Chysauster & Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type.

The landscape of west Cornwall in the late Iron Age is one of hillforts, cliff castles, ancient trackways, enclosures, round houses and courtyard houses.

Many of these features are known throughout the landscap of prehistoric Britain but it is the courtyard house which offers a point of difference from the rest of the country.  Courtyard houses appear to be a unique adaptation of the more traditional round house and are found only in the Land’s End peninsula.  They are usually very substantial ranging in size from 15 – 30 meters with walls up to two meters thick.  Their name is derived from the presence of a series of rooms situated around a central courtyard.  The rooms are partially built into the thickness of the outer walls and may have served as spaces not only for living but also storage, workshops and byres.

“A typical courtyard house has a long recess on one side of the central yard, probably a stable or byre and, on the opposite side, a long, narrow room, perhaps a workshop or store.  Between the two, and directly across the courtyard from the house entrance, is the largest room, circular or oval in shape, which was set aside for the living, eating and sleeping needs of the family.  Other room may be present, too, and some living rooms have a back door leading out of the house.  Stone lined and capped drains are a feature of these houses, as are stone hearths…”

(Weatherhill C 2009 ‘Cornovia’ page 35)

Many would have developed from open settlements of round houses set within fields for agricultural communities.  A landscape already ancient.  When the demand for tin increased during the second century AD there is no doubt that these farming communities would have engaged in this activity.  Gradually these settlements were abandoned between the second and sixth centuries AD although the communities did not leave simply moved to lower ground.

There are around two dozen known courtyard house settlements surviving and at least ten have been destroyed during the last two hundred years.  The best preserved and most easily visited of these sites are Chysauster and Carn Euny.  Both of which represent examples of a village grouping, which included round houses and the mysterious structures known as Fogous (see the January issue of The Celtic Guide for a discussion on Fogous).

CHYSAUSTER

 

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Plan of Chysauster

 

The largest known site of this type, founded during the first century BC it consists of eleven houses in total.  Eight are arranged in pairs on either side  of a street. One is southwest of the main cluster whilst the remaining two are further down the hill to the southwest.  The fields of the village were to the north east and in 1984 rescue work revealed the remains of round houses and a Bronze Age barrow.  It has also been tentatively suggested that cereals were grown in these fields.  Although no pollen evidence has to date been found, furthermore the acidic quality of the soils in the area have resulted in no metal tools or bones being preserved.  making any meaningful interpretations difficult.   Attached to most of the houses are small terraced garden plots.

 

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Originally interprested as post sockets – now thought to be small grinding stones.

 

In 1873 William Copeland Borlase cleared out what is now known as house 6.  Further excavation were done in 1897 on house 4 by two members of the local antiquarian society.  The first major excavation did not take place until 1928 under the direction of T D Kendrick of the British Museum and Dr H. O’Neil Hencken.  It was during this time that the land owner placed a large part of the site under the guardianship of the Office of Works.

 

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One of several stone lined hearths.

 

In 1931 a fuller examination of the site was carried out by Hencken, excavating houses 5 and 7 with more work on houses 3, 4, 6 and 9.  The term ‘courtyard house’ was first coined by  Hencken during these early excavations.  In 1984 the guardianship of the site passed on to the newly constituted English Heritage.

 

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Entering House 6

 

Although later excavations failed to reveal whether or not Chysauster was predated by an earlier site as with Carn Euny there is some suggestion that there is an earlier site further along the hillside yet to be found or indeed it could be associated with the fogou.  A nineteenth century account reported that much of the old village had lately been removed that the fogou no longer lay within it as before (Christie P 1987).  Suggesting that there was a much more substantial settlement on the hillside then what we see today.

 

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Plan of house 6 – note the very thick walls.

 

 

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The entrance to the ‘main’ room of house 6.

 

CARN EUNY

 

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Plan of Carn Euny

 

This site is much smaller than Chysauster consisting of four interlocking structures in addition to a number of smaller roundhouses constructed in the first century BC.  An earlier phase of the site consisted of timber built roundhouses which were occupied for at least 400 years.

The first investigations of the site were in the 1860s in the well preserved fogou but it was not until some hundred years later when a more systematic excavation was undertaken (see the journals Cornish Archaeology from the late 1960s for more detailed information on these excavations).

 

 

Practical Issues

One of the main discussions regarding this type of settlement site is in relation to how such massive structures were roofed.  The generally accepted theory states that the individual rooms would be roofed with the central courtyard open to the elements.  In 1997 Jacqui Wood proposed an alternative theory which saw the entire structure being covered by a single roof (Cornish Archaeology 1997 No 36).  Interpretations boards at both sites show individual roofs over each room with some even having flat roofs.

The above two images are pictures taken from the interpretation boards at Carn Euny (left) and Chysauster (right).

 

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In 1993 an experimental roof was built over one of the ‘rooms’ at Chysauster.  It was this exercise which set Jacqui Wood on her path to find an alternative roofing solution.(Photo by P Allison http://www.geograph.co.uk)

 

The main objection to the conventional thinking relates to the issue of drainage.  The conical roofs are depicted as sitting on top of the thick in-filled walls and given the amount of precipitation Cornwall receives every year, drainage off the roofs would have been an issue, even more so for the flat roofs.  A large single roof  would have prevented this and created a large and cosy interior, the now central courtyard would take on the appearance of a ‘hall’.  With the creation of additional space within the roof space on top of the thick walls.  Thus the courtyard house becomes a ‘galleried house’.

“The purpose of the substantial infill of the walls would now come into its own.  There could have been another shorter ring of posts to support another ring beam nearer to the outer walls, adding stability to the roof.  Looking at the structure from this viewpoint another possible use for the substantial infills becomes evident. The large flat areas at the top of the walls could have been covered with timbers to create another well supported floor.”

 

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Jacqui Wood’s alternative arrangement for the roof of house 6 at Chysauster (Wood J 1997)

 

Objections to the single roof theory are based upon the size of the roof needed to cover such a large area, although as it has been pointed out equally large structures are known throughout prehistory in both Britain and on the European mainland.  Of course this argument may never come to a satisfactory conclusion without the aid of a time machine, but it is still interesting to offer alternatives to conventional theories.

Carn Euny and Chysauster are  just two of the many similar sites which can be found around West Penwith, others are not so easy to get to and are often overgrown with bracken and brambles.  Standing on the hillside at Chysauster on a brisk winters day,  looking down the valley it feels very easy to put yourself into the ancestors shoes as you hunker down behind the thick walls in an effort to keep warm.

Final Thoughts

One question which has not been addressed is who lived in these settlements and why are they only found in the west of Cornwall?  Contrary to popular belief I do not believe that these sites belonged to your  average Iron Age farming community – this is not to say they did not farm – but rather the people who lived in these substantial structures were different.  Several factors support this idea –

  • The majority of courtyard house settlements have fogous within their bounds.
  • They are associated with hillforts.
  • They are not the only settlement type of this era within west Cornwall; isolated hamlets of round houses and ’round’ are much more prevalent than courtyard houses.

Some have suggested that a priestly class occupied these villages (hence the presence of the fogous).  Without further research and excavation it is difficult to say exactly who lived here but I would certainly suggest they were not your average farming community.  As to why courtyard houses are only found in west Cornwall…the jury is still out on that one.  However, I do have an suspicion that there is a connection with the extraction of tin.  It might just be coincedence that Chysauster, the largest courtyard house village,  is only a short distance from Mounts Bay and a possible site of ‘Ictis’ where it is said the Cornish traded with merchants from the Mediterranean.  Or Bosullow Trehyllys (another less well known and unexcavated site) situated on the slopes below Chun Castle an Iron Age (and later) hillfort is also on the path of a well known trackway called the Tinners Way.

All of which makes for interesting discussions…

FURTHER READING

Christie P. (1978) ‘The excavation of an Iron Age Souterrain and Settlement at Carn Euny, Sancreed Cornwall’  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 44.

Christie P. (1987) Chysauster, Ancient Village.  English Heritage.

Hencken H. (1933) ‘An excavation by H M Office of Works at Chysauster, Cornwall’  Archaeologia 83

Rowe T M (2005) Cornwall in Prehistory.  Tempus

Weatherhill C. (2009) Cornovia. Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000BC – 1000AD.  Halsgrove

Wood J. (1997) ‘A new perspective on West Cornwall courtyard houses’  Cornish Archaeology No36.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Museum With A Difference

The fog rolled in along the North Cornish coast blanketing the hills.  Coming in fast behind it was a weather front of rain and blustering wind.  What was I doing out in this weather?  Why would anyone venture forth in such conditions, most sensible people were safe inside.  But today I was a tourist and nothing was going to stand between myself and the place I wished to visit.

Tomorrow it would close for the winter and my chances of visiting again would be blown (it’s a long to come from NZ).  My destination?  The Museum of Witchcraft in the wee coastal village of Boscastle on the North Cornish coast.  I had also dragged the husband and kids along (I needed a driver and there’s this funny law which says you can’t leave the kids at home alone…)

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The exterior of the museum – Jan 2015 (it now has new signage…)

The museum is the home to the worlds’ largest collection of “witchcraft-related objects dating from the time of the witch-hunts to the present day.”  A friend recently asked why I would want to visit the museum.  Well, in short it is a fascinating subject because it tells a story of how people have viewed not only themselves but also the world around them on a very deep and personal level.  So my question to her was – why wouldn’t you?

The museum was not always in Boscastle, originally it was based on the Isle of Man in Castleton.  It was first opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 (the same year the Witchcraft Act was repealed successfully).  He employed Gerald Gardner – the father of modern witchcraft – as “Resident Witch” and the museum was very successful.  But eventually as things go, the two men felt the museum should go in different directions and Williamson sold the building to Gardner and moved his collection to Windsor and then onto the Cotswolds.  Unfortunately a lack of tolerance in the local area resulted in the museum being firebombed several times.  Once more Williamson moved his collection but this time to Boscastle, where it has been ever since.  The current owner is Graham King, who bought it from Williamson in 1996.

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The village of Boscastle looking back from the sea wall.

 In 2004 the whole of Boscastle was brought to its knees when a flash flood filled the valley – the town was swamped by over three metres of flood waters.  The museum was severely damaged however this did not deter King – clean up of the museum began as soon as possible with every inch of mud being sifted and every item found meticulously cleaned and disinfected.  During this time the museum layout was redesigned and gradually the museum rose from mud and sewage all brand new.  I recently read on Facebook, that once more the museum is having a bit of face lift for no other reason than “change is good”.

The museum itself is divided into sections, each section dealing with one particular aspect of the craft.  The descriptions below are from a pamphlet bought at the museum during my visit.

  • Images of Witchcraft – “Although many people today are sceptical about the power of magic, there can be no doubt about the enduring power of the image of the witch.
  • Persecution – “Our display about the witch-hunts begins with a 17th Century copy of Daemonologie – a book condemning magic written by King James I. King James wrote it after personally interrogating the suspects in the North Berwick witchcraft case, who were accused of raising a storm to sink his ship”.
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A witch weighing chair – not everyone was into the witch hunts.  As long as the accused weighed more than the Bible they were proved innocent.
  • The Wheel of the Year – “Modern witches meet on, and celebrate, ancient seasonal festivals and call them Sabbats”.
  • Stangs – “Modern witches refer to forked or skull-topped staffs as stangs”.
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A collection of stangs.
  • Sacred Sites – “Ancient sacred sites are very important to many people who practise Modern Pagan Witchcraft today…however, the witches of the past centuries also valued sacred sites as places to practise magic.”
  • The Hare and Shape-Shifting “Many legends and folktales tell of witches turning into animals – particularly hares, cats and owls. A traditional Cornish term for “cursed” is “owl-blasted”.
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A ceramic hare-woman made in the 1960s by Lionel Miskin.
  • The Magic of Christianity – “Trial records show that most people who practised magic during the witch-hunts were Christians, and often used the sacred object of Christianity in their spells.
  • Herbs and Healing – “Healing has always been an important part of magic. Many people arrested for witchcraft were respected healers using charms and herbal remedies.
  • The Wise Woman – “Our wise woman in her cottage shows just how different real life witches were from the stereotype of the ugly hag muttering curses.”

 

  • Protection Magic – “The use of objects as protection charms (also known as amulets) is one of the most ancient types of magic – and also one still widely used thoughout the world today.”
  • Magic in Wartime – “This display shows some of the ways people have used magic to help them cope with the stress and danger of war.”
  • Mandrakes – “According to William Shakespeare, human shaped mandrakes roots were worn as good luck charms.”
  • Curses – “Did people really use magic to put curses on their enemies? Of course they did!…Cursing was an instrument of natural justice, and a form of anger management.”
  • Ritual Magic and The Golden Dawn – “At the heart of the display are the colourful and dramatic tools developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”
  • The Richel Collection – “This collection of magical objects from the Netherlands bequeathed to the museum in 2000, is complex, challenging and sometimes downright mystifying – though sexual symbolism is a recurring theme.”
  • The Devil and the Horned God – “There can be little doubt that the horned Devil of medieval art had its origins in earlier horned deities of nature and fertility, such as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Celtic god Cerunnos and the Roman god Pan.”
  • Baphomet and the Green Man
  • Fortune Telling and Divination – “Of all the objects in the museum, the one that most intrigues and fascinates visitors is the dark mirror used by the museums founder Cecil Williamson.”
  • Spells and Charms – “Many of the exhibits in this museum illustrate a central principle of folk magic, that there is magic all around us in the natural objects of everyday life”.
  • Sea Witchcraft – “There are many accounts of witches selling the wind to sailors, by magically knotting it into a length of rope on a windy day.”
  • Tools of the Witch – “Knitting needles might not seem an obvious magical tool – but stitches are really knots, and knot magic is ancient and widespread.”
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    The cauldron – you can’t be a witch without one of these…
  • Modern Witchcraft – “Many of the objects in this section are personal and unusual, such as the Peruvian magic dolls used by Brownie Pate, or the painted altar stone made by Iain Steele, with its dragon like symbol in the centre.”

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This may not be a museum for everyone, some might even find the occasional display uncomfortable (the sideways looks I kept getting from the hubby was proof of that).  Even so, the effort to visit should be made.  To learn about and educate ourselves in the ways  of the craft and its history means that the past won’t be repeated.  When it comes down to it, today witchcraft/paganism is just another form of spirituality which provides harmony and solace in the lives who follow that path.

It was a fascinating museum and well worth the trip, the dreary weather adding to the atmosphere.  To visit on a bright sunny day when Boscastle is thronging with tourists…

 

Contact details:  The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD.

Tel: 01840 250111

www.museumofwitchcraft.com

museumwitchcraft@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

A Day Trip to Kawau Island

Blue sea, blue sky, warm sunshine and a gentle breeze.  It was a perfect day for a trip to the beautiful island of Kawau in the Hauraki Gulf .

Kawau Island is roughly 8 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, its highest point is Mt Grey at 182metres above sea level.  Kawau is Maori word for cormorant.  For those wishing to experience island life access is by ferry.  The ferry to the island leaves from Sandspit, just north of Warkworth.  Full of day trippers slathered in sunscreen it visits the various wharves dotted along the sheltered side of the island delivering the mail, groceries and other goods.  For the visitor it is a good introduction to an island which has only two short private roads and where the majority of properties rely on access to the sea.  Neighbours visit neighbour either on foot or by boat and kayak.

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School House Bay – there is no longer a school on the island. The few school age children go to school on the mainland.

Island History

Prior to the Europeans Kawau was often fought over by local Maori.  During the 18th century a ‘pirate’ like group of Maori lived on the island – there are at least three known pa sites (two on Bon Accord Harbour and one in the north of the island).  According to tradition the Kawau Maori would attack other Maori travelling around the island, something which was not tolerated for long.  Eventually, other local tribes from the mainland banded together and attacked the Maori of Kawau.  The island tribe was completely massacred and tradition says a large feast ensued at Bostaquet Bay where parts of their enemies were cooked and eaten.  A tapu was placed on Kawau making it no-go area for Maori – the tapu is still in place.

The next important phase of the history of the island began in 1842 with the discovery of copper and manganese.  Miners were brought in from Wales and Cornwall to work the mines and smelting works.  The population of the island at this time was approximately 300.

The remains of the smelting works can be seen in Bon Accord Harbour just along from the present day yacht club.  On a small point between Dispute Cove and South Cove there is also the ruins of pumphouse constructed to alleviate flooding issues.  The pumphouse would not look out of place in Cornwall.  In 1844/45 the mine produced some 7000 pounds of Copper which represented a third of Auckland’s exports for that year.  Unfortunately issues with flooding, shipping and infighting resulted in the mines being closed down in 1855.

In 1862 Sir George Grey, then the Governor of New Zealand paid 3,700 pounds for Kawau Island and turned it into a private retreat.  He turned the former mine managers house into the imposing mansion you see today and imported many exotic plants and wildlife to the island.  In 1888 Sir Grey sold Kawau and Mansion house had several owners and in 1910 it became a guest house and a popular retreat for Aucklanders.  The last private owner sold the house in 1967 to the Government for inclusion in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park.

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Mansion House, Mansion House Bay – the ferry drops people off here to swim, picnic and walk island paths.

However it was not until the late 1970s was a plan put together to preserve the historical character of the island and thus the house.  Today 10% of the island is in public ownership as the Kawau Island Historic Reserve (and includes Mansion House and Bay) which is administered by the NZ Department of Conservation.   One of the many ongoing issues faced by the island is the damage done to the native flora and fauna by Sir Grey’s introduced species, namely the wallabies and possums.  Both animals have been responsible for the destruction of much of the native bush.  However, slowly but surely the tide is turning and now there are kiwi, bellbirds, tui, kereru and more returning to the island.  Kawau Island is in fact home to two thirds of the entire population of the North Island weka.

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One of the many weka who frequent the picnic benches…

 

Stone Circles and Sarah

In the second novel – A Megalithic Moon – our heroine, Sarah, finds herself transported back in time some five thousand years (ish).  For archaeologists and those with an interest in the past this is the Late Neolithic, a time of massive stone constructions, of megaliths, of stone circles.

For many years stone circles have fascinated me and so I was really very keen to weave these monuments into Sarah’s story.  There are some 1300 recorded stone circles in Britain and this is not the place to discuss each and every one of them.  Instead I wish to look at two stone circles in particular which feature in A Megalithic Moon, Boscawen Un and Loanhead of Daviot.  For those who want to find out more about stone circles I highly recommend Aubrey Burl’s The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany published by Yale University Press (2000).

In the very early pages of A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to one of my all time favourite sites – Boscawen Un – a stone circle in the heart of West Penwith, Cornwall.

Boscawen Un

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Boscawen Un on a very grey Cornish day…

Not a true circle the stone ring measures 24.9m and 21.9m in diameters making it more elliptical than circular.  The ring consists of nineteen stones varying in height from 0.9m to 1.3m and has two unique features.  Firstly there is a central stone which leans sharply to the north east.  Originally it was believed that the lean on the central stone was the result of people digging for treasure believed to be at its base but recent archaeological work has confirmed that the stone was deliberately placed in the ground at a lean.  Another interesting fact about the central stone is the presence of two faint, but real, carved axeheads near the base which can best be seen at the midsummer sunrise.

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The central stone with its deliberate lean.

Secondly all but one of the stones are of local granite, the odd one out is a solid chunk of white quartz.  For those of a pagan leaning, the quartz stone is significant as it serves to represent the feminine lunar deity (and thus the central stone is the male).  Quartz is often found on sites of ritual significance, the Duloe stone circle (also in Cornwall) is smaller but all of the stones are quartz.  Excavations at the Hurlers, a stone circle complex on Bodmin Moor, uncovered traces of a quartz pavement which highlights the importance of this material in the rituals of the past.  It is easy to imagine how the quartz in its freshly cut state might glow in the light of the moon.  The use of quartz is not restricted to Cornwal and much further afield in Aberdeenshire the recumbent stone circles often feature quartz.

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The single quartz stone in the circle.

The circle was restored in 1862 when three stones were re-erected and the hedge which originally cut through the ring was diverted around it.  Historically Boscawen Un was believed to be the Beisgawen yn Dumnonia named in the Welsh Triads as one of the ‘Three Principal Gorsedds’.  So much so, in 1928 the modern Cornish Gorsedd was inaugurated here.  Unfortunately recent academic work by Rachel Bromwich revealed that the Triads were in fact an eighteenth century forgery.

There is a west facing gap which may represent an entrance not unlike the one found at the Merry Maidens, another well known stone circle in West Cornwall, which can be seen from Boscawen Un.

 

Much later in A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to another kind of stone circle but much farther away, those of north east Scotland in Aberdeenshire.  Recumbent stone circles are so called due to a common feature of a large single stone lying ‘recumbent’ between two flanking uprights.  The recumbent always occupies a position on the circles arc between SSE – SW and the uprights are graded in size from the smallest on the northern arc and the tallest flanking the recumbent.  They are unique to this area of Scotland and are not found elsewhere except for in the south west of Ireland.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in many of the circles being destroyed.  Some well preserved examples which are worth a visit include Loanhead of Daviot, Easter Aquorthies, Sunhoney and Tyrebagger.

Loanhead of Daviot

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This recumbent stone circle is situated near the summit of gentle hill overlooking the village of Daviot and few miles from Inveruries.  Excavations conducted in 1934 provided evidence for the longevity of the site from the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age.  The site itself consists of two concentric rings of stone with a central cairn. In addition adjacent to the main stone circle is a late Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

The outer circle is 19.5m in diameter and is made up of ten upright stones and one recumbent.  Around the base of each upright a small cairn of stones were piled and in some evidence of burials were found.  Several of the uprights also have faint cupmarks engraved into the stones surface.

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The recumbent stone at Loanhead. Photo by M and K Grundy from geograph.co.uk.

The inner circle is 16.5m in diameter and forms a kerb of low stones to the central cairn which was built over a cremation pyre.  Here some 2.3kgs of burnt bone lay in the central space.  Interestingly the type of stone to be found in the central cairn consists mostly of quartz.

Just north of Loanhead a second recumbent is known, however all that remains is the recumbent itself and its two flankers.  A third circle was recorded in the 18th century to the south of Loanhead in the village of Daviot, sadly nothing remains of this circle.

 

Stone Circles and the Moon

A great deal has been written about the astronomical associations between megaliths and the night sky.  In relation to stone circles it was Aubrey Burl who pointed out that a circle is not the most efficient means to observe the night sky, rather a single line of stones would work considerably better.  Indeed there are scattered throughout the British landscape enigmatic lines of stones and often in association with stone circles, such as the previously mentioned Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.

So if stone circles are not for astronomical observations, what are they for?  Increasingly, there is a body of work which is leaning towards a lunar and/or solar explanation.  Often the emphasis is on the solstices, the rising and setting sun, midwinter and midsummer being the most popular.  However, there is some suggestion that the spring and autumn solstices were just as important if not more so, particularly in Cornwall where the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were most likely to be pastoralists rather than agriculturalists.

In regard to the recumbents of Aberdeenshire it appears to be the procession of the moon which was important.  Thus the recumbent were laid in line with the southern moon but not as it rose or set but when it was actually up in the sky.

The majority of the recumbent lie in the arc between the moon’s major rising and setting…” Aubrey Burl p227 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

 Another feature of these recumbent circles is the presence of both quartz and cupmarks and again an association with the moon could be made.  The quartz shining brightly in the moonlight perhaps representing pieces of the moon itself and the cupmarks themselves do seem to generally align with either the major or minor moonset or moonrise.

To the users of the circles it may have been the steady procession of the moon above the recumbent that was wanted rather than a particular moment, minutes of moonlight when quartz glowed luminescently and when nocturnal ceremonies where performed.” Aubrey Burl  p226  ibid.

 And so, all of these elements are woven throughout Sarah’s story and have become my inspiration for the Daughters of the Moon – the Myhres an Loor.

Please find below some links to interesting websites about stone circles and megaliths in general.  Enjoy!

Stone Circles of North East Scotland

The Megalithic Portal

Stone Circles.Org.UK

 

Vikings in ‘A Viking Moon’

In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark.  The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe.  The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah.  For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings.  There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.

Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone.  There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface.  Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings.  Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went.  They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.

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An example of a rune stone.

During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship.  Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both.  Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown.  By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family.  It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.

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Map of Viking Denmark.

Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain.  A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle.  He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack.   But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family.  A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.

The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time.  One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea.  It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat.  Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia.  In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated.  Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.

Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading.  It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord.  Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.

Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land.  A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed.  The second tier of society belonged to the karls.  They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners.  In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants.  Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men.  The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers.  At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property.  Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.

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Reconstruction of a Viking woman spinning using a drop spindle. Photo by P van der Sluijis via wikimedia commons.

Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth.  However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society.  Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker.  When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence.  A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.

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A depiction of two female warriors of royal birth participating in a sea battle. From Olaus Magnus’ History of 1555.

Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers.  There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies.  Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.

 

Messing about in Boats

Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time.  They were essential to the Viking way of life.  They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes.   In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark.  There was a ‘knarr’  an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men.  The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.

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The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings).  If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips.  Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’.  The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness.  The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.

The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships.  They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built.  A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.

The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position.  They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.

 

The Gods

There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly.   Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir.  They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin.  The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.

The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace.  She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death.  Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population.  In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted.  Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber).  To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings.  In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool.  Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life.  But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.

 

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Freya and her spindle – from ‘A Book of Myths’ by Helen Stratton (1915).

Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers.  These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future.  During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance.  It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight.  The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.

In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of).  Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him.  He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops.  As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside.  His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found.  He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw.  Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir.  It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…

A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).thors-hammer

 

On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common.  The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted.  They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle.  It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.

 

 

Character Back Stories

 

Every storyteller knows to get the attention of their audience the characters need to be believable, to have an realism.  It is not unusual to hear people say, “I know someone like that” or “Gosh, doesn’t that sound like Aunty Mabel?”  For the characters to be believable the storyteller will give their main characters a history.  Their history might not be obvious or told to you directly within the story but it is there all the same.

Below is the back story or histories of several of the main characters in the Sarah Tremayne series.  

Sarah Tremayne

Sarah is the only child of Michael and Julia Tremayne, born on the night of a full moon at the beginning of May 1999.  Her memories of her early years are ones filled with laughter and love until disaster struck.  At the age of eight years her mother was killed in nasty car accident on the A30.  Sarah remembers that day well, it was the day her happy, innocent world came crashing down around her ears.  Her father, in his grief forgot he had a daughter, retreating into the past and his work.

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By the time Sarah was ten her father in his wisdom decided running wild over the moors and cliffs of Cornwall was not the best education for a young lady, so he sent her to boarding school.  St Bridget’s School For Young Ladies was nothing like any of the stories Sarah had read about.   It was, in her words, ‘stuffy, pretentious, stuck up and full of girls’.  Not being the girly girl sort Sarah had very little patience with those who were more concerned with hairstyles, who’s wearing what and what shade of nail polish goes best with the orange tank they just bought at Top Shop.

Perhaps it was a personality thing, Sarah didn’t like the school and the school (and just about everyone in it) didn’t like Sarah.  Apparently she has an independent (or should that be stubborn) streak which did not please people.   Her lack of conformity made her enemies among almost all the girls and her lack of toeing the line made her enemies among all the staff.  However, as with all good stories there was Rose among these thorns – Rosie – Sarah’s lifeline and best friend.   Why they were such good friends was anyone’s guess, Rosie was the opposite to Sarah – calm, quiet, studious and rock solid.  It was Rosie that made life bearable at school. But (and there is always a but) all that changes when Rosie’s father loses his high paying job in the City taking the family – Rosie included – back to his family home in Orkney.

It wasn’t long until things went horribly pear shaped for Sarah and a run in with the school bully found Sarah walking calmly out the school gates and to the nearest train station.  Heading for the place of her heart – Cornwall, Zennor and Nan.

 

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Map of Cornwall fom 1785

 

Nan

Nan is the mother of Michael Tremayne (Sarah’s Dad).  She lives in the little hamlet of Zennor on the north coast of West Penwith in the county of Cornwall.  Living in the cottage she was born in and her mother was born in and her mother before her.

 

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The village of Zennor (by R Hughes – geograph.co.uk)

 

 

Nan is a small bird-like woman with eyes that see more than they should – don’t try to lie to her, she will know!  Her two great loves are her herb garden and her dog (Brad the dog).  It is not unusual to hear her chatting away to the giant yellow Labrador whilst tending her garden.  Considered eccentric by those too young to know better she is Sarah’s safe haven, her arms and heart giving lots of hugs and love when it was needed most.

 

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The inspiration for Brad the Dog.

 

Nan’s personal history is one of non-conformity (it might be genetic), at the age of eighteen she found herself pregnant and without a husband.  To this day no one knows who Michael’s father was and many are sure that Nan herself doesn’t know either.   Bringing up her son on her own in the face of the gossips resulted in a personality that tells it like it is – woe and betide any who don’t agree.

Professor Michael Tremayne

A professor in archaeology, currently living and working in London.  His love of archaeology stems from a chance find on the slopes of Zennor Hill, that looms over the hamlet of Zennor.  His second great love was his wife Julia.  They met by chance (?) on a lonely path that winds itself along the high points of West Penwith, she stumbled into his arms twisting an ankle on the uneven surface.  The rest was history.

For the Professor life was never quite the same after Julia had her accident.  Although his mother encouraged him to face the world again for the sake of Sarah, every time he looked at his daughter he was reminded of Julia.  He retreated to London sinking ever deeper into his work leaving Sarah to be brought up by his mother.

The night before Sarah’s thirteenth birthday he had a dream.  He remembered the day she was born and how happy he had been, he remembered Julia’s words, “be there for her, always, no matter what, promise me”.  Waking up he realised that he had not kept that promise.  It was too late to fix the past but he made the decision that all would change and that very morning he got into his battered old jeep and headed for Sarah’s school.

Julia Tremayne

Not a lot can be said about Julia, she arrived at Zennor with a twisted ankle and never left until the day she was killed in a car accident on the A30.

Unbeknownst to her new family she was one of an ancient group called the Mhyres an Loor or Daughters of the Moon.  Very little is known about the Daughters as they hold their secrets very close (and I don’t want to spoil things for the readers of future books).

 

There is a lot to be said for a mysterious mother figure…

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Some Megaliths From Brittany

There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…      

It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France).  You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.

For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese.  Regardless to say this was in the time before children.

Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac.  Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.

The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.

Le Menec

Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac.  The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones.  The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east.  The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.

The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings.  There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.

Kerzerho Alignments

These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres.  Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100.  The alignment  runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.

Kerzerho Giants

Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them.  They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.

The following are the few photos I managed to take.

 

Useful websites include:

www.megalithes-morbihan.com

Megaliths of Carnac

Megalithic Portal – Guide to Brittany

 

Archaeology, History and a little bit of time travel…