LAST week, I stood in the circle of Stonehenge and watched the summer solstice sunrise.

It was at that movement that I understood why Paganism is on the rise today in Scotland. The acceptance. The hope. These overwhelming emotions were tangible in the air around the ancient stones whilst the drums, that had played all night, came to an almighty crescendo. Let me share with you modern paganism.

The vast archaeological catalogue of early ­human culture and history, along with the landscapes ­untouched since glacial activity, makes Scotland a sensational backdrop for anyone wishing to explore Paganism, the pre-Christian religion which started with the earliest humans.

Pagan, deriving from the word peasant, is how 5194 Scots identified in the 2011 census. The ­religious ­section did not include a dedicated “Pagan” box and individuals had to settle for the “Other” option after Parliament vetoed a motion.

The results of the 2021 census are now awaited ­after the successful campaign to add the Pagan ­option. The community hope to confirm the Scottish Pagan population as being as high as 30,000.

Many Pagans celebrate the Celtic-derived ­Eightfold Wheel of the Year. Celebrations are all related to the cycles of the natural world. In June, midsummer ­solstice, or Litha, is a major date. They acknowledge the sun at its time of maximum strength and also ­signal the Sun’s power weakening from now on as we approach winter in the cycle.

To understand deeply the movement and practices, I went to Stonehenge this year.

Stonehenge and the settlement, Durrington Walls, have welcomed visitors from all over for thousands of years to celebrate midsummer. Bones of 131 pigs that were feasted on at the stones, were analysed and traced to the north-east of Scotland. Why were our ancestors travelling for 21 days with animals? Did they help create the circle? Did they worship here?

There is no evidence of worship buildings ­within or near the circle. A clock, a compass, a circle ­worshipping the stars – whatever the aim of the stones was in 2500 BC, in 2022, the magical ­Salisbury plains keep that draw. An estimated 6000 people were at Stonehenge this year to celebrate.

In pagan tradition, evil spirits walk the earth on this night. Not just because it is this evening ­transport strikes begin across the country, but the boundaries between worlds are thin.

Experts in paganism agree that the practice of ­pagans reflects the closest practices that those early settlers at Stonehenge would’ve partaken in.

Modern Pagans, also known as Neo-Pagans, have so many individual branches to their ever-growing movement, that the Pagan Federation had to set out three concise principles for all pagans to agree on. These are: Love and Kinship with Nature, A Positive Morality and Recognition of the Divine.

They also set the principles out to make ­paganism clearer to non-pagans as well. Katie Sproull, the ­project leader at Interfaith Glasgow, gave her thoughts on why the public sometimes gets the wrong impression of Pagans.

“Paganism is incredibly diverse in its strands,” said Sproull. “But it mostly draws from ancient religions and/or spirituality through nature; some people view these concepts as silly or eccentric or quirky, without fully understanding the meaning and why it matters.

“I think this comes from a lack of ­understanding; hearing the term ‘Pagan’ can create all sorts of images, perhaps most often of Hollywood villains or cults: think the Wicker Man or Midsommar.

The National: Christopher Lee starred in the Wicker ManChristopher Lee starred in the Wicker Man

“The media often appropriate spiritual symbols, which can again draw a culture of fear. In reality, many of these special symbols simply signify concepts like the reverence of nature or appreciation of deities.”

I arrived at the site around 7pm, to an ever-growing crowd dressed in flower crowns, robes, or nature-inspired outfits. This matched the aesthetic I already had in my head. It wasn’t long before I witnessed my first human circle at the heal stone – away from the circle. People linked arms, danced, breathed together and ended the celebration by hugging everyone.

Around 9pm, an hour before sunset at the stone circle we all know, I watched a group consecrate the land. Pagans and peace stewards called upon the sun and the earth in front of the sunset to grant them four wishes for the coming year. These were specific and political as strong individuals and modern religion.

First, a call to the government to ­empower themselves and counter ­attempts by Priti Patel to extradite ­Julian Assange. Second, for peace to come ­between Russia and Ukraine. Third, ­prevent global climate change by wishing for governments to renew their effort of ways to deal with the crisis.

Finally, to call upon the universe to interfere with the confirmed construction of the Stonehenge tunnel, which will run through the fields. The chants were deep and you could feel the energy on the stones.

Druid oaths, poems, and chants filled the circle before the sunset and they ­invited all to join: “Join with us, any ­spirituality, any deity, any religion.”

I spoke to several individuals at the stones throughout the night, all keen to share thoughts on modern paganism and practices. I sat on the grass with one group as the sun went down and they burned a bouquet of sage. Drums ­thundered in the background.

Eithne, Natalie and Jacob travelled from North Devon and Glastonbury. ­Eithne, 26, had been a few times, Natalie, 35, who had never been and Jacob 30, had been five times as the solstice is so special.

Jacob said: “Unfortunately, you can only come up to the stones on these days. It’s the only day that big sightseers can come up and get their selfies with the stones. The solstices and equinoxes have been and are celebrated by so many and for so long. It’s still very special.”

Natalie said there are different paths of paganism. “You’ve got Druids, Wiccans, you’ve got some people who just dabble in it. It’s quite an all-encompassing term, really.”

The group, and most Pagans, share similar practices, developing new ways for the modern world. Meditation, magic, shamanism, and readings – are all things present in their lives.

The National: The winter solstice is also marked at StonehengeThe winter solstice is also marked at Stonehenge

Natalie, who lives in Glastonbury, shared her opinion of how Pagan ­beliefs have had longevity in ­shamanism. She is in her first year of shamanic ­healing ­training. We’ve found evidence of ­shamanism on every continent of the globe.

Natalie said: “If you take everything down to the bare bone, they all share similarities. None of these original tribes, religions or countries was talking to each other going ‘Well, what are you doing on a Sunday?’ This has all organically evolved.”

Eithne believes in crystal healing, the power of collective thought and ­intention, tarot and oracle cards and observing the phases of the moon. She said: “People are more receptive to it now than maybe even 10 years ago.”

Jacob added: “I mean we’re having a ­pagan wedding in the goddess temple next July.”

Eithne explained what the ceremony will look like. The couple will get legally married and hand fast. They will also do a ritual, going around the four elements, each one representing a different stage of their relationship.

“They get water from the white and red springs from Glastonbury. There’s ­incense that you make and I have a hoop. Jacob will have a wand and then we’ll be tied into that. Everybody in our ­congregation will then tie a ribbon with their intentions and good wishes for us for the future.”

The couple said their family and friends find it interesting and are supportive. ­Eithne described herself as a mishmash – her mum is holistic and her dad, who is a Church of England vicar, thinks it’s all fascinating.

She said: “He may not fully understand all of it but he’s happy to come along and support it.”

Mainstream thinking has the most ­incorrect perception of the pagan branch, Wiccan. There was a sense of ­individualism and collectivism among the witches I spoke to.

Tracey, who has practised 35 years as a traditional witch, Jane, an eclectic witch for 23 years and a 14-time Stonehenge solstice attendee and Louise, a spiritual witch, shared their thoughts.

“All three of us are completely ­different, but we do our circle together and we’ve done some amazing energies together.”

Tracy owns a shop – The Cabin of ­Curiosity, in Northampton. She said that the lifestyle has become not so taboo in the last decade. The group answered animatedly when I asked: what should non-pagans know about paganism?

“It’s not what they see on TV, it’s not Charmed, not Vampire Diaries, not ­acting. We will put no spells on you. We do this to help and to heal, not cause harm. I believe in karma. If you send bad out, you get bad back. People say it and they don’t believe it – with us, we say it and we believe it. We create it.”

BY 10 pm, there wasn’t a moment that people weren’t standing on the stones. It was like the spirits had actually come out. Drinking, drugs and fireworks had all made it past security.

Passing by ­Eithne, Jacob and Natalie at 1am sat at the crepe van - “We came for the stones but stayed for the crepes” – I asked what they thought about how the night had turned.

Eithne said: “It’s a double-edged sword. I’m gonna say it, I don’t think everyone has a level of respect that I personally wish they did. I don’t think people should climb the stones. It is about coming to the conclusion that you aren’t going to like everything that everybody does. It’s the sauce on the side, you know?”

They are not alone in believing that the celebrations of their spirituality are not taken seriously. In March 2021, the Scottish Pagan Federation published the initial results of their first Pagan Discrimination Survey. Over 90% (90.73%) of respondents feel that paganism is treated less seriously than other faith traditions/religions/belief systems.

Many Pagans won’t admit their faith in case they are insulted or ridiculed; They are less likely to report abuse than any other religion because they fear not being taken seriously.

Matt Cormack, mental health ­officer from SPF, said: “There is some ­counselling and psychotherapy research suggesting that Pagans may be afraid to disclose their faith with mental health professionals due to fear this may be pathologized. Having a space for ­pagans to share without that fear has been ­extremely valuable.”

Over 90% (96.60%) of respondents ­believe that paganism should be taught in non-denominational schools to help ­reduce this discrimination. Paganism ­being taught in schools would help with dispelling misconceptions about ­paganism. The movement encourages ­individualism, and free-thinking and does not have a road map, so how do we teach that in schools?

Cormack gave his thoughts on teaching paganism.

“I would hope teaching about ­paganism would be like how we teach Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. We don’t cover all nuances of each of these beautiful faiths in the time we have, but offer insight into some of the core beliefs and practices.

“In 2008, SPF developed an ‘Introduction To Paganism’ teaching module suitable to be taught as part of religious, moral and philosophical studies in schools.”

The SPF has also been working towards addressing discrimination.

“We are looking at what events may be possible to help with addressing this. We have written to the First Minister and several other ministers in Scotland regarding the results of the SPF Discrimination survey to bring it to their attention.”

At 4:49am, I stood, feeling hopeful, accepted and complete, between a Hawaiian English teacher and a Portuguese mother to watch the sunrise. They had both travelled to Stonehenge, specifically, to see the sunrise and the celebrations, just like many millions before them, thousands of years in the past.