Thursday 2 May 2013

The Curious Incident of Dundurn, Part I

The second half of the day is a little harder to write about, for reasons I'm sure will become apparent. It's a bit of an epic.

After exploring the Falls of Edinample, we continued on to Dundurn. Along the way we encountered a herd of deer. One of which posed, perfectly unafraid, by the side of the road whilst we took pictures!

We parked up near St. Fillan's Golf Club. St. Fillan himself is an interesting character. My immediate thought was of Maes-y-Felin in Wales, which is a name meaning 'home of the greyhound bitch', applied to  Tinkinswood and St. Lythans. Although not exactly the same, I wondered whether there might be a link, and was not at all surprised to discover the following on Wiki:

Saint Fillan, Filan, Phillan, Fáelán (Old Irish) or Faolan (modern Gaelic) is the name of (probably) two Scottish saints, of Irish origin. The career of a historic individual lies behind at least one of these saints (fl. 8th century), but much of the tradition surrounding 'Fillan' seems to be of a purely legendary character... The name Fillan probably means "little wolf" in Irish Gaelic, being formed on a diminutive of faol, an old word for the animal.

What is a 'little wolf' if not a dog?

Anyway, conjecture aside, we started our approach.

We passed St. Fillan's chapel on the right, which I'll come back to.

I was pretty excited as we made our way towards Dundurn. It was the crowning place of the ancient Kings of Scotland, and the site of one of the final sieges between the Picts and the Irish (Scotti) in 683. Also known as The Fort of the Fist.

Part way up, I stopped to take a panoramic.

Unfortunately, that was the last scene of normality for the rest of the day. Something proceeded to go horribly wrong.

Paul had gone on ahead and was quite a way up the hill. I turned to continue, and suddenly started to feel extremely tired. Not just tired, but thirsty. We'd stopped in Callander earlier to buy some delicious fudge from the traditional sweet shop there. I'd had quite a bit of sugar and there wasn't a stream on Dundurn to drink from.

I soon started to feel worse. I thought for a moment about returning to the car, but Paul was now out of sight and the top, although feeling a million miles away, didn't actually look that far. So I kept going.

By the time I reached the summit, I felt as though I'd been hit by a brick. I was horribly thirsty, my head was pounding, I felt as though my face were on fire and that I was going to throw up, and my balance was failing.

There's a large flat slab of rock at the top where people leave stones they've carried up. Paul was sprawled out there enjoying the view. I managed to take the following photo and video.

(click to enlarge)

Then I made it very clear that I needed to go. As we started our way down the hill, Paul went on ahead again. Whilst he was gone I made my way down the gentlest slope I could find, clinging to the rock for support. My face still felt as though it were burning and I felt as though I had no sense of balance, as though I was somehow falling ahead of myself, or tumbling to the bottom of the hill. I couldn't let go of the side of the cliff and I was starting to tremble with panic.

When I eventually caught up with Paul, he was crouched down admiring the view. My fear transformed into anger and I sniped at him for leaving me to find my own way down. Quite reasonably, he asked why I hadn't called to him or asked for help? He was trying to stay calm and reason with me, but I couldn't get my anger under control.

This is when I realised something was very wrong. I heard myself say something to the effect: "It isn't you. Anything you say right now won't calm me down." Within seconds I was sitting on the ground having a full-blown panic attack. I knew what it was because I'd had one once before. A few years back I went to visit a friend's family in Northern Ireland. We were watching TV and an extremely graphic anti drink-drive advert came on, showing a slow-motion car crash. A couple of months earlier I'd been the first person on the scene when a young lad put his car through a brick wall. I was still coming to term with that at the time. The advert triggered a pretty vivid flash-back and I ended up having my first and only panic attack.

But that was nothing on the magnitude of this. I couldn't catch my breath at all, and tears were streaming down my face. I was terrified that I was falling down the mountain. I was also terrified because I had no idea what I was terrified of. I could see my body going through this physical reaction, my lungs working triple-time, my hands clawing the ground and, at times, my face, trying desperately to regain control. Yet, inside, the only thing I was afraid of was the fact that I didn't understand what was happening to me. I wasn't having any flash-backs to previous events in my life, I wasn't even thinking of much  at all. There was nothing I could point to and say 'ah, that's why I'm panicing' - just this sensation that the ground was moving beneath me and I wasn't safe. A very real need to get off that hill.

