Victorian Books, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, CWAAS Transactions 1880 Article VII

CWAAS Transactions 1880 Article VII is in CWAAS Transactions 1880.

Article. VII. - A Group Of Cumberland Megaliths.1 By C. W. Dymond, M. Inst. C.E., F.S.A. Read At Workington, June 16th, 1880.

"These antiquities are so exceedingly old that no bookes doe reach them, sc. that there is no way to retrive them but by comparative antiquitie, which I have writt upon the spott from the monuments themselves."—,JOHN AUBREY.

Note 1. Reprinted, with additions, from the Journal of the British Archæological Association, Vol. xxxiv, pp. 31-36.

THE four plans1 which illustrate this paper, together with that of Gunnerkeld circle [Map], described in the volume of these Transactions for last year, represent with great exactness the present state of some of the more noteworthy megalithic antiquities in the district of the English Lakes. These happen to exemplify most of the distinctive peculiarities which characterise the various classes of remains of this type in Britain: for we have— 1st, a fine specimen—taking rank as the fourth in England —of the great stone-circle, with the added feature of a gateway, or rudimentary avenue, and an external ménhir; 2nd, an excellent example of the smaller circle, with stones in close order, and with a perfect entrance-gateway; 3rd, an instance of a circle, partly in open and partly in close order, with some possibly sepulchral indications, and with an included chamber on the eastern side; 4th, a typical specimen of an irregularly inclosed cemetery, with no marked peripheral feature; 5th, the low barrow (at Gunnerkeld [Map], already described,) doubly-cinctured with concentric rings, emphasized by a pylon, and with traces of a segmental side-chamber.

Note 1. Of Long Meg and her Daughters [Map], the circles at Swinside [Map] and Keswick [Map], and the principal circle on Eskdale Moor [Map].

To the memoranda written on the plans, I will add the following particulars:—

Victorian Books, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, CWAAS Transactions 1880 Article VII Swinside Circle

Swinside aka Sunkenkirk Stone Circle [Map]. This is a very good example of a circle built in close order; and it is probable that, when perfect, all the successive stones were nearly contiguous. The gateway points slightly down-hill. But few of the stones seem to have been removed — probably because plenty of material for walling and road-making could be collected from the neighboring hill-side. A rowan-tree has sprung up in a rift in stone No. 2, which has been rent asunder by its growth. The falling of all the stones (perhaps excepting one) inward, is a rather singular circumstance which can hardly be accounted-for by the usual natural causes.

Being in a remote and unfrequented corner of the district, these remains have received little attention; and the references to them in former writers are few and fragmentary. Perhaps the earliest may be that of Gough who says:—1

"At Swineshead, a very high hill between Bowfell in this county [Cumberland] and Broughton in Furness in Lancashire, four miles from the latter, is a druidical temple, which the country people call Sunken Kirk [Map], i.e., a church sunk into the earth. It is nearly a circle of very large stones, pretty entire, only a few fallen, upon sloping ground in a swampy meadow. No situation could be more agreeable to the Druids than this; mountains almost encircle it, not a tree is to be seen in the neighbourhood, nor a house, except a shepherd's cot at the foot of a mountain surrounded by a few barren pastures. At the entrance are four large stones, two placed on each side at the distance of six feet. The largest on the left hand side is five feet six inches in height, and ten feet in circumference. Through this you enter into a circular area, 29 yards by 30. This entrance is nearly south-east. On the north or right-hand side is a huge stone of a conical form, in height nearly 9 feet. Opposite the entrance is another large stone, which has once been erect, but is now fallen within the area: its length is eight feet. To the left-hand or south-west is one, in height seven feet, in circumference 11 feet nine inches. The altar probably stood in the middle, as there are some stones still to be seen, though sunk deep in the earth. The circle is nearly complete, except on the western side some stones are wanting. The largest stones are about thirty one or two in number. The outward part of the circle upon the sloping ground is surrounded with a buttress or rude pavement of smaller stones raised about half a yard from the surface of the earth. The situation and aspect of the druidical temple near Keswick, mentioned by Mr. Pennant in his tour,2 is in every respect similar to this, except the rectangular recess formed by io large stones, which is peculiar to that at Keswick; but, upon the whole, I think a preference will be given to this at Swinshead, as the stones in general appear much larger, and the circle more entire. This monument of antiquity, when viewed within the circle, strikes you with astonishment how the massy stones could be placed in such regular order either by human strength or mechanical power."

Note 1. Camden's Britannia, Gough's 2nd edition, 1806, Vol. III, P. 432.

Note 2. Engraved in Vol. I, p. 239. Antiq. Report., Vol. I, p. 529.

In a few points, this account would not now be accurately descriptive of what may be seen at Swinside. The once swampy meadow has become a well-drained pasture: the shepherd's cot has been succeeded by a good farm-house: the stones in the centre of the ring are no longer visible, and may have been only slight exposures of living rock: and the "buttress or rude pavement" has entirely disappeared, — unless (as is probable) it was never any thing more than the ring-bed of rubble in which the uprights were set, as may be seen by the matrices of two, west of stone No. 9.

Hutchinson's account is as follows:-1

"In the neighbourhood of Millum, at a place called Swinside, in the estate of William Lewthwaite, Esq., of Whitehaven, is a small, but beautiful, druidical monument. It is circular, about twenty yards in diameter. The stones of which it is composed are from six to eight feet high, all standing and complete. A little to the north is another, of larger dimensions, but not in so perfect a state. The neighbouring people call such places by the emphatical name of Sunken Kirks."

To which he adds the following information:—

"At a place called Kirksanton is a small tumulus on the summit of which are two huge stones pitched endwise, eight or nine feet in height, and about fifteen feet asunder. Near adjoining to this monument several other stones stood lately, placed in a rude manner."

Checked by the nearly cotemporary observation of Gough, this author appears to err in asserting that all the stones were standing at the time when he wrote

Note 1. Hist. Cumb., Vol. I, p. 529.

Next to Hutchinson, I find Lysons, no doubt describing at second-hand, quoting the name by which the circle was popularly known, and adding the statement that part of another circle is near to it.1

Note 1. Magna Britannia, Vol. on Cumberland, cxxix.

The next original reporter whose account I have seen is Edwin Waugh, who says1 that the circle "is 285 feet in circumference; and consists of 54 moss-grown stones, some of which are prostrate, a few nearly upright, and all slanting more or less in different directions." He refers to the opinion of Lightfoot and Gilpin that the rowan tree, or mountain ash, was held in high estimation by the Druids; and to the statement of the former that "it may be observed to grow more frequently than any other tree in the neighbourhood of those druidical circles of stones so often seen in the north of Britain; and the superstitious still continue to retain a great veneration for it."

Note 1. Seaside Lakes and Mountains of Cumberland, 1861, p. 7.

I will conclude this section with a quotation from a yet more recent writer, Mrs. Lynn Linton:—1

"Many Druidical circles exist in this district. At Annaside twelve stones in a circle, which were once, it is natural to suppose, a temple like that at Keswick: near Gutterby are thirty stones in a circle, called Kirkstones; and two hundred yards off is a cairn. The Standing Stones are three miles farther south: these are eight big blocks, which once formed part of a circle twenty-five yards in diameter: in Millom grounds are the imperfect remains of a circle: about a mile east of Black Combe is the Sunken Kirk [Map] [Swinside]: and a mile off, another circle, smaller."

Note 1. The Lake Country, 1864, p. 243. Annaside and Gutterby are both in the parish of Whitbeck.

I have not seen that other circle near Swinside which Hutchinson places toward the north, and this last quotation fixes at the distance of a mile from it. It is here described as being smaller than Sunken Kirk [Map]; but in Hutchinson, as being larger, though less perfect.

Victorian Books, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, CWAAS Transactions 1880 Article VII Eskdale aka Brat's Hill

Brat's Hill Stone Circle [Map]. This, though the finest, is only one of several similar remains on the same moor. About 100 yards to the west, are two smaller rings in an imperfect state, each about 50 feet in diameter, and each inclosing one barrow. A quarter of a mile west-northwest, on Low Longrigg, are two others; one apparently perfect, about 50 feet in diameter, consisting of nine stones, and inclosing one barrow; the other imperfect, with diameters of about 75 feet and 65 feet, and inclosing two barrows. A number of ancient "dykes," each consisting of a slight ditch and embankment, intersect the moor, near these remains.

