Bernie Bell: Minehowe


Visiting Minehowe (B Bell)

We visited Mine Howe, in Deerness,(Editor’s note:it is in Tankerness) some years ago.  There was a dig happening next to it, at a site called Long Howe.  The Orkney Archaeology Society  (or FOAT, as it was then), were having an open day, and Caroline Wickham-Jones was giving a talk, and showed us some of the finds from the dig.  I could ‘see’ what the mound had been, when it was there – an interesting shape, kind-of concentric circles, rising.

Anyhoo, after visiting the dig, we went to Mine Howe.  I had no pre-conceptions, and didn’t know much about it.  Mike started off, down the steps, and I went to follow.  First foot, on the first step, and…..I couldn’t go any further.  Not anything ‘bad’, just, simply, an instruction, that it wasn’t for me.  I told Mike, and said I’d stay there, and he went down, into the place.  I took a picture of a Being I could see there.  He’s quite a gnarly sort of …Being, but that figures, I suppose, with him being of the earth, and stone, and stone in the earth.  He’s dark brown, and ….gnarley!  Looked a bit angry.  So, I stayed where I was, literally with one foot on the first step, and asked what it was all about, and this is what I was told………….


Journey into the Unknown (B Bell)

It was a place of initiation.  At certain times, on certain days, at certain times of the year, some people ( young men, when they were ‘ready’), went down into the Howe.  Or, rather, were led down, into the Howe by the folk who knew, when they were ready.  It was for males, and I’m female, so, not for me.  You’ll notice I mentioned at certain times, on certain days, at certain times of the year?

The Spirit of Place is well pissed off, with the way people just go up and down, in and out of the place, willy-nilly, and…..women!  Of course, it’s not for women at all.  Not pleased.

I stayed where I was, and had this exchange.  Mike was fine, down there, took some pics so I could at least see it, when he came back up.

Then, we walked around outside, and came upon the metal-working place.  The whole place, spoke to me of friends Wendy and David, who are both blacksmiths. – Wendy is a blacksmith and a very good poet (‘Walking Boots’ previously featured in ‘The Orkney News’) – and especially of David  – the metal-working, and the initiation, as David is a blacksmith ….and a Shaman.  We bought two copies of the booklet, one for us, and one to send to Wendy and David.

Some time later, Martin Carruthers gave a talk on souterrains.  Souterrains had always puzzled me.  We’ve visited a few, and the inflammation board usually says they may have been for storage – possibly – I don’t see it, myself, as I think there would have been more efficient, and less rat-likely, ways to store things, back then.  Little huts, on stone stilts, being one of them.

The other suggested use, is for defense.  Again, doesn’t add up……the idea seems to be, that if you’re attacked, you go down into your souterrain, and either sneak out, outside the enclosure, or, stay there ’til they’ve gone away!  The sneaking out, to outside, doesn’t make sense, as, surely the enemy would be out there, as well?  The other one, of going down and waiting, well, that’s what I’d call being trapped!

So, souterrians had always puzzled me.  Martin Carruthers gave an excellent talk.  His view, is that they could be for initiation.  A person goes into one, or is placed in one, and they come out – mad, changed, or both!  I talked with Martin, after wards, about all this sorta thing, and told him of David and his smithing and shamanism, and the links between those two …occupations.  I asked did he have a script for his talk, which I could send to Wendy and David, but he didn’t – he was pretty much ‘winging it’.  I wrote to them, and told them what I could remember. It was a very good talk.

So, Mine Howe, a place of initiation – maybe specifically for the metal-workers?  I don’t know that. I wasn’t given much information, because….I’m female!!!  I’m not supposed to know those things, then, or now.  I was told of its purpose, to show me why I wasn’t to go there.  No nastiness, no harm to me or anything like that.  I was simply stopped – then, when I asked why, I was told why, and expected to accept it, which I did.

I still like the place, there’s so much to it, and it reminds me of my friend – David.  I don’t know what they make of Wendy being a blacksmith!  Possibly aren’t very interested, as it’s nothing to do with their place.

I told Martin C. that I was pleased to have come across a sensible reasoning for souterrians.

As you’ll have seen in my Rousay story, I wonder if the little side chamber, at TaversoeTuick, is an initiation place, too?  I think it is, no, let’s go for it, I feel that it is. I felt it, when I was there, I could see it being used, as such, but, I think the feeling is wearing off, a bit, with time.  The feeling from Mine Howe, is still very strong, tho’ it’s longer, since we were there.  Maybe it was more of a big deal, than Taversoe Tuick?  Or in a different way??  I don’t know, they wouldn’t tell me!

Having to go ‘underground’, one way , or another.  You go into the earth, you ‘die’, you emerge.  Stronger? Clearer?

All to do with rites of passage, passing through something, often actually going into the Underworld, to come out, clearer. There are loads of references to this idea, right through time and literature and ‘religions’ and ways of seeing.


Corbelled roof (B Bell)

That’s Mine Howe, as far as I’m concerned.  I can see why they’re so annoyed at all those people, traipsing up and down.  Not what it’s meant to be for, at all.

And most of them, not taking a blind bit of notice, of the place, for what it is – as what it is.  It was, and is, very important, and strict observances were held to, and now, people taking no real notice.  The place, is the place, will always be what it is – but the Spirit of Place, isn’t pleased.

There was something about the initiates having to get washed, when they were down there, but he really was reluctant to let me know much.

Here’s what I sent to Martin :-

That was a good talk yesterday evening, for which, thank you.  As you’re aware, I’m keen on the initiation deep-down idea.  At the beginning of your talk, you mentioned some ideas around….fear, the unknown in the depths, etc.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, that……if folk were placed in those places, for initiation, going deep down, into the land, it also means going deep down into our selves.  Mostly, people live on the surface, in all kinds of  ways, never looking into their own depths, unless presented with a situation in which they pretty much have  to do so, either through conscious, purposeful initiation, or through events in their lives which make them ….look deeper into themselves.  There is a fear, unfortunately. There definitely is a fear, there. We’re human, so we do tend to fear the un-known, and, particularly , the un-known in our selves – our own depths and what can be referred to as ‘darker’ places in our psyche – I wouldn’t want to use that word, myself – what seems ‘dark’ or frightening, often isn’t, at all, it’s just sent to …..make us look harder.

Here’s a poem by the Sufi mystic, Rumi:-

This being human is a guest house,
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness
comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door, laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from the beyond.

How many stories are there, of the journey through the Underworld, to emerge with…… of one kind or another.  There are lots of them!  We still remember, somewhere inside us, how much this used to matter, and still does matter, whether the majority are aware of it, or not.  It’s there in our memory, somewhere.

So, deep down, into the land, in the earth, into the caves and deep places, to connect with …the deep down in our selves.  And it is difficult – it isn’t easy or comfortable, we have to be ready to go there.  But, goodness me, it’s ‘worth it’ ( if that’s the right way to put it).  After going into those depths, we come through, clearer and stronger, and more able to help others, to go there, too, and to help to see what situations are, more clearly …..all sorts of things.  It’s not an easy way by any means, and those who try, when not ready, may go crazy – or die.  Also, the people who over-see these things, have to judge rightly, whether the person is ready, and strong enough to take it.  If they make a mistake about that, too many times, the people will lose faith in them, and in their abilities.

Oh dear, I am rambling! I just wanted to say….that I have had the idea of those places being for initiation, for years, but, I hadn’t, for some reason, connected  it to the depths in our selves, and how those things are linked.  So, thanks for that, Martin!

The other thing you mentioned, which I took to was…..about the grain. I’d always thought that the storage idea didn’t work, either.  Doesn’t make sense, for lots of reasons, mould being one of them!  but… you mentioned….There’s a harvest, take some of the grain, down into ground, but not planted – where it will wait, between lives, until it’s woken again, when ready.  Same with the initiate.  Before a person ‘wakes up’, they have one life, one way of being. Then, they are between lives, when they are approaching being  ready, during initiation ( in whatever form that takes), and then, afterwards, too, as we are always learning.  So, the grain, is between lives beneath the earth, and the person, is between lives, when going through the process of initiation – however long that takes.  Another good idea/interpretation, Martin!

I hadn’t written down my ‘Mine Howe experience until after your talk, and I’m sending it to you now, because of the talk last night, and because of what the Irish would call “the day that’s in it” – I just watched the eclipse – Whoooo-hoooo!

One more thing….have you read ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner?  Bet you have!  “Bull can bide, while folks forget.”

Have you ever been into The Gloup? In Deerness?  You’re on the water, and under the earth, at the same time – Whooooo-Hoooo!

The Gloup Deerness

The Gloup Deerness (B Bell)



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14 replies »

    • Hello Zara – the present owners allow women! Encourage everyone – it’s part of how they make a living!
      And plenty of women go in there – maybe some others don’t. I was just, definitely, halted – and the reasons given, are as I’ve written.
      I think it’s fair enough – there will have been places which were specifically for women – either for initiation, or just – for women, possibly birthing chambers were ‘women only’? That’s been true until relatively recently – the mid-wives were the only folk allowed at a birth – and they were female! Not so now.
      I risk censure for suggesting it, these days, but….we just are two different kinds of critter – different ways of being, different biology and even, I believe, different use of senses. That’s just my view. I applaud this difference. It’s wrong when a woman does the same work as a man, but doesn’t get paid or promoted as much. It’s wrong if a man isn’t accepted to do certain jobs – as they’re seen as ‘women’s work’. That aspect, is when it goes awry. The big, main difference of what we are as male and female – is a necessary difference and a wonderful difference. To quote Prince “Why don’t you let a woman be a woman, and a man, be a man?” This is all just my way of seeing or feeling about it – it is a hugely complicated issue – personally, I wonder if I have a vaguely masculine turn of mind, as I have little inclination to take part in the gathering together and exchanging empty words, which many women appear to like to do, over ‘a coffee’. I know – grouchy old bat.
      Why do so many folk feel such a strong need to go through the complicated, uncomfortable procedures of changing gender, if it didn’t matter so very, very much?
      Anyway – back then, I got the ide that that place was for men, well, older boys, in fact, not women. Other places would be for women. I very much feel, and have felt since I first went there, that Newgrange was/is a place for/of women.
      No harm in difference – great good and great fun can come from difference.
      As an aside, and it wasn’t because I’m female. I also can’t enter West Kennet Long Barrow. The first time I went there – with no re-conceptions, I was stopped, dead at the entrance. A horrible feeling of death and darkness. I didn’t want to go in anyway, with it feeling like that. I’ve ‘tried’ again since – still get blocked. No idea why – but I don’t want to go in anyway, as it gives off something truly horrid.
      Funny old world.
      I’m very pleased you like my writing – it’s always good to find that someone does.

  1. I’ve recently been told that Mine Howe is now closed to the public – not just for the winter, I mean, closed. This is a great shame. I realise that it’s private property, and so, the owner can use it as they see fit, but….it is a significant, and unique site. If it isn’t cared for, it might deteriorate. A real shame.

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