Livister, Whalsay, Shetland Isles

Standing Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – HU 5577 6237

Archaeology & History

Site shown on 1882 map

Highlighted on both the 1880 (25-inch) and 1882 (6-inch) Ordnance Survey maps, this is another one of our ancient stones that has bitten the dust, so to speak.  Local folk said that it stood about five feet tall, but when the Royal Commission doods visited the place in 1935, it had gone.  They were told that it had been “broken up for building purposes in about 1912.”  No traditions were known of it.

References:

  1. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland – volume 3, HMSO: Edinburgh 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Tredwell’s Loch, Papa Westray, Orkney Isles

Sacred Loch:  OS Grid Reference – HY 495 509

Folklore

I’ve already added a site-profile of the standing stones that used to be close to this loch, and added to it the folklore below; but I realised that for students of water-lore, a separate profile for the loch itself is needed.  For those of you who are not into water-lore, I hope you can forgive this repetition.

The loch, its associated chapel and the standing stones were visited at the end of the 17th century by John Brand, who gave a good account of the rituals performed by local people at the time.  They regarded the waters here as very special indeed, with great medicinal powers.  The loch had sense of sacrality whose nature was intimately tied to the repetition and regeneration of the seasons, valorizing the healing function of the waters.

By the edge of the loch stood St Tredwell’s church, outside of which was a cairn of stones.  When people visited here to be cured of their various ailments, they would pick up one of them and cast it into the loch as an offering (some folk would cast money), so that its waters would heal their illness.  According to Mr Brand and the local minister, such cures were numerous.  The narrative is truly fascinating.  Brand told us that,

“nigh to the east end of which this chapel is, is held by the people as medicinal, whereupon many diseased and infirm persons resort to it, some saying that thereby they have got good; as a certain gentleman’s sister upon the isle, who was not able to go to this loch without help, yet returned without it; as likewise a gentleman in the country who was much distressed wifh sore eyes, went to this loch, and washing there became sound and whole, though he had been at much pains and expense to cure them formerly.  With both which persons he who was minister of the place for many years was well acquainted, and told us that he saw them both before and after the cure.  The present minister of Westra told me that such as are able to walk, use to go so many times about the loch as they think will perfect the cure, before they make any use of the water, and that without speaking to any, for they believe that if they speak this will marr the cure: also he told that on a certain morning not long since he went to this loch and found six so making their circuit, whom with some difficulty he obliging to speak, said to him they came there for their cure.”

For the curing of sore eyes, the loch was specifically resorted to at Easter and during Lent.  Traditions such as these are found at other lochs in Scotland and at lakes in many other parts of the world.

Another interesting feature related to the element of Kingship; for the waters of the loch were said to turn red when anything important was going to happen to a member of the royal family.

St Tredwell herself—also known as St. Triduana—has her saints day on October 8.

References:

  1. Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Orkney and Shetland, Folk-lore Society: London 1946.
  2. Black, G.F., Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Folk-Lore Society: London 1901.
  3. Brand, John, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, George Mosman: Edinburgh 1701.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt: New York 1959.
  5. Fergusson, Robert M., Rambling Sketches in the Far North, Simpkin Marshall: London 1883.
  6. MacKinlay, James M., Influence of the Pre-Reformation Church on Scottish Place-Names, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1904.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Tredwell’s Chapel, Papa Westray, Orkney Isles

Standing Stones (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – HY 497 509

Archaeology & History

These long lost standing stones most probably played a part in some ritual acts performed by the Orkney people until relatively recent times.  Whilst their simple description doesn’t tell us this, the folklore of the adjacent body of water strongly suggests it.  The stones were visited at the end of the 17th century by the antiquarian John Brand (1701) from whom we gain the only known account.  He told that,

“At the north-east side of (St Tredwell’s) loch, nigh to the chapel, there is a high stone standing, behind which there is another stone lying hollowed in the form of a manger, and nigh to this there is another high stone standing with a round hole through it, for what use these stones served, we could not learn; whether for binding the horses of such to them as came to the chapel, and giving them meat in the hollow stone, or for tying the sacrifices to, as some say, in the times of Pagan idolatry, is uncertain.”

Several other hold stones are found in Orkney, some of which had lore that was thankfully recorded.  We don’t know when these stones were torn down, but there is the possibility that they may have been cast into the loch alongside which they stood.

Folklore

An intriguing piece of folklore relates to the adjacent St Tredwell’s Loch, right next to the stones.  The loch was known of far and wide as possessing great healing properties which Mr Brand told to be distinctly pagan in nature.  St Tredwell’s church had a cairn of stones by its side and those who visited here would pick one up and cast it into the loch as an offering (some folk would cast money), so that its waters would heal that person’s ailment.  According to Brand and the local minister, such cures were numerous.  The narrative is truly fascinating.  Brand told us that,

“nigh to the east end of which this chapel is, is held by the people as medicinal, whereupon many diseased and infirm persons resort to it, some saying that thereby they have got good; as a certain gentleman’s sister upon the isle, who was not able to go to this loch without help, yet returned without it; as likewise a gentleman in the country who was much distressed wifh sore eyes, went to this loch, and washing there became sound and whole, though he had been at much pains and expense to cure them formerly.  With both which persons he who was minister of the place for many years was well acquainted, and told us that he saw them both before and after the cure.  The present minister of Westra told me that such as are able to walk, use to go so many times about the loch as they think will perfect the cure, before they make any use of the water, and that without speaking to any, for they believe that if they speak this will marr the cure: also he told that on a certain morning not long since he went to this loch and found six so making their circuit, whom with some difficulty he obliging to speak, said to him they came there for their cure.”

The reason that I’ve included this folklore to the site profile of the monoliths is that, at some time in the early past the stones would most almost certainly have played some part in the ritual enacted at the loch by which they stood.  The building of Tredwell’s chapel was, quite obviously, an attempt to mark the place as christian in nature; but in such a remote region, old habits truly died hard.  Of particular interest in the rituals described here is the element of silence.  It’s fascinating inasmuch as it’s an integral ingredient in various ritual magick performances in different parts of the world.  Even in some modern magickal rites, this is still vitally important.  It’s a tradition also found at other lochs in Scotland and at lakes in many other parts of the world.

References:

  1. Brand, John, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, George Mosman: Edinburgh 1701.
  2. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland – volume 2, HMSO: Edinburgh 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Papil, Yell, Shetland Isles

Standing Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – HP 5378 0425

Also Known as:

  1. The Brough

Archaeology & History

This standing stone formerly stood close to the Burn of Forse, otherwise known as the Garth of Papal in the far north of the island.  Described briefly in J.T. Irving’s (1887) essay on the prehistoric remains of the area, the upright was obviously of local stone being,

Papil stone (PSAS 1887)

“a broad flat slab, slightly lower at one side than the other and measuring 4 feet 2 inches in greatest height by 2 feet 10 inches in width, and varying from 18 inches to 6 inches in thickness.  In one corner were the initials H I 1674 and M W 1683, with an old merchant’s mark, or something of that description… The late Dr Hunt of the Anthropological Society, dug under it in 1865, with the result that it was left to fall down, and be eventually broken up for building material to be used in the walls of a new school-house.”

Folklore

Irving (1887) told us that, “there is a tradition that a queen who came in a ship to Papal died there, and was buried beneath this stone.”

References:

  1. Irving, J.T., “Notes on some Prehistoric Burial-places and Standing Stones in the Island of Yell, Shetland”, in Proceedings Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 21, 1887.
  2. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland – volume 3, HMSO: Edinburgh 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

The Wartie Stone, Yell, Shetland

Legendary Rock (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – HP 5223 0467

Archaeology & History

Whilst classifying this as a “legendary” rock, it was as much a functional stone that played an integral part of local village life in the 19th century and, most probably, way before that.  This large stone possessed a large cavity in the shape of a giant human footprint, measuring 12 inch by 4 inch.  It could be seen “above the Deeks of Bracon, North Yell, up Hena”, but when first described in 1865, it was said to be “no longer in existence.”  Despite this, when an Ordnance Survey dood came looking for it in 1969, he reported it as “still in existence” and known of by local people.  Is there anyone in the far far north who can tell us?

Folklore

The impression of the large footprint was natural, but the use to which local people made of it is valuable when we seek to understand pre-industrial customs.  The Royal Commission (1946) lads echoed the folklore handed down by J.T. Irvine from 1865, telling that,

“Formerly the people used to wash in dew or rain-water that had gathered in the cavity and stand in it to get rid of warts.  The tradition was that a giant had planted one foot here and the other on a stone on the Westing of Unst.”

Healing stones with such properties can be found everywhere on Earth.

References:

  1.  Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland – volume 3, HMSO: Edinburgh 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Grey Wether, Ewes, Langholm, Dumfriesshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NY 37616 92734

Archaeology & History

Grey Wether in 1911

This is a site that requires the attention of some local antiquarians, as there are conflicting reports as to whether or not it still lives in its old haunt.  Very little has been written about it and its whereabouts seems to have been completely missed in the radars of all megalithic guides.  The Langholm historians—John and Robert Hyslop (1912)—who wrote about the place in their gigantic history work more than a hundred years ago, would no doubt be shaking their heads at such lackings.

They told:

“The best example of the standing stones in the Eskdale district is that at Meikledale in Ewes, locally known as ” The Grey Wether,” a print of which is here given.  It is about 5 feet in height and its girth is 8 feet 7 inches, and it would probably weigh about two tons.  The stone is the common greywacke, or whinstone of the Silurian series, rough and unhewn.  It stands in the centre of a field in front of Meikledale House, and can be seen from the highway.  The field is surrounded by hills on every side,”

which the writers thought might have been the reason for its erection here, although having more to do with the natural beauty of the landscape than any archaeocentric or geomantic factor.

Shortly after this had been written, Alexander Curle of the Royal Commission visited the area and made note of this “standing stone known as the Grey Wether…situated on the haughland some 250 yds SSE of Meikledale”, but added nothing more.  It was several years later before a Royal Commission (1920) team came here and told that,

“A standing-stone, known as the “Grey Wether,” is situated on the haugh-land, some 250 yards south-south-east of Meikledale.  It is a large whinstone slab, measuring in greatest height 4 feet 8 inches, in breadth 3 feet 5 inches, and in thickness 1 foot, and faces west-south-west and east-north-east.”

Stone shown on 1857 map

But they subsequently reported that, prior to World War 2, some complete dickhead knocked it down, broke it up and dumped it in a nearby stream!  However, in 1980 some more lads from the Scottish Royal Commission revisited the area and alleged that a stone laid in the field 250 yards below of Meikledale farmhouse was our old Grey Wether.  The position they describe is the same spot as the one shown on the 1857 OS-map; and at this very spot on GoogleEarth it seems that a stone there lies…  Are there are any local folk in that neck o’ the woods who could find out…?

Folklore

The Greywethers stone circle on Dartmoor has a veritable mass of folklore attached to it, but its namesake here at Langholm has very little.  The origin of its name has been forgotten.  All we have left is what the Ordnance Name Book in 1857 recorded, telling that “it is supposed to have been erected in memory of some Hero, but no further account of it can be obtained.”

References:

  1. Hyslop, John & Robert, Langholm, As it Was, Hills: Sunderland 1912.
  2. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Dumfries, HMSO: Edinburgh 1920.
  3. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments Scotland, Eastern Dumfriesshire: An Archaeological Landscape, HMSO: Edinburgh 1997.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Small Wells, Louth, Lincolnshire

Sacred Wells (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – TF 32603 87555

Also Known as:

  1. Little Wells

Archaeology & History

Small Well on 1834 map

Of the three wells in old Louth around which local ceremonies occurred, the Small Wells were apparently the least impressive.  Its ritualised compatriots south of the River Lud in St. Helen’s Well and the Ash Well (the Aswell in modern Louth place-names) were reportedly the much better water supplies in bygone times.  The site was highlighted on a map of the town in Robert Bayley’s (1834) history of the area, showing it as a small pool just below the Cistern Gate road; but when the Ordnance Survey lads came here later in the 19th century it had already gone.

It’s category here as a “sacred” well is due to it being annually decorated with garlands of flowers, commonly known today as well-dressing.  Such wells tend to be places of pre-christian rites, attended by local people at dawn usually at Beltane or at Midsummer (St John’s Eve); but I’ve been unable to find out which was the sacred day when the waters here were honoured.  All that we have left to tell us of the rites is from old township notes that said how,

““The small wells,” a cluster of little springs on the north of the town, shared in the honours of green boughs and popular huzzahs” the traditions held at the wells of St. Helen and Aswell a half-mile to the south.

A brief 16th century account told of a local man being paid for the adornment of the Small Wells: one “Henery Forman received for dressing small wells for a yeare – xiid” – or 12 pennies in old money.  Not bad at all in them days!

References:

  1. Bayley, Robert S., Notitiae Ludae; or Notices of Louth, W. Edwards 1834.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Mauns Stone, New Deer, Aberdeenshire

Legendary Rock (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NJ 89397 49502

Also Known as:

  1. Crawey Stone
  2. Crawford Putting Stone
  3. Crawstane
  4. Devils Putting Stone

Archaeology & History

Stone shown on 1874 map

A site whose main claim to fame is its legendary nature.  Seemingly buried or destroyed around the end of the 19th century, there have been suspicions that the stone might have had cup-marks on it (see Folklore below), but we’re not sure.  Modern lore tells that when roadworks were done here in the 1950, a large stone was uncovered.  A local man who was passing by told that he’d seen the Crawey Stone in his youth and that the stone they’d uncovered was one and the same.

Folklore

The story that used to be told amongst local people was thankfully preserved in an article by the pseudonymous “Mormond” (1889) in Scottish Notes & Queries.  He told that:

“In the parish of New Deer, and in a field near the Old Castle of Fedderat, there is a large boulder of ten or twelve tons known as the Crawey Stone.  I am unable to say if it still occupies its old site, or if it has been broken up for building purposes.  The legend connected with this stone used to be well known in the parish, and a version of it appeared in The Aberdeen Magazine some 70 or 80 years ago.  This version is substantially the same as the legend known in the district, and relates how a Crawford, the lord of the castle and lands, one day “as he looked o’er his castle wa’ ” — a phrase which often occurs in old ballads — observed a crunkled carl (old woman or witch, PB) inspecting the stone and afterwards successfully lifting up one end clear of the ground.  Not to be conquered by such a shabby looking stranger, the laird, who was famed for his athletic powers, went out and challenged the carl; but on attempting to lift the boulder, burst a blood vessel; and the carl, who stood by watching him, suddenly disappeared in a flash of fire taking the remains of the laird along with her.  The tradition is that the laird was not mourned for in the district, and the moral drawn was “He couldna hae expected ony ither en’.”  When passing the boulder going to school, the legend was often referred to, and some indentations on it pointed out as the marks of the ill man’s fingers made at the time the superhuman feat was accomplished.”

These finger marks have been taken as possible cup-markings.  They might have been, but we simply don’t know; they may just have been curious natural markings that gave rise to this animistic creation myth.  Another tale told that the markings were due to an old giant in the neighbourhood who used the rock as a putting stone and rolled it to the spot where it used to stand.  Giants are always attached to indigenous creation myths, some of which go back thousands of years.

In the OS Name Book for Aberdeenshire written in the late 1860s, they told how the Maun Stone is,

“a large Stone of a roundish shape, built on an old fence, forming a side of the Public road leading from New Deer to Brocklay.  Tradition asserts that it has been the putting Stone of a Giant in ancient times.  There are Several holes in the Stone said to be the finger marks of the Giant.”

References:

  1. Mormond, A., “Legends and Rhymes Connected with Travelled Boulders“, in Scottish Notes & Queries, volume 2, 1889.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Killiesmont, Keith, Moray

Cup-Marked Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NJ 4124 5308

Archaeology & History

Diagonally across the road from Killiesmont, about a hundred yards up the sloping field on “a piece of ground called the Helliman Rig,” could once be seen a large flat stone with cup-markings on its surface.  Walter Gregor (1881) told that,

“It lay on the top of a rising ground, and commanded a very wide view of the country, stretching for many miles over the hills of Banff and Moray.  In a part of it the rock–a kind of slate–came to the surface.  In the rock were cut out nine cups in three rows.”

The carving was earlier described in one of the Topographical Gazetteers of Scotland (1848) where its story is bound up with local tradition and folklore of the land where it lie.  There it was described as being “a flat circular stone of about 8 feet in diameter, in which there are a number of holes, but for what purpose tradition is silent.”  Subsequently the local historian J.F.S. Gordon (1880) talked of this “large flat circular Stone, of about 8 feet in diameter, in which there was a number of half-pierced holes…. It was too large for a Quern or even a Millstone; and its purpose remained an enigma.”

The stone came to light when a local farmer was digging in the field and, “at the upper end of the Rig, there was found a rude Cist among a heap of stones, which contained ashes.”  The cup-marked stone was “turned up” at the same time.  It has sadly been destroyed—along with the associated cairn that probably had some relationship with the carving.  Prehistoric tombs and rock art are frequent bedfellows and it seems likely that the equation occurred here.  But the location of the site had some fascinating local lore told of it…

Folklore

The location of this carved stone in the field called ‘Helliman Rig’, was also known as the Guidman’s Croft or the Gi’en Rig.  This was a portion of land that was never to be touched or ploughed as it was “given or appropriated…to the sole use of the devil, in order to propitiate the good services of that malign being.”  This devilish tradition superseded the earlier faith of it being a place set aside for the fairy folk and their allies—nature spirits no less.  And it’s a tradition found in many places across Scotland and elsewhere, as the account in the Scottish Gazetteer told :

“Like other crofts of this description in Scotland, the present remained long uncultivated, in spite of the spread of intelligence (pedantic bastard! PB).  The first attempt to reclaim it was made not more than 50 years since, when a farmer endeavoured to improve it; but, by an accidental circumstance, it happened that no sooner had the plough entered the ground than one of the oxen dropped down dead. Taking this as an irrefragable proof of the indignation of its supernatural proprietor, the peasant desisted, and it remained untilled till it came into the possession of the present occupant…”

This of course fortified the old folklore in the eyes of local people.  I’ve found that even up to recent times, such folklore is still held quite seriously by some of the old folk in the mountain villages and hamlets.

References:

  1. Anon, The Topographical, Statistical and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland – volume 2, A. Fullarton: Edinburgh 1848.
  2. Gregor, Walter, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northeast of Scotland, Folklore Society: London 1881.
  3. Gordon, J.F.S.,  The Book of the Chronicles of Keith, Grange, Ruthven, Cairney and Botriphnie, Robert Forrester: Glasgow 1880.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Old Wives’ Well, Stape, Pickering, North Yorkshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid-Reference – SE 7944 9406

Also Known as:

  1. Nattie Fontein

Archaeology & History

Old Wives Well, 1848 OS-map

The history of the site is scanty to say the least.  It first seems to have been recorded when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in the 1840s, although they left no record as to why the site was given such a dedication.  It’s a decidedly pre-christian title as the name “old Wife” is usually indicative in northern counties as being related to the primal Earth deity of northern England and lowland Scotland (when we reach the Highlands and Ireland, She becomes known—amongst other names—as the cailleach).  However, apart from its name we have no additional information.  Neither the holy wells writer Edna Whelan (1989; 2001), nor hydrolatry researcher Graeme Chappell were been able to find anything about the place in their own researches.  And so we must go on name alone…

The waters bubble up into a small stone-lined chamber with the words Nattie Fontein carved into the lintel.  This is something of a mystery in itself, for, as Edna Whelan (1989) told,

“it would be most unusual for the word fonten to be used for a spring in North Yorkshire: ‘keld’ is the local word.  The rather roughly inscribed word may be a corruption of Fons Natalis, the name of a Celtic water nymph.”

Graeme Chappell (2000) meanwhile, noticed in a visit to the site in June 1999,

“that the N and A in “NATTIE” are carved in such a way that the word could be read as “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”. This might then be another reference to the Old Wife?”

He then goes on to note how,

“the latin word ‘natalis‘ meaning ‘birth’ and its link with the roman Festival ‘Dies Natalis Sol Invictus‘ (day of the birth of the unconquered sun) which took place on the 25th December. Natalis also gave rise to the welsh word ‘Nadolig‘ – meaning Christmas.”

This Yuletide element has an intriguing relationship with the name of the well; for to the west of Yorkshire’s borders into Cumbria there was annual gathering known as Old Wives’ Saturday that took place on the first Saturday after Christmas, or first Saturday of the New Year in a person’s house or inn, where a feast was had to bring in the New Year; but there is no known written lore of such a tradition here.

Nowadays the old tradition of hanging rags on the trees surrounding the well as offerings to the spirit of the place (known as memaws in parts of Yorkshire, and clooties in Scotland) has become a regular practice of those who hold such sites as sacred in their own way.  Whelan mentioned seeing memaws here in the 1908s, but the Northern Antiquarian contributor Jon Barker told that, “The rags are a comparatively recent addition to the well, it is not a tradition there. When I used to go in the ’60s therewere no rags.”

On an even more curious note: very recently (from when this profile was written), the Northern Antiquarian contributor and photographer James Elkington visited Old Wives’ Well for the first time.  It was a grey overcast day and when he arrived here, there was a woman ahead of him at the head of the well.  I’ll let him tell the rest of it in his own words:

The Old Wives Well, Stape  (James Elkington)
Old Wives Well at Stape (James Elkington)

“In front of the well was a lady dressed in what looked like a white nighty, she had her back to me.  There was a candle lit nearby, and her hands were in the water moving slowly about like she was washing something.  She had long dark shoulder length hair.  As I was about 25 feet away I was sure she wasn’t aware of me, and I thought it would make a good photograph.  I quietly put my bag on the ground and got my camera out, and looked up and…she was gone!  I couldn’t have taken my eye off her for more than 5 or 6 seconds.  I looked all around and there was no sign of her.  Even if she had legged it through the woods I would have seen her.  I think it was then that I realized that I may have had ‘an encounter’.  I quickly took three pics of the Well and got the hell out of there!”

He rang me once he had regained his senses in a somewhat emotional state and recounted over and over what had just happened.  Whether this was a visual manifestation of the genius loci of the we can’t say.  But such encounters are not unknown at numerous sacred water sites all over the world.  We can only hazard a guess that this is what he was fortunate to encounter.

Just a few hundred yards north is the old Mauley or Malo Cross, which may or may not have had some mythic relationship with our Old Wives…

References:

  1. Chappell, Graeme, “Old Wives’ Well, Stape,” YHW 2000.
  2. Elgee, F., Early Man in Northeast Yorkshire, Frank Bellows: Gloucester 1930.
  3. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  4. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.

Links:

  1. Yorkshire Holy Wells

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian