Merlin Wild Foraging Quest – A great day out in the rain!

At the end of a long, single track road lay the barn that was to be our place of meeting: a singular structure poised in the midst of a dramatically contoured landscape. The enigmatic Devil’s Beef Tub sat to our west, the mountainous craig of The Skirtle lay just ahead and the Broad valley opened to the east. As the sky marked our arrival with the first of what would become a succession of ferocious downpours, the group of participants gathered into the shelter of the barn to begin the ‘Merlin Foraging Quest.’

Due to an unfortunate accident, Quest organiser Jan Hogarth, was unable to attend. Jan knows the links with the Merlin history and hoped to connect this with the ecology and foraging. The walk was repositioned to explore foraging within the context of this environment, and for this our facilitator was ecologist and Borders Trust coordinator, Ali Murfitt. Under the sound of heavy rain pelting down on the barn roof, we made our introductions with each other as a group. We were a composite of colourful variety: botanists, students and educators; a storyteller and a woodsman- each with a different level of foraging experience, but all united in the quest to discover more about the edibility of this landscape. With a scattering of Merlin inspirations and knowledge spread across the group, we resolved to allude to the magical one wherever possible.

Through Ali’s introduction, the landscape which we were to explore was placed within the context of it’s relationship with Borders Trust. Corehead Farm was bought by the trust in 2009, with the vision for a community-engaged, sustainable project integrating restoration of native woodlands, wetlands and heathlands with a farm operating on organic principles. Ali admitted that it was at times difficult to reconcile these distinct needs of habitat restoration and sheep farming, yet- if successful- the unlikely marriage of the two could provide a way forward in re-imagining land use within the Scottish uplands.

Suddenly the rain stopped and so, seizing the window of opportunity, our group bounded out into the landscape, heading east- towards a valley which Ali assured us, was much more interesting than that of the iconic Devil’s Beef Tub. Heading through the farmland pasture, Ali drew our attention to the predominance of yellow rattle; a native wild flower now much in decline, which has the ecological advantage of being semi parasitic towards grasses, so opening the way for greater biodiversity within pasture. Although not edible (some sources indicate a medicinal use for treatments of the eye), the plant has been used as a dye- reminding us of the multitudinous facets of usage made possible by the plant kingdom. Although the pasture was still predominantly grass, perhaps over time the yellow rattle could create space that would allow for an increased presence of the pignuts, plantain and red clover which we found speckled throughout the pasture. Ali recommended the making of Red Clover Vinegar- made by simply infusing the flowers within apple cider vinegar in order for the clover to release it’s flavour- and calcium rich properties- into the vinegar which is then strained, in order to be used within salad dressing, or to add a dash to hot water to be enjoyed as a tonic.

The pignuts brought us into relation with a legal dimension of foraging: the law states that no plant should be dug out of the ground without permission from the landowner. Whilst ultimately created in order to protect property rights, the law would also go some way towards ensuring conservation. This stimulated a group discussion surrounding the dynamic between foraging and conservation. Named pignuts for good reason, perhaps the very success of the plant was dependent to some degree on the activity of the wild boar digging up the tasty tubers. In doing so, the boars perhaps prepared the ground for the seeds to fall, and a new plant to germinate. In the absence of wild boar, perhaps human foragers can fulfil a particular function through careful selection of a site in which to forage for pignuts- or ‘fairy tatties’ as they are colloquially known as in Scotland. As a group we could also testify to the suggestion that badgers too would go for these tubers- leading to the conclusion that it would only be ethical to forage for them in areas where they grew in great abundance- in addition to having the landowners permission.

Onwards and upwards, we passed through the pasture and come to a planted orchard enclosure. Planted within the realms of a protective deer fence- with wooden stiles inviting walkers into the enclosure- grows an edible hedge of blackthorn, hawthorn, crab apple, cherry and hazel, with a central cluster of young apple and plum trees. The planting was carried out by Borders Trust volunteers and junior rangers, and will grow to become a delightful edible enclave within the landscape. Ali drew our attention to the highest point of the hill, The Skirtle, and directed our gaze to the scattering of wooden boxes, each protecting a planted oak tree. It became apparent that the Borders Trust is planning the restoration of this habitat with a long term vision.

Through the gushing ford and up and over high ground pasture: grasses interspersed with heath bedstraw, tormentil and phagnum moss; the medicinal properties of each were discussed, but a meal they will not provide. Taking shelter under the tree line, we skimmed past the boundary of a small patch of woodland that includes spruce and pine trees, the new tips of which are packed with vitamin C and make a great tea (careful ID needed to avoid poisonous yew & lodgepole pine). We came to a rowan tree and took pause to reflect upon the plentiful lore surrounding this tree. With the wide spread belief that it is unlucky to fell a rowan- and the ubiquity of rowan trees being planted outside a homestead, Ali encouraged us to ponder upon the link between these superstitions and protection of particular species- what better way of a tree being protected than by a belief that it is unlucky to cut it down! We compared notes of the edibility of the berries- the making of rowan jelly to be served with game is widely known, but the berries can also be enjoyable (if a little tart!) as simple compote made by stewing the rowan berries along with other autumnal fruits such as hawthorn and rosehips (removing the hairs first).

We roamed on, entering the main area which has been replanted by Borders Trust. Suddenly the sightline changed: we were surrounded by the short but luscious growth of newly planted alder, birch and hazel. Over the past 8 years, the Trust have planted thousands of trees and the effects are already apparent. An increase in biodiversity is noticeable as our feet push through swathes of sorrel, meadowsweet, foxglove and lousewort. We paused to nibble a succulent leaf of common sorrel, the sour tang providing pleasant refreshment. Ali’s excitement was palpable as she led us down the sloping side of the valley- heading into what she has described as a fragment of the original woodland which once prevailed on this hillside.

Dipping down a steep muddy bank, hanging onto the generous limbs of an enormous ash tree for support, we were transported to a different world where the group reassembled on a level outcrop overlooking a small waterfall. The canopy layer above us was thick with leaf patterns of great diversity, the sound of fast flowing water surrounded us as the Tweedhope Burn traced its way in a curvaceous gush down the glen. Swallows darted upstream into shafts of sunlight that shone luminous through the multiple levels of greenery. Beside us was a mighty hawthorn in full bloom with a richly perfumed scent promising a full fruiting to come. Beyond it stood numerous hazel trees- the ancient Celtic tree of wisdom, offering indication of the sustenance that a feral wanderer such as Merlin must have depended upon. We stood quietly for a moment, immersed in the atmosphere of this precious fragment of ancient woodland. Then we reached for our lunch boxes to meet our own immediate needs for sustenance. For now, these hills may not be able to support the dietary needs of our group, but it is apparent that through the vision of Borders Trust, restoration of this hillside will gradually lead to increased biodiversity- with the fortuitous side effect of a greater abundance of edible and medicinal species.

Leaving the ancient woodland behind us, we retraced our path down the hill- this timing pausing at the ridged remains of the Iron Age settlement, Broad Tae. It is a humble reminder that these hills once supported not only the foragings of Merlin, but once supported a whole population who presumably effectively combined farming alongside the gathering and utilisation of wild plants and herbs. As we walked back past the planted orchard, through the meadow and back to the farm, I looked behind us to the replanted hill from which we came. With time, those contrasting sections of planted hillside and the remaining fragments of ancient woodland will merge and enmesh together to become one continuous restored habitat: a magic of which Merlin would surely support.

Thanks to Amy Clarkson for writing this Blog – Amy is a Glasgow University student of the Mlitt Environment, Culture and Communication postgraduate course which is taught at the Dumfries campus.

Gathering along the Belinus Line

Gathering along the Belinus Line

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Belinus is the ley line, an energy line on the earth’s surface, that runs from the north to the south of Britain. This energy line is made up of the male and female currents, Bel and Elen. Our quest went from Gretna Green to Langholm; with the help of professional dowser Grahame Gardner and Dr. Jan Hogarth, we explored the development of human gathering places and sacred spaces along this section of the energy line.

