One of the best known supernatural creatures in the Scottish Highlands and Islands was one called the Glaistig: an elemental described variously as, “a thin, grey woman with yellow hair reaching to her heels and attired in green raiment”; or a deity both beneficial and dangerous, “often described as half-woman, half-goat.” Katherine Briggs (1979) wrote that sometimes this creature
“sometimes has the attributes and habits of the Cailleach Bheur, sometimes assumes animal form, often that of a goat, but more often she is described as half-woman, half-goat.”
Something decidely shaman-like!
In many of the places where she was found, she would tend for the cattle and in order to appease her, local people would pour milk into the hollowed stones by which she lived (at some places these were cup-and-ring stones). The Iona Glaistig was no exception. The great Scottish writer A.A. MacGregor (1947) mentioned this creature and its stone in one of his classic books, saying:
“In the shieling days of Iona when, during the summer months, the inhabitants of the east end and of the west end of that island were wont to pasture their cows alternately for fourteen days on the common grazing at a spot known as Staonnaig, a Glaistig dwelt in a hollow rock near at hand. For this Glaistig, the Iona women at milking-time each evening poured a little milk on what is still pointed out at the Glaistig’s Stone.”
This “pouring of milk” onto hollows in stones is a custom found in cultures from Europe eastwards into India and, no doubt, even further afield. The precise whereabouts of this sacred stone remains hidden.
Briggs, Katherine, A Dictionary of Fairies, Penguin: Harmondsworth 1979.
MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, The Peat Fire Flame, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1947.
Truly takes a bit of finding this one! I s’ppose the easiest way to locate it is by approaching it from the south, from Askwith village, up Hall Lane. Keep walking up the footpath to Top Moorside Farm; then past it, sticking to the same path. A hundred yard or so past here we get onto the moor itself. As you hit the moor, you’ll see that the land rises slowly ahead of you: this is Hollin Tree Hill and you need to walk up here (don’t do this in the summer as it’ll be covered in bracken and you’ll not find a damn thing!). Just before the land starts to levels-out at the top of this small rise, you’ll come across some hut circles. You’re here!
You can also come to this carving via the Askwith Moor parking-bit, then walk along the well-trod footpath, past the triangulation pillar of Shooting House Hill for a coupla hundred yards, then walk straight south into the moor. But to those of you who aint got the nose for it, there’s no footpaths here and some folk might easily lose their way. However, if you reach the rise of Hollin Tree Hill a few hundred yards down the moor, watch out for those same hut circles mentioned elsewhere atop of the rising land. You’re damn close!
Archaeology & History
One of my very favourite cup-and-ring carvings this one! It was discovered about 1991 when Graeme Chappell and I were on one of our many archaeology wanderings, seeking out prehistoric remains on the moors north of Ilkley. First described and illustrated in Bob Trubshaw’s (1996) archaeomythics journal, it was later included in The Old Stones of Elmet (2001: 149-152). But when we first found it, this carving – on the vertical face of a small stone, beside an unexcavated hut circle – sent me a bit crazy, as the ‘human’ image in the carving struck me immediately. Needless to say, Graeme was all calm about it while I jumped around like an excited tit! As far as we’re aware, this is the earliest representation of a human figure in the British Isles. There are several other contenders in cup-and-ring design, but this seems the most probable of the lot. Graeme Chappell took a rubbing of the stone several years after we’d found it and the outline clearly shows the image of a human figure. The carving was later catalogued by rock art students Boughey & Vickerman (2003) in their Yorkshire survey as ‘stone 516.’ A female compatriot, the Woman Stone, can be found a few hundred yards east of here, at the bottom of the slope by the near horizon.
The fact that the carving occurs on the southern vertical face of a prehistoric hut circle may have had some significance about the structure itself. Petroglyphs on hut circles are rare—and this one occurs right at the entrance to the structure, the door into the circle. It may represent an image of the person who lived in this hut circle, or perhaps symbolized the nature of the character living there. The carving shows that the person was wearing a head-dress, akin to a horned-man figure – but much much earlier than anything previously recognised in British iconography. The figure may well be a shaman who, perhaps, lived at this circle. The carving was probably painted in lichens and other dyes
Be careful not to wander around looking for this when there’s fog on the hills. You’re unlikely to find it! On an excursion up here several years back with Prof. Thomas Dowson and students from the Southampton University Rock Art course, we wandered about all over the place in the dense fog but were unable to find the damn thing! Twas a bittova freaky day, as half the students started crying (they thought I’d got them truly lost in the middle of nowhere as I didn’t have a map, a compass, walking boots, etc – which is how I usually do my wanderings, but they weren’t to know that!) and we must have walked within 10 yards of the carving, but it remained hidden from our prying eyes. But if you like your rock art, check this one out!