Our Lady’s Well, Stirling, Stirlingshire

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NS 7932 9454 

Also Known as:

  1. Whiskey Well
  2. Whusky Well

Archaeology & History

Fleming's 1898 drawing of Our Lady Well

Fleming’s 1898 drawing of Our Lady Well

Once found beneath the northern foot of Gowan Hill, below the old hillfort and close to Stirling’s famous castle, the Industrialists, as usual, built over and destroyed this piece of ancient heritage in the 20th century, leaving us only a few words and an old drawing to remember it by.  It was one of several holy wells in and around Stirling, most of which have fallen prey to the same scavengers in the march they call ‘progress.’

Thankfully the local writer J.S. Fleming’s (1898) talked about the well in his fine work, where he told:

“This Well is situated at the foot of the Gowan Hills, and adjacent to the skating pond, as shown in (the) sketch.  Though part of the waters of this Well have been abstracted, and led, by means of a pipe, to a neighbouring factory, it still gives off a considerable flow of water.  The local name, “Whusky Well” is supposed to be given this Well on account of the virtues of its waters for mixing with whisky, without any perceptible deterioration of the latter.  We can find no allusion to this Well in any of the Burgh Records, and Dr. Rogers gives no reason for its dedication to the Virgin Mary.  We do know, however, that “St. James’s Chapel of the Crag” was situated only 200 or 300 yards distant, and is referred to frequently as receiving alms from King James IV, especially on 26th July, 1496, of 14s.  We learn from a charter by Robert III to the Canon of Cambuskenneth Abbey, dated 10th March, 1402, that he grants “to God, and the blessed Virgin Mary, and to the said Canon,” this Chapel, or Hospital of St. James, at the end of the roadway of the Bridge of Stirling; and that King James II, on 24th June, 1456, grants the said Chapel, or Hospital, to the town of Stirling, ” to the praise and honour of God, the blessed Virgin Mary, his mother, and Saint James the Apostle.” May not this well have had connection with St. James’s chapel, an appanage of Cambuskenneth Abbey, dedicated to our Lady the Virgin, and thus give reason for its name, ” Our Lady Well? ” Saint James’s Chapel was held by Sir Robert Cristisoun, as part of his emoluments as master of the Grammar School, whose right was challenged in 1522; and in November, 1562, having become ruinous, the stones of the Chapel were directed by the Magistrates to be “brocht to the utility and profit of the common work,” — strengthening the town’s wall.  A northern boundary, in a charter of the Abbot of Aberbrothock, dated 1299, of lands in the burgh, is described as “the land of Saint Marie of Strivelin.” There is also “a Ladyrig,” but its situation is not indicated and, therefore, its connection with the Well is hypothetical.”

In early references of the site by Ordnance Survey in the 1860s and 1890s, it was only described and shown as the Whiskey Well.

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Stirling and District, forthcoming
  2. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  3. Roger, Charles, A Week at Bridge of Allan, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.128311, -3.943050 Our Lady\'s Well

Chapel Well, Cambusbarron, Stirlingshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 7781 9251

Also Known as:

  1. Bruce’s Well
  2. Canmore ID 46248
  3. Christ’s Well

Getting Here

Site of the Chapel Well

Site of the Chapel Well

Along the Main Street in Cambusbarron, walk down Mill Hill for a hundred yards or so, to The Brae.  Just here, a paved footpath goes to the right.  Walk along here for about 120 yards until you reach a small footbridge crossing the stream.  On the other side of this bridge you’ll notice a notice board and a sign.  You’re here!

Archaeology & History

Today, all that remains of this spring of water that was sacred in the animistic pantheon of our ancestors, is a notice board and an epitaph, reading “Site of the Chapelwell (or Christ’s Well)”; but in times past this simple spring of water was a place of considerable activity.  Not only did the local people of Cambusbarron get their water supply from this (and others close to the Main Street), but it was also a place of ritual and reverence.  We know this from early church accounts—most of which were complaints about the traditions performed by local people, in contravention to the christian cult.

J.S. Fleming's old drawing

J.S. Fleming’s old drawing

The best account of the site is found in J.S. Fleming’s (1898) work, in which we find it also referred to as the ‘Christ’s Well’.  This attribution adds further mystery and controversy regarding another Christ’s Well a few miles away at Blair Drummond, whose position by the academic community is questioned by local historians.  Be that as it may, Mr Fleming’s words on this Chapel Well are worth reading.  He wrote:

“the most famous of all the Stirling Holy Wells, was, early in this century and is still, known by the name of ‘Chapel Well,’ and its water, up till a recent date, was used for domestic purposes by the villagers.  It originally consisted of a square, stone-built, open well, with parapets, but its walls are now built up and roofed, and it has a door, now shut up, however, and the well closed by the sanitary authorities of the district.  The well is situated on the brink of what we assume to be Glenmoray Burn, here crossed by a rustic wooden bridge in a part of the Chapel Croft garden, containing the alleged site of the chapel, from which it is distant a few feet.  The stump of an ancient thorn is shown on the right hand of the sketch.  The overflow of water empties itself into the adjoining burn.  The site of this famous well has been so variously described as to almost challenge its identity, but the authorities examined, all, with one single exception, afternoted, virtually agree in its situation:

“1) Sutherland, about a hundred years ago, writes:  “Not far from St. Thomas’ Well there is another, on the farm of Chapel Croft, called ‘Christ’s Well,’ of great repute, and visited by women, etc.”

“2) Dr. Rogers, later, after referring to the Chapel of Cambusbarron, says ”two of the three wells connected with the establishment still exist near its site by the margin of Glenmoray stream.”

“3) Another writer says: ‘”Christ’s Well,’ now called ‘ Chapel Well,’ is at bottom of a small dell called Glenmoray, immediately adjoining Cambusbarron, and there is a tradition that here the water was got for the religious services at the Battle of Bannockburn, one redeeming quality of the superstition which would consecrate its water.”

“4) A writer, over the initials “S.I.,” in the Stirling Observer of 27th September, 1866, says:  “Within its Chapel King Robert the Bruce partook of the sacrament on the eve of the Sabbath preceding the Battle of Bannockburn, and its sacred font was the resort at Beltane of the superstitious of a former age, as may be seen from extracts from kirk session records.”

“These all agree that ‘Christ’s Well’ was situated not far from St. Thomas’ Well, on Chapel Croft; that it and other two wells existed some few years ago near the site of the Chapel, on the margin of Glenmoray stream, by the name of “Chapel Well”; ” is situated in a small dell called Glenmoray, and is immediately adjoining Cambusbarron; and that it retains, and is presently known by, no other name than the “Chapel Well.”  Further, a small distillery, now removed, situated a few yards from the Chapel on this burn, taking its name from the glen and burn, was called Glenmoray Distillery…”

“However, a writer in the Stirling Observer of 7th September, 1871, in an article on “Touch Glen,” says that not far from the road leading to the three reservoirs on Touch Hills, two of the three Wells connected with the Chapel (which, he states, is 1000 yards distant from Gartur Lodge) still exist, and may be seen near the brink of a little burn which trickles from the miniature glen of Glenmoray, visible on the hillside just below the lowest reservoir. This burn is crossed by a small stone bridge on the main road, and is known as “Johnnie’s Burn.” These Holy Wells, including Chapel Well, would thus, according to this writer, be about a mile, if on “Johnnie’s Burn,” and if near the lower reservoir, on Touch Hill,’ fully a mile and a half from Chapel Croft and the Chapel…

“…The Church dealt severely with the devotees—principally women—who resorted to the virtues of “Christ’s Well,” as is shown by the session records, from which we make a few extracts: —

“July 12, 1610. — The quhilk day compeirit Grissal Glen and Marioun Gillaspie quha for ther superstitione in passing in pilgrimmage to ‘Christe’s Well’ as they confessit the last day ar ordeinit to mak publick repentance the next Sonday in lining claithis.”

” 1 June, 1630. — The quhilk day compeirit Elspet Aiken, spous to Anclro Cuyngham, tinckler; Jonet Harvie, William Huttoune, cutler; Margaret Mitchell, dochter to Alex Mitchell; Jonet Bennet, dochter to James Bennet, cuick; James Ewein, son of John Ewein, wobster, Margt. Wright, James Watsoune, who confessis passing in pilgrimmage to ‘Christe’s Well’ in Mai, and thairfoir they ar ordeaned to mak publik repentance the nixt Sabbat in thair awin habeit, under the paine of disobedience.”

” Lykway I, Mr. Patrik Bell, am ordeaned to desyre the breithren of the Presbyterie to appoint ane actuale minister for to preach upon Sonday nixt for to tak ordour with the said persounes above writen.” (Note — This offence seems a mere ploy of young people observing May morning, as is done at the present day on the first of May, and the responsibility “of asking” an “actual minister’s aid” to take “order” with the accused seems treating the offence too seriously.)

“6 October, 1631. — The quhilk day compeirit Jonet Norbell, in Cambusbarron, for going for water to help her sick son; and Jonet Main, in Cambusbarron, going to ‘Christe’s Well’ for water for help to her bairns; “and for another offence are ordained” to sair the pulpit on Sonday nixt in her ain habit to mak repentance.”

Mr Fleming seemed to think the traditions of Mayday a healthy thing and wrote well of local traditions, speaking of the healing virtues of the dew on May morning, used by people all over the country; also remembering a song that would be sung in honour of “the delightful custom of maying”:

I, been a rambling all this night,
And some time of this day ;
And now returning back again,
I brought you a garland gay.

Why don’t you do as we have done
The very first day of May ?
And from my parents I have come,
And would no longer stay.

Chapel Well on 1865 map

Chapel Well on 1865 map

Modern plaque at the site

Modern plaque at the site

The fact that Mr Fleming cites the Chapel Well to be known locally as the ‘Christ’s Well’ needs to be remembered when you visit a site of the same name 5 miles northwest of here at Blair Drummond.  It was a place of considerable renown and much used by local people for a variety of indigenous rites and customs for many miles around.  The ancient Scottish practices were still very much alive…

References:

  1. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  2. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  3. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  4. Roger, Charles, A Week at Bridge of Allan, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.109804, -3.966618 Chapel Well

Christ’s Well, Blair Drummond, Stirlingshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 72919 98903

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 46067
  2. Fountain Head

Getting Here

Christ's Well (allegedly...)

Christ’s Well (allegedly…)

Along the A84 Stirling-Doune road, watch out for the minor Cuthill Brae road to the caravan park. Go past the caravan place (ignore the grumpy fella there who tells you “this is private”) over the cattle grid and walk immediately to your right, along the top of the field, going through the first rickety gate 150 yards along.  Follow the overgrown circular woodland path around, and as you see the Safari Park and Blair Drummond House ahead of you, walk just another 100 yards or so along the path until you reach a boggy hollow in the ground with an old small building inside it. That’s it!

Archaeology & History

For a variety of reasons, this little known site hiding away and all but lost in the mythic lives of homo-profanus, is one of the most important sites in the Stirlingshire region due to it being a site where animistic rites and practices were regularly enacted by local people in the 15th century—and before, no doubt!  We know this because we have a veritable list of, albeit, ranting christian accounts from some early church records, that were thankfully transcribed at the end of the 19th century by local writer R.F. Menzies. (1899)  Despite the seemingly “christian” title given to this old well, the local people used it extensively for their magick, their traditions, their healing, their solace and their spirituality.

The waters within...

The waters within…

Before we start, it’s important to note that the geographical position stated here, in the trees at Blair Drummond, is taken from the reference at Canmore, who do not cite a literary source or oral account which affirms this to be the exact spot.  I mention this as there has been a problem regarding its exact location, not only by Mr Menzies, but also in the texts by MacKinlay (1893) and Morris (1982), each of whom said that the well was in the parish of Menteith, several miles to the west.  In Menzies (1905) history of Logie parish, a footnote is added in relation to the position of the site:

“Mr W.B. Cook considers that ‘there is no authority for saying the well was in Kincardine-in-Menteith.  An exhaustive enquiry by me has narrowed its locality down to two possible places, viz. Walton (i.e., well-town) and Bridge of Teith, both sites of pre-Reformation chapels, in the parish of Kilmadock.  It is as nearly certain as can be that Christ’s Well in Menteith was near the ancient chapel at Bridge of Teith, the remains of which—along with the well itself—are still to be seen.’”

This would therefore differ from the position presently cited by Canmore and the official records.  The ruins of the chapel described by Mr Cook were noted by the Ordnance Survey team at the Bridge of Teith when they visited in 1862 and it was highlighted on their maps four years later.  No “well” was noted however—and although we have Mr Menzies (1899) to thank for the presently accepted spot for this Christ’s Well, we don’t know for certain that this is the correct place.  The situation is made more troublesome if we refer to Moray Mackay’s (1984) definitive history of the adjacent parish of Doune.  Mr Mackay wrote his work in the early 1950s and, like other local historians, was both fascinated and puzzled about this well. He wrote:

“Many writers in the past have been content with placing this well “in Mentieth” and leaving it at that, but my curiosity was aroused by the fact that more than one reference indicated that it was ‘near to Doune,’ and I set about locating it.  It was a somewhat involved process, but I give here a resume of my findings which I published in the Stirling Observer of April 22, 1954.

“Firstly I was led to a paper of modern origin in Blair Drummond Estate Office which gave the site of Christ’s Well as ‘in the fernery at Blair Drummond.’  I found the fernery and also a rather fine well, over which a stone covering has been raised at an unknown date, and thought my quest ended. Later however…a reference in the Register of the Secret Seal, dated 1519, very strongly indicated Bridge of Teith as the site of Christ’s Well, and I was led to a very old well between the back door of the church there and the brink of the river.

“Still later I came across a pencilled note on a map in Doune Lodge Estate Office which read ‘Walton or Christwell unentailed’ as applying to a piece of ground immediately east of the Walton or Welltown site…

“There were, therefore, three alternative sites for Christ’s Well, only one of which had all the qualifications implied in the records as being (1) near Doune; (2) associated with a chapel; (3) in Kilmadock parish.  Consequently, I am convinced that the very old, dry-stone well at Bridge of Teith is, in fact, the once-famous Christ’s Well in Menteith.”

Christ's Well (as 'Fountain Head') on 1866 map

Christ’s Well (as ‘Fountain Head’) on 1866 map

Cook & Mackay's site of Christ's Well, by the chapel

Cook & Mackay’s site of Christ’s Well, by the chapel

The site that Mr Mackay and W.B. Cook believe to be the Christ’s Well is 1.5 miles (2.43km) north of the position cited by Canmore (at NN 7221 0121).  As if to make things even more complicated, if we travel exactly 5 miles (8.05km) southeast to Cambusbarron, anothersite of the same name (later to be called the Chapel Well and associated with ancient ruins) is found!  J.S. Fleming (1898) describes it in some detail.

Carved stone dated 1690

Carved stone dated 1690

Carved stone dated 1678

Carved stone dated 1678

However, for the time being at least, if we assume that the Canmore entry is the real Christ’s Well, if you visit the place you will find an old well-house that has been built over a redirected spring of water which seems to have originally rose just a few yards to the rear of the structure.  Above the open front of the well-house—also constructed only a few hundred years ago—are placed two separate inscribed stones: one with the letters “CD ER” and the year 1690 beneath them; and above this an older stone, with the date 1678 etched on it.  These may be the dates when an earlier stone structure, whose scattered rocky edges are visible beneath the vegetation around and behind the present well-house, were demolished and then rebuilt.  But this is guesswork on my behalf!

'Standing Stone' to the rear

‘Standing Stone’ to the rear

The entire structure is built inside a deep hollow which has no doubt been created and eroded into being by the spring of water itself.  On the rise at the back of this hollow is a curious standing stone which, as Penny Sinclair pointed out when we visited here a few days ago, was made out of a fossilized tree. This standing stone is only a few centuries old and either marks the original rise of the spring, or was erected at the same time of the well-house.

Less confusing were the activities performed here by local people in the 16th century—and way before that no doubt.  We have a lengthy set of accounts that describe how local people visited the Christ’s Well at the traditional dates of Beltane, Midsummer, etc, performing a variety of rites typical of those found in animistic cultures the world over. Sadly, it was the activities of the incoming christian cult that put an end to such ancient traditions by persecuting local people, as we know it has done everywhere that its virulent tendrils have infested.  Anyway, I hope that readers will forgive me citing the entire length of the accounts described by Mr Menzies (1899) about this well; but I think they give us vital insights into traditional healing practices that were just about destroyed by that corrupt institution that is the Church (for ease of reading, I’ve edited and modernized to some degree the repetitive and fragmentary language of the early written accounts):

“The brethren of the Presbytery of Stirling and various Kirk Sessions within the bounds were much exercised and troubled by frequent pilgrimages to a holy well, called Christ’s Well, situated somewhere in the neighbourhood of Ochtertyre, in the parish of Kincardine. For at least thirty years after 1581, pilgrimages were undertaken by certain people, who imagined they could obtain cures for certain diseases at this well. The wonderful thing is that tradition is dumb regarding the exact site of the holy spring.  There is a fine spring situated within the grounds of Blairdrummond, which may have been the Christ’s Well, the supposed virtue of which was, on the one hand, so consequential to the public health, and on the other, so troublesome to the Kirk.

“On 20th August, 1581, the Presbytery Record runs: ‘The brethren understands that a papist pilgrimage began of late at the Christ’s Well, and ordains every minister within their own bounds to try those persons who resort to it, and to call them before the particular Sessions that they can be convicted…’

“Two years later the evil crops up again, and on 7th May, 1583, ‘The brethren understand that a great abuse by the rascal sorts of people that pass in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well and use it for great Idolatry and superstition that are expressedly against God’s law; and because the Kings Majesty with advice of his three estates of parliament, (there shall be) certain punishments as well as corporal pains as pecuniary sums of money to be executed against such persons; and for execution of which against persons passed and to the said Well, the brethren understands my Lord of Doune Stewart of Menteith has commission given to him to that effect to see that punishment is executed in conformity with the said Act.  Therefore the brethren ordains and gives commission to Mr. Andro Zung (Minister at Dunblane), Mr. William Stirling (at Kilmadock), and Michael Lermonthe (at Kilbryde) to pass to my Lord of Doune to treat with him for execution of punishment against the persons according to the said Act and his commission.”  On 4th May, 1583, “The brethren ordains and gives commission to the brothers dwelling in Dunblane or any three of them to pass to Christ’s Well this next Saturday evening, accompanied with such persons as you may have to espy which persons comes to the said Well and report the names of such persons you can get to the brethren.’

“On 28th May, 1583, “On which day the brethren understanding that a great number of people have resorted to, and resorts in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well, using yet superstition and Idolatry expressedly against God’s law and the acts of parliament.  Therefore…the brethren ordains summons to be directed to charging of such the said persons, whose names shall be given in writing to the clerk to appear before the brethren to answer therefore, to the effect that orders may be taken with them that have been there, to the glory of God and execution of the Kings Majesty’s laws and in example of others to do the same.’

“On 4th June, 1583, “Margaret Wright in Cambus, Janet Kidstoun in Cambus, and Thomas Patersone in Black Grainge” did not appear in courtto answer “for passings in pilgrimage to Christs Well,” and were summoned the second time under pain of excommunication. On 11th June, “Janet Tailzor (spouse to Robert Cowane) in Touch, Marione Watsone in Touch, Marjorie Fargusson in Touch, Margaret Downy in Polmais,” also for the same “compeared not.” (i.e., did not appear in court, as ordered – PB)

“The depositions given in excuse referred to some disease or ailment: One, “confessed she passed there to get help for a  soreness in her side and confessed she passed about the well and prayed to Christ’s Well on Sunday and drank of the Well and washed her side with the water thereof and left behind her a  sown thread” (as offering).  Another, “passed….because she was sick in her heart and in her head and lipnit (trusted) that the Well would have helped her sicknesses…and she passed about the Well and cast the water over her shoulder and drank of it and left one piece of silver behind her.”

Ten years later several cases of pilgrimage to Christ’s Well come before the Presbytery.  22nd May, 1593, “On which day the brethren are credibly informed that Malcolme Alexander in Menstrie, James Baird at Muckart mill, and Jonet Mairschell, his spouse, passed in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well and visit superstition and Idolatry thereat. Therefore the brethren ordains them and such others who have done such like within their bounds to be summoned to answer for the same and unduly discipline them therefore under the pain of disobedience; and ordains each Minister to travel with one or two gentlemen in his parish to pass to the said Well on Saturday evening and espy what persons come there and what they do and relate the information to the minister, and see that each minister take Inquisition in his own Eldership what passes at the said Well and relate them to the presbytery.”

29th May, 1593, *On which day the summoned James Baird…to answer for passing in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well appeared in court, the said James, and confessed that through earnest persuasion of his wife (who was also moved to be there by other people), he passed with her to Christ’s Well on Saturday the 12th day of May instant, and that she two hours before the sun went down on Saturday evening drank of the said well and washed her legs and arms in it and did no fairer; he did nothing with the water, for his errand there was only with his wife who was persuaded to go there for her healing by Issobel Scotland.  He confessed that there was at the said Well this year Ewffam Wilsone in Blairhill.  Alaster Leany who was some time servant to Alexander Ezat in Culross.  He confesses that David More is he whom bears aqua-vitae and being oft times in David Fargus house in Alva, said to his wife that there was money brought to that Well…; and that Crystie cadzear in Alva confessed to him when he and his wife came home from the well, that he was three or four times at Christ’s Well and was the better, he confesses that his wife is sick and cannot come to court this day and obey the summons and therefore desires that his excuse for her may be admitted. The brethren having considered the said James Baird’s fault, ordains him to make repentance therefore in Dollar kirk as it is adjacent to him the next Sunday in secclayth (???), and that the plaintiff above written be summoned to answer for the said offence under the pain of disobedience.”

Another case falls to the ground for want of proof.  On 5th June, 1593, “One summons upon Malcolme Alschunder in Menstrie…to answer for passing to Christ’s Well and using superstition and Idolatry there at, but there is no appearance in court.  He appears on 12th June, “And denies that he passed to Christ’s Well or was bewast (to the west of – PB) Teith at any time in May, and therefore the said matter remains to be proven.” On 3rd July, “Inquisition being taken, asks if there be any witnesses that can prove Malcolme Alexander was at Christ’s Well, there is none found, and therefore it is thought good to proceed no farther against him for the said offence.”

On 14th May, 1595, James Duncansone in Fossoway, and Helen Jameson, his spouse, are charged to answer “For superstition and Idolatry in passing to Christ’s Well in pilgrimage… The said Helen confesses she passed to Christ’s Well through the year to get her bairns eye healed which was blind a month before.  She washed his eye thrice with the water thereof, and alleged that the bairn saw or he come home; and confesses that she passed there this year also to give thanks for the benefit she received the year preceding, and left a shirt of the bairns behind her, which was on the first Sunday of May…  The said James Duncansone denies that he passed to the said well with her, but only to Ochtertyre, where he was all night—well the morning that she come to him, and then they passed together to Dunblane.  The brethren finds him also culpable as his wife in her said fault, seeing he has known thereof and past with her to Ochtertyre, which is the most part of the way, where he ought and should have stopped her, and therefore they are ordained to make public repentance in linen clothes the next three sabbath days bare-footed.”

James Duncansone’s wife appears to have refused to obey the Presbytery, and on 16th July, 1595, she is summoned to appear in court, “beand chair- git as said is to heir and sie hir self decernit to be excommunicated for not completing the injunctions to her for passing in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well two different times, who being oft times called, appeared not. Therefore the brethren ordains her to be summoned de novo to the effect aforesaid with certification.”

“As no further mention is made of this woman’s case, she must ultimately have satisfied (them).  The resorting to this well comes before the Presbytery (again) on 23rd April, 1600: ‘The brethren being credibly informed of the great abuse and superstitions of visits by many people at Christs Well, namely in the night immediately preceding the Sabbaths in the month of May; for remaid thereof the brother of the Ministry within their boundaries are ordained that publicly in their kirks the next Sabbath inhibit and forbid in the name of God and his kirk that no persons shall pass to the said Well… And to the end that such abusers that go there may be stopped from their superstition.  The brethren ordains the ministers of Kilmadock and Kincardine with the special gentlemen of their flocks, to await vicissim (in return) at the said well on the night preceding the Sabbath during all the month of May; and to that effect the brethren ordains the clerk to write in the names (of visitors) to the gentlemen of the said parishes.’

“The members of Presbytery were determined to put a stop to such superstitious practices, and ere long, their efforts met with success.  In the meanwhile however, isolated cases came before them for judgment . Thus on 29th July, 1601, “Jonet Rob in Pendreich” is summoned to appear to answer “for disobedience to the elders of her parish church of Logie, conjoined with slandering the kirk by passing in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well.” She does not appear, and is summoned pro tertio, but apparently having satisfied the “eldership” of Logie, the matter is not again referred to.

“The last mention of Christ’s Well is at the meeting held on 1st July, 1607, when a batch of nine penitents from the parishes of Airth and Bothkennar, “Compare and confess they were at Christ’s Well to heal their diseases, and took some of the water and left something behind, every one of them, at the well. The brethren finds that they have committed superstition and have dedicated to Satan that thing they have left behind them (at the well), and are therefore ordained to make public repentance at the next adjacent kirks of Airth and Bothkennar.”

Menzies noted another mention of people using the waters here a few years later, telling:

“As late at June 6, 1630, the Kirk Session Records of Stirling contain an entry, where five women and two men, “confesses passing in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well in May, and therefore they are ordained to make public repentance at the next sabbath, in their own habit, under pain of disobedience.”

In these records we can clearly see that a bunch of incoming religious fanatics have arrived and set themselves up to engage with the Scottish people so as to undermine and destroy the indigenous traditions and practices prevalent at that time, by imposing laws against them which were not for the benefit of the local people.  Indeed, the laws were preposterous!  The initial description that the rituals performed by the local people were ‘papist’ in nature is, of course, a cover—as was the name, Christ’s Well—in an attempt to avert the christian cult from attacking their traditional places of healing and rites.  This failed—but at least we have the accounts describing the outlandish presbyterian impositions.

Penny sits guarding the well

Penny sits guarding the well

However, even with these accounts it is difficult to say with any certainty where the original Christ’s Well emerged.  The position Penny Sinclair and I visited, as marked on the modern OS-maps, is congruous for rites of solitude as described in the church accounts; and a distinct genius locifeels to be just beneath the surface.  However, it is difficult to see how people visiting here would have been noticed by the christian enforcers, as it is away from prying eyes.  However, if the well was at the Bridge of Teith, it would explain how so many people were “caught in the act” of performing their rites, as an old chapel was adjacent to the well.  More research is required, obviously…

In the meantime, I truly recommend visiting this place to those who enjoy the quietude of sacred sites.  Tis a fine secluded place—although it could do with a good tidying-up to free its fresh waters once again…

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Stirling and District, forthcoming
  2. Bradley, Ian, Water—A Spritual History, Bloomsbury: London 2012.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt: New York 1959.
  5. Fergusson, R. Menzies, Alexander Hume: An Early Poet-Pastor of Logie, Alexander Gardner: Paisley 1899.
  6. Fergusson, R. Menzies, Logie: A Parish History – volume 1, Alexander Gardner: Paisley 1905.
  7. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  8. Grant, William (ed.), The Scottish National Dictionary – volumes 1-10, SNDA: Edinburgh 1931-1976.
  9. Mackay, Moray S., Doune – Historical Notes, Forth Naturalist: Stirling 1984.
  10. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  11. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  12. Wright, Joseph (ed.), English Dialect Dictionary – volumes 1-6, Henry Frowde: London 1898-1905.

