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Keiller's occult connections

In Lynda Murray's biography of Alexander Keiller, A Zest for Life, there is a section entitled 'Witchcraft and demons' (p21–3). Murray notes that one of Keiller's lifelong interests was Scottish witchcraft, especially the witch trials of the sixteenth century. The first outward evidence of this interest is a letter published in the 1922 edition of Folklore simply called 'Witchcraft in Scotland'.

A subsequent article written by Keiller, first published in Folklore and subsequently reprinted as a booklet, looks in detail at the women accused of being involved in Aberdeenshire witchcraft covens in 1596–7. It demonstrates that Keiller was capable of all-but-obsessive attention to detail, even though the main purpose of the article was to contradict the ideas put forward by Margaret Murray in her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe.

Here Lynda Murray errs by referring to Margaret Murray as an 'eminent specialist'. Margaret Murray was indeed an eminent specialist – in Egyptology! As a folklorist and historian of witchcraft she was no specialist. Experts in Murray's topics at the time of the publication of her book in 1921 – and Keiller should be counted among them – were very dismissive of Margaret Murray's false arguments and deductions. Nevertheless her books were hugely influential. Ronald Hutton has written extensively about Margaret Murray, her critics and her influence; Linda Murray cites Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (although gets the title wrong) but in the same year as the publication of the first edition of Zest for Life Hutton discussed Margaret Murray in more detail in The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford UP 1999).

By the time the first of his articles was published Keiller had built up an extensive library of books about witchcraft, demonology and erotica. This is not such a random group as might first be thought – the fertile imaginations of post-Reformation authors writing about what they thought were the activities of medieval witches forms a major sub-genre of erotica! The oldest of these books was published in 1489 (not 1452 as stated by Linda Murray). In 1960, five years after Keiller's death, these books – all 430-something of them – were donated by his widow to the National Library of Scotland; the titles can be searched online, see note below. A leading dealer in second-hand and rare occult books in the UK and accustomed to cataloguing substantial collections of such literature describes Keiller's collection as 'very impressive' and notes that there is a conspicuous absence of the works by people associated with the occult revival. However this collection was not transferred to National Library of Scotland until 1960 and it would have been his widow – presumably with the assistance of someone senior at National Library of Scotland – who determined what should be included and what was omitted.

The 1920s guide to Avebury produced by Keiller's first wife suggests that she – and presumably also Alexander – had little time for 'witchcraft revival'. This can be seen the dismissive passage alluding to William Stukeley and early twentieth century Druid Orders:

    You may have heard all kinds of stories about sun worship, serpent worship, and so on, but there is absolutely no foundation for any of these tales, which have been put about with people with more imagination than knowledge.
This passage is quoted and discussed by Adam Stout in his 2004 Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Wales called Choosing a Past: The Politics of Prehistory in Pre-War Britain and also by Ronald Hutton in Blood and Mistletoe: The history of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP 2009: p367). On the basis of this quote the absence of books about the 'occult revival' in Keiller's collection may very well be real rather than the consequence of 'selective accession' by National Library of Scotland.

Linda Murray quotes a letter written by Keiller in 1930 that states his interests in archaeology had left no time for further research into witchcraft. Nevertheless Keiller seems to have resumed this interest in the post-Second World War period as he was still collecting rare volumes on demonology and in 1951 considering translating into English L'Inconstance de Demons (an early seventeenth century work about witchcraft in the Basque region).

Further confirmation of Keiller retaining an interest in witchcraft until his death is that Keiller's book collection includes both the 1945 and 1957 editions of Christina Hole's Witchcraft in England. While I am not aware of Keiller reviewing or otherwise offering any opinion about Hole's book, it presumably met with his broad approval as her approach is similar to his own published work. They are also fairly close contemporaries as Hole was born in 1896 and died in 1985. Christina Hole's life was the subject of a chapter written by Jacqueline Simpson in Women and Tradition: A neglected group of folklorists by Carmen Blacker and Hilda Ellis Davidson (eds), Carolina Academic Press 2000. I contacted Jacqueline Simpson but she is unaware of any contact between Hole and Keiller ('or any other of her contemporary scholars, come to that') (email 21 July 2012). Christina's papers are assumed to have been interited by Joan Eltenton but according to Caroline Oates, Secretary of the Folklore Society (email 23 July 2012) have not been donated to the Folklore Society library. Caroline's same email confirms that the Folklore Society library has no papers relating to Keiller.

Linda Murray's section on 'Witchcraft and demons' concludes with an intriguing anecdote:

    He did not wholly abandon the subject of Witchcraft, and in the 1930s, one Halloween night found him leading a small group of associates out into the garden of the manor at Avebury. He carried before him a phallic symbol, and bowing three times before the Statue of Pan, he chanted 'witchlike' incantations. His secretary at the time, Mrs Sorel Taylour, was present but did not take this strange behaviour seriously.
The footnote states that this information is from an interview with Mrs P.D. Sorel Taylour in 1979 by Mike Pitts (a former Curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum) and Hilary Howard (Mike Pitt's wife at the time). Sadly it is not clear whether Keiller was performing some sort of Halloween-inspired 'caper' or (unlike Mrs Sorel Taylour) taking it seriously. Nor do we know if anyone else present other than Mrs Sorel Taylour thought his behaviour 'strange'. Indeed, apart from Mrs Sorel Taylour, none of the other 'small group' were identified.

I emailed Mike Pitts enquiring if he could add any further information. His reply (4 Aug 2012) reads:

    Hi Bob
    That's interesting, and those are good questions, though I'm afraid I can't help much. Sorel Taylour came across as proper and loyal to Keiller, and gave away very little – she smiled sweetly in silence to some of my questions. My feeling was that she felt AK took the statue thing seriously, but she thought it was partly odd and partly a joke – but it was difficult to tell. And that was about all we learnt.

Pan at Newstead Abbey.

There are no photographs of the Manor which show a statue of Pan and no other records have so far been discovered. There are two statues, one of Pan, in the grounds of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the one-time residence of Lord Byron, and these may have been known to Keiller.

Pan was very much 'in fashion' in the first half of the twentieth century. This seems to start with 'The Story of Panic', an early piece of fiction by E.M. Forster published 1900. Pan and a sense of 'panic' also feature in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, which appeared eight years later, as the self-contained short story 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' describes how Mole and Rat encounter Pan in Grantchester Meadows. And he was also alive on the chalk downland of Wiltshire, at least according to E.M. Forster's story, 'The Curate's Friend', which appeared in 1911 (see Tania Poole, 'Pan in fiction: a foreign god for Albion', The Cauldron No.153 (2014) p28–32).

At this stage I have not established how or when Pan Bridge (where the A4 crosses the Winterbourne to the south-east of Silbury Hill) acquired its name. The best guess that it was a place where travelling tinkers once camped. The bridge was replaced in 1932 and Keiller would have been aware of the rebuilding – and may indeed have instigated this. A friend of mine, with the nomme du guerre of Gyrus, has written about a personal encounter with Pan at various places, including Pan Bridge. He has researched other examples of Pan in the Avebury area and published them in an article called 'The Goat God in Albion' (Strange Attractor Journal Four, 2011). In this article Gyrus notes

    Curiously, while excavating Windmill Hill, a Neolithic site just a little northwest from Avebury, among the animal remains that Keiller's team found in 1929 was the skeleton of a goat. He was clearly quite taken by this find, going as far as to name the creature 'Duffine', and to use a photograph of the goat's remains on New Year's greetings cards.
Linda Murray is more specific. This Christmas card was sent in 1929 – the previous year's yuletide greeting from Keiller had been a photograph of the dog skeleton from Windmill Hill, which Keiller had dubbed Felstead.

The 'phallic symbol' in the quotation has direct parallels with several carved chalk phalluses which Keiller had discovered when excavating on Windmill Hill (these are now on display in the Alexander Keiller Museum).

On the face of things there seems to be a deep contradiction between Keiller's dismissal of the 'revival' of supposed sun and serpent worship and what seems to be active interest in the revival of reverence towards Pan. Assuming that Keiller's Hallowe'en 'ritual' was indeed serious, then a simple explanation would be that Keiller was simply a 'child of his time' in unselfconsciously privileging neo-Classicism (i.e. Pan) over supposed 'primitive heathenism' (i.e. sun and serpents). If future research reveals any connections between Keiller and occult groups (and in the inter-war period several such groups were most certainly operating in London and even in places as provincial as Huddersfield) then we might begin to suppose that when Keiller bowed three times to his statue of Pan then this was much more than a Hallowe'en 'charade'.

Jenni Mills also undertook extensive research into the life of Keiller when writing her novel inspired by modern paganism, The Buried Circle (HarperCollins 2009). She went through what remains of Keiller's voluminous correspondence but discovered nothing of relevance to his interests in witchcraft and demonology. This is not surprising as, according to Dr Ros Cleal (the current curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum) two of her predecessors had been through the correspondence in the 1960s and removed anything which was not related to archaeology.

Philip Heselton has published a two-volume biography of Gerald Gardner, the 'inventor' of modern witchcraft or Wicca, with the title Witchfather: A life of Gerald Gardner (Thoth 2012). He notes that Gardner met Keiller at an international archaeological conference in 1932. At this time Gardner was working in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and in his spare time doing archaeological excavations there. Keiller was by then famous for his excavations at Windmill HIll.

Margaret Murray's books were one of the key inspirations for Gardner when he 'invented' Wicca in the post-war period. As Keiller had published his criticisms of her work some time before his first known meeting with Gardner in 1932 we can only assume that, while they may have both shared an interest in witchcraft, they presumably did not share the same opinions about the subject! Both men were 'testy' and prone to sharp criticism of people they did not agree with. Furthermore Gardner was from a much more lowly social status than Keiller. On this basis we ought to assume that they did not 'hit if off'. However this is not the case – see below.

I have confirmed with Philip Heselton that he is not aware of any other meetings between Keiller and Gardner. And yet there must have been mutual friends. Heselton states that Gardner met such eminent archaeologists as Flinders Petrie (Witchfather p124), Jacquetta Hawkes and Abbé Breuil (p159). He also notes a number of other 'overlaps' with Keiller (p126; p128; p129; p150ff). And there are a number of friends and acquaintances of Gardner who just might also have known Keiller; I have appended a list of these in the hope that other researchers reading this might know more about these people. I am especially intrigued by the various women as both Keiller and Gardner are well-known to have had a more-than-healthy interest in attractive women!

One such person – although not mentioned by Heselton – is the neglected 'modernist' writer Mary Butts (1890–1937). Innovatory short stories by her published in the 1920s and 30s feature Pan and other 'paranormal' goings-on. These were well-known at that time (although largely ignored after her death) so there is a good chance that Keiller was aware of her writings. She was a student of Aleister Crowley from about 1910 but they seemingly fell out in 1921. She was also regarded as having a 'liberated' attitude to sexuality (she married twice and seemingly had various affairs, including the French artist Jean Cocteau and a lesbian relationship; her brother and one of her husbands were homosexual and 'gay' men feature – largely sympathetically – in many of her stories). After 1922 she spent less time in Paris and lived successively in Devon and Cornwall. Butt's life and interests suggest that she and Keiller may have had mutual friends. However as no character vaguely matching Keiller's appears in her stories (mostly populated by thinly-disguised friends and relations) it is perhaps best to assume that even if they met at all they knew each other only slightly – or simply didn't get on! There has been a biography of Butts (N. Blondel, Mary Butts: Scenes from a Life, McPherson & Company 1998) but I have not read this.

Both Keiller and Gardner had jobs which enabled them to subvert the travel restrictions in place during the Second World War and travel extensively in Britain. Gardner is known to have been a frequent visitor to the New Forest so it is entirely plausible he could have also visited Keiller at Avebury. However there is no evidence that he did. But Keiller's collection of books would have most certainly been known to him and would have been of very real interest at a time when the British Library's collection would have been in safe storage.

On the basis of the evidence I have presented so far it would be reasonable to assume that the different opinions and 'abrasive' personalities of these two men would have simply meant that they shared an interest and, while part of an overlapping social world, kept their distance. However there is one piece of evidence which confounds such a simple picture. Gardner's first book about witchcraft, High Magic's Aid published in 1949 'camouflages' his witchcraft teachings in the guise of a novel (remember that this is before the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951). Heselton describes how one or more friends of Gardner helped turn his messy draft into something publishable; frankly it is still an awfully badly written book. Nevertheless it does have a leading female character. This 'witch' is called Morven (see Witchfather p380-2; p397; p406).

Anyone who knows anything about Keiller knows that his family home was at Morven, Aberdeenshire, and he chose this name when he founded the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research to further his activities at Avebury. By naming the leading character of his novel after Keiller's home and institute there is little reason to doubt that Gardner was 'doffing his cap', so to speak, to a fellow enthusiast. But whether Gardner was one of the 'small group' who were in the garden of Avebury Manor that Hallowe'en in the 1930s when Keiller seemingly paid his respects to Pan is simply a wide-open question.

Just possibly Morven itself may have been why Keiller took an interest in witchcraft in the first place. At the time Keiller was growing up there at the end of the nineteenth century, Aberdeenshire was still steeped in local lore and traditions. Sara Robinson, in her research with the Scottish Traveller Stanley Robertson (1940–2009), revealed that Lumphanan near Aberdeen was a place of special importance in the life of Robertson and his antecedents. She transcribes his 'cant' thus:

    Because this wis the place where ye enjoyed the best pairt o yer life! Ye used tae wait until ye could feel the first smell of broom on the air. And how happy ye wid be fin ma father wid get his horse and his cairt, and we'd tak aa the things that ye needed, and just left the hoose in Aiberdeen, and ye wid come oot intae the Old Road o Lumphanan. As I come up this hill, I was so happy. And I lookit round this beautiful, glorious clear sky in a summer afternoon. And in ma vista before me, I could see the Mither Tap o Bennachie. I could see Benahighlie with its very distinct little cairn. I ould look over by Tarland and see Morven. I could look further round I could see Lochnagar. And then I could see the distinct shape o Clachnaben – which looks like a lady lying down. And ye know ma spirits were very, very elevated... But I remember coming down to ma folk. What a welcome there was. And on the edge of the glimmer, the fire, there was a big biling kettle always filled tae the gunnel. And this woman gave us tea and 'duke sharras' this is ducks eggs. And ye ken this, I just thought to maself... The Kingdom of Heaven couldna be any better than what this was.

    Sara Reith, 'Through the "eye of the skull": Memory and tradition in a Travelling landscape', Cultural Analysis, Vol. 7 (2008). Online at socrates.berkeley.edu/~caforum/volume7/vol7_article3.html

With the exception of his articles for Folklore, I am not aware of any evidence which links Keiller to nineteenth century Aberdeenshire lore. However it is entirely plausible that older women working at Morven as domestic servants would have piqued Keiller's interest in traditional lore or tales of 'witches' and 'witchcraft'. Remember that Keiller was an orphan by the age of nine and, although schooled at Eton, would have by necessity had close contact with a variety of female domestic staff when back at home.

I am aware that this biographical note serves only to open up further avenues of research rather than shed any clear light on Keiller's occult interests and connections. I would welcome contact from anyone who thinks they can add to – or even detract from – these notes.


Grateful thanks to Ros Cleal, Ben Fernee, Gyrus, Philip Heselton, Judi Holliday, Ronald Hutton, James Mitchell, Caroline Oates, Mike Pitts, Jacqueline Simpson and Adam Stout.

National Library of Scotland

The Keiller collection is located with the shelfmark: Klr.98–99. In 2012 it was possible to search the NLS catalogue specifically for this shelfmark. Since then the search facility has been updated and seemingly there is no way to seach by shelfmark. However the relevant page does include an 'Ask a librarian' link.


Possible mutual friends of Gerald Gardner and Alexander Keiller

Page references are to Philip Heselton Witchfather: A life of Gerald Gardner (Thoth 2012).

Mutual friends of GG and AK

James Laver p156–7 (JL knew AK p157)

Possible mutual friends of GG and AK (pre-war):

    Henry Byngham and phallic worship p158

    Jane Harrison p158

    Katherine Oldmeadow (author of well-known books about fairies) p220–1

    Mary Butts? – see above

Possible mutual friends of GG and AK (post-war):

    Irene Clark neé Guy p329

    Elspeth Begg p337–8

    Jacintha Buddicom p338

    Arnold Crowther p342

    Eda Collins p345

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

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Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery