An unexcavated ring cairn in a very good state of preservation can be seen in the field immediately west of the River Halladale. Measuring more than 14 yards across east-west and 15 yards north-south, the site stands in association with several other unexcavated cairns.
Although some of the cairns here have been found with prehistoric burials in them, tradition tells that the cairns here were the result of “a great battle between the native Pictish inhabitants and the invading Norsemen.” So wrote George Sutherland, many moons ago. He continued:
“The Norsemen were defeated in that battle, and Halladha, their leader, was slain. It is from him that the river and the dale take their name. The battle was fought on a hillside, on the east side of the river and that hillside is covered with cairns which are supposed to mark the graves of those slain in this battle, but the body of Halladha, the norse leader, was interred on the west side of the river, and his sword was laid in the grave beside his body. Near the circular trench where he is said to have been buried there are several heaps of stones which are supposed to mark the graves of other Norsemen of note who fell in the battle.”
Sutherland, G., Folklore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
Travelling up (north) the A19, just as you get to Riccal village, there’s a small road to your right: take this! A mile along there’s a parking place just where the track veers into the woods. That’s where you’re heading. The remains of the tombs hereabouts can be hard to discern – but if your lucky you’ll either meet a local, or the virtue of patience will bring these overgrown tombs into focus! There are other tumuli a few hundred yards east and north of here aswell. If you wanna get a clear picture of them all, a full day would be a good bet!
Archaeology & History
Not to be confused with the other Danes Hills tombs a couple of miles northeast of here (as done on some other sites), the early Victorian geologist and explorer John Phillips (1853) was one of several early writers who described what, today, are known to be Iron Age tombs, scattered about a short distance east of Riccall village, saying:
“On Skipwith Common are many tumuli, old banks, and the slightly-marked foundations of ancient (turf or log?) houses or wigwams. These, by some error of tradition, are called ‘Danes’ Hills/ but, on opening the tumuli, no confirmation of so modern a date appeared. The tumuli are set in square fosses; the sides of the fossae range north and south and east and west (true). Similar facts appear in connexion with the tumuli on Thorganby Common adjacent. Burnt ashes and bones occur in the mounds; facts which suffice to overthrow the supposition of these hills being funeral heaps of the Danes of the llth century, for they then buried their dead. No instruments of metal, bone, or stone, or pottery were found.”
There were dozens of tombs that could be seen here in the past, but today many have been destroyed or are hidden by the cover of trees. A sketch-map (above) showing the rough location of many of the graves was made by the Yorkshire Antiquarian Club after a visit here in 1849 (Proctor 1855), who opened several of the barrows. Archaeologist Ian Stead (1961; 1979) defined these remains as being of the famous La Tene burials — though I’m unsure as to whether any of the tombs here had the great horse-chariots found in them, as found in the more famous Danes Graves tombs close to Driffield.
The name of these small hills acquired their Danish title via a mix of real history and folklore. History tells of the old Danish King Harald Hardrada, who moored his fleet of ships a few miles away from here before going into battle against the armies of Northumbria and Mercia. “Dane’s Hill,” said Bogg (c.1895), “still marks the spot where the fight took place.” As John Burton (1758) told us:
“Ever since the aforesaid battle, it is by tradition to this day said, that the Danes were permitted to encamp here till they had buried their dead, and their ships at Riccal should be ready for their re-embarking for Norway.”
Local folk used to tell of the tradition of the local swamp — called Riccal Towdyke — being choked with the bodies of many slain in the battle hereabouts. Many pieces of red cloth were found all around in the neighbourhood of these tombs. However, despite this mix of fact and folklore, the tumuli were see marked on the modern OS-maps have been found to be Iron Age in origin.
…to be continued…
Bogg, Edmund, From Eden Vale to the Plains of York, James Miles: Leeds n.d.
Burton, John, Monasticon Eboracense, N. Nickson: York 1758.
Elgee, F. & H.W., The Archaeology of Yorkshire, Methuen: London 1933.
Morrell, W. Wilberforce, The History and Antiquities of Selby, W.B. Bellerby: Selby 1867.
Phillips, John, The Rivers, Mountains and Sea-Coast of Yorkshire, John Murray: London 1853.
Proctor, W., ‘Report of the Proceedings of the Yorkshire Antiquarian Club, in the Excavation of Barrows from the Year 1849,’ in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, 1855.
Stead, I.M., ‘A Distinctive Form of La Tene Barrow in Eastern Yorkshire,’ in Antiquaries Journal, volume 41, 1961.
Stead, I.M., The Arras Culture, Yorkshire Philosophical Society: York 1979.
A 2½-mile long earthwork can obviously be reached from all sorts of ways, but coming out of Flamborough towards Bridlington (B1255 road) you can go down the Home Farm road and park up; and from here walk up the pleasant woodland walk, literally from coast to coast, where you’ll see good portions of the earthwork intact.
Archaeology & History
An impressive site by any means. Running from Dykes End on its southern edge for 2½ mile, roughly north, until hitting the North Sea again at the other Dykes End, this great earthwork had little to do with the Danes. It seems to have been originally started around 3000 years ago in the early Iron Age. As Mr Gower (1975) told:
“Excavations carried out at the end of the (19th) century revealed traces of a flint workshop and many arroheads were found… The earthwork is about 18 feet high and on the western side is a ditch 60 feet wide. Several openings are to be seen, but these are probably comparatively recent.”