Monday, 18 February 2019


Eynhallow is a small island in Orkney, a short way from the larger island of Rousay. With treacherous tides and currents seething through the narrow straits, access is difficult even in calm seas.

An ancient church, later converted into houses, indicates the presence of a Christian monastic settlement. In the 1850s, the houses were evacuated and torn down. The island has been uninhabited ever since.

The name, from the Norse Eyin Helga, means ‘Holy Island’, and the island holds a special place in Orkney lore. Among other traditions, it was believed cats could not survive on the island. They would die of convulsions within a day.

Eynhallow was a home of the Finfolk, a strange and feared people who could control storms, shapeshift as seals and whales, had phenomenal sailing skills, and also routinely abducted local people.

Thanks to the Finfolk’s enchantment, Eynhallow routinely appeared and disappeared into the sea as its inhabitants wished. It was one of two ‘vanishing islands’ in Orkney, the other being Hether Blether. The latter’s enchantment has never been broken and is said to still rise from the mists occasionally.

Eynhallow’s enchantment was broken by a farmer. His wife had been abducted by a Finman and when the island rose from the sea, he rowed towards it, never taking his eyes off it else the enchantment would break and the island vanish, and in revenge he sowed salt around the island, destroying its magical power. He didn’t get his wife back but the island has remained in place ever since.

The Finfolk have been linked to shamanic people of Finland and Norway such as the Saami people, a short distance away by sea.

Orkney was home to a powerful Neolithic culture which abruptly came to an end around 2500BC, with the deliberate and ritual abandonment of the hitherto important sites. Orkney then became a backwater throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, with little impact on national culture.

Perhaps the Finfolk were the survivors of a powerful shamanic tradition which still survives in Scandinavia, settled on an inaccessible island and feared by the newer inhabitants for their magical powers. Over time, history turned into legend.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway is a prehistoric trackway, perhaps Britain’s oldest road, which ran from the River Thames to East Anglia. A great deal of it runs along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs, close to the ancient sites of Uffington, Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy, before crossing Salisbury Plain. It’s linked to Grimes Graves in Norfolk, a Neolithic flint mine of national importance.

Dating is difficult and relies on nearby prehistoric sites which seem to have been built in association with it. It’s believed to date from the Neolithic period, c3000BC.

It was used as a secure and passable all-year-round trade route, especially so in the Iron Age period, and forts were built nearby to control the route. Later armies took advantage of it, as did drovers taking livestock to distant markets.

The sarsen fields of the Marlborough Downs

Today it forms part of a long-distance footpath which runs for 87 miles across the downs, where people can walk in the footsteps of five thousand years of history. It’s a beautiful route. It offers views of Avebury and other ancient sites, the sarsen fields where stone was gathered for these ancient monuments and woodlands with unusual trees and plants. With little in the way of modern buildings or roads, it’s possible to imagine it’s a literal walk in history.

Bronze Age burial mounds alongside the Ridgeway

Monday, 4 February 2019

Uffington Castle

This is an Iron Age hill fort in Oxfordshire, close to the prehistoric Uffington White Horse, and built around 600-700BC on the foundations of an earlier Bronze Age site. This is very common. The ‘Age’ may have changed but the same people and their descendants remained.

The term of ‘hill fort’ is something of a misnomer: it was applied by 18th century antiquaries to almost any construction on a hill and there is little evidence that many were indeed forts.

View from Uffington Castle

Its prominent location on a hillside, with far-reaching views across the surrounding vales, shows its purpose. It was intended to be seen. Even today, 2500 years after it was constructed, the embankments and ditches stand proud from the hill and proclaim to every passer-by for miles: this place is ours.

The surrounding ditches, dug by hand with basic tools, are several metres deep. Look at the people in the background of the photo for a size comparison. This would need a workforce of hundreds for several months. The soil was used to construct banks on either side and the innermost bank had a stone parapet. A stunning display of might from a distance; even more so close up. It is far more work than necessary for simple defence: it’s a symbol of power and control, intended to impress.

Uffington Castle’s impressive ditches.

The ditches may be reminiscent of the older henges and enclosures – Avebury is only a few miles away – which had impressively deep ditches and would have been well known to the Iron Age people as ancient and magical sites. In the earlier cases, the surrounding water had spiritual significance; whether this was understood by the Iron Age builders or whether it was simply a display of mundane power, is unclear.

The site was occupied for several centuries and also had significance in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. Graves and a shrine from these periods have been found. By this point, the impressive and now long-unoccupied site had probably acquired mythic or magical status, and was treated as such.

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Dwarfie Stane

Situated on the island of Hoy in Orkney, the Dwarfie Stane is believed to be a tomb dating to the third millennium BC.

Orkney is one of the most important Neolithic locations in Britain, and perhaps the world. It’s increasingly believed to have been the heart of British culture during the third and fourth millennia BC. Tombs, stone circles, villages and huge ritual buildings are linked in a vast and complex web, a mere glimpse of the complexity of the culture archaeologists are only beginning to discover.


Hoy is an island characterised by lofty peaks, sheer cliffs and swathes of bleak heather moorland, one of the wildest islands in Orkney. There was little habitation in the Neolithic or any other period compared to the other islands. Scraping a living from this unforgiving island would have been near impossible.

The Dwarfie Stane is unique on Orkney and in Britain. It comprises a single huge block of stone, carved out to form an entrance and two side chambers, each about a metre wide. It was broken open long ago and no burials or anything else are known. As such there is nothing to confirm it was even a tomb.

The interior of the Dwarfie Stane.

Legend tells that the Stane, or stone in local dialect, was the home of a (dwarfish) giant and his wife. A third giant imprisoned them inside to make himself master of Hoy, but the imprisoned giant smashed his way through the roof. This explains the now-repaired hole in the roof, probably made by ancient tomb-robbers.

The tomb is situated on a flat stretch of moor between the hills, and it faces the dramatic and sweeping slopes of Hoy’s highest peaks. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t intentional. Most of Orkney’s tombs face out to sea; perhaps the purpose of the Dwarfie Stane’s orientation was to absorb the powerful spirit of Hoy.

The Orkney people’s spiritual beliefs have been barely examined, but there is no doubt their complexity equals the complexity of their material world. The tomb has intriguing similarities to tombs in the Mediterranean, where the first farmers in Britain are believed to have arrived from. Perhaps time will tell us more about this enigmatic construction.

The view from inside the Stane.

Monday, 21 January 2019

St Cuthbert’s Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave or Cuddie’s Cave in Northumberland is a natural rocky overhang rather than a true cave.

St Cuthbert was a Christian monk who spent years living on the island of Lindisfarne or Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast near Berwick-on-Tweed. His remains were kept there until AD875, when marauding Danes attacked the island. The monks carried the precious relics to Durham, resting for a night at this cave, thus giving it its name.

Other local traditions link the cave to a Border Reiver or robber, who camped in the cave and whose ghost haunts the area. Also associated with the area is a mischievous being called the Dunnie, who amongst other things would overturn furniture in the night and shapeshift as a horse, to the chagrin of the ploughman who mistakenly harnessed him.

The long walk to this place today, through empty woodland and fields, certainly has a slightly sinister feel to it. It’s easy to see how those traditions developed.

View from St Curhbert’s Cave.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Wayland’s Smithy


This intriguingly named long barrow in Berkshire was built by some of the earliest Neolithic farmers. The many long barrows in this part of Britain were one of many new concepts introduced by the people who brought agriculture to this land.

It is one of the Cotswold-Severn class of barrows, commonly found in southwest Britain, and is sited on the ancient trackway called The Ridgeway, close to the Uffington White Horse. Its present appearance is a result of restoration in the 1960s. Before then, it was an overgrown ruin.

A timber-chambered barrow was built around 3550BC, and the remains of fifteen individuals were placed inside, fourteen of them male. Around a hundred years later, the mound was incorporated into a larger structure. A stone-chambered tomb, consisting three burial chambers and an entrance chamber in a cruciform layout, was built. The remains of eight people were found inside. Six huge sarsen stones were erected in front of it, four of which survive, and an earthen barrow, 56m in length and 13m wide at its entrance, was built over it. The stone revets used to support the mound are visible; they were originally covered with earth.

The interior chambers.

No long-lasting constructions have been found in Britain prior to the appearance of these tombs, and it is a long time before the same amount of effort was made to house the living.

Agriculture bound people to an area. It was a long-term investment, requiring the clearance of rocks and mature trees to give cultivatable soil, and needed a close understanding of how best to cultivate and manage that specific tract of land, which could take a lifetime to learn. It was perhaps now important to have the ancestors close at hand.

The long barrows are not overly prominent; they are not intended to be a statement to the living as later Bronze Age barrows, standing clear on the skyline, appear to be. To me they seem to be about blending with the land, incorporating the gifts and knowledge of people’s forebears so they could aid the coming generations, as well as reinforcing the fact that, for these people, this land was home.

The folklore of the site is no less intriguing. Wayland, also known as Vรถlundr, is an important figure in Germanic culture, and the name was probably applied by Anglo-Saxon settlers. The first recorded use of the name dates to 955AD. Wayland was a fabled smith of unmatched skill, and like many smiths, such as the Greek Hephaestus, he was lame. In an Icelandic saga, he was captured by a king who cut his hamstrings and forced him to work for him. He eventually killed the king’s sons, forged himself wings, and made his escape.

Local tradition stated that if a traveller’s horse lost a shoe, he could leave it at the Smithy with some coins, and when he returned the money would be gone and the horse newly-shod. Wayland was also said to shoe the nearby Uffington White Horse.

A local shepherd’s rhyme recorded in 1859 states that:

They say in this cave did dwell,

A smith who was invisible.

At last he was found out, they say,

He blew up the place and flew away.

An intriguing similarity to the Icelandic story recorded 600 years earlier.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Hunter's Moon

The full moon of October is often called the Hunter's Moon. Like the Harvest Moon of September, it rises unusually close to sunset so offers much-needed light for those out hunting.
But there is more to it than that. October is the traditional start of the hunting season. Many hunting cultures had, and have, a taboo against hunting during the breeding season, the pregnant and nursing females being vital for the future of both hunted and hunter. But come autumn, when the young are weaned and food sources dwindle, removing those unlikely to survive the winter hardships is of benefit to both parties. Meat was a vital food source in the winter months, whereas in summer it rots or becomes infested with maggots within a day or so, perhaps an illustration of the fallacy of upsetting the natural harmony of the hunt. And the shared bond of hunting and feasting helps gel a community through the winter hardships.
Happy Hunter's Moon everyone!