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The Pipers are two stones in adjoining fields, just south of Boleigh Farm in West Penwith, Cornwall.

The Pipers, © Tim Clark

They are considered as ‘outliers’ for the Merry Maidens circle, associated by the ‘standard’ legend of dancers and musicians petrified for dancing on the Sabbath.

Extract from Cornwall Sheet LXXVIII.NE & SE, Surveyed: 1876, Published: 1887


First recorded by William Hals (1655-1737) as “two admirable great stones in perpendicular manner”, the northeastern stone developed a dramatic lean at some unknown period prior to 1865. The stone measures just over five metres high from base to tip.

The southwestern stone, 80 metres away in the next field is more upright, and at 4.7 metres tall is noted as ‘the tallest surviving menhir in Cornwall’ in the HER. This discrepancy is due to the slant of the northeastern stone, which while at over 5 metres is the longer, it is shorter from ground to tip.

Use of stones to commemorate Iron Age tribal leaders and kings (such as the Men Scryfa), and their connection with personified divinities in earlier times, strengthened beliefs that the stones themselves were the petrified remains of human beings – beliefs later used by Christian preachers to frighten their rural flock from attending, or organising, ceremonies at megalithic monuments.

As well as the ‘petrified musicians’ tale, another local story recounts how there was a great and bloody battle at Boleigh. The dead from the battle were subsequently buried in a long trench close by, the two massive long stones representing the two chieftains in front of their armies – the Cornish King Howel and the victorious Anglo-Saxon King Aethelstan.

No associated burials have yet been found.

Today is Plough Monday, traditionally the start of the agricultural year and the day when ploughs are taken back to the fields after the winter break.

In many parishes in the Midlands and East of England, a plough blessed in the church on the preceding Sunday would be paraded through the streets, collecting donations from householders. Those who refused would find their gardens ploughed over!

The Whittlesey Plough – Wikimedia Commons by Simon Garbutt

Sadly these days, the occasion is probably more celebrated by metal detectorists, keen to hoover up the shinies from the freshly ploughed fields.

Welcome to our occasional series, looking through an A-Z of ancient sites in the UK. Some will be well-known, others much less so, but we hope that each site featured will show an aspect of our ancient heritage that inspires people to get out and visit.

Katherine (Cait) Range has once again provided us with an interesting article, this time looking at a well known site in Wiltshire, Adam’s Grave.

Adam’s Grave

High up on the summit of Walker’s Hill, near the Wiltshire town of Alton Barnes, Old Adam, the sarsen stone, looks out upon the surrounding countryside of Pewsey Vale.

1889 map showing Adam's Grave © Ordnance Survey

1889 map showing Adam’s Grave © Ordnance Survey

Old Adam and his companion sarsen, Little Eve, once flanked the entrance to the massive Neolithic chambered long barrow called Adam’s Grave. The chamber system inside, was most likely similar to that seen at West Kennet Long Barrow. And Adam’s Grave is also part of the greater prehistoric, ritual landscape surrounding the Avebury/Silbury/Windmill hill complex. Even in its collapsed state, it commands panoramic views and in turn can it be seen from miles around. The prominence of this barrow was surely to honor its occupants.

© Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Adam’s Grave © Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

This long barrow is quite substantial in size being 60m long and 6m high. The ditches on either side are still 6m wide and .09m deep. At one end there appears to be a sarsen stone burial chamber in which, in 1860, were found 3 or 4 incomplete skeletons and a leaf-shaped arrowhead. There is evidence that originally, there was a retaining wall of sarsens and dry stone around the barrow.

Adam’s Grave is one of those places that feel like a “thin place” in the veil between our reality and the supernatural. It isn’t too difficult to imagine faeries, goblins and heroes in this beautiful place. As one would expect, there are several legends attached to the place. One such is that Adam’s Grave is thought to be the final resting place of a giant and if you dare to run seven times around this huge tumulus, then you will risk waking him. To date, no one has disturbed him and when one looks at the size if the place, it’s easy to see why.

View of Adam's Grave long barrow from the north.

View of Adam’s Grave long barrow from the north.

There is an account also, of a Miss Cobern who, sometime in the mid-1960’s, had a very disturbing experience there. She states that she was walking back from the barrow to where she had parked her car. All of a sudden, she felt very anxious and uneasy. It was cold and cloudy and there was no other person there from what she could see. She began to hear the sound of many horses coming at a full gallop. So many that it seemed as if an army were near, but of course there was nothing, certainly no horses. Once she walked fully past the barrow, the sound of horses stopped abruptly. There are plenty of other accounts of the sound of galloping horses, animals taking fright for no apparent reason, ghostly shades, and many reports of baying hounds said to be the guardians of the barrow. True or not, the story does bring to mind the two very real battles that occurred in this place, both of which are recorded in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles”.

In the 6th century, the place was known as Wodnesbeorg, and in AD592 a battle was fought here. The Chronicle states “Her micel wælfill wæs æt Woddes beorge, 7 Ceawlin wæs ut adrifen. (There was great slaughter at Woden’s Hill, and Ceawlin was driven out).” Caewlin was king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex but in most versions of the Chronicle, the name of his opponent is not listed. It is assumed they were British. However, in one or two versions of the Chronicle, the opponent is listed as Coel. Could this be the “Old King Cole” of nursery rhyme? A romantic and intriguing thought.

The other battle fought here and recorded in the Chronicle, occurred in AD715. “Her Ine 7 Ceolred fuhton æt Woddes beorge. (There Ine and Ceolred fought at Woden’s Hill).” Ine was king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Ceolred was king of Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Several Anglo-Saxon battles took place near Adam’s Grave as the area was of strategic importance and is near to the passage of Wansdyke where the ancient Ridgeway interconnects. This passage was named “read geat” (red gate or gap), and the Saxons most likely considered it worth defending.

Adam's Grave from overhead.

Adam’s Grave from overhead.

Adam’s Grave and the surrounding area contain enough history and legend to fill a book, never mind this small article. And as part of the greater Avebury/Silsbury ritual landscape, it has clearly been a place of mystery, reverence and legend to people, our ancestors, since before recorded history.

Many thanks once again to Katharine for an interesting and informative article. If you have a favourite site and you’d like to submit an article for this series, please contact us

Welcome to the first in an occasional series, looking through an A-Z of ancient sites in the UK. Some will be well-known, others much less so, but we hope that each site featured will show an aspect of our ancient heritage that inspires people to get out and visit.

This first article has been submitted by a new contributor to the Heritage Journal, Katherine (Cait) Range. Katherine lives in Texas, USA but has frequently visited the UK to satisfy her passion for our heritage, of which prehistoric sites form a large part. We look forward to further articles from Katherine in the coming  months.

Apron Full of Stones

This intriguingly named site is a large ring cairn, located on the eastern edge of Kingsdale Beck, east of Kirkby Lonsdale near Ingleton, in the Yorkshire Dales.  (map link)

Apron3560127

© Karl & Ali and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Excavated in 1972, the cairn was built within a single period, most likely Bronze Age (as suggested by a small collection of flints), and its kerb is formed of boulders. A cremation burial was found during the excavation but there were no grave goods in accompaniment. An interesting fact is that the stones are gritstone and sandstone which seems strange in an area that is largely limestone. One suggestion for this is that the stones represent glacial deposits which had been scattered over a wider area. Those stones were then gathered, possibly as a precursor to farming activity, and then used to construct the cairn. It has also been suggested that this is not a cairn at all but may be a small henge. This idea, however, has not been pursued beyond a suppostion.

© Dave Dunford and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

The locals in times past tended to devise fantastic tales that would explain the reasons for the existence of many of these sites. And such is the case with this one. Legend has it that the Devil was collecting stones in his apron in order to build a bridge over the Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale when his apron string broke and the stones fell out on the edge of Kingsdale Beck. The tale goes on to tell that the Devil was building this bridge at the request of an old woman who wanted to cross the Lune to search for a stray cow. The Devil, not being one to do a good deed for nothing in return, had extracted the price to be the soul the first creature to cross the bridge (assuming it would be the old woman). But the old woman was as cunning as he and as she came along to the bridge the next day, she threw a bun across first and a dog leapt out in front of her to get it. The Devil was thus cheated of his payment of a soul.

Sources:

1. “The Yorkshire Dales: South and West” by Dennis Kelsall and Jan Kelsall (Cicerone Press Limited, Feb 15, 2012)
2. megalithic.co.uk
3. outofoblivion.org.uk
4. geograph.org.uk

Fact

When it comes to folklore memes at ancient sites, there are several stories which occur again and again around the country. But at most sites, these stories are singular. Stanton Drew in Somerset is a little bit different. A complex of features, known collectively as ‘The Weddings’ including the second largest stone circle in England, two further circles, an avenue, cove and nearby quoit (or remains of one) all add up to a rich vein, not only of a archaeology, but also associated folklore.

The Great Circle, looking South © Alan S.

The Great Circle, looking South © Alan S.

To the north of the three circles is Hautville’s Quoit. All that now remains is an unremarkable piece of a capstone by a hedge, which was once reputed to weigh up to 30 tons, but which has been broken up over the years for road building material. The stone was said to have been cast down off the nearby Maes Knoll, an Iron Age hillfort to the North, by the giant Sir John Hautville in bygone days. A feature known as the Tump, in the hillfort is supposedly made of earth dumped from the spade of another giant, who forgot why he was carrying it.

To the south west is the Cove, three large stones, one of which is fallen. These are supposedly the petrified remains of a bride, groom and preacher, turned to stone after their wedding celebrations continued overnight into the Sabbath.

The Cove, looking east toward Stanton Drew church. &Copy; Alan S.

The Cove, looking east toward Stanton Drew church. © Alan S.

Between these two are three stone circles; a small one to the southwest near to the Cove, the Great Circle consisting mainly of recumbent stones, and a northeastern circle. The stones in these circles are reputedly the wedding guests similarly petrified for dancing on the Sabbath, the musicians making up the Avenue in the  northeast sharing a similar fate.

And finally, any attempts to count the stones on site are fraught with danger as a dire (but unspecified) fate apparently awaits anyone who is successful in this endeavour.

Given the location, with the River Chew to the north, and the local church being a short distance away in the soutwest, the only commonly recurrent theme that appears to be missing here is the one where the stones  go down to the river to take a drink. Maybe the dancers just weren’t thirsty?

But does any other site have such a range of folklore attached to it?

FactThere have been many tales told down through the ages of dogs, usually black or darkly coloured, haunting ancient places – often on ancient pathways – as harbingers of death. But it’s another kind of dog, a greyhound, or more probably a Grey Hound (or wolf?) that concerns us today.

There are several dolmens across Wales, remnants of ancient burial chambers, which are known by names which roughly translate to the “Lair of the Grey Hound”, the “Grey Bitch’s Lair” or other variants along the same lines.

N. Wales: Lletty'r Filiast on the Great Orme. © Alan S.

N. Wales: Lletty’r Filiast on the Great Orme. © Alan S.

Lletty’r Filiast on the Great Orme at Llandudno, Gwal-y-Filiast (St Lythans) near Barry, Twlc y Filiast at Llanglydwen, Carmarthenshire and Gwal-y-Filiast (Dolwilym) at Narberth in Pembrokeshire are all examples of these names.

S. Wales: Gwal-y-Filiast at St Lythans. © Alan S.

S. Wales: Gwal-y-Filiast at St Lythans. © Alan S.

But where do these names originate?

The dog is the oldest domestic animal, traceable to the paleolithic, since when dogs have enjoyed a peculiarly close relationship with humans, sharing their hearths at night and guarding the home, working during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. This close symbiotic relationship with people is reflected in the early literature where dogs seem to have clear connections with the Otherworld.

Greyhounds are specifically mentioned in the early Welsh literature: they formed some of the many gifts presented to Pwyll by Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Two greyhounds accompany Culhwch, when he sets out in all his splendour to visit his cousin Arthur, in ‘Culhwch and Olwen.’

(quotes taken from Bob Trubshaw: “Black Dogs, Guardians of the corpse ways”)

There are folk tales in Ireland of heroes which show evidence of the importance of hounds in Celtic culture. One of the most popular Irish heroes, Fionn MacCumhal, had an aunt, (or possibly sister?) Tuiren, who was transformed in the Otherworld to a hound bitch and gave birth to pups. Her sons subsequently remained in that form, serving as loyal companions to their cousin.

One has to wonder if these names survive as a racial memory of some kind of ancient ‘Greyfriars Bobby‘ hunting dog, hanging around it’s master’s final resting place, or whether the burial chambers (which would have contained possibly dismembered body parts) attracted wild animals, including wolves, looking for a possibly easy meal? Or is it simply that the structures now resemble what we might consider “kennels”, somewhere for the beasts to settle down for the night, sheltered from the worst of the weather?

A modern dog kennel.

A modern dog kennel.

If any linguists/etymologists can ‘shed’ any light (sorry!), we’d be interested to hear from you in the comments.

A Wicked Witch….

all 180

(David Gosling’s sculpture of the witch who turned the King into the King Stone)

*********************

A Musical Witch

all 169

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…. and a lurking Wedding Witch (maybe!)

all 192

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!

A recent edition of Meyn Mamvro magazine included an article about this stone near to Coverack on the Lizard. Having previously documented many of the ancient sites on the Lizard, it seemed only right that I visit this latest addition to the list and report on it here.

The stone is quite easily found by heading SW from the junction near the Crousa Common stones. Continue down the lane for about half a mile. If you come to a small collection of houses on the left, you’ve passed the stone!

The Tide Stone sits in a small piece of rough ground and is accessed via a small wooden garden gate set into the hedge. The stone can be seen from the road, though I imagine it would be quite hidden in high summer.

IMAG0419.jpg

Tide Stone gate

IMAG0418.jpg

Tide Stone approach

On approaching the stone, it appears as an earth-fast triangular lump, and up close, on the rear left hidden from the approach view is the reason for the name of the stone.

IMAG0415.jpg

Tide Stone

A depression contains a quantity of water. It is said that the level of the water rises and lowers with the tides. On my visit it looked as if the water was lower by about an inch from it’s highest mark within the depression, indicating a falling tide at the coast a mile or so away.

IMAG0416.jpg

Tide Stone basin

There is apparently a perfectly sound geological reason for this phenomenon, to do with water tables and underground pressure, as documented in the original article, and the strange behaviour is not unique to this stone or indeed to this area.

It would be interesting to speculate on whether ancient man in prehistory would have been aware of such tidal stones, and if so, what use would have been made of them.

If you are aware of any similar stones, please let us know in the comments.

(All photos © Alan S.)

This stone at Fiddler’s Hill, close to Winterbourne Bassett and overlooked by The Ridgeway and the Marlborough Downs is probably a boundary marker. It doesn’t truly qualify for featuring here as it can’t be shown to have been of significance in prehistoric times.

Nevertheless it has a certain charm and commands attention, partly stemming perhaps from the fact it is the only upstanding feature for some distance in these flat fields, a fact not lost on the locals who leave liberal marks of their visits…

There’s something else about it.  It was on that very part of the downs in the background, Hackpen Hill, that in 1645 John Aubrey, “discoverer” of  Avebury was told of sightings of fairies. All nonsense of course.  Although… upon examining our photographs we could almost believe a ghostly creature was dancing across the top of the stone!

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