Chapel Well, Berryhill, Bankfoot, Perthshire

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 02179 34749

Also Known as:

  1. Beltane Well
  2. Canmore ID 27045

Getting Here

Note the position of the Well vis-a-vis the wall and the burn.

I accessed the site by parking up at Little Tullybelton, walking up the hill and crossing into the field on the left just north of the wood, then walking due west (crossing barbed wire fences) until dropping down into the valley of the Ordie Burn and following the track into the wood, then, noting where the burn crosses south of the old stone wall. The site of the well is marked by some tussocks of cotton grass. Don’t confuse with a patch of nettles and docks 2-300 hundred yards east where you enter the wood.

Archaeology & History

All that remains is a clump of Cotton Grass.

This well was destroyed about 170 years ago and the site of it is quite hard to find as the land has been turned over to forestry. It was near a chapel and burial ground that were also destroyed by the farmer of the time. The old wall formed part of the boundary of the detached portion or enclave of the neighbouring parish of Methven.

The Reverend Thomas Nelson, Minister of the Parish of Auchtergaven, has this to say in the New Statistical Account of 1845;

Superstition formerly invested St Bryde’s, and Chapel Well, and perhaps some others, with a sacred character, and made then places of resort for pious purposes.

‘On the south march of Berryhill Farm, in the same lands of Tullybeagles, there is the site of.. a chapel, where there was a burying-place, where human bones have been recently dug up; and, till of late, the people in the neighbourhood used, on the first Sabbath of May, to drink out of the Holy Well there. This sacred place is on the banks of the Ordie.’

The OS Name Book has the following entry regarding the Well:

The site of a Holy Well which has been traditionally associated with the adjacent chapel. The water of this well is now carried by a covered drain into the adjacent stream, and the well filled in‘.

And this regarding the Chapel:

Part of the ancient roadway to the Well and Chapel

The site of an ancient chapel on the north bank of the Ordie Burn, the chapel was demolished and the graveyard rooted up some years ago by the present tenant of the farm, who has pointed out the site, the dedicatory name is not known‘.

I could find no evidence of the culvert which discharges the waters of the Well into the Burn. What does seem to have been missed is the survival of part of the ancient sunken roadway or pilgrim path to the site, which is still clearly visible.
The fact that it was visited by locals on the first Sabbath in May would point to it having originally been a Beltane well, and therefore of pre-Christian origin.

References:

  1. The New Statistical Account for Auchtergaven, Perthshire, 1845
  2. Ordnance Survey Name Books for Perthshire, 1859-6

© Paul T Hornby 2018

 

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  56.494602, -3.590394 Chapel Well

Beltane Well, Kenmore, Perthshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NN 7867 4725

Also Known as:

  1. An Tobar
  2. Holy Well of Inchadney

Getting Here

An Tobar, or Beltane Well, on the 1867 map

An Tobar, or Beltane Well, on the 1867 map

From Kenmore village on the north-side of the river, over the bridge, take the small road on your right towards Dull.  After a very short distance the road runs alongside the woodland for nearly 1½ miles until, on your left, you’ll reach Drummond Cottage.  Across from here a dirt-track takes you into the trees.  Barely 100 yards along, watch for the overgrown path that runs down the slope on your left.  At the bottom a small stream has several feeds – one of which is surrounded by a ring of bright quartz stones.

Archaeology & History

Shown on the early Ordnance Survey maps as An Tobar (meaing simply “a well”), this somewhat nondescript title betrays a much more colourful folk history, albeit dissolved by those common culprits of Church and disrespectful incomers (which shows little sign of diminishing).

Lara by the Well

Lara by the Well

Close-up of quartz surround

Close-up of quartz surround

In the field immediately south, back up the slope above the well and through the trees, was once an ancient church whose existence has all but vanished.  Hereby was held an ancient fair known as Feill nam Bann Naohm, or the Fair of the Holy Women, named after a group of nuns whose lived here, who William Gillies (1938) and others proclaim were the legendary Nine Maidens, whose dedications at wells, trees and other sites scatter Scotland. But the fair was ended in 1575 and moved to Kenmore; then, several years later in 1579, the church also moved onto Eilean nam Ban Naomh (NN 7664 4536) on Loch Tay.

The old well however, after being left by the descendants of the Holy Women or Nine Maidens, continued to be frequented by local people.  Gillies (1938) wrote:

“The Holy Well of Inchadney is situated at the foot of the terrace, about five hundred yards to the north of the churchyard… Up to the middle of last century the well used to be visited by great numbers of people on the morning of Bealtuinn, the first day of May.”

In Ruth & Frank Morris’ survey (1981) they told how the site had become much overgrown and,

“The well was cleaned out in 1914 and among articles found was a stone 21 inches by 16 inches, with a rude St Andrew’s cross scratched on it, a George III farthing among other copper coins, a rudely made stone cup 2½ inches high and 7 inches in diameter, three metal buttons, a glass bead and six pins.”

No such offerings seemed in evidence when we visited a few weeks ago; but we were told that people are still seen visiting the well.

Looking down into the pure waters

Looking into the pure waters

A small stone-laid footpath runs towards the adjacent burn from the circular well, which is almost completely surrounded by large quartz rocks.  In the well itself was a small fish, showing how clean the waters are—or as would be deemed in times of olde: a ‘guardian’ of the waters.

We must also make note of the fact that, just two fields away to the north, according to the antiquarian Fred Coles (1910), a stone circle was once in evidence.  This old well sat neatly between the sites of megalithic ring and church.

Folklore

In the field in front of the well, Hilary Wheather (1982) told that there once lived a legendary water bull, but she lamented on his passing.  With the coming of the modern-folks and their unnatural ways,

“and having great timber lorries rumbling past your home every day is no fun for a peace-loving waterbull living in Poll Tairbh, the Bull’s Pool opposite the Holy Well.  Gone are the days when he was the revered Spirit of the Meadow, passed with trembling and fear by all the young maids of the Parish lest he should jump out and carry them off to his watery lair. Half the calves of the area were sired by him and it was always easily seen which cow had the attentions of the Great Waterbull.  Her calf was always the biggest and the best.  But he hasn’t been seen by his pool for many a year…”

The waters are cited by Geoff Holder (2006) to be good for toothache.

References:

  1. Coles, Fred, “Report on Stone Circles Surveyed in Perthshire (Aberfeldy District),” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 44, 1910.
  2. Gillies, William A., In Famed Breadalbane, Munro Press: Perth 1938.
  3. Holder, Geoff, The Guide to Mysterious Perthshire, History Press 2006.
  4. McHardy, Stuart, The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Luath Press: Edinburgh 2003.
  5. Miller, Joyce, Magic and Witchcraft in Scotland, Goblinshead: Musselburgh 2010.
  6. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  7. Wheater, Hilary, Kenmore and Loch Tay, Appin Publications: Aberfeldy 1982.

Acknowledgements:  Big thanks to the bunch who got us here:  to Paul Hornby, Nina Harris, Aisha Domleo & Lara Domleo (ooh – and Leo too!).

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.601379, -3.977933 Beltane Well

Water End Maypole, North Mymms, Hatfield, Hertfordshire

Maypole (removed):  OS Grid Reference – TL 2296 0410

Getting Here

On the east side of Warrengate Road, approached from Welham Green via Dixons Hill Road, or from Brookmans Park via Bradmore Lane.

Archaeology & History

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A 1920 photograph of the Public House. The Maypole was believed to have been in the garden grounds to the rear.

The exact position of the pole is not marked on the 1896 25″ OS map, as it is probable that it had been removed by the middle of the nineteenth century (like the majority of the permanent Hertfordshire maypoles), but local belief in the 1950s and 60s was that it had been in the garden of the Old Maypole (originally known as ‘The Maypole’) public house, which adjoined the smithy in Warrengate Road, Water End.  The public house is stated to have been built around 1520, with later additions, but is now a private house.

