Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 2: The Ceremony

When we last left our intrepid adventurers after discovering the rather sad origins of the Cargile clan, they were headed off to the far north in the Orkney Islands – land of Neolithic Scots, Vikings and druids – to renew their vows on their twentieth anniversary.

We flew from Inverness into Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. These islands are as beautiful as they are cold and rugged. The Orkneys are north of Scotland, roughly at the same latitude as southern Alaska. In August you can even see the northern lights. They also have an incredible history and are a rich location for archeologists.

As the “Orcadians” will tell you, if you scratch the surface in the Orkneys, they “bleed” archeology. It seems true. There are an average of about 11 archeological sites per square mile (yes, they measure in miles!). That’s 2000 just on the main island according to one of the historians.

We visited many of the sites and they are incredibly old. The Norsemen (Vikings) visited the islands and settled part of it. The islands were actually a wedding gift from the King of Norway to the King of Scotland in the past. The folks there still see themselves as more Viking in many way than Scottish in fact.

Truly Ancient Ruins

We stayed at the Standing Stones Hotel, which was very close to the Standing Stones of Stenness. This first, simple, stone circle had 12 stones arranged in a circle and is about 5000 years old. Most of the sites we saw were about as old. That’s far older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The stones, along with the other areas I describe below are one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland.

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The Standing Stones of Stenness (and Deb)

The Standing Stones were really a center point for most of the major archeological sites. Form there you could see the Ring of Brodgar (where we had our ceremony), several other individual standing stones, several other stone circles, Maes Howe, a burial mound with the largest collection of Viking runes, and several other ancient villages and sites. And those were the ones that were unearthed. There were many others that people know of there but had not been unearthed yet.

At the hotel, we saw a display by a local jeweler, Aurora jewelers, and unexpectedly saw some rings we instantly liked. So, we went off to find the jeweler’s studio. The rings we saw were designed and made locally in the Orkney’s and they had a series of runes around them which translated to “health and happiness.” In this serendipitous moment we decided to get new wedding rings (Again! Our first time was 10 years ago in Las Vegas). These rings really spoke to where we were and the heritage here. It was fitting.

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Our Runic Rings
Image © Aurora Jewelers

From there we went to the west side of the island to visit Skara Brae. It is one of the oldest villages ever found, dating to the Mesolithic times (though many of the other sites are Neolithic). It’s on the coast and in 1851 a huge storm tore the turf away from the top of this village. The dwellings, like most dwellings in Orkney today, were stone. Inside, the furniture – beds, dressers, etc. – were also stone.

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Interconnecting Passages in Skara Brae 

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A Skara Brae Dwelling

Did you catch the prehistoric dresser in the photo above?

While there we visited the manor of the “laird” who owned the land and who found the site. Deb was in there for maybe 15 minutes and really wanted to leave. I had never seen that before. She said it had a smell, which I wasn’t able to smell, and that it felt “bad.” We found out later from Helen, the woman who married us, that the house is evidently haunted and one of the beds is cursed. She also mentioned that she felt that the house was not right.

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The Haunted Skaill House

I should mention the weather at this point; it plays a big role in what is to come. This entire summer had had really poor weather in Scotland and the Orkneys – cold, rainy, drizzly. Most of the folks we met talked about how uncharacteristically bad it was. In fact, when we got to Scotland, the weather had been better than most of the summer. Still, in the Orkneys, it was very cold and drizzly most of the days. We crossed our fingers that our outdoor ceremony would be nice – or at least reasonable.

In the afternoon, we visited the Ring of Brodgar (isn’t that an amazing name?) with Helen and Mark. They were the couple who have an incredible business presiding over pagan ceremonies – Orkneypaganweddings. We had a “rehearsal” that also involved a ceremony to ask for good weather.

Though cold and drizzly still, the Ring of Brodgar was amazing to behold. It is the 4th (as of a few weeks ago) largest stone circle in Europe and older than almost all of them, including Stonehenge. It had at one time 60 stones in a perfect circle, with specific stones perfectly aligned with north, south, east and west. 27 stones remain. While there, Deb and I picked the stone where we would hold the ceremony.

