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

Sharp Haw, Flasby, North Yorkshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – SD 9594 5532

Getting Here

Sharp Haw cups

The quickest way to get here is to head out of Skipton towards the B6265 Grassington Road. Once on the B6265 you will go past the Craven Heifer Pub on your left hand side. About ¾-mile past the pub you will see a small turning on your left called Bog Lane. Turn on to Bog Lane and travel ¼-mile till you come to a sharp left bend; and on the right you will see a gateway with room to park. Once you have parked, you will notice a sharp-pointed hill—and that’s Sharp Haw!  You’ll need to go through the gate, up the gravel track to another gate; go through that, and continue on the track for 100 yards where you will notice a footpath going off to your right, get on it. Keep on this path heading to Sharp Haw to the stile in the wall; once there go over it and up to the trig point.  From the trig point you need to keep going and about 10 yards after you will notice a footpath starting to go down to the right. Head down and the stone is on your left. You can’t miss it!

Archaeology & History

Sharp Haw hill

Not previously recorded, this carved stone near the top of Sharp Haw is intriguing in shape.  It is found on the vertical face of the rock.  The petroglyph has one large cup with three smaller faint ones above it.

There are many more distinct cup-markings found on the flat rocks on top of Rough Haw close by.

© Chris Swales, The Northern Antiquarian


Merlin’s Mount, Marlborough, Wiltshire

Tumulus:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1836 6867

Also Known as:

  1. Marlborough Mount
  2. Merlin’s Barrow
  3. Merlin’s Mound

Getting Here

Pretty simple.  Get to the chapel in front of Marlborough College, and look at the stepped hill in the grounds thereof (with a big hole cut into the top where a water tower once stood).  That’s it!  Please be aware that this monument is on college ground, so it might be worthwhile telephoning them if you wanna wander upon the hill.

Archaeology & History

Merlin’s Mount (from Colt-Hoare’s Ancient Wiltshire)

This curious rounded, pyramidal hill is thought by some to have given the town of Marlborough its very name.  Described in Domesday as ‘Merleberge’, which is reckoned to derive from “the hill or barrow of Maerla”: Maerla in this case being a lost olde English name, said in local folklore and tradition to have been our old heathen magickian, Merlin, of Arthurian fame and legend.  Long ago his bones were laid to rest here and this great ‘tomb’ built over him.  We might never know…

The exact nature and date of this mound has yet to be satisfactorily explained.  Commonly ascribed as Norman in origin (based mainly on the notion that it wasn’t mentioned before Domesday and there being motte and bailey ruins here), the finding of Roman remains near its base then led some to think they had built the hill; but when “antler picks used by its prehistoric builders were unearthed in the late nineteenth century and again in 1912 when a trench was cut for the flue of a new engine-house chimney” (Burl 2002), the dates for its origin went a lot further back!

One of the earlier commentators on this archaeological curiosity was Sir Richard Colt-Hoare (1812) in the days when much more of this and other sites were visible in the landscape, saying:

“The Mount within the gardens of the Castle Inn is a remarkable earthwork: it is a huge pile of earth, and inferior in proportions only to Silbury Hill.  Each is situated on the River Kennet; the one near its source, the other near its margin; and I have no doubt but that in ancient times each had some corresponding connection with each other.”

A sentiment echoed by our modern megalithic scholar, Aubrey Burl. (2002)  But as Burl points out, the distance between Silbury and Merlin’s Mount would have been measured not in distance by those who constructed these giant mounds, but in time.  And the focus of our ancestors here in relation to these two great artificial mounds, would not be esteemed as much by engineering or measurement — for both mounds are gigantic — but a wholly mythic one.  Colt-Hoare continued:

“This mound has been so mutilated, as well as lowered in its height, that it is impossible to calculate an exact measurement of either its circumference or height; but as nearly as we could guess with our chains, we found the base to be about 1000 feet in circumference, and the diameter of the summit 100 feet.”

A piece of Merlin’s Mount!

When the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) described Merlin’s Mount — or ‘Marlborough Hill’ as he preferred it named — more than seventy years later as, “an artificial tumulus which deserves careful examination”, it seems little further investigation had been done.  And despite Smith’s wish for such care and attention, even today no detailed archaeological investigation has been undertaken.  Astonishing!  This fascinating-looking pyramidal “barrow” was thought by several early writers to have been constructed along similar architectural designs as that of Silbury Hill.  In Massingham’s (1926) fascinating Egyptian-origin hypothesis, he tells us the following:

“Merlin’s Mount encompasses only an acre-and-a-half of ground in comparison with Silbury’s five-and-a-half, and reaches a trifle more than half its height (60 feet).  In every other respect the twain are alike.  Both were raised at the foot of a gentle slope, both were made of chalk resting on a thin layer of clay, both were trenched around the bases, and in both were buried the antlered picks of the builders.  Both were built near the banks of the (River) Kennet within five miles of one and other.”

It certainly is impressive!  When Michala Potts and I came here last year in the fine company of Pete Glastonbury and others, we were somewhat in awe of the fact that so little has been said of this site in modern archaeological terms.  Indeed, the fact that the jury is still out as to the age of its construction we found quite surprising at the time.  Though another quick reading of Mr Burl’s Avebury work, combining the Roman finds and the antler picks here, makes him think that “a prehistoric origin for the mound likely.”

The name of Marlborough itself has been given a number of interpretations, most notably the attempt to derive it from the great shaman-poet Merlin.  But on a down-to-earth peasant level we find, in John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica there’s a note in the margin concerning the ‘marl’ element in the place-name that was told to him by a local man called Edward Leigh, which said,

“Marga, marle, we use instead of dung to manure our ground. It (Marlborough) lieth near a chalky hill, which our ancestors knew.  They borrowed this name ‘chaulk’ of the Latin, calx, named marle.”

More recently Margaret Gelling (1984) thought that the name of this hill or mound “is variously interpreted as a plant-name or a personal name.”  Which for some brings us back to Merlin!  We might never know…

References:

  1. Best, J., “The Marlborough Mound,” in A. Whittle’s Sacred Mound, Holy Rings (Oxford 1997).
  2. Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.
  3. Field, David, Brown, Graham & Crockett, Andrew, “The Marlborough Mound Revisited,” in Wiltshire Archaeologial & Natural History Magazine, 94, 2001.
  4. Gelling, Margaret, Place-Names in the Landscape, Phoenix: London 1984.
  5. Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of South Wiltshire and the Ancient History of North Wiltshire, London 1812.
  6. Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathon Cape: London 1926.
  7. Smith, A.C., Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, WANHS 1885.

Links:

  1. Merlin’s Mount on Press TV

Acknowledgements:

With many thanks to Pete Glastonbury and Brian Edwards for their hints and corrections.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian