Dun Osdale, Dunvegan, Skye

Broch:  OS Grid Reference – NG 24162 46424

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 10832

Getting Here

Dun Osdale, by the roadside

From the A863 Dunvegan road, a mile south of the village turn onto the B884 road at Lonmore, making sure you veer right after a few hundred yards and head towards Glendale.  About a mile along, on the left-hand side of the road, note the small rocky crag that begins to grow just above the roadside.  At the end of this crag you’ll see a huge pile of rocks, seemingly tumbling down, just by a small T-junction to Uiginish.  You can’t really miss it.

Archaeology & History

Listed as one of the duns, or fortified prehistoric structures in Skye by the old writer J.A. MacCulloch (1905), the rediscovery of this broch was, said A.A. MacGregor (1930), one that “became historical only within living memory.”  I find that hard to believe!  The Gaelic speakers hereby merely kept their tongues still when asked, as was common in days of olde—and it was a faerie abode….

Looking at the SW walling

Looking at the SE walls

Once you go through the gate below the broch, the large boggy area you have to circumnavigate is the overflow from an ancient well, known as Tobar na Maor, where Anne Ross said, “tradition that the stewards of three adjacent properties met there.”  This well was covered by an ancient Pictish stone (now in Dunvegan Castle), which may originally have been associated with the broch just above it.  When I visited the site with Aisha and Her clan, we passed the overgrown well and walked straight up to the broch.

Despite being ruinous it is still most impressive.  The massive walling on its southwestern side is still intact in places; but you don’t get a real impression of the work that went into building these structures until you’re on top.  The walls themselves are so thick and well-built that you puzzle over the energy required to build so massive a monument.  And Scotland has masses of them!

Aisha in the broch

Small internal chamber

The site was surveyed briefly when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in 1877, subsequently highlighting it on the first OS-map of the area.  But it didn’t receive any archaeocentric assessment until the Royal Commission (1928) lads explored the area some fifty years later.  In their outstanding Inventory of the region they described Dun Osdale in considerable detail, although kept their description purely architectural in nature, betraying any real sense of meaning and history which local folk must have told them.  They wrote:

“The outer face of the wall of the broch for a great part is reduced to the lower courses, but on the west-southwest a section still maintains a height of about 7 feet; on the south-side, although hidden by fallen stones, it is about 4 to 5 feet high, and on the northeast there is a very short section 3 feet in height.  The stones are of considerable size and laid in regular courses.  In the interior a mass of tumbled stone obscures the most of the inner face of the wall, but on the south and northwest it stands about 8 feet above the debris.  The broch is circular with an internal diameter of 35 feet to 35 feet 6 inches, and the wall thickens from 10 feet on the north to 13 feet 7 inches on the south. The entrance, which is one the east, is badly broken down, but near the inside has a width of 3 feet 2 inches, and appears to have been 2 feet 10 inches on the outside; it has run straight through the wall without checks.  In the thickness of the wall to the south of the entrance is an oval chamber measuring 10 feet long by 4 feet 9 inches broad above the debris with which it is half-filled.  The roof has fallen in, but the internal corbelling of the walls is well displayed.  The fallen stones no doubt still cover the entrance, which has probably been from the interior.  Within the western arc of the wall, nearly opposite the main doorway, is another oval cell 12 feet in length and 4 feet 6 inches in breadth over debris, with a doorway 2 feet 9 inches wide; its outer and inner walls are 5 feet 9 inches, and 2 feet 6 inches respectively.  The roof od this chamber has also collapsed, but from the masonry which remains in position it must have been over 6 feet in height.  Immediately to the west of the cell near the entrance are exposed the left jamb of a door and a short length of a gallery 3 feet 6 inches wide in the thickness of the southern wall, which probably contained the stairs, as traces of a gallery at a higher level than the oval chambers are seen here, the inner wall being about 3 feet and the outer 8 feet thick. Parts of a scarcement 9 inches wide can be detected on the northwestern and southeastern arcs.”

Dun Osdale plan (RCAHMS 1928)

Dun Osdale on 1881 map

Measurements and architectural tedium aside, the broch is worthwhile for anyone interested in our ancient mythic past, not least because of its position in the landscape and its visual relationship with other sites of the same period nearby.  As well as that, there are unrecorded ancient sites still hiding in these olde moors…


Tradition tells that Dun Osdale was used as a watch-tower by the tribal folk—which seems quite credible.  But the original inhabitants of Duirinish, the sith or fairy folk, were also said to live here.  It’s one of several places in Duirinish where the legendary Fairy Cup of Dunvegan was said to have come from.  Otta Swire (1961) told its tale:

“One midsummer night a MacLeod, searching for strayed cattle, stayed late on the moor.  In the moonlight he saw the door of Dun Osdale open and the little people come out, a long train of them, and began to dance on the green grass knoll nearby.  Fascinated, he watched, forgetting everything but the wonderful dance. Suddenly he sneezed.  The spell was broke.  The dance stopped.  MacLeod sprang up to fly, but the fairies were upon him and he was dragged, willy-nilly, into the dun.  Inside, as soon as his eyes grew accustomed to that strange green light associated with fairyland, he beheld a pleasing sight.  A great banquet was spread on a large table carved from a single tree: on it were vessels of gold and silver, many of them set with jewels or chased in strange designs.  His fairy ‘hosts’ led him to the table, poured wine into one of the beautiful cups and, giving it to him, invited him to toast their chief.  Now this man’s mother was a witch, so he knew well that if he ate or drank in the dun he was in the Daoine Sithe’s power for ever.  He lifted the cup and appeared to drink the required toast, but in fact skilfully let the wine run down inside his coat.  As soon as his neighbours saw the cup was half empty, they ceased to bother about him but went off on their own affairs or to attend the banquet.  Thereafter MacLeod watched for a chance of escape and, when one offered, slipped quietly through the door of the dun and away, carrying the cup with him.

“The fairies soon realised what had happened and started in pursuit, but he was already across the Osdale river and in safety.  He hurried home, told his mother the story, and showed her the cup.  Being a wise woman she realised the peril in which he undoubtedly stood and at once put her most powerful spell upon him to protect him from the arts of the Daoine Sithe, warning him seriously never to leave the house for a moment without getting the spell renewed.  But she forgot to put a protecting spell upon the cup also.  The fairies soon discovered the exact state of affairs and immediately laid their own spell upon the cup, a spell so powerful that all who saw the cup or even heard of it, were seized with an overmastering desire to possess it, even if such possession involved the murder of the holder.

“For a year, all went well and thanks to his mother’s care the young man went unharmed.  Then he grew careless and one day ventured out without the protecting spell.  A one-time friend, bewitched by the cup, had been awaiting just such a chance and immediately murdered him and went off with the prize.  The fairies, their revenge achieved, took no further interest in the matter, but MacLeod of MacLeod did.  The boy’s mother hurried to him with her story, and he at once gave orders that the murderer be found and brought to justice.  He was duly hanged and the trouble-making cup, now free of enchantment, passed into the possession of the chief and can still be seen in (Dunvegan) castle.”


  1. Donaldson-Blyth, Ian, In Search of Prehistoric Skye, Thistle: Insch 1995.
  2. MacCulloch, J.A.,  The Misty Isle of Skye, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier: Edinburgh 1905.
  3. MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, Over the Sea to Skye, Chambers: Edinburgh 1930.
  4. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Small Isles, HMSO: Edinburgh 1928.
  5. Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island its Legends, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1961.

Acknowledgements:  Eternally grateful to the awesome Aisha Domleo and Her little clan for getting us to this ancient haven on Skye’s endless domain of natural beauty.  Without Her, this would not have been written.  Also, accreditation of early OS-map usage, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. John's Well, Isle of May, Fife

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NT 65858 99107

Also Known as:

  1. Pump Well

Archaeology & History

St John’s ‘Well’ on 1855 map

This seems to be the only ‘St John’ dedication on the Isle of May: a small island littered with more saint’s names, seemingly, than Iona and Lindisfarne combined!  Illustrated on the 1855 OS-map, without name—and on the present-day large-scale OS-maps too, 20 yards or so from its 1855 position—the standard archaeo-historical records say nothing of the place.  Thankfully antiquarian and folklore accounts have preserved evidence of its title.  When the Victorian traveller Thomas Muir (1868; 1883) visited the Isle of May, he told how the islanders struggled to maintain a good water supply during a drought there in the 1860s.  St. John’s Well was, he told,

“A pump standing by the path above Kirk Haven. The water good, but a little brackish. During all the drought of this summer we pumped water out of this well to supply our cattle.”

