It’s been a good week for ancient curses.

A “cursing stone” has been discovered on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. More precisely called a bullaun stone, they’re natural or artificial depressions in a stone that catch rainwater and give it magical properties, usually to heal or to help women conceive a child. A shaped stone is placed in the hole that’s turned to make a prayer or curse.

The bullaun stone on the Isle of Canna is at the base of an early Christian cross dating to about 800 A.D. Now a round stone carved with a cross has been found that fits exactly into this depression. While bullaun stones are found in several European countries, it’s uncommon for both the stone and the base to be preserved.

Over in Italy, two ancient curses have been translated. A Spanish researcher working at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna has revealed the text of two curses inscribed on lead tablets in Roman times. Called a defixio, such curses were common in Greek and Roman times and often came mass produced with only the name of the target needing to be filled in. The ones in Bologna target an animal doctor and a senator, making it the first such curse found against a Roman senator.

One reads in part, “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. . .May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” The one against the animal doctor is no less nasty: “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver. . .”

Many museums have examples of these ancient nastygrams. One at the British Museum was found in London and curses a woman’s memory. Since it’s the only record of her to survive, it appears the curse worked.

Curses can be found all over the place. In Carlisle I came across a cursing stone made in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border Reivers, Scottish raiders who stole English livestock. There’s a photo of it above. You can read the text of the curse in my article about Carlisle.

The East Highland Way day six: strange sculptures and cursed castles


It’s the last day of my hike along the East Highland Way and the trail has given me a special wake-up treat, namely this view of Loch Insh in the early morning. I love this photo because it captures the most alluring aspect of Scottish lochs–the way their placid waters reflect and soften the light. Lochs are the magic mirrors of the Highlands, capturing the surrounding trees and hills and turning them into something ethereal.

Like all the villages I’ve stayed in, Kincraig vanishes within minutes of me setting out. I’m soon back in the countryside. Well, almost. First I have to negotiate a farmer’s field made squishy from yesterday’s rain and then stop to admire the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail. This local artist, who sadly died last year, carved eerie human images out of trees. He left much of the tree in its original shape, so it looks like the people are growing naturally out of the wood. Sorrowful faces, giant hands, and struggling bodies rise out of the ground between living trees in a quiet woodland. It feels like I’m in the middle of a forest in which some of the trees have suddenly come to life. Bruce’s work is social commentary too. A grieving Third World mother holds her starving baby in front of some fat rich men, while nearby two patriots are locked in a life-or-death struggle.

It’s effective and more than a little creepy. The images stay in my mind until something more troubling occupies my thoughts. The route is taking me through an undulating, forested valley between several hills. Trails crisscross the area and I have to be careful to take the correct one. Soon I run into trouble. I come across a paved road where none appears on the map. I know I’m on the right spot judging from the relative position of the surrounding hills, so this road is a bit of a mystery. Next a few houses appear, also not on the map. For the past five days the Ordnance Survey maps have been meticulously accurate, yet now they show glaring lapses. The explanation is simple–this particular section hasn’t been fully updated since 1998. I was aware of this beforehand, but what could I do? The land has changed drastically. New trails are everywhere, curving away out of sight into the woods going who-knows-where.

%Gallery-100361%Time for a compass reading. I know where I’m headed–a small loch called Loch Gamhna and a bigger one just north of it called Loch an Eilein. From there I head pretty much due north to Aviemore, the final stop on the East Highland Way. Studying the topography (with the reasonable assumption that the shape of the hills hasn’t changed!) I see my route will take me through the gap between two hills ENE of my position. If I follow my compass reading I can get there even if the hills are out of view behind trees.

Just as I finish my reading a middle-aged man appears along the trail with his young daughter.

“Are you lost?” he asks.

“No, thanks. I just needed to take a reading because these maps are outdated.”

“Well,” he says in a haughty voice, “You should spend a little extra for the most up-to-date version.”

“I did, but–“

“Nature is a work in progress, you know,” he interrupts.

“Yeah. I was wondering which of these new trails can take me to–“

“Don’t you have a compass?”

It’s still in my hand. I hold it up.

“I’ve taken a reading, what I’m wondering is–“

“If you’re having trouble reading it I’ll check my GPS for you.”

“Never mind, have a nice day,” I say as I turn and leave.

It’s obvious this guy isn’t going to be any help. He’s playing a game of one-upmanship to impress me and his little girl. She doesn’t look impressed, only bored. I know how she feels.

So off I go following my compass readings. Now and then I get glimpses of the two hills I’m shooting for and I see I’m on track. It would be nice to have confidence in the trail I’m on, though. So far it’s been heading in the right direction, but if it veers off on another course I’ll have to slog through the woods. As I’m taking another reading an elderly man on a mountain bike appears. His face looks about seventy but his body appears half that age.

“Do you need any help?” he asks as he pulls up beside me.

“I’m headed to Loch Gamhna. I’ve taken a reading so I know where I’m going but I was wondering if this trail actually leads there.”

I feel grateful he lets me finish my sentence, unlike the previous guy.

“Yes, the OS maps are all wrong for this area nowadays. I’ve spent many an hour lost around here. If you follow this trail for another mile you’ll come to a cairn at a fork on the trail. Take the righthand path downhill and over a stream. Keep following it and you’ll get there. I see the route on your map has you going on the eastern shore of Loch an Eilein. I suggest following the western shore. There’s a good trail and you’ll get a better view of the castle.”

I thank him and he pedals off. That’s how people should treat one another out in the wilderness. Helpful and no attitude. The first guy was useless. If I had truly been lost, Mr. Superiority could have been downright dangerous.

I follow my friend’s directions and they’re right on target. Over the river and through the woods to Loch Gamhna I go. It’s a marshy little loch with tall grass growing in its shallows. The stalks wave in the increasing wind. Just past it is the large Loch an Eilein. As it comes into view its sparkling waters turn dull. The sky has clouded over. Great gray clouds swoop in from the north. I take the mountainbiker’s advice and head along the western shore to a spot across from a small island. Taking up almost the entire island is a low castle built in the 14th century by Alexander Stewart, the infamous Wolf of Badenoch.

During the Middle Ages he was the terror of Scotland, ruthlessly destroying the opposition in order to assert his authority over much of the Highlands. When the Church opposed him, he even sacked the cathedral at Elgin. This devil in armor is said to still haunt his island stronghold. A local woman tells me that as a child she used to row out to the castle with her family and it always felt uncomfortable there. Someone else tells me the castle gives off a strange echo. I try it, standing directly opposite the gate and giving a short, sharp shout. The shout comes back to me a second later, too slow for it to have bounced off the castle. It must have bounced off the opposite shore, but it sounds like it’s coming from within the battlements. Even stranger, the echo sounds louder than my original shout. I shout again and the echo comes back even louder.

Just then the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. I’ve woken the Wolf of Badenoch in his lair and he’s seriously pissed! I hurriedly don my rain gear and slosh on to Aviemore.

And there my hike ends, at a friendly little village at the heart of Scotland’s hiking culture. People with backpacks are everywhere, converging on this spot from a dozen different trails. Yet I have seen none of them on Scotland’s newest trail–the East Highland Way.

I always feel a tug of regret when finishing a good hike, especially one that has given me six days of serene nature, historic wonders, and insights into my own past. I enjoyed it even more than last year’s journey along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I always treat myself to a long-distance hike around my birthday to cheer myself up, and when I turn 42 (ugh!) next year you can bet I’ll be back in the Scottish Highlands.

Coming up next: Hiking the East Highland Way, the practicalities.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!

Hadrian’s Wall Day Five: across the lowlands

Getting up early I take a last look at the crags that I crossed yesterday before heading west and towards Carlisle. I’m now in the lowlands and after scrabbling over steep rock for the past two days it’s very easy going. Add the fact that it’s sunny and I only have eleven miles to walk today, and I have an easy ramble ahead of me.

The countryside is more populated here, and I pass by hedges, fields, farms, even housing developments. Yet there are still wide swathes of untouched land. Rabbits hop into hedges as I approach and I spot the track of a fox in the mud. The Wall, sadly, has almost disappeared, quarried over the centuries for use in other buildings. I’m still along its course, though, as the ditch to the north and the Vallum to the south show me. They’ve survived better than the more durable stone.

The richness of this region made it a target for reivers, and I pass another pele tower, almost swallowed up by the more modern house built around it. There were probably more around here but they’re been quarried for stone just like the Wall was.

I stop by the side of the trail for a snack and meet some other hikers. I’ve met a few along this hike, but this group is different–it’s a whole family, including a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. They’re doing the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path and have already made it all the way from Newcastle to this spot, more than sixty miles. They’re taking it slow, the kids carrying little day packs and being encouraged with a steady supply of treats, but they’re doing it. Hmmmm, perhaps I should have picked a more challenging hike for my midlife crisis. It helps that these are two of the coolest kids ever. I ask them if any of the other kids in their school have ever walked across England and they blush and smile and shake their heads no. Impressive. Once my kid is a bit bigger I’ll have to take him across the country too. At age three he’s already walking a kilometer each way to and from school.

Next I come to the River Eden, which flows westward to Solway Firth, my final destination. Thick bushes colored with purple wildflowers grow along its banks. It’s a peaceful spot, but I see the tops of buildings ahead.

It’s not long until the River Eden winds its way into suburban Carlisle. I pass through a city park and nod at someone passing the other direction. He gives me a confused, wary look and I realize that I’m off the trail, where conversation is easy and everyone is helpful, and back into the world of city attitude.

%Gallery-72022%Carlisle is the most northerly city in England (it would be hard to go further north without ending up in Scotland) and has a population of a little more than 100,000, although it feels much smaller. An ugly ring of modern sprawl surrounds a few winding historic streets with a soaring cathedral, a few very old buildings such as the Guildhall built in 1407, and a massive castle. Carlisle Castle is built atop a Roman fort and the oldest bits still visible were built by Henry I in the 1120s. It was actually finished by David I of Scotland, who captured Carlisle in 1136. This city and Newcastle, where I started my hike, were top prizes in the constant English-Scottish border wars. David was one of the great early kings of the Scots and helped unify the rival clans into something approaching a national identity. It took a lot of fighting to bring the proud families under the feudal yoke, and he was only partially successful, but the Scots loved him because he was good at killing Englishmen

In a pedestrian underpass in front of the castle is a large boulder of sculpted granite that has got to be the strangest example of public art I’ve ever seen. It’s a reproduction of a famous “cursing stone” made in 1525 and inscribed with a curse against the reivers by the Archbishop of Glasgow. It’s pretty nasty, going on for more than a thousand words and inscribed in a spiral around the entire stone. For sheer spiteful detail, it cannot be matched.

“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without. . . May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them. . .

And on and on and on. It’s so creepy, in fact, that one local councilor has blamed it for everything from foot-and-mouth disease to floods and tried to have it removed.

Luckily reason won out over superstition and the cursing stone remains in place. But having read it and touched it, will my good luck on this hike hold out?

Read the entire series here.

Tomorrow: Finished!

Trip planning: from low note to high note, or vice versa?

Here’s the scenario: you’re combining two events in one trip–one you’re dreading (e.g. staying with the family), the other you’re looking forward to (e.g. the beach). Which do you do first?

I would’ve gone with the ‘get the bad stuff over with’ logic and ended with the fun. But I would’ve been wrong.

A report in the July/August edition of Psychology Today shows that it’s best to put the good experience first. It says that events at the beginning and end are remembered more than the middle, but the memory of those at the end fades faster than those at the beginning. So the trip that you’ll remember as better in the long run is the one that starts on a high note and ends on a low note.

Now that’s the way to start a vacation.