An imaginary plan of this inclosure is published by Dr. Fergusson, and it is described by him thus:—1

"The circle or rather circles, on Burn Moor, near Wast Water, Cumberland, are described by Mr. Williams2 as consisting of a 100-foot circle, formed of forty four stones, beyond which, at a distance of 25 feet is an outer circle of fourteen large stones. A niche or square enclosure on one side of the inner circle contains a cairn 25 feet in diameter, and within the circle are four others, irregularly spaced, and measuring 21 to 25 feet in diameter, each like the circle itself, surrounded by fourteen stones. These, on being opened, were found o contain a rude chamber formed of five stones, in which were found remains of burnt bones, horns of stags, and other animals. One point of interest in this monument is, that it explains the existence of a similar square enclosure on one side of a well known 100-foot circle, near Keswick. There is no sign of a cairn there now; it may have been removed, as those at Salkeld were, or it may be that the body was interred without this external indication; but that it lies, or lay, in this enclosure seems certain. The principal reason for referring to it here is that it is undoubtedly sepulchral."

Note 1. Rude Stone Structures, p. 159.

Note 2. Proc. Soc. Ant., iii, p. 225.

The plan is purely conventional, representing a perfect circle of stones of uniform size, with an outer concentric ring of fourteen megaliths, and an inner (nearly rectangular) inclosure fencing-in the eastern barrow. There is no evidence on the ground to shew that such an outer ring ever existed; nor is it likely that, placed as these remains are, out of the way of risk of molestation, such evidences, if there were any, would have vanished. One very small erect stone stands as an outlier to the north-west; and three or four others, equally small, lie prostrate on the surface, or are partly sunk into the ground, on the north, east, west, and south-east sides: that is all. Not the slightest trace of a barrow-inclosure can be found, though I carefully sought for it by probing. The eastern barrow was being opened at the time of my first visit in 1866, though the exploring party were not then on the spot.

Now I think a comparison of the four examples herein described will lead to the conviction that, though they have an outward similarity, they may not all have been devoted to the same purposes. The character of the last mentioned is purely sepulchral. There is a careless irregularity in the ranging of the peripheral stones, which gives the impression of being sufficient for purposes of separation, though little congruous with the dignity of a structure intended for ceremonial uses. Much of the area is occupied by the barrows; while, hard by, we find four other similar inclosures, also devoted to sepulture. Who can resist the conviction that, in this case, but one end was to be answered—that of consecrated interment?

There is no record of any barrow having been observed within or near the Swinside circle. The ruins are those of a bold and carefully-constructed peristalith. The stones were ranged nearly in a true circle, well founded on a dry site1, in a rammed stone-bed, and placed, for the most part at least, in juxtaposition—often, indeed, so close that it is possible there was no convenient access to the interior, save through the gateway. Hence, in this case, a necessity for that feature, which was evidently thought an important one, and must have been designed to give ceremonial access to the sacred inclosure. Perhaps this is one of the best examples we have of a structure which, according to our ideas, would be eminently suited to be a hypæthral temple; and I suggest that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, this may have been the chief purpose for which the Swinside circle was erected.

Note 1. It must have been dry when the stones were erected, as it is now, though, in the interim, it became swampy.

The import of a gateway is much enhanced when we find it, either in its simple form, a marked incident of an open stone-peristalith, as at Keswick [Map] and Long Meg [Map]; or extended into a short avenue, as at Stanton Drew; or into a longer one, as at Callernish. In all these, the inference is irresistible, that the recognised mode of entering and leaving such inclosures—which were open on every side —was by the prescribed avenue; and, hence, we arrive, by an easy step, at the conclusion that processional services were a common feature of their use; but whether connected with religious, political, judicial, or sepulchral objects, or with a union of them, we do not yet know. It is probable that some of these structures may have been destined to a compound service,—primarily, perhaps, as temples; then, for a kindred purpose, as courts of judicature, or places of council; while, in certain cases, they may have been raised as memorials: and, thus consecrated, the ashes of the great may have been honored with dignified sepulture around, and even within their pale, as, in later times, the remains of the departed came to be laid in the church-yard; and, in special instances, even beneath the floor of the sacred building.

NOTE BY THE WRITER. It is due to the editor of these Transactions to acknowledge the kindness with which he has hunted-up, and copied for this paper, extracts from several old local authorities which were out of the writer's reach, and with some of which he was previously unacquainted. The discrepancies between them, and their errors of fact, are, as usual, so numerous, that the reader will hardly be in danger of accepting anything they say without testing it, when possible, by reference to trustworthy records, such as it is the object of this paper, and of the illustrations which accompany it, to supply.