Marian Green, editor of Quest magazine, and author of many books including A Witch Alone, writes:
I first encountered Druids at their ritual at Stonehenge in the early 1960s. A friend of mine from London had met some of the grove and was invited to join in the Midsummer celebrations. He asked if I would like to go and I did. We all gathered for the coach that was to take us to the stones on the evening before midsummer’s day, as in the pre-motorway days, few people in London had cars. Stopping off at Hartley Wintney for a break some of the Druids went to a nearby oak tree to cut leafy branches for their ritual. During the journey the small band of actual druid members asked if anyone else was willing to participate in the ritual, to make up sufficient numbers. Both my friend and I offered to join in.
We were told as we Journeyed west that there would be three ceremonies, at midnight outside the circle of Stonehenge, then before sunrise at the centre, and again at noon, within the looming pattern of great trilithons. Because I was very young, and people were far more formal than they are today, no one was introduced by name, and when we were given instructions we would follow them to the letter. The druids on the coach were friendly, sharing sandwiches and drinks as we arrived at the carpark.
The Chosen Chief of the Druid Order at that time was still Robert MacGregor-Reid, an imposing man in his long white robe and headdress, and carrying a crook as a symbol of office. Druids were appointed as banner bearers, as a Herald and a Swordbearer. To a complete novice like me this was all absolutely fascinating, and the thought of having to stay up all night was seen as great fun. It was pitch dark when the first procession set off, under a bright and starlit sky. We seemed to walk miles up a rough track until we were mustered into a circle around what, seen in day light, turned out to be a grassy round barrow. The white robed druids took their places and performed a ceremony concerned with the dead and with remembrance. It was hard to hear what was said in the wind and darkness, buy the sky was so bright you could see the Milky Way. After a while the procession reformed and led us back to the shelter of the coach for a few hours before the Sunrise ritual.
Long before the first glimmer of daylight we were told what we would have to do. I was an assistant to one of the Banner Bearers, and had to cling on to a rope to stop it blowing away in the wind. I was lent a white robe and got into line as the Sword Bearer and Herald led us among the stones. There were few people apart from the twenty or so actual Druids plus the rest of us who came on the coach or joined later. The only sign of the Law was a single policeman on his bike and everyone was free to wander among the great sarsens without any kind of fence or barrier.
The ritual proceeded and it was one of those incredible clear sunny occasions when at exactly the right moment the sun was seen to rise in a blue sky, and perch for a moment on the Heel Stone. The druids said their words, passed the crown of oak leaves to the Presider and special visitors. They made the shape of the Awen with their staves, burned incense and shared a communion.
Later, after another retreat to the coach we all gathered to salute the Noonday Sun and complete the round of rituals on a glorious midsummer day. By now a few local people and visitors to the stones had arrived to stand around the circle and watch the ceremony. Most seemed puzzled and delighted by this addition to their visit to an ancient site. At that time people still imagined that the Druids had somehow been involved in the building of Stonehenge or that it had been used for bloody sacrificial rituals. Archaeology and science have now revealed a different story.
On the coach back to London I got to hear about other ceremonies which were held by the Order in London, to mark the Equinoxes in March and September, and the midwinter solstice. After having such an exciting and uplifting time at my first Summer Solstice I was determined to participate in these other rituals. It was in London that I got to know some of the prominent figures in the Order at that time and after the death of Robert MacGregor-Reid, as an outsider, saw the division into several sections of Druid groves.
I got to know Ross Nichols during the outdoor celebrations at the equinoxes, both in London and also at Glastonbury. I was never a member of the Druids but became a Friend of the Druid Order which meant I heard about the lectures given in London and was able to join in the rituals, over a number of years. Ross always showed his deep knowledge of Celtic myth and history, and though he seemed a quiet man without the charisma of some other druids, he did know his stuff. The people around him were also scholars and several went on to write books and teach aspects of the Western Mystery Tradition. I was intrigued by all this strange information and sat through lectures, went to Glastonbury for Beltane one year and watched the ritual marking of the seasons of the year.
My favourite was always midwinter, when in a shabby room in the Caxton halls, we would watch as the lights were dimmed to complete darkness. The Druids’ prayer was recited and other parts of the rite spoken by the druid officers, and then to the haunting strains of Rutland Boughton’s Immortal Hour candles were lit and the great mistletoe bough was carried round, to be cut with the golden sickle and shared. I recall Ross’s sharp profile, within his white nemyss, presiding over this returning of the light.
During the equinox meetings on Parliament Hill we all stood around in the cool London spring air as gradually more and more spectators appeared to watch the proceedings. Most were mystified and as both a photographer and semi-outsider, I tried to explain to people about the ancient custom of marking the equinox, by greeting the Lady of Spring with her horn of plenty.
During the 1960s there was little ritual other than that in Christian churches so the gatherings of a white robed ancient priesthood, with its poetry, harp music and ceremony was quite an eye-opener to those who witnessed the various festivals. Among those participating were Ross Nichols and Vera Chapman and others whose names I was to learn later on.
When Cadbury Castle was being examined by archaeologists to discover its construction, age and use, a number of members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids got invited to visit this enigmatic hill top in Somerset, not too far from Glastonbury, the regular meeting place for the Beltane ritual. There were dowsers and psychics as well as Geoffrey Ashe, the Arthurian writer and historian and a number of archaeologists examining the surface of the huge hill fort. Each group was encouraged to divine, by its own means – psychic, dowsing or scientific – what was under the turf, and to report to those in charge. Most of the druid group were convinced of links to King Arthur, as Cadbury was thought to have been a fortified retreat in the 6th century, when Arthur fought his legendary battles. Later discoveries indeed proved that the high surrounding banks had been reconstructed at the right historical time, and that a great wooden gatehouse was constructed at the entrance to the earthworks. A midsummer gathering within the grassy ring with the druids marking their own connection to the Grail and Arthurian legends does stick in my mind.
Although I didn’t get to know Ross Nichols as well as the members of his Order did, I am certain that he left a legacy of Druidry, its regular patterns of ritual, its celebrations of Nature and the passing seasons, its heritage of wisdom, poetry, lore and legend which will continue through the years to come. Like many other reinterpretations of ancient spiritual tradition that of the druids has a valuable gift to modern seekers. Although it can be interpreted as pagan it does not have the rigidity of some other modern pagan paths, encouraging personal study, work, learning, the knowledge of the arts, music, poetry, magic and divination skills, with its own oracles and methods. Many of these threads were spun from the knowledge, understanding and wisdom of Ross Nichols, and those who have kept the flame of OBOD alive through the passing years.