Some place names can really create an atmosphere and evoke a feeling. They can be signpost to a place’s past. A waving flag that acknowledges some event or episode in our cultural history. Names are, after all given, given by us. And because of this for me Hangman’s Barrow near Crowan has its own particular character.
What’s in a name?
“The place names of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly not only mystify visitors but also a great many locals who often wonder what they mean.” Craig Weatherhill, Place names in Cornwall and Scilly, 2005.
To me Hangman’s Barrow is a dark and haunted place. But is this really the case? Or just my imagination giving it a dark nature simply because of its foreboding name?
Place names can spring from a multitude of associations. From geological features, from the people or animals that live there, from an event or a particular activity, mining perhaps. But each name should tell us something, give us clues, about the location to which it is attached.
Many of them, when translated, give insights into the landscapes of centuries ago; some give the names or professions of people who lived and worked there all that time ago – or who even committed crimes in places, like Nansladron, ‘thieves valley’. Craig Weatherhill.
In Cornwall things are little more complicated because roughly 80% of the place names are derived from the Cornish language. Many of these have also been corrupted and anglicised, their meanings lost or altered.
Hangman’s Barrow, a burial place
The Hangman’s Barrow is actually a Bronze Age cairn on high ground above Nine Maidens Downs. The hill on which it stands rises to 235m (771ft) and looks down on the source of the River Cober.
“In Cornwall there are dispersed on every plain as well as tops of hills a great number of those artificial heaps of earth or stone which are at present called barrows. . . Sometimes Barrows are found in valleys but generally and much oftener on the tops of hills and plains . . . where such works may have the advantage of being more conspicuous than if they were lower placed.” William Borlase, 1754.
Hangman’s Barrow is an example of a kerbed cairn, albeit a rather dishevelled one. This type of a burial mound is constructed of earth and loose stone and is also defined by an outer kerb of upright stones.
Hangman’s Barrow is a massive monument, measuring 30m in diameter and roughly 3m high. In 1851 Charles Thomas also recorded that the cairn stood on a raised platform, approximately 0.5m high, although this is not really visible today. Climbing up onto the barrow not only gives you extensive views of the surrounding countryside but it also gives you a better understanding of the barrow’s scale. Some of the damage probably caused by treasure hunters and stone robbing is also more obvious. As well as this damage, Historic England notes that the site has been partial excavated in the past, although I can find no further details of this work.
Treasure hunters digging out the sections of ancient burial cairns was unfortunately common. Stories of buried treasure at these types of monuments were tantalisingly frequent (and sometimes true) and the Hangman’s Barrow was no exception. John Harris in “My Autobiography”, published in 1882, wrote:
“My Aunt Catherine, whose parents lived in a one-chimneyed house on the Downs, not far from Hangman Barrow, where we were told a crock of guineas lay under the stones, sometimes came to see us.”
Hangman’s Barrow in the landscape
As Borlase suggests kerbed cairns frequently occupy impressive places in the landscape, often on or near the summit of hills. They can also contain stone lined compartments known as cists where the human remains, and sometimes other objects such as urns, would have been placed. However, many Cornish barrows do not actually appear to contain a burial. It seems that in Cornwall barrows and cairns may well have served as the ritual centres for the living as much as for the dead. Without further investigation it is unclear which camp Hangman’s Barrow falls in to.
Despite being far from the areas of Penwith and Bodmin Moor, places more commonly thought of as hosting Cornwall’s ancient remains this monument is by no means alone here in the landscape. There are several ancient sites close by, including the cairns on Crowan Beacon, the Iron Age settlement at Calvadnack, another cairn at Carnmenellis, the cupmarked stones under the waters of Stithians Lake, the remains of the Nine Maidens Circles, Carwynnen Quoit and the Trenear Mortar Stone. Put it all together and suddenly the landscape around the barrow bursts into a different kind of life.
But how exactly did this particular barrow come by it’s rather unusual name? One theory is that it derives from the Cornish hen meyn meanings ‘old stones’. Indeed the Cornish for hangman is kroger and a barrow is krug, so could there be some connection there?
But interestingly there are strange stories that haunt this place too. Stories that pop up in several sources. Stories of murder and execution.
The Folklore of Hangman’s Barrow
The tale told is that close to Hangman’s Barrow a man murdered a husband and his wife in cold blood. No reason for this violent act is given, a robbery perhaps. This nasty fellow also tried to take the life of the couple’s little son, but luckily the boy ran away and hid in some kind of culvert or drain. The man was unable to reach him and so the boy escaped his fate. Many years later, when that same boy had grown, he was driving a horse and cart near Crowan. He happened to pass a traveller on the road and offered to give him a ride.
Their journey took them close to Hangman’s Barrow and the very place where the murders had taken place all those years ago. To the young man’s surprise the traveller, becoming very agitated, pointed to the very spot. He said “Years ago, it was there I killed a buck and doe, but their young got into that culvert there, where I could not get at him, and so he escaped.” The young man knew immediately the traveller’s meaning, but managed to say nothing until he could find some assistance and deliver his parent’s killer into the hands of justice.
The Hanging Man
Soon after the man was sentenced to death by the lingering mode of exposure in an iron cage. And from this very circumstance . . . the carn of stones took the name of “Hangman’s Barrow.” Rev. S Rundle, Cornubiana in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, v14 (1899-1900).
Stories such as this one are passed down through the generations and often evolve as they go. So far I haven’t been able to find any verifiable original source for this tale of murder. But that by no means implies that there isn’t truth in it. Or indeed that this is not how the Hangman’s Barrow came by its name.
I do wonder if the Crowan murderer was placed in that dreadful iron cage and left to die at the barrow. That seems to be the implication. This form of execution was also known as gibbeting. The criminal was left on public display, hanging in an cage to die of exposure, thirst or starvation. A particularly cruel punishment. Often the body would remain hanging for weeks after the prisoner had died. And is that then the reason the site retains a gloomy atmosphere . . . and was this unnamed murderer the ‘hanging man’ from which the barrow now gets it’s name?