In our vitrified forts, too, it is possible that we behold a relic of the times and observances of Druidism. This is the likeliest solution of a problem which, after many attempts, still remains unsolved. We know that on a certain night of the year immense bonfires were kindled on the more conspicuous of our hill tops, and the whole country from one end to the other, was lit up with the blaze of these pyres. The intense heat of such immense masses of wood as were consumed on these sites year by year through a series of centuries, must, in process of time have converted the stones and rocks on which they were kindled into a vitrified mass. The idea that theses vitrifications were forts is barely admissible. They occur, with a few exceptions, on mountains which possess no strategical quality, and which were not likely to have been selected in any great plan of national fortification, supporting the natives capable of forming such a scheme of military defence. The undoubted hill-fortresses of Scotland may be traced by hundreds in their still existing remains, but these are of a character wholly different from the antiques of which we are now speaking. The site selected for their erection was some hill of moderate height, standing forward from the chain of mountains that swept along behind it and which overlooked the wide plains and far-extending straths which lay spread out in front. The builders of these strengths, whoever they were, did not seek to fuse the materials with which they worked into a solid mass, they were content to draw around the mountain-tops, which they fortified, a series of concentric walls, broad and strong, constructed of loose stones, with ample space betwixt each circular rampart for the troops to maneuver. The vitrifications, on the other hand, are scattered over our mountainous districts, with no strategical line binding them together, and in the absence of any conceivable use to be served by them, which would compensate for the toil of dragging up their materials to the elevated sites where they are found, the annual occurrence of a religious observance which, year by year, during a very lengthened period, rekindled on the same spot immense bonfires, presents us with by much the likeliest solution of their origin.
Other vestiges of this early and now fallen superstition are scattered over the face of the country, and a glance at these may help to bring back the image of the time, and strengthen the proof, if it needs further strengthening, that Druidism once dominated in Scotland. Among the more prominent of these are the rocking stones, so termed because the slightest application of force sufficed to set them a vibrating. They were huge unhewn rocks, weighing from thirty to fifty tons, hoisted up and placed on the top of another rock, equal to the burden, and so nicely poised as to move at the touch of the finger.
The rocking-stone is not a megalithic curiosity known only to Scotland. It is met with in England and Ireland, and in countries lying far beyond the British seas. When we travel back in time we find mention made of it by writers who flourished twenty centuries ago. Camden speaks of one in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on a sea-cliff, within half a mile of St. David’s. It is so large, that, says Owen, his informant, "I presume it may exceed the draught of an hundred oxen." It is "mounted upon divers other stones, about a yard in height; it is so equally poised that a man may shake it with one finger."1 Perhaps the most remarkable is that in Cornwall, called "the Logan Stone," at Treryn Castle, in the parish of St. Levan. It is supposed to weigh ninety tons, yet is so balanced on an immense pile of rocks that "one individual, by placing his back to it, can move it to and fro easily."2 Rocking-stones are found in Ireland as well as in Cornwall and Wales. Toland regards them as part of the mechanism of Druidism, and so do almost all who have occasion to speak of them whether in ancient or in modern times.
"It was usual," says Byrant, "among the Egyptians to place one vast stone above another for a religious memorial, so equally poised, that the least external force, nay, a breath of wind, would sometimes make them vibrate."3 Nor did these stones escape the notice of Pliny. "Near Harpasa, a town of Asia," says he, "there stands a dreadful rock, moveable with one finger, the same immovable with the whole body." The motion of so large a body on the application of so slight a force, Photius in his life of Isidore, tells us, formed the subject of some curious discussions. Some attributed the vibrations of the stone to divine power, but others saw in them only the working of a demon.4 It does not surprise us to find a class of men so astute as the priests of Druidism quick to perceive the use to which these stones might be turned in the way of supporting their system. The man conscious of guilt when he saw the ponderous mass begin to quiver and tremble the moment he laid his finger upon it, mistaking the mechanical principle, of which he was ignorant, for the presence of the deity to whom his crime was known, would feel constrained to confess his sin.
These stones were termed also Judgment Stones. They were, in fact, the Urim and Thummin of the Druid. They could not be worn on the breast like the oracle of the Jewish priesthood, they were set up in the glen or on the moor and were had recourse to for a divine decision in matters too hard for the determination of a human judge. If one was suspected of treason, or other crime, and there were neither witnesses nor proof to convict him, he was let into the presence of this dumb, awful judge, in whose breast of adamant was locked up the secret of his innocence or his guilt, and according to the response of the oracle, so was the award of doom. If the stone moved when the suspect touched it, he was declared innocent; if it remained obdurately fixed and motionless, alas! For the unhappy man, his guilt was held to be indubitably established. A judge with neither eyes to see, nor ears to hear, but in who dwelt a divinity from which no secrets were hidden, had condemned him. From that verdict there was no appeal; as was wont to be said of another judge, who decisions were received as the emanations of divine and infallible knowledge, so was it said of the Druidic Infallibility.
