Dead easy to find! Turn off the A1(M) at the A6055 Boroughbridge road and head into town. Turn left after the Three Arrows Hotel, down Roecliffe Lane and the stones are a few hundred yards down, close to the motorway. The tallest is just off the road to the left, behind a gate (the owner of the adjacent house there is very pleasant), whilst the other two are across the road in the fields.
Archaeology & History
To many archaeo-megalithic and folklore fans, these huge standing stones need no introduction. These great heathen Arrows of the devil, today at least, are three gigantic standing stones, each one weighing several tons at least, standing in a rough straight line, nearly north-south. This is the greatest single stone-row anywhere in the British Isles.
Just how many standing stones originally stood here is difficult to say. We know from the records of early antiquarians and travellers that we had at least five Arrows here in centuries gone by; but one curious account, mentioned by the Yorkshire antiquarian Edmund Bogg (1895) more than a hundred years ago told:
“Peter Franck, a fisherman who travelled much about the world to enjoy his sport, came to Boroughbridge in 1694 and says he saw seven of these standing stones, Dr Stukeley mentions five, and John Leyland, in his travels, saw ‘four great stones wrought by man’s hands,’ but no inscription upon them. Camden, in 1592, saw four, but one of them at the time was thrown down, ‘for,’ says he, ‘the accursed love of gain.’ Part of this one is still to be seen, built into the Peggy Bridge which crosses the Tut on the entrance to the town, the top portion being preserved in the grounds of Aldborough Manor and this goes far to prove — and I have very carefully considered the question and examined the ground — that the original number of stones was far greater, and reached from the Yore, in equal distances to the Tudland of Leyland’s time, or the Staveley Beck of today. If this argument is correct, 2000 years ago there would be a line of at least 12 standing monoliths guarding the western approach to Isur Brigantium.”
Well y’ never know! But who was this Peter Franck chap from the 17th century? It would be good to find out more of what he said.
But this notion of there being a great many more stones here than the four or five that are accepted as standard, isn’t just to be found in the annals of some lost fisherman. The great Royalist antiquarian John Aubrey came here in September 1687 and, as illustrated here, saw the remaining three upright stones as remnants of a concentric ring of stones of obviously gigantic proportions. Following from a rough survey of the site and descriptions from local people, Aubrey placed the standing stones in their old line, of
“A. B. C. D., and I have drawn two imaginary circles in which it may be supposed that stones were placed, as at Avebury, Stonehenge, etc. Perhaps they might be more stones in each circle than I have fancied.”
Nearly two hundred years later, archaeologist John Ackerman (1847) echoed John Aubrey’s notion (or perhaps simply copied them) in his notion of the Devil’s Arrows once being part of a greater megalithic complex, saying,
“At Rudston and Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire, are supposed examples of maenhirs. Near the latter place there are four standing in a row, which are called by the country people the Devil’s Bolts; but, from their relative position, it is not unlikely that they are the remains of a large circle.”
As if to tempt further enquiry, or at least require suitable explanation, is the nearby field-name of ‘Kringelker,’ or Cringles Carr — last described in 1316 — and which means very simply a circle by the marsh, or circular marsh, or variants thereof. (Source: Yorkshire Deeds, volume 4,YAS: Leeds 1904)
But prior to John Aubrey’s speculations on the Arrows being part of a giant ring of stones, he related the earliest survey done here, by a local (unnamed) man on April 17, 1669, telling that:
“In Yorkshire near Burrough-brig on the west side of the Fosse-way, about a quarter of a mile, (in the Lordship of Alburgh) stand three pyramidish stones called the Devills Arrowes. The Arrow standing towards the south is seven yards and a half in height: the compasse of it five yards and a half. The middle Arrow seven yards and a half, in compass six yards. The Arrow towards the north in height five yards and a half, in compass seven yards. Here was another stone that stood in a straight line, at D, that was taken down and a bridge made of it.”
Other regal antiquarians and learned writers of the period came soon after. When William Camden (1695) visited the place at the end of the 16th century, he was equally impressed and described the place as follows:
“Not farre beneath there standeth by Ure a little towne called Burrowbridge, of the bridge that is made over the river: which is now built very high and faire of stone worke, but in King Edward the Second his time it seemeth to have beene of wood. For wee read that when the Nobles of England disquieted this king and troubled the state, Humfrey Bohun Earle of Hereford in his going over it was at a chinke thereof thrust through the body about his groine by a souldiour lying close under the bridge. Neere unto this bridge Westward wee saw in three divers little fields foure huge stones of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a streight and direct line. The two Pyramides in the middest, whereof the one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to finde treasure, did almost touch one another. The uttermore stand not far off, yet almost in equall distance from these on both sides. Of these I have nothing else to say but that I am of opinion with some that they were monuments of victorie erected by the Romans hard by the high street that went this way. For I willingly overpasse the fables of the common people, who call them the Devills Bolts, which they shot at ancient cities and therewith overthrew them. Yet will not I passe over this, that very many, and those learned men, thinke they are not made of naturall stone in deed, but compounded of pure sand, lime, vitriol (whereof also they say there bee certaine small graines within), and some unctuous matter. Of such a kinde there were Rome cisterns, so firmely compact of very strong lime and sand, as Pliny writeth, that they seemed to be naturall stones.”
