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Ritual and relic

Words by Rosie Cattrell

Woven into the tapestry of Cornwall’s legendary landscapes are locally treasured sites that guide us back to an ancient past.

The view from Chysauster Ancient Village © Amateur with a Camera

While shining shorelines and rugged coastal vistas are the gleaming attractions that frame this far-flung edge of earth that we at DRIFT are so grateful to call home, there is a hidden way just off the beaten path into the very heart of Cornwall that many have long forgotten.

Out of the mist that hovers above heather strewn moorland and hidden amongst the branches and tangled roots of lichen encrusted woodlands are age-old tales laced with morals and ancient ceremony that haunt Cornish lands, drawing us back through a multi-faceted heritage to a time of ritual and superstition. Scattered throughout the county are steadfast relics of a time long passed that still draw onlookers from around the country, preserved in mystery over thousands of years from a period of Cornish history that is near impossible for us to comprehend. From circular stones said to cure the sick to folk tales that have lasted through the ages to heed a warning to any who come across these stoic remnants, these sites represent the very beginning of the county we all adore, and each tell a story all their own.

Left: A glimpse through an ancient aperture © Linda | Right: Men-An-Tol © Paul Gorbould

Just outside the parish of Morvah, in an area designated as being historically and ecologically valuable as well as being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, sits one of the best-known megalithic structures in Britain, quiet and resplendent. Men-An-Tol, Cornish for ‘holed stone’ or ‘stone of the hole’, is believed to date as far back as the Bronze Age, and has the potential to be over 3,500 years old. Made up of four stones, the beautifully unusual granite ring sits upright in between two standing pillars, with a third lying flat beside them, making for a particularly rare sighting with the only other holed stone in Cornwall being the Tolvan Stone near Gweek. No one knows how the hole was formed in the rock, or what its exact purpose was, but an aura of sacred mystery and otherworldliness surrounds the stone as you gaze through the ancient aperture at the landscapes that might’ve gone before and wonder who else has crossed this mystic threshold. The site has generated a wealth of folklore and tradition that attracts visitors to try their hand at stepping through the stone to this day. Men-An-Tol, known to some as the ‘Devil’s Eye’, is renowned for a miraculous ability to supposedly cure certain ailments, particularly rickets in children, and it is said that infants would be passed through the hole to ease their suffering. It is also rumoured to have been able to provide an alternative cure for ‘scrofulous’, otherwise known as ‘Kings evil’, an illness apparently only curable by the touch of the reigning monarch, and its reputation for remedying back problems earned it the nickname ‘crick stone’. Stones like this are said to have been seen as a charm against witchcraft or ill wishing, and could even be used as a tool to determine the future: if two brass pins are laid crosswise on top of one another on the stone, they will move independently of external intervention in accordance with the question asked by the reader, or so the legend goes. This ancient stone clearly played a huge role in the functioning of the local residents, and lay at the heart of an age-old community who may have looked to sites like this for guidance in times of hardship.

The Merry Maidens stone circle © Frans Schouwenburg

Set in stone in an eternal dance © SouthWest Lowlife

Another Cornish site renowned for its beauty and local folklore lies not far away in a gently sloping field between Lamorna and St Buryan, with a story attached that throws an eerie veil over an enchanting scene. The Merry Maidens of Boleigh are thought to date back to somewhere between the late stone age to the early Bronze Age, and each of the 19 pieces of granite remain in a perfectly spaced and circular formation, a rarity in stone circles in Cornwall. Standing in the centre of a circle that pre-dates many a Cornish generation, it becomes apparent that each stone has been carefully selected and positioned, diminishing in size from largest to smallest as the circle progresses in what is likely to present the lunar cycle, a common theme in sites such as this one.

Part of the charm of this sacred spot is the name itself, thought to originate from the Cornish ‘Dans Meyn’ which translates to ‘dancing stone’. This is the name given to all recorded pre-1900 stone circles and has led to an enchanting association with ancient dancing rituals. During the Victorian period, a story evolved that The Merry Maidens were a group of young girls, revelling in joyful dance on a day meant for rest and worship. As punishment for breaking the rules on the sabbath, the story goes that the girls were turned to stone where they stood, fixed eternal in an endless dance. The pipers who played for them can be seen as two granite pillars not far from the circle, turned to granite as they fled.

Not too far from here, just off the beaten track between St Buryan and Carn Euny, lies a similar specimen of Cornish heritage, laced with a deep-rooted magic from a forgotten age of ritualistic incantation. What makes this site slightly different is an impressive centre pillar stone that towers against the horizon, believed to pre-date the 19 stones that surround it in a sort of fixed state of worship, and many agree that this behemoth monument would have been used for ritualistic purposes in the Neolithic period. We again see a reference to the cycle of the moon with the circle made up of 19 stones, but here we have one that features a large amount of gleaming white quartz which some believe to represent a female balance to the very male centre pillar, and sits in a such a position as to represent the midsummer moon.

Top left © alh | Top right © Amateur with a Camera | Bottom left: © Chris Jennings | Bottom right: © Jim Champion

© Tim

When the site was constructed, the stone circle would have been used for all manner of rituals and community ceremonies, ranging from religious to political. In the middle ages this would have been a place of great significance for Druidic gatherings, and in 1928 the Cornish Gorsedh gathered in this very spot for the first time in over 1,000 years, as the Western Morning News reported: “The Stone Circle of Boscawen-Un, about four miles from Penzance in the direction of Land’s End, will tomorrow afternoon be the scene of a remarkable gathering. The Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain will revisit the Circle after a lapse of at least 1,000 years. The object of this visit, which will link the life of to-day with that of the time of the ancient Cornish Kings, is to inaugurate a Cornish Gorsedd which shall foster the Celtic spirit of Cornwall.”

Three miles north of Penzance you might come across an ancient dwelling that dates all the way back to between 100BC and 400AD, a stamp of ancient history that is rumoured to house the earliest identifiable village street in England. Located on the south west slopes of a shallow valley, Chysauster is home to the remains of eight stone ‘courtyard houses’, oval in shape and likely to have been thatched, with a communal courtyard left open to the sky. Ruins like this are only found on the Land’s End peninsula and the Isles of Scilly, and are likely to have been occupied by the Dumnonii tribe who had settled throughout the south west, an ancient society that has long since perished, but which has left its agricultural stamp on the Cornish lands we know today.

Age old myths of spirits and folk tales that are bound with some of the most sacred places in Cornwall are quiet echoes from a pre-history that has long since passed. Upon a calm circumambulation of the primeval relics and remnants we’ve so gratefully inherited, we are witness to a fragile portal of history and heritage, and are invited to cast our gaze through an ancient aperture to the rosy-fingered dawn of the past.

For additional information on the sites referenced here, and more of Cornwall’s ancient monuments and sites of historic significance, visit:


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