Nemeton publishing, 2010
Alastair McIntosh - independent scholar, activist, writer, speaker and broadcaster (www.alastairmcintosh.com):
Today, out of our Scots and Irish universities, we are seeing the emergence of new scholarship around the, sìthchean, the ‘faeries’, that is unsurpassed even by the Celtic Revival of a century ago. In 1983 Tocher reported the Vatersay tradition bearer, Nan MacKinnon as having said: ‘Yes, about the fairies and all that . . . They say they are here for a century and away for another century. This is their century away.’ But that interview was in 1981, and that arid century has now turned into its war-ridden grave. What distinguishes Norman Shaw’s Nemeton is not just his creative synthesis of existing research, but the method of first person enquiry by which he undertakes his field work. Through a documentary style that uses real-life magical realism he brings back to life an otherwise near-fossil tradition. Consistent with that Tradition, he demonstrates that ‘faerie’ is more than make-believe. More even than a ‘metaphor for the imagination’ as MacInnes has it, faerie is an ontological, epistemological and perceptual transformation of viewpoint: a second sight or an dà shealladh with the potential, theologically understood, as Irish scholars such as Carey are suggesting, to water seeds of hope. This, that ‘the disillusioned,’ to whom Shaw’s volume is dedicated, might be quickened by the glimpse of Tír na nÓg. Quickened by the vision prelapsarian. Quickened to the quick, I would with Muir suggest, by a rediscovery for our times of ‘one foot in Eden.’ And why? That God might grant to us the power to overcome, and thrust us through the angel’s fiery sword, and melt our stolid egotism in the passion of the Cross, and bring us round thereby - full spiral to the Tree of Life.
Chris Fremantle - producer, researcher, writer (www.ecoartscotland.net):
Norman Shaw’s Nemeton lives up to Alastair McIntosh’s stated approach to writing, “In the absence of 300 milligrams of LSD, how can I trip them out?”
This is gonzo academic writing at its best: faeries, faerie hills (a nemeton is a sacred space in the ancient Celtic religion), second sight, Ossian, standing stones (Callanish in particular), Masons, shit socks, Psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, hazel nuts, the nuts of knowledge, salmon, poaching, patrols for poachers, Christianity, damnation, the second coming, the Jacobites, superquarries, peat, and of course Beuys.
Shaw documents visually and in text a series of journeys to explore specific nemetons, sites in the West Highlands where our world and the dream- or otherworld are connected. These journeys are deeper explorations of previous experiences: Shaw, a son of the Manse, grew up in Lewis and Dingwall amongst other Highland communities. Revisiting sites with the specific objective of researching their existence as meeting points brings him into contact with everyday Highland life as well as with the other world. Cycling, driving and walking through the Highlands in the heat and the rain, in fog and on clear days, sometimes in company and sometimes alone, the journeys are psychological as well as physical explorations.
Nemeton is a rumination on the nature of reality, West Highland reality, which is distinct from other realities, just as Hunter S Thompson’s West Coast reality is an alternate reality. Just imagine three cycles dumped outside a café in a community hall on Harris.
“My bike has a crucifix for handlebars, with a wooden Christ having from it. His legs form the two forks holding the front wheel. Thus Jesus forms a kind of figurehead for the trip. Roineval will be our Holy Mountain, our Calvary. The bike becomes our cross to bear, dragging it round the roads of Harris, whilst simultaneously being steered by Christ, whose humiliation haunts the moors and glens of the Hebrides – a voice crying in the wilderness. A fine twelve-pointed pair of red deer stag’s antlers form Eddie’s handlebars. The deer is a symbol of time and a symbol of love. Time the deer is in the wood… It also symbolises the surplus of deer that roam the sporting estates of the post-clearance highlands; or the horned god Cerrunos, hermes trismegistus – often depicted as Moses with horns (as in Roslin chapel, for instance). Lee’s bicycle is steered by the skull and jawbones of a basking shark. His bike is an appeal to the maritime history of this place, of fish-based economies and a hearkening back to old Atlantis or even Tir Nan Og.” (p.100).
Shaw makes a compelling argument that our post-modern imaginary, breaking down assumptions about cause and effect, the linear narrative, is fundamentally more suited to developing an understanding of dimensions beyond those accessible to the sciences of physics and imperial(ist) histories.
There are contributions from others including Murdo Macdonald, the Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee as well as the artists Eddie Summerton, Lee O’Connor and Tommy Crooks.
At the heart of this book is a rumination on nature and the spiritual. Shaw belongs in the long lineage of researchers into the otherworld or dreamworld of the Scottish Highlands. What is distinctive about this research, done in the context of contemporary visual arts (as broad as that method can be), is the acceptance of the participation of the researcher in the world. Other texts describe things learnt or things found. This text shares experiences of the research. Ironically in this text the spiritual is not other, studied objectively, but rather immanent, studied subjectively. The altered states of this text confront head on the haptic, the liminal, and the full complexity of the Highlands: damnation at the second coming, the schadenfreude of village life where failure takes evicerates incomers. Fear is visceral.
Further thoughts on Norman Shaw’s Nemeton:
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”
This is the infamous advice contained in Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl, and this seems to be another very apt quote to attach to some further thoughts on Nemeton by Norman Shaw, awarded his PhD in 2003.
What is Nemeton? There is a lot of psycho-geography around at the moment (Sinclair, Self, Sebald) and a lot of nature writing (MacFarlane, Mabey and perhaps also Monbiot and McKibben). Nemeton isn’t either exactly. Psycho-geography is usually defined as the exploring the emotional and psychological impacts of geography, about ways of exploring the urban landscape, about rediscovering somewhere and introducing its idiosyncrasies to others. Nemeton is not in the mode of rediscovery, although the knowledge is in some respects lost. Nor is Nemeton concerned with the urban. Rather this is a landscape that is known and inhabited, even if Shaw is transgressing what might be regarded as the perceived norms of communities in the Highlands (although Scotland has regularly been a place where transgressive communities can find refuge under the radar, on the periphery). But Nemeton does explore the emotional and psychological, in particular in relation to the spiritual. Nor is Nemeton nature writing exactly. It’s not a celebration of nature. Rather it’s a celebration of the specific spiritual dimension of the West Highland landscape.
“It was dangerous lunacy, but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edge-work could make an argument for.” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p.80)
Edge-work is a term coined in Fear and Loathing. It captures the spirit of transgression that applies equally to both texts. The edge in question isn’t just the edge of consciousness, it’s also the edge of art, the edge of social acceptability, the edge of sanity, as well as working along the edge of what most people have experienced and then diving into spaces that they haven’t. Many people have been to Calanais, not many to the other stone circles, let alone carrying an electric guitar, modified amplifier, etc. seeking to capture the energies in the stones.
Just as Raoul Duke is searching for the American Dream in the hotels and conferences of Las Vegas,
“Let me explain it to you, let me run it down just briefly if I can… Well, we’re looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area…. Well, we’re here looking for it, ’cause they sent us out here all the way from San Francisco to look for it. That’s why they gave us this white Cadillac, they figure that we could catch up with it in that…” (ibid, 164).
The Lonely Piper is looking for the Dreamworld or Otherworld of the West Highlands, the strange alternate universe of the faeries, of the mother….
The tour involved visits to selected nemetons in the Highlands, the fruits of which constitute the material gathered together in this publication. … As the project developed through accumulated visits and collaborations, a range of sub-themes emerged. Chance encounters during particular collaborations resulted in unforeseen iconoclasms and subversions, the direct result of unplanned happenstances and contingencies. These tangential developments were welcomed, and expanded upon, looping back into the main themes. (Nemeton, p.8)
Nemeton starts with an argument that magic mushrooms must have been used by the Celtic bardic culture to access the dreamworld and enter the faerie land under the faerie hills,
In my mind I was right back there in the doctor’s garden. Not on the surface, but underneath – poking up through that finely cultivated earth like some kind of mutant mushroom.” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p.65)
Talk about a trip… this is gonzo research.
(nemeton publishing, 2010)
A nemeton, from the Scottish Gaelic, is a sacred place, or a place where knowledge is exchanged, a threshold between states.
This book is the result of a tour of Highland nemetons, an interrogation of marginal aspects of the contemporary Highland landscape, away from the mainstream.
Journey into the Celtic Otherworld via a fairy hill at Aberfoyle. across a prehistoric megalithic landscape on the Isle of Lewis, up to a hidden mother-goddess shrine in Perthshire, around a holy mountain on the Isle of Harris, or along a haunted river in Easter Ross.
Did the ancient Celts take psychedelics? What was the role of Freemasonry in the Jacobite rebellion? Who is the Old Woman of the Moors?
Part scholarship, and part fantastical deconstruction, William Blake meets Ossian in this Highland dreamworld. We are led by the Salmon of Wisdom up to the source, or lured into the lair of the Cailleach.
From archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology, to neo-antiquarianism, psychedelia, and hauntology, Nemeton takes you on an intriguing Highland journey.
The book also contains numerous drawings and photographs by the author, providing visual parallels to the text.
Also featuring parallel texts by Murdo Macdonald, The Lonely Piper, and Tommy Crooks, and images by Eddie Summerton, Murdo Macdonald, Lee O’Connor and Tommy Crooks.
‘Nemeton’ was produced as part of the ‘Window to the West’ research project, run jointly betwen the University of Dundee and Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye - exploring visual aspects of contemporary Gaelic culture.
Available now as a limited-edition 338-page publication, published by Nemeton Publishing, for £25
Email Norman Shaw at to order your copy.
All texts by Norman Shaw unless otherwise stated:
The Celtic Motherworld
Into the Otherworld
(Robert Kirk's Fairy Knowe, Aberfoyle:
Highland fairy phenomena)
Holy Golden Road
(Roineval cycle, Isle of Harris:
Hebridean Holy Mountain)
Waking the Cailleach
(Calanais, Isle of Lewis:
The House of the Cailleach
(Glen Lyon, Perthshire:
The Hydro-Electric Ladyland - by The Lonely Piper
(Glen Lyon, Perthshire)
The Field of the Dead
Five Essays into Highland Space - by Murdo Macdonald
A Short Essay on the Darker
Side of the Scottish Highlands - by Tommy Crooks
all the hills shall melt
(A Highland Judgement Day)
Ossian, Blake & Unempire)
(River Conon, Ross-shire:
Seers of the Haunted Stream)
Songs of Salmon
(Salmo Solar Lunar Loner)