The British countryside is littered with the enigmatic remnants of its ancient past, there are somewhere in the region of ten thousand pre-Roman standing monuments. Modern archaeological techniques and science may be helping us to understand such sites today but once upon a time the people who lived with them found other ways to explain their redoubtable presence. Dating back thousands of years, monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, burial mounds (round and long barrows), stone rows and other such megalithic remains, provide a wealth of folklore as answers to the how, why and who questions of the past.
There are many tales to be told but the following is simply a selection of some well known and some not so well known.
One of the most well-known megalithic sites in Britain is that of Stonehenge with its own fair share of fantastical tales attached. In the 12th century Stonehenge was referred to as the ‘Hanging Stones’ because they appeared to float in the air. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the same century declared that Merlin (of Arthurian fame) was responsible for the building of the stones, something which was taken as fact for many centuries.
In Geoffrey’s account the king Aurelius Ambrosius told Merlin he wanted to raise a monument for his nobles who had been killed at Amesbury by the Saxon invader Hengist. Merlin tells the king to fetch a circle of stones in Ireland called the Dance of Giants that had healing properties. Aurelius went to Ireland with an army and fought the local Irish who did not want to give up the Dance of Giants eventually winning. On seeing the size of the stones, they found it impossible to move them, but Merlin was at hand who with the use of ‘his own engines, laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe’.
Of course, we know through scientific endeavor that the largest stones come from nearby Marlborough Downs and the smaller blue stones are from the mountains in Wales, not Ireland. However, it is interesting that there did still seem to be some knowledge, a folk memory, that a part of Stonehenge came from far enough away to be a wonder. It is also of interest that these stones were believed to have healing qualities, as new theories suggest that there was strong connection between healing and the presence of the blue stones in the early phases of construction. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that they washed the stones and poured the water into baths ‘whereby those who were sick were cured’.
The healing power of certain stones is an enduring feature of the tales associated with them. The most well known is that of Men-an-Tol in West Cornwall, here there is a round upright stone with a hole in it situated between two small uprights. Children were passed through the hole as a cure for rickets; it was also believed to be good for a ‘crick in the neck’ and was sometimes referred to as the Crick Stone – having personally struggled through the aforementioned holed stone, it can be suggested that it causes the ‘crick in the neck’ rather than cures. At Horton in North Somerset there is a similar stone known as the Crick Stone.
In Scotland, at the chamber tomb of Carraig an Talaidh, the portal stone is known as the Toothie Stane as a result of local people who were suffering from toothache would drive a nail into the stone. The idea being that in causing pain to the stone their own would cease. At the Rollright Stones it is said that they confer fertility upon women who touch them with their bare breasts at midnight. In addition, they are offer the power of prayer for the sick a boost if the prayers are said at the center of the Kings Men (the stone circle). The Kings Stone has a peculiar kink as result of the practice of chipping off pieces as good luck charms and amulets against the devil.
One of the most enduring tales associated with stone circles and standing stones is that of dancing. The Merry Maidens, a stone circle near St Buryan in West Cornwall, is said to be a circle of young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. In field nearby are several standing stones known as the Blind Fiddler and the Pipers who were playing music for the dancers and when they saw their fate, they tried run but God struck them down turning them into stone. A similar tale is told of the Nine Maidens, also in Cornwall.
A common theme in the folklore of standing stones is of people who broke the Sabbath being punished by being turned to stone, something which would have been encouraged by the Church at the time. The stones represented the pagan and ungodly past, any idolatry of such places was to be discouraged. A classic example of the pagan vs the Christian can be seen in the story of Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria. It was the wizard Michael Scott who when passing the place saw it was a witches sabbath and turned the participants into stone – the use of magic in this instance would appear to not sit comfortably alongside Christian beliefs but then if it is used to do God’s work.
In some cases, Christianity has taken an active role in the creation of the folktales surrounding sites. For example, the Long Stone near St Austell in Cornwall is said to once have been the staff and hat of the Saint Austell. The tale states that the saint was one day walking over the downs when his hat was blown off by a sudden violent gust of wind, he thrust his staff into the ground and chased after it. Unfortunately, the violent wind turned into an equally violent storm, driving the saint back to his home without both his staff and his hat. On returning the next day to retrieve his hat and staff he found that the Devil had turned them into stone.
The Devil also features in a legend regarding the Rudston in Yorkshire, this huge monolith stands tall in the local churchyard and the story says that the Devil was up to his usual tricks of throwing stones at Christian places. Picking up a large stone he hurled it at Rudston church, but his aim was lousy, and he missed. The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge consists of three stones and is all that remains of what would have been a very impressive stone row. Legend says that these stones were bolts thrown by an irate Devil aiming for the town at Aldborough and as we have already established his aim was lousy…
An example wrong doer being turned to stone comes from Gwynedd in Wales. The Carreg Y Lleidr stone is said to be a thief who stole some books from a neighboring church and was turned to stone along with the sack of books slung over his shoulder. Here folklore is being used to deter would be thieves and encourage moral behavior.
The connection between dancing and standing stones can also be seen in the notion that at certain times of the year certain stones are reanimated. Thus, Wrington’s Waterstone comes to life and dances on Midsummer’s Day but only when it coincides with a full moon. The previously mentioned Nine Maidens are said to sometimes dance at noon. On Orkney the Yetnasteen, a standing stone in Rousay, comes to life on New Year’s morning when it goes to the Loch of Scockness for a drink. Whilst at the Rollright Stones, the Kings Men are said to resume their human form on occasion, hold hands and dance to a nearby spring to drink.
The Rollright Stones (Oxfordshire) have their own creation myth associated with witches and magic. The name itself refers to a group of megalithic structures which includes a circle of seventy-seven stones called the King’s Men, a trio of standing stones which lean together and are called the Whispering Knights and a single standing stone called the King Stone. The legend first recorded in 1586 in Camden’s Britannia tells of how a king was once heading off in an expedition to become the High King of England. When he and his men reached the site where the stones are today, the owner of the land, a formidable witch appeared and told the king:
‘Seven long strides thou shalt take,
And if Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be.’
Determined to do just that, he strode forth but as he took his final step a large hillock appeared magically, hiding Long Compton from view. The witch then said:
‘Rise up, stick, and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stone shall be
And I myself and elder tree’
Thus, the King and his men were turned to stone and between them up sprouted an elder tree.
Although the elder tree is no longer present, its inclusion in the tale is significant as it represents the pagan aspects of the site. Elder trees were regarded as the most sacred of trees and there are many superstitions and folklore associated with them. The Whispering Knights are said to either be knights who were plotting against the king or praying for him depending on who you talk to. A local legend tells of women who question the stones, leaning in close to receive their wisdom. The King Stone was known as the meeting place of Long Compton’s witches but was also believed to mark one of the entrances to the fairy halls under the circle.
The Rollright stones also have a connection with King Arthur; the tale of King Arthur finishes with him and his knights lying in an underground chamber waiting for time when Britain is in great need. Where this is exactly is of course left to the imagination but for Oxfordshire locals the chamber is located beneath the Rollrights. There are many sites around Britain which attest some connection with the legend of King Arthur, far too many to go into detail here (may be in another post). Suffice it to say that there are very few counties that do not have a stone or two attached to the name Arthur.
As mentioned before Christianity has on numerous occasions used the presence of stone megaliths to demonstrate their own power of good over evil and the importance of being pious. However, they do not always have it their own way. It was the practice of the early church to build their churches on sites of pagan significance, not always with good results. In Scotland near Garioch there is a site called Chapel o’ Sink stone circle, so named because once there were attempts to build a chapel within the stone circle but each night the walls would sink into the ground to such an extent that work was eventually halted, never to be resumed. There are several other similar legends connected with stone circles in Scotland – those called the ‘Sunken Kirk’.
There are also numerous tales of folk who have interfered with the stones much to their own detriment. Death and sudden illness were not uncommon, acting as a deterrent for those who respected the legends. Animals in particular, are said to be affected by changes made to megalithic sites. When the sites of Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall and the Cairnford stone circle in Grampian were threatened with destruction the local farm animals all fell ill – in time when your livelihood depended on those animals this was a disaster. Another tale tells of two stones being removed the Mains of Hatton stone circle in Scotland and being used as gate posts, they had to be replaced as the horses refused to go through them. Similarly in Scotland a stone was taken from the Grenish circle and used as a lintel over the entrance to a cow shed, but no animal would enter from that day on.
At the Rollrights there are also tales of farmers trying to take the stones to use in farm buildings; one farmer in particular, tried to use the capstone from the Whispering Knights as a mill dam, but every night the uncooperative stone returned to its proper place.
The final site type to consider is that of the barrow. A barrow is in essence a burial mound, some look like pimples on the face of a smooth landscape and others are long mounds built as a statement, many have long gone under the plough and only archaeology can tell they are there. They can range in date from the Neolithic up to the Anglo-Saxon period. The most common stories associated with these types of sites associated these places as the entrances to the Otherworld, a place where the fairy folk abide. Perhaps recalling the stories of the Tuatha De Danaan who were said to have retreated underground on their defeat by the Milesians.
In Tyne and Wear there is a barrow that goes by the name of the Fairies Cradle, it is said that on moonlit nights it is a favorite spot for fairy parades and celebrations. Near Carmyle in Strathclyde there is another barrow called the Fairy Folk Hillock where similarly revels are held by the fairy folk. These are just two examples of the many stories relating to fairy revels at ancient burial sites.
In Humberside the story goes a bit further, here there is a Neolithic long mound called Willy Howe. A chronicler writing in the twelfth century recorded how a man passing the mound found a doorway open on the side, curiosity got the better of him and peered in to find a brilliantly lit chamber in which a gathering of fairies were enjoying a feast. However, he was soon spotted gaping at the door and invited in. His hosts offered him a goblet of wine – anyone who knows anything about the fairy world knows that accepting food or drink there will seal your fate – but not wanting to offend his hosts he accepted and whilst they were not looking emptied the wine onto the ground, fleeing with the goblet. When his story got around, and the goblet inspected no one could identify the metal it was made from. The last recorded location of the goblet was when it was in the possession of Henry II.
The theme of treasure in these enigmatic humps in the landscape is highlighted by the stories of a King Sil and his treasure who was believed to be buried under Silbury Hill in Wiltshire or the gold horse and rider also said to be under Silbury. There are many tales of gold or treasure within the barrows, often such tales resulted in unscrupulous people digging into the mounds in search of such treasure but also tales of the retribution of the fairy folk for those who would dare to interfere with their sacred places. The traditional guardians of hidden treasure are the Spriggans – they would wait whilst the treasure hunter had dug a substantial hole before appearing threatening the would-be robber. Their appearance is said to be so ghastly that the mortal would depart with haste, and should he return later he would find his hole filled in. The stories tell how Spriggans had the ability to grow in size at will and in other tales they are referred to as the ghosts of the ancient giants.
On Dartmoor there is a triple stone row at Challacombe and at its northern end is Chaw Gully, said to be a ‘dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirits, where rumors of buried gold have led many greedy treasure hunters to their doom’ (A Burnham ed The Old Stones – A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland).
In Fife there is a hill named Largo Law where it is ‘said that there so much gold buried in it that the wool of sheep turned yellow through eating the grass that grew upon it’ (M Alexander A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain 2002). But there is also a rhyme that warns against blowing a horn at Largo Law – something a young man named Norrie failed to heed. Norrie blew his horn, no sooner had he finished then he fell down dead, buried where he lay and covered by a cairn now known as Norrie’s Law. Interestingly, a silver hoard was found nearby in 1819, giving some credence to the legend of treasure.
As we read and listen to the stories connected to these ancient monuments we begin to see the world as it may have been to those who came before. The need to explain their presence in the landscape, to understand how they were built and why within a world view that was perhaps much narrower than ours. Even though the number of fringe explanations in todays world would suggest otherwise – the continued insistence that Stonehenge was built by aliens etc is but one example. Telling stories is an integral part of the human world, often as a way of teaching morals and histories, the difference between right and wrong. Thus, whilst some might dismiss folklore as simply fantastical stories they do provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of our ancestors, helping us to understand the past in different ways, to give the past color and multiple facets.