Dutt, Markstones of East Anglis, Web section 3


Magical Properties.

The most interesting old boulders and standing stones are those with traditions attaching to them, or properties popularly attributed to them suggestive of the nature of the original purposes or worship of such objects. The two Cairngorm stones were resorted to as efficacious in preventing barrenness, and that at Burghead, Elgin, was visited as recently as the eighteenth century by women about to become mothers, and was said to give forth sounds like “a rocking cradle and a crying child.” This last mentioned stone is now built into a churchyard wall. According to {18} legend, the Stone of Fail, better known as the Stone of Destiny, uttered a human cry when touched by the rightful king of Erin.* When trodden on by King Conn it is said to have shrieked so loudly as to be heard throughout Bregia (East Meath). On the island of Fladda Chuain a blue stone fixed to the church altar was washed by the local fishermen to ensure fine weather, while the fishermen of Iona, by touching a pillar-shaped rock three times, and at the same time invoking the Trinity, gained skill and accuracy in steering boats. Giraldus Cambrensis relates a story in which a Welsh woman, who had a quarrel with Henry II, appealed to a “speaking stone” for vengeance.

*The original King’s Bench was a large stone at the east end of Westminster Hall, on which the Saxon kings were lifted when passing from the palace to the abbey. Swedish kings were inaugurated on a stone said to mark the grave of Odin, near Upsala.

Early legend attributed the erection of the monoliths, dolmens and stone circles to a race of giants. The Giant’s Staff is a Cornish menhir; the stone in Bungay Churchyard is the Giant’s Grave, and folk tales explain the presence of other megaliths to their being cast or dropped there by giants or the Devil. In view of what we know of the origin of the race responsible for the introduction of the megalithic culture into these islands, it is interesting to note that according to tradition the huge stones now forming Stonehenge were brought to Ireland from Africa by the giants who first colonized that country and were venerated on account of their miraculous virtues, “for any water in which they were bathed became a sovereign remedy either for sickness or for wounds.” Their removal from Ireland to England and erection on Salisbury Plain was attributed to a British king, Aurelius. The familiar stories of how early saints voyaged to and fro between Brittany and Britain on slabs of stone, or in stone boats, are also significant of the magical qualities with which sacred stones were credited.

Some of the magical properties attributed to standing stones and boulders are difficult to account for owing to the indefiniteness of our knowledge of the prehistoric rites with which these stones were {19} associated; but the similarity of these attributes in all parts of the country seems to signify that these rites, or the beliefs in which they originated, were identical or similar in different districts. For instance, Mr. W. Fowler, of Beccles, informs the writer that for generations mothers have told children that two stones, lying outside a barn at Sheringham, “when they hear the cock crow run across the road,” while Mr. Watkins asserts that a monolith known as the Whetstone, standing on the Hergist Ridge in Herefordshire, is said “to go down to a brook to drink when it hears the cock crow,” and that the Four Stones at New Radnor are reputed to go down to Hindwell Pool to drink when they hear the sound of Old Radnor bells. Similar stories are told by the peasants of Brittany about the local menhirs and dolmens. In Norfolk it is recorded that a Dole Stone in Flegg Hundred* was reputed to come down regularly from its hedgerow to drink at the nearest water. At Lowestoft a similar story attaches to a mass of stones, cemented together, preserved just within the entrance to Belle Vue Park, and which traditionally formed part of the foundations of an ancient beacon tower. Mr. C. G. Chambers relates that when he was a boy “every boy in Lowestoft believed that this heap of stones flew down to the sea and had a dip as soon as the Town Hall clock struck twelve. It was supposed to start at the first stroke of the clock and be back by the twelfth stroke.” In a lane near Debenham, Suffolk, a large boulder goes by the name of the Groaning Stone, for “when it hears Debenham’s church clock strike the magic hour of midnight it turns over and groans.” South Lopham possesses an Ox-foot Stone, owing its name to a mark on it, which is traditionally said to be the impression of the hoof of a cow (!) that came ‘regularly to be milked by the poor inhabitants during a long period of dearth.†

*Eastern Counties Collectanea, p. 3.

†At the gate of Capena, in Tuscany, thete was a stone … which was dragged forth in seasons of drought to cause rain.” Maclagan, Our Ancestors, p. 291.

Most of these and other similar stories told about standing stones and ancient boulders are, it seems, difficult to account for, unless we agree that they are {20} distorted versions of primitive facts or debilitated survivals of primitive beliefs. Many of them probably had their origin in times when sacrifices, both human and animal, were made to pagan deities either on or before such stones. The later, and even recent, sacrifices known to have been made on some of them in this country, and on the continent of Europe, appear to have been made for the purpose of obtaining like benefits to those desired by the Irish worshippers of Cromm Cruaich, while the view that human victims were acceptable to the pagan gods survived long after the introduction of Christianity. Indeed, a remarkable passage quoted by Mr. W. A. Craigie in his Religion of Ancient Scandinavia makes it clear that in Iceland the earliest Christians themselves were prepared to make such sacrifices. “The heathens,” they said, “sacrifice the worst men, and cast them over rocks and cliffs; but we shall choose the best men, and call it a gift for victory to our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Scots fishermen who brought out their sacred stone and “washed” it in order to gain good fortune at sea; the pouring of wine into a hollow in a Somersetshire stone at which the Hundred Court of Stone met; the groaning and crying out of famous stones; the slaughtering of the ram on the stone at Holney; the supposed bleeding of pricked stones; the custom of depositing food on ancient megaliths; the common and widespread story concerning the partiality of such stones for bathing or drinking, and the hours, midnight or sunrise, at which stone ceremonies took place or magical movements are said to be performed—all these things seem to point to early sacrificial associations, of which the dancing round the stones was part of the ritual. We must guard, however, against assuming that every old boulder of which such tales are told must necessarily be a pagan idol, symbol or sacrificial stone,, for the early movements of people, the destruction or concealment of pagan stones, and a natural human tendency to attribute the powers believed to be possessed by certain stones to other similar ones, may easily have led to superstitions originating in prehistoric times becoming associated with Saxon boundary stones or even, as appears to be the case with the Lowestoft stones, {21} with what is probably a fragment of an old beacon tower.

A common and widespread folk story about churches and humanly set up stones being built or set up in the daytime and removed by the Devil to a different site during the night dates, it is generally agreed, from the days when there was strong pagan opposition to the erection of Christian churches on pagan sacred sites, and to the removal of the sacred stones from such sites. This was the difficulty that—as has already been explained—was got over in many instances by the consecration of the pagan stones or the embedding of them in the walls of churches. Bede records that the inhabitants of Northumbria, even after they had accepted Christianity, shrank from incurring the hostility of the old deities by destroying their temples. Redwald, King of East Anglia, is said to have kept two altars in the temple in which he worshipped, one for the worship of the grim idol of his forefathers and the other for that of the true God. The folk story about the removal of the stones by the Devil does not appear to occur in Norfolk or Suffolk, but it has long been told to account for the standing of Syleham Church practically on the marsh level.

In Lincolnshire there are at least two famous stones of which similar stories are told. At Anwick, near Sleaford, the Drake Stone is said to cover a vast board of treasure. Several people tried unsuccessfully to remove the stone, and when a team of horses was yoked to it the chains broke and the Devil appeared in the form of a drake and flew off in a cloud of smoke. After this the stone became haunted by imps, and one night it disappeared, digging operations having caused water to rise and cover it. Eventually it was recovered and is still to be seen. This story may be compared with the one told about the big boulder at Merton, Norfolk, the removal of which, it is said, would cause the waters to rise and cover the whole earth. The other Lincolnshire boulder, Fonaby Stone Sack, is reported to have been removed by a farmer, with the aid of twelve horses; but following upon its removal he experienced such bad luck that he was {22} glad to return it to its original position, and, although the return journey was uphill, one horse was able to perform the task.

Holed Megaliths.

The magical properties of holed megaliths have often been referred to by writers on these prehistoric monuments, and the powers attributed to them were in some degree extended to pebbles with holes in them. The larger holed stones were sometimes known as “swearing stones,” and it is suggested that they were associated with early marriage rites.* In Cornwall, Ireland and elsewhere children were passed through holed stones to be cured of various ailments, while in the case of adults it sufficed if the linen clothes of the sick person were passed through the holes. An East Anglian survival of this belief is found in the hanging up of a holed flint in stable or cow-shed, to prevent witches from hag-riding the horses or injuring the cows. In Antrim a holed pebble is hung round the cow’s neck.

*The dancing and nuptial associations of megaliths are well illustrated by the familiar story told of the Devil piping for the wedding party at midnight in one of the stone circles at Stanton Drew, in Somersetshire. Notes and Queries, vol. iv, p. 3.

In Ireland, in recent years, pilgrimages have been made, not only to sacred wells, but also to standing stones, around which the pilgrims crawled on hands and knees “westward as the sun travels … until their voluntary penances were completely fulfilled.”† In some instances there is evidence of the “lucky” properties of pagan stones becoming transferred to the altars of the early Christian churches. In Anglesey, which is well known to have been the headquarters of a powerful pagan cult at the time when the soldiers of Paulinus had to face its Bacchantic torch-bearing women as well as its fighting men, it is not so very long since it was believed that to get under the altar of St. Hilary’s Church by means of an open panel was to ensure life during the coming year; while in Iona the marble altar was entirely destroyed by fragments being used to safeguard against shipwreck.

†Beatham, Gael and Cymbri, pp. 236–8.


Ritual Dancing.

Among well-known megaliths are Spinster’s Rock, many Bridestones and Merry Maidens, and a Stone Dance. The last two names are especially significant in view of the dancing known to have taken place around many such stones, usually on May Day and at midnight—evidently a folk-survival of pagan ritual dancing. The famous Yorkshire Rudstone, standing in a churchyard, may very well derive its name from a Celtic word signifying frisking, capering or whirling about. St. Samson, we are told, found the Cornish natives dancing round a table stone, and he marked it with a cross and let it stand—a proceeding quite understandable when we remember the size and weight of the ordinary dolmen capstone. The tradition of dancing round the Druid’s Stone in Bungay Churchyard has already been mentioned. When it last occurred, and why it ceased, appears not to be known; but at Moncontour, near St. Malo, the bishop had to issue a special statute forbidding dancing in the churchyard there. The dancing, in later times, appears to have given place to processions round ancient wells, buildings and other objects held to be sacred. At Blessin, the women of Cancale, when their fathers, husbands, brothers or sweethearts are late in returning from the oversea fisheries, pace with lighted candies round the little chapel of St. Charles, “commencing always on the side whence the home-bound breeze should come.” In Norfolk and Suffolk it is still believed by many girls that if any one of them walks alone three times round a churchyard at midnight, she will see the man whom she is destined to marry. This is very significant in view of the nature of the midnight revels recorded to have taken place around well-known megaliths in France and other countries in mediæval times, in spite of the denunciations of the local priests.

On the Ordnance Survey maps a Skipping Block—a name suggestive of dancing—is still marked on the borders of the parishes of Barnham Broom and Kimberley, and the Rev. J. E. P. Bartlett, rector of Barnham Broom, states that old inhabitants of the neighbourhood remember having heard of a large {24} stone standing there, and which was used as a mounting-block and had been cut into steps for that purpose. Such a use of it, however, does not seem to account for its name, and its being an ancient parish boundary mark indicates considerable antiquity. At North Thoresby, Lincolnshire, in a field called Bound-Croft, a large blue stone at which the manor court was held was, in the early part of the last century, the centre around which, on fair day, games were played.

Alignment of Ancient Stones.

The contention of Mr. A. Watkins that many of the ancient mark-stones so plentifully scattered over Britain prove, on investigation, to be in alignment with other similar stones, as well as with other sites of early occupation or importance, has led to his theory being tested by many observers in different parts of the country with results that have surprised most of them. The sites and objects with which the stones align include early camps, artificial mounds and other earthworks, old fords, beacon hills, moats, sacred wells and churches—the last-named, in many instances, probably built on pagan sacred sites. Mr. Watkins believes that the evidence is strong enough to prove that these alignments or “leys” are of very early date and that they indicate the former existence of straight trackways which could have been made only by a people among whom there were men specially skilled in “sighting” such alignments.

The whole matter is of great interest—how great can be fully appreciated only by those acquainted with the vast amount of information found in Mr. Watkins’s book, The Old Straight Track.

It is mentioned here because, although familiar mark-stones are comparatively few in Norfolk and Suffolk, two of the best known of them, Stockton Stone and Harleston Stone, appear to provide evidence corroborative of the alignment theory. A straight line drawn from Harleston Stone to Stockton Stone on the one inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map is found to pass directly through a remarkable moated pond at Earsham, called the Lay, onward to an earthwork enclosure on Bungay Common, thence to {25} a similar enclosure with tumuli on Broome Heath, over Longford Bridge (across a small tributary of the Waveney between Broome and Ellingham) and, after passing over the site of Stockton Stone, continues straight on to the artificial mount known as Bell Hill and beyond it to the elevated site of Belton Church.

It will be agreed that in a district where mark-stones are few and far between it can hardly be by accident that the two most noteworthy of them—both of acknowledged antiquity—should align with three of the very few ancient earthworks of the neighbourhood, with an ancient ford and with a pond unlike any other in the Eastern Counties, in that it consists of a pool some acres in extent almost entirely surrounded by a moat. This pond lies in a natural basin, the sloping sides of which are strewn with Neolithic flint flakes, and the site is one of the most likely ones to provide an enterprising antiquary with traces of lake-dwellings similar to those discovered in the Breckland meres. The artificial mount known as Bell Hill is one of the unexplained mysteries of the district. With too small a summit ever to have been a castle mound, and yet larger than any tumulus in Norfolk and Suffolk, it seems possible that like Bel Tor on Dartmoor, the Baal Hills in Yorkshire and other “Bell” sites, this peculiar mount may have been a scene of the ancient ceremonies of Beltaine connected with fire worship. I hazard the conjecture that it may be accountable for the stone-marked alignment between it and the moated site known as the Lay.

Investigators of the ley theory have found that in many parts of Britain where ancient mark-stones are numerous similar alignments are traceable; but in East Anglia, where there are few such stones now in evidence, it is not often easy to arrive at definite conclusions concerning them, owing to the difficulty of working on one inch to the mile maps large enough to make alignments clearly obvious. Many mark-stones have undoubtedly become hidden from sight by roadside banks being so commonly used for the dumping of road scrapings. In this connection if is interesting to record that a friend of the writer was able to discover three such hidden boulders by means of ley-tracings on maps, and subsequently visiting spots where he believed the stones might be {26} found. The instructions given to the early Christian priests to hide the pagan sacred stones, no doubt led to many such stones being buried out of sight.