Ostensibly non-linear carved designs, generally assumed to be Bronze Age in date, but many originate in the neolithic period (some may indeed date back to 5000 BCE). Their central features are small rounded cup-markings, circles, semi-circles, curved lines (short, mid-length, and long), straight-ish lines, double- and multiple-rings, all in usually abstract design-forms. Their almost complete non-linear nature relate to non-egoic structuralisms, making them difficult to ‘intellectually’ grasp. Added to this is that no two carvings are the same. Although no direct ‘meaning’ can be ascribed to the carvings, many of them have a relationship with ancient notions of death and/or burial. In animistic terms, they relate to the spirit of rocks and other features of the natural landscape. They have very little relationship with alignment features (though exceptions in some megalithic rings have been found). Some modern writers allege positive relationships with water, but this ingredient (if tenable) cannot yet be said with any certainty: the idea should be forged onto animistic relationships with the land itself.
To reach here from Stirling or Bannockburn, take the B9124 east to Cowie (and past it) for 3¾ miles (6km), turning left at the small crossroads; or if you’re coming from Airth, the same B9124 road west for just about 3 miles, turning right at the same minor crossroads up the long straight road. Drive to the dead-end of the road and park up. You’ll notice that this is a crossroads of dirt-tracks. Walk along the one that heads to the houses you can see on a rise above the fields, eastwards. About 300 yards on, instead of going up towards the houses, walk thru the gate and along the wall-edge for 85 yards and go thru the gate to your right. You’ll see a small rise covered in gorse trees 100 yards in front you and roughly in the middle of it all, you’ll find this carving.
Archaeology & History
When John Bruce (1896) wrote his article on the mighty Cochno Stone a few miles north of mighty Glasgow, he left some end-notes about a petroglyph near Carnock (near Castleton) that was “found to bear a few much weathered cups with concentric circles.” He wasn’t at all clear where the carving was located, merely telling it to be “in the Gosham Park” on Carnock estate. This may have been the reason why, when the lads from the Royal Commission came looking for it in August 1955, they left without success. Nevertheless, when Ron Morris (1981) explored this area he located the place-name of Gosham Field and, therein, this multi-ringed carving. It seems more than likely that this was the carving described by Mr Bruce – and it’s an impressive one!
Despite being eroded by the passage of time, the carved design is still pretty easy to see, comprising of a cluster of archetypal cup-and-multiple rings in close proximity to each other, etched onto a sloping stone. Ron Morris’s (1981) description told that, 125 yards east of Gosham Field’s western wall,
“is a prominent greywacke outcrop, part of a rocky ridge running NW-SE, exposed in 1969-75 for 3m by 2m (10ft x 6ft), 4m (12) high on its S, but at ground level elsewhere, sloping 15° NE. On its fairly smooth surface are:
“5 cups-and-complete rings, with no grooves, 3 with three rings, 1 with four, and 1 with five rings, up to 36m (14in) diameters and 1cm (½in) depth.”
Yet contrary to Morris’ description, there are some “grooves”, or carved lines emerging from some of the rings; faint but definitely there. You can make them out in the accompanying photos above. (are there any sketch artists out there could accompany us to these carvings, so we get some good portraits of the stones?) When Maarten van Hoek (1996) visited this carving he also missed these ‘ere carved grooves.
An additional feature that needs to be mentioned is the cluster of small geological deep natural cups, inches away from the carved rings on the southern edge of this stone (completely covered in vegetation in the attached photos). The same feature also exists on the southern edges of the Castleton 5, Castleton 6 and Castleton 12 carvings and it probably had some mythic relationship with the petroglyph.
Apparently there’s another cup-marked stone, now hidden beneath the dense undergrowth of gorse, 20-30 yards east along this same geological ridge. The rock surfaces here need to be laid bare to enable a greater visual experience of the wider Castleton complex.
40-50 yards southwest of the Castleton (11) cup-and-ring stone, beneath the marauding mass of spindly-killer-bushes (or ‘gorse’ as it’s known in the common tongue) could once be seen another impressive cup-and-ring, etched along the edge of the small rocky rise. But Nature has done Her bit and hidden the old stone for the time being. A pity – for as the old photos and sketches show, it’s quite a good one.
Listed in several archaeo-surveys, the best descriptions of this carving are from the reliable pens of Messrs Morris (1981) and van Hoek. (1996) Morris first told us that,
“Leading S from near the farm to Bruce’s Castle (a ruin) is a greywacke ridge, up to 7m (24ft) high on its SW, but at ground level elsewhere, partly turf-covered. Faint cup-marks, some possibly ringed, can still be traced at various points on its top. On a shelf about 7m by 2½m (23ft x 8ft), sloping mostly 20° W, near the steep SW edge, are:
“7 cups-and-complete-rings — in one case broken off at rock edge — one with five rings, 2 with three, and 4 with two rings, up to 51cm (20in) diameter and 2cm (1in) deep. The cup-and-five-rings has a cup-and-two arcs budding from it.”
Fifteen years later, when van Hoek visited the place, it was already “becoming overgrown with gorse,” but fortunately he was able to give us a slightly more detailed description. “There are two engraved surfaces” here, he wrote,
“The north part slopes 9° to the north and has two cups with two rings each. The smaller is clearly unfinished and possibly the pocking of the east part of the outer ring caused a part of the ring to flake off. Undescribed (by Morris, PB) are a very small cup and one complete ring, and a faint cup with incomplete ring in between the two larger devices although Morris…gives a clear photograph of all these features. (above) The south group is dominated by a large but worn cup-and-five-complete-rings on a sloping surface 16° SSW. It is encircled by four rather distinct cup-and-rings and one very faint cup with one incomplete ring, which has never been reported. All single cups drawn on the plan are very doubtful and probably all are natural, especially the small ones.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean to say that these “probably natural” cups had no bearing on the man-made designs; such elements have been given mythic importance in traditional cultures elsewhere in the world, and some ‘bowls in the UK possess curative folklore of their own.
Due to the importance of this carving, effort needs to be made to clear it of the gorse and so allow fellow students the ability to contextualize it and probably uncover yet more cups-and-rings further along the surface of the rock.
On the A85 road from St Fillans to Lochearnhead, about 1½ miles on is the Loch Earn Sailing Club, with a large parking spot thereby. From here, cross the road and go through the gate up the dirt-track, past the cottages where the track bends right until a few hundred yards further up where the track splits, bear right, along and down across the river, up the other side and past the cottage. From here, the track becomes a grassy footpath. Walk along here, east towards the trees 5-600 yards away. Once you go through the large wooden slip-gate, about 150 yards on the path into the scattered trees, you’ll see a large dome-shaped rise on your right (south). Y’ can’t really miss it!
Archaeology & History
This carving was rediscovered by the great Scottish petroglyph writer Ron Morris in 1968. He told that, just below the overgrown track, “is a big dome-shaped outcrop with a smooth top. On a scattered area on this, in 3 main groups, are over 24 cup-marks, up to 3″ diameter, ½” deep.” But these aren’t mere cup-marks…
It literally is just like a large dome of rock, with carvings on certain sections of it. Half of the cup-marks are easy to see, especially the ones near to the top of the dome and which exist in three main clusters. Much more faint is another, larger cluster of cups, on its south-side.
Dealing with those on top of the rock: on the easternmost side a long natural crack separates a faint single cup-mark from a notable triangle of three, clearly visible in the photo (left). Below this are what may be a couple more cups, but they were difficult to make out and may simply be Nature’s handiwork. Certainly Nature has a part to play in the next small cluster of cups about six-feet further along the stone. A shallow natural ‘arc’ has clearly been used to create a ring around one of the cups, clearly visible in the photo (right), with another faint cup-and-ring visible below it. In between these, both Paul Hornby and I could make out what may be another incredibly faint smaller cup-and-ring (and which seemed evident on a couple of photos), but we need to wait for the computer-tech boys to get their teeth into that one! Several other single cup-marks exist either side of another moss-covered crack in the rock. And as we roll over the top western-edge of the stone, another small cluster of three, maybe four single cup-marks greets our attention.