"Peter has spoken, the cause is decided."
"Behold you huge
And unhewn sphere of living adamant
Which, poised by magic, rests its central weight
On yonder pointed rock; firm as it seems,
Such is its strange and virtuous property,
It moves obsequious to the gentlest touch
Of him whose breast is pure; but to a traitor,
Tho’ even a giant’s prowess nerved his arm,
It stands as fixed as Snowdon."
A rocking-stone was a quarry in itself, and such stones were dealt with as such in process of time; that is, they were broken up, and dwelling-houses and farm-steadings were build out of the materials which they so abundantly supplied, and hence, though anciently these rocking-stones were common they are now rare. There was a "rocking" or "judgment" stone at Ardiffery near Boddam. Half a century ago it still existed, and called up images of unhappy persons standing before it, awaiting, trembling and terror their doom. It has now vanished, doubtless under the fore-hammer of the builder. It lives only in the pages of a local antiquary, who describes it as he saw it sixty years ago. "In walking up this solitary glen (Boddam) you come in contact with a very large stone of unhewn granite, and whose dimensions are (as measured in May l1819,) 37 feet in circumference and 27 feet over it. . . . .It is placed upon several small blocks of granite, so as to free it entirely from the ground, which must evidently have been done by the hands of men. As there are evident marks of fire close by it, I have every reason to believe it to have been accounted sacred, and a place of worship of the ancient Druids."5
By what means these great stones were placed in the position in which we find them is a problem which remains to this day a mystery. The combined strength of a whole parish would hardly have sufficed, one should think, it accomplish such a feat. It is plain that the Druids knew the art of the engineer as well as the science of the astronomer, and possessed appliances for combining, accumulating, and applying force in the transportation of heavy bodies far beyond what we commonly credit them with. They knew the uses before they knew the principles of the mechanical powers, and hence such machines as pulleys, cranes, and inclined planes have been in practice from time immemorial. They could yoke hundreds of oxen, or thousands of men to the car on which these immense masses were conveyed from the spot where they were dug up to the spot where they were to stand; but having dragged them thither, how were these enormous blocks to be lifted into the air" huge, as it were, on a needle’s point, and so evenly balanced as to vibrate at the gentlest touch? This would have taxed the resources, and it might be baffled the skill of the mechanist of the present day. And yet, the natives of Scotland could accomplish this feat three thousand years ago! When one thinks of this one is tempted to half believe that the builders of these mighty structures, which war, tempest, and time have not been able even yet utterly to demolish, did indeed process the magical powers to which they laid claim. The only magic with which they wrought was knowledge; but is it wonderful that the untaught multitude mistook a skill and craft that were so far above their comprehension, and which they saw performing prodigies, for a knowledge wholly supernatural, and, in the awe and terror thus inspired, were willing to accept the manipulations of the Druid for the intimations of the Deity?
The Druid’s favourite figure was the circle—another link between Scottish Druidism and the world-wide system of Sun worship. Two things have come down to us from the earliest ages as the most perfect of their kind, seven amongst numbers, and the circle amongst figures. A certain mystic potency was supposed to reside in both. When we turn to the all-prevalent system of sun worship we see at once how this belief arose. Bunsen tells us that the circle was the symbol of the sun.6 It came thus to be the canonical and orthodox form of all buildings reared for his worship. Wherever we come on the remains of these structures, whether in Asia or Europe, they are seen to be circular. As the Magus performed his incantations within his circle, traced, it might be, on the ground with his staff, so the Druid, when he performed his worship, stood within his ring of cyclopean stones. The spell of the magician was more potent, and the worship of the Druid was more acceptable when done within this charmed enclosure. Nor was it their religious edifices only that were so constructed; almost all their erections were regulated as to shape by their belief that there was in the circle a sacred efficacy. From their barrows on the moor to their dwelling-houses, all were circular. The well-known Pict’s house was a circle. And when these huts formed a brough or hamlet, they were so arranged as to form a series of circles. Of this a curious specimen is still to be seen in the north of England. On the slope of a hill in Northumberland, about six miles south of the Tweed, in a district abounding in stone remains of a Druidic character, is a little city in which no man has dwelt these long centuries. As it has been described to us by eye-witnesses, it is a congeries of circular huts, arranged in streets, all of which form circles have a common centre.
