Seems rather daft giving directions for a mountain, but… For incomers, cross the bridge onto the island and keep on the A87 road to Broadford. A couple of mile the other side of the village westwards, take the small left turn in the trees and go to the dead-end. The hill reaching up above you (west) is the legendary mountain to walk up!
Beinn na Cailleach
This giant old mountain has been associated with the primal female creation figure, the cailleach, for many a moon. And strangely – for me anyway – I’ve not ventured to sleep with this old place in my passings here as I usually do wherever the cailleach resides.
It doubtless has many more tales than the one A.A. MacGregor (1937) mentions in his superb Peat-Fire Flame. Here he tells the story of,
“the cairn situated on the summit of Beinn na Cailleach, not far from Broadford… This cairn is believed to mark the site of burial of a Norse princess who died at Ord. On her deathbed this princess commanded her attendants to convey her, when dead to the top of Beinn na Cailleach, and to bury her there, in order that she might lie in the wake of the winds from Norway.”
MacGregor then follows the tale with a lovely note on some boring old dood he obviously had little respect for, saying:
“It is the traditions associated with this cairn that MacCulloch, the geologist, in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, asks to be excused from repeating, since he considers them, one and all, to be unworthy of regard. But, then, MacCulloch was a most tiresome fellow; and he seems to have imbued most of his writings with something of the same tiresomeness”!
On the lower northeastern slopes of this great mountain we find another of the old woman’s abodes, the ‘Lochain Beinn na Cailleach’, where this great hag would no doubt wash her linen, as many old myths tell she did at other pools of the same name.
A slightly different version of the folktale was told by Archibald Geikie in his Note-book of a Field Geologist from 1858:
“The top of Beinn na Cailleaich is flat and smooth, surmounted in the centre by a cairn. Tradition tells that beneath these stones there rest the bones of the nurse of a Norwegian princess. She had accompanied her mistress to “the misty hills of Skye,” and eventually died there. But the love of home continued strong with her to the end, for it was her last request that she might be buried on the top of Beinn na Cailleaich, that the clear northern breezes, coming fresh from the land of her childhood, might blow over her grave.”
An early essay in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1841 tells the grave atop of the mountain to have been the resting place of the Norwegian King Haco’s wife or his nurse. Derek Cooper (1970) meanwhile told us that whilst the cairn was “erected as a memorial to a Skye chieftain,” the cailleach of the mountain, or “the old woman is reputedly Saucy Mary, who laid a chain between Kyle and Kyleakin to exact toll from passing ships.”
There are other mythic place-names scattered around the edges of this mountain with hints of ancient female deities, or pagan goddesses — whichever way one cares to see them.
Cooper, Roy, Skye, Routledge: London 1970.
Geikie, Archibald, The Story of a Boulder, MacMillan: London 1858.
MacGregor, Alisdair Alpin, The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1937.
o’ Crualaoich, Gearoid, The Book of the Cailleach, Cork University Press 2003.
Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island and its Legends, Blackie & Sons: London 1961.
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).
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.”
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 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.
Take the A658 road north out of Bradford, past Undercliffe, and downhill towards Greengates. When you meet with the large junction where Ravenscliffe Avenue turns to your right – stop! Immediately on the left-hand side of the road is where the old well used to appear.
Archaeology & History
In times past this was one of the most renowned holy wells in the region (we have at least 200 in West Yorkshire). First recorded as a holy well in 1585, specialist writer Edna Whelan remembers the waters here running into a stone trough at the side of Harrogate Road when she was young.
In 1932, local historian W.E. Preston described, “the remains of what was once a fine grove of trees leading up the hillside from the road to its source,” implying ritual commemoration and a procession to the site. Today, this grove is still evidenced by the straight footpath across the main road, leading to the infamous Ravenscliffe estate.
In 1704 a court case was brought against some locals – Mr & Mrs Richard and Sarah White (and their daughter, Mary) – “for diverting the water from its ancient channel.”
In 1867 it was described in the Object Name Book:
“A considerable and well-known spring, it has the appearance of having been a bathing place. A bank has been thrown up on the east side, and a broken wall remains on the other sides. There is no tradition about it. It is likely to have been of some note…in the days of Romanism. Large trees are ranged on either side of the approach to it, forming a grove.”
Up till 1978, Andrea Smith (n.d.) reported the well to still be “protected by local tradition,” but this is no longer possible. Yorkshire Water don’t particularly give a damn about its preservation (water is money folks!) and today it’s covered by a man-hole in the garden.
Preston, William E., ‘Notes on the Early History of the Manor of Eccleshill,’ in Bradford Antiquary, 5, 1912.
Preston, William E., ‘Some Local Holy Wells,’ in Bradford Antiquary, June 1932.
Smith, Andrea, ‘Holy Wells Around Leeds, Bradford & Pontefract,’ in Wakefield Historical Journal 9, 1982.
Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Pocklington 1989.
Another great mountain of the ‘Old Woman’: primal creation deity of these hills. Whether she holds sway over the land here for many months, as she does on Mull and Skye, I cannot find. One creation legend here tells that one of the furrows down the side of the mountain – called Sgrìoh na Caillich – was said to be made by her as she slid down it in a sitting position. The small loch on the way up to her summit – Lochan na Caillich – was one of her washing places; and the Beinn na Caillich Beag, immediately east, speaks of other legends, now seemingly lost to us. It’s highly likely that some of the megalithic remains nearby had some mythic relationship with this old hill, though I aint found any studies along these lines…yet!