Yorkshire rock Art

Customs, folklore and associated beliefs.
Part 1 - The Fertility stone, The Tree of Life stone, The Witch's stone.
Part 2 - The Lemmington wood rune stone.
Part 3 - Cupmarks in Churchyards & Greystones.
Part 4 - Extracts from the journals of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (text only).
Part 5 - The Giants Lapstone.


To the antiquarians of the mid 19th century the rock cut cups, rings and channels were a complete mystery. At first it was suggested that the strange designs were maps of camps, burial mounds or star constellations, but as more information became available they eventually settled on the theory that the carvings some how related to the religious beliefs of the ancient Britons.
Folklore and custom were mostly silent regarding the carvings but in a few remote areas of Scotland the antiquarians (and later researchers) found traditions still connected with cupmarked stones and rock cut basins which possibly pointed to their earlier use.
The following extracts give details of their findings.

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol 34 (1899 -1900)

Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, and their folklore.
by Rev J.B. Mackenzie. (Extract - p.330)
".............But to return to the spot from which i have been looking at the cup marks at my feet, i am struck by the extreme scarcity of any real tradition regarding them. Only once do i remember hearing anything genuine. There had been a good deal of illness in some miserable old houses where i was visiting, and in speaking to an old man about it, i expressed my wonder that the people did not remove some boulders which obstructed the light out of the small windows, and the drainage about the doors ; and added, that it could easily be done and would make the houses more healthy. No doubt it would he agreed, but then it would not do to destroy these old worship stones (Clachain Aoraidh). He said that there had been one near his own door which was very much in the way, but that he had, with great labour dug a hole into which he had let it drop and covered it up, for it would never do to incur the anger of the spiritual beings by breaking it up. This was more than thirty years ago.
The boulders seemed to me natural and of no significance ; but my attention being thus called to them i found similar stones at almost every old house or site - many of them, undoubtedly, placed there of intention. Some of them had cup marks, but on many i could find none. I also found that any sort of hollow in a stone, even when it seemed to me natural, was sufficient to give it a sacred character ; and that some of these stones were undoubtedly ancient boundary markers, while others had been used in the preparation of food stuffs. All have a certain mystery about them, and several still preserve around them traditions of the possession of supernatural powers.
So far as i have examined them, these stones seem to fall into three groups :-
The first group consists of rock cut cups, often single, but more generally in groups , with at times an elaborate arrangement of circles and connecting channels. The meaning of these is very obscure. Nothing which i have ever heard seemed authentic or simple enough - very simple the ideas must have been, or they would never have been so common or widespread.
In the second group, the stones present a natural hollow, smoothed and shaped a little by art. This form may have been used, among other purposes, for the pounding and rubbing down of grains before the invention of the quern.
The third group, which is almost certainly of later date, comprises the entirely artificial stone cups (small ones often called elf cups) and stone basins used for the manufacture of pot barley.
The last two groups have generally some tradition associated with them. Many of these have been collected. They most frequently relate to the power of curing different kinds of diseases possessed by them. This, however, was not by any means their only power. There is one belonging to the second group, in a rock near Scallasaig in Colonsay, and the tradition with regard to it is, that by means of it the chief of the McPhees could get south wind when he chose. Hence it was called "Tobar na gaoith deas" (the well of the south wind). "

"Another of this third group is at Kilchattan, also in Colonsay. Like the one at at Riskbuie it is of the pot barley type, and cut out of the solid rock. It is near the ruins of the church of St Chattan, and of the house of the chief of M'Mhurich (Currie), who owned this portion of the island. His house was called "Tigh an tom dreis" (Bramble knoll house), and according to highland custom he himself was known as "Fear an tom dreis." As chief of the more fertile moiety of the island, M'Mhurich was, of course, a much greater man that M'Phee at Scallasaig. If M'Phee could get south wind, M'Mhurich could by means of his rock basin get any wind he liked. The basin was called "Cuidh Chattain". It is quite a mistake to say, as i have heard at times said, that any Currie could operate the well. It was only "fear an tom dreis" himself who could do it. He could get the wind to blow from any quarter he wished, by the simple expedient of clearing out any rubbish which it might contain on to the side from which the the wind was desired. It was sure to come and blow it back again into the basin. Originally i am persuaded it was not any accidental rubbish which was cleared out, but (with undoubtedly certain appropriate ceremonies) the offering of food to the supernatural powers, which has been left in the basin when last used for its primary purpose of making pot barley."

"Before passing from the subject of rock basins and cups, i may mention as bearing on the subject a tradition i heard from my friend, Rev J. M'Lean of Grantully. We were about half way up Glen Lyon, when he pointed out to me some isolated patches of rock by the road side, remarking that they indicated the limit to which the plague had reached in the Glen ; St Adamnan, it seems, stayed its further progress by boring a hole in one of these rocks - catching the plague and stopping it up in the hole. In the time at my disposal i could not find on any of the rocks any artificial markings which might have started this tradition."

PSAS vol 6 1864/66
On the sculpturings of cups and concentric rings on stones in various parts of Scotland
by prof J.Y. Simpson. (Extract -Page 57)
"The rock upon which the first and largest collection of concentric rings and cups at Auchnabreach is placed has a Gaelic name, which, according to John Kerr, an old shepherd brought up on the farm, is "Leachd-nan-sleagher" - the rock of the spears. Mr henry D. Graham, to whom i am much indebted for drawings of the Auchnabreach sculptures and others, believes the word to be Leach-nan-sluagh" - the rock of the hosts or gatherings. The rev. Mr M'Bride has perhaps more happily suggested it to be "Leachd-nan-slochd" - the rock of the pits or impressions. The rock itself, let me add, is in a position which commands a charming view of the waters of Loch Gilp and Loch Fyne, with the distant and magnificent hills of Arran as a gigantic background."

(Extract page 59)
"Cargill, Perthshire, -In the thirteenth volume of the first statistical account of Scotland, a description of the parish of Cargill was published about fifty years ago. It is therein stated, "near the village of Cargill may be seen some erect stones of considerable magnitude, having the figure of the moon and stars cut out on them, and are probably the rude remains of pagan superstition. The corn field where these stones stand is called Moonshade to this day" The stones thus marked, and standing in Moonshade or Moonbutt's field, were dug around and under, and buried some half century ago in the agricultural improvements of the ground."
" In Newbigging, which borders upon the Moonshades field, he raised a stone, a corner of which jutted from the earth. It is a slab of grey whinstone, three feet six inches in length, two feet one inch in breadth, and seven inches in thickness. Upon one of its faces - as represented in plate V. fig.3 - are five concentric circles and some isolated cups.

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol 100 (1967 -1968)
The Cup-and-Ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a survey of the Southern Counties Part II. By W.B. Morris.

(Extract p.53)
"In hard sandstone or greywacke a cup one inch in diameter and half an inch deep takes ten minutes to make with a pointed piece of quartz - I have one i which i made myself. Others at different dates in history may have passed the time of day doing this too, for it is a soothing, if noise producing, activity. People in Islay are still deepening existing cup marks, which themselves may come from a pre-Christian era, in a wishing ceremony which seems to be a relic, perhaps of sun worship (list Nos. 46a, 49, and 50).
The large, smooth and carefully rounded cups on the very hard gneiss rocks along the coasts of Tiree and western Argyll, many of which were listed by the late L.M. Mann and other writers in these proceedings and elsewhere, nearly all occur on rocks which lie only a few feet above or below the present sea level. In view of the change in sea level since prehistoric times it seems probable that until not so mant centuries ago these big cups were well below the sea, if they existed. I have however, statements from two elderly fishermen- crofters from different parts of the island of Tiree that they personally used these cup-marks in their youth, when fishing, for grinding ground-bait such as cockles, limpets, mussels, pieces of crab and the like. This ground-bait was thrown into the sea adjoining the cup-marks to attract fish. These two gentlemen, and indeed quite a number of other residents on the island of Tiree and in its vicinity, pointed out to me that practically all these big smooth cups are sited at the best fishing points of the area. .........This explanation seems to fit the facts very well. But no one on Tiree was able to explain to me why similar smooth round cups were made one and a half miles inland in one solitary instance on the top of a hill ...... or on the near vertical sides of the Ringing stones. I was indebted to the owner of Millport Croft (No.104) and Mr J. Davies for the word "Croichtican" (or "Crotagan"), the Gaelic word for these big smooth cups. Perhaps bait mortars' might be a good name for them in English. They are probably between a hundred and several hundred years old, but in some cases, in western Argyll, they may be older.

Knocking-stones, mortars and grinding-mills have as a rule been omitted, but some are included where carved out of the living rock, or in very large slabs. A rather special example is the rock basin or cup on Seil island (no.77) which has been used for what one might call neo-pagan purposes within living memory. The widow of the late farmer there states that in her youth, one day each spring this basin had by custom to be filled with milk. If it was not so filled, the 'wee folk' (fairies) would see that the cows gave no milk that summer. The Kerrera ferryman, to whom i told this, said that on Point of Sleat Farm in Skye when he was a boy there had been exactly the same custom. An Islay resident tells me that the same custom existed there, too, until not long ago and i have received a similar account from Miss Marrion Campbell concerning the cup marked stone near the waterfall beside the old chapel at cove, Knapdale(NR 748767). In Argyll and its isles the pagan gods are not so long dead."

"No.46a Kildalton chapel. Kildatlton. NR458509. On the flagstone base of the Kildalton Cross 7yds. north of chapel. On flagstones NE corner was a cup mark, similar in size and traditional use to that at Kilchoman (list No.50) - broken off and stolen c.1920.

No.48 Kilchiaran 1. Kilchoman. NR204601. 20yds. north of road, 20yds WSW. of church. On flat slab (6ft x 3ft, 6inch high) over 18 cups up to 6.5 inch in diam., 4inch deep 2 cups penetrate through slab. Cups said to have been enlarged by former 'wishing' rite. see No.50.

No.50 Kilchoman. NR216632. At foot of Celtic cross 20yds east of church in cemetery. On slate slab (3ft square 0.25 ft high, forming base of cross) 4 basins up to 7 inch diam. 6inch deep - still used in 'wishing ' or 'fertility' rite by turning a pestle 3 revolutions with the sun and leaving a coin. Full of pennies on 1968 visit. Church officer collects periodically. pagan sun worship relic?

No.77 Seil. Clachan Seil. NM776187. 550yds W. of road, 260yds W. of wall, 15yds E. of ditch. On ground level slate outcrop (4.5ft x 2.5ft) - basin 5 inch deep and cup. Until c. 50 years ago basin was filled with milk each spring for the 'wee folk'. Located by Mrs C. Leckie. legend if not filled, cows would yield no milk that summer.

No.82 Balphetrish 2. NM027487. 15yds above high water. 150yds N. of lochs NE. corner. On huge granite boulder (6ft high) - on all its surfaces except undersides - 33 cups of the crotagan type, except some are on vertical surfaces. Locally known as 'The Ringing stone' or 'Clach na Choire'

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