The population of Water End and nearby Welham Green was predominantly employed in agriculture, domestic service and straw plaiting, but the area’s proximity to London probably speeded the demise of the ancient traditions like maypole dancing .

Maypole North Mymms

The 1896 OS 25″ map, showing the garden ground to the rear of the public house

Doris Jones-Baker writes: “The old Hertfordshire maypoles, on May Day decorated with ribbons and a bunch of spring flowers at the top, were described as being ‘as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, painted often in a diagonal or spiral pattern from bottom to top in yellow and black, or often in vertical stripes of red, white and blue’”

Interestingly, the rear of the public house garden adjoins the Swallow Holes, a geological feature where the intermittent flowing waters of the Mimmshall Brook disappear into the chalk in as many as 15 sink holes. Hertfordshire has an ancient tradition of ‘woe-waters’ related to the local geology, where the flowing or not of a stream or spring was seen to herald ‘sorrow to come’. From personal memory the Mimmshall Brook is normally a dry stream bed which can in winter suddenly turn into a raging torrent, flooding the land behind The Old Maypole. Any tradition of it having been a woe-water has though been lost. But it is just possible that long ago the coming of May Day was also seen to herald the end of flooding of the Mimmshall Brook and may explain the siting of the pole.

The last year that people danced is not recorded, but the local maypole tradition continued; this writer remembers ribbon dancing as a very small child to a fiddle accompaniment around a maypole erected at the nearby, but long demolished Waterend C.E. Primary School, which closed in 1960.

Folklore

As well as Maypole dancing, Hertfordshire had a rich tradition of May day ritual and song, which despite the county’s proximity to London, survived long enough for some of it to be recorded for posterity. While there does not seem to be any ritual recorded for North Mymms, the following was recorded at nearby Hatfield. “On may morning, dressed in white and holding bunches of Hawthorn or, in late seasons, blackthorn blossoms the children sang door to door a local version of the May song, which began:

‘A bunch of May I bring unto you
And at your door I stand,
Come pull out your purse,
You’ll be none the worse
And give the poor Mayers some money….’”

References:

  1. North Mymms Local History Society, North Mymms Pictures From The Past, Welham Green, 2002
  2. Jones-Baker, Doris, The Folklore of Hertfordshire, B.T.Batsford, London, 1977
  3.  Kingsford, Peter, North Mymms People in Victorian Times, Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire, Privately Published, 1986

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 

North Mymms maypole

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North Mymms maypole 51.722200, -0.221181 North Mymms maypole

Gomersal Maypole, West Yorkshire

Maypole (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SE 2068 2672

Archaeology & History

As in countless villages and towns across the British Isles, Gomersal also once had its maypole near or at the village centre.  We don’t know when the first maypole was erected in the village and many local sites were openly destroyed by rampant christian puritans and similar idiots.  It stood not far from the Moor Lane Well and was described by the regional historian H.A. Cadman (1930), who told:

“The Maypole was at the top of Moor Lane and one can imagine the welkin echoing to the very old song:

‘Come lasses and lads take leave of your dads
And away to the maypole hie.
For every fair has a sweetheart there
And the fiddlers standing by.
For Willy shall dance with Jane
And Johnny has got his Joan.
To trip it, trip it, trip it, trip it,
Trip it up and down.’

Yet as with maypoles up and down the land, testosterone-fuelled Springtime fall-outs happened.  Mr Cadman told:

“Very often May Day gatherings ended up with fights.  Great jealousy always existed between the inhabitants of Great Gomersal, Little Gomersal and Spen.  There is a tradition which has been handed down that the last Maypole in this district stood on Liversedge Green.  This Maypole was demolished in a fight by the Gomersalians and there is a similar tradition about the Maypole on Cleckheaton Green, so as Mr Frank Peel says, “It is evident that ancient inhabitants of Gomersal were more pugnacious than their neighbours.”  I have no evidence when the Gomersal Maypole ceased to exist, but there is abundant evidence to prove that there was one in Gomersal, the proof being that the vane is now in Batley Museum.  It is in the form of a fish.”

If anyone has any further information on this important relic, or its history, please let us know.

References:

  1. Cadman, H. Ashwell, Gomersal, Past and Present, Hunters Armley: Leeds 1930.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Gomersal maypole

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Gomersal maypole 53.736462, -1.687978 Gomersal maypole

Strand Maypole, Westminster, London, Middlesex

Maypole (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – TQ 3073 8092

Archaeology & History

This huge traditional monument was once a sight to behold!  It stood close to where an ancient stone ‘cross’ once lived.  But—alas!, with the intrusion of the incoming christians bringing a profane ‘religion’ that belongs to countries far from here, its destruction was imposed.  They destroyed so many of our ancient monuments with their hatred and ignorance… But thankfully we have some good accounts of this long-forgotten relic of London’s real history.

In A.R. Wright’s (1938) account of it, he called this “the most famous maypole in England” and it stood taller than even the great maypole that’s still raised at Barwick-in-Elmet, in Yorkshire.

There seems to have been three maypoles on this same site – the first of which was standing before the destruction of Strand’s ancient cross, where local jurisdictions and early village meetings took place.  We don’t know the date when the first maypole was erected, but it was shown on a local plan of the area “which Anthony van den Wyngaerde issued in 1543…in front of the old church of St. Mary le Strand, which was demolished in 1549.”   According to Mr Hone (1826), it could be found a door or two westward beyond “where Catherine Street descends into the Strand.”

In Edward Walford’s (1878) massive tome, he gave us perhaps the best and most extensive account of the site, telling:

“The Maypole, to which we have already referred as formerly standing on the site of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was called by the Puritans one of the “last remnants of vile heathenism, round which people in holiday times used to dance, quite ignorant of its original intent and meaning.” Each May morning, as our readers are doubtless aware, it was customary to deck these poles with wreaths of flowers, round which the people danced pretty nearly the whole day.  A severe blow was given to these merry-makings by the Puritans, and in 1644 a Parliamentary ordinance swept them all away, including this very famous one, which, according to old Stow, stood 100 feet high.

On the Restoration, however, a new and loftier one was set up amid much ceremony and rejoicing. From a tract printed at the time, entitled The Citie’s Loyaltie Displayed,’ we learn that this Maypole was 134 feet high, and was erected upon the cost of the parishioners there adjacent, and the gracious consent of his sacred Majesty, with the illustrious Prince the Duke of York:

“This tree was a most choice and remarkable piece; ’twas made below bridge and brought in two parts up to Scotland Yard, near the king’s palace, and from thence it was conveyed, April 14, 1661, to the Strand, to be erected. It was brought with a streamer flourishing before it, drums beating all the way, and other sorts of musick.  It was supposed to be so long that landsmen could not possibly raise it.  Prince James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England, commanded twelve seamen off aboard ship to come and officiate the business; whereupon they came, and brought their cables, pullies, and other tackling, and six great anchors. After these were brought three crowns, borne by three men bareheaded, and a streamer displaying all the way before them, drums beating and other musick playing, numerous multitudes of people thronging the streets, with great shouts and acclamations, all day long. The Maypole then being joined together and looped about with bands of iron, the crown and cane, with the king’s arms richly gilded, was placed on the head of it; a large hoop, like a balcony, was about the middle of it.  Then, amid sounds of trumpets and drums, and loud cheerings, and the shouts of the people, the Maypole, ‘far more glorious, bigger, and higher than ever any one that stood before it,’ was raised upright, which highly did please the Merrie Monarch and the illustrious Prince, Duke of York; and the little children did much rejoice, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying golden days began to appear.”

A party of morris-dancers now came forward, “finely decked with purple scarfs, in their half-shirts, with a tabor and a pipe, the ancient music, and danced round about the Maypole.”

The setting up of this Maypole is said to have been the deed of a blacksmith, John Clarges, who lived hard by, and whose daughter Anne had been so fortunate in her matrimonial career as to secure for her husband no less a celebrated person than General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, in the reign of Charles II., when courtiers and princes did not always look to the highest rank for their wives.

…Newcastle Street, at the north-east corner of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was formerly called Maypole Alley, but early in the last century was changed to its present name, after John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, the then owner of the property, and the name has been transferred to another place not far off. At the junction of Drury Lane and Wych Street, on the north side, close to the Olympic Theatre, is a narrow court, which is now known as Maypole Alley, near which stood the forge of John Clarges, the blacksmith, alluded to above as having set up the Maypole at the time of the Restoration.

As all earthly glories are doomed in time to fade, so this gaily-bedecked Maypole, after standing for upwards of fifty years, had become so decayed in the ground, that it was deemed necessary to replace it by a new one.  Accordingly, it was removed in 1713, and a new one erected in its place a little further to the west, nearly opposite to Somerset House, where now stands a drinking fountain.  It was set up on the 4th of July in that year, with great joy and festivity, but it was destined to be short-lived. When this latter Maypole was taken down in its turn, Sir Isaac Newton, who lived near Leicester Fields, bought it from the parishioners, and sent it as a present to his friend, the Rev. Mr. Pound, at Wanstead in Essex, who obtained leave from his squire, Lord Castlemaine, to erect it in Wanstead Park, for the support of what then was the largest telescope in Europe, being 125 feet in length.  It was constructed by Huygens, and presented by him to the Royal Society, of which he was a member. It had not long stood in the park, when one morning some amusing verses were found affixed to the Maypole, alluding to its change of position and employment. They are given by Pennant as follows:

“Once I adorned the Strand,
But now have found
My way to Pound
On Baron Newton’s land;
Where my aspiring head aloft is reared,
T’ observe the motions of th’ ethereal Lord.
Here sometimes raised a machine by my side,
Through which is seen the sparkling milky tide;
Here oft I’m scented with a balmy dew,
A pleasant blessing which the Strand ne’er knew.
There stood I only to receive abuse,
But here converted to a nobler use;
So that with me all passengers will say,
‘I’m better far than when the Pole of May.'”

Along with the Strand Cross, this old maypole would have been on the ancient ley (not one of those ‘energy lines’ invented by New Age fantasists) that was first described first by Alfred Watkins (1925)—running from St. Martins-in-the-Field to St. Dunstan’s in Fleet Street. The alignment and maypole was subsequently described in greater detail in Devereux & Thomson’s (1979) work on the same subject, and again by Chris Street. (2010)

The nature of the maypole (and the nearby cross, it has to be said), may have been representative of an omphalos in early popular culture (before the christians of course)—which would put the original ritual function of the place far far earlier than is generally considered.  This is something that Laurence Gomme (1912) propounded in one of his London works and cannot be discounted.

References:

  1. Allen, Thomas, The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark – volume 4, Cowie & Strange: London 1829.
  2. Devereux, Paul & Thomson, Ian, The Ley Hunter’s Companion, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
  4. Gomme, Laurence, The Making of London, Clarendon: Oxford 1912.
  5. Hone, William, The Every-Day Book – volume 1, William Tegg: London 1826.
  6. Street, Christopher E., London’s Ley Lines, Earthstars: London 2010.
  7. Walford, Edward, Old and New London – volume 3, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
  8. Watkins, Alfred, The Old Straight Track, Methuen: London 1925.
  9. Wright, A.R., British Calendar Customs: England – volume 2, Folklore Society: London 1938.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Strand Maypole

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Strand Maypole 51.511998, -0.117451 Strand Maypole

St. Mark’s Well, Easterhouse, Glasgow, Lanarkshire

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NS 667 653

Archaeology & History

St Marks Well on 1864 map
St Marks Well on 1864 map

Information on this long forgotten holy well that once flowed a few miles east of Glasgow city centre, beneath what is now Wellhouse estate, is all but lost.  Local history works of the area tell us little (though there must surely be something somewhere?) and even the place-name surveyor of this area—Peter Drummond (2014)—could find nothing.  Noted by the Ordnance Survey lads in 1858, when they came to re-survey the area again in 1899 its waters had, it seems, been covered and carried into the ‘Well house’ less about 50 yards to the southwest (another ‘Wellhouse’ found 150 yards further west is the site that gives the estate its present name).  From thereon, this wellhouse and St. Mark’s Well fell into the forgotten pages of history and, sadly it seems, even its oral tradition has died…

The origin and nature of the ‘well house’ isn’t too troublesome, as Drummond (2014) explains:

“The name Wellhouse exists in several places in Scotland, and could indicate a ‘house beside wells’, or a protective ‘house over wells’; the early record here suggests the former, since the first Glasgow Water Company’s Act was obtained in 1806, many years later.”

However, the reasons behind the dedication to St. Mark at this probably heathen arena in times gone by, seems to be quite a mystery.  Perhaps the folklore of the saint concerned may be of some help.

Customs practiced on St. Mark’s Eve and St. Mark’s Day (April 24-5) are replete with animistic elements throughout and are certainly not christian!  Six months after the old New Year, we find rituals once more allowing, not for the passing of, but the emergence of the dead: bringing the spirits into the Spring and Summer. Divination rites were practiced with Cannabis sativa no less!  Prophecy and wise-women were advisors to the young.  Walking backwards around wells were known at some St. Mark’s wells; whilst others without his name—but on this saint’s day—were leapt across, symbolizing the crossing of danger and darkness in the ritual calendar. All around this period of time, up to and including Beltane, the end of the dark cold year has passed, and these plentiful rites are prequels to the lighter days, warm spring, summer and good autumn: all vital rites for the people in their myths of the eternal return…

St. Mark’s Well at Glasgow meanwhile, seems to have lost its old tales… Surely not?

References:

  1. Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Scotland – volume 2, Folk-lore Society: Glasgow 1939.
  2. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow, TNA 2017.
  3. Drummond, Peter, An Analysis of Toponyms and Toponymic Patterns in Eight Parishes of the Upper Kelvin Basin, University of Glasgow 2014.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Arkana: London 1989.
  5. Greene, E.A., Saints and their Symbols, Sampson Low: London 1897.
  6. Hole, Christina, Saints in Folklore, M. Barrows: New York 1965.
  7. Wright, A.R., British Calendar Customs: England – volume 2, Folk-lore Society: London 1938.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  55.862711, -4.130681 St Mark\'s Well

Maypole, Hemswell, Lincolnshire

Maypole: OS Grid Reference – SK 92954 90947

Historic photo from Church Street
Historic photo from Church Street

Also Known as:

  1. English Heritage ID: 196736

Getting Here

In Hemswell Village at the junction of Church Street and Maypole Street.

History & Archeaology

According to a 2010 report in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, the Hemswell villagers,

“claim to be the hosts to one of the oldest maypole celebrations in the world, dating back to at least 1660”.

The then clerk to the parish council, Dianne Millward is quoted as saying:

“Hemswell is widely regarded in historical circles as having one of the oldest if not the oldest celebrations for May Day. We have pictures of the pole being prepared for the big day in the very early 1900s.”

Hemswell maypole on 1906 map

This writer has not yet been able to independently verify these claims.

May Day is still celebrated in the village with dancing around the maypole and an accompanying fete. Recent online photographs show that it is now only children, in ‘historic’ fancy dress who ribbon-dance around the Pole.

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian

Hemswell maypole

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Hemswell maypole 53.407173, -0.603181 Hemswell maypole

The Maypole, Alconbury, Huntingdonshire

Maypole (removed):  OS Reference Number TL 18554 75972

Getting Here

Maypole Square, outlined in red on the 1901 OS map
Maypole Square, outlined in red on the 1901 OS map

Maypole Square forms the junction of High Street, Church Way and Chapel Street in the centre of the village.

Archaeology & History

The Alconbury Maypole had passed out of living memory by 1942, but was historically attested by the ‘Maypole Square’ in the centre of the village.

Folklore

C.F. Tebbutt wrote in 1950:

“At Alconbury, it is remembered that about 1890 an old soldier, who lived in the corner house (east end) of the row of cottages facing Maypole Square, used to dig holes in the road opposite the row and set up May bushes there on May day”.

References:

  1. C.F.Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk and their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VI, part V, 1942.
  2. C.F.Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk and their Folklore II”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VII, part III, 1950.

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian

Alconbury Mapypole

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Alconbury Mapypole 52.368982, -0.260151 Alconbury Maypole

The Maypole Tree, Little Paxton, Huntingdonshire

Maypole & Ritual Tree (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference TL 18831 62757

Getting Here

Imposing trunk of The Maypole Tree, right background
Imposing trunk of The Maypole Tree, right background

The road layout of the village has changed since the destruction of the Tree, but its approximate position was on the north side of the present High Street, at the junction with the east side of St James’ Road.

Archaeology & History

The Little Paxton Maypole Tree was a very late survival of a tradition where Mayday revellers danced around an actual tree rather than a symbolic tree in the form of a maypole.  It was described as “a tall straight elm tree” that stood in front of what was then the village Post Office, and from what may be the only surviving photograph, it appears that only the very substantial trunk survived of what was clearly a very old tree.

The 1887 6" OS Map, showing the Maypole Tree outlined in red
The 1887 6″ OS Map, showing the Maypole Tree outlined in red

A Miss Ethel Ladds, who had been born in Little Paxton, recalled in the early 1940s:

I remember the old tree very well, it was always called ‘the Maypole’, but I don’t know any more about it, except that they used to dance round it“.

The St Neots Advertiser recorded that the Maypole Tree was blown down in a great gale on 24th March 1895.

Folklore

While this writer has been unable to find direct folklore relating to the Little Paxton Maypole Tree, it may be worth remarking that botanically the Elm tree is a cousin of the Stinging Nettle, the Hop and Cannabis.  Another Elm Tree used for May revels was the Tubney Elm, near Fyfield in Berkshire and recorded by Matthew Arnold, in his ‘Scholar Gipsy’.

References:

  1. C.F. Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk And Their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VI, Part V, 1942
  2. C.F. Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk And Their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VII, Part III, 1950
  3. Gerald Wilkinson, Epitaph For The Elm, Arrow Books, London, 1979

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 

Little Paxton Maypole

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Little Paxton Maypole 52.250192, -0.260697 Little Paxton Maypole

St. Fillan’s Chair, Dundurn, Comrie, Perthshire

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NN 7081 2325

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 24876
  2. Dundurn
  3. Fillan’s Chair
  4. St. Fillan’s Bed

Getting Here

Dundurn, near St. Fillans
Dundurn, near St. Fillans

Not hard to find. Between the small towns of Comrie and St. Fillans along the A85 road, keep your eyes peeled for the small but rocky crags that rise in front of the background of dramatic mountains not far from the roadside to the south. It looks truly majestic even on a dull day. Just as you reach the eastern edge of St. Fillans village, take the small road over the river-bridge and go to the golf club. Walk past the golf club itself, keeping along the track that leads you to Dundurn hill.  It’s easy enough. Then climb to the very top of the hill where you’ll find this curious, large, flat bed-like rock right in front of you!

Archaeology & History

The rocky bed or 'chair' of St Fillan
The rocky bed or ‘chair’ of St Fillan

The archaeological data for St. Fillan’s Chair relates more to the folklore practices of the people upon Dundurn hill than anything else and ostensibly little can be said by such students. The place is more satisfying for geologists than archaeologists, who would adore the rocky fluctuations and geophysical propensities with greater verve than any archaeologist could muster! For this rocky bed-shaped feature is a fascinating structure whose only potential interest to archaeologists are what may be a couple of reduced cup-marks on the top of the stone (and even then, such potential rock art is more the province of religious historians and anthropologists than archaeologists).

Small quartz offerings left on St Fillan's Chair at Beltane
Small quartz offerings left on St Fillan’s Chair at Beltane
The view of the Chair from below
The view of the Chair from below

But this ‘bed’ or ‘chair’, as it was locally known, was – and it seems, still is – important in the social history of the area, as its folklore clearly tells.  The ‘chair’ plays an important part in the holistic role of Dundurn as a hill, a fort, a healing centre, an inauguration site, and very probably an omphalos: a sacred centre whereupon the ordination of shamans, kings and the cosmos as a whole was brought to bear here… (these features will be explored in greater depth when I write a singular profile of Dundurn as a ‘fort’).

Folklore

Looking west over St Fillan's Chair
Looking west over St Fillan’s Chair

The character of St. Fillan was described by James Cockburn (1954) as “an Irish Pict” and the “son of a King – his father being Angus mac Nadfraich who died in battle in 490 AD.”  Quite an important dood in his day! The relationship this early christian figure had with this Chair was in its supposedly curative properties.  Yeah…you read it right: curative properties!  As with countless rocks all over the world, some of Nature’s outcrop boulders were imbued with a spirit of their own and, when conditions and/or the cycle of the spirit ‘awoke’, healing attributes could be gained from the place. And such was the case at St. Fillan’s Chair, especially on Beltane morning (May 1).  And some element of this traditional pilgrimage is still done; for when the author Marion Woolley and I visited the site on Mayday 2013, it was obvious that some people had been up earlier that Beltane morning and left some offerings of quartz stones on the top end of the bed.

The earliest written reference of this medicinal virtue was told in the Old Statistical Account of Perthshire (1791):

The rock on the summit of the hill, formed, of itself, a chair for the saint, which still remains. Those who complain of rheumatism in the back, must ascend the hill, sit in this chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed, and reckoned very efficacious.

More than a hundred years later, the sites was still being used and was described in similar vein in MacKinlay’s (1893) excellent study:

“On the top of green Dunfillan, in the parish of Comrie, is a rocky seat known in the district as Fillan’s Chair. Here, according to tradition, the saint sat and gave his blessing to the country around. Towards the end of last century, and doubtless even later, this chair was associated with a superstitious remedy for rheumatism in the back. The person to be cured sat in the chair, and then, lying on his back, was dragged down the hill by the legs. The influence of the saint lingering about the spot was believed to ensure recovery.”

The origins of this dramatic rite were probably pre-christian in nature and we should have little doubt that St. Fillan replaced the figure of a shaman or local medicine woman of some sort. The ritual “dragging down the hill” may be some faint remnant of initiation rites…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Cockburn, James H., The Celtic Church in Dunblane, Friends of Dunblane Cathedral 1954.
  2. Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Spring: Woodstock 1995.
  3. Finlayson, Andrew, The Stones of Strathearn, One Tree Island: Comrie 2010.
  4. Hunter, John, Chronicles of Strathearn, David Philips: Crieff 1896.
  5. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  6. Shearer, John, Antiquities of Strathearn, David Philips: Crieff, 1883.
  7. Skene, William F., Celtic Scotland (3 volumes), Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1876-1880.
  8. Toulson, Shirley, Celtic Journeys in Scotland and the North of England, Fount: London 1995.

Links:

  1. Nataraja’s Foot: The Curious Incident of Dundurn

© Pual BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St Fillan's Chair

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