Saturday, February 28, 2015

Scotland has no national anthem

Although Scotland lacks a national anthem, it's not because there's nothing suitable. Instead, the problem is the plethora of choices.

Scotland's anthem is not God Save the Queen

You'll be forgiven for thinking that of course Scotland has a national anthem. It's part of the United Kingdom, so surely the anthem is God Save the Queen. And for Scots who participate in events like the Olympics, as members of the United Kingdom they do indeed use God Save the Queen as an anthem.

But Scotland is a nation within the United Kingdom, as are England and Wales (the question of whether Northern Ireland is a nation, region, province, or something else, is best left for a debate another time). For most events, sporting and otherwise, Scotland presents itself as a nation with an identity distinct from the U.K. They wave the Saltire flag, paint themselves blue, dress in tartans, and sing national songs.

Note the plural. Not just one song. Many songs.

Scottish saltire flag
Scotland's flag, commonly called the Saltire, and sometimes known as St. Andrew's cross.
But they still have the Queen, of course. And it was a Scottish king, James VI (often called James I for English/British history), who became the first ruler of all of Scotland, England, and Wales. So it's not as if the Scots avoid God Save the Queen out of spite for their monarch. Rather, one problem lies in a verse of God Save the Queen, which has an anti-Scottish mien:
                         Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
                         May by thy mighty aid,
                         Victory bring.
                         May he sedition hush,
                         and like a torrent rush,
                         Rebellious Scots to crush,
                         God save The King.
This verse, supposedly coined either during or in the aftermath of the Jacobite revolution of 1744-1745, may be apocryphal. It has never been part of the anthem in wide-spread use. Nonetheless, the Scots hold up the verse as distasteful.

The bigger problem for God Save the Queen as an anthem for Scotland is that damnable England, the auld enemy, already uses the song as its anthem. Ain't no way, no how, the Scots will use the same national anthem as England.

Scotland's government refuses to decide a national anthem

Last week, the Scottish government yet again ruled out recognizing a national anthem.

The Scottish parliament, newly formed in 1999 after devolution from the U.K., first considered and rejected choosing a national anthem in 2004, after its lawyers determined it was an issue for the Scottish government and not for the U.K. parliament. The issue came up again in 2006 and was tabled without debate.

Recently, a public petition was sent to the Scottish Parliamentary Petitions Committee seeking the use of a particular song, Flower of Scotland, as Scotland's national anthem. The committee asked the Scottish Football Association for its input on the matter. The association polled its members. More than 12,600 members responded, with only about 40% supporting Flower of Scotland, the rest supporting other tunes. However, on social media, more than 35,000 fans responded within 48 hours, and roughly 65% supported Flower of Scotland.

All told, Flower of Scotland received a narrow majority of support, but the polling was hardly scientific. Why only football supporters? Is the group of overwhelmingly adult men a good proxy for the electorate? How about rugby supporters? Or curling? Or, just for the heck of it, non-sports fans? In any case, previous polls on a broader cross-section of the populace have shown Flower of Scotland enjoys only plurality support, around 40%.

The government seized on the underwhelming support in the football supporters poll. According to a government spokeswoman: “A national anthem is an important part of a nation’s culture and heritage. Any choice should have wide public support. It is clear that different songs or anthems are enthusiastically adopted at different sporting occasions, but that is not the same as a country or a nation determining to have a single designated song or anthem to the exclusion of all others. The government currently has no plans to designate a national anthem and any such move would require wider political support.” Thus, for the third time in just over a decade, Scotland's parliament has declined to decide the matter.

In other words, on this issue the Scottish government will be leading from behind. Until the public as a whole coalesces around one song as its choice, the government will make no move.

National anthem options

What song, then, does Scotland use when it's anthem time?

          Flower of Scotland

If there's a leading contender for Scotland's national anthem, this tune is it. For the most part, at major sporting events — whether football, rugby, or the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow Flower of Scotland gets the nod.

Interestingly, the song is fairly recent. Written in 1967 by a Scottish folk singer and his group, The Corries, the tune was adopted by Scotland's national rugby team in 1974 as its unofficial anthem. In 1997, the national football team followed suit.

While there may be a performer leading the song, the crowd usually joins in full-throatedly:

Flower of Scotland commemorates Scotland's victory over the English in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. England had conquered Scotland in 1304 under king Edward I ("Hammer of the Scots"). Two years later Scotland revolted, led by their revered Robert the Bruce. With victory in the Battle of Bannockburn over Edward II, the Scots regained their independence from England.

For you musicians out there, the tune is not in a major or minor key, but rather mixolydian mode. Typically, only the first and third verses are sung for the anthem:

                          1.       O Flower of Scotland,
                                   When will we see
                                   Your like again,
                                   That fought and died for,
                                   Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
                                   And stood against him,
                                   Proud Edward's Army,
                                   And sent him homeward,
                                   To think again.

3.       Those days are past now,
                                   And in the past
                                   they must remain,
                                   But we can still rise now,
                                   And be the nation again,
                                   That stood against him,
                                   Proud Edward's Army,
                                   And sent him homeward,
                                   To think again. 

          Scotland the Brave

For those who live outside Scotland, there's one tune which most folks recognize as quintessentially Scottish. Called Scotland the Brave, it's played by pipe bands around the world, especially in former British colonies and Commonwealth nations. My guess is that Scotland the Brave is the most well-known bagpipe music of all:


The glaring problem, however, is the song isn't very good for singing. Humming, perhaps. But not singing. Moreover, the lyrics are a problem. The tune was written toward the beginning of the 20th century, while the lyrics were not written until 1950. And those lyrics, unfortunately, aren't any good. At all. Consequently, it's a tune that needs a piper, or a pipe band, which makes regular performances more challenging.

Scotland the Brave earns roughly 30% of the popular vote for a national anthem, but I doubt it'll ever get a majority.

          Highland Cathedral

A somewhat distant contender, with roughly 15% support, is Highland Cathedral. A bagpipe tune like Scotland the Brave, it has a similar difficulty in that there aren't really any usable lyrics. It is, however, an easier song to sing (usually wordlessly) or hum.

But Highland Cathedral was written by some Germans in 1982, which is hardly the profile of a Scottish national anthem. A nice tune, for sure. Sounds like it should be in a movie. But a national anthem for Scotland? Unlikely.


The recent poll of Scottish football fans revealed that Caledonia was second in popularity behind only Flower of Scotland. Originally a 1977 folk song, Caledonia became popular after it was used in a 1990 beer commercial for Tennent's lager. Now, the tune is covered regularly by Scottish singers and bands. Interestingly, Caledonia hasn't gotten much support in earlier polls for a national anthem. Is it just a coincidence that the Scottish football fans have picked a song made popular by a beer commercial?

Other choices for national anthem

There are some other national anthem contenders, but they get little support. A few folks trot out songs/poems by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, most particularly Auld Lang Syne. Everyone knows the tune, and it's sung in Scotland at more than just New Year's Eve. But in some ways Auld Lang Syne has gone out to the world as a global anthem, and it may not feel quite appropriate to claw back as Scotland's national anthem.

Others contend — I'm not quite sure if they're serious — the national anthem should be I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. I kid you not, this 1990s pop tune had "strong support" as the third most-popular song in the Scottish football fans poll.

It's catchy, for sure. And the Scots love singing it when celebrating goals at matches or after wins in sporting events. But as a national anthem? Wowsers.

They would, however, win the award for most awesomely catchy national anthem.

Too many choices?

As I noted at the top, Scotland's problem is not that it has no national anthem. Rather, it has too many unofficial anthems to choose from.

It's a nation which struggles with big decisions. For centuries they warred amongst themselves, clan against clan. They were riven by the Catholic / Protestant divide. They joined Great Britain only under duress. They agonized last year during the debate about independence from the U.K.

Will they ever decide on a national anthem?

Don't hold your breath.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Scenes in the snow

Ski lift at Powderhorn, in Colorado

Do you remember the joy of snow?

When you were genuinely excited by the stuff? The untouched canvas of white? The prospect of no school, sledding, building forts, the warmth of hot cocoa after hours outside? Of learning how to throw a snowball? When even the job of shoveling was fun instead of a chore?

Jackson throws a snowball at Kate
Jackson begins his barrage.
Glasgow doesn't get much snow. Although it sits at a latitude slightly north of Moscow, Glasgow's winters are roughly twice as warm. Its relative warmth, and lack of snow, stems primarily from the wonders of the Gulf Stream.

Over the last several years, we've had only rare chances to enjoy snow. Our previous home, in Raleigh, got very little snow. {Ed.'s note: Although now that you've left, they've gotten a ton of snow this winter.} And our first winter in Glasgow had a few snow showers but no accumulation on the ground. Our three year old, Jackson, saw snow when he was an infant but had no memory of it.
Sledding in Colorado
Sledding with cousins Macie and Garrick.

Le sigh.

Consequently, during our Colorado trip, we were excited for his first chance to play in the snow. We made sure he spent ample time outdoors, whether sledding, skiing (his first lessons), or simply playing and making snowmen. Jackson's excitement for snow rekindled some of my own.

First ski lesson
Jackson's first ski lesson.
And then, upon our return to Glasgow, we lucked into not one but two snowfalls. Just an inch or two of accumulation each time, but enough to keep the wee one happy and occupied.

Snow in Glasgow
Our first real snow in Glasgow!
The joy for snow has captured our hearts this winter. Here are some of our snowy images:

Snowy hill around Loch Lomond
Snow in the hills around Loch Lomond in western Scotland.
Hiking to Auchineden Hill
Hiking to top of Auchineden Hill for the view shown in the photo above.
Rocky Mountain mule deer
This doe, a Rocky Mountain mule deer, wandered past the backyard of Grammar's house in Colorado.
Swinging in the snow
Not only Jackson had fun playing in the snow.
Mountain bird
Anybody know what kind of bird this is? I don't. But we spent several minutes examining each other.
Kate and Brian on the slopes in Powderhorn
A selfie by Kate as we skied in Powderhorn, Colorado.
Kate and Jackson skiing with hula hoop
Jackson on the slopes with Kate.
Cows in the snow
Cows in the snow.
Trucks in the snow
Trucks in the snow.
Sunset in western Colorado
Rocky Mountain sunset.
Western bluebird in Colorado
Winter colors.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Exposure: Michelangelo's Pietà

One of the world's greatest sculptures — perhaps the greatest sculpture — was attacked in 1972 by a mentally disturbed Hungarian. With twelve blows of a hammer, the man knocked more than 100 fragments off the statue, including an arm, an eyelid, and a nose.

Should the sculpture be left in its newly marred condition? Or repaired, but with visible marks indicating the damaged pieces? In the early 1700s, four of the fingers had accidentally broken off when the statue was moved. Although restored in 1736, scholars still argue about whether the restorer placed the fingers exactly as they had been, or if he slightly tweaked their position for a more rhetorical and dramatic pose.

Neither option suited the Vatican. This masterpiece, displayed in St. Peter's Basilica for centuries, had to be restored as closely as possible to the original. It was the crowning sculptural achievement of a sculptor unsurpassed by any other: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He had described the block of Carrara marble as the most "perfect" he ever used. Of his many sculptures, Michelangelo devoted more time fine-tuning and polishing it than all the rest.

Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
Michelangelo's Pietà sits in a side chapel within St. Peter's Basilica, in the Vatican City.
The Pietà was, in fact, the only sculpture that Michelangelo ever signed.

As the oft-repeated story goes, Michelangelo had completed the sculpture and one morning was admiring it in the mausoleum where it first had been displayed. While there, Michelangelo had:

     . . . observed a number of Lombards who were praising it loudly. One of them asked another the
     name of the sculptor, and he replied, "Our hunchback of Milan." Michelangelo said nothing, but
     he resented the injustice of having his work attributed to another, and that night he shut himself
     in the chapel with a light and his chisels and carved his name on it.

               Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,
                    from Cimabue to Our Times (first published in 1550)

It is a bogus story. While Vasari was one of the first art historians, he is notable also for his fictitious and invented anecdotes. Michelangelo had sculpted the sash or band across the Virgin Mary's chest from the outset. The sash bears no relation to her clothing. Its sole purpose is to display a carved inscription stating "Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this."

Vasari, however, was correct on other points. He opines that the Pietà "displays the utmost limits of sculpture." Indeed, the folds and drapery of the clothes are unequalled. Mary's headdress is impossibly thin. The hair, musculature, even veins and arteries of the body of the dead Jesus are perfect. The composition has layers of subtle triangular structure, such as from the base to the top of Mary's head, or the triangles created by Jesus's body laying across Mary. And even in recline, Jesus's body maintains the classic contrapposto form.

