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According to the Salisbury Journal a consortium of council leaders from across the Southwest is exploring the possibility of funding to revive the plan to construct a “short” tunnel under Stonehenge!

Perhaps a 2.1 kilometre tunnel is now thought to be no big deal in the light of plans to build 22 miles of tunnels under the Chilterns for HS2, who knows? In any event it seems unlikely to happen at this late stage.

(We sincerely hope not!)

By their very distance in time, the origins and motivations of the builders of the various ancient monuments littering our landscapes can only ever be guessed at. But over the years various explanations and stories behind the origins of many ancient stone monuments have become enshrined in folklore. So we thought we’d take a brief look at some of the stories behind 5 of the most common Folklore Motifs.

Rocks thrown by Giants or the Devil

Crousa Common Stones © Chris Brooks

There are many instances of this story. Typically, standing stones have been set in place after an argument or competition between giants, (e.g. the Crousa Common Stones on the Lizard, see our earlier article for this story ) or as the result of a pact with the Devil, such as at the Devil’s Arrows near Ripon.

Their name, as the Devil’s Arrows, seems to have originated from the following story, which we had related to us by an hoary headed individual living in Boroughbridge, when soliciting information as to their history:

“There lived a very pious old man {a Druid should we imagine} who was reckoned an excellent cultivator of the soil.

However, during each season at the time his crops had come to maturity they were woefully pillaged by his surrounding neighbours; so that at this, he being provokingly grieved, the Devil appeared, telling the old man if he would only recant and throw away his holiness he should never more be disturbed in his mind, or have whatever he grew stolen or demolished.

The old man, like Eve in the garden, yielded to temptation, and at once obeyed the impulse of Satan for the benefit of worldly gain. So when the old man’s crops were again being pillaged, the Devil threw from the infernal regions some ponderous arrows, which so frightened the plunderers by shaking the earth that never more was he harassed in that way. Hence the name of the ‘Devil’s Arrows.'”

From the notes and queries section of ‘The Geologist’ for October 1860.

Entrances to the Underworld

The Piskey Hall at Trewardreva © Alan S

Several Cornish fogous, such as that at Trewardreva have legends of strange sounds emanating from them, as do several barrows e.g. Nempnett Thrubwell, which are considered to be possible entrances to a supernatural world of fairies or goblins.

At Glastonbury Tor, Geoffrey Ashe in his The Landscape of King Arthur mentions the local legends:

To this day you can hear local tales of a chamber below the summit, or a well sinking far into the depths, or a tunnel running all the way to the Abbey, a distance of more than half a mile. Rash explorers are supposed to have found a way in and to have come out insane.

Buried Kings and their Treasure

King Zil's Sepulchre © Jane Tomlinson

The archetypical example for this story is that of King Zil, supposedly buried upright beneath Silbury Hill on the back of his charger, with his chariot of gold. Of course, we now know, thanks to the recent excavation work to stabilise Silbury, that no such tomb exists, although Stukeley claims  that the remains of a horse and rider were indeed discovered there in 1723:

In the month of March, 1723, Mr. Halford order’d some trees to be planted on this hill, in the middle of the noble plain or area at top, which is 60 cubits diameter. The workmen dug up the body of the great king there buried in the center, very little below the surface. The bones extremely rotten, so that they crumbled them in pieces with their fingers. The soil was altogether chalk, dug from the side of the hill below, of which the whole barrow is made. Six weeks after, I came luckily to rescue a great curiosity which they took up there; an iron chain, as they called it, which I bought of John Fowler, one of the workmen; it was the bridle buried along with this monarch, being only a solid body of rust . I immerg’d it in limner’s drying oil, and dry’d it carefully, keeping it ever since very dry. it is now as fair and entire as when the workmen took it up… There were deers horns, an iron knife with a bone handle too, all excessively rotten, taken up along with it.

There are several other similar legends, none of which have been proved, though the existence of Dark Age golden treasures such as at Prittlewell and Sutton Hoo provide some possible basis in historical fact for these stories.

Petrification

The Rollright Stones © Jane Tomlinson

Possibly the most common piece of folklore associated with ancient sites is that of petrification. Many stone circles are known as the Maidens or Ladies, supposedly young women turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath, eg the Merry Maidens or the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor who were petrified dancing to the Devil’s fiddle playing. Alternatively, the stones were men, either sportsmen as at the Hurlers.  In many of these cases, the stories may have originated in Puritanical times, when church attendance on the Sabbath was strictly enforced. The Rollright Stones which includes a circle, a standing stone and a burial chamber, takes a different angle on the petrification legend, claiming that a King, his men and a group of Knights were victims of a witch’s trick. The knowledge that the burial chamber is much earlier that the other stones at the site gives the lie to this particular legend, entertaining though it is.

Walking or Moving Stones

Minchinghampton, hot to trot? © Chris Brooks

The Tinglestone  and Minchinghampton Longstone,  both in Gloucestershire, are said to run around their fields when the clock strikes twelve.

The Whittlestone  in Oxfordshire has a legend that when the clock strikes twelve it goes down to the nearby Lady Well to drink. Tom McGowen in Giant Stones and Earth Mounds hypothesises that “legends of stones that drink water may indicate that water was once poured over them – perhaps an effort to cause rain to fall?” We’ll reserve judgement on that one!

But it does seem that many sites have stones which either suffer from midnight thirst, or are said to dance around at certain times – the Rollrights previously mentioned do both!

Are there any legends or stories you’re aware of that don’t fit into one of the broad categories above? Tell us your stories in the comments!

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