Paul suggested I lie down, but the sense of falling was far worse and I sat straight back up again. We were there for what felt like ages. He was very calm and simply sat with me, waiting, which was a good reaction. His general principle is: 1. Will it kill you? 2. Will you go insane? No? Okay, let's wait and see what happens.

Eventually, I could feel the end of my nose start to go numb and a new fear took over. I was afraid that I was about to pass out. In desperation, I put my hand in my mouth and bit as hard as I could. Which, it turns out, is pretty hard. I drew blood, but it did the trick. Within a few minutes the shock of what I had just done, and the realisation that I could potentially have damaged myself, brought everything back under control and I started to breath normally again.

The next problem was that I had a desperate desire to get off the hill as fast as possible, but I was terrified of moving. It's so hard to describe. Take a look at my post on Edinample Falls from earlier in the day. Watch the video. Here's what Paul wrote about that waterfall picture on Facebook:

Crazy woman! Those of you who look at this should realise that this is much further down than it looks - and well dangerous! M, meanwhile, just giggled away, swinging her legs back & forth like a 6yr old, happy as Larry looking into the deadly gorge without a care in the world!
Just to reiterate here, I am not, and never have been, afraid of heights. Less than a couple of hours before I was sitting, legs akimbo, atop a river plunge that would certainly have killed me had I slipped. Yet here I was, on the side of a perfectly average hillside, petrified to the point of passing out that I might trip over myself and... what? Graze my knee?

We edged our way very slowly to the bottom. Halfway, I had to sit down again as another wave of panic swept over me. More tears, more uncontrollable breathing. I was afraid to hold Paul's hand in case I squeezed so hard I broke it.

When we made it past the gate and back onto solid, flat, ground, I almost cried with sheer relief. I was both startled and extremely embarrassed by what had just happened. That's why it's taken a while to get around to writing this up. I felt like a complete lunatic.

We proceeded to walk back the route we had arrived, towards the church. Within minutes I was back to my usual self, skipping along, photographing interesting things, like this natural seat by the river:

And this somewhat unfortunate sheep (seen quite a few of those recently).

It felt as though there had been two people on that journey. The me walking to and from the hill: happy li'le me, not thirsty, no headache, not tired. The second me, some person I didn't recognise on that hill. Fine going there, fine coming back, on the hill - complete mess.

Even when I've been stressed in other situations, like working in Rwanda or having an argument with someone, I've always felt as though it were me. However upset, I understood what was happening inside my own head, and, for the most part, why I was reacting that way. What happened on that hill felt as though it had happened a million miles away.

We stopped off at St. Fillan's Chapel on the way back. Apparently it dates from around the 1300s. Some of the gravestones look incredibly ancient, a few resembling recycled standing stones.

However, despite looking old, such as the ones in the top photo, many only date back to the 1920s and 30s! It's a very strange little place. One grave was particularly strange, filled with white quartz, which you find quite a bit of in the Scottish hills.

As we started the drive home, we passed another couple of standing stones. These were the Twenty Shilling Woods stones, of which there apparently used to be four, but only two remain. Which is an interesting link to the chapel in that, according to some literature on folklore, churches such as St. Fillan's above, with unusual, round, walls, apparently tend to be situated on former stone circles.

Admittedly, it's hard to see how the day could possibly have become any more bizarre but, believe me, it happened.

Whilst driving back along Braco Road, through a small village in the fading light, a couple of very young deer stepped off the pavement and walked along in front of our car, showing no sign of fear.

Up ahead, we saw what we thought was a cat, sitting slap bang in the middle of the road. As we crawled the car forward, the 'cat' turned its head casually, as though annoyed that we might wish to use its road, then hopped off into somebody's garden. At which point, the two young deer trotted off after it, as though following the hare to some secret gathering. It was absolutely magical and completely unbelievable.

