Students of anthropology, comparative religion, folklore, etc, have long known that some mountains, rock outcrops, rivers and other features on the Earth have been imbued with particular sanctity – i.e., are sacred. Some are deemed as the abodes of spirits (good & bad), gods and other transpersonal qualities. Most mountaineers and travellers talk of similar living qualities in Nature’s various forms. So it is that we also find sites across Britain with great myths attached to them. Examples that immediately spring to mind are Pendle Hill (Lancs), Schiehallion (Perthshire), Beinn na Cailleach (Perthshire), Simon’s Seat (N.Yorks), and many others that we see on modern OS-maps dedicated to such mythic characters as the Devil, Robin Hood, fairies, Thor, Grim and other deities. Although such sites are not generally thought of as being important in the lives of our ancestors, such places were imbued with similar animistic qualities as found at standing stones, megalithic rings and other human creations; but we can be damn sure that the spirit-qualities (genius loci) of Nature’s creations had much greater power than anything created by humans!
This large boulder found off the Cromarty coast, was highlighted on the 1880 OS-map of the region. It is one of the ancient boundary stones of the township.
We know from the vast array on the folklore of stones that many were imbued with magickal abilities, some of which were witnesses to vows and others to make curses from. This large boulder off the coast of Cromarty was, according to Donald MacKenzie (1935), a place where the latter used to be done. He told us:
“At Cromarty there is a big boulder known as the Clach na Mallachd (‘Stone of Cursing’). Curses were delivered when an individual stood or knelt bare-kneed upon it.”
In an earlier account by the Ordnance Survey lads in one of their Name Books, they gave the following tale that had been narrated to them:
“A large stone Situate at the Low Water, and forming one of the boundary Stones of the burgh, the reason of its having this name is, that a young lad while Sitting on it was overwhelmed by the advancing tide and drowned, his mother when told of it, cursed the stone, hence the name Clach Mallach (Accursed Stone)”
MacKenzie, Donald A., Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life, Blackie: Glasgow 1935.
As with traditions found all over the world, rivers and lakes had spirits, gods and rituals attached to them. Despite us believing that no such things ever occurred in Britain and the rest of the so-called ‘civilized’ world, such things were once common. One of the annual rites performed at the Hebridean river at Barbhas (Barvas)—and described by Alexander Fraser (1878)—is just one such example:
“The natives of Barvas had a peculiar custom on the first day of May, of sending a man across the river at (the) dawn of day to prevent any females from crossing it first, as that would hinder the salmon from ascending the river all the year through.” (Fraser 1878)
The importance of the salmon, both as an important food source and equally as a ‘sacred animal’, is known in myths and legends throughout the British Isles. To the legendary hero-figure Finn, it played a part of him gaining supernatural wisdom, and this quality is integral to the fish itself who ate the hazelnuts of knowledge and gained such power. In this same short piece of folklore, the time of year when the ritual should be enacted on the River Barvas is Beltane, which is renowned as the prime period in the annual cycle/calendar relating to fertility. This element relates to maintaining the fecundity of the river and the salmon where, in this case, men crossing the waters symbolically fertilizes them to ensure the annual return of the fish. It would be interesting to known when this custom finally died out.
A bit troublesome to locate if you don’t know the area. Get into the town centre where the paved St George Square is by the main road. Cross the road and go up Hill Street, which runs straight into Ferntower Road. A few hundred yards up turn left up Ewanfield, all the way to the very end at Crieff Hydro. From here you’ll see the path uphill by the tennis courts. Walk up and past the holiday chalets until your hit the road that curls round the bottom of the woods. Go along until you find the car park and just above here by the roadside is a tourist board showing the Knock Walk footpath. The Cradle Stone is about 250 yards up the Knock Walk from here, 100 yards into the woods on the right.
Archaeology & History
This large broken boulder is the result of it once living further up the hillside. One of Nature’s great forces then kicked the olde fella and he rolled down the hill to its present position. It was mentioned in a detailed 19th century geological survey by Mr Thomson (1836), where he told:
“At Crieff, in Perthshire, there occurs a series of low hills running parallel to the Grampians. These hills consist of old red sandstone and greywacke. On one of them, the Cnock, the village of Crieff is built. Upon the south-east side of this hill, towards the southern extremity, not far from the summit, there are deposited a number of boulder stones of syenitic granite. The largest of these is called the ‘Cradlestone’. It is nearly spherical, quite smooth on the surface, and 29 feet in circumference. It has been split in two by lightning, (according to the tradition of the place,) and one of the fragments has made one complete revolution down the hill and then stopped. The weight of this boulder is about 30 tons. The nearest mountains of syenitic granite, are those in the neighbourhood of Bennevis, distant more than 60 miles north-west…”
The stone was subsequently entered in Fred Cole’s (1911) outstanding survey of the local megaliths, although acknowledged it has having no archaeological pedigree. The Cradle Stone, he wrote, is
“the appellation printed in Old English lettering on the Ordnance Map, given to one of two huge boulders difficult to find in the fir-woods at the western extremity of the Knock, and at a height of nearly 600 feet, midway between Knockearn House and Culcrieff. On visiting the site, the conclusion became apparent that these two blocks were merely natural curiosities, and had no interest for the archaeologist beyond the name.”
In volume 10 of the New Statistical Account it was told how local folklore attested the Cradle Stone as being where the babies came from, perhaps intimating some fertility legend long since forgotten.
The main thing attached to this giant broken stone is the old folk-tale that used to be more well-known in the 19th century than it is today. It was narrated at length in Macara’s (1881) fine pot pourri of local histories and legends and which I hope you can forgive me citing in its entirity here:
“In the memory of men still living, two well-known weavers, named James Livingstone and James M’Laren, lived in Barnkettick, at the west end of the town. Livingstone was a thorough wag, and M’Laren was somewhat of a simpleton. Livingstone was in the habit of telling his neighbour all sorts of extravagant stories about ghosts and witches. The facility with which the latter fraternity could turn themselves into hares and scamper about was an accepted fact, which M’Laren as truly believed as his Bible.
“The Rocking or Cradle Stone on the brow of the Knock, behind the town, was supposed to be of Druidical origin, and for ages drew forth the fear and wonder of the natives. A belief prevailed that something valuable was buried in its foundation, and worth lifting, if it could only be got at. Livingstone having heard of “Whang, the Miller” directed McLaren’s attention to the subject of valuable treasure being beneath the cradle stone, which was greedily swallowed, and he expressed his astonishment that no one tried digging for it.
“Livingstone suggested that they both should try it, and divide the spoil. M’Laren agreed, and it was resolved to make the attempt that night after dusk. The necessary picks and spades were soon borrowed. Livingstone called on an acquaint- ance or two, and informed them of the “ploy,” and they readily agreed to arrange and have some fun at the “howking” of the treasure.
“The acquaintances were up at the spot early, with a view to set some snares for hares, so that the journey would combine pleasure with profit. They had also provided a few “squibs” for contingencies. At the time appointed the two weavers, with their implements on their shoulders, arrived at the stone and set to work. M’Laren did so with strong impressions of a coming calamity, which soon made him feel the greatest terror. Livingstone worked with a will, and upbraided M’Laren with cowardice.
“With that a strange, unearthly sound came up the hill, and on looking round, a ball of fire was seen careering through the underwood. M’Laren felt queerish and almost speechless. Another hissing sound was heard, and the strange fire came nearer. Livingstone still wrought on, telling M’Laren never to heed, as these things were only bits of falling stars. M’Laren thought otherwise. They were in the neighbourhood of Monzie, where it was certain there were plenty of witches, and it was evident something “no canny” was brewing. He would have given anything to have been at his loom.
“In an instant three or four fiery darts from different directions came hissing along, and darted through the heath at their feet. M’Laren was paralysed with fear. Livingstone ceased work instantly, and jumping out of the trench he made, yelled he smelt brimstone, rushed from the stone and was lost in the darkness. Poor M’Laren’s limbs trembled like a leaf and were scarcely able to support him. As he was trying to follow his companion, another fire shower rained about him, and down the hill he went like a deer, yelling on Livingstone to wait on him.
“As he neared the parks above Milnab, the hares acid rabbits were scampering in all directions, and a few found their necks in the snares, which caused them to squeal at the pitch of their voices too. M’Laren being now thoroughly convinced that the witches were let loose, speed was added to his limbs, and with supernatural fleetness he bounded over all obstructions and found himself in an instant or two in his room, and jumped into bed. A cold sweat broke out all over his body and his heart beat with sharp thuds, shaking the bed. It was some time ere he could collect his scattered senses, so as to realise whether or not he was dreaming. The moisture in his eyes caused every blink of the fire to appear like the horrid hissing fire darts of the Knock. After a time he fell into a stupor, the recent events being still vividly before his mind.
“His cronies on the Knock tumbled amongst the heather and broom, shouting with joy at the success of the scheme. After giving vent to their excited feelings they went back to the Cradle Stone and lifted the picks and spades, and on their way home went round the snares and found a good “take.” As they were killing the hares, Livingstone suggested that a live one be taken to M’Laren, which was readily agreed to. On reaching home, Livingstone slipped into M’Laren’s house, and all seemed at rest. Creeping quietly ben to Jamie’s end of the bigging, he tied the live hare to the foot of his bed. As he was retiring he jostled against the hen roost and set the cock a-crowing, which so far roused Jamie that he thought it was scarcely morning yet. The cock crowed away, and soon the neighbouring roosts bestirred themselves, and all the cocks in the neighbourhood returned the vocal sound, as if it were morning.
“Poor Jamie, on reflecting, resolved that if he got over the present raising of “Auld Clootie” scathless, he would pledge himself never to trouble him or his again. As he thus pondered he thought he heard a strange pattering on the floor, and an occasional slight pull at the bed. On straining his eyes and looking floorwards he saw something not unlike a reputed witch moving about the foot of the bed. On closer observation this was fully confirmed, and he instinctively roared for help. His daft brother was now roused, and he roared also, and the hamlet dogs lent a willing voice. The wags who had collected outside rushed in, and on putting some fir roots on the fire the blaze showed Jamie, nearly demented, in bed, with his wearing clothes still on, and some dogs entering the room set a-worrying the hare. At the sight of well-known faces Jamie jumped out of bed. So much excited that it was feared that the joke had been carried rather far. Livingstone was still equal to the occasion, and drawing a bottle of whisky from his pocket handed round a few glasses, and in a short time “they didna care for deils a boddle.” Jamie was advised to divest himself of his clothes and go to bed, which he did, and soon fell into a deep sleep, and awakened next morning not much the worse. The affair got wind, and many a country fireside was made merry by the story of the Cradle Stone treasure.”
Legendary Rock (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – NH 792 651
Archaeology & History
In the ruins St Bennet’s Chapel, along with his accompanying holy well (NH 7923 6502), could once be seen a curiously shaped rock which, according to tradition has been destroyed. In Mr Innes’ (1855) major history work he mentioned this Fairies Cradle in passing. Not far from here and close to the coast, is a curiously-shaped boulder with several natural cupmarks (at NH 9150 6497).
In Hugh Miller’s (1878) definitive local history work, Scenes and Legends, we have our main description of this once important site. It existed,
“near the chapel itself, which was perched like an eyry on a steep solitary ridge that overlooks the Moray Firth, there was a stone trough, famous, about eighty years before, for virtues derived also from the saint, like those of the well. For if a child was carried away by the fairies, and some mischievous unthriving imp left in its place, the parents had only to lay the changeling in this trough, and, by some invisible process, their child would be immediately restored to them. It was termed the fairies’ cradle; and was destroyed shortly before the rebellion of 1745, by Mr. Gordon, the minister of the parish, and two of his elders.”
The story of children here being carried away by littlepeople and then restored by an impish offering, is a play on the site being a healing stone. There are numerous other “curing stones” found elsewhere in Scotland, but with their own respective traditions—like the Measles Stone at Fearnan, the Whooping Cough Stone near Killin, and many others.
If anyone knows anything more about this lost “curing stone”, please let us know.
Take the road to Auchlyne from Killin which follows the north side of the River Dochart, and on the edge of the village the stone will be seen on the left hand side behind a hedge, opposite the entrance to ‘Springburn’.
Archaeology & History
The chair is mentioned in Rev. Gillies’ exemplary work, In Famed Breadalbane (1938):
‘St. Fillan would appear to have had a great liking for stone seats. Besides the one already mentioned…there is..a..flat stone on the top of a knoll about a mile to the west of the village, and on the north side of the river, on which he is said to have sat and taught‘
Two local ladies told us that the Chair had recently been uncovered from the vegetation. It is a flattish earth-fast slab of rock, which has on the right hand side a seat indentation, which faces the river bank about 12 feet away. Its proximity to the river bank would seem to limit its use as a preaching pulpit, and yet, well over a millennium after the death of Fillan, his ‘Chair’ is still remembered. Did the Chair serve another purpose, a purpose that long preceded Fillan and Christianity?
Here at Killin we are in an area of Scotland where Christianity was for long a veil worn very lightly over long-held ancient animistic beliefs and customs. Indeed in the early nineteenth century, missionaries were sent in the face of considerable local opposition by the Haldanes into Gaelic speaking Breadalbane to try to convert the locals to Christianity.
St Fillan and other saints had it seems become the named facilitators for healing at ancient places on behalf of the incoming religion from the Middle East. To the west of Killin, there are the St Fillan’s Pools at Auchtertyre near Tyndrum, where he is reputed to have cured madness but which continued to be used for that purpose until the late eighteenth century at least. There are stones for preventing measles and whooping cough near Killin that are still known and pointed out. So what of our chair?
There is a nineteenth century story of a chair of St Fiacre (Irish born like Fillan) at the village church of St Fiacre near Monceaux in France being used to ‘confer fecundity upon women who sit upon it ‘. The shape and proximity to the river may otherwise suggest St Fillan’s Chair was a birthing Chair? Maybe some very old locals still know the true story of this Chair, but would they tell it?
Anon., Phallic Worship – a Description of the Mysteries of the Sex Worship of the Ancients, privately Printed: London 1880.
This stone has very similar qualities to the one found upon Mullach-geal, ⅔ of a mile to the west, as a place where ritual magick was performed. And, just like the Mullach-geal stone, we only have an approximate position of its whereabouts: “behind the village”, as Mr Sands (1878) said. The same words were used by other St Kildan writers when it came to describing the whereabouts of Tobar Childe, so we must assume it to be reasonably close to the old well.
Mr Sands seems to be the first person to write about it, telling us,
“At the back of the village is a stone, which does not differ in external appearance from the numerous stones scattered around, but which was supposed to possess magical properties. It is called Clach an Eolas, or Stone of Knowledge. If any one stood on it on the first day of the quarter, he became endowed with the second sight — could “look into the seeds of Time,” and foretell all that was to happen during the rest of the quarter. Such an institution must have been of great value in Hirta, where news are so scanty. To test its powers I stood on it on the first day of Spring (old style) in the present year, but must acknowledge that I saw nothing, except two or three women laden with peats, who were smiling at my credulity.”
Charles MacLean (1977) mentioned the stone a hundred years later, but seems to have just copied this earlier description. Does anyone up there know its whereabouts?
MacLean, Charles, Island on the Edge of the World, Canongate: Edinburgh 1977.
Travelling north from Perth on the A94, take the right turning for Murrayshall just before entering Scone, then take the first right and continue up to the road junction, and park up at the trackway opposite. You’ll see the big stone in the field to the right, up against the road embankment; and the small stone is in the paddock to the left of the trackway at the edge of the trees.
Archaeology & History
Two large glacial erratics which have acquired mythic status and picked up a Christian triumphalist message on the way.
In Lawrence Melville’s (1939) excellent local history work, he thankfully put to pen an all-but-forgotten tale of oral tradition:
“Where the road from the Muir of Durdie leaves Kilspindie parish, a grass grown road leads north to Boglebee….. A few yards from the highway lie two large stones, said to have been flung from the Giant’s Hill in Collace parish – the flat topped eminence lying due north from the stones, about two or three miles away, better known as “Macbeth’s Hill”, or “Dunsinane Hill”.
“When the church dedicated to St John in Perth was being built and its tower began to appear, a witch living in Collace was enraged to see this proof of the approach of Christianity and determined to destroy it. She had a son, a giant (after whom the hill receives one of its names), whom she sent to the top of the hill, giving him two huge stones with which to destroy the rising church.
“By her incantations she had supernatural power and knew that when Christianity came her power would be destroyed. She gave him her mutch from her head to be used as sling and in it the giant put the two huge stones. Whirling it around his head, he aimed them in a line with the tower, but, just as he let them fly, the string of his mother’s cap broke and the stones only went the length of Boglebee. The marks on the stones are said to be the marks of the witch’s mutch strings.”
A familiar folkloric message is remembered the length of Britain: a giant, a devil or other supernatural being throwing stones that either spill out of an apron or otherwise miss their mark. And in this case an unsubtle message to anyone trying to take on the might of the church. But what was the original story of these stones as told by the old time oral storytellers before Christian missionaries stalked the land?
If the string hadn’t broken and the stones had followed their original trajectory they would have fallen south of St John’s Kirk, but it was the thought that counted….
Melville, Lawrence, The Fair Land of Gowrie, William Culross: Coupar Angus, 1939.
The Rock and Leap may be seen from the B953 Bandirran to Abernyte road. Approach across the fields.
Archaeology & History
A large boulder perhaps 40 tons in weight lies in a ravine between Dunsinane and Black Hill. The ‘Leap’ is a flat topped ledge jutting out from the west side of Black Hill facing Dunsinane.
Melville (1939) in his The Fair Land of Gowrie writes of the simple pleasures of the giant:
“From the farther side of the ravine [between Dunsinane and Black Hill], a precipitous rock juts out, which is called the “Giant’s Leap”. According to the lore of the Sidlaws, a giant, who once lived in these parts, leaped from this rock right on to the top of Dunsinane Hill. The giant also amused himself by tossing about a huge boulder which can be seen lying at the bottom of the ravine.”
“Fairies haunted the hills here and on summer nights they descended to the meadows, where they danced at a spot called “Fairygreen”. The Black Hill gets its name from the dark heath which covers it. Weird and bleak looking for most of the year, the lower slopes are brightened by glowing patches of purple flowers in late summer.”
Fairygreen Farm lies a mile almost due north of Dunsinane.
Melville, Lawrence, The Fair Land of Gowrie, William Culross & Son, Coupar Angus, 1939.
By whichever route you wanna take, get y’self to the prominent cup-and-ring marked rocks known as the Thimble Stones near the very top of these moors. From here, walk roughly 400 yards southwest onto the bare open moors (there are no footpaths here) and you’ll see these two isolated prominent boulders living quietly on their own. You can’t really miss ’em! You’re there.
Archaeology & History
Of the two giant boulders here, both are included in the petroglyph surveys of Hedges (1986) and Boughey & Vickerman’s (2003) as possessing “all natural” cup-marks on their top and vertical surfaces. Those on top of the rocks certainly seem to be Nature’s handiwork, whilst many of the seeming ‘cups’ on the vertical face of one (not the one pictured here) are due to gunshots. I’m not quite sure when they were done, but they certainly didn’t exist during the many visits I made here in the in the 1970s and ’80s.
They stones included in most of the standard antiquarian surveys of the 19th century, with the earliest being Forrest & Grainge (1869) who described them as,
“two detached masses of rock, standing alone upon the moor. The first is 14ft in length by 8ft in height, tapering to the ground; a set of cups and channels occupy the highest point. The other, distant 13 yards, is of an irregular square form, 45 yards in circumference and 7ft high. This stone appears to be tilted on its edge, presenting its cleavage upwards, and has hollows containing water, but is so much wasted above that if it has ever borne the cups and channels, they are now obliterated.”
Collyer & Turner (1885) described “a number of cups” on the edge of the northern rock; and Romilly Allen (1896) likewise. Even that historical literary giant, Harry Speight (1900), added his own tuppence here, telling folks how both Eggs “are channelled and bear cups.”
It’s very possible that these isolated stones did have some sort of significance to our prehistoric ancestors. There are innumerable examples worldwide of rocks like this possessing ritual and mythic lore—and many in the British Isles too. And the cupmarks on the stones may have been enhanced by those same prehistoric ancestors. But we’ll never know for sure…
The creation myth behind the Two Eggs is one echoed in traditions across the world. Folklore tells that the Eggs were said to have been laid here by a great dragon who lived within a hill some distance to the south. All other aspects of the tale have sadly long since been forgotten…
Allen, J. Romilly, “Cup and Ring Sculptures on Ilkley Moor,” in The Reliquary, volume 2, 1896.
Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Milverton 2001.
Boughey, Keith & Vickerman, E.A., Prehistoric Rock Art of the West Riding, WYAS: Wakefield 2003.
Collyer, Robert & Turner, J.H., Ilkley: Ancient and Modern, William Walker: Otley 1885.
Forrest, Charles & Grainge, William, A Ramble on Rombald’s Moor, Northern Antiquarian: Bradford 2012 (1st published 1867-69).
Hedges, John (ed.), The Carved Rocks on Rombalds Moor, WYMCC: Wakefield 1986.
Speight, Harry, Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1900.
Legendary Rock (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – TF 3127 6901
Also Known as:
Big Stone of Slash Lane
Archaeology & History
There is no specific archaeological information about this stone. However, we must take note of the so-called “devil’s footprint” that was on the boulder. In some parts of the UK, some devilish and other mythic footprints on stone are prehistoric cup-markings; but we have no idea whether this impression was such a carving or—more probably in this case—Nature’s handiwork. The field in which the stone existed was said to be the place where the so-called Battle of Winceby occurred.
The stone was mentioned in several old tomes, with each one generally repeating the same familiar story, and with motifs that will be familiar to antiquarians and folklorists alike. In an early edition of Notes & Queries we were told of,
“the large stone in Winceby field, where soldiers had sharpened their swords before the battle. This was a stone of fearful interest, for much treasure was supposed to have been buried under it. Numerous attempts have been made to get at this treasure, but they were always defeated by some accident or piece of bad luck. On the last occasion, by ‘yokkin’ several horses to chains fastened round the stone, they nearly succeeded in pulling it over, when, in his excitement, one of the men uttered an oath, and the devil instantly appeared, and stamped on it with his foot. “Tha cheans all brok, tha osses fell, an’ tha stoan went back t’ its owd place solidder nur ivver; an’ if ya doan’t believe ya ma goa an’ look fur yer sen, an’ ya’ll see tha divvill’s fut mark like three kraws’ claws, a-top o’ tha stoan.’ It was firmly believed the lane was haunted, and that loud groans were often heard there.”
The tale was retold in Grange & Hudson’s (1891) essay on regional folklore. In Mr Walter’s (1904) excellent local history survey, there was an additional shape-shifting element to the story which, in more northern climes, is usually attributed to hare; but this was slightly different. The stone, as we’ve heard,
“was supposed to cover hidden treasure, and various attempts were made at different times to remove it, sometimes with six or even eight horses. At one of these attempts, his Satanic Majesty, having been invoked by the local title of ‘Old Lad’ appeared, it is said, in person, where upon the stone fell back, upsetting the horses. On another occasion a black mouse, probably the same Being incarnate in another form…ran over the gearing of the horses, with a similar result. Eventually, as a last resort, to break the spell, the boulder was buried, and now no trace of the boulder, black mouse, or Satan’s foot-print remains.”
Sadly we have no sketches of the devil’s ‘footprint’; and if local lore is right, we’ll never know. For tis said that a local farmer in the 1970s dug down and removed the stone completely. All that he found were numerous broken ploughshares around the rock, indicating that many tools had been used to shift the stone.
Grange, Ernest L. & Hudson, J.C. (eds.), Lincolnshire Notes and Queries – volume 2, W.K. Morton: Horncastle 1891.
Gutch, Mrs & Peacock, Mabel, Examples of Printed Folklore Concerning Lincolnshire, David Nutt: London 1908.
Walter, J. Conway, Records, Historical and Antiquarian of Parishes around Horncastle, W.K. Morton: Horncastle 1904.