Jill Smith’s Zodiac Journey: Taurus

HIORT (St Kilda)

Photo: Mhairi Law

Taurus is an Earth sign. When I was thinking of what site would be appropriate to celebrate it, the place I really wanted seemed impossible. Hiort (St Kilda), the remains of an ancient volcano, is an archipelago of stunning rock formations rising dramatically from the Atlantic 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.

Much has been written about these islands, but the aspect of them which has drawn me back there five times previously is the Tigh na Banaghaisgeach – House of the Female Warrior Woman, or the Amazon’s House.

This lies in Gleann Mòr or Gleann na Banaghaisgeach, on the other side of the main island of Hirte from Village Bay, where people lived until 1930, when they were finally evacuated because their life there had ceased to be viable.

Martin Martin, who visited the archipelago in 1695 and wrote of it in his book A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, spoke to a previous population who were later wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. They told him the legends of the Amazon Woman, and showed him her house. This is one of several formations unique to Gleann Mòr – a type of triple beehive house with strange ‘arms’ protruding from the front creating what might have been a lamb fold.

Another feature of the Gleann was noticed by the artist Keith Payne who, in 1983, when walking on the high side of it in late afternoon, saw a female figure laid out on the land below, her features delineated by walls, some of the strange houses, storage cleits, and many other structures.

On previous visits I have seen her and strongly felt her presence in this powerful glen.

Could we ‘do’ Taurus here? Fruitmarket approved the trip which was subsequently booked with the excellent Kilda Cruises. Could we actually climb up the high central ‘spine’ of Hirte, Mullach Geal, down into Gleann Mòr and the Amazon House, carry out the action and then climb back out of it and down to the awaiting boat in the allotted time of a day trip?

Iain Morrison from Fruitmarket accompanied Mhairi Law and myself on this occasion. The day of our booking came and was calm, clear, dry and glorious – these day trips are often cancelled because of high winds and swell on the ocean.

I am getting older (82 this coming Leo), and every time I make the incredibly steep climb it gets more difficult. This time I had a rucksack heavy with my Taurus objects, and Mhairi carried this for me, as well as all her own photographic equipment. Laboriously we climbed, and finally reached Gleann Mòr, walking carefully down its steep sides to reach the Amazon’s House.

Why here for Taurus? It seems such a place of Earth for me – but maybe also a blending of all the elements – the fire of the volcano that created it, the ocean surrounding it, the air filled with birds, the catching of which was a big part of the livelihood of the inhabitants – but so powerfully a sense of earth. Although the Amazon legend tells of her being a hunter of deer, it was sheep and cows the later people on Hirte used to take to summer pasture in Gleann Mòr.

In the same way as I feel Aries represents all sheep and their products, for me Taurus is about all bovine creatures, especially cows, although there are no longer any cows on St Kilda.

Within the ‘arms’ of the Amazon’s House I laid out my brown dyed Taurus cloth with its single horn. On it I placed two cow horns I had bought, and some hair from a Highland cow owned by one of my neighbours, Steve Mason. She is called Jill, because she was born on my birthday 3 years ago. I placed a horn beaker bought from my son-in-law Luke Scott; a tiny brown jug filled with cow’s milk; photos of my daughter Tiffany and my grand-daughter Alice (both Taureans); a print of Keith Payne’s drawing of the Amazon figure and a deer antler, part of a mobile made and given to me several years ago by someone who bought one of my paintings, thus honouring the deer which the legendary Amazon once hunted. I also laid on it some hawthorn which I had picked from a hedge in Norfolk, near where my daughter Saffron lives. Hawthorn is the tree of this time of year in the Celtic Beth-Luis-Nion tree calendar.

Round my neck I hung a small bull’s head pendant bought years previously by my son Taliesin which I had strung on some brown Harris Tweed wool, and on my wrist I wore a ‘tree of life’ bracelet given to me by my grandsons on this year’s Mothers Day.

The wooden Taurus sign was propped up against a small rock.

It was so calm in this place of raging storms with winds that can reach 180 miles per hour. And enough cloud was high in the sky to make the light perfect for Mhairi’s photographs.

I poured the cows milk from the little jug into the horn beaker and drank some.

I picked up one of the horns and stood as though blowing it as a trumpet, feeling the echoes of the calls of all those cows who had summered in this glen.

I then sat and wrapped round myself a headscarf batik-dyed in Malaysia and given to me by my Taurean daughter Tiffany, who lives and works there.

As I sat there within the fold I felt the presence of all the women who had ever climbed up and over from Village Bay to this glen, twice a day in summer, to milk their cows; and also a deep sadness of place at the emptiness, now that all those people who lived their lives from and as part of this island are so long gone.

I felt very enclosed and nurtured within the ‘arms’ of this ancient dwelling – a tiny human amongst these towering pinnacles of this even more ancient rock.

My action complete, I packed up, and after a beautiful visit to Tobar nam Buaidh (the Well of Virtues), perched precariously on a steep incline down to the bay of this glen, and, Mhairi having gone ahead to take more photos, Iain and I began the long steep climb out of the glen, Iain now carrying my heavy bag as well as his own.

Back just in time for the return boat trip, which took us past many of the other islands and sea-stacs that make up the St Kilda complex, we returned to Leverburgh in Harris, from where we had set out. It felt very ‘mission accomplished’ and a tremendous thing to have achieved. I am so grateful to the weather for being so perfect.

The power of that place is extraordinary.

My thanks to Kilda Cruises, who are such a friendly company to deal with; to Mhairi and Iain for carrying my bag and putting up with my slow climbing; and to Fruitmarket for making this possible.

Jill Smith, April 2024

See also www.jill-smith.co.uk and my book Mother of the Isles.

Main images: Mhairi Law



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