We have already spoke of the great days of the Druid, which even so late as the seventeenth century were observed with the old pagan honours by a large portion of the Scottish peasantry; nor has their observance wholly ceased even in our day. Fires were extinguished and rekindled, arts of divination were practised, and other ceremonies of Druidic times were performed, though in many cases all knowledge of the origin and design of these observances had been lost. "In many parts of the Scottish highlands." Says Dr. Maclachlan, "there are spots round which the dead are borne sunwise in their progress toward the place of sepulture; all these being relics not of a Christian but of a pagan age, and an age in which the sun was an object of worship." "There are places in Scotland where within the memory of living man the teine eigin, or ‘forced fire,’ was lighted once every year by the rubbing of two pieces of wood together, while every fire in the neighbourhood was extinguished in order that they might be lighted anew from this sacred source."7
It was accounted unlawful to yoke the plow or to engage in any of the duties of ordinary labour on these festival days; such seasons were passed in idleness, or were devoted to the practice of magical arts. There were, moreover, in various parts of the country, plots of land consecrated to the gods of Druidism, and sacredly guarded from all pollution of spade or plough. Such fields were termed, "the good man’s land and the guid man’s fauld." No one dared cultivate them for fear of incurring the wrath of the powerful and terrible vengeful imps of Druidism. They lay untilled from century to century, and were viewed with mysterious awe as the trysting-place of familiar spirits, who were supposed to be willing and able to disclose the secrets of futurity to anyone who had the courage to meet them on their own proper territory. So prevalent were these things that we find the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland of 1649 appointing a large Commission of their number to take steps for discouraging and suppressing these superstitious practices. We trace the action of the Commission in the consequent procedure of several of the Kirk Sessions. These courts summoned delinquents before them and enjoined on them the cultivation of fields which had not been turned by the plow from immemorial time, and they required of farmers that they should yoke their carts on the sacred festival of Yule, and of housewives that they should keep their hearth-fire burning on Beltane as on other days.
Arrogance is an unfailing characteristic of all false priesthoods. To be able to open the human breast and read what is passing therein has not contented such pretenders; they have claimed to open the portals of the future and foretell evens yet to come. Every idolatry has its Vatican or mount of divination. There is an instinctive and ineradicable belief in the race that he to whom the events of tomorrow and the events of a thousand years hence are alike clearly known, can when great ends are to be served, make known to man what is to come to pass hereafter. It is a shallow philosophy that rejects the doctrine of prophecy in its predictive form. The second great Father of the world, before he died, gathered his children, then an undivided and unbroken family around him, and showed them what should befall them in the latter days. The race started on their path with this prophecy burning like a light, and carried it with them in their several dispersions. Their belief in it grew stronger as age by age, they saw it fulfilling itself in their various fortunes; and though the divine gift after the dispersion, remained only the family of Seth—the worshippers of the true God—all nations laid claim to prophecy, and all priesthoods professed to exercise it. The Druids of Britain challenged this gift not less than the wise men of Chaldea, the Magi of Persia, and the priests of Greece. The earliest of our writings, which are the archaeological one, attest the former prevalence in Scotland of this, as well as of all the other forms of divination and soothsaying.
By the help of these archaeological lights we can still identify many of those "high places" to which the Druid went up, that there be might have the future unveiled to himself, and be able to unveil it to others. The "Laws" and "Gallow-hills" scattered here and there all over our country attest by the name they bear that here were the divining places of the priests of the Scottish Baal. The name comes from a Gaelic word, gea-lia, which signifies "The Sorcery Stone,"8 now corrupted into gallow. The Gaelic words gea (sorcery), and lia (a stone) enter into a variety of combinations, and appear in many altered forms, but wherever we light upon them as the names of places we there behold the Druidic brand still uneffaced, though affixed so long ago, and most surely indicating that we are treading on what was once holy ground, and in times remote witnessed the vigils of the astrologer and the incantations of the soothsayer. It must be noted as confirmatory of this etymological interpretation, that theses laws and gallow-hills have the common accompaniment of a neighbourhood abounding in Druidic remains—pillar-stone or remains of circles.
The popular belief regarding these laws and gallow-hills is that in other days they were places of judgment and of execution,—in short, that here stood the gallows. But this is to mistake the etymological meaning of the name. The term is not gallows-hill and gallows-gate, but gallow-hill and gallow-gate. It is the Celtic gea-lia, and not the English vernacular, gallows, which is but of yesterday, compared with the olden and venerable word which has been corrupted into a sound so like that it has been mistaken for it. The name was affixed to these places long before the gallows had come into use as an instrument of capital punishment, and sentence of death was carried out on the criminal by the stone weapon, or by the yet more dreadful agency of fire.
In no land, if ancient writers are to be believed, did divination more flourish than in the Britain of the Druid. No, not in Chaldea, where this unholy art arose; nor in Egypt, where it had a second youth; nor in Greece, where stood the world-renowned oracle of Delphi, nor even at Rome where flourished the college of augurs. The sooth-sayers of Britain were had in not less honour, their oaks were deemed not less sacred, and their oracles were listened to with not less reverence than were the utterances of the same powerful fraternity in classic countries. Nay, it would seem that nowhere did their credit stand so high as in Britain. The testimony of Pliny is very explicit. Speaking of Magism, by which the ancients meant a knowledge of the future, he says, "In Britain at this day it is highly honoured, where the people are so wholly devoted to it, with all reverence and religious observance of ceremonies, that one would think the Persians first learned all their magic from them."9 So great was the fame of the British diviners that the Roman emperors sometimes consulted them. They rivalled, if they did not eclipse the Greek Pythoness, and the Roman Augur, at least in the homage that waited on them in their own country, and the respect and submission which they extorted from all who visited the island.
The rites which they practised to compel the future to disclose itself to their eye, were similar to those which their brethren abroad—partners in the same dark craft—employed for the same end. They watched the sacrifices, and from the appearance of the entrails divined the good or ill fortune of the offerer. They drew auguries from the flight of birds, from the cry of fowls, from the appearance of plants, as also from the drawing of lots, and the observation of omens, such as tempests and comets. To these comparatively harmless methods they are said to have added one horrible rite. They took a man, most commonly a criminal, and dealing him a blow above the diaphragm, they slew him at a single stroke, and drew their vaticinations from the posture in which he fell, and the convulsions he underwent in dying. So does Diodorus Siculus relate.10 To these arts they added, it is probable, a little sleight of hand; and, moreover, possessing considerable skill in medicine, in mechanics, and in astronomy, it is reasonable to suppose that they made us of their superior knowledge to do things, which to the uninstructed and credulous would appear possible only by the aid of supernatural power. His unbounded pretensions being met by the unbounded credence of his votaries, the Druid foretold the issue of battles, the defeat or triumph of heroes, the calamities or blessings that awaited nations—in short, the good or ill success of whatever enterprise of a private or of a public kind, might happen to be on hand.
A truly formidable power it was with which the art of divination armed the Druid. The people among whom he practised his auguries, and who accorded him the most unbounded faith as the possessor of the terrible attributes to which he laid claim, could never very clearly distinguish, we may well believe, between the power to foretell the future, and the power to fix the complexion and character of the future. The prediction of flood, or tempest, or earthquake, or other dire elemental convulsion, and the power to evoke and direct these terrible chastisements, were doubtless, in their imagination, very much mixed up together. They had no clear conceptions of the limits of this mysterious power; or whether indeed, it had boundaries at all. He who could read the stars, for aught they knew, might be able to stay them in their courses, and compel them to do his pleasure. If he should command the ocean to leave its bed and drown their dwellings, would not its waters obey him? If he should summon the tempest, would it not awake at his call? Or if he should life up his voice to the clouds, would they not straightway rain their hailstones and hurl their thunderbolts upon the disobedient? They saw the Druid, with all the forces, visible and invisible, of nature ready to be marshalled at his biding against all who should dare to disobey or offend him. What a miserable vassalage! And from that vassalage there was no escape. The earth was but a wide prison, peopled throughout with invisible agents, countless in number, and malign in spirit, whose only employment and delight were to torment the race of man. Nature itself groaned "travailing in pain" under the bondage of this corruption, and waited in "earnest expectation," for the coming of Christianity that it might be brought into the liberty of a purer system. And when at length the Gospel came, and broke the divining rod of the Druid, and the purged out the gross defilement of those vengeful deities with which he had peopled earth and air, sea and sky, and tumbled their dark empire—to believer in Druidism no imaginary one— into ruin, what a glorious and blessed emancipation!—not to man only, but also to the earth on which he dwelt. If as some historians say, wailings were heard to issue from the shrines and oracles of paganism, when the cry went forth and resounded along the shores of every island and continent, "great Pan is dead," well might songs and shoutings arise from the Britons when they felt their ancient yoke falling from off their neck, and the thick gloom in which they had so long sat, giving place to the morning light of a better day.