It’s on the sloping south-side of the stone where the best cluster is found. At least ten faint cup-marks—one or two with very faint incomplete rings round them—are arranged in gentle arcs into the rock. On both sides of this section is a covering of vegetation, beneath which the carved designs probably continue. In fact if this entire stone dome was completely free of vegetation, it’s likely we’d have a much larger piece of prehistoric rock art. A job for future antiquarians perhaps…
Morris, Ronald W.B., “Glentarken Wood, Strathyre – Cup-marked Rocks,” in Discovery & Excavation Scotland, 1969.
Acknowledgments: Big thanks to Paul Hornby for use of his photographs. Cheers dood. 😉
Located near the top of one of Castleton’s rocky island outcrops and overlooking extensive flatlands many miles to the south, this impressive multi-ringed carving was rediscovered in May 1985 by the Ordnance Survey lads and, I believe, was first described in an article by Maarten van Hoek (1996), whose description we’ll get to shortly. It’s a design that incorporates some of Nature’s own cup-marks alongside the marks of men.
The overall design here is captured within three sections of the rock: between three large natural cracks running roughly north-south, as clearly shown in the accompanying photos. It’s a multi-period carving, executed over what seems to be a considerable period of time—probably several centuries. I base this on the differing degrees of erosion between the respective multiple rings — a factor found several of the Castleton carvings.
One of the most eroded sections can be seen on the eastern side of the rock, where a very faded cup-and-three-rings was carved. Initially it looked as if there was no central cup to this, but as I looked across this towards the falling sun, what seemed to be a possible ‘dot’ was noticed in the centre, very faint indeed. There are several single cup-marks just a few inches east of this triple-ring, which look more recent than its eroded companion.
On the other side of the long natural crack we see two quite distinct multiple cup-and-rings: one with three rings and another with four, both of which have short carved lines running from their centres westwards. Between these, a smaller single cup-and-ring nestles quietly, almost innocuously, minding its own business! But below these two large multiple-ringers there’s a very faint cup-and-double ring, only visible when the light conditions are just right. In numerous attempts I made to catch this element in my photos, none were successful. (I’m a crap photographer, which doesn’t help!) Due to the erosion on this element, this is possibly the earliest section of the carving. Above these rings, close to the edge of the small cliff, one or two carved lines can be seen that run into natural ‘bowls’ which, in all probability, were of some significance to those who made this design. In cultures outside the UK, such elements have sometimes been afforded mythic importance.
Several other natural small ‘bowls’ exist above the most blatant of the cup-and-rings here, on the west side of the rock, which consists of a cup-and-triple-ring no less. Erosion levels on this would seem to suggest that it was the most recent element of this petroglyph.
When Maarten van Hoek (1996) wrote his report, there was much less vegetation covering the stone and another cup-and-ring could be seen on the northernmost section of the rock – as his sketch here shows. He wrote:
“Near the edge are five cup-and-rings and possibly up to four single cups, all on rock sloping about 6″ to 12″ NW. The easternmost set consists of the worn remains of three rings (the innermost hardly visible) without a distinct central cup. Across a crack is a cup with four rings, the outer incomplete and curving away; another cup with four rings, mostly incomplete. A small cup-and-one-ring sits in between. South of this group may be some grooves and a single cup, all doubtful being very near the cliff-edge which is heavily pitted by erosion. The westernmost cup with three ovalish rings is the best preserved set of the group. Further away from the scarp is one single cup on a horizontal part and even further N is a cup-and-two-rings on a part sloping 6″ SW.”
It would be good to completely clear this rock and make it all visible again, as it was long long ago…
Morris, Ronald W.B., The Prehistoric Rock Art of Southern Scotland, BAR: Oxford 1981.
van Hoek, M.A.M.,”Prehistoric Rock Art around Castleton Farm, Airth,” in Forth Naturalist & Historian, volume 19, 1996.
Amidst the cluster of at least twenty petroglyphs found at Castleton, this example close to the fence 60 yards southeast of the farmhouse, wasn’t included in the earlier surveys by Morris (1981) and van Hoek. (1996) At this spot there a large smooth sloping rock broken into separate parts with natural cracks running over it at different angles, partially covered in soil. The stone faces north. On the easternmost side there exists a number of carved symbols, most notable of which is a large double cup-and-ring. You can’t really miss it! The other elements however, can be a little more troublesome to see…
A curious motif is the quite notable ‘cross’ that’s been pecked onto the stone, above the primary cup-and-ring. This cross is probably a later addition to the petroglyph, perhaps added to christianize the original mythic function. From the cross, it looks as if a curved line has been carved down towards the double-ring, nearly linking them together, which could also be viewed as a movement from the pre-christian to the new christian meaning conferred upon the stone. …Just an idea…
It should be noted that a faint cross was also cut into natural cracks in the Castleton 2 carving, 380 yards northwest of here.
There are two more cup-and-rings on the stone, both on the right-hand side of the cross. These were carved quite separately over large periods of time, as evidenced by their degrees of erosion. One cup-and-ring (if you can call it that) is a somewhat erratically executed series of peck-marks that strives to join up with each other, almost failing miserably, creating a somewhat disjointed cup-and-ring. Next to this, but much much fainter, is a cup-and-half-ring that was obviously carved decades, if not centuries earlier. You can just make them out in the two photos here, to the right of the cross.
Another very faint cup-and-half-ring also exists to the left of the primary motif that was only visible from one or two angles when we visited the place the other day, but barely shows up on any of the photos we took. There are a number of single cup-marks, mainly between the double-ring and the smaller cup-and-rings, some of which are probably natural, but several seem to have been worked upon by human hands.
A now-hidden petroglyph—known as “Castleton-3” in the Morris and van Hoek surveys—consisting of multiple cup-and-rings, exists beneath the mass or gorse bushes about forty years to the southwest. We could do with cutting this back so we can see the carving again.
Morris, Ronald W.B., The Prehistoric Rock Art of Southern Scotland, BAR: Oxford 1981.
van Hoek, M.A.M.,”Prehistoric Rock Art around Castleton Farm, Airth,” in Forth Naturalist & Historian, volume 19, 1996.
This is an incredible find—dare I say a beautiful find—uncovered beneath the soil a few years ago on farmland close to the shore of Loch Swilly by one of the farm-workers. We were lucky inasmuch as when it was found he noticed curious markings on it. Informing the farmer, between them they peeled back the rest of the soil and found the incredible carving that we see here in Bettina Linke’s photos.
Etched onto a sloping stone overlooking the blue panorama that is Loch Swilly, this petroglyph has a 180º view of the landscape, from the southeast through to the northwest. This panorama—unimpaired by trees thanks to its proximity to the sea loch—was probably an important ingredient in the mythic function of the carving and is something we’ll return to shortly…
Local rock art specialist, Liam McLaughlin was informed of the discovery and, along with Bettina Linke, they met up with the farmer who showed them the carving. I have little doubt that they were very impressed by what lay before their eyes! They told that the rock,
“is aligned east-west with the visible motifs, apart from a few cup marks, situated at the western end of the outcrop. Interestingly, the northern half/leaf is little worn and individual peck marks, made millennia ago, are clearly visible, suggesting it may have been covered for most of the time. The southern half is clearly worn and smoothed out and therefor appears to have been exposed for a considerable amount of time.”
