Dunino parish church, in Scotland, has a secret that not many people know. Camouflaged by the gravestones in the churchyard is a pagan alter. You’ll know which stone it is because it’s the one covered in coins – gifts from local pagans. If you look carefully at the nearest gravestone you’ll see the face of the Guardian watching the alter. Beware, it is considered extremely unlucky to remove these offerings which must fall from the stone by the action of nature in the form of wind, rain, and the growth of plants. The presence of the alter hints that this was once an ancient site of worship predating Christianity and that if you know where to look, there’s much more to discover.
Beyond the churchyard and hidden by trees is a narrow rocky gulley where you’ll find the Dunino Den – the secret temple of ancient druids and modern pagans alike. The area is said to be protected by nature spirits, often called faeries, and many a person has had unusual experiences when visiting. There’s no doubt that it has a definite supernatural atmosphere.
The first feature you’ll see as you approach from the church is a tall outcrop of dark mossy rock with a flat surface that rises above the gully and the stream. Hand cut into the stone is a roughly square well or ‘water mirror’. Legend has it that the small pool was originally for catching blood from sacrifices made to the ancient gods although there is no actual evidence of this.
Just beyond the Druid’s Well is a narrow set of stairs carved deep into the rock that angle down to the stream and the open-air temple of the Druids. These steps are uneven, slippery and, as this is a natural historic site, there are no handrails or other means of keeping your balance. People who slip on this stairs risk serious injury and legend has it that if you do slip it’s the Dens way of warning you to go back.
At the bottom of the stairs is an open space flanked by trees and rocks and decorated with Celtic and pagan symbols. Most striking is the druids face, some say a green man, that overlooks the den.
A large Celtic wheelhead cross is carved into the wall along with other Celtic symbols suggesting that the site became a fusion point for early Christians and traditional pagans. Early missionaries were infamous for taking over ancient religious sites and repurposing them for their own religion. The nearby proximity of the church is a perfect example. The style of the engraving suggests that it could be as old as 1000 years, although it is likely hat it has been recut at least once in more modern times – possibly 250 years ago.
In the centre of the den, a tree trunk has been turned upside down and fixed in the soil to form an offering post which has been decorated with ribbons and other votive offerings. Small coins can be found in rocky crevasses and nearby trees and alcoves are decorated with ribbons. Painted seashells are a common site and occasionally you may see ladies’ panties which have been left as a fertility token.
Most mysterious is the belief that the Dunino Den is located at a point where the fabric of time and space is particularly thin. More than a few visitors to the site have claimed to have seen back in time. Many of these perceptions were of ordinary people wearing old fashioned clothing either sitting or walking through the glen – particularly at sunrise or sunset. One visitor claims that he walked down into the den and crossed the stream to the other side where he climbed up the bank. Through the trees he could clearly see a full medieval village with people going about their business. As he walked towards them the village vanished in front of his eyes.
An interesting point is that a village did actually once exist where he claims to have seen it but was pulled down several hundred years earlier.