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Seductive Souterrains (2010)

 Originally published in Vol 42 No 307, Nov. 2010 issue of Dowsing Today, the journal of the British Society of Dowsers.

Gardner’s World – Seductive Souterrains

Souterrains are strange underground passage structures dating from around the Iron Age or earlier that seem to cluster particularly thickly in northern and eastern areas of Scotland, the area formerly occupied by the people we know as the Picts (Fig. 1). They are not unique to Scotland though – there are also some fine examples in Ireland, Cornish versions are known as fogous, and the New England States have their own enigmatic underground chambers too. But the big question is, what were they used for?

Distribution of souterrains in Scotland

Fig. 1

One suggestion from archaeologists is that they were used as hiding places in troubled times – a sort of Iron Age equivalent of the air-raid shelter. Yet they seem to have frequently been built alongside habitations, and you would think that it would be better to have them a little further away from the community if you were expecting trouble. Some archaeologists have suggested they were byres or barns, used to keep animals warm during winter. Can you imagine trying to herd a cow or a sheep down a dark, narrow, twisting underground tunnel? How would they turn round to get out again?

The most common explanation, often displayed on visitor signboards, is that they were storage cellars for food, but I’ve never been entirely convinced by that explanation either. There is little evidence to back it up apart from a few grains that have been found in some of them, and besides, can you imagine carrying a heavy sack of grain or basket of vegetables as you try to enter the extremely low doorway characteristic of a souterrain? To enter a souterrain you usually have to crouch or even crawl; surely it would be more practical to have easier access to the space? And why do they usually have such a serpentine, undulating layout? A more conventional rectilinear arrangement would surely be more practical for a storage cellar. I can’t think of any advantage to a curved layout if the space is being used for storage, hiding place or animal shelter.

There is, however, an advantage to having such a layout if you were trying to disorient somebody being led into the darkness of the souterrain; and also if you wanted to cut off the daylight from the entrance to provide a dark space inside. Some souterrains do have blocking slabs that could be used to narrow the passage even further and reduce the light coming into the passage – rather as occurs in structures like West Kennett or Newgrange. Many of the New England chambers also have significant astronomical alignments, and I know of at least one Cornish fogou that has a small window oriented towards midsummer sunrise. That fact alone implies some sort of ritual or ceremonial use of the space to me.

In previous visits to souterrains and fogous, I’ve practised some meditations and shamanic journeying, and generally got a sense that they were used by the community as multi-purpose ceremonial spaces, rather like the kivas of the Hopi and Pueblo native American peoples. They would be used to mark significant life transitions – puberty, onset of menarche, initiation and so forth. During one such meditation in Culsh souterrain in Aberdeenshire some years ago, I had a strong vision of an elder tattooing a Pictish bird design onto the shoulder of a boy to mark his transition to manhood. Now obviously this is just my subjective opinion, albeit supported through dowsing; but it’s no worse than other explanations given the lack of available evidence.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Pitcur souterrain (Fig. 2) is one of the largest in the Scotland and, even although much of it is now in a ruinous state it still commands respect and is very protective of its space. I’ve tried three times to actually find it since seeing a picture of David Cowan dowsing next to its cup-marked entrance stone many years ago, and it was only this September, in the company of Patrick MacManaway, three fellow geomancers and two psychics, that I finally managed to get there. There is no access path, nor is it signposted in any way, unlike many of the other ‘restored’ souterrains elsewhere. This one is not yet on the tourist map. You have to walk up the edge of a field to reach it, picking your way gingerly past bramble bushes, nettles and thistles until you reach the small stile that give access to the fenced-off souterrain lying concealed in the undergrowth. Even when right on top of it, it is still hard to discern its layout (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

