River Barvas, Barvas, Lewis

Sacred River:  OS Grid Reference – NB 351 494

Folklore

As with traditions found all over the world, rivers and lakes had spirits, gods and rituals attached to them.  Despite us believing that no such things ever occurred in Britain and the rest of the so-called ‘civilized’ world, such things were once common.  One of the annual rites performed at the Hebridean river at Barbhas (Barvas)—and described by Alexander Fraser (1878)—is just one such example:

“The natives of Barvas had a peculiar custom on the first day of May, of sending a man across the river at (the) dawn of day to prevent any females from crossing it first, as that would hinder the salmon from ascending the river all the year through.” (Fraser 1878)

The importance of the salmon, both as an important food source and equally as a ‘sacred animal’, is known in myths and legends throughout the British Isles.  To the legendary hero-figure Finn, it played a part of him gaining supernatural wisdom, and this quality is integral to the fish itself who ate the hazelnuts of knowledge and gained such power.  In this same short piece of folklore, the time of year when the ritual should be enacted on the River Barvas is Beltane, which is renowned as the prime period in the annual cycle/calendar relating to fertility.  This element relates to maintaining the fecundity of the river and the salmon where, in this case, men crossing the waters symbolically fertilizes them to ensure the annual return of the fish.  It would be interesting to known when this custom finally died out.

References:

  1. Fraser, Alexander, Northern Folk-lore on Wells and Water, Advertiser Office: Inverness 1878.
  2. Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, RKP: London 1967.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.352757, -6.529821 River Barvas

Fairies’ Cradle, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

Legendary Rock (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NH 792 651

Archaeology & History

In the ruins St Bennet’s Chapel, along with his accompanying holy well (NH 79237 65033), could once be seen a curiously shaped rock which, according to tradition has been destroyed.  In Mr Innes’ (1855) major history work he mentioned this Fairies Cradle in passing.  Not far from here and close to the coast, is a curiously-shaped boulder with several natural cupmarks (at NH 9150 6497).

Folklore

In Hugh Miller’s (1878) definitive local history work, Scenes and Legends, we have our main description of this once important site.  It existed,

“near the chapel itself, which was perched like an eyry on a steep solitary ridge that overlooks the Moray Firth, there was a stone trough, famous, about eighty years before, for virtues derived also from the saint, like those of the well. For if a child was carried away by the fairies, and some mischievous unthriving imp left in its place, the parents had only to lay the changeling in this trough, and, by some invisible process, their child would be immediately restored to them. It was termed the fairies’ cradle; and was destroyed shortly before the rebellion of 1745, by Mr. Gordon, the minister of the parish, and two of his elders.”

The story of children here being carried away by littlepeople and then restored by an impish offering, is a play on the site being a healing stone.  There are numerous other “curing stones” found elsewhere in Scotland, but with their own respective traditions—like the Measles Stone at Fearnan, the Whooping Cough Stone near Killin, and many others.

If anyone knows anything more about this lost “curing stone”, please let us know.

References:

  1. Alston, David, “The Old Parish Church of Cromarty,” Cromarty, May 2005.
  2. Innies, Cosmo, Origines Parochiales – volume 2:2, W.H. Lizars: Edinburgh 1855.
  3. Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; the Traditional History of Cromarty, William Nimmo: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  57.659534, -4.026278 Fairies Cradle

St Fillan’s Chair, Killin, Stirlingshire

Sacred Stone: OS Grid Reference – NN 56432 32010

Getting Here

Take the road to Auchlyne from Killin which follows the north side of the River Dochart, and on the edge of the village the stone will be seen on the left hand side behind a hedge, opposite the entrance to ‘Springburn’.

Archaeology & History

The chair is mentioned in Rev. Gillies’ exemplary work, In Famed Breadalbane (1938):

St. Fillan would appear to have had a great liking for stone seats.  Besides the one already mentioned…there is..a..flat stone on the top of a knoll about a mile to the west of the village, and on the north side of the river, on which he is said to have sat and taught

St Fillan’s Chair, ‘twixt road and river
The ‘seat’, facing the River Dochart

Two local ladies told us that the Chair had recently been uncovered from the vegetation. It is a flattish earth-fast slab of rock, which has on the right hand side a seat indentation, which faces the river bank about 12 feet away. Its proximity to the river bank would seem to limit its use as a preaching pulpit, and yet, well over a millennium after the death of Fillan, his ‘Chair’ is still remembered. Did the Chair serve another purpose, a purpose that long preceded Fillan and Christianity?

Here at Killin we are in an area of Scotland where Christianity was for long a veil worn very lightly over long-held ancient animistic beliefs and customs. Indeed in the early nineteenth century, missionaries were sent in the face of considerable local opposition by the Haldanes into Gaelic speaking Breadalbane to try to convert the locals to Christianity.

St Fillan and other saints had it seems become the named facilitators for healing at ancient places on behalf of the incoming religion from the Middle East.  To the west of Killin, there are the St Fillan’s Pools at Auchtertyre near Tyndrum, where he is reputed to have cured madness but which continued to be used for that purpose until the late eighteenth century at least.  There are stones for preventing measles and whooping cough near Killin that are still known and pointed out.  So what of our chair?

There is a nineteenth century story of a chair of St Fiacre (Irish born like Fillan) at the village church of St Fiacre near Monceaux in France being used to ‘confer fecundity upon women who sit upon it ‘.  The shape and proximity to the river may otherwise suggest St Fillan’s Chair was a birthing Chair?  Maybe some very old locals still know the true story of this Chair, but would they tell it?

References:

  1. Anon., Phallic Worship – a Description of the Mysteries of the Sex Worship of the Ancients, privately Printed: London 1880.
  2. Calder, Walter, Lawers, Lochtayside: A Historical Sketch, Macduff, Cunning & Watson, c.1930.
  3. Gillies, William, In Famed Breadalbane, Munro: Perth 1938.

© Paul T Hornby 2020

 

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  56.458306, -4.331382 St Fillans Chair

Two Captains, Stetchworth, Cambridgeshire

Tumuli (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – TL 6246 6048

Also Known as:

  1. Two Howes

Archaeology & History

Mentioned as early as the 15th century in the Ely Cartulary as the “Tuomhowe,” or “two hills”, the place-name authority P.H. Reaney (1945) identifies this with the two “barrows” which our early cartographers map as our ‘Two Captains’.

Site shown on 1834 map
Site of the Two Captains on the 1885 OS map

In the 1834 survey by the Ordnance Survey lads, these conspicuous burial mounds were clearly marked on the west side of the Devil’s Dyke, less than 2 miles south of the Newmarket Necropolis.  They were seen first-hand by a number of local walkers, including A.J. King (1845) in his account of the aforementioned dyke.  But on the 1885 OS map, the old tombs had apparently gone.  Evidently some local knob-head had come along and took it upon himself to destroy these two burial mounds, which had lived here for thousands of years.  However, despite the OS-maps indicating that it had been totally destroyed in the 1880s, a couple of later writers said that faint traces were still visible, including the historian Charles Harper. (1904)  When he came here, he told how

“Little is now left of this once prominent mound, once important enough to be marked on Ordnance maps, but now ploughed nearly flat.  It stands in the third field from the road, on the right hand, a field now under corn, but until forty years ago a wood.”

A.J. King’s 1845 map

Very little is known about the place and even the late great barrow fetishist, L.V. Grinsell (1936) could dig nothing out, despite the two tombs mentioned in passing by a number of writers.

Folklore

In Grinsell’s (1976) book on the folklore of ancient sites, he drops the Two Captains into a simple category of them relating to some battle, without any information.  But it seems there isn’t much to go on.  The local history work of Charles Harper (1904) intimates the same thing, bringing attention to the folklore of the adjacent Devil’s Dyke, as

“it is one of the many sites identified as the scene of Boadicea’s defeat by Suetonius Paulinus, but we are sceptical of this particular one, although the ancient tumulus on the outer face of the Ditch, still called the Two Captains, points to some forgotten conflict in which two leaders were slain and buried on the contested field.”

 

References:

  1. Gomme, G.L., The Gentleman’s Library: Archaeology – volume 2, Elliot Stock: London 1886.
  2. Grinsell, Leslie V., The Ancient Burial Mounds of England, Methuen: London 1936.
  3. Grinsell, Leslie, Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, David & Charles: Newton Abbot 1976.
  4. Harper, Charles G., The Newmarket, Bury, Thetford and Cromer Road, Chapman & Hall: London 1904.
  5. King, A.J., “The Devil’s Dyke, Newmarket,” in The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1845.
  6. Reaney, P.H., The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, Cambridge University Press 1943.
  7. Royal Commission Ancient Historical Monuments, Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire – Volume 2: North-East Cambridgeshire, HMSO: London 1972.
  8. Tymms, S., “The Devil’s Dyke, Newmarket” in Proceedings Suffolk Inst. Archaeology. 1, 1849-53 168-70

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  52.218577, 0.376758 Two Captains

St Ellen’s Well, Harrisend Fell, Scorton, Lancashire

Holy Well: OS Reference – SD 53683 50975

Also Known as:

  1. St Ellin’s Well

Getting Here

The Well on the 1846 Map

Approaching the site from the north, walk along the Lane Head track, and along the path south-eastwards, then turn right onto the main footpath until coming to the stream. Follow the stream up the fell to the large clump of reeds, then follow your ears until you locate the spring! Or you can approach it along the main footpath from the Oakenclough – Galgate road. The well and the path to it
are on access land.

Archaeology & History

Fortunately recorded by the Ordnance Survey on their 1846 6″ map Lancashire XL, the story of St Ellen’s Well was taken up sixty years later by local holy wells historian Henry Taylor (1906):

Listen for the spring in the reeds

“The site of this holy well is marked on the ordnance map at a lonely spot on Harris Fell, five hundred feet above the sea-level, four and a half miles in a north-easterly direction from the town of Garstang.

“Mr. A. King has kindly examined the site.  He writes, 4th August, 1902: “We had no difficulty in locating the spot…. There is no outward indication of the place being used for curative means, and there is no stonework at all. It is a beautifully cold spring which is at the side of ‘Bonny Pad’, a pathway leading across the moor from Harris End, and it was grown around with rushes….  All I can glean about it is that one of the oldest inhabitants, when asked if he knew of it, replied, ‘It will be th’ holy well, you mean.'”

The original dedication of this remote holy well was clearly to St. Helen, and its presence next to the Bonny Pad or path may indicate a pre-Christian dedication to a local cognate of the Celtic Elen Luyddog, Elen of the hosts or ways.  The Bonny Pad is shown but not not named on the 1846 map, and follows a broadly southwest to northeast direction from Harris End (again not named on the 1846 map) up to Grizedale Head on the southern edge of the Catshaw Vaccary.  It was perhaps an ancient route used by farmers to take their animals up onto the fell for the summer, and return them to the lowlands in the autumn.

Bubbling away at source

The western portion of Bonny Pad is not shown on the modern map and St Ellen’s Well is not marked, and both have it seems passed out of local memory.  An elderly farmer I encountered on my way up to the fell had never heard of the Well.

It is certainly worth the walk if only for the delightful sound of this powerfully flowing spring, the water is pure and cold, and it commands a fine view over the Lancashire plain to the coast.

References:

  1. Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.
  2. Wise, Caroline, “Elen of the Roads of Country and Town”, in Finding Elen – The Quest for Elen of the Ways, edited by Caroline Wise, Eala Press: London 2015.

© Paul T. Hornby, 2020

 

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  53.952785, -2.707269 St Ellen\'s Well

Clach an Eolas, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides

Legendary Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NF 101 996?

Also Known as:

  1. Stone of Knowledge

Archaeology & History

This stone has very similar qualities to the one found upon Mullach-geal, ⅔ of a mile to the west, as a place where ritual magick was performed.  And, just like the Mullach-geal stone, we only have an approximate position of its whereabouts: “behind the village”, as Mr Sands (1878) said.  The same words were used by other St Kildan writers when it came to describing the whereabouts of Tobar Childe, so we must assume it to be reasonably close to the old well.

Folklore

Mr Sands seems to be the first person to write about it, telling us,

“At the back of the village is a stone, which does not differ in external appearance from the numerous stones scattered around, but which was supposed to possess magical properties.  It is called Clach an Eolas, or Stone of Knowledge.  If any one stood on it on the first day of the quarter, he became endowed with the second sight — could “look into the seeds of Time,” and foretell all that was to happen during the rest of the quarter.  Such an institution must have been of great value in Hirta, where news are so scanty.  To test its powers I stood on it on the first day of Spring (old style) in the present year, but must acknowledge that I saw nothing, except two or three women laden with peats, who were smiling at my credulity.”

Charles MacLean (1977) mentioned the stone a hundred years later, but seems to have just copied this earlier description.  Does anyone up there know its whereabouts?

References:

  1. MacLean, Charles, Island on the Edge of the World, Canongate: Edinburgh 1977.
  2. Sands, J., Out of the World; or Life in St. Kilda, Maclachlan & Stewart: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  57.815359, -8.570241 Clach an Eolas

Mullach-Geal Stone, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NF 092 996

Archaeology & History

This is a most intriguing site, whose exact location seems to have been forgotten.  It was first mentioned in Macaulay’s History of St Kilda (1764) as being one of four stone altars that the islanders used for worship.  Three of them were related to the early christian figure of St. Brendan, whose well and chapel remains are on the south-side of the island.  However, this fourth stone altar possessed a purely magickal and heathen function.  Macaulay initially gives the location as being “on top of a hill to the southwest” of St. Brendan’s chapel; but subsequently tells us it was upon “Mulach-geall” which is a mile NNW.  It was an important place to the people of Hirta and its exact position needs to be found and, hopefully, the altar still exists.

Folklore

Despite Macaulay’s conflicting directions of how to get here (a common feature of early writers), he wrote:

“I have already made mention of one St. Kilda altar, that in Brendans Chapel.  There are no less than four more in the island, of which three lie at considerable distances from the holy places.  There is one particularly on the top of a hill to the south-weft (sic), dedicated according to tradition to the God who presides over Seasons; The God of thunder, lightning, tempests and fair weather.  To avert the terrible judgments inflicted by this mighty Divinity, the ancient St. Kildians offered propitiatory sacrifices on this altar, sacrifices of different forts, much like the old Pagans, who offered a black sheep to Winter, or the Tempest, and a white one to the Spring…  The place where the people of this island, offered their victims to Taranis, is called Mulach-geall, that is to say, the White eminence or hill…”

More than a hundred years later, Seton (1878) made mention of it, but added no further details.

The invocation to Nature’s elements is something we find echoed at some sites further east, such as the Well of the North Wind on Iona and its compatriot Well of the South Wind.  At both these places, so-called ‘pagan’ rituals were used to both placate and invoke the gods and spirits of the wind.  This one on St Kilda possessed additional magickal prowess.  But where is it?  Have we lost it, or is it sleeping somewhere on the edge of Mullach-Geal…?

References:

  1. Macaulay, Kenneth, The History of St. Kilda; Containing a Description of This Remarkable Island; the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants; the Religious and Pagan Antiquities There Found, T. Becket: London 1764.
  2. Seton, Gordon, St. Kilda – Past and Present, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  57.814575, -8.585289 Mullach-geal Stone

Giant’s Stones, Arnbathie, Perthshire.

Legendary Stones: OS Reference – NO 16695 26086

Getting Here

The two stones in relation to each other

Travelling north from Perth on the A94, take the right turning for Murrayshall just before entering Scone, then take the first right and continue up to the road junction, and park up at the trackway opposite.  You’ll see the big stone in the field to the right, up against the road embankment; and the small stone is in the paddock to the left of the trackway at the edge of the trees.

Archaeology & History

Two large glacial erratics which have acquired mythic status and picked up a Christian triumphalist message on the way.

Folklore

In Lawrence Melville’s (1939) excellent local history work, he thankfully put to pen an all-but-forgotten tale of oral tradition:

“Where the road from the Muir of Durdie leaves Kilspindie parish, a grass grown road leads north to Boglebee….. A few yards from the highway lie two large stones, said to have been flung from the Giant’s Hill in Collace parish – the flat topped eminence lying due north from the stones, about two or three miles away, better known as “Macbeth’s Hill”, or “Dunsinane Hill”.

The ‘string’ marks of legend
The smaller stone with its ‘string’ marks

“When the church dedicated to St John in Perth was being built and its tower began to appear, a witch living in Collace was enraged to see this proof of the approach of Christianity and determined to destroy it. She had a son, a giant (after whom the hill receives one of its names), whom she sent to the top of the hill, giving him two huge stones with which to destroy the rising church.

“By her incantations she had supernatural power and knew that when Christianity came her power would be destroyed. She gave him her mutch from her head to be used as sling and in it the giant put the two huge stones. Whirling it around his head, he aimed them in a line with the tower, but, just as he let them fly, the string of his mother’s cap broke and the stones only went the length of Boglebee. The marks on the stones are said to be the marks of the witch’s mutch strings.”

Another view of the larger stone

A familiar folkloric message is remembered the length of Britain:  a giant, a devil or other supernatural being throwing stones that either spill out of an apron or otherwise miss their mark.  And in this case an unsubtle message to anyone trying to take on the might of the church.  But what was the original story of these stones as told by the old time oral storytellers before Christian missionaries stalked the land?

If the string hadn’t broken and the stones had followed their original trajectory they would have fallen south of St John’s Kirk, but it was the thought that counted….

Reference:

  1. Melville, Lawrence, The Fair Land of Gowrie, William Culross: Coupar Angus, 1939.

©Paul T. Hornby 2020, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.419613, -3.351980 Giants Stones

Giant’s Leap & Rock, Black Hill, Abernyte, Perthshire.

Legendary Rock: OS Reference – NO 21559 31659

Getting Here

Giant’s Rock in ravine overlooked by the Leap

The Rock and Leap may be seen from the B953 Bandirran to Abernyte road.  Approach across the fields.

Archaeology & History

A large boulder perhaps 40 tons in weight lies in a ravine between Dunsinane and Black Hill. The ‘Leap’ is a flat topped ledge jutting out from the west side of Black Hill facing Dunsinane.

Folklore

Melville (1939) in his The Fair Land of Gowrie writes of the simple pleasures of the giant:

“From the farther side of the ravine [between Dunsinane and Black Hill], a precipitous rock juts out, which is called the “Giant’s Leap”. According to the lore of the Sidlaws, a giant, who once lived in these parts, leaped from this rock right on to the top of Dunsinane Hill.  The giant also amused himself by tossing about a huge boulder which can be seen lying at the bottom of the ravine.”

And adds:

The Big Fellow’s toy
Giant’s Leap from the north

“Fairies haunted the hills here and on summer nights they descended to the meadows, where they danced at a spot called “Fairygreen”. The Black Hill gets its name from the dark heath which covers it. Weird and bleak looking for most of the year, the lower slopes are brightened by glowing patches of purple flowers in late summer.”

Fairygreen Farm lies a mile almost due north of Dunsinane.

Reference:

  1. Melville, Lawrence, The Fair Land of Gowrie, William Culross & Son, Coupar Angus, 1939.

© Paul T Hornby 2020, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.470503, -3.274832 Giant\'s Leap & Rock

Robin Hood’s Oak, Great Horkesley, Essex

Legendary Tree (lost):  OS Grid Reference –TL 96 28

Archaeology & History

In more than twenty volumes about Robin Hood in the Northern Antiquarian library, no mention can be found of this all-but-forgotten site, first recorded (I think) in September 1637, in the boundary perambulation account of northern Colchester.  In days of olde, folk walked the boundaries annually and so the description given here follows their very footsteps – although the landscape has obviously been altered in places since then.  Because of the length of the entire perambulation their account is rather long, so I’ve cut to the piece relating to our legendary oak tree, which gives a good idea of its location.  We meet up with them at a place called Motts-Bridge, just above a place that is today called Seven Arches Farm (TL 9630 2595):

“…and so over Mott’s-bridge, and so cross the river by Nicholas Ayleward’s howse into the meadowe crossinge over to the lower ende of West-fielde, and from thence to Buttolph’s brooke leavinge the Brooke alwais upon the left-hand, and so along to Thomas Abrige (which is righte against Robin Hood’s oake). And from thence to Black-brooke under Chesterwelle and so along the Rampiers by Horkesley Heathe to the brooke that is under Langham-park-corner…”

P.H. Reaney (1935) proposes that the ‘Rampiers’ in this account is the Iron Age hillfort of Pitchbury Ramparts.

The description of its whereabouts isn’t too clear, but in a subsequent and much longer perambulation account from August 1671, some extra topographical features are mentioned.  Starting not far from Mott’s Bridge, down Shett’s Hill to Newbridge,

“and then into the Fields in the occupation of Matth. Ayleward…through a gate a little above the Bridg: and soe along to Matth. Ayleward’s Yard, crosse the River into Matth. Ayleward’s Meadowe, and crosse that Meadowe into the lower part of Westfields, neare to which is a Foote-bridge cross the river, which is called Mott’s-bridge.  And soe along through West-fields to a Gate in a lane at or neere the north ende of a Meadow of one Mrs —, now in Samuel Duglet’s occupation, which lane parts West-fields from Bergholt, as the Parsons of each Parish, whoe were both present, affirmed; and, upon a Tree standing neere to which Gate is set a crosse.  And from thence to Butolph’s brooke, leaveing the brooke allwaies  upon the left-hand; and soe along through Mr Leming’s Meadows and Woods at the ende of them to a Bridge called Thomas Abridge, leading on to Horkesley Heath, which bridge is right against Robin Hood’s Oake, that stood on the pitch of the hill. And from thence along the Naylande Roade over Horkesley-heathe to Blackbrooke under Chesterwell, which Brooke runnes crosse the way at the foote of Horkesly cawsy…”

This second account seems to speak of the tree in the past tense, telling us that “Robin Hood’s Oake, that stood on the pitch of the hill”, but we can’t be completely sure.  I presume that there’s no longer any trace of this legendary oak tree; however, considering the fact that oaks can live to an incredible age, it may be worthwhile for a local antiquarian to follow this ancient boundary and see if, perchance, any remaining tree stump might still be there.  Y’ just never know…..

There are several other place-names in Essex relating to our mythical outlaw, including Robinhood End at Finchingfield described in 1699, and a farm of the same name nearby; plus a Robin Hood’s Inn near Loughton. (Reaney 1935)  There are probably a few more hiding away in field-name records…

NB:  The grid-reference map linked to this site is an approximation.  If someone can find the exact spot where the tree stood, we’ll update its position.   

References:

  1. Morant, Philip, The History and Antiquities of the Most Ancient Town and Borough of Colchester, W. Bowyer: London 1748.
  2. Reaney, P.H., The Place-Names of Essex, Cambridge University Press 1935.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  51.920339, 0.856044 Robin Hood\'s Oak