With