Legendary Stone: OS Grid Reference – NT 15710 35754
Also Known as:
- Arthur’s Stane
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
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, then it’s possible that this was once an authentic prehistoric standing stone, but we’ll probably never know for certain. 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…
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.
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.”
- Ardrey, Adam, Finding Merlin, Mainstream 2012.
- Barnett, Ratcliffe, Border By-Ways and Lothian Lore, John Grant: Edinburgh 1925.
- Buchan, J.W. & Paton, H., A History of Peeblesshire – volume 3, Glasgow 1927.
- Crichton, Robin, On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age, R. Crichton 2017.
- Glennie, John Stuart, Arthurian Localities, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1869.
- Moffat, Alistair, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Phoenix: London 1999.
- Rich, Deike & Begg, Ean, On the Trail of Merlin, Aquarian: London 1991.
- 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 Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian