Altar Stone, Stobo, Peeblesshire

Legendary Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NT 15710 35754

Also Known as:

  1. Arthur’s Stane

Getting Here

Altar Stone on 1859 map

Various ways to get here.  From Peebles take the A72 road west to Kirkurd, but after 4 miles turn left onto B712.  Several miles down, go past Stobo village and before crossing the bridge over  the River Tweed, turn left up minor road leading to Dreva and Broughton.  The track into Altarstone Farm is about a mile along and the stone is across the road from there.  The other way is going south along the A701 from Broughton village, where you take the left turn towards Stobo.  Go along here for just over 3 miles where you reach the woodland (park here where the small track goes into the woods).  A coupla hundred yards further along is Altar Stone Farm on your right and the stone is above the verge on your left.

Archaeology & History

Altar Stone, Stobo

Archaeologically speaking, there’s nowt much to say about this site apart from the usual tedium of its measurements and the rock-type.  I’ll give the latter a miss, but the stone stands at nearly five feet high and nearly as broad; with its upper face relatively smooth and the top of it pretty flat.  A section from the top of this stone was cut and sliced off a few centuries ago and this was said to have been taken to Stobo church a few miles away, where it was fashioned into a stone font for baptisms.  If this is true, it’s possible that this stone was once an authentic squat standing stone, but we’ll probably never know.  Also on top of the stone you can see a number of geophysical scratches, one of which looks as if it may have been worked by human hands and which has some relevance to the folklore of the stone.

It is shown on the 1859 OS-map of the area and was mentioned in the Ordnance Name Book where they told how it was “supposed to have formed the Altar of a druids Temple or some such object,” but they could find no local verification of such lore at the time of their visit… or at least, no one was telling them anything about it…

Folklore

This fascinating bit of rock—or possible sliced standing stone—is of note due to its association with that old shaman of shamans known as Merlin!  Near the end of His days, when He’d truly retired from the world of men and wandered, they say, mad amidst the great lowland forests, an old christian dood by the name of Kentigern—later known as St Mungo—who’d been trying to convert our old magickian away from the animistic ways of Nature.  Legend says that He succeeded.  The old Scottish traveller Ratcliffe Barnett (1925) wrote:

“Merlin is the real genius of Drumelzier.  Dumelzier means the Ridge of Meldred, a pagan prince of the district.  And it was Meldred’s shepherds that slew Merlin the bard.  The heathen bard was present at the battle of Arthuret in the year 573, when the christian army gained a victory over the Heathen Host.  Merlin fled to the forest of Caledon at Drumelzier and there ever after the old Druid spent his life among the wild hills with a repute for insanity.  This poet priest was doubtless heart-broken at the defeat of his pagan friends.  The old order was changing.  But the christian king had brought his friend, St Kentigern or Munro, to preach the gospel in upper Tweedside at Stobo.  One day Kentigern met a weird-looking man and demanded who he was.  “Once I was the prophet of Vortigern (Gwendollen).  My name is Merlin.  Now I am in these solitudes enduring many privations.”

“So Kentigern preached the gospel to the old nature worshipper and won him to Christ.  Up yonder, at the east end of the Dreva road, you will find the rude Altar Stone where, it is said, Kentigern received the Druid into the christian church and dispensed the sacrament.  But in those dark days of the faith, the Druids and their pagan adherents fought hard against the new religion.  So immediately after the admission of Merlin to the Church, the shepherds of Meldred sought him out, stoned him to death on the haugh of Drumelzier, and there, where the Powsail Burn falls quietly into Tweed, Merlin the Martyr was buried.  For long his grave was marked by a hawthorn tree.”

These shepherds were said to have stoned him and then threw his body upon a sharp stake and then into the stream. (stone – wood – water)

If there is any hint of truth in this tale, it is unlikely Merlin would have given himself over to the christian ways unless—as any shaman would—he knew of his impending death.  In which case it would have done him no harm to pretend a final allegiance to the unnatural spirituality that was growing in the land.  But whatever he may have been thinking, it is said that this Altar Stone was where he made such a deed.

Scratch-marks of the mythic hare
Altar Stone, Stobo

An equally peculiar legend—variations of which are found at a number of places in the hills of northern England and Scotland—speaks of another shamanic motif, i.e., of humans changing into animals and back.  For here, legend tells, an old witch was being chased (by whom, we know not) across the land.  She’d turned herself into the form of a hare and, as she crossed over the Altar Stone, her claws dug so deeply into the rock that they left deep scars that can still be seen to this day.  From here, the hare scampered at speed downhill until reaching the River Tweed at the bottom, whereupon transforming itself back into the form of the witch, who promptly fled into the hills above on the far side of the river.

One final thing mentioned by Barnett (1943) was the potential oracular property of the Altar Stone:

“You have to only place your hand on top of this rude altar, shut your eyes, and if you have the gift you will see visions.”

References:

  1. Ardrey, Adam, Finding Merlin, Mainstream 2012.
  2. Barnett, Ratcliffe, Border By-Ways and Lothian Lore, John Grant: Edinburgh 1925.
  3. Buchan, J.W. & Paton, H., A History of Peeblesshire – volume 3, Glasgow 1927.
  4. Crichton, Robin, On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age, R. Crichton 2017.
  5. Glennie, John Stuart, Arthurian Localities, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1869.
  6. Moffat, Alistair, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Phoenix: London 1999.
  7. Rich, Deike & Begg, Ean, On the Trail of Merlin, Aquarian: London 1991.
  8. Wheatley, Henry B., Merlin, or, The Early History of King Arthur – 2 volumes, Trubner: London 1865.

Acknowledgements:  Big thanks for use of the 1st edition OS-map in this site profile, Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Wallace’s Thorn, Dunfermline, Fife

Legendary Tree:  OS Grid Reference – NT 090 873

Archaeology & History 

This little-known tree, said to have been planted in memory of Sir William Wallace’s mother, is long gone.  The only notice I can find of it, is in the writings of Pete Chalmers (1844), who told us:

“There is a tradition that the mother of Sir William Wallace was buried in the old church-yard, on the spot where the present thorn-tree is growing, but how she came to die here history seems to be silent.  It is added that her son wished afterwards to erect a monument to her memory, but being in pursuit of, or flight from, his enemies, had not time to do so, and, as a substitute, planted a thorn-tree.”

Much of what constitutes “the old church-yard” has long been covered by the new cathedral and so the precise location of this old thorn tree will never be known, which is a pity, for as Chalmers told,

“This tree had reached an immense size, and was seemingly of great age about 60 years ago (c.1784), when it was blown down by a storm and replaced by a stem from the old tree, now advanced to a considerable height and magnitude—the only living and remaining memorial of the filial affection of the Scottish Patriot.”

Due to a lack of writings from the viewpoint of Wallace and the Scottish people, we are only left with fragments regarding the why’s and wherefores of Wallace and his mum being in Dunfermline.  Chalmers thought,

“Possibly the occasion of their being here is referred to in the following lines of the poet, an account of a pretended pilgrimage of Wallace and his mother to St Margaret’s shrine.”

He then cites a more assured account of Sir William being in the area, saying:

“It is recorded of this renowned person, that, on one occasion, in 1808, when he was surrounded by his enemies, he came from the fastnesses where he had taken refuge, to the Forest of Dunfermline, and by the mediation of his friends, proposed, on certain conditions, yiz., the assurance of safety in life, limbs, sad estate, to surrender himself.  These conditions were indignantly refused by the haughty and infuriated Edward (the Tosser), who cursed him, by the fiend, for a traitor, and even set a price on his head. On hearing this, the Patriot ” betook himself again to the wilds and mountains, and subsisted on plunder.”

References:

  1. Chalmers, Peter, Historical and Statistical Account of Dunfermline, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1844.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Fillan’s Tree, Killin, Perthshire

Sacred Tree (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NN 5708 3249

  1. St Fillan’s Ash

Archaeology & History

Long since gone, this great olde ash tree could once be found on the south side of Killin’s Mill building, close to the bridge at the Falls of Dochart.  It was deemed to be ‘sacred’ by local people – just as all trees were, once upon a long time ago.

In John Shearer’s (1883) wonderful book on the ancient ways of the Perthshire people, he described the tree as being adjacent to the earthfast rock known as St. Fillan’s Seat:

“At the side of it grows a large ash tree which is held sacred by the natives as no person will burn any of the branches although fallen to the ground nor destroy them in any manner.  However, there was one who had the hardihood to take one of the branches for a caber to repair his house.  Strange to tell the first fire that was kindled burned it to the ground as a punishment for this impious sacrilege.  Of course no person since has troubled it or taken any of the wood.  The branches that fall lie till they rot.”

The brilliant Killin historian, W.G. Gillies (1938) reported that the tree was still standing until it was “blown down by a gale in 1893″—but it didn’t quite kill it off for good; for in September 1911, C.G. Cash visited Killin and this was one of the many places he looked for and, despite local folk telling him about the more famous St Fillan Stones (still in existence and found at the Mill), he saw the last remnants of this great Ash, telling simply that,

“the mere dead stump of St Fillan’s Ash-tree still stands against the south post of the mill gate.  And quite near it is a young ash, said to be its descendant.  This younger tree has an out-curving branch that was said to have been the gallows-branch in olden days; but it is obviously too young and too weak.”

…So, does anyone know precisely which is the “descendant” of St. Fillan’s Ash and where happens it to be growing?

In Norse myth, the ash tree Yggdrasil was the tree of Odin and was one of the primal ingredients in their Creation myths.  It stood at the centre of the cosmos: an axis mundi no less, linking the many worlds and was the abode of the gods.  Its mythologies are extensive.  In Scotland, the myths of the ash are not so well known, but there’s little doubt that it possessed a sanctity and certainly has many traditions of it own, which are unfortunately outside the remit of this site profile.

References:

  1. Cash, C.G., “Archaeological Gleanings from Killin,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, volume 46, 1912.
  2. Elders, E A., “Saintly stones in a Perthshire village,” in Country Life, December 1962.
  3. Gillies, William A., In Famed Breadalbane, Munro Press: Perth 1938.
  4. Shearer, John, Antiquities of Strathearn, D. Phillips: Crieff 1883.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Cow and Calf Stones, East Bierley, West Yorkshire

Crosses / Legendary Rocks (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SE 1975 2909

Archaeology & History

Site location at Cross House

Not to be confused with a much more renowned namesake above Ilkley, this was the name given to two old stones that once existed in the middle of the East Bierley hamlet (as it was then) southeast of Bradford.  They were two large boulders next to each other, not far from the early farmstead of Cross House (see map, right) and were described in James Parker’s (1904) historic collage of the area, where he informed us that:

“On the village green (are) the primitive large stones locally called the “Cow and Calf stones,” which used to be in days gone by a Preaching Cross and Market Cross.”

When William Cudworth (1876) described the place nearly thirty years prior, he only mentioned a single cross, telling us:

“There is a lane which has long been called Kirkgate at Birkenshaw, leading up to an ancient cross on the hill.  The fact of this cross being on the hill must have given rise to the name Kirk (church) gate, as there was not, until a few years ago, any church at Birkenshaw.  In a previous paper we had occasion to notice the existence of the cross as an evidence of a pre-church period.”

The meaning behind the name Cow & Calf is unexplained by our respective authors, although Cudworth’s citation of “the cross as an evidence of a pre-church period” is probably not without merit here.  It seems very likely that the animal names of the two large stones—akin to the Cow & Calf Rocks at Ilkley and others of the same name elsewhere in the country—that sat near the top of the hill, probably possessed a creation myth similar to others of the same name.  From this, it seems logical that local folk held the rocks as important, which would have obviously attracted the regressive attention of Church; so they stuck a cross here to christianize the place and in doing so ensured that local people could continue using the place as a meeting place.  This practice (as if you didn’t already know) was widespread.

Although Mr Cudworth seems to give the first real account of the place, field-name records of 1567 listed a ‘Cowrosse’, which may have been the “cross on the Cow” stone.  A.H. Smith (1961) listed the site and suggested the element –rosse may derive from a local dialect word meaning a marsh, but a ‘cow’s marsh‘ seems a little odd.  It is perhaps just as likely that an error was made in the writing of rosse instead of crosse.

References:

  1. Cudworth, William, Round about Bradford, Thomas Brear: Bradford 1876.
  2. Parker, James, Illustrated History from Hipperholme to Tong, Percy Lund: Bradford 1904.
  3. Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire – volume 3, Cambridge University Press 1961.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Clach na Sgoltadh, Bridge of Balgie, Perthshire

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NN 61080 46501

Also Known as:

  1. Fionn’s Stone
  2. Praying Hands of Mary 

Getting Here

Clach na Sgoltadh, Glen Lyon (photo – Lisa Samson)

From Fortingall take the road into the legendary Glen Lyon.  About 8 miles along, a short distance past the Adamnan’s Cross standing stone, you reach the tiny hamlet of Camusvrachan.  On your left is a singular dirt-track, past some cottages.  Go along here and over the river bridge until you reach the junction on the other side.  From here, turn right and a half-mile on when you reach the farm and manor-house on your right, park up.  From here you’ll see a track going uphill.  Walk straight up and after a half-mile or so, keep your eyes peeled to your right.  You cannot fail to see this impressive giant on the slopes above you!

Archaeology & History

This is a truly mighty monolith! — a beauty no less!  Standing upon a rocky ridge nearly halfway along the glen, the landscape it looks across is, without doubt, some of the finest in the British Isles.  To our ancestors who, until just two hundred years ago peopled this and nearby glens in great numbers, this great stone would have been well known and had old myths told of it.  Today we have only bare fragments.

Clach na Sgoltadh (photo by James Elkington)
Clach na Sgoltadh (photo by James Elkington)

To give an ‘archaeological survey’ of any kind to this site would seem somewhat of an anathema, as it is generally deemed to be little other than one of Nature’s incredible creations.  We’ll come to that in a minute.  But what is quite certain is that a line of very old and very low-lying walling runs from up the slope and almost straight down to Clach na Sgoltadh.  You can see it pretty clearly in the photograph below.  The walling stops at the giant stone and continues no further downhill from the other side of the giant upright.

Walk diagonally down the slope about 30 yards south-east from the stone and you’ll find a small but distinctly man-made ring of stones, low to the ground, with an entrance on its northeastern side.  It’s somewhat of a puzzle as it’s too small for a hut circle (I laid down in it in various ways and found you’d have to lie foetal all night if you were to use it as  your own little abode), and it equally too small as an animal pen – unless it was for just one animal, which is most unlikely.  The small circular construction wouldn’t seem to be prehistoric, but it would be good to know what it is.

So, we do have some very slight archaeological association with the site, albeit minimal, with the very ancient walling that leads to the stone being the most intriguing.

Small stone ‘hut’
Low line of walling

The stone is generally attributed to be a geological creation.  I certainly cannot say, as I have no expertise in the subject.  However, in the opinion of just about everyone with whom I’ve visited this stone, I seem to be the only one who doesn’t think it’s man-made.  A number of people have each insisted to me that it’s been stood upright by humans due to the quite distinct ‘squaring’ of the upright stone, particularly at the north-facing base.  —and been seemingly bemused at my own lack of conviction.  It does look as if it could have been cut and squared just as they all say but, let me repeat, I’m no expert at geology, and so all I can say is that I simply don’t know one way or the other. (useless prick that I am!)

“Perhaps a stone mason might know?” someone suggested—which seemed to be a good idea.  Certainly a stone mason would surely be able to tell if it had been cut and dressed at the base, where it fits into the large earthfast rock….

Cue Chris Swales: a reputable stone mason from near Skipton, North Yorkshire.  Chris and his friends took a week long whistle-stop tour in and around the Loch Tay region and thought they’d visit Glen Lyon.  I heard about this and so asked him if he’d have the time to visit this stone giant and, if possible, let us know his opinion: is is a natural obelisk, or does it look to have been erected by humans?  I told him my opinion and that of the geologists who give it an entirely natural provenance.

It was a few weeks later when he got back in touch and I asked him if he’d been up to Clach na Sgoltadh.

“I did,” he said. “it’s bloody impressive Paul.  And what a gorgeous landscape too.  I’d love to go there again.”

“Aye, it is Chris. And what did you think of the giant stone then?  In your opinion is it man-made or natural?”

“Well I don’t know for certain Paul,” he said, “but in my opinion I’m 95% sure that it’s man-made.”  He said it plain as day, just like a typical daan-to-Earth Yorkshireman.  Chris isn’t into any the energy ley-line stuff, so his words carry more weight than those who wanna spice-up a site by projecting their own beliefs onto a place.  As a result, I was somewhat taken aback by his words.

“What—are you sure Chris?!” I asked.

Cut & dressed stone?

“Like I said – I’m not 100% sure Paul.  I can’t really say it 100% – but I’m 95% certain that people cut and dressed the base of that stone and put it there.  If it’s natural, then I’d like to know how they think that’s the case.  I’m willing to be shown otherwise, but in my opinion, on the whole, it’s man-made.  People stuck that stone there!”

It would be great to get another stone mason’s opinion about this site; and it would definitely be good to read a geological viewpoint, but I’m not aware of any papers regarding this stone. (does anyone know of any?)  For my part:  I can only reiterate that I’m ‘unsure’ whether or not this is man-made.  I’m simply not qualified to give an objective opinion.

The curious thing is:  if this is Nature’s handiwork, then it would have been held in greater reverence to our ancestors than if it had been erected by people.  Impressive creations of Nature were always deemed to be inhabited by genius loci of truly archaic potency.  And in these deep impressive mountains, where the names of nature spirits still abound, this—without doubt!—would have been a place of considerable awe and sanctity.  May it remain as such…

Folklore

Looking to the west immediately uphill and behind Clach na Sgoltadh is the rising rounded hill of Creag nan Eildeag.  Legend has it that the great Celtic hero Fionn stood atop of this crag and fired one of his arrows at the stone, splitting it in half and leaving the stone as we see it today.

In a small cleft in the stone, quartz deposits can be seen along with an effigy of the Virgin Mary.  However, the title of the Praying Hands of Mary is a modern attribution and has no historical or mythic veracity.

References:

  1. Stewart, Alexander, A Highland Parish; or, The History of Fortingall, Alex MacLaren: Glasgow 1928.

Links:

  1. Clach na Sgoltadh on The Megalithic Portal

Acknowledgements:   Huge thanks to James Elkington and Lisa Samson for use of their photos.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Clach Mhallaichte, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NH 7949 6746

Also Known as:

  1. Clach Mallach
  2. Clach na Mallachd
  3. Clackmalloch Rock
  4. Stone of Cursing

Archaeology & History

Stone shown on 1880 map

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.

Folklore

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)”

References:

  1. MacKenzie, Donald A., Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life, Blackie: Glasgow 1935.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


River Barvas, Barvas, Lewis

Sacred River:  OS Grid Reference – NB 351 494

Folklore

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.

References:

  1. Fraser, Alexander, Northern Folk-lore on Wells and Water, Advertiser Office: Inverness 1878.
  2. Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, RKP: London 1967.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Cradle Stone, Crieff, Perthshire

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NN 8654 2272

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 25498

Getting Here

Cradle Stone on 1866 map

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.”

Folklore

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.”

References:

  1. Coles, Fred, “Report on Stone Circles Surveyed in Perthshire, Principally Strathearn” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 45, 1911.
  2. Macara, Duncan, Crieff: Its Tradtions and Characters, D. Macara: Edinburgh 1881.
  3. Thomson, Thomas, Outlines of Mineralogy, Geology and Mineral Analysis – volume 2, Baldwin & Cradock: Edinburgh 1836.

Acknowledgements:  Big thanks for use of the 1st edition OS-map in this site profile, Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Fairies’ Cradle, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

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).

Folklore

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.

References:

  1. Alston, David, “The Old Parish Church of Cromarty,” Cromarty, May 2005.
  2. Innies, Cosmo, Origines Parochiales – volume 2:2, W.H. Lizars: Edinburgh 1855.
  3. Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; the Traditional History of Cromarty, William Nimmo: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St Fillan’s Chair, Killin, Perthshire

Sacred Stone: OS Grid Reference – NN 56432 32010

Getting Here

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

St Fillan’s Chair, ‘twixt road and river
The ‘seat’, facing the River Dochart

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?

References:

  1. Anon., Phallic Worship – a Description of the Mysteries of the Sex Worship of the Ancients, privately Printed: London 1880.
  2. Calder, Walter, Lawers, Lochtayside: A Historical Sketch, Macduff, Cunning & Watson, c.1930.
  3. Gillies, William, In Famed Breadalbane, Munro: Perth 1938.

© Paul T Hornby 2020