The idea that the ancient stones scattered about Cornwall are the monumental remains of an ancient society, who’s motivations and ideas, are now a mystery to us has always fascinated me. As I have mentioned before whenever we had any free time when I was a child my father would take us to see a big piece of granite. A menhir or a quoit perhaps, and I have continued to seek out those stones, large and small, wherever I can.
In my previous post about the prehistoric hut circles at Harpur’s Downs I spoke about how sometimes it is the small things that captivate my imagination most but of course it is always the unusual too. The hidden story or the unexplained relic is why I started this blog in the first place. To tell the untold.
The Mystery of Holed Stones
Although relatively rare you can find prehistoic holed stones all over the world. Close to home there is the Caherurlagh stone near Cork in Ireland, the Doagh stone in County Antrim and Clach-an-charra in the Highlands of Scotland. There was once a holed stone at Avebury too but this has been reduced to a stump. And further afield there are holed stones of various shapes and sizes in Russia, Malta, Belgium and Egypt. Their purpose and meaning is a mystery but for me that only makes them more enigmatic.
In Cornwall there are a quite a few holed stones to discover although most people will only think of the most famous one, the Men-an-tol on the Penwith peninsula there are others scattered about the countryside and I have brought a few together in this post so that hopefully you can discover some of the more obscure ones.
The Five Holed Stones of Kenidjack Common
When I first read about these stones I was instantly fascinated. I had never hear of a group of holed stones before and a few days later I set off to find them. They are not marked on any OS map but I had directions kindly supplied by Craig Weatherhill in his book Belerion. However despite this I still managed to find myself tramping about the moorland for quite a while, up to my knees in gorse and cursed my scratched ankles. When I eventually came across them they were of course exactly where they were meant to be and I can’t quite understand why I made such a meal of finding them!
These curious stones are much smaller than the ones discussed later in this post. They are only between 1m and 1.5m high and the apertures are smaller too. Peering through these round windows in the rocks I couldn’t determine whether they were designed to highlight some feature in the landscape, all the stones face I slightly different direction. Three of the stones form a close alignment while the two other more upright stones stand several metres away.
Unlike the Tolvan stone or Men-an-tol there is no way that anyone could pass through the holes, their usage is a complete mystery. In Ireland the Doagh stone had a very specific purpose as a place where local people came to swear an oath or to declare a marriage betrothal.
“I can think of no prehistoric monument of whose written history we know nothing the use and purpose of which have been so well preserved by inviolable tradition as the Hole Stone . . . To this day, through all the changes of race and peoples that have occurred in County Antrim . . . the tradition that the Hole Stone is a betrothal, if not of a marriage token remains unbroken, and couples from all the district round plight their troths by clasping fingers through the ring or hole in this stone.”
H.C Lawlor, The Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 1930
There is no suggestion however that these stones served a similar purpose. It has been theorised that holed stones have some kind of connection to stone circles as they tend to be found in the vicintiy. In the case of the Kednidjack holed stones, they stand not far from Tregeseal stone circle.
Men – an – tol
This donut of stone is thought to date to the Bronze Age and one of the most visited of the county’s prehistoric sites. It has numerous legends attached to it. In recent times it was thought that passing through the hole could cure rickets, back pain and tuberculosis and like so many of these holes stones it also had fertility myths connected to it.
It is said that women could improve their chances of getting pregnant by passing through the hole especially on a full moon. Lets hope not, as I always climb through it every time I am there! There is another theory that the stone was once used as an entrance into a now vanished chambered tomb or was part of a fallen stone circle.
There was also a theory that it was some kind of astronomical device but it is unlikely that the stones are in their original positions, making this difficult to establish. Men-an-tol is also close to the Nine Maidens circle which can be seen in the distance.
The Tolvan Stone
This large triangular stone, also thought to date to the Bronze Age, stands in the back garden of a rather unassuming cottage near Gweek close to the Helford river. It is a huge slab of granite roughly 2.5m high with a beautifully circular hole of 48cm diameter.
As late as 1880 mothers were bringing their sickly children here to pass them through the hole and it is thought, like the Men-an-tol, that these beliefs date back hundreds of years.
Its original purpose however is unknown. The remains of a barrow can be found to the north of the stone however suggesting that it was once part of a larger complex of prehistoric monuments.
The Boleigh Holed Stone
This fine holed stone, seen here in a beautiful illustration by Rosemarie Lewsey, is about 6ft tall and can be found close to the famous Merry Maidens stone circle. Unfortunately it is now being used as a gatepost and it is unlikely that it is in its original position, although it was probably built in association with the circle.
Visiting the holed stones
– In the case of the Kenidjack holed stones I suggested finding the Tregeseal Stone Circle first, then with the circle behind you, and the cairn in front, follow the track that leads right, across the lower part of the common. As this track curves left and uphill towards the cairn you will see another track continuing ahead, follow this one and the stones are on the left of this track.
– Men-an-tol is easy to locate using an OS map or follow the walk below (Rosemergy).
– As I mentioned the Tolvan Stone is in someone’s back garden but the owners are happy for people to visit, just give them a knock and they will point you in the right direction. Please respect that if no one is home to give you permission visiting the stone would be trespassing.
– The Boleigh stone can be found in a gateway on the opposite side of the road to the Merry Maidens circle, the walk below by I Walk Cornwall will get you there.