Acknowledgements:  Huge thanks to Penny Sinclair for the venture over and help to locate this fascinating site.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.165742, -4.048241 Christ\'s Well

Witches’ Stone, Ratho, Midlothian

Cup-Marked Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NT 1273 6973

Witches Stone on 1817 map

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 50366
  2. Witch’s Stone

Archaeology & History

This fascinating looking carving (in my personal Top 10 of all-time favourites cup-and-rings in the UK!) was unfortunately destroyed sometime between 1918 and 1920.  A huge pity, as the design on the rock is almost unique in its ‘linear’ system of cups running a considerable length across the surface of the stone (like the similar design found at Old Bewick in Northumberland).

Wilson’s 1851 drawing of the Witches’ Stone
Simpson’s 1866 drawing of the Witches Stone

Shown first of all on Kirkwood’s Environs of Edinburgh map in 1817 (above), this legendary rock was found amidst a cluster of other cup-and-ring stones at Tormain (some are still there) and was initially said by Daniel Wilson (1851) to have been the giant capstone of a cromlech that once stood here, but whose structure had fallen away.  This idea is implied in the earliest drawing we have of the stone in Wilson’s magnum opus (above); Sir J.Y. Simpson (1867) gave us a similar impression with his drawing a few years later.  But upon visiting the Witches Stone just as his book was going to the press, Mr Wilson visited the site and proclaimed that he “altogether doubted if they are the remains of a cromlech”, and what rested here were more probably just fascinating geological remains, with even more fascinating carvings on top!

In the years that followed Wilson’s initial description, the Witches Stone was visited and described by a number of eager antiquarians.  Simpson (1867) gave us a quite revealing account, telling:

“On the farm of Bonnington, about a mile beyond the village of Ratho…are the remains of ‘this partially ruined cromlech’…with the capstones partially displaced, as if it had slid backwards upon the oblique plane of the huge stones or stone which still supports it.  Two or three large blocks lie in front of the present props.  Its site occupies a most commanding view of the valley of the Almond, and of the country and hills beyond.  The large capstone is a block of secondary basalt or whinstone, about twelve feet long, ten in breadth and two in thickness.  Its upper surface has sculptured along its median line a long row of some twenty-two cup-cuttings; and two more cup-cuttings are placed laterally: one, half a foot to the left of the central row and at its base; the other, two feet to the right of the tenth central cup and near the edge of the block. The largest of the cups are about three inches in diameter and half an inch in depth; but most of them are smaller and shallower than this…”

A few years later another early petroglyph authority, J. Romilly Allen (1882), visited the Witches Stone and found “an Ordnance bench mark (had been) cut on the stone itself”!  He then continued with his own description of this once-important megalithic site:

“The Witch’s Stone is a natural boulder of whinstone, rounded and smoothed by glacial action, whoso upper surface slopes at an angle of about 35° with the horizon. The length of the sloping face is 8 feet and at the top is a flat place 2 feet wide. The breadth of the stone is 11 feet 3 inches at the upper end, and 4 feet at the lower end. The thickness varies from 2 to 3 feet. The highest part of the stone is 6 feet 6 inches above the ground, and the lowest 1 foot 6 inches. It rests on what has originally been a portion of the same boulder, but is now a mass of whinstone broken up into several fragments, which serve as supports to prop up the stone above.  Viewed from the north side the whole presents the appearance of a cromlech, the upper stone forming the cap, and the disintegrated portion below the supports. This notion, however, will be clearly seen to be erroneous on looking at it from the opposite side, as shown on the accompanying sketch…where the crack separating the two portions of the boulder is very apparent… The sculpturings consist of twenty-four cups varying in diameter from 1½ to 3 inches. Twenty-two of these cups are arranged in an approximately straight line along the sloping face of the stone, and divide it into two almost equal parts. The two remaining cups lie, one 7½ inches to the left of the lowest cup of the central row, and the other 2 feet 3 inches to the right of the ninth cup up the stone… The field in which the Witch’s Stone is situated is called “Knock-about.” The sloping face of the stone has been much polished by the practice of people climbing on to the top and sliding down. Some of the cups are almost obliterated in consequence. The stone forms a very prominent feature in the view, and must always have attracted attention from its peculiar shape.”

Some twenty years after Allen, the megalithomaniac Fred Coles (1903) came and checked the Witches Stone out for himself and, as happens, had a few additional things to say about the place:

“Although this huge boulder and its cup-marks have been more than once figured and described, I found, on a close examination of the broad surface of the Stone, that none of the illustrations showed the cup-marks in their exact relation to each other, nor in their true relation to the contour of the Stone. The drawing shown above…was made after a careful measurement by triangulation of the Stone; and it is claimed to be the first that shows that the cups, two and twenty in number, are not disposed in one continuous line, but that thirteen follow each other from the high south edge of the stone for a distance of exactly 6 feet, and nine others lie a few inches to the west, occupying a space 3 feet long of the overcurving edge of the north end.  It is further shown that, at a point 2 feet 3 inches west of the ninth cup-mark, there is another one quite as large as the largest in the rows near the middle of the Stone. The south edge (A B) has slipped a little down from its original height, the boulder being frost-split horizontally; its height there above ground is 8 feet. The northern and narrower end is about 2 feet above ground, and does not touch the ground, as it rests upon its lower portion, beyond which it projects a few inches. The cup-marks run due north.”

Fred Coles 1903 drawing

If the Witches Stone was in fact a natural outcrop stone and not a cromlech, this very last point telling that “the cup-marks run due north” probably had much greater importance than a mere compass-bearing to the people who etched this carving.  For in pre-christian religious structures across the northern hemisphere, north is commonly representative of death and the land of the gods.  In magickal rites “it is the place of greatest symbolic darkness,” as neither sun nor moon ever rise or set there.  Additionally, north is the place where, in shamanic traditions, the heavens are tied to the Earth: the cosmic axis itself that links heaven, Earth and underworld revolve around the northern axis in the skies.  In early neolithic traditions this mythic structure was endemic. Whether its magickal relevance was intended here, at this stone, we will probably never know…

Folklore

Folklore tells that the Witches Stone was one of the sites used in magickal rites by the Scottish occultist, Michael Scot.  J.R. Allen’s (1882) description of “the sloping face of the stone has been much polished by the practice of people climbing on to the top and sliding down,” may relate to folk memory of fertility rites once practised here, as found at similarly carved rocks in the UK and across the world.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Allen, J. Romilly, “Notes on some Undescribed Stones with Cup Markings in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, volume 16, 1882.
  2. Coles, Fred R., “Notes on Some Hitherto Undescribed Cup-and-Ring Marked Stones,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, volume 37, 1903.
  3. McLean, Adam, The Standing Stones of the Lothians, Megalithic Research Publications: Edinburgh no date (c.1978).
  4. Morris, Ronald W.B., The Prehistoric Rock Art of Southern Scotland, BAR: Oxford 1981.
  5. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Midlothian and West Lothian, HMSO: Edinburgh 1929.
  6. Simpson, James, Archaic Sculpturings of Cups, Circles, etc., Upon Stones and Rocks in Scotland, England and other Countries, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1867.
  7. Smith, John Alexander, “Notes of Rock Sculpturings of Cups and Concentric Rings, and ‘The Witch’s Stone’ on Tormain Hill; also of some Early Remains on the Kaimes Hill, near Ratho, Edinburghshire,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, volume 10, 1874.
  8. Wilson, Daniel, The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, Sutherland & Knox: Edinburgh 1851.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  55.912750, -3.397566 Witches Stone

St. Helen’s Well, Eshton, North Yorkshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – SD 93096 56992

Also Known as:

  1. Helen’s Well

Getting Here

St. Helen’s Pool, Eshton

On the A65 road from Skipton to Gargrave, just at the eastern end of Gargrave, take the small Eshton Road running north over the canal. Go through Eshton itself, making sure you bear right at the small road a few hundred yards past the old village.  Keep your eyes peeled a few hundred yards down as you hit the river bridge and stop here.  Just 50 yards before this is a parking spot where some Water Board building stands.  Walk back up the road barely 20 yards and you’ll see, right by the roadside, a small clear pool on your left, encircled by trees.  Go through the little stile here and you’re right by the water’s side!

Archaeology & History

This is actually a listed monument (unusual for wells up North!), just off the roadside between Nappa Bridge and Eshton Hall. Two or three old stone heads (deemed to be ‘Celtic’ in age and origin, though I had my doubts) have recently been stolen from this holy pool close to where the water emerges from the ground, just beneath the surface. You can see where the water bubbles up strongly from the Earth when you visit here, forming the small pool in front of it, around which at certain times of year people still attach ‘memaws’ (an old word for ritual ‘offerings’) on the small shrubs.  If you drink from here, just where the water bubbles up (careful not to fall in!), it’s freezing — but tastes absolutely gorgeous!  And better than any tap-water you’ll ever drink!

Mentioned briefly in Mr Hope’s (1893) fine early survey; the earliest description of this site in relation to the mythic ‘Helen’ dates from 1429, where T.D. Whitaker (1878) described the dedication to an adjacent chapel, long gone.  Whitaker’s wrote:

“…One of the most copious springs in the kingdom, St. Helen’s Well fills at its source a circular basin twenty feet in circumference, from the whole bottom of which it boils up without any visible augmentation in the wettest seasons, or diminution in the driest.  In hot weather the exhalations from its surface are very conspicuous.  But the most remarkable circumstance about this spring is that, with no petrifying quality in its own basin, after a course of about two hundred yards over a common pebbly channel, during which it receives no visible accession from any other source, it petrifies strongly where it is precipitated down a steep descent into the brook.  To this well anciently belonged a chapel, with the same dedication; for in the year 1429, a commission relating to the manor of Flasby sat “in capella beate Elene de Essheton; and on the opposite side of the road to the spring is a close called the Chapel Field.  This was probably not unendowed, for I met with certain lands in Areton, anciently called Seynt Helen Lands.”

When the old countryman Halliwell Sutcliffe (1939) talked of this healing spring, his tone was more in keeping with the ways of local folk.  Sutcliffe loved the hills and dales and old places to such an extent that they were a part of his very bones.  And this comes through when he mentions this site. Telling where to find the waters, he continued:

“Its sanctuary is guarded by a  low mossy wall.  Neglected for years out of mind, it retains still clear traces of what it was in older times.  An unfailing spring comes softly up among stones carved with heart-whole joy in chiselling.  Scattered now, these stones were once in orderly array about what is not a well, in the usual sense, but rather a wide rock-pool, deep here and shallow there, with little trees that murmur in the breeze above.  Give yourself to this place, frankly and with the simplicity is asks.  It does not preach or scold, or rustle with the threat of unguessed ambushes among the grassy margin.  Out of its inmost heart it gives you all it knows of life.”

Old well in the field

In the field across the road where the chapel was said to have been, we find another stone-lined fresh-water well bubbling from the ground into a stone trough (at grid-ref SD 93118 56958).  The waters here are also good and refreshing.  But whether this fine water source had any tales told of it, or curative properties (it will have done), history has sadly betrayed its voice.

Folklore

The waters here have long been reputed as medicinal.  R.C. Hope (1893) said “this well was a certain cure for sore and weak eyes.”  Whitaker and others told there to be hangings of rags and other offerings (known in Yorkshire as ‘memaws’).  Sutcliffe described,

“The pilgrims coming with their sores, of body and soul… The Well heard tales that were foul with infamies of the world beyond its sanctuary.  Men came with blood-guilt on their hands, and in their souls a blackness and a terror.  Women knelt here in bleak extremity of shame.  The Well heard all, and from its own unsullied depths sent up the waters of great healing.  And the little chant of victory began to stir about the pilgrims’ hearts…and afterwards the chant gained in volume.  It seemed to them that they were marching side by side with countless, lusty warriors who aforetime had battled for the foothold up the hills.  And, after that, a peace unbelievable, and the quiet music of Helen’s Well, as her waters ran to bless the farmward lands below.  All this is there for you to understand today, if you will let the Well explain the richness of her heritage, the abiding mystery of her power to solace and to heal.”

And so it is with many old springs… The rite of memaws enacted at St. Helen’s Well is a truly archaic one: whereby a person bringing a cloth or stone or coin — using basic principles of sympathetic magick — asks the spirit of the waters to cleanse them of their illness and pass it to the rags that are tied to the adjacent tree; or perhaps some wish, or desire, or fortune, be given in exchange for a coin or something if personal value.  The waters must then be drunk, or immerse yourself into the freezing pool; and if the person leaving such offerings is truly sincere in their requests, the spirit of the water may indeed act for the benefit of those concerned.

Such memaws at St. Helen’s Well are still left by local people and, unfortunately, some of those idiotic plastic pagans, who actually visit here and tie pieces of artificial material to the hawthorn and other trees, which actually pollutes the Earth and kills the spirit  here.  Whilst the intent may be good, please, if you’re gonna leave offerings here, make sure that the rags you leave are totally biodegradable.  The magical effectiveness of your intent is almost worthless if the material left is toxic to the environment and will certainly have a wholly negative effect on the spirit of the place here.  Please consider this to ensure the sacred nature of this site.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
  2. Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire – volume 6, Cambridge University Press 1961.
  3. Sutcliffe, Halliwell, The Striding Dales, Frederick Warne: London 1939.
  4. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  5. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.
  6. Whitaker, T.D., The History and Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven, Joseph Dodgson: Leeds 1878.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

St Helen's Well

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St Helen\'s Well 54.008899, -2.106834 St Helen\'s Well

Benson Cursus, Benson, Oxfordshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 624 910 to SU 629 919

Also Known as:

  1. Crowmarsh Cursus

Archaeology & History

Major Allen’s 1933 photo

Any remains of this once sacred site are now beneath the airport between Benson and Ewelme, a couple of miles northeast of Wallingford, on the eastern side of the River Thames.  A great pity.  It was one of the early cursus monuments discovered as a result of Major G.W. Allen’s many aerial surveys in southern England — as shown in his photo here  — and subsequently described in Mr Leeds’ (1934) Antiquaries Journal article.  A cluster of cursus monuments were built in this part of England in neolithic times, and Roy Loveday (2006) includes the Benson Cursus as an ingredient within the ‘sacred landscape’ region of what he calls “the Dorchester-on-Thames complex.”  The Benson Cursus and surrounding regional monuments,

“in fact possesses features that would declare it as an inter-regional sanctuary if encountered in an historical setting; namely, intensity of monument construction, longevity of respect, addition of later exotic monuments with far-flung parallels, large numbers of burials, and placement in a landscape structured, partly at least, by other monuments.  These elements recur from Delphi to Uppsala, and from Pachacarmaca to Mecca, at sites that Mircea Eliade (sic) has termed hierophanies — locations where the otherworld of gods and ancestors communicate with the living.”

Loveday’s 2006 plan
Benson Cursus plan (after Barclay & Lambrick)

It’s good to know that the correct paradigms are at last emerging from those archaeocentric minds!

In Mr Loveday’s (2006) plan of the cursus, no entrances could be found into the monument apart from a small section along the northeastern length of the structure (left).  From its southernmost point, this giant monument runs along a SSW-NNE alignment — one echoed in other nearby cursuses — for 1192 yards (1090m) and is 71 yards (65m) across, covering 7.3 hectares in all.  No internal structures were noted anywhere within the monument.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Barclay, A., Lambrick, G., Moore, J. & Robinson, M., Lines in the Landscape, OAU: Oxford 2003.
  2. Benson, D. & Miles, D., The Upper Thames Valley: An Archaeological Survey of the River Gravels, Oxford Archaeology Unit 1974.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt, Brace & World: New York 1959.
  4. Leeds, E.T., “Rectangular Enclosures of the Bronze Age in the Upper Thames Valley, in Antiquaries Journal, 14:4, 1934.
  5. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Benson cursus

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Benson cursus 51.618573, -1.095573 Benson cursus

Lesser Cursus, Larkhill, Wiltshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1056 4350

Also Known as:

  1. Small Cursus
  2. Stonehenge Smaller Cursus

Archaeology & History

James Fergusson’s drawing of both cursus monuments

Just like its much larger companion, the Stonehenge Cursus earthwork a short distance to the south, this Lesser or Small Cursus is generally deemed by archaeologists to “speak of a clear religious or ritual aspect to this patch of downland that…reaches back generations before the first Stonehenge was built.” (Pitts 2001)  The monument was aligned roughly east-west, showing possible relationships with the rising and setting of both sun and moon. (though I wouldn’t get too carried away with that misself…)

When Fergusson (1872) described this and its larger cursus companion a few hundred yards away, he thought they may have been dug to mark out lines of battle in prehistoric times, denouncing the horse-racing course hypothesis that was still in vogue at the time.  His theory drew evidence from the numerous prehistoric tombs scattering this area of Salisbury Plain, but seemed more influenced by notions of prehistoric barbarism and warfare than ideas relating to a cult of the dead — which was yet to reach it heights in the archaeological minds of Victorian England.  But, like other cursus monuments all over the British Isles, this one also seemed to have a distinct relationship with monuments of the dead: for at its western extremity (until being ploughed out of existence) was a large round barrow, catalogued as the “Winterbourne 35” tomb.  Tim Darvill (2006) tells its wider tale:

“Levelled by ploughing between 1934 and 1954, the Lesser Cursus was investigated in 1983 as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project… Three trenches were cut into different parts of this large monument, showing that there were at least two main phases to its construction.  Phase 1 comprised a slightly trapezoidal enclosure 200m by 60m, whose ditch may have been recut more than once and in part at least deliberately back-filled.  In Phase 2 this early enclosure was remodelled by elongating the whole structure eastwards by another 200m.  This extension comprised only two parallel side ditches, making the whole thing about 400m long with a rectilinear enclosure at the west end with entrances in its northeast and southeast corners giving access into a second rectilinear space, in this case open to the east.”

Lesser Cursus aerial view
Ground-plan of the Lesser Cursus (after Richards 1990)

The entire structure had finds dating from the periods between 3650-2900 BC; and the aerial imagery showing an oval-shaped structure near the eastern end was confirmed by geophysical surveys — though precisely what this is has yet to be ascertained.

It seems likely that this and other cursus monuments were, to a very great degree, not only related to mortuary practices but — as their development occurred at the same time as the destruction of Britain’s great forests began — to be monuments to the gods themselves.  This seems very evident at a couple of cursus monuments where animal deposits were made in some of the great mounds at their terminii, where archaeologists had previously assumed— incorrectly — the mounds to have been human burial mounds.  More about this in due course…

References:

  1. Darvill, Tim, Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  2. Devereux, Paul, The Haunted Land, Piatkus: London 2001.
  3. Fergusson, James, Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries, John Murray: London 1872.
  4. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  5. North, John, Stonehenge, Harper-Collins: London 1997.
  6. Pitts, Mike, Hengeworld, Arrow: London 2001.
  7. Richards, Julian, The Stonehenge Environs Project, English Heritage: London 1990.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Lesser Cursus

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Lesser Cursus 51.190700, -1.850138 Lesser Cursus

Stonehenge Cursus, Wiltshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1095 4292 to SU 1370 4319

Also Known as:

  1. The Cursus
  2. The Greater Cursus, Stonehenge

Archaeology & History

Stukeley’s Stonehenge Cursus

Not far south of the smaller Lesser Cursus monument, this huge linear earthwork was the very first cursus to be described, by William Stukeley no less, who thought it to be an old race-course for charioteers and the like!  He stumbled upon this: a curious gigantic linear earthwork feature, stretching for nearly two miles roughly east-west and as wide a football field, cut into the Wiltshire Earth, betraying all notions of ‘primitive’ histories as proclaimed by the ‘intellectuals’ of his day.  They were clearly wrong!  This immense enigmatic structure, still baffles the same creed of intellectuals to this day — but at least our old ancestors have been granted greater abilities than previously believed.  In his book on Stonehenge in 1740, Mr Stukeley described this,

“most noble work, contriv’ed to reach from the highest ground of two hills, extended the intermediate distance over a gentle valley; so that the whole cursus lies conveniently under the eye of the most numerous quantity of spectators. To render this more convenient for site, it is projected on the side of more rising ground, chiefly looking towards Stonehenge. A delightful prospect from the temple, when this vast plain was crowded with chariots, horsemen and foot, attending these solemnities with innumerable multitudes.”

Sir Norman Lockyer propounded its function as astronomical, aligning with the Pleiades around 2000 BC — a date we now know to be inconsistent with its construction, although as John North said in his Stonehenge (1997):

“Lockyer’s chronology was certainly better than the general archaeological consensus at the time.”

But further archaeological alignments and leys have been suggested running eastwards from here.  And as Paul Devereux pointed out, “In the case of this cursus, archaeology got there first.”  J.F.S. Stone, who carried out some excavations at the cursus in 1947, noted that

“its axis, if projected 1500 yards east, strikes Woodhenge and passes the Cuckoo or Cuckold Stone by the way.”

This was endorsed in 1981 by archaeologists John Hedges and David Buckley:

“In addition to aligning upon Woodhenge, the Greater Stonehenge cursus also sights upon the Cuckoo or Cuckold Stone.”

Alignment to Beacon Hill

In Roy Loveday’s (2006) survey of cursus monuments he told how this alignment goes much further, telling how it aligns “on the lower, northernmost prominence of Beacon Hill 8km away”, crossing Woodhenge on its way.  Such suggestions used to bring outcries of derision from the archaeological fraternity, but it seems archaeologists themselves are making such claims more and more these days.  At the forefront of modern alignment research in previous decades was Paul Devereux — and it was he who first noted the line-up with the distant Beacon Hill from the Great Cursus, telling:

“The course of the alignment can be extended eastwards a few miles beyond Woodhenge to cross the barrow-dotted ridge of Beacon Hill — a perfect example of a Wakins-style ‘initial point.’ The ridge is highly visible from Woodhenge.  It disappears from view as one walks westwards down the cursus, but reappears clearly as the west end is approached.  Indeed, the west end is so placed that it is at about the furthest point from which the Beacon Hill ridge , and the intermediate on which the eastern end of the cursus fall, can be seen together.”

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, A Brief History of Stonehenge, Robinson: London 2007.
  2. Hedges, John & Buckley, David G., The Springfield Cursus and the Cursus Problem, Essex County Council 1981.
  3. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  4. North, John, Stonehenge, Harper-Collins: London 1997.
  5. Pennick, N. & Devereux, P., Lines on the Landscape: Leys and other Linear Enigmas, Hale: London 1989.
  6. Stone, J.F.S., ‘The Stonehenge Cursus and its Affinities,’ in Archaeological Journal, 104, 1947.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Stonehenge Cursus

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Stonehenge Cursus 51.186467, -1.824964 Stonehenge Cursus

Thornborough Cursus, North Yorkshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SE 286 794

Archaeology & History

In the midst of the great henge monuments at Thornborough — specifically, the central henge — archaeologist Ian Longworth (1965) said there “was built …a still earlier structure known as a cursus.”  This giant monument was one of the earlier such sites located in Britain.  Longworth continued, saying:

“This was a ceremonial avenue, running for nearly a mile in a northeast / southwesterly direction.  The avenue is defined by ditches 144 feet apart with a bank running along the inside of each ditch.  The ditches are now completely filled with plough soil and, as with other cursus monuments in the county, were discovered from the air as two dark lines in the cereal crop… Probably used for ritual ceremonies, no clues remain to show what actually took place.”

Thornborough Cursus (& henges)

This cursus runs almost at right angles to the alignment of the three Thornborough Henges, on the southern side of the central henge, and was first found through the aerial photography of J.K. St. Joseph between 1945 and 1952. When excavation work was carried out, “a crouched burial was found in a stone cist within the southwest end” of the cursus.  This end of the monument is rounded, like the Stonehenge Cursus; whilst the northeast end of the monument has not been located. The southwest end of the cursus begins at OS grid-reference SE 2799 7906 and its northeasterly end is roughly at SE 2881 7954.  The middle of the known cursus is roughly in Thornborough’s central henge.

Paul Devereux (1989) said that the monument, “which had become silted-up and grass-covered by the time the henge was built, had two main orientations, with a curvilinear, irregular section just to the east of the henge.”  Although Norris Ward (1969) thought that the cursus actually went all the way down the River Ure, it stops some distance beforehand, though may obviously have had some important relationship with the waters.

It seems that other cursus monuments have been found close by the henges more recently.  More about them in the near future, hopefully…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Longworth, Ian H., Regional Archaeologies: Yorkshire, Cory, Adams & Mackay: London 1965.
  2. Pennick, N. & Devereux, P., Lines on the Landscape, Hale: London 1989.
  3. Thomas, Charles, ‘Folklore from a Northern Henge Monument,’ in Folklore Journal, volume 64:3, 1953.
  4. Ward, Norrie, Yorkshire’s Mine, J.M. Dent: London 1969.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Thornborough cursus

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Thornborough cursus 54.209547, -1.562994 Thornborough cursus

Spread Eagle Cursus, Aberllynfi, Breconshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SO 162 376

Archaeology & History

It seems that very little remains of this site, and there is some doubt over its authenticity.  Described in Alex Gibson’s (1999b) essay on the cursus monuments of Wales, he said this ‘cursus’ consists of,

“A cropmark of two parallel ditches orientated SE-NW, 15m apart and traceable for some 130m. It runs perpendicular to the present course of the River Wye 50m to the NE.  No terminals are visible, but there is a large ring ditch across the river 450m to the NW. A closely-grouped cluster of some 8 ring ditches is visible on a gravel terrace some 150m to the E,” but adds finally that “the identification of this site is suspect and may represent a fossil field system.”

The likelihood of the site being genuine seems to come from the “cluster of eight ring ditches on the gravel terrace some 150m to the east.”  Gibson (1999) also thinks how “the parallel ditches seem to be aligned on a ninth large ring-ditch 450m to the northwest and across the river.”  Ley-hunters have been scorned by archaeo’s for making such confounded comments!   The presence of a long cairn south of the cursus was also thought to add weight to the sites veracity.

Does anyone know what the present position on this site happens to be?

References:

  1. Gibson, Alex, The Walton Basin Project, CBA: York 1999.
  2. Gibson, Alex, ‘Cursus Monuments and Possible Cursus Monuments in Wales,’ in Barclay & Harding’s Pathways and Ceremonies, Oxbow: Oxford 1999b.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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