One structural element which can be seen, but not unseen, is the immense size disparity between the Virgin Mary and Jesus. If the two figures were standing, Mary would tower several feet in height above Jesus. However, if the figures had been of ordinary size, Mary would have struggled to hold Jesus's body. Michelangelo worked to conceal Mary's size beneath the voluminous folds of fabric, as well as with her own reclined posture.

Injured Pietà
Injured Pietà. (Image from Vatican, reproduced by Reuters.)
To repair the magnificent Pietà, the Vatican settled on a process called "integral restoration." They wanted to avoid moving the statue, which might cause it further damage, so they built a laboratory around the statue. Studying the sculpture in situ, and with the help of photographs of the pre-damaged work, scientists and sculptors spent more than five months analyzing each of the more than 100 fragments and putting them back together. Then, with a combination of invisible glue and a powder made from the same type of Carrara marble, they painstakingly reattached the broken pieces. Ten months after the attack, the Pietà was back on display. The result was a restored sculpture with subtle lines showing the reattached pieces.

Restored Pietà, with restoration lines visible on nose and left eyelid
The reattached nose and fragment of left eyelid are subtly visible.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian attacker, Laszlo Toth, had been hospitalized for insanity. Prior to attacking the Pietà he had moved from Australia to Italy, knowing no Italian, and had repeatedly sent letters seeking to meet the current pope, Paul VI. When attacking the Pietà, Laszlo had yelled "I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!" After two years of hospitalization, he was released and immediately deported back to Australia. He then lived in a nursing home until his death in 2012.

As for the Pietà, which Vasari described as a "miracle that a once shapeless stone should assume a form that Nature with difficulty produces in flesh," it still resides within the same chapel inside St. Peter's Basilica. Now, however, it rests behind a wall of bulletproof glass, with only the front of the sculpture on display.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lift the alcohol ban at Scotland's football matches?

Ever since a large-scale riot following the Scottish Cup final in 1980, the sale of alcohol at football matches in Scotland has been banned.

And now, thirty-five years after the riot, Scotland is pondering whether to lift the alcohol ban.

The ban came as a reaction to a clash between the supporters of two Glaswegian football teams, Celtic and Rangers. The two clubs are by far the dominant teams in Scotland, having been hated rivals since the late 1800s. Called the "Old Firm," the rivalry has been as heated as any rivalry in football in the world, or indeed of any sport. Traditionally, the Celtic supporters are Catholic, with many of their fans Irish immigrants to Scotland; Ranger supporters are Protestant and with more native Scots as fans. Historically, the Celtic supporters leaned politically left while Rangers supporters leaned right. And Celtic fans often supported Northern Ireland leaving the U.K. and joining the Republic of Ireland (and, to some extent, the terrorist activities of the I.R.A.), while Rangers fans generally supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the U.K. and pro-Union forces.

Celtic Park in Glasgow
Celtic Park in Glasgow, known to supporters as "Paradise."
Clashes between the fans are frequent. Sometimes it's purely vocal shouting matches, or minor vandalism. At other times, however, the clashes escalate to violence, from throwing objects to individual skirmishes to gang fights. Old Firm matches have strongly correlated to reports of sectarian violence in Glasgow. Violent crimes, and even domestic abuse, typically increase on Old Firm match days.

Many of these demographic, religious, political, and social differences between the teams and their fans have lessened, or even disappeared entirely. The violence has greatly receded. It helps a bit that Rangers have gone into a tailspin of bad management, falling out of Scotland's top league and thus making Old Firm matches quite rare. Nevertheless, animosity is still strong, and it would be a mistake to believe that bad seeds couldn't rile up a serious conflict.

{Ed.'s note: Two notes for our 'Murican readers. (1) When we refer to "football," that's what you call soccer. (2) "Celtic" is pronounced sell-tick, just like the Boston Celtics. Anything else in Britain that is written "celtic" is pronounced with a hard "c" to sound like kell-tick.}

The 1980 Scottish Cup final was held in Hampden Park, the national stadium for Scottish football. Celtic won 1-0, in overtime. After the game, supporters of both teams climbed a fence around the pitch and entered the field, tossing bottles and cans, taking swings and kicks, and so on. A general melee broke out. Although a large contingent of police were on hand for the game, the vast majority were stationed outside the stadium to prevent clashes as the supporters departed; no one anticipated a large-scale fight on the pitch. A dozen mounted police dashed back and forth to try to regain order. The battle raged for quite a while.

Ultimately, the police made more than 200 arrests in and around Hampden Park.

The U.K. parliament — at the time, there was no Scottish parliament — instituted a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages within all Scottish sports grounds. Thirty-five years later, the ban remains in place for all football matches. Why change it now?

Several reasons. First, the alcohol ban was lifted in 2007 for international rugby matches, and then extended to other rugby matches generally. Both football and rugby have their boisterous fans, but only football fans are banned from drinking at matches.

Second, alcohol can be consumed at English football matches. Fans can drink before games and at half-time in the stadium, and can drink during the game at certain designated concourses outside the seating area.

Third, alcohol can be served at Scottish football matches. Huh? No joke. Alcohol can be served at Scottish football matches so long as it is in a corporate hospitality suite. In other words, the well-heeled fans can imbibe, while the common folk are banned.

Say what? It cannae be!
You can see how that might not go over well with the hoi polloi.

Scotland is, in fact, in the midst of reconsidering its relationship with public alcohol consumption. Just this past December, Scotland implemented a new drunk-driving law that lowered the permissible blood alcohol content to 0.05. That's less than a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Functionally, the low BAC level works as a ban. Scotland's implementation of the new law brings it in line with almost all of Europe.

Allowing a surge of alcohol consumption at football matches might work at cross-purposes to the new drunk-driving law. Scotland's ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), has in the past rejected lifting the alcohol ban at football matches.

But this is an election year, at least on the national level (i.e., the U.K. parliament). The Labour Party, which last month trailed the SNP by a 52% to 24% margin, recently announced its desire to lift the alcohol ban. Indeed, one of the first pronouncements in December by Labour's new party leader was a suggestion to lift the ban. Last week, the polls showed a lead by SNP of only 41% to 31%.

This past weekend, Labour made a spectacle of polling football fans at matches regarding their thoughts on the matter. There's not much mystery about how the "polling" will go. In previous research by the Scottish Football Association, 62% of football fans favor lifting the ban, and 72% would support small-scale trials of alcohol at a limited number of events. Labour has also said it wants to hold a "summit" on the issue.

Where are the Tories on this matter? Well, they have supported lifting the alcohol ban since 2013. But they're something of a fringe party in Scotland; their announcement got little notice.

The SNP, which controls the Scottish parliament, holds the keys to whether the ban is lifted. Although the U.K. parliament put the ban into place, the power over the ban has devolved to Scotland and its (relatively) new parliament. It seems unlikely the SNP would deliver a win on this issue to their opposition parties.

But that's not the point for Labour. The Scottish parliament does not have an election this year, and are not due for one until May 2016. Instead, the Labour party seeks to make this an issue for the U.K. parliament elections in May 2015, even though the U.K. parliament has no say over this matter. Labour's merely engaged in a political posture aimed at garnering the goodwill of the common man for the elections.

All in all, a lifting of the ban is unlikely for this year. But if the issue helps Labour in the U.K. parliament elections this year, we can expect a return of the issue for the Scottish parliament elections next year.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Searching for the Grail in Glastonbury

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
Do these idyllic abbey ruins hold a mystical power?
Best known nowadays for its annual rock music festival, Glastonbury has been a draw for pilgrims, searchers, and New Age hippies for centuries. They were attracted to three main sites: the Glastonbury Tor; Glastonbury Abbey; and the Chalice Well.

View from the base of the Glastonbury Tor
Standing at the base of Glastonbury Tor.

Glastonbury Tor

The first crowds came in prehistoric times. Early visitors likely were attracted to the Glastonbury Tor, a conical hill jutting skyward from the Somerset plain.

Modern kooks who believe in ley lines — if you believe in ley lines, you're an idiot; please stop reading this blog — assert that the Tor lies at the intersection of two such lines, creating a vortex of great spiritual power. They try to backdate their silly beliefs by claiming prehistoric peoples followed tracks and pathways along spiritual highways running from stone circles here to burial burrows there, to geologic features here and ancient forts there. Many of these nuts add in a dollop of feng shui. Some sprinkle a dash of special magnetic fields, too. Throw in a few pagan goddesses and Celtic myths, and you have a stew of mystical goofiness attracting crystal-wearing bozos. Spring and summer can get crowded on the Tor with Druids, Wiccans, and others holding Beltane and summer solstice ceremonies, as well as "goddess festivals." Neopagans, unite!