One of the most impressive elements in the overall design is the solar motif, i.e., a series of concentric rings (in this case three) with a number of ‘spokes’ reaching outwards as if to indicate the rays of the sun itself. This is shown clearly in one of Bettina’s photos here. This symbol is found on other neolithic carvings in Ireland: not least the incredible designs in the Newgrange complex where the solar alignment is unmistakable.
The discovery of the carving was reported to the Irish National Monument Service and added to the Heritage Environment Inventory where a detailed report was subsequently written, much of which is extracted here:
“The rock art panel is on an outcrop of bedrock, aligned east to west and slightly sloping in this direction towards Lough Swilly and Knockalla Mountains, also known as the Devil’s Backbone. It lies in an arable field near a field wall in rough ground. Visibility is good to the SE, S, W, and NW across Lough Foyle and the Fanad peninsula.”
On the northern section of the stone,
“There are three large motifs and well preserved with cup and pecking marks between them. There are traces of a fourth large motif on the east end but the rock surface has been eroded or damaged, making it impossible to ascertain the design of the motif.
“Starting from west to east, the top large motif has three rings and a diameter of 43cm. The centre cup mark is shallow and has a diameter of 5cm. There is second shallow cup mark between the 2nd and 3rd ring in the southern part of the motif. Its diameter is 3cm. One tail, is running from the inner ring outwards to the west and a second one is running towards the north. Peck marks, covering the motif, are still visible, particular in the rings.
“The motif below has four rings and a diameter of 39cm. The centre cup mark is very shallow and has a diameter of 4cm. And like in the above motif it has a tail running northwards. But a special mentioning has to be made of the unusual heart shape of its rings with the indentation to the south. Peck marks are still visible in the rings. As far as could be made out, there are five cup marks between those two motifs with diameters between 3cm – 5cm. This part also contains several single peck marks of about 1cm in diameter.
“The next large motif below has a diameter of 37cm, three rings and a centre cup with a diameter of 3cm. A tail appears to divide the motif into an eastern and western half. Another tail seems to run from the centre cup through the inner and middle ring towards east.
“Large peck marks of 1cm diameter cover the entire motif, which can be particular well seen in the embossed space between the middle and outer ring. There are more, large peck marks above the motif to the west as well as four possible shallow and small cup marks. Although the two closed to the motif, in what appears to be a twin configuration, could be two independent but slightly damaged peck marks.
“All of the three motifs on the northern wing leave the distinct impression that they may have been sun wheels with some spokes no longer visible or not visible during our visits.
“The southern wing:
“Like the northern ring the large motifs are placed in the western end of the wing with only a few cup marks on its eastern tip. The edges of the carvings are rounder and more worn, although some rings and cup marks are distinctively deeper. The latter might suggest that these motifs were carved at a different time and by different hands. It also appears that this wing was longer exposed than the northern one.
“The motifs are as followed from west to east: two deep cup marks on the northern side. Diameter for the upper one 5cm in diameter, for the lower one 4cm. There could be a shallow third one below and a damaged one to the south.
“Next in the centre of the wing is a large, three ringed motif with a diameter of 40cm and a centre cup mark, 3.5cm in diameter. Some of the photos show possible if faint tails or spokes, suggesting that this also could be a sun wheel motif. No visible peck marks. Below is a small double ring motif with a diameter of 17cm and a centre cup mark with a diameter of 2cm. Just below and to the south-east is a cup mark, circa 3 cm in diameter. Beside it to the east another cup mark about 5cm in diameter. There are one or two, maybe three circa 2.5cm cup marks in the white lichen area to the north-east of the small ringed motif. And some faint peck marks appear between the large 3 ring motif above and the small ringed motif close to the natural split of the bedrock. The next motif below is a deep double ring motif with a diameter of 26cm and a centre cup mark of 5cm. No tails or spokes could be detected. The white lichen area with up to three possible single cup marks is just beside it, close to the natural dividing crack.
“In the middle of the southern wing are faint traces which suggest that there could have been another motif, now destroyed, of an estimated diameter of 28cm.
“The eastern tip has one large cup mark of 10cm and 3 small cup marks between 2.5cm and 3cm. There might be a fifth but damaged cup mark.”
The fact that the stone itself is aligned east-west and pointing towards the outline of the Knockalla Mountains, suggesting “a solar/sunset alignment at the equinoxes” may well be true, but whether this was intended or not is another matter.
Intriguingly, one of the archaeo-astronony pioneers, Boyle Somerville (1909) wrote a article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland about a number of summer solstice alignments he thought existed in this precise locale. Amongst them was one he found running from the standing stone at Cloghbane on the other side of Loch Swilly—known as the White or Rowan Stone—heading northeast to the small mountainous peak of Bulbin, approximately 7.1 mile away. Somerville found that,
“The outline of the mountains visible to the northward from Cloghbane shows two sight-lines that undoubtedly were used from this position. One is for the summer solstitial sunrise over the prominent peak Bulbin; the other is over a low and small but conspicuous round-topped headland, towards the mouth of the Lough, which is in line with an exactly similar hill behind it; their two summits being practically coincident, forming a single sky-line; so that, from Cloghbane, their angle of elevation by theodolite is the same.”
The first alignment is the relevant one here: it not only relates to the rising sun at solstice in 1000 BC, but our Glebe petroglyph lies right on the edge this alignment! (give or take a few yards) Whether or not this is a coincidence we cannot say for certain, but the ‘solar motif’ in the design would seem a strong indicator that implies some sort of solar function here.
As always with cup-and-rings, their non-linear designs tickle our minds with possibilities, probabilities and that there thing called the mysterious, which Einstein described as “the source of all true art and science…”
One final and important thing to anyone who may want to visit this site: please contact the farmer and ask his permission if you want to see it. Cheers. 😉
Acknowledgements: Massive, huge huge thanks to Bettina ‘Grianan Swilly’ Linke for the superb photos and data for this site profile. And (although he doesn’t know it yet!) thanks are also due to the farmer and his employee who rediscovered the carving and to Liam McLaughlin who put pen to paper and told the rest of us about it.
Follow the same directions as if you’re visiting the impressive Fairy Stone carving, then 3 yards east is the Cottingley 2 double cup-and-ring, keep walking past through trees for another 5-6 yards where you’ll come across this reasonably large curved flat stone. Y’ can’t really miss it
Archaeology & History
This was another carving in the small cluster by the Fairy Stone that I found on my visit here in the 1980s—but it’s a pretty innocuous one to be honest. There’s a faded incomplete “ring” (not really visible on my photos due to pouring rain and very poor light when I was here) with a distinct cup-mark in the middle. Several inches away from the cup-and-ring is a carved line that arcs around it creating an incomplete oval design; and what seems to be a single cup-mark is visible at the top of this oval. Other marks on the stone are both natural as well as recent ‘scratches’.
Some elements of this carving—as with others in this petroglyph cluster—seems to be modern. The cup-and-ring seems to be the real deal, but the ‘oval’ seems to have been added much more recently, perhaps by the scouts who play around in this part of the woods.
Get yerself to the Fairy Stone, then walk east past the adjacent woodland carvings—numbers 2, 3 and 4—from where you should walk about another 10 yards east across the grass, keeping your eyes peeled for a large flat stone measuring about 6ft by 10ft just as you go back into the tree cover north-side. You’ll find it.
Archaeology & History
This large carved rock is the easternmost known petroglyph in this small woodland cluster of five. (a sixth one can be found, but it’s several hundred yards east from here) Consisting of two distinct cup-and-rings in relative proximity to each other on the northern section of the stone, this design—unlike others in this group—has a greater sense of stylistic authenticity to it. Despite this, one of the two cup-and-rings seems to be a more recent addition to the rock, as close inspection shows peck marks that aren’t very well eroded as you’d expect on rock of this type if it was truly ancient. The more faded cup-and-ring on its northwestern section looks to have a greater sense of age about it when we look at its erosion level….perhaps…
We have to take into consideration when looking at this carving and the others nearby that possess some quite peculiar design-elements, that this section of woodland is used extensively by boy scouts who do what boy scouts do in their teenage ventures: from making fires, climbing trees and, perhaps, scribing on stones if/when their elders aint looking. It’s an important ingredient that has to be taken into consideration when looking at the more rash motifs hereby—this carving included. The more faded cup-and-ring on this, however, may be the real deal. And hopefully, next time I visit this site, She’ll not be dark and pouring with rain (much though I love such weather), so I’ll be able to get some better photos!
Follow the same directions as if you’re visiting the impressive Fairy Stone carving, then check out the overgrown rock three yards away, to the east. You might have to rummage under the scrubbage to see it, but you’ll find it if you want to!
Archaeology & History
I first found this stone in the 1980s when I’d been shown the Fairy Stone carving which, at the time, was thought to be all alone. But I used the olde adage: “where’s there’s one cup-and-ring, others tend to be“—and found this and several others closed by.
It’s a relatively small, slightly-domed earthfast rock, upon which we find an unusually large cup-and-double-ring design with a carved line running from the large central cup out to the edge of the stone. However, the carved lines that constitute both the inner and outer rings are ‘crude’ in form and style when compared to the vast majority of other British petroglyphs; and for some reason, this aspect of the design has me casting doubts over its prehistoric authenticity. I hope I’m wrong!
Bennett, Paul, ‘Tales of Yorkshire Faeries,’ in Earth 9, 1988.
Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Milverton 2001.
To be found in the grounds of Belmont House School, just 1¾ miles (2.8km) north of Derry’s otherColumba’s Stone, this is one of the many petroglyphic “footprints” that folklore ascribes to Ireland’s saint Columb/Columba/Columbkille (and other variants). Said to have originally been carved at the great fortress of Grianan of Aileach, 4½ miles (7.2km) to the west, this great block of stone—roughly 6 feet square on top—has the distinct sculpturings of two feet, each about 10 inches long, etched into its sloping surface. Archaeologically speaking, there’s little more to say about the stone; but its traditions are another thing altogether and are of considerably greater importance…
Like the carved footprint on top of Dunadd in Argyll with its association of tribal initiations, the traditions relating to this footprint follows the same path, so to speak. It was H.P. Swan (1938) who gave us a good summary of the olde lore here, telling that,
“It is almost absolutely certain that it was brought from the Grianan of Aileach after its destruction, probably by an O’Doherty for his own installation. If so, the task of removal was no joke, for the stone weighs some seven tons. It was the “crowning stone” of the Kinel-Owen, or, in other words, the stone upon which the chieftains of the great O’Neill clan were inaugurated. They reigned in Aileach for many centuries.
“At his installation, as supreme head of the clan, the newly-chosen chief was placed upon this stone, his bare feet in the footmarks; a peeled willow wand was put into his hand, as an emblem of the pure and gentle sway he should exercise over his tribe; an oath was administered to him by the chief ecclesiastic in the neighbourhood, that he should preserve inviolable the ancient custom of his country, and deliver the succession peaceably to his tanist (successor); after which, descending from the stone, he turned himself thrice backwards and thrice forwards, to signify that he was ready to meet all foes, from whatever quarter they might come; and was then, with wild acclamations, hailed as their chief by his assembled clan.
“At the time of Ireland’s conversion to christianity by St Patrick, that holy man visited the Grianan (about AD 443), where this stone had been so used for centuries before; Owen was then King; he was converted from Paganism to the new faith and baptised by Patrick; at the same time, the saint consecrated this stone, and blessed it as the crowning-stone of the Kinel-Owen for ever. Time, however, has proved his blessing futile, as may be read in the account of the Grianan, which was deserted by the Kinel-Owen after its destruction by the O’Briens in 1101.”
The ritual described here cannot be taken lightly, nor seen as a presentation of fiction, for its ingredients are found echoed in kingship rites in many cultures.
Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.