Not far from the village of Coverack is an open stretch of moorland called Crousa Downs. This rough ground is a home to adders, thick with knee-deep undergrowth and dotted with large boulders. But hidden amongst these natural stones is an ancient man-made structure called the Three Brothers of Grugwith (sometimes Grugith). In an area pretty much devoid of other impressive funerary monuments, this site is an interesting surprise. The Three Brothers is a quoit or portal dolmen, a place where in all likelihood our ancient ancestors would have been laid to rest.
“Black Head lifts a front scarcely less commanding than that of the Lizard. By the brow of this you pass to Crousa Downs, a strange wilderness of rocks, amidst which rises the Dolmen known as ‘The Three Brothers of Grugith’.Rev. h. Hugh Breton, Cornish Guardian, 9th April 1926
Quoit, Dolmen, Cist
The Three Brother of Grugwith has been described as all three of these monuments – quoit, dolmen, cist – and put simply, they all amount to roughly the same thing. Quoit is basically the Cornish word for dolmen and a cist is a kind of smaller ‘version’ of the two. All three are considered to be funerary monuments, stone structures made to hold the remains of the dead – though human remains are not always found, just to confuse matters.
“Portal dolmens are funerary and ceremonial monuments of the Early and Middle Neolithic period, the dated examples showing construction in the period 3500- 2600 BC.”Historic England
The quoit consists of three large stones in a line, two of which may be natural – that is lying in their natural position, not moved there by human intervention. The third of these stones is a large capstone, which is raised and resting on two upright stones parallel to each other, creating an enclosed chamber which is roughly 4m wide and 1m high.
“By far the most likely Neolithic memorial to the dead is the Three Brothers of Grugwith . . . it is to be found on the fringes of Goonhilly Downs and close to the source of the stream that ultimately reaches the sea at Gillan Creek.”Christain Boulton, Five Million Tides, 2019
The Three Brothers of Grugwith has not really been excavated in modern times. The chamber was examined by Borlase in 1872, and inside he discovered a pit approximately 1m deep, however his only find was a single flint flake. A burial has not been identified here but as I said very little investigation of the site has been done and it is still possible that it once contained cremated remains.
It is good to note that there are several other prehistoric sites of interest in the immediate area, such as ancient field systems and hut circles, and over on Goonhilly Downs a number of barrows and the wonderful Dry Tree Standing Stone. All this gives the impression of this site being part of a wider ancient landscape, these monuments were never built in isolation – although they may feel lonely and isolated to us now.
Why the Three Brothers of Grugwith?
The name is an odd one, even for Cornwall. And it has taken me a while to untangle what I think is the answer. Grugwith or Grugith, sometimes Crugwith or Grugoth, comes from the Cornish word ‘Crukwaeth‘ according to Craig Weatherhill and means ‘barrow by trees’. As for the ‘three brothers’ element, this seems to refer to the three stones and there is a strange legend attached to this too, which Cyrus Redding relates in his ‘Illustrated Itinerary of Cornwall‘ published in 1842.
The story goes that there was a falling out between two local saints – St Keverne and St Just. Apparently St Just was visiting St Keverne and after he left his host noticed that there was some “plate” (objects made of precious metals we assume) missing. St Keverne was furious, thinking that his friend had stolen from him. He rushed after St Just across Crousa Downs and on his way picked up three stones, each weighing a quarter of a ton, to use as weapons. Because St Keverne was a saint these stones contracted and made themselves small enough for him to put them in his pocket. After he caught up with St Just he threw the stones at him, where they remain to this day.
I wonder if the three stones referred to in this legend are the Three Brothers of Grugwith . . . If anyone can enlighten me further I’d be delighted!
On the surface of the capstone are a number of hollows which have tentatively been identified as prehistoric cupmarks – a form of early decoration. In September 1879 the West Briton newspaper reported that Rev. W. C. Lukis, while surveying the area for the Society of Antiquaries, had made a new discovery – “cup-markings on a rude dolmen called the Three Brothers of Grugwith”.
Cup markings are considered rare in Cornwall, but are perhaps not as scarce as you might think. According to a paper written by Andy Jones and Graeme Kirkham in 2013 approximately thirty sites have now been recorded, other interesting examples can be found on the capstone of Chun Quoit, on one of the stones at Tregiffan Barrow and, my favourite, on a number of large stones at Stithians. These markings are the only known form of prehistoric ‘decoration’ found in Cornwall – if you discount the mazes carved in Rocky Valley (whose origins are dubious) and the newly discovered axe symbols or possible feet carved at Boscawen Un.
There has been some discussion as to whether the marks on the top of the Three Brothers of Grugwith are actually just the result of natural weathering but both the Rev. H. Hugh Breton in the 1920s and H. O’Neill Hencken in the 1930s seemed convinced that they are man-made.
“near St Keverne . . . is the Three Brothers of Grugwith. The stone covering the grave here is very large and has upon it many little artificial hollows called cup-marks which are common on the stones of larger burial chambers.”H. O’Neill Hencken, The County Archaeologies, Cornwall & Scilly, 1932
The 2013 study also suggests that the cupmarks here were made intentionally along side the natural solutions basins, that is the indents caused by weathering. Humans mimicking nature as art.
Having visited the Three Brothers myself, and having also seen other confirmed examples at other sites, I am inclined to see the cup-marks here as man-made too (perhaps because I want to), which makes this unassuming, isolated dolmen all the more special.
There is a part of me that always feels like I have to explain why I have chosen to write about these smaller, less well-known sites. After all they are often little visited for a reason – they are less striking or not particularly beautifully situated. But for me each monument is a new discovery and has something different to offer. Those that are ‘off the beaten track’ hold a special kind of magic I think – there is something alluring in the search and the subsequent feeling of discovery, as well as the peaceful atmosphere of a site less visited.
Notes on Visiting & Directions
The most important thing to note if you decide to visit the Three Brothers of Grugwith is ADDERS. I love these little snakes and am always delighted to see one – at a distance, but it is vital to be cautious for your safety and theirs. If it is adder season, (April – July) especially on warm afternoons in the first days of spring, be very cautious, wear boots, make noise with your footsteps and be mindful of where you are putting your feet. Perhaps not the best site to bring dogs. There is also a lot of gorse here too so long trousers are best.
You will find the monument on the triangle of moor behind the garage at Zoar on the B3293. From the Helston direction take the small road on the right just before the garage, Trelever Road, which goes toward Penhallick. You can park in the small layby just pass the next junction on the left and then walk back up this other little road to find a path out on to the triangle of ground from there. You will see the dolmen as the largest rock rising above the undergrowth.