Our small group of intrepid winter questers met up in Gretna Green to gather at the Lochmaben Stone for our crash course in dowsing. We bundled up against the rather cold and windy weather that lent a certain mystic atmosphere to the day. We passed out L-shaped dowsing rods, two each, made of brass, set aside any doubts or skepticism, and had unexpectedly good results for a group of raw beginners.

Grahame demonstrated some general dowsing techniques explaining how to focus your thoughts when dowsing for energy or water, to ask your rods questions, and to let them respond. We practiced trying to locate the energy line by asking for the center and then for the edges, walking back and forth across the area where Grahame’s rods responded. After few tries, each of us managed to get a locating response, so moved on to learning about the energy directions. Each line is made up of energy bands that flow in alternating directions. Because there is always an odd number of bands, the direction that more bands flow in, is the overall direction of the energy flow, and in our practice area the energy flowed directly towards the stone we were headed for.


I found that my rods sometimes moved very confidently, and at others, they moved slowly in a halted and jerking response as though they were not impressed with my amateur focus and meandering thoughts wondering if the wind was affecting their movements. We were passed a small cardboard slip with an array of color blocks. We were to use these to see if we could find the color of the line’s energy. Most of the group agreed that the line responded to blue that day, while I confess that I never got the hang of figuring out the line’s color. At least I was much better at distinguishing the direction of flow in the energy bands.

We crossed the fields at Old Graitney farm to what was left of the stone circle here. Most of the stones have been removed or buried, but two remain. One is half buried, embedded in the fence line, and the other sits mostly above the ground a few meters away looking out at the Solway. The Lochmaben stone has been a gathering place throughout history. It is thought to have been a central site for Celtic worship of Mabon, a god of fertility. Armies have assembled, fought, and exchanged prisoners here. Even the energy line currents gather; we watched Grahame use his rod to follow the paths of the two nearby lines as they converge in a node at the stone then return to their paths.


Jan is the group’s expert at finding energy vortexes; her dowsing rods spin in circles whenever she finds them. There is usually an energy vortex over the top of the stones, because of something termed “megalith energy bands.” Earth energy is absorbed into the stone creating seven bands or chakras that flow in opposite directions, five of which are above ground. We used our rods to find the fifth band and place our hands on it. By moving our feet farther away from the stone and slightly bending our knees, we can feel the energy of the fifth band. Grahame said that the energy pushes you off the rock, twisting you in the direction of the energy band. On this rock, I could feel the energy pulsing through my palms up my forearms to just below my elbow, but it did not push me away like it did for others. We tried again at the end of the day at another stone circle. There, I felt the twisting power pull one rock out from under my hands.


The remnants of this stone circle is an ancient one, but as time passes and more people gather at the energy lines, newer structures are layered on top. Our second stop, Half Morton Church House in Chapelknowe was built in the late 18th century just to the North of the Lochmaben stone along the current. In the churchyard, are graves inscribed with reiver family names, border raiders with a long history of turmoil and war, at rest in their place of worship. However, in the fields behind church are the parallel lines of a neolithic cursus, long earthen banks that are some of the oldest monuments in the British Isles. They are easiest to see by aerial photography, but Grahame was able to dowse them from a distance.


We also had a chance encounter with the current owner and resident of the church house. He was happy to talk to us and share the story of how he came to live there. He told us that after a very difficult time in his life, he experienced a calling to convert to Christianity, sell his business and relocate to this church. His story is the latest of people called to this spot throughout time as layer upon layer of gathering places have been built here from 3000 B.C. to the present.


According to Grahame, the male energy current is usually aligned with elevated parts of the landscape while the female energy current is associated with the valleys and low areas of the landscape. The supposed location for the ruins of St. Bride’s Chapel, for the Celtic-British mother goddess, is unusual because it was located on the top of a hill along the feminine current. Unfortunately, here the elevation meant it was the windiest place in our excursion and far too windy to properly dowse; it was impossible to decide if any of the boulders in the field could have been the remains with the energy line running through it. While seeking shelter from the blowing wind, a few of us found a valley where there looked to be a spring, and we decided it could be St. Bride’s Well since our dowsing rods did find some energy there, which was an exciting and unexpected discovery.


Continuing northward, we arrived at the merging of the Black and White Esk. The point where the rivers converge is a traditional gathering place called the Handfasting Haugh. The handfasting celebration was for unmarried people to commit to living with a companion of their choice for one year. After that year was up, they could choose to separate and make a new choice or to continue for life.


Here we were protected from the wind, so we spent a lot of time from the bank practicing dowsing the water’s energy and using the dowsing rods to ask questions which required a very different concentration to dowsing energy lines. While we wandered we wondered together just how the dowsing works. The dowsing rods require concentration so it seems safe to assume that they do not channel the earth’s energy on their own. We wondered if perhaps, people used to be able to recognize and interpret this energy without the use of dowsing rods. Does that mean our bodies can still speak to the earth in a way that our mind has forgotten? So in this way does our body register the energy of the lines and help our hands make micromovements to move the dowsing rods without conscious noticing to tell us what we already know or is it something more mystical and mysterious?


In this place, even the cloudy sky seemed lighter and the gurgling of the two rivers down their paths lent a vibrant serenity to this secluded area, as though the positive energy of generations of companionship ceremonies had permeated the rocks and grown into the trees, grasses, and mosses. Or did that positive energy originate from the line, which drew people to this place for their ceremony?


Snow started to fall as we made our way to Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Center. This center was built on the location of an ancient holy spring along the feminine current, Elen. The temple and its surrounding gardens are peaceful and calm. It is a perfect place to break for tea in the cafe and meditation in the temple. We compared the energy at the river here to the river energies of our last stop. I thought that both places felt serene, however, the Handfasting Haugh was a joyful serenity compared to this quiet serenity covered in a light dusting of snow.


To finish, we backtracked a little to two nearby stone circles, where Grahame taught us how to check for permission before entering a stone circle, an important step because sometimes the energies held by the circle can have negative physiological effects. Around the circles are thin concentric circles of energy, and inside is a convergence of earth energy and water lines, Each circle has multiple water lines flowing inward to a water upwelling with one water line flowing outward


The first circle, the Loupin’ Stanes, is smaller with only 12 stones, only two of which are vertical. The one energy line that intersects this circle goes directly out between those two stones in a straight line to the Girdle Stanes, a much larger circle, half submerged in the river, with 26 stones of the original 45 remaining. This straight path between the two close stone circles has lead to speculation that the two were oriented to lead from one to the other. If this is true, I think it is more likely that the Loupin’ Stanes points toward the Girdle Stanes following the direction of energy flow to where a second energy line crosses Elen directly in the center.

This circle was our final point of gathering, where we wandered about in the snowy dusk exploring with our dowsing rods. Here is where we experienced the earth’s energy move us through the rocks for a second time that day, and although, I could not feel any energy from the fifth band of the third rock that I tried, it was the perfect rock for laying down and resting on. We took turns with the earth’s energy soaking up through our backs instead of twisting us away.


Our path followed Belinus and along that line we found the sacred and spiritual gathering places of the ancient, the modern, and the in-between, sometimes built adjacent and sometimes layered on top of each other. Throughout the world castles, temples, and monuments have been built along these energy paths as people gather there, and we are left to wonder how much was intentional and how much was instinctual. We know that people built their sacred spaces in these areas, but we do not know if building those had an effect in the opposite direction. Does building on the energy line affect the path of the lines as well, like the lines curl and bend around the node of the Lochmaben stone? Ultimately, we are left with the wonderful thought that there is always more to discover.

Blog written by Laura Schrader who is studying “Environment, Culture and Communication” at University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries .

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