The Legacy of Stone and Earth

The Kilmore standing stones, on the Isle of Mull, Scotland.

The landscape of Britain is indelibly marked with stones. Some, like those in the Meigle Museum, have been elaborately carved, others preserve inscriptions, but the vast majority are blank, mute, mysterious. Their presence was a source of inspiration and anxiety for the mediaeval people of Britain, who wove the stones into the interpretation of the landscape.

A cloven stone with the mark of a handprint might, for example, mark the birthplace of a saint, while a monolith with a hole bored through might fulfil the conditions required for the slaying of a hero. In South Wales, the Historia Brittonum records the existence of a cairn with a paw pressed into it–a trail left by King Arthur’s hunting dog Cafall.

The prehistoric mound of Krakow, named after the city's legendary founder Krak.

In Ireland, the hills and the earth were also invested with a legendary presence. The Tuatha de Dainan, a race of mythical warriors, was said to live beneath the hills, having retreated underground when new peoples came to Ireland. The resonance of prehistoric earthworks (which can be found all across Europe), can clearly be seen in the literature of Ireland and Wales, where the visit to the top of a mound–gorsedd, in Welsh–signalled the beginning of magical events. In the Mabinogion, a collection of mediaeval Welsh stories, such visits resulted in strange encounters with a couple of giants, a meeting with a fey woman, and the depopulation of the hero’s realm.

Clearly, the stone and earth of the British Isles exerted a powerful influence over the imagination of their peoples, both mediaeval and modern.

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