{Ed.'s note: Not especially diplomatic of you.}

As I said, these people are kooks.

Ascending the Glastonbury Tor
Jackson and I ascend Glastonbury Tor on a lovely September day.
Nonetheless, prehistoric peoples did visit the Tor. It offers commanding views for miles of terrain. When ancient peoples visited the Tor, it rose above a vast fenland, a massive peninsula towering above brackish water. In later centuries these waters have been drained to create fertile farmland, but a mist still sometimes encircles the base of the hill.

View of the Salisbury Plain from atop Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Tor provides a 360° view of the fertile Somerset fields.
Archeologists have found remains of Iron Age visitors atop the Tor. In later millennia, both Romans and medieval Christians built structures on the hill. After an earthquake in 1275 destroyed a wooden church, it was rebuilt in the 1300s with sandstone. The church stood until it was dismantled in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. One three-story tower from the church remains.

Near the summit of Glastonbury Tor
The final ascent up the Tor, which reaches a height of 518 feet.
Tower from St. Michael's Church on Glastonbury Tor
Only this roofless tower remains of St. Michael's Church at the Tor's summit.

Glastonbury Abbey

While the Tor was the primary draw for prehistoric peoples, in medieval times the main draw was Glastonbury Abbey. Christian monks were in Glastonbury as early as the 600s. A stone church, and then a larger abbey, were built over the succeeding centuries. By the time the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastic center in the kingdom, and getting richer.

At first, the abbey drew many visitors because of its supposed connection to Joseph of Arimathea. According to the Bible, Joseph is the man who donated his own tomb for Jesus, following Jesus' crucifixion. Many legends have attached themselves to Joseph of Arimathea, making two primary assertions: (1) Joseph founded Christianity in Britain; and (2) Joseph was the original bearer of the Holy Grail. The monks at Glastonbury helped propagate indeed, helped invent the myth that Joseph left Judea in 37 A.D. after the death of Jesus and traveled to England, creating the first Christian enclave in Britain at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Thorn
The thorn tree at Glastonbury Abbey.
This supposed connection to Joseph of Arimathea, along with claiming holy relics and bones of numerous British saints, helped make Glastonbury Abbey the foremost pilgrimage site in Britain, drawing many medieval worshipers. Later, in the early 1500s, a further legend arose that Joseph had thrust his staff into the ground in a hill near the abbey, and the staff had grown into a thorn tree. A shoot of that tree on Wearyall Hill (or Wyrral Hill) was planted adjacent to the abbey. While the original thorn tree was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War (1640s), various shoots from the trees have persisted to the present day. In a tradition dating from the early 1600s, a budding twig of the thorn tree is sent to the British monarch every year on Christmas day.

Though Glastonbury rode high into the 12th century, its fortunes turned at the end of the century. First, in 1171, four of king Henry II's knights slaughtered Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope excommunicated Henry and set about canonizing Becket. Suddenly, the English pilgrims abandoned their trips to Glastonbury in favor of the brand new St. Thomas in Canterbury. Glastonbury's fortunes tumbled.

A few years later, in 1184, a fire destroyed the abbey. It was a dark time for Glastonbury; the continuation of the abbey was in peril. And then, lo and behold, the monks declared they had miraculously discovered the bones of St. Dunstan! This saint, who led a revival of English monasticism in the 900s, had been born near Glastonbury and at one time been the abbot of Glastonbury. At the time of the fraudulent discovery of his bones, St. Dunstan was the most popular saint in England. Surely, the pilgrims would flock back to Glastonbury.

Even though Dunstan had eventually become Archbishop of Canterbury, died in Canterbury, and had a shrine with his bones erected in Canterbury, the monks at Glastonbury claimed his bones had been moved from Canterbury in 1012 for protection from a Viking attack. (This spurious claim eventually was disproven in the 1500s when Canterbury opened the shrine and found Dunstan's bones clearly marked inside.) Precisely why those precious relics were taken away from Canterbury and lost and forgotten in Glastonbury, was a question left unanswered by the wily Glastonbury monks.

Though Glastonbury's abbey was slowly rebuilding, the pilgrims did not return. Not even the lure of relics of St. Dunstan — whose popularity quickly was being eclipsed by the new St. Thomas — drew the pilgrims. What now?

Supposed site of graves of King Arthur and Guinevere
Supposed grave site of King Arthur and Guinevere.
The next miraculous discovery, of course. In 1191, the monks claimed to have exhumed the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on the grounds of the abbey. Though the skeletons were relatively bare, the monks claimed they found the bones buried within an enormous hollowed oak trunk. Atop this wooden coffin was an inscribed cross (incongruously, in Latin): Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia ("Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon").


The crowds returned. Building of the new church and abbey at Glastonbury continued steadily. First constructed and consecrated was the Lady Chapel (a British term for a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary), built in the older Romanesque style to honor the previous church.

Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey
The thick walls, rounded window arches, and relatively plain styling are stereotypical of Romanesque buildings.
Archivolt on the Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey
The heavy carving on the archivolt, depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, hinted at the greater opulence within.
Interior of Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey
Preservation work continues inside the Lady Chapel. Around 1500, a crypt — clearly visible here from the rough hewn brickwork was built underneath the Lady Chapel.
1900 lithograph of Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel around 1900 (viewed from the opposite end of the chapel from the photo above). How much more atmospheric and interesting the abbey would be if it were left in this condition! (Lithograph courtesy of Wikipedia.)
As the abbey returned to prominence, its funds grew. The abbey's church became one of England's largest; at 580 feet, it had the longest nave in Britain. Eventually, in 1278, the purported remains of Arthur and Guinevere were re-entombed, but this time at the foot of the church's high altar and under the eye of the current king, Edward I.

Site of tomb for supposed remains of King Arthur and Guinevere
Tomb site of the supposed remains of King Arthur and Guinevere.
By the late 1300s, Glastonbury had returned to preeminence amongst English abbeys, eclipsed only by Westminster Abbey in London. The seekers and the pilgrims came in droves. The abbey added lands and resources and wealth.

In the 1500s, Glastonbury Abbey was still a preeminent Catholic abbey in England. As some of the most powerful fiefdoms in the realm, the collective yearly income of the abbeys was more than four times that of King Henry VIII. Moreover, the abbeys held roughly one-sixth of all the land in England. By the late 1530s, Henry VIII was in the process of divorcing his first wife; breaking with Rome; declaring himself the head of the Church in England; and seeking to diminish the hold of Catholicism across his nation. He was also, notably, cash poor.

And so Henry set about dissolving the monasteries, abbeys, priories, nunneries, and other religious orders throughout England. His ministers started first with the smaller religious centers, sending the monks and nuns to larger abbeys while taking the wealth of the Church for the Crown. But after a year or two, they came for the larger abbeys and nunneries, eventually closing and demolishing hundreds of religious sites across England. This process, now called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, was completed by 1541.

Glastonbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Its abbot, Robert Whiting, had originally supported Henry VIII when the king broke with Rome and made himself the head of the church in England. But Whiting resisted when Henry sought to dissolve Glastonbury. Henry made an example of Whiting as a warning to other monasteries and their abbots. Whiting was forced to drag a plank up the steep Glastonbury Tor, from which he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was placed on a spike at the gate to the abbey precinct, while other pieces of him were sent around England in a grisly reminder of Henry's seriousness of purpose.

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey viewed from the east
The view from the east of the church ruins at Glastonbury Abbey. In the center background is the Lady Chapel, the westernmost end of the church.
Glastonbury's monks were disbursed; many left for foreign soil, such as France, where monasticism was welcome. The abbey's gold and silver were taken for the Crown's treasury. Profits from its landholdings were given as a reward to royal backers, and the abbey site remained in private hands until the 20th century. The tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere was destroyed, though it's unclear what became of their purported remains. Much of the physical structure of the abbey, including its church, was pulled down. "Dressed" (i.e., carved) stones were taken away for uses in other buildings, but much of the remaining stonework remained on site until 1799 when it was sold.

Foundation stones for other buildings of Glastonbury Abbey
The abbey's lands are now part of a 36-acre park. All that remains of other buildings are the foundation stones.
Ruins of refectory undercroft at Glastonbury Abbey
The monks ate in this long refectory (i.e., dining room). The pillars here (now reduced to stubs) supported an undercroft, above which sat the refectory.
Glastonbury Abbey still draws visitors, more than 100,000 per year. Some of these folks come for the history. Others are the same neopagans and New Agers who visit Glastonbury Tor for the ley lines and mystical electromagnetism. On our visit to the abbey, we encountered a group who eventually sat down in a circle and — I am not making this up — started chanting "ooommmmmmmmm":

New Age chanting circle
Chanting circle. Get your crystals recharged here!

Chalice Well

Along with Glastonbury's abbey and tor, a third site provides a trifecta for the pilgrims, seekers, and kooks.

Entry to the Chalice Well
The entry to the Chalice Well.
The Chalice Well, located at the base of Glastonbury Tor, is an ancient natural spring which has been used by locals for several millennia. Fed by a deep aquifer, the spring produces more than 25,000 gallons of water per day, even in droughts. Heavy deposits of iron in the ground lead to oxidation, resulting in a strong reddish or rusty tinge to the water. As with the waters of Bath, people have long believed the water has healing properties. In the 1700s, thousands of people signed affidavits declaring the Chalice Well water had healed them. True assertions, or just a bid for tourism? You decide.

To reach the well, you ascend a gentle slope over a couple of lushly gardened acres. Sounds in the gardens are muted, with gurgling water and hushed seekers.

Path through the gardens to the Chalice Well
The garden path up the hill to the Chalice Well.
After a couple of minutes, at the top of the hill you come to the Chalice Well. Complete with meditating, awed kooks encircling the hole.

Meditating seekers at the Chalice Well
Are you feeling the mystical power? Me neither. Maybe if we all just concentrate on how the Chalice Well symbolizes the receptive feminine goddess and the nearby Tor the thrusting male god?
Remember our man Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly traveled to Glastonbury in 37 A.D.? The Holy Grail carrying, Christianity bringing, thorn tree sprouting dude from the Middle East, who pops over to England? He worked his magic here, too. According to the medieval legend, he hid the Holy Chalice (i.e., Grail) here, at the bottom of the well. The water, which had been clear, instantly turned red, taking on power from the blood of Christ.

Is the Grail still at the bottom of the well? Some kooks and if you believe the Holy Grail is at the bottom of this well in Glastonbury, you are an idiot; please stop reading this blog, you're not welcome here — believe so. They take home bottles of the spring's water. Sometimes they ease into wading pools for purification. Through the year are eight "Wheel of the Year" festival events, on days like the spring and summer solstices. And full moon concerts. And workshops to learn about the "ancient stream of sacred magic." And retreats with a "sacred ceremony 'initiation to the waters of Avalon' in the sacred White spring." And so on.

Cover of the Chalice Well
Well cover: interlocking circles; foliage to represent the Glastonbury Thorn; and is that a sword piercing the middle, in reference to King Arthur's mighty Excalibur?
I'm all for diversity of belief. Although I'm an agnostic myself, I don't begrudge the world's religions. But c'mon, man. Some of this stuff is just goofy.

{Ed.'s note: Besides, we all know the Holy Grail is hidden in Rosslyn Chapel, or is really the blood of the direct descendents of Jesus as described in the Da Vinci Code, or it's a simple wooden cup buried in the rubble as at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.}


Spring flows from a lion's head fountain
Fill up your Nalgene bottle here at the Lion's Head fountain, where the spring water first flows from Mother Earth.
Waterfall and channel of the spring water
The water flows down from the Lion's Head fountain, above and below ground, down waterfalls and through channels and into pools.
We paused to fill up Jackson's sippy cup. And took a few slurps ourselves. 'Cause you never know. Amiright? Maybe now we'll live forever.

Groovy, babe!

Eventually, the water flows down to the bottom of the hill into a Seven Bowls Flow Form which drains into a vesica piscis pool. I mean, what else? It's gotta be that.

Seven bowls flow form and vesica piscis pool
Once the water reaches the Seven Bowls flow form and vesica piscis pool, is it still iron-tinged? Or just dirty?
And then a final channel trickles out a bit of the mystical water outside the garden walls, for use by passersby when the well and gardens are closed.

Just in case you need to top up your everlasting life juice.