19 Nov 2009

The enduring mystery of the Farr Stone

Scotland is one of those places where it is worth travelling a long distance for a piece of stone. The curving spine of an old wall, the crumbling nave of an ancient kirk, and the fading, interlocking knots chiselled by hand hundreds of years ago.

In the north of Scotland near the crofting village of Bettyhill, sits the old Farr Church, which now houses the Strathnaver Museum. The graveyard surrounding the church would not look to be anything special, except for one giant, weathered monument jutting from the ground.

Six feet high and thought to date from around the 10th century, The Farr Stone is one of the best early examples of Celtic art. So far I have found very little information about the stone, which is still remarkably detailed despite enduring centuries of a harsh northern climate. I regret not having gone into the museum to ask more, but at the time I just wanted to stand next to something so very old, and wonder.

I don’t know whose grave the stone would have marked or what that person did to deserve such an intricate work. You can still see at the bottom of the cross, two creatures that look like swans, their necks entwined.

It has been so long, this stone stands as a mark to a growing sense of secrecy. The surrounding countryside is rough and beautiful, with remains of early villages interspersed with sandy beaches and dramatic views towards the estuary of the River Naver. The museum is dedicated to keeping alive the stories of the early crofters and how they were affected by the clearances. All I can think of are the ghosts of a man's warm hands against this rock, his fingers moving through the grooves he had carved.

Despite its lonely stature and isolated placement, the stone is not without its very alert and suspicious guards, who wander the grounds pretending to examine the lawn. One thing is certain; if they have solved the mystery, they don't seem interested in sharing.

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