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The Ring of Brodgar on Rehearsal Day
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

The next day we visited Maeshowe. This was a Neolithic burial tomb. Later, Vikings found it and left a lot of runes. It is the largest collection of Viking runes in the world. Do you know what they say? It’s actually all Viking graffiti. Some of it is really basic and funny, for example, “I am Lars and I wrote this on this high spot.” Some of it is “potty humor” – for example, something about Ingevild, who evidently was a tall woman, having to bend over. The funniest was a line that started on one line of rock and said something like “I am Bjorn and here I write these ru” and then it ran into an opening. But, on the rock above the opening it read “nes.”

A Word on Whiskey

What is Scotland without Scotch? If you are like we were, you might not have a good answer. We came here having never really cared for nor appreciated Scotch. On our trip we decided that we had to learn and so we took every opportunity to learn.

We learned that we really, really, dislike Scotches that are very “peaty” and smoky. These would be ones with descriptions like “burnt rubber”, “turpentine” and “oily rags.” Instead we discovered, not terribly surprisingly, that we liked Scotch from the highlands and particularly from the Orkney Islands. Then we discovered why.

Scotch producers use peat to make the Scotch. Peat forms from vegetation and in most areas it is very woody vegetation. In the Highlands and Orkney, there really aren’t any trees and so there isn’t wood in the peat. It is mostly composed of heather. The resulting Scotches tend to be sweeter, smoother and, at least to us, richer.

Our favorite was Dark Origins, a single malt from Highland Park distillery in the Orkneys. No, it does not have an age. It is a special “expression”, meaning that it is composed of variously-aged years of the same Scotch (so it is still a single malt and not a blend). We learned that, yes, generally the older the better, but occasionally there is an expression that is so good, they will bottle it. This particular one is aged in sherry casks and is named after a tax collector who made Scotch this way in his spare time to assuage the anguish he created with tax collecting. Come by our place for a taste sometime!

A Centuries Old Ceremony in an Ancient Place of Power

The time for our ceremony finally came and we were very excited. It was the fall equinox and nearing the end of the day. We got all dressed up in our wedding clothes. I managed to get all of the bits of my kilt together. Deb looked gorgeous in her dress, of course. As we were getting dressed, we noticed that much of the sky in the distance was blue and the sun was working hard to come out.

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In Our Finery
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

When we got to the Ring of Brodgar, we split up. Each of us took a separate path around the circle, outside the stones. We then came together and walked to our stone where Helen and Mark waited. The ceremony began with a ritual greeting.

Welcome one and all to the Ring of Brodgar, where the sky meets the land, where we are within an island within an island, a microcosm within a macrocosm. May all that takes place within this place be for the good of all and harm to none [sic].

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Our Ceremony Site – In Front of the Dragon’s Tooth
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

Mark circled our stone, stopping at each compass point and appealed to the four elements of air, fire, water and earth to grant us gifts: air to infuse our breath with words of love; fire to will our hearts with passion; water to flood our emotions with feelings of love; and earth to nurture all present.

We then had our handfasting ceremony. If you have seen Braveheart, you have seen one form of the ceremony. We had a cloth about four feet long and two inches wide. Our hands were bound three times and with each binding we made a promise to each other.

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Handfasting, An Ancient Ceremony
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We made our promises, exchanged our new rings, drank mead, and then we kissed. And something amazing happened. This whole time, the weather was getting better. The sky was partly blue and the strong sun was behind a cloud and brightening everything up. We had been thinking the weather ceremony worked. But then, right at the end of the ceremony, when we kissed, the sun broke through the clouds and we kissed in radiant sunlight. It was magical.

Drinking Ceremonial Mead
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We concluded the ceremony by jumping over a besom – essentially a set of twigs and heather bound to a stick. We gave thanks to the elements. And just that quickly, our window of sun started closing. Though it was still there behind a cloud, it was fully out for the most important 5 minutes.

The Besom
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

The Besom Jump
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We walked back around the circle to leave in the sunwise direction (clockwise), enjoying the day and wonderful experience we just had.

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The Bride and Groom
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

Helen and Mark did a fantastic job with the ceremony and all of the details. Mark was our photographer and had some truly amazing shots here as you can see. We owe them a huge thank you for truly making our day special.

Our Lovely Pagan Celebrant Helen
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

20 years. It seems like we just met. Really. We still act like newlyweds J. We are so lucky to have found each other as soulmates. Every day is a new adventure. We’ve found that we don’t need much and we have everything we need. Pura Vida.

PS: Our adventure continues. Stay tuned shortly.

More Photos

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The Standing Stones of Stenness

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The Ring of Brodgar
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

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Deb and Andy

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Wedding Photos
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean