The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

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St. Kilda

"....I pointed to the slope of Oiseval that rears up into the sky like a great snub-nosed whale, cut off cleanly by the cliffs all around. The turf there was poor and thin, studded with humps of stone cleits that looked in the distance like barnacles on the head of a leaping whale. So I told them all that Oiseval had indeed once been a giant whale, far, far bigger than any that the Norway men leave in the bay to take to Bunavoneader in Harris. How the giant whale came to St.Kilda meaning to eat up little Stack Leveish, but Herta saw the whale just in time and cast a spell from the waters of the hill of blessings and just as the whale rose up it was turned into stone, its great open jaws turned to cliffs. Grass grew on its back, and the sheep went up there to graze, but if you looked sideways with your eyes hal closed you could still see the barnacles on its back and the shape of its big head when it opened its mouth wide.
"I can se it, I can see" said Callum and the others were agreeing.
"And one day a year, you must be careful not to climb it, for it will turn back to a whale eat anyone who climbs it." ..."

Passage taken from 'The Lost Lights of St.Kilda' by Elisabeth Gifford

Knowe of Lairo (Chambered Cairn)

From "Wisdom of the Ancients" by Neil Oliver

Rousay locals have mostly never been inside the tombs. They say when you grow up surrounded by them, the tombs are of no more interest that the ruined, abandoned cottages that also dot the fields. I think this is just what they say to strangers. I think it is more likely those folk were raised to respect the tombs, maybe to fear ghosts so kept their distance. As recently as 1911 an Orkney farmer reported how he had been digging into a burial mound on his farm when there appeared beside at his side an old man, grey-bearded, in tattered clothes. He had a warning for the farmer:

“Thou are working thy own ruin, believe me, fellow, for if thou does any more work, thou will regret it when it is too late. Take my word, fellow, stop working in my house, for if thou doesn’t, mark my work fellow, if thou takes another shuleful, mark my word, thy will have six of thy cattle dying in thy corn-yard at one time. And if thou goes on doing any more work, fellow – mark my word, fellow, thou will have six funerals from the house; does thy mark my word: good-day fellow."

According to the tale, the deaths of six cattle duly follow and the funerals of six members of the household.

Dunadd (Sacred Hill)

Old chestnuts, the Stone of Destiny and Scotia, came up as they often do. We have a little history to work with and a bit of archaeology to go on . . .
The foundation stone or rock of faith is the point where ascension takes place in Christianity and Islam. They routinely have a footstep in them.
However, this is much older - Scotia is a personification of the Cailleach, properly translated as the Veiled One. We find her at Callanish in 2,600 BC and Callanish was part of the ancient Orcadian civilisation at Ness of Brodgar. Brodgar is built from stones brought from all the islands in the manner of a Moot Hill where stones or soil were carried by nobles to medieval coronations such as Robert I's.
The community or land is brought together/ assembled, then it is built up . . . all of which connects to early Scottish sovereignty where the people and the land are considered indivisible. The king marries the land at coronation in an act of epiphany wedding the community together and building upon that through the road to Damascus connect . . . the laying down of a pillow/ stone which in early translations becomes pillows using the same platform and ladder/ tree metaphors as in the biblical tale.
So we have an original Scottish Stone of Destiny in place at Dunadd and an earlier model of the same concepts going much further back. Consequently, we can consider the Stone of Destiny, (in it's Christianised form Foundation Stone or Rock of Faith), as largely an investiture in a system of understandings and beliefs, a philosophy. This investiture is expressed in the actions of bringing together 'the land' or assembling 'stones' to form a Stone of Destiny, which can then be stacked/ raised upwards.

From Scottish Media Lab.

Papa Westray

Like other wells and springs in Orkney, it is likely that the traditions surrounding St Tredwell’s Loch had their roots in pagan custom – practices that were christianised when the site was taken over by the church.
Archaeological evidence shows that the chapel was built on top of a mound containing a complex of prehistoric buildings that may include an Iron Age broch and earth-house.
We know the significance of bodies of water to the prehistoric people of Orkney, so it seems likely that the original figure of veneration was a pagan goddess, or spirit, possibly associated with fertility or healing.
The long-established customs surrounding the loch and the island within were subsequently absorbed by the church, who then adapted to incorporate the figure of St Tredwell as the popularity of her cult grew and reached Orkney towards the end of the 12th century..
There is one strange snippet of folklore surrounding the loch that is particularly intriguing. It was said that the loch’s waters would turn blood red as a presage to a “disaster” befalling the “Royal family”.

There are numerous similar examples of “prophetic” wells throughout Scotland – with some turning to blood, others rising or simply making noises to signify a forthcoming event.

Regarding St Tredwell’s Loch, the significance of the “Royal family”, however, has been lost. But Rev Brand had no doubts:

“As for this Loch’s appearing like Blood, before any disasture befal the Royal Family, as some do report, we could find no ground to believe any such thing.”

The Western Isles

In his book ‘Behold the Hebrides’, Alastair Alpin MacGregor (1925) explains how the people of the Hebrides are surrounded by the sea and it though the sea is part of them and they are part of the sea. He says it was known as well as though it were a member of their own family and that to them the sea spoke in Gaelic. He says they listened to what it said and from this they prophesied good and bad fortune, at home and abroad, and how by its sounds and moods they could tell what weather was coming. There was the ‘laughing of the waves’ – ‘gair nann tonn / gair na mara’ and sometimes this laughter would be mocking and derisive when a storm had risked life and feeble humans had struggled to survive it. He also describes the laughing of waves across a great stretch of sand on Lewis in calm and frosty weather as being “weird and eerie”.
In the Hebrides there are many descriptions of the sounds and moods of the sea. Here are a few of them.
Nualan na mara – sounds like the lowing of cattle
Buaireas na mara – restless sea
Gearan na mara – complaining or fretting sea
Mire na mara – joy and cheerfulness of sea
Osnadh – sighing of sea, like the breeze through pine and larch at nightfall
Caoidh na mara – lament of the sea.

He says that sometimes the sea is totally still and silent as though it sleeps, and the people nearby are lulled into sleep also; and he says that people who live by the sea derive their vision from it.

Martin Martin, writing of the Western Isles in 1695 says of the inhabitants of one of the small, then inhabited, islands round Lewis, that they took their surname from the colour of the sky, the rainbow and the clouds.

Source: ‘Mother of the Isles’ by Jill Smith

Laggangarn (Standing Stones)

These stones are mentioned by Sara Maitland in her book "Gossip From The Forest - The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales" in her chapter on Purgatory Wood. She relates their dark history as a a non-native spruce plantation and associations with Pugatory Burn which marked the western boundary of a nearby leper colony.

"The track I took into the Purgatory Wood meets the Southern Upland Way as it climbs up from New Luce, and a single path crossed the Purgatory Burn and runs eastward to Laggangairn ... and then beyond it to the Laggangairn standing stones - the last vestiges of a Bronze Age stone circle, carved with eighth century christian graffiti left by the pilgrims to St Ninians shrine at Whithorn"

St. Kilda

Apparently the native people of St Kilda had developed a genetically inherited elongated big toe that let the men cling more easily to the cracks in the rocks. On one side of the island is the Mistress Stone where marriageable men had to balance on one leg - on the edge of a 300 ft drop - to prove their agility on the rocks and their ability to support a family.

Source: "West Coast" by Kate Muir

The Great Circle, North East Circle & Avenues (Stone Circle)

Taken from Aubrey Burl's book "John Aubrey & Stone Circles".

(As a 12 year old John Aubrey spent time playing around Stanton Drew)

The chaos told the young Aubrey nothing.
Village gossip offered explanations. Some slabs were so ponderous that no man could have raised them. They were the work of giants. The name of one of them was known, Hackwell. He had been so strong that he had thrown an immensely heavy stone from a distant hill and it landed over a mile away on that ridge on the skyline just above the circles. There were rumours claiming Hackwell was so famous that he was buried in the nearby church at Chew Magna.

Others added a warning. The boy should never try to count the stones. It was impossible anyway because of the jumble but if anyone did reach the right number that person would suffer great misfortune, maybe even death for interfering in what was best left alone.

Another superstition relates how, on the sixth day of the full moon, at midnight, the stones walk down to the river to take a drink. But the best known whimsy, probably celebrated from Puritan pulpits as justifiable punishment for profaning the Sabbath, was that the stones were the petrified remains of a wedding party that had sinned.

A fiddler and his accompanists had played merry jigs for the dancers until Saturday midnight when, of course, the merry-making had to stop before Sunday began. Defiantly, the young bride refused to abandon her pleasure. She, her husband and all their guests would dance on. Midnight came.

The fiddler vanished. The Devil flashed, flared into the night. Everyone, bride, groom, parson, dancers, musicians, all of them instantly became stones wherever they were. And there they remain.

Superstitiously apprehensive locals told Aubrey that the sinners were still to be seen. Three stones by the church were the solidified bride, groom and parson. In the fields the rings were the rigid remnants of the dancers. The avenues were the tumbled lines of musicians.

The tale-tellers said that the fate of those wicked merry makers had been observed that dreadful night by horrified bystanders and had been remembered ever since in this neighbourhood.

“That a Bride goeing to be married, she and the rest of the company were metamorphos’d into these stones: but whether it were true or not they told me they could not tell.”

Reminiscing years later John Aubrey mused:

“I know that some will nauseate these old fables; but I do professe to regard to regard them as the most considerable pieces of [‘observable’ inserted] of Antiquity’ …. After all, was not Lot’s wife turned turned into a pillar of salt”

It would be almost another thirty years before he was experienced enough to see the devilish stones with a more sceptical archaeological eye. He was living in a superstitious world.

Alderley Edge (Ancient Mine / Quarry)

"The Wierdstone of Brisingamen" by Alan Garner is now out in its 50th anniversary edition.
Am reading for the first time - magical and scary. Great escapism for those journeys on public transport.


A Jar of Honey
by George Mackay Brown

A woman came from every house that morning to the croft of Scar. Slowly, like holy women, they moved through the fields. Seven men stood at the end of the byre of Scar: five young men, an old man, a boy. The oat fields were yellow, gulls dipped and squabbled over the mackerel in the bay. The men stood outside the ceremony, unwanted and useless. One of the young men shared the holy look of the women, but he too was outside their ceremony. The other men did not have a thing to say to him. They kept turning away from him. He stood there in a double isolation. A woman with huge hands and a face like stone crossed the fields, Bella of Windbeck. She walked slowly, by herself. The door of Scar opened and shut on this priestess. Now it was noon. The men at the end of the byre smoked their pipes, all but the lonely one. Once the boy chased a butterfly with a shout but the old man checked him and the boy sat down at a fissure in the wall, watching bees oozing in and out. A girl, an acolyte, crossed over to the burn from Scar for water. With a pure white look on her she passed the men and returned, silent and intent, a heavy brimming pail at each side of her. Another woman came out for peats, her arms red from the flame. The sun dragged through the afternoon like an ox through furrows. Suddenly the water girl stood in the open door of Scar, her arms wild circles. 'Simon!' she cried. 'Come now.' The young man turned his burnished face to the house. He wouldn't move. He was afraid of the elemental women inside there, with their water and fire, the terrible priestess and her servers, swaddlers, shrouders, guardians of the gate of birth and the gate of death. He couldn't move. The other young men were laughing all around him now. They laid earth-coloured hands on him. They buffered him gently. They turned his face towards the open door. Two of them walked with him, one at each side, to the threshold. He went inside alone. The boy sat at the end of the wall, gray wax at his mouth, his fingers threaded with honey. The old man knocked out his pipe, spat, lifted six creels from the wall, and slowly walked down to the boats.
A young man lifted scythe from the end of the barn. He began to whet it on a red stone.
The gate of life had been opened.
Between that and the dark gate where the fish and the fleece and the loaf, the oil jars and the jars of salt and the jars of grain, and the one small jar of honey.

Long Stone (Staunton) (Standing Stone / Menhir)

Taken from D.P. Sullivan's "Old Stones of the Cotswolds & Forest of Dean" (Reardon Publishing)

A note from Mr J.C. Wood (Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society vi., 1881-2 357), quoted by Crawford says ..
"The first halting place was at a remarkable monolith by the side of the highway ... This monolith is of unhewn stone, and stands 8ft above the ground, and probably is as deep beneath it. It is known as the 'Long Stone'. No tradition conserning it remains except if it be pricked by a pin exactly at midnight, it will bleed."

There are no visible traces of an associated mound or any other stones in the vicinity. Ray Wright quotes a source from 1857 telling of a carving of a mask on the side of the stone facing the road. I have been unable to find this piece of Victorian vandalism, but have, by photographic accident, noticed a bizarre simulacrum on the side of the stone facing towards Staunton. In the right conditions it is possible to discern the image of a human form on the surface of the stone, with arms outstretched in the manner of a crucifixion.

The Long Stone forms the important centre point of Ray Wright's 'Leyline Cross', as described in Secret Forest.

(D.P. Sullivan)

Wayland's Smithy (Long Barrow)

In his book 'Villages of the White Horse' Alfred Williams writes about the legend of Wayland or Weland, the invisible smith who dwelt in the cave known as Wayland's Smithy. His forge was hidden far under ground and legend has it if a traveller wanted his horse shod and left some money by the entrance when he returned later he would find the horse newly shod. A well known legend; Alfred Williams adds to it this passage:

"One day old Wayland lost his temper and gave a thrilling proof of his mighty strength, striking fear into the folks of the countryside round about. Running short of nails, he sent his favourite imp, Flibbertigibbert, down the valley to obtain some from the other blacksmiths, and bade him to make haste about it, as a horse was waiting outside to be shod. After waiting several hours he looked out from the cave and saw the imp had yielded to the temptations of a mortal and gone bird-nesting in the fields, forgetful of the nails. Thereupon Wayland, fell into a passion, snatched a big round stone, used as an anvil, and threw it at the loiterer, two miles off; the stone shot through the air with a loud whizzing noise and, falling short of the mark, nevertheless slid along the ground and struck the imp on the foot retaining the mark of his heel on one side. Thereupon the imp appeared to the astonished rustics, limping and snivelling and rubbing his eyes with his fist, so they called the spot Snivelling Corner, and the name remains to this day."

Alfred Williams goes on to say "Others think the 'heel' on the stone at Snivelling Corner may be a clue to its true significance as a 'heol stone' or sun stone from 'heelios'. Greek for sun."

Source: "Villages of the White Horse" by Alfred Williams (first published 1913)

Uffington White Horse (Hill Figure)

The Scouring of the White Horse

Historian, Brian Edwards' paper *'The Scouring of the White Horse' – published in the 2005 WANHS magazine, has a section on the scouring of Uffington White Horse which proved of great interest. The Revels, a two day festival of rustic games, backswording, wrestling, sack races and pole climbing, was held as a precursor to the scouring. However, the last scouring and games to took place in 1857.

*Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's Schooldays) wrote a novel in 1859 called The Scouring of the White Horse.

The last chapter of Alfred Williams book Villages of the White Horse (first published 1913) is also about the about Uffington, the White Horse and the last games that took place in 1857. He too drew on Thomas Hughes' original work for his information but although he says that nearly all who took part are now dead he managed to find an eye witness account in the person of Old William Reeves of Shrivenham who was by then nearly 90.

"Old William with his picturesque red woollen waistcoat, red knitted cuffs and head slightly inclined, is delighted to talk about the Revels, though he admits there was a little "blaggardness" sometimes, and sundry small accidents; as when, in the cart-horse race, a big mare stumbled and fell on her rider, killing him on the spot; and again after the pig hunt, how five competitors claimed the prize, and killed the poor pig in contending as to which should have it; and how thieves broke into the booths and carried off all the taking, and other suchlike happenings."

Very descriptive and possibly clues as to why it was abandoned.

Aghnacliff (Portal Tomb)

A verse taken from poem by Tom Murtagh
"My Loved Colmcille"

"When I think of it now sure my memory recalls
Pulliness, Pullaveeny, the lonely Four Walls;
The stately old Cromlech, och! oft I was told
It was lofted at ease by giants of old.
The hill by the church where we climbed long ago
To view the wide world in the valleys below,
Little homes and boreens and the rivers that spill
In the sylvan lagoon of my loved Colmcille"

Source: "A path through Colmcille", compiled by Owen Denneny
Passionate about:
Nature; stone circles and all ancient sites that involve walking through unspoilt countryside/being near the sea; islands around the the British Isles, especially those with ancient monuments.

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