Folklore Fridays return with the tale of Torhouskie Cairn (Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland).
Grinsell highlights this site as one example of how locals believed that disturbing archaeological remains also disturbed the ancient spirits that dwelt in them.
During the 19th century the cist slab from one of the cairns close to the Tourhouse Stone Circle (pictured) was removed and used to cover a water conduit. Following the slab’s reuse, numerous people claimed to have seen a light moving in the darkness, travelling from the cairn – along the route the slab had been taken – to its new resting place. Locals were then afraid to disturb or open any more tombs. However, subsequent generations seem to have been less fearful, as the RCAHMS website notes that very little remains of the cairn as “most of it has been removed to build walls”.
The stone circle itself is also associated with a piece of folklore, with the three largest stones being referred to as King Gauldus’s Tomb – this association going back to 1672. King Gauldus, or Galdus is a mythical Scottish King, who is allegedly also buried at Cairn Holy II (also in Dumfries and Galloway).
The Historic Scotland website notes that the Torhouse stone circle is of Bronze Age date and is somewhat out of place in SW Scotland, having more in common with the recumbent stone circles of NE Scotland.
Before I leave the Rollright Stones behind me for a while, I want to mention Penelope Lively and her book The Whispering Knights. First published in 1971, this story tells of three children who accidenlty awaken the dormant spirit of Morgan le Fay.
The culminating sequence of the story takes place at Hampden Stones, a fictional site based on the Rollrights. Lively draws on the idea of the stones as a returning army. One of the characters (in best Costswold-country-speak) retells the legend for the children:
“You know the old story. They say as how the Stones were Knights in the old days, and they fought a great battle with a bad queen, and they won, and now they sits there there to protect the valley, like.” (Lively, 1971, 77)
Fortunately for the children who have called up Morgan le Fay, the Knights prove willing to do battle once more. they also privide refuge for the children as the fierce battle goes on above and around them.
For an in depth discussion of Penelope Lively’s writing for children, along side other greats of her era, find yourself a copy of Dr C Butler’s book Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper.
There will be future features on Penelope Lively and other children’s writers on Prehistories.
Not content with having Countless Stones and people turned to stone, the Rollrights are also associated with the following stories, all suggestive of the stones animacy and possible apotropaic qualities.
They’re Alive! The stones are said to be able to move of their own accord. One account clains that they once went down to drink from a brook at 12 – at the very start of the New Year. In the early 1900s they suddenly aquired the ability to move whenever they heard the Long Compton Clock strike the chimes at midnight.
Dangerous to Move. When a tall stone from the King’s Men was taken to create a bridge over a stream, the tenant who moved it could not rest until it was returned to its rightful place. An elaborated version of this story tells how four horses and a wagon were needed to drag it down hill, and two men were killed in the process! Only one horse was needed to drag it back uphill on its return.
Talismans. Although moving whole stones was bad luck, chipping off small bits of stone was a common practice, as people believed that fragments of stone could keep the Devil away.
This is my version of the Rollright Stones legend. For other versions and variations see Grinsell or Simpson and Roud.
The Rollright Stones
“All the land?” asked the king.
“All the land,” said the woman. “All the kingdoms in all the land.”
“And I would rule them?”
“You and only you.”
“Can you do it? Why should you do it?”
“I am tired of all the fighting. Kingdom on kingdom. Crops spoiled, peace shattered. Men dying.” She leant on her staff of elder wood and shook her head.
“What do I need to do?”
“Walk, my king. Walk to the brow of the hill in seven strides, and if you can see the village of Long Compton all the kingdoms will be yours.”
“If I can’t see the village?”
“The spell will fail and you will have to go to battle.”
The king stepped away, went to talk with his men. Told them they would stop for a while. They sat, glad to rest, glad to be still. They were tired, he thought. Unfit for more fighting.
A stone’s throw away, a group of knights stood in conversation. The king knew what they planned. Treachery. Betrayal. In truth his rule was over, the battle already lost. He risked losing nothing.
He returned to the spellmaker.
“Seven strides?” he asked.
“Seven, my king. And I will walk with you.”
The king set his sights on the brow of the hill. It seemed an easy thing to walk there and see the village in the valley below. Thinking again of the battle that awaited him, he gathered his energy and took a step forward.
One, two, three four… The king gained speed, covering great reaches of land with each stride.
Five, six… The woman, the witch, somehow kept pace with him – even reached the crest of the hill before him.
Just before he reached the rise, just before he took the final step and gained the view, the woman struck her staff into the ground. The earth shook, trembled, and a great mound rose before the king blocking all his view.
Seven. His foot hit the ground. He had failed. He stood a moment, rooted to the ground. Tricked. Despairing.
The woman was talking.
“You will have to fight, my king, but not now. You are needed another day.”
She struck her staff again, and even as the king thought to turn, to vent his anger at being tricked, he felt his legs become heavy, felt them sink into the ground. He felt his body stiffen, felt his arms cling to his sides, felt his breath fail him. Finally, he felt the human world fall away. His desire for power and victory evaporated. All he cared for was the touch of the wind and the call of the skylark high above him.
The woman smiled.
“Rest, king,” she said. “You and your soldiers and your scheming knights. Rest well.” She looked down to where his men stood – stiff and stone-bound like their leader.
“Rest, and I will watch over you until your time comes and you are called to arms once more.”
She struck her staff into the ground a third time and felt herself twist and become part of the wood. She felt her fingers spread into bare twigs, felt her blood turn to sap.
An elder tree on the brow of the hill, she stood and waited.