Take the same route as if you’re visiting the small Carlin Stone (a few hundred yards further along): along the B822 road between Kippen and Fintry, stop at Balafark farm and cross the road above the farm to take the track into the forest. 1km along, note the small green track, off the main central track, slightly up on the rise on your right, which bends round and then goes (eventually) to the other side of the forest. Once you reach the gate at its edge, walk left 285 yards (261m) along the fence.
Archaeology & History
The Wife and the Carlin on the 1865 OS-map
Described in the Ordnance Survey’s (1870) Book of Reference (volume 47) as “a flat rock on the boundary between Perth and Stirling,” the rock is certainly not flat—and any geographical relationship it had with Perth has long since gone. Instead, the stone in question here is an upright one—although it’s not much more than two feet tall. However, on the other side of the present-day fence there is a small flat stone in the ground; but it is the moss-covered upright that is our ‘Wife with the Bratty Plaid.’ A smaller curious-looking quartz-lined stone also lies next to this old Wife…
The Wife, looking east
The Wife, looking west
Marked on the ancient boundary line, this small but sturdy standing stone probably has a prehistoric pedigree, although we cannot be certain without an excavation. It is shown on the earliest OS-maps from the 1860s, but we have no notifications from any literary sources telling the tale behind the stone’s fascinating name: meaning simply, the ‘wife wearing the tartan shawl.’ When Marion Woolley and I came here the other day, we tried to see if a simulacrum of such a figure was hiding in the moss-covered upright—but unlike the notable simulacrum at MacBeth’s Stone, we struggled somewhat here. It was possible, from certain angles (if we didn’t stand on our heads and poke each other in the eyes!) to see this ‘wife in a shawl’, but twas a struggle…
There’s every likelihood that whatever the old tale once was about this petrified ancestral stone, it would have had some mythic relationship with the Old Wife known as the Carlin, or cailleach, a few hundred yards to the west, at the Carlin Stone. As yet however, their histories remain hidden in the sleep of the Earth…
Take the B822 road between Kippen and Fintry, stopping at Balafark farm. On the other side of the road, above the farm, take the track into the forest. Naathen…. 1120 yards (1.02km) along, note the small green track, off the main central track, slightly up on the rise on your right. It bends round and then goes (eventually) straight to the edge of the forest. Once you reach the edge, go left all along the fence until it meets the large gate 800 yards WSW. 20 yards past the gate, a small stone is along the fence-line. This is the Carlin!
Archaeology & History
Carling Stone, looking east
Found along the same boundary line as another stone with similar mythic virtues (called the ‘Wife with the Bratty Plaid’), when Marion Grace Woolley and I visited the site earlier, we found only a small upright, barely a foot tall, right in line with the ancient boundary along a newly made fence. Thankfully, whoever built the fence, understood the nature of the stone, and left it in the ground where it belongs. We know not for sure exactly how old this stone might be, but it its name and position suggest very old – probably prehistoric.
The Carlin is another word for the Cailleach: the prima mater or great Earth goddess in Irish, Scottish and northern English animistic traditions. Her virtues are immense, representing the cycles of the natural world, a creation giant, healer and a whole host of other elements inherent to the natural world. Although She tends to be represented as the Winter hag, the Cailleach changes Her faces and attributes as the cloaks of the seasons go by, annually, cyclically, year after year after year. She’s as much the cloak of the Winter as She is the fertility of Spring, the warmth of the Summer and the fruits of Autumn.
Carling Stone, looking west
Whatever traditions there might have been at this small Carlin Stone are now long forgotten it seems. We find no bodach (Her husband) in immediate attendance. However, the existence of the small standing stone called the ‘Wife with the Bratty Plaid,’ several hundred yards to the east along the same ancient boundary line, implies there would have been a traditional perambulation along this boundary, and during such annual ritual walks, tales or words may have been said here. Does anyone know more…?
Just off the A9 between Stirling and Perth is Aberuthven village. Down the Main Street and just south of the village, turn west along Mennieburn Road. A half-mile on, just past Ballielands farm, you reach the woods. Keep along the road for another half-mile, close to where the trees end and go through the gate where all the rocks are piled. Walk up to the tree-line 50 yards away and follow it along the line of the fence east, til it turns down the slope. Naathen – over the barbed fence here, close to the corner, about 10 yards in, is the tree in question…
Archaeology & History
Looking along the fallen trunk
Laid down on the peaty earth, fallen perhaps fifty years ago or more, are the dying remains of this all-but forgotten Witch Tree. To those of you who may strive to locate it—amidst the dense eye-poking branches of the surrounding Pinus monoculture—the curious feature on this dying tree are a number of old iron steps or pegs, from just above the large upturned roots. About a dozen of them were hammered into the trunk some 100 years or more ago and, were it to stand upright again, reach perhaps 30 feet high or more. These iron pegs give the impression of them being used to help someone climb the tree when it was upright; but their position on the trunk and the small distance between some of them shows that this was not their intention. Their purpose on the tree is a puzzle to us (does anyone have any ideas?).
Embedded iron from the roots
Embedded iron 30-40ft along
The fallen trunk has broken into two main sections, each with iron pegs in them. The very top of the tree has almost completely been eaten back into the Earth. Unfortunately too, all the bark has completely rotted away and so identifying the species of the tree is difficult (though I’m sure there are some hardcore botanists out there who’d be able to enlighten us). The possibility that the early map-reference related to a Wych-elm (Ulmus glabra) cannot be discounted, although this would be most unusual for Ordnance officers to mistake such a tree species with a ‘witch’. Local dialect, of course, may have been a contributing factor; but in Wilson’s (1915) detailed analysis of the regional dialect of this very area, “wych elm” for witches does not occur. Added to this is the fact that the indigenous woodland that remains here is an almost glowing birchwood (Betula pendula) in which profusions of the shaman’s plant, Amanita muscaria, exceed. There were no wych elms hereby.
The tree was noted by the Ordnance Survey team in 1899 and was published on their maps two years later, but we know nothing more about it. Hence, we publish it here in the hope that someone might be able top throw some light on this historical site.
Halfway along the fallen tree
We can find nothing specific to the tree; but all around the area there are a plethora of tales relating to witches (Hunter 1896; Reid 1899)—some with supposedly ‘factual’ written accounts (though much of them are make-believe projections of a very corrupt Church), whilst others are oral traditions with more realistic tendencies as they are rich in animistic content. One of them talks of the great mythical witch called Kate McNiven, generally of Monzie, nearly 8 miles northwest of here. She came to possess a magickal ring which ended up being handed to the owners of Aberuthven House, not far from the Witch Tree, as their associates had tried to save her from the crazies in the Church. This may have been one of the places where she and other witches met in bygone centuries, to avoid the psychiatric prying eyes of christendom.
Until the emergence of the Industrialists, trees possessed a truly fascinating and important history, integral to that of humans: not as ‘commodities’ in the modern depersonalized religion of Economics, but (amongst other things) as moot points—gathering places where tribal meetings, council meetings and courts were held. (Gomme 1880) The practice occurred all over the world and trees were understood as living creatures, sacred and an integral part of society. The Witch Tree of Aberuthven may have been just such a site—where the local farmers, peasants, wise women and village people held their traditional gatherings and rites. It is now all but gone…
It is difficult to assess the precise nature of this megalithic site, sadly destroyed some two hundred years ago. The Royal Commission thinks it may have been a rocking stone, but the legend said of it indicates it to have been associated with a giant prehistoric cairn, although nothing remains nowadays. The site was mentioned briefly in James Patterson’s (1863) huge work on the townships of Ayrshire, where he described the site as “standing upright” and “being in a field on Lodgehouse Farm,” near the village church.
“It stood on three stones, so high that a man could crawl under. It was blasted in 1819 to build houses. The farmer’s wife, it is said, took some antipathy to it, and would not give her husband rest until he consented to have it removed. A person of the name of Jamieson, and an assistant, were employed to blast it, which was accordingly done. When broken up, it filled twenty-four carts. Such was the feeling of sacrilege occasioned by the removal of the stone, that it was observed the farmer’s wife became blind, and continued so for eight years, when she died. Jamieson, who blasted it, never did well afterwards. He drank and went to ruin.”
Serves them right! Additional lore gained from a local lady in the 1870s has one of those all-too-familiar elements to it, speaking of something more substantive.
When Archibald Adamson (1875) wrote his fine work on the history of Kilmarnock and district, folklore elements more typical of the Cailleach—whose legends abound in our more northern climes—seemed to have been attached to this missing site. It is worth telling in full:
“After partaking of refreshments in the village inn, and indulging in a chat with the landlord, I retraced my steps to the highway, and in doing so got into conversation with an old lady who was very loquacious and well versed in the lore of the district. Amongst other things, she informed me that once on a time the church of Craigie had a narrow escape of being destroyed by a witch who had taken umbrage at it. It seems that the hag selected a large stone, and having placed it in her apron, flew with it in the direction of the building with the intention of dropping it upon its roof. Her design, however, was frustrated by the breaking of her apron strings, for, upon nearing the object of her spleen, they gave way, and the stone fell with a crash that shook the earth. This accident seemingly so disheartened the carlin that she abandoned the destructive idea and allowed her burden to lie where it fell. The boulder lay in a field near the churchyard wall, and was known as “The White Stane.” It was long regarded with superstitious awe by many; but the farmer on whose ground it lay being of a practical turn of mind, looked upon it with an eye to utility, and had it blasted for building purposes. Strange to relate, when broken up the debris filled twenty-five carts–a circumstance that would lead one to suppose that the witch must have been very muscular, and must have worn a very large apron.”
It is most likely that the witch in this legend originally set off from the Witch’s Knowe, more than 500 yards to the west of the church (and still untouched, despite the mess of the quarrying immediately adjacent). Any further information on this missing site would be greatly appreciated.
Adamson, Archibald S., Rambles round Kilmarnock, T. Stevenson: Kilmarnock 1875.
Paterson, James, History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton – volume 1, James Stillie: Edinburgh 1863.
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.
From Hawes, take the B6255 road west-ish to Ribblehead, but only for 1km, where there’s the Cam Road track on your left. Walk on here, and keep going till you’re looking down the valley past the very last house (those of you who wanna take the Pennine Way from Hawes will end up in the same place). It’s one of the springs down the steep slope on your right! (check the attached link to the OS-map to work out which one you’re heading for)
Archaeology & History
Apart from a singular mention in place-name records, I have found no historical information (yet!) about this old water supply. It was one of the great sites of the cailleach in our Yorkshire hills: a truly ancient and heathen place, all but forgotten and lost in the mythic landscape of our past. And it’s a bittova dodgy spot getting right up to her down the rather steep hilly slope — but it’s truly well worth the trek!
When I first visited this place, we took off from Cam Fell’s western side and ambled up the tops until the land gave us the beauty of Snaizeholme valley, which had us stopping, dreaming and wanting more as we sought to find this forgotten well. Most of you would probably come from the easier side of Hawes and walk along the path on the southern-side of the valley, or p’raps even wander up Snaizeholme valley itself – but I’d recommend a walk along the tops. Tis much much better!
If you’ve got the 1:25,000-scale OS-map, you’ll see the ‘Old Wife’s Gill’ running down the hillside. Get over the wall by the track-side and stagger down the steep slope. You’ll pass a small spring about 70 yards down – but this aint the one (though I think originally the Old Wife came from much further up Dodd Fell itself). You’ve got another 75 yards to go down before you get to the main spring – but if you’re old and fragile, unfit or fat, you’ll struggle like hell here!
The waters emerge from this very steep slope, surrounded by plenty of thorns and thistles, on a part of the hill where the land itself is slowly coming away. After a long dry-spell no doubt, this might be a little more secure; but when we came here She’d been raining on-and-off like hell and the waters were a-plenty. It’s difficult to actually locate the exact spot where the water first appears – but like I said, it seems to have, long ago, come from much further up the hill. As the photos show, the water’s nice n’ clear, good-tasting, and then continues along its downward stream – known as the Old Wife’s Gill – until hitting the small river at the valley bottom.
The other site in this valley which assures us of the cailleach’s validity comes from the place-name a few hundred yards further up the valley, seemingly giving source to the valley river herself: a Lady Spring or well, whose form once emerged close to the gate of the Cold Well close by. The third part of the cailleach’s form – the maiden or virginal – has been lost as far as local myth and literary records go. But I’ve gotta come here a few more times to get an idea as to where this ‘lost’ water-source originally appeared. A number of streams run off the hills here into the curiously-named Snaizeholme valley (which etymologists assign to nowt more than a “place where twigs are” – which seems nonsensical), and as there’s been very little by way of human habitation screwing the land up, there’s a damn good chance we’ll find and recover the mythic history of the landscape here after a few more treks and dreams…
Other sites of similar mythic relevance which need checking include Carlow Hill (SD 770 858)at Stonehouse, Dentdale; and the great valley of Carlin Gill on the North Yorkshire/Cumbria border (SD 634 993 – Gambles 1995:39).