The first thing that strikes you is how big it is. It’s certainly the largest one I’ve been in. Much of it lies open to the sky and is badly in need of some restoration. There are two sections to it, a shorter one connected by a short dog-leg passage at the western end of the main, longer passage. The far end of the main passage is the only section that still has its roofing slabs intact. A curious niche on the right just inside the covered area may have marked a small crawl-way entrance, or perhaps it was a space for a doorkeeper to crouch. In the exposed wall outside, a heavily cup-marked stone sits low to the ground, and just inside, opposite the niche, there is some curious graffiti on the wall that seems to represent a fish and a bow-and-arrow, but is of uncertain provenance (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Dowsing around the souterrain produced some interesting findings. We all found two crossing energy leys close to the cup-marked stone, one of which seemed to run in the direction of Coupar Angus to the north-west. Interestingly, local legend tells of a ‘ley tunnel ‘on this alignment:

“In the 19th century some women found the secret tunnel of Coupar Angus Abbey near the entrance to the churchyard. One went in and was never seen again, however in 1982 a local mason found the entrance again and went in some distance before finding a cave in. It is said that the tunnel ran a further two and a half miles to a souterrain at Pitcur.” [1]

What makes this piece of folklore even more intriguing is that the small settlement next to the souterrain (and on this alignment) is called ‘Leys’!

I was particularly interested in a cup-and-ring marked stone lying on the surface (Fig. 5), as I find the placement of these cup-marks often seems to have astronomical significance. Although by no means a universal maxim, my ‘working theory’ is that many single cup-marks can be associated with solar alignments, whereas cup-marks with additional rings have lunar significance. Used in conjunction with a middle-distance marker, for example a standing stone, and a suitably distant foresight like a horizon notch on a hillside, the cup mark would indicate the position of a moveable backsight – either a staff or a long plumb-bob – that was used to record the small variations in rising or setting positions of the sun or moon from year to year.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

A hill to the west in this instance looked a promising candidate for marking an equinox sunset, or just possibly the setting standstill moon down its northern flank. However the general consensus of researchers seems to be that this stone was originally one of the chamber roof slabs, so it is unlikely that it is in its original position. The presence of the other cup-marked stone in the side wall of the passage would initially seem to belie this astronomical theory as well, but remember that cup-marked stones were originally carved by Neolithic peoples – souterrains are of much later construction and the stones were probably recycled as readily-available building materials, the significance of their markings forgotten.

With four dowsers and two ‘sensitives’ in the group, naturally we all picked up on different aspects of the space. The psychics felt that it was primarily used for ceremonial applications, with a clear demarcation between the two parts of the souterrain. The shorter section would be used mainly for post-natal rites honouring the new-born, and was definitely ‘women’s magic’; whereas the longer section was for ‘man stuff’ and probably included rites involving the bones of the ancestors. I was pleased that this corresponded pretty well with my own impressions at Culsh souterrain.

As to the shape of the souterrain; we all strongly felt that it reflected some underlying pattern of earth energies caused perhaps by mineral deposits or a minor geological fault. The etheric pattern of the souterrain seems to resonate outwards from it, rather in the manner of David Cowan’s cup-mark leys. We didn’t have time to pursue this idea at the time, but it’s worth bearing in mind for future research.

The geological fault idea is also in line with John Burke & Kaj Halberg’s work demonstrating that ancient sites were deliberately positioned over such geomagnetic transition zones. Chambered structures built on these zones seem to concentrate energy and have a dramatic effect on seeds placed inside[2]. So maybe the ‘food storage cellar’ theory is not too far wrong after all. Perhaps they were used, not for storing food, but for enhancing seed germination?

We may never know the real reasons why these enigmatic structures were constructed. But it is remarkable that, even after a couple of thousand years, they still exert such a fascinating hold on our imaginations, with their mythical associations of Faery dwellings, entrances to the Underworld, the promise of hidden tunnels and buried treasures, and their evocation of a mysterious lost people and times gone by. ‘Seductive souterrains’ indeed!

[1] Holder, Geoff (2007). ‘The Guide to Mysterious Perthshire’. Stroud : Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-4140-5. p. 50.
[2] See John Burke & Kaj Halberg (2005). ‘Seed of Knowledge, Stone of Plenty’. Council Oak. ISBN 978-1-57178-184-0

© Grahame Gardner/BSD 2010

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