Another early antiquary, John Leland, also passed by here a few hundred years back and wrote the following after his visit:
“A little without this Towne on the west part of Watiling-Streate stadith 4 great maine stones wrought above in conum by Mannes hand. They be set in 3 several Feldes at this Tyme. The first is a 20 foote by estimation in higeth and an 18 foote in cumpace. The stone towards the ground is sumwhat square, and so up to the midle, and then wrought with certen rude boltells in conum. But the very toppe thereof is broken of a 3 or 4 footes. Other 2 of like shap stand in another feld a good But shot of: and the one of them is bigger then the other; and they stand within a 6 or 8 fote one of the other. The fourth standith in a several feld a good stone cast from the other, and is bigger and higher than any of the other 3. I esteme it to the waite of a 5 Waine Lodes or more.
Inscription could I none find yn these stones; and if there were it might be woren out; for they be sore woren and scalid with wether.
I take to be a trophaea a Romanis posita in the side of Watheling Streat, as yn a place most occupied in Yorneying ad so most yn sighte.”
Rock Art on the Devil’s Arrows
Although Leland told us he could find no inscriptions on the stones, he missed some which may be much older than the purely Roman marks his nose was seeking. Cup-and-ring stones — much in vogue nowadays thanks to the new, shamanically-inspired archaeo’s — aren’t etched here in anything like the styles expected of our Swastika Stone, or the Achnabreck carvings, but cup-markings seem to occur on the northernmost stone. Although a rather myopic bunch of earth-mystery people thought they were the first to discovered the cup-markings here in 2005, they were in fact first described way back in 1866, in Sir James Simpson’s precursory essay to his Archaic Sculpturings (1867), where he told:
“In England the most striking and magnificent group of monoliths that I have seen are the so called Devil’s Arrows at Borough-Bridge, in Yorkshire. Three only of these tall and enormous monoliths are now left, and stand in a line about a stone’s throw from each other. They are all pillars of a squarish shape, and said to bo formed of millstone grit. Two of them are above twenty-two feet in height, and the third measures eighteen feet. Each at its upper part is deeply and vertically guttered, apparently by long weathering and exposure ; and their lower portions show round, smooth, cup-like excavations upon some of their surfaces. The most northerly of these imposing monoliths is especially marked in this last way. Many, if not all, of these excavations, have probably been effected by the elements and weather; while some of them, which look more artificial, are of the same shape and form as those on the Kilmartin stones, etc. But unfortunately we have not here the presence of rings or circles around the cups to determine conclusively their artificial character.”
Some of the cup-markings here are distinctly artificial; but as with these ancient non-linear designs in general, we are unable to ascertain any specific ‘meaning’ to them at this site, even in any mythic sense — as yet! (I’ll get some images of cup-markings next time I visit the Arrows, unless someone has some going spare!)
Described by Bob Mortimer (1860) as a gathering place of the druids, who “met here to celebrate their great quarternal sacrifice”; not unsurprisingly there are a variety of other fascinating creation myths and folklore motifs raising their usual heads by these great stones. Mortimer told of more tales following his local society’s visit here at the end of the 1850s, saying:
“There lived a very pious old man (a Druid should we imagine) who was reckoned an excellent cultivator of the soil. However, during each season at the time his crops had come to maturity they were woefully pillaged by his surrounding neighbours; so that at this, he being provokingly grieved, the Devil appeared, telling the old man if he would only recant and throw away his holiness he should never more be disturbed in his mind, or have whatever he grew stolen or demolished. The old man, like Eve in the garden, yielded to temptation, and at once obeyed the impulse of Satan for the benefit of worldly gain. So when the old man’s crops were again being pillaged, the Devil threw from the infernal regions some ponderous arrows, which so frightened the plunderers by shaking the earth that never more was he harrassed in that way. Hence the name of the ‘Devil’s Arrows.'”
Another individual told me that it was believed by some that the stones sprung up one night in the very places they now occupy.”
Very close to the Arrows are antiquarian records of other sites which someone can hopefully throw more light on, as they may have had some relationship with the stones. Immediately west were (are?) the Penny Stones; plus a place called Bell’s Wife’s Field (Bel as a sun-god – though his wife may imply the moon). And just a few hundred yards east is the old Lady Well, mentioned elsewhere.
…to be continued…
Ackerman, John Yonge, An Archaeological Index to the Remains of Antiquity of the Celtic, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon Periods, J.R. Smith: London 1847.
The Stranger’s Guide; Being a Concise History & Description of Boroughbridge, John Mitchell: Boroughbridge 1846.