Pit Marshes, Kilnsea, East Yorkshire

Tumulus (destroyed):  OS Grid-Reference – TA 420 150

Archaeology & History

This long lost site is one of probably many such sites on the east coast of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire that used to exist, before the great North Sea took them away.  The only account I’ve found of this one is from a short article in an early copy of the Lincolnshire Notes & Queries magazine by John Cordeaux (1891), who wrote:

“The Spurn, or Spurn Point, as it is now usually called, at the mouth of the Humber, is so closely connected with Lincolnshire history that it is unnecessary to apologize for recording in Lincs. N. & Q. an interesting sepulchral relic found there.  This is a rude chest or coffin, roughly hewn and squarely hollowed, probably with stone implements, from the trunk of an oak, recently exposed by the action of the sea on the beach at Kilnsea.  The total length overall of the chest is 51 feet, the interior (it was much decayed and fallen when I saw it) little, if anything, over four feet.  In this space the skeleton, presumably of an adult male was found doubled up.  Most unfortunately the original finders (labourers) scattered the bones, which subsequently were washed away. A thigh bone alone being recovered, and this is suggestive of a man probably a little below the average height.

“From oral evidence collected in the neighbourhood, I came to the conclusion that the body must originally have been buried with the head bent forward on the chest, and the legs tucked up like a trussed fowl, the knees near the chin. No corresponding lid or covering was found on the coffin, it had been placed in an excavation in the red or chalky boulder clay, and tenacious blue clay placed on it. The locality on the coast where it was found represents the Pit Marshes — that is before “the sea gat ’em ” — their position was about one-hundred and fifty yards south of the first sea-groin on Kilnsea beach. It is not improbable that a barrow or tumulus, either of earth or piled stones, at one time covered the interment, until levelled and dispersed by the sea’s encroachments on the land. Not far from this place on the beach, a small, simple, flat-sided celt, about four inches long, was picked up. It may or may not have borne some relation to the occupant of the oak coffin. When the foundations of the enlarged Chancel of St. James’ Church, Grimsby, were dug, a similar coffin or chest was exposed, partly within and partly without the line of the north chancel wall. I remember it was conjectured at the time, from the comparatively small interior, that it had been used for the interment of a child.  It is more probable, however, that it had once contained an adult packed away in the manner indicated at Kilnsea.”

A very short distance north we find the place-name of “How Hill”, which may be a record its existence, as the word how in many places round here can mean a tumulus.  Seems to make sense.

References:

  1. Cordeaux, John, “Ancient British Interment,” in Lincolnshire Notes & Queries, volume 2, 1891.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Shooting House East, Askwith Moor, North Yorkshire

Hut Circles:  OS Grid Reference – SE 17401 50967

Getting Here

Askwith Moor hut circle (1)

Along the only road that crosses Askwith Moor, park up at the single carpark on the east-side of the road.  Walk up the road for 350 yards and through the gate on the left-hand (west) side of the road onto the moorland.  Once through the gate, walk directly west into the heather immediately below the path for some 25-30 yards.  Look around!

Archaeology & History

Rediscovered by Helen Summerton in May 2022 are at least two simple hut circles on this level piece of land close to the roadside, amidst this much wider and impressive prehistoric landscape.

The small ring of stones (SE 17430 50978) closest to the road is slightly more troublesome to make out due to it being more deeply embedded in the peat than its companion about 30 yards away.  Comprising of typically small rubble walling, this first circle is only 4 yards across and would certainly have been fine for one person or, at a push, perhaps a small family.

Askwith Moor hut circle (2)
Askwith Moor hut circle (2)

Its companion immediately west (SE 17401 50953) is somewhat larger and slightly more elongated in shape, being 10 yards along and 5-6 yards across, as well as being in a better state of preservation.  This larger hut circle has been raised on a notable artificial earth-and-rubble plinth, being one or two feet higher than the surrounding peatland.  A notable internal stretch of walling only a yard or two in length exists within the southeastern side of the construction, whose nature can only be discerned upon excavation: an issue we can say applies to the many prehistoric settlements and tombs across this small moorland.  It’s very likely that other settlement remains will be found close to these two hut circles.

The remains of another hut circle can be found closer to Shooting House Hill, several hundred yards away; whilst five hundred yards southwest we find a small but impressive cairnfield.  There are also a good number of petroglyphs close by and on much of the surrounding landscape.

Acknowledgments:  Huge thanks to Helen Summerton (not Winterton) for finding these ‘ere remains – and for the photos accompanying this site profile.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Cowling’s Enclosure, Askwith Moor, North Yorkshire

Enclosure:  OS Grid Reference – SE 1793 5127

Getting Here

Danny, James & Paul on the NE corner, for scale

Coming up from Otley, make your way up to the Askwith Moor road (the only one that goes across the moors) and park up on the rough parking spot on the right-side (east) of the road.  You can’t really miss it.  From here walk up the road for less than 500 yards until your reach the rickety gate and the path onto the moors.  From here I walked 600 yards east, thru the heather until I reached the wall (close to the Tree of Life Stone) and then followed the wall up for 150 yards, then back up (west) onto the moor again and, about 50 yards along at the foot of the slope, keep your eyes peeled for the earthworky undulations beneath your tiny feet!

Archaeology & History

Just below the scattered Snowden Moor settlement we find this curious large structure, first described 75 years ago by the northern antiquarian Eric T. Cowling (1946). Since then, apart from a cursory overview, archaeologists haven’t really paid it much attention.

Eastern ditch, looking N
Eastern ditch, looking S

It’s a large site – and one which Cowling thought was constructed in the Iron Age.  He may have been right, but there’s such a profusion of ancient sites on this small moorland area—dating from Neolithic times onwards—that it could be earlier than he thought.  It’s an odd site too!  Unlike the prehistoric D-shaped enclosure and settlement on the top of the slope less than 100 yards away, and an equivalent D-shaped enclosure to the south, the area inside Cowling’s enclosure ostensibly is on quite sloping ground, with barely a flat level area anywhere inside it.  As a result of this, we can safely conclude that it wasn’t where people lived; and the complete lack of any inner hut circles (which you’d expect in a standard enclosure of this size) encourages this view.  It’s a bit of a puzzle!  Cowling opted for the idea that it was built to enclose cattle – which may be right; but again, even this must be questioned, as there is ample space on more level ground where this could have been done.  His description of the site is as follows:

“The most prominent feature (on these moors) is a D-shaped enclosure which covers the nose of the spur; the area is eighty feet from north to south and seventy feet from east to west. The enclosing bank is of piled boulders, three feet high and eight feet wide.   Cuttings across the north side revealed no evidence of dry walling, but rather a bank to carry a heavy stockade.  A shallow trench runs inside the bank, which is doubled where it is overlooked by higher ground at the northeast corner.  A second outer bank at the eastern side has an outer trench. Along the ridge to the east are circles of varying size, probably a hut group.  A larger circle (?) of heavy material, some thirty feet in diameter, is isolated on the shelf above Snowden Crags to the west.  Strips of wall and remains of enclosures of circular shape abound.”

Cowling’s plan of the site
Northern bank, looking E

Cowling’s initial measurements of the site underestimated its real size, as the bank and ditch that runs roughly north-south is close to 52 yards—nearly twice as long!  The same was found along its east-west size: being 56 yards, which is more than twice what Cowling measured.  Altogether, the enclosure measures approximately 225 yards around its outer edges.  In fairness, Cowling’s error was probably due to it being covered in vegetation when he came to do his measurements here.  …So, if you’re gonna check this place out, make sure you do it in the winter or early spring months, before the bracken encroaches.

There’s a real abundance of prehistoric sites all over this part of the moor, from more settlement remains, cairns, ring cairns and petroglyphs.  Make a day out of it.

References:

  1. Cowling, Eric T., Rombald’s Way, William Walker: Otley 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Altar Stone, Stobo, Peeblesshire

Legendary Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NT 15710 35754

Also Known as:

  1. Arthur’s Stane

Getting Here

Altar Stone on 1859 map

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

Altar Stone, Stobo

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…

Folklore

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.

Scratch-marks of the mythic hare
Altar Stone, Stobo

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.”

References:

  1. Ardrey, Adam, Finding Merlin, Mainstream 2012.
  2. Barnett, Ratcliffe, Border By-Ways and Lothian Lore, John Grant: Edinburgh 1925.
  3. Buchan, J.W. & Paton, H., A History of Peeblesshire – volume 3, Glasgow 1927.
  4. Crichton, Robin, On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age, R. Crichton 2017.
  5. Glennie, John Stuart, Arthurian Localities, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1869.
  6. Moffat, Alistair, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Phoenix: London 1999.
  7. Rich, Deike & Begg, Ean, On the Trail of Merlin, Aquarian: London 1991.
  8. 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 BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Skerray Mains, Torrisdale, Sutherland

Souterrain (lost):  OS Grid Reference – NC 6601 6315

Archaeology & History

In the middle of the 19th century the opening to a prehistoric souterrain used to be in evidence on the north-side of the single track road running past old Skerray Mains house.  It was mentioned in Hew Morrison’s (1883) historical guide, albeit briefly and without ambiguity:

“Below the house of Skerra Mains is an artificial cave that enters from below the road and extends 40 or 50 yards in length.  Two urns were found it when it was discovered but they soon crumbled away on being exposed to the air.”

More than thirty years later, the Royal Commission (1911) lads ventured to check it out, only to find that it had just recently been covered up:

“At the farm of Skerray Mains is an earth-house, the mouth or entrance to which was recently exposed by the farmer.  It is situated about 15 feet distant from the northeast window of the dwelling-house, and is now entirely covered over again.”

Of the old locals I met here, only one of them remembers hearing of it, but the precise location of its entrance had been forgotten.  Surely it aint gonna be toooo difficult to find it again?

References:

  1. Morrison, Alex, “Souterrains in Sutherland,” in J.R. Baldwin’s Province of Strathnaver, SSNS: Edinburgh 2000.
  2. Morrison, Hew, A Tourist’s Guide to Sutherland and Caithness, D.H. Edwards: Brechin 1883.
  3. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Black Beck, Hawksworth Moor, West Yorkshire

Hut Circle:  OS Grid Reference – SE 1415 4401

Getting Here

Hut circle, looking NW

Take the same directions as if you’re going to visit the Black Beck cairn.  From here, walk through the heather northwest for about 60 yards.  If the heather’s been cleared, you’ll see it low down, otherwise you’re pretty much screwed when it comes to finding this one!

Archaeology & History

Seemingly in isolation, this low-walled, D-shaped hut circle is presently the only the structure of its kind known to exist on this part of Hawksworth Moor; although to be honest we should expect there to be such structures in the area when we consider the size and proximity of the associated cairnfields immediately north and southeast of here.

Southern arc of walling
NW section of walling; Black Beck tomb to rear

As with most hut circles, it’s nowt special to look at in all honesty.  The south side of the structure is rubble walling typical of these structures, curving round as usual; but its more northern section straightens out, creating a D-shaped structure.  This  line of straight walling seems attached to another, outer parallel wall 3 feet away, creating its very outer edge.  The rubble walls themselves average three  feet across; whilst the hut circle measures 6-7 yards across.  We assume that it was constructed during the same period as the adjacent prehistoric necropolis.

Acknowledgements:  With huge thanks, as always, for James Elkington for use of his photos.  Also to the evolving megalith and landscape explorer Mackenzie Erichs; and to Linzi Mitchell, for additional input…

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Summer Stone, Blubberhouse Moor, North Yorkshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – SE 15564 54039

Getting Here

Cupmark stone, looking W

It’s probably easiest to start from the Green Plain settlement, from here crossing the Sun Bank Gill stream and walking east through the scattered heather and grasslands for 450 yards to the right-angled edge of the woodland.  Keep walking eastwards alongside the woods for about another 250 yards, then walk into the grasslands north for about 140 yards or so.  Zigzag about – you’re damn close!

Archaeology & History

Only for the purists amongst you.  This is a simple small triangular stone, with a single notable cup-mark near the middle.  It would seem to be in isolation as we could find no others in the immediate vicinity.  An early marker no doubt.

Acknowledgements:  With thanks to Helen Summerton, who helped with location on this fine day.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Grinnan Hill, Braco, Perthshire

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – NN 8338 0936

Also Known as:

  1. Grianan Hill
  2. Grinan Hill
  3. Grinnon Hill

Getting Here

Grinnan Hill on 1866 map

If you’re coming by car, Braco’s an easy place to park.  Once here, walk up the main road, past the terrace houses until, on your left, you reach the B8033 Feddal Road.  About 500 yards on, where the houses end and you reach the small river bridge, you’ll notice a footpath immediately on your left with a small table where you can have a cuppa.  Walk past this, into the trees and along the riverside for barely 100 yards, and walk up the hillside on your left.  On your way up are a couple of large humps, a bit like a small roller-coaster.  You’re here!

Archaeology & History

Antiquarians amongst you are gonna love this.  It’s huge!  Hiding away and all but forgotten in the little village of Braco, overgrown with trees and brambles, this steep wooded defensive structure has a series of large ramparts—three in all—that you’ll walk up and down before hitting a slightly undulating summit.

William Roy’s 1793 plan
Christison’s 1900 plan

The site was shown as an unnamed triple-ringed hill on William Roy’s 1747-52 survey of Scotland, with the lines representing the ramparts of this ‘fortress’.  Some years later, Roy (1793) briefly mentioned the site when he was comparing indigenous fortifications with those of the Roman invaders, saying that “the small camp at Ardoch” probably “contained more than a Roman legion, with their auxiliaries.”  His sketch and layout of the hillfort (right) is interesting in that it shows the more compete fortified ramparts on the north-eastern sides, which have today been covered by the modern houses.  The ramparts in this part of the hillfort were still visible when the brilliant Miss Christian MacLagan (1875) came here; and in a subsequent visit by Mr Christison (1900) they could still be seen, as we can see in in his sketch (left).  When we visited recently, it looked as if the lads who’d landscaped the large gardens most probably, unknowingly, used the soil of the ramparts to create them!

Apart from the missing northeastern ramparts, the site today is little different from when our antiquarians wrote of it more than a hundred years back.  Read Miss MacLagan for example, who said:

“Near the parish church is an eminence called Grianan Hill, on which are still to be traced the remains of a British fort.  The hill is a beautifully wooded knoll to the west of the village of Braco.  It appears to be about 100 feet in height above the level of the surrounding land; on three of its sides the ground is perfectly flat, and we could suppose that in the amply days of the fort above, it had been environed on three sides by a lake, which would of course contribute to its strength.  The fourth side of the hill, having but little natural strength, has been strongly fortified by three great walls.  This is the side which connects the knoll with the neighbouring rising ground which is nearly as high as itself.

“The area enclosed by the innermost circular wall has a diameter of 130 feet.  The space between this wall and the second is 37 feet, and the space between the second and third walls 47 feet.  Almost every stone of this fort has been removed, but the lines and trenches which mark their former presence are still very distinct.”

Christison (1900) subsequently gave us much the same, with just some additional points here and there:

Looking up at SW side
Looking up at S side

“The site is less than ½-mile SW of Ardoch camp, 420 ft above the sea, on the edge of a steep descent, 40 to 50 ft high, to Keir Burn, but only slightly elevated above the field towards Braco village.  It has apparently been an earthwork with a semi-oval triple line of defence…partly ramparted and trenched, partly terraced, the broad oval being rudely completed by the unfortified edge of the steep bank.   The entrance, a, is along the narrow crest of a ridge, i, from the E, and it is likewise approached by a rude roadway, c, from the burnside below.  Roy’s plan makes the work nearly complete, but the middle half of the lines no longer exists.  He says that it may have been a work of the natives before the arrival of the Romans, but calls it a (Roman?) ‘post.’   There can be no doubt that it belongs to a common type of native fortresses.  Its extreme length is about 320 ft, and the interior may have been about 200 by 170.”

Southern line of walling
Footpath along rampart

What he failed to point out—and contrary to Canmore’s comment that “the interior is featureless”—is the length of internal walling running nearly halfway through the top of the hillfort, cutting it in half so to speak, roughly southeast to northwest: the eastern area slightly larger than the west, which is a little higher.  A ‘gate’ or passage between these two sides seems apparent halfway along this line of walling.  This wall, like the long one running along its southern edge, is a couple of feet high and more than a yard across.  In the western section a small pit has been dug, about eight feet across and a yard or so deep.  Local lore tells that this was an old Roman fire-pit!

Around the very bottom mainly on the west-side of the hill, remains of old walling can be seen for a couple of hundred feet beneath the vegetation, but I’m unsure about the date of this structure.  It may well be a 19th century construction, but without an excavation—and none has ever been done here—we will never know for sure.

Undulating ramparts

One final thought on this place is how is may have related with the large Roman forts that are just a few hundred yards away to the northeast.  When the invaders came here, local tribal folk no doubt watched them with caution.  One wonders whether or not some sort of ‘agreement’ was made between our local folk and the aggressive incomers, with them coming to some sort of nervous truce between them which allowed the Romans to build their camp to the east, as long as they kept their distance from the folk in this hillfort.  Just a thought…..

References:

  1. Christison, D., “The Forts, Camps and other Field-Works of Perth, Forfar and Kincardine,” in Proceedings Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 34, 1900.
  2. Hogg, A.H.A., British Hill-Forts: An Index, BAR: Oxford 1979.
  3. MacLagan, Christian, The Hill Forts, Stone Circles and other Structural Remains of Ancient Scotland, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1875.
  4. Roy, William, Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, W. Bulmer: London 1793.

Links:

  1. Canmore notes

Acknowledgements:  Huge 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 BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

Dalvraid, Melness, Sutherland

Hut Circle:  OS Grid Reference – NC 56573 63389

Getting Here

The light-coloured ring of Dalvraid hut circle

Take the directions to find the unusual and impressive West Strathan petroglyph, and keep following the road up past the carving until you reach the dead-end.  A footpath takes you down to the river, where a rickety bridge takes you to the other side.  From here, a footpath to your right goes up the slope at an easy angle and into the wilds ahead.  Just a couple of hundred yards up, keeps your eyes peeled some 10-20 yards above you, to the left.  It is a little difficult to see, and perhaps is better looked at from above the footpath, then looking down onto it.  If you’re patient, you’ll find it!

Archaeology & History

Stuck out on its own, way off the beaten track, this seemingly isolated ‘hut circle’—as it’s been officially termed—rests on a small level piece of land some 400 yards north from the ruins of  Dalvraid’s chambered cairn.  It’s nowt much to look at to be honest, and is probably only gonna be of interest to the hardcore antiquarians amongst you.

When I came here, the walling was mainly covered in dead bracken and internally is a veritable lawn!—but it was pretty easy to make out.  Slightly ovoid in form, with its entrance on the southern side, the circle is 10 yards across; and the although the low walling is barely a yard high on three sides, on the eastern section the natural slope was dug into to create a higher wall on that side.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Moonshade Stones, Cargill, Perthshire

Standing Stones (buried):  OS Grid Reference – NO 16161 35767

Also Known as:

  1. Moonshade
  2. Canmore ID 28487

Getting Here

Site shown on the 6″ OS Map of 1867

Travelling north, turn right to Wolfhill off the A93 at Cargill, then up the hill, turning left at the first junction. The stones are buried in the field to your left before the bend.

Archaeology & History

The earliest description of these stones, and the only one written while they were still standing comes from J.P.Bannerman, writing in the Old Statistical Account in 1793:

‘Near the village of Cargill may be seen some erect stones of considerable magnitude, having the figure of the moon and stars cut out on them, and are probably the rude remains of Pagan superstition. The corn-field where these stones stand is called the Moonshade to this day.’

Later writers, who only had verbal reports of the stones from locals who remembered them, gave differing descriptions of them. The people who spoke to the Ordnance Survey name book scouts around 1860, described them as:

‘Moonshade – “This name is applied to an arable field immediately west of Gallowhill. Two large Standing Stones having the representation of the Moon and 7 Stars cut out on one of them were removed from this field about 60 years ago.”‘

The local antiquary Andrew Jervise wrote in 1861 that the stones were:

‘interesting relics….purposely buried below the reach of the plough, appear to have been of the same class of antiquities as the sculptured stones at Meigle and, from the desire which is now being manifested for the preservation of national antiquities, it is hoped that those relics will soon be disinterred, so that their symbols may be properly examined.’

Looking north from the road the stones stood to the right of and beyond the pylon

Or as another writer puts it, they were; ‘dug around and under, and buried, in the agricultural improvement of theground’. For all we know from the written descriptions that have come down to us the stones may be prehistoric monoliths, with it seems only one of them carved. As they stood alongside the Roman road from Muthill to Kirriemuir, the moon and stars may have been cut by the Romans, or they could equally have been from the hand of a Pictish or later mediaeval mason. The field in which they stood was alternatively known as ‘Moonstone Butts’ or ‘Moonbutts’ – where the local archers practised.

Folklore

While the word ‘moonshade’ doesn’t appear in Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary, nor the online Dictionaries of the Scots Language, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as an obsolete word for ‘nightshade’, citing a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum of 1627:

‘The Ointment, that Witches use, is reported to be made, of the Fat of Children, digged out of their Graves; Of the juyces of Smallage, Wolfe- bane, And Cinquefoile; Mingled with the meale of fineWheat. But I suppose that the Soperiferous Medicines are likest to doe it; Which are Henbane, Hemlocke, Mandrake, Moone-Shade, Tobacco, Opium, Saffron, Poplar- Leaves.’

Given the stones are in the Perthshire witch country (the Witches Stone of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is only 2½ miles due south of here), this is nevertheless almost certainly a ‘red herring’, with the field deriving its name from the carvings on the stone. Only when we can again see the Moonshade Stones, ‘digged out of their grave’ will we be able to begin to understand them. So will there be any motivation to excavate them?

References:

  1. Bacon, Francis, Sylva Sylvarum : or, A Naturall historie, William Lee: London, 1627.
  2. Bannerman, J.P., Old Statistical Account, Perthshire, 1793.
  3. Jervise, Andrew, Memorials of Angus and Mearns, A & C Black: Edinburgh, 1861.
  4. Ordnance Survey Name Book, Perthshire, Volume 15, 1859-62.
  5. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1971.
  6. Simpson, J., Archaic Sculpturings, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh, 1867.

© Paul T Hornby, 2021