Jill Smith’s Zodiac Journey: Sagittarius
On the Coffin Path by the ‘HAG’ MOUNTAIN
Isle of South Harris
Photo: Mhairi Law.
I chose this place for the Sagittarius action because it has been a very important part of my turning of the Cycle of the Year in the Hebrides since 1986. I have for most of my early years here and for many since, visited this east/west pass across South Harris to celebrate Samhain (October 31st). The outstanding feature here is a bare, rocky hill (West Stocklett) which resembles the figure of an old woman, her head to the left, her outline stark against the sky behind her. For me, she represents the Cailleach – the mother of winter. In many Scottish and Irish legends a being known as the Cailleach Bheure created landscape features and brought on winter, ruling it during the cold, dark months of the year. (See more about her in my book Mother of the Isles). Many people call this hill on Harris the ‘Hag’ mountain as ‘Cailleach’ and ‘Hag’ are similar beings.
The people of this part of Harris originally lived and farmed on the fertile western side of the island, but from 1830 landowners moved them to the east, replacing them with more profitable sheep. On the east there was just rock, with no land to cultivate, so they had to learn to fish. They could not bury their dead in the hard ground, so carried them back across this Coffin Path to the traditional burial grounds in the west. The pass is known as ‘Bealach creag an eòin’ – the pass of the rock of the bird, which I was once told referred to an eagle.
I feel the Hag was over-looking and guarding the spirits of the dead who were carried past her – her ‘children’.
After walking a fair way along the path Mhairi Law and I searched for a suitable place for the action, as I wanted somewhere flat. She suggested a large rock sitting proud amongst the heather. This pleased me, as I feel all hills and mountains up here have risen from the magma and the FIRE which lies beneath us all.
Here I wore my red and yellow dyed Fire outfit, but for the first part of the action put round myself the sparkly black cloth I have used for decades in such performances and currently use as a winter altar cloth for my honouring of midwinter and the Cailleach. It was this cloth I wore in the first part of my spiral ‘Re-Emerging’ performance at Fruitmarket in February 2022.
I laid out one of my red dyed circular cloths – this one with three flames representing the fires and candles which warm and light our way through winter.
Sagittarius is represented in the zodiac as an archer or as a centaur, half-human and half-horse so from a gold bag I had used when I was a judge for the recent 50th anniversary Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World I took out a number objects, not only those honouring the Cailleach and those related to the fire of the Australian desert, but also the horses that have played a part in my life: from a shiny red cloth, the lantern I had used in the Fruitmarket performance; from a red, white and black cloth, objects I connect with Cailleach in my life – a piece of peat and a small length of ancient bog-wood I cut from my peat-banks when I lived on the east of the Isle of Lewis, both thousands of years old. I also placed on the cloth a burnt piece of wood from a Samhain bonfire decades ago, which resembles a standing figure (or one of the Callanish stones); a Cailleach doll made and given to me by Pauline Royce of Glastonbury about 20 years ago; a piece of old, dead heather; and a small figurine of an old woman, given to me long ago by the late Monica Sjöö, which is a replica of an ancient carving. I also placed on the cloth a photograph of my own painting of the Cailleach Bheure. Beside the cloth I laid a blackthorn stick which I had used in many past ceremonies. It represents the ‘club’ with which the Cailleach beats down growth at autumn’s end.
From a silk cloth, batik-dyed by Aboriginal women at the Ernabella Arts centre in Alice Springs, I unfolded objects which also connect me to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory/ Red Heart of Australia, which I visited in 1984 – a circle of Ininti beads strung by women from tribes who live by the Rock and have it as part of their Dreaming; also a pot of red ochre given to me by my Sagittarian, Australian friend, the late Lynne Sinclair Wood, who taught me much and guided me throughout my Australian visit. The red of the Rock with the desert surrounding it encapsulates the energy of Fire.
From a small cloth on which I had long ago batik-dyed the image of the Uffington white horse I unwrapped a hoof-pick given to me in 1984 by the artist Keith Payne at the start of my year-long Gypsy Switch journey which I began with horse and waggon; a small metal figurine of a horse given to me by Lorye Keats Hopper when I left Glastonbury on that same journey, and a metal horse mobile which I have had for many decades. I also placed on the red cloth a horseshoe from my pony Polly, with whom I travelled a large part of that journey.
I lit a red candle in the lantern, glad to have a little real fire for this action.
I then stood and removed the black cloth from my shoulders and from a red sparkly cloth unwrapped a beautiful archer’s bow lent to me for this occasion by my neighbour Trish Marion Bell of Hebrides Craftzing, who is a Sagittarian. The bow was recently re-strung by her husband Johnathan.
I had tied onto an arrow some shiny red and gold fabric flames, as I couldn’t light an actual fiery rag on Trish’s arrow! I had considered using and burning the blackthorn stick instead, but thought that would endanger the bow. In honour of the Sagittarian archer I pulled back the arrow in the bow, representing the fire of the old year becoming the flame of the new year ahead, and new beginnings. It will be 2024 by the time we celebrate Capricorn on the Zodiac Journey. This also references the ceremony a small group of us Gypsy Switch travellers carried out on a verge in the wilds of Berkshire for the winter solstice of 1984, where the king of the old year (Richard Ford) removed his crown (the band from his Christmas cake) and placed it on the head of the king of the new year (my then-baby son Taliesin). Sagittarian Mike Andrews then fired an arrow from the old to the new year.
My once strong arms, now weakened by age and lack of appropriate exercise, found the pulling of the bow very tough, but it felt wonderful, connecting me deeply to Sagittarius in this amazing environment I so deeply love, especially at this time of year with the dark figure of the ‘Hag’ watching over me.
We were blessed by a day with no wind or rain and dynamic contrasting colours such as I never remember seeing here before. The sun shone brilliantly for one part of the action, lighting up both me and the ‘Hag’ and though clouds then covered the sky above us, the black silhouette of the ‘Hag’ stood proud against the blue sky behind her.
We have now completed a third of the Zodiac Journey and one cycle of the four elements. It feels satisfying to have done this in 2023, starting the next in the New Year. These actions and the preparations for them are affecting me profoundly. It is strange to just live each of these in my mind so powerfully for weeks and then suddenly be in the landscape doing it – almost as though it is a dream.
My deep thanks to Trish and Johnathan for the loan of the bow and arrows. It was an honour to use them.
The blessings of winter to you all.
PS. It was only when we had left the Coffin Path, that I learned that Mhairi is a Sagittarian!!
Jill Smith, Isle of Lewis, November 2023.
See also www.jill-smith.co.uk
Main images: Mhairi Law