A few miles down the road, we made a sudden stop to observe white wallabies.

I promise you, I'm not making this up.

As we drove for home, I started to feel this tight ache down the back of my neck. I assumed it was from the panic attack and subsequent muscle clenching. I was as stiff as a plank trying to walk down that hill, unable to relax my muscles for fear of falling.

Half an hour after walking through the door, things took a distinctly unpleasant turn. I was wearing two layers of T-shirts, a jumper, my body warmer, a blanket and the heating was on, yet my hands were as cold as ice. I was incredibly drowsy, with light sensitivity and a headache. We had to keep the lights off, and I was so tired I could barely talk. Paul said I sounded as though I were recovering from one of his epileptic fits.

He made me some vegetable fried rice. An hour after eating that, with copious quantities of soy sauce, I was perfectly back to normal. Light sensitivity gone, headache (thanks to Anadin) gone. Hands finally warm again,  and colour returning to my face.

It was at this point that I decided I wanted to learn a bit more about Dundurn, and started to do a bit of online research. I wasn't expecting to find much more than a few dates and archaeological probings. Instead, I found something which had me running into Paul's room shouting 'read this!'

The account from the 1700s begins:

[St. Fillan's Well on Dundurn] is still visited by valetudinary people, especially on the 1st of May, and the 1st of August. No fewer than 70 persons visited it in May and August 1791. The invalids, whether men, women, or children, walk, or are carried, round the well, three times, in a direction Deiseal, that is, from E. to W. according to the course of the Sun. 

It was indeed the 1st of May.

Those who complain of rheumatism in the back, must ascend the hill, sit in this chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed, and reckoned very efficacious.

This is the bit that completely spun me. The sensation of being pulled from the top of the hill to the bottom, without any control over how fast, was a powerful connection with the sensation I had felt of not being able to find my feet. The feeling had been far worse when I tried to lie down on my back. I had started to feel sicker and sicker as I went up the hill, then felt as though I were falling back down it, unable to get my balance.

The other curiosity was that, when we talked about what had happened briefly at the Twenty Shilling Wood Stones, I told Paul that I felt as though whatever I was afraid of on that hill had been a 'people fear'. It felt like a fear of something people do to other people, rather than a fear of the land.

Sometimes places have an uncomfortable feeling because of the natural energies there, the genius loci isn't a particularly sociable one and doesn't appreciate the intrusion. Other times, places carry a weight because of what people do one another, an extreme example might be Auschwitz or Murambi. Those things leave an impression.

I was very sure that, ruling out a personal breakdown, which seemed unlikely as there's nothing I'm in any way upset about at the moment, the sense of detachment from myself and the sense of fear, loss of control, sickness, vertigo and panic, all felt very much like a fear of what someone, rather than something, might do to me.

When I read all of that, it felt as though something clicked into place. I know it's easy to twist things to create an explanation, and I'm still not sure I have one, but it did help me to feel a little less mad. 

Before reading that I had felt as though the hill wasn't a place for women. Often at ancient ritual sites there are places that men aren't allowed to go and places that women aren't allowed to go. For instance, Uluru in Australia, where only men were supposed to climb the rock as a right of passage, and only women were supposed to use the caves, with harsh and sometimes deadly punishment for breaking these sacred taboos. There still might be something to that, because there's a second, slightly smaller hill behind Dundurn.

Whatever the reasoning, finding this snippet of folklore was quite cathartic. It must be a very ancient custom indeed for that sort of tradition to be considered old three hundred years ago. I bet rheumatism wasn't the only thing they tried to cure by dragging people down the hill. Perhaps not everybody went there willingly. Imagine how terrifying that must have been for a young child, perhaps with autism or down syndrome?

A very strange day, one that we both agreed felt like many different days sewn together.

Oh, and the white rocks on the grave:

All the invalids throw a white stone on the saint's cairn, and leave behind, as tokens of their confidence and gratitude, some rags of linen or woollen cloth.

Offerings to Saint Fillan, or an lobar, the leper.

See also:

The Curious Incident of Dundurn, Part II

The Curious Incident of Dundurn, Part III


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