After Æ. J.G. Mackay’s (1896) visit to the island he told that here, along with the other holy wells on May,

“their brackish waters have lost the magic virtue they were credited with in early christian, possibly in pagan times.”

In more recent times it was described in W.J. Eggeling’s (1985) natural history survey.  St. John’s Well was,

“the well within the high, cylindrical, whitewashed wall-surround lying across Haven Road from the Coal House. Also known as the Pump Well.  It is a guiding mark for boats entering Kirk Haven.”


St. John’s Day (June 24) was the christian name given to the traditional Midsummer Day, or days, around which good heathen festivals occurred; but we can find no ritual accounts of activity specific to this Well. Help!


  1. Dickson, John, Emeralds Chased in Gold; or, The Isles of the Forth, Oliphant: Edinburgh 1899.
  2. Eggeling, W.J., The Isle of May, Lorien 1985.
  3. Mackay, Æ. J.G., A History of Fife and Kinross, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1896.
  4. Muir, Thomas S., The Isle of May – A Sketch, Edinburgh 1868.
  5. Muir, Thomas S., Ecclesiological Notes on some of the Islands of Scotland, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1883.
  6. Simpkins, John Ewart, Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning Fife, with some Notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-shires, Sidgwick & Jackson: London 1914.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

St. Margaret’s Well, Edinburgh Castle, Midlothian

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NT 25084 73618

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 52080

Getting Here

Site of St Margaret’s Well

Along the more western end of Princes Street, looking up at the castle, wander into the park below and walk towards the railway line. There’s a foot-bridge over it.  Once on the other side, turn right and walk along the path for just over 100 yards until you’re just about beneath the cliffs.  There, in front of you, a ruinous stone building and carved faded plaque reads “St Margaret’s Well.”

Archaeology & History

The bedraggled architectural remnants we see of St. Margaret’s Well today, is not where the waters originally emerged.  We must travel 2-300 hundred yards west of the present edifice, along old Kings Stables Road near St Cuthbert’s Church, for its original position. Long since gone of course…

Close-up of plaque
St Margarets, by the old ruins

The history of this holy well tends to be found scattered in a number of sources—but none give us a decent narrative of its medicinal or traditional lore.  Perhaps the best was conferred in W.M. Bryce’s (1912) lengthy essay on St. Margaret’s chapel where he told:

“Of the fountain in West Princes Street Gardens, also known as St. Margaret’s, and for the protection of which the Well-house Tower was erected in 1362, no legend of a similar nature seems to have survived.  It was a little flowing stream of pure water, and down to the year 1821 was utilised for drinking purposes for the supply of the garrison, in supplement of the ancient draw-well of the Castle.  The earliest notice of this fountain appears in a charter by David I in favour of the Church of St. Cuthbert, dated circa 1127, in which he conveys the land under the Castle from the fountain which rises close to the corner of the King’s Garden, and along the road leading to the church.  It was here, in this royal garden, beside the pellucid waters of the well which was afterwards to bear her name, that Queen Margaret, in the company of her husband and children, spent many a sunny afternoon under the shade of the rugged old Castle rock.”

St Margarets Well in 1870s

The carved plaque in front of the old tumbled-down well-house sadly hides no water anymore; merely some trash and heroin-addicts needles at the back.  Best avoided.


This Scottish Queen and consort of King Malcolm Canmore, ‘St Margaret’, had several days in the calendar on which she was commemorated.  Mrs Banks (1941) told how, traditionally, her day is June 10:

“This day was appointed for her festival by papal decree, but in Scotland her day is that of her death, November 16.  The festival of her translation was commemorated on June 19th.”

W.M. Bryce (1912) cited St Margaret’s Day to be generally accepted as June 19, which is closer to Midsummer and could easily be accommodated into local heathen traditions.


  1. Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Scotland – volume 3, Folk-lore Society: London 1941.
  2. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh, TNA: Alva 2017.
  3. Bryce, W. Moir, “Saint Margaret of Scotland and Her Chapel in the Castle of Edinburgh,” in Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, volume 5, 1912.
  4. Harris, Stuart, The Place-Names of Edinburgh: Their Origins and History, Gordon Wright: Edinburgh 1996.
  5. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  6. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  7. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient & Historical Monuments of the City of Edinburgh, HMSO: Edinburgh 1951.
  8. Skene, James, “Remarks on hte Well-House Tower, Situated at the Foot of the Castle Rock of Edinburgh,” in Archaeologia Scotica, volume 2, 1822.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Colpy, Culsalmond, Aberdeenshire

Stone Circle (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – NJ 6411 3261

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 18272

Archaeology & History

Colpy Circle site on 1868 map
Colpy Circle site on 1868 map

Just like the stone circle a half-mile east at Kirkton of Culsalmond, nothing now remains of this megalithic ring.  It was first described very briefly by Rev. F. Ellis (1845) in the New Statistical Account as a “druidical temple”: one of two hereby, “on the farm of Colpie, although now almost obliterated. Several urns were dug up in making a road near one of them”—implying that one of them was a cairn circle or funerary monument of some kind.  This was subsequently affirmed on the early OS-map and then described in Fred Coles’ (1902) survey, where he wrote:

“Site of a stone circle, the road going to Jericho Distillery having been made through it, and, on the south side of this road, the site of a cairn. Within the possible diameter of the circle an urn was found.”


A few hundred yards west of the circle an ancient fair used to be held, known as St Sair’s Fair, named after St Serf.  Although St Serf’s Day is July 1, early records show that the fair—held in a long field with the curious name of ‘St Sairs Market Stance’—was to be held on the Wednesday after the last Tuesday in June.  For a stone circle, this is too close to Midsummer to be a coincidence!  Early records show that the fair was granted in 1591 and subsequent years thereafter.

St Serf is a very peculiar mythological figure with quite shamanistic traits and tales around him.  In truth, many of these early saints were little more than lapsed shamans, utilising natural magick and medicine in the olde traditions, but which became grafted onto the incoming christian mythos.  The evidence for this is quite overwhelming!


  1. Barnatt, John, Stone Circles of Britain – volume 2, BAR: Oxford 1989.
  2. Browne, G.F., On Some Antiquities in the Neighbourhood of Dunecht House, Aberdeenshire, Cambridge University Press 1921.
  3. Burl, Aubrey, “The Recumbent Stone Circles of North-East Scotland”, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 102, 1973.
  4. Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of the British Isles, Yale University Press 1976.
  5. Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press 2000.
  6. Coles, Fred, “Report on Stone Circles in Aberdeenshire (Inverurie, Eastern Parishes, and Insch Districts),” in Proceedings Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 36, 1902.
  7. Ellis, F., “Parish of Culsalmond,” in New Statistical Account of Scotland – volume 12: Aberdeen, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1845.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

Newtyle, Dunkeld, Perthshire

Standing Stones:  OS Grid Reference – NO 04489 41057

Also Known as:

  1. Doo’s Nest
  2. Druid’s Stones
  3. New Tyle

Getting Here

Newtyle’s standing stones

From Dunkeld travel southeast on the A984 road to Caputh and after about 1½ miles, set back a few yards from the road amidst the trees below the Newtyle Quarries (whose mass of slate and loose rocks cover the slopes), you’ll see these two large monoliths.  There’s nowhere to park here, but there’s a small road a coupla hundred yards before the stones aswell as a space to park on the verge by the side of the road a few hundred yards after them.  Take your pick!

Archaeology & History

When we visited these two tall standing stones a few weeks ago, guerilla archaeologist Hornby and I were a little perplexed at the state of these stones, wondering whether they were a product of the fella’s who dug the quarries above here, or whether they were truly ancient.  It seems the latter is the consensus opinion!

They were described by the great Fred Coles (1908) in one of his lengthy essays on the megaliths of Perthshire, where he thought the two stones here were all that remained of a stone circle that once stood on the flat, above the River Tay, but whose other stones “were destroyed in the making of the road” which runs right past here.  Not so sure misself!  He told that,

“An old cart-track runs up between the stones, leading from the main road…up to the quarry. The mean axis of the two stones runs N 13° W and S 13° E (true), and although their broader faces do not point towards the centre of a circle on the west, it is certainly much more probable that the other stones were on this side, the lower and flatter ground, than on the east, where the ground slopes and is more broken and rough.

“Both stones are of the common quartzose schist, but they differ considerably in shape.  A is 6 feet 7 inches high at the north corner, but only 4 feet 10 inches at the south, and its vertical height at the east is only 3 feet.  The basal girth is 13 feet 3 inches, and in the middle 15 feet 9 inches.  The broad east face measures 5 feet.  Stone B is level-topped and 5 feet in height; it has a basal girth of 12 feet 4 inches, and at the middle of 11 feet 8 inches.  Its two broad faces are of the same breadth.”

Little else was said of the two stones for many years and, to my knowledge, no real excavation has been undertaken here.  But when Alexander Thom (1990) visited the site he found that,

“This two stone alignment showed the midsummer setting sun.  The south stone may possibly, by itself, have shown the setting Moon at major standstill.”

Aubrey Burl’s description of the stones was succinct and echoed much of what Coles had said decades earlier, telling:

“Two very large stones stand only 9 feet (2.7m) apart in an unusually closed-in environment for a Perthshire pair.  The ground rises very steeply to the east.  To the west the stones overlook the valley of the River Tay.

“Both are of local quartzoze schist and are ‘playing-card’ in shape.  As usual it is the westernmost stone that is taller, 7ft 2in (2.2m) in height.  Its peak tapers almost to a point.  Conversely, its partner is flat-topped and only 4ft 9in (1.5m) high.  The pairing of such dissimilarly shaped stones has led to the interpretation of them as male and female personifications.”

Alex Thom’s groundplan
Back of the smaller stone

Burl’s latter remark thoughtfully recognises that such animistic qualities are found in many other cultures in the world and this ingredient was also an integral part of early peasant notions in Britain; therefore such ingredients are necessities to help us understand the nature and function of megalithic sites.  We must be cautious however, not to fall into the increasingly flawed modern pagan notion of such male and female ‘polarizations’, nor the politically-correct sexist school of goddess ‘worship’ and impose such delusions upon our ancestors, whose worldviews had little relationship with the modern pagan goddess fallacies, beloved of modern Press, TV shows and pantomime festival displays.


In Elizabeth Stewart’s history of Dunkeld, she narrates the tale told by an earlier historian who told that,

“these two upright stones at the Doo’s Nest, but says they are supposed to mark the graves of two Danish warriors returning from the invasion of Dunkeld.”


Burl, Aubrey, From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press 1993.
Coles, Fred, “Report on Stone Circles Surveyed in Perthshire – Northeastern Section,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 42, 1908.
Stewart, Elizabeth, Dunkeld – An Ancient City, Munro Press: Perth 1926.
Thom, A., Thom, A.S. & Burl, Aubrey, Stone Rows and Standing Stones – 2 volumes, BAR: Oxford 1990.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Devil’s Arrows, Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire

Standing Stones:  OS Grid References – SE 3909 6653

Also known as:

  1. The Devil’s Bolts
  2. The Three Greyhounds
  3. The Three Sisters

Getting Here

Dead easy to find!  Turn off the A1(M) at the A6055 Boroughbridge road and head into town. Turn left after the Three Arrows Hotel, down Roecliffe Lane and the stones are a few hundred yards down, close to the motorway. The tallest is just off the road to the left, behind a gate (the owner of the adjacent house there is very pleasant), whilst the other two are across the road in the fields.

Archaeology & History

Devil's Arrows (Percy Robinson, c.1895)
Devil’s Arrows (Percy Robinson, c.1895)

To many archaeo-megalithic and folklore fans, these huge standing stones need no introduction.  These great heathen Arrows of the devil, today at least, are three gigantic standing stones, each one weighing several tons at least, standing in a rough straight line, nearly north-south.  This is the greatest single stone-row anywhere in the British Isles.

Just how many standing stones originally stood here is difficult to say.  We know from the records of early antiquarians and travellers that we had at least five Arrows here in centuries gone by; but one curious account, mentioned by the Yorkshire antiquarian Edmund Bogg (1895) more than a hundred years ago told:

“Peter Franck, a fisherman who travelled much about the world to enjoy his sport, came to Boroughbridge in 1694 and says he saw seven of these standing stones, Dr Stukeley mentions five, and John Leyland, in his travels, saw ‘four great stones wrought by man’s hands,’ but no inscription upon them. Camden, in 1592, saw four, but one of them at the time was thrown down, ‘for,’ says he, ‘the accursed love of gain.’ Part of this one is still to be seen, built into the Peggy Bridge which crosses the Tut on the entrance to the town, the top portion being preserved in the grounds of Aldborough Manor and this goes far to prove — and I have very carefully considered the question and examined the ground — that the original number of stones was far greater, and reached from the Yore, in equal distances to the Tudland of Leyland’s time, or the Staveley Beck of today. If this argument is correct, 2000 years ago there would be a line of at least 12 standing monoliths guarding the western approach to Isur Brigantium.”

John Aubrey's 1687 plan Devil Arrows Stone Circle
John Aubrey’s 1687 plan Devil Arrows Stone Circle
Will Stukeley’s 1776 image

Well y’ never know! But who was this Peter Franck chap from the 17th century? It would be good to find out more of what he said.

But this notion of there being a great many more stones here than the four or five that are accepted as standard, isn’t just to be found in the annals of some lost fisherman. The great Royalist antiquarian John Aubrey came here in September 1687 and, as illustrated here, saw the remaining three upright stones as remnants of a concentric ring of stones of obviously gigantic proportions. Following from a rough survey of the site and descriptions from local people, Aubrey placed the standing stones in their old line, of

“A. B. C. D., and I have drawn two imaginary circles in which it may be supposed that stones were placed, as at Avebury, Stonehenge, etc.  Perhaps they might be more stones in each circle than I have fancied.”

Nearly two hundred years later, archaeologist John Ackerman (1847) echoed John Aubrey’s notion (or perhaps simply copied them) in his notion of the Devil’s Arrows once being part of a greater megalithic complex, saying,

“At Rudston and Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire, are supposed examples of maenhirs. Near the latter place there are four standing in a row, which are called by the country people the Devil’s Bolts; but, from their relative position, it is not unlikely that they are the remains of a large circle.”

Devil’s Arrows (from Smith’s ‘Reliquiae’)
The top 2 Arrows

As if to tempt further enquiry, or at least require suitable explanation, is the nearby field-name of ‘Kringelker,’ or Cringles Carr — last described in 1316 — and which means very simply a circle by the marsh, or circular marsh, or variants thereof.  (Source: Yorkshire Deeds, volume 4,YAS: Leeds 1904)

But prior to John Aubrey’s speculations on the Arrows being part of a giant ring of stones, he related the earliest survey done here, by  a local (unnamed) man on April 17, 1669, telling that:

John Aubrey's 1687 sketch of the Arrows
John Aubrey’s 1687 sketch of the Arrows

“In Yorkshire near Burrough-brig on the west side of the Fosse-way, about a quarter of a mile, (in the Lordship of Alburgh) stand three pyramidish stones called the Devills Arrowes.  The Arrow standing towards the south is seven yards and a half in height: the compasse of it five yards and a half.  The middle Arrow seven yards and a half, in compass six yards.  The Arrow towards the north in height five yards and a half, in compass seven yards.  Here was another stone that stood in a straight line, at D, that was taken down and a bridge made of it.”

Other regal antiquarians and learned writers of the period came soon after. When William Camden (1695) visited the place at the end of the 16th century, he was equally impressed and described the place as follows:

“Not farre beneath there standeth by Ure a little towne called Burrowbridge, of the bridge that is made over the river: which is now built very high and faire of stone worke, but in King Edward the Second his time it seemeth to have beene of wood. For wee read that when the Nobles of England disquieted this king and troubled the state, Humfrey Bohun Earle of Hereford in his going over it was at a chinke thereof thrust through the body about his groine by a souldiour lying close under the bridge. Neere unto this bridge Westward wee saw in three divers little fields foure huge stones of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a streight and direct line. The two Pyramides in the middest, whereof the one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to finde treasure, did almost touch one another. The uttermore stand not far off, yet almost in equall distance from these on both sides. Of these I have nothing else to say but that I am of opinion with some that they were monuments of victorie erected by the Romans hard by the high street that went this way. For I willingly overpasse the fables of the common people, who call them the Devills Bolts, which they shot at ancient cities and therewith overthrew them. Yet will not I passe over this, that very many, and those learned men, thinke they are not made of naturall stone in deed, but compounded of pure sand, lime, vitriol (whereof also they say there bee certaine small graines within), and some unctuous matter. Of such a kinde there were Rome cisterns, so firmely compact of very strong lime and sand, as Pliny writeth, that they seemed to be naturall stones.”

Another early antiquary, John Leland, also passed by here a few hundred years back and wrote the following after his visit:

“A little without this Towne on the west part of Watiling-Streate stadith 4 great maine stones wrought above in conum by Mannes hand.  They be set in 3 several Feldes at this Tyme.  The first is a 20 foote by estimation in higeth and an 18 foote in cumpace. The stone towards the ground is sumwhat square, and so up to the midle, and then wrought with certen rude boltells in conum. But the very toppe thereof is broken of a 3 or 4 footes. Other 2 of like shap stand in another feld a good But shot of: and the one of them is bigger then the other; and they stand within a 6 or 8 fote one of the other.  The fourth standith in a several feld a good stone cast from the other, and is bigger and higher than any of the other 3. I esteme it to the waite of a 5 Waine Lodes or more.

Inscription could I none find yn these stones; and if there were it might be woren out; for they be sore woren and scalid with wether.

I take to be a trophaea a Romanis posita in the side of Watheling Streat, as yn a place most occupied in Yorneying ad so most yn sighte.”

Possible cup-marks on northernmost Arrow

Rock Art on the Devil’s Arrows

Although Leland told us he could find no inscriptions on the stones, he missed some which may be much older than the purely Roman marks his nose was seeking.  Cup-and-ring stones — much in vogue nowadays thanks to the new, shamanically-inspired archaeo’s — aren’t etched here in anything like the styles expected of our Swastika Stone, or the Achnabreck carvings, but cup-markings seem to occur on the northernmost stone.  Although a rather myopic bunch of earth-mystery people thought they were the first to discovered the cup-markings here in 2005, they were in fact first described way back in 1866, in Sir James Simpson’s precursory essay to his Archaic Sculpturings (1867), where he told:

“In England the most striking and magnificent group of monoliths that I have seen are the so called Devil’s Arrows at Borough-Bridge, in Yorkshire. Three only of these tall and enormous monoliths are now left, and stand in a line about a stone’s throw from each other. They are all pillars of a squarish shape, and said to bo formed of millstone grit. Two of them are above twenty-two feet in height, and the third measures eighteen feet. Each at its upper part is deeply and vertically guttered, apparently by long weathering and exposure ; and their lower portions show round, smooth, cup-like excavations upon some of their surfaces. The most northerly of these imposing monoliths is especially marked in this last way. Many, if not all, of these excavations, have probably been effected by the elements and weather; while some of them, which look more artificial, are of the same shape and form as those on the Kilmartin stones, etc.  But unfortunately we have not here the presence of rings or circles around the cups to determine conclusively their artificial character.”

The central Arrow

Some of the cup-markings here are distinctly artificial; but as with these ancient non-linear designs in general, we are unable to ascertain any specific ‘meaning’ to them at this site, even in any mythic sense — as yet! (I’ll get some images of cup-markings next time I visit the Arrows, unless someone has some going spare!)


Described by Bob Mortimer (1860) as a gathering place of the druids, who “met here to celebrate their great quarternal sacrifice”; not unsurprisingly there are a variety of other fascinating creation myths and folklore motifs raising their usual heads by these great stones.  Mortimer told of more tales following his local society’s visit here at the end of the 1850s, saying:

“There lived a very pious old man (a Druid should we imagine) who was reckoned an excellent cultivator of the soil. However, during each season at the time his crops had come to maturity they were woefully pillaged by his surrounding neighbours; so that at this, he being provokingly grieved, the Devil appeared, telling the old man if he would only recant and throw away his holiness he should never more be disturbed in his mind, or have whatever he grew stolen or demolished. The old man, like Eve in the garden, yielded to temptation, and at once obeyed the impulse of Satan for the benefit of worldly gain. So when the old man’s crops were again being pillaged, the Devil threw from the infernal regions some ponderous arrows, which so frightened the plunderers by shaking the earth that never more was he harrassed in that way. Hence the name of the ‘Devil’s Arrows.'”

Another individual told me that it was believed by some that the stones sprung up one night in the very places they now occupy.”

Very close to the Arrows are antiquarian records of other sites which someone can hopefully throw more light on, as they may have had some relationship with the stones.  Immediately west were (are?) the Penny Stones; plus a place called Bell’s Wife’s Field (Bel as a sun-god – though his wife may imply the moon). And just a few hundred yards east is the old Lady Well, mentioned elsewhere.

…to be continued…


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© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian