We are fortunate in the UK that most of our megalithic sites have open access. Some are on private land with no public access but very few are enclosed behind fences requiring entry by way of a fee to view part of our national heritage; compare Avebury to Stonehenge. Some megaliths are kept behind bars, such as Kit's Coty in Kent or the Whispering Knights at the Rollrights in Oxfordshire. Both are the remains of early Neolithic dolmen burial chambers, dating from around 3,000 BC.
Why are these megaliths caged? You can still reach the stones through the bars so presumably its not protection from souvenir hunters wanting to chip off a piece – a common practice at many megalithic sites not so many years ago. Hammers were actually issued to visitors to Stonehenge for exactly this purpose; guess where most of the missing bluestones went?
Megalithic sites attract an extraordinary wealth of folklore. Almost everywhere that these stones are found there exist variations of the same old legends, often involving giants, fairies or witches. Legends associated with megalithic sites include stones that cannot be counted. 450m to the south of Kit's Coty lie the scattered remains of Little Kit's Coty House, a collapsed dolmen burial chamber of the Medway group, broken up by treasure hunters; the alternative name 'The Countless Stones' needing no further explanation.
Other tales tell of livestock or crops dying if megaliths are interfered with or removed: a Scottish farmer removed two megaliths from a stone circle to use as gateposts but found that his horses refused to go through them; another account tells of a megalith being used as a lintel over a door-way in a cattle-shed, but the door refused to close. In both cases the farmer took the stones back.
Other legends tell how the stones are the petrified remains of people who danced on the Sabbath, such as the wedding party at Stanton Drew. But perhaps the most famous petrification legend of all is found at Rollright where the legend was in existence at least in 1695. The King was out in the country when he met a witch, probably Mother Shipton, who said to him:
|The King Stone|
Seven long strides shalt thou take, and
If Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England shalt thou be,
The King went forward and on his seventh stride a mound rose before him preventing him from seeing the village of Long Compton. The witch then said:
As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be,
Rise up, stick and stand still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
And I myself an eldern tree.
Consequently, the king and his knights were turned to stone and the witch turned herself into an elder tree. Today the mound by the King Stone has long gone and no one seems to know the location of the elder tree, probably originally growing somewhere between the outlying King Stone and the circle of the King's Men. She may be hiding in the hedgerow nearby.
It is said, that if burnt, elder wood could summon the Devil himself. Having this sinister reputation wood from the elder tree was rarely used for domestic use, especially for making infant's cradles. It is claimed that the wood from which Christ's cross was made was from the elder tree. The elder was also frequently associated with witches and has been referred to as "witch wood". If an Elder tree is cut when in blossom and it bleeds, then it is a witch. Superstition regarding witches spells tells of how blood-letting can break a spell.
Mother Shipton is first mentioned in 1641 as residing at the nearby village of Shipton-under-Wychwood. A further legend evolved around her and the elder tree. On Midsummers Eve, when the 'eldern' tree was in blossom, it was a custom for people to come up to the King Stone and stand in a circle. Then the 'eldern' was cut and as it bled the King would nod his head.
Tradition has it that one day the spell will be broken and the King and his men will return to life and continue with their conquest of England.
The Rollright Stones, located on the Oxfordshire - Warwickshire border in between the A44 and A3400 roads, are a group of oolitic limestone monuments consisting of a near-perfect circle of uprights, The King's Men, an outlier called the King Stone and the remains of an early Neolithic dolmen burial chamber known as the Five, or Whispering Knights. This group of monuments has some of the richest collection of folklore of any British prehistoric site. Perhaps due to its close proximity to a road and lay-by, this popular site also attracts more than its fair share of pagan celebrations and ritual litter such as candle wax and ribbons can often be found on the stones. Take it home.
The Rollrights have been subject to attacks of vandalism over the years: in two separate attacks in 2004, the visitor hut was burnt down and the stones were daubed in bright yellow paint; in 2007 vandals set fire to a stone in the stone circle and damaged a 1930s information plaque next to the King's Stone.
The site certainly has an atmosphere which not everybody senses as good, some find it distinctly unnerving and feel uncomfortable. Not many want to be here at midnight. The Rollrights was used as the prime base for the Dragon Project where a variety of electromagnetic anomalies were recorded at the site by scientists and geomancers over many years, in an attempt to establish the existence of earth energies at megalithic sites.
The Rollrights are another of those megalithic sites where it is said that the stones cannot be counted. A story first recorded for the Rollrights in 1853 goes that a baker tried to count the stones by putting a loaf on each one and seeing how many were left. But the baker was foiled by the devil who had gone round behind him and eaten some of the loaves and leaving others. Similar stories of the baker and the devil exist at Little Kit's Coty, the Hurlers in Cornwall and Stonehenge.
A variant of the countless stones story at Rollright states that anyone who counts correctly three times and gets the same number each time can have any wish he cares to make. But the superstition associated with megalithic sites by the middle of the 18th century had developed the countless stones fable into one of bad luck and if anyone did actually count the stones correctly at Stanton Drew or Stonehenge it would result in dire misfortune or even death. Best not to count the stones then just in case you get it right!
|The Whispering Knights|
Even the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley, who often bemoaned the plight of our megalithic heritage, collected bits of stone. In writing to Stukeley in December 1742, a Mr Parry said, “I have, as hundreds have done before me, carried off a bit from the King, his Knights and Soldiers, which I intend to send or keep for you”.
In the 19th century journal Notes and Queries (1859) it recorded that the King Stone in particular “is diminishing daily in size, because people from Wales kept chipping off bits to keep the Devil off”.
And pieces were chipped off the King Stone for luck by soldiers before they went to war.
Yet one of the most persistent legends is stones that move, often triggered by the turn of midnight, noon or daybreak at the cock's crow.
Legend claims that the Rollright Stones go down the hill to drink from the brook when the clock strikes midnight, the witching hour when the spell is briefly broken, but the King only goes when he hears the Long Compton clock striking twelve. Other tales tell of megaliths that, if moved, would return to where they came from by dawn the next day.
At Rollright, the local landowner is said to have tried to use the capstone of the burial chamber of the Whispering Knights, just east of the main circle, as a bridge across the brook at the bottom of the hill. Variants of a similar story tell of a large number of horses, between six and possibly as many as forty, required to drag the capstone down the hill. Regardless of the number of horses, the capstone proved too difficult to move and a harness broke with men and horses fatally injured. Eventually the capstone was put in place across the brook but every night it removed itself and the villagers would find it each morning, turned over, back on the grass. They gave up and decided to return the capstone to where it originally came but only one horse was needed to pull it up the hill back to the site of the burial chamber.
These megaliths must be kept behind bars to stop them wandering off?
Jeremy Harte, When Stones Go Wandering, Whitedragon, Imbolc 2003.
Francis Hitching, Earth Magic, Cassell, 1976, pp.124-5.
Leslie Grinsell, The Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, David & Charles 1976.
Jennifer Westwood, The Rollrights, Part 2: The Witch’, 3rd Stone, No.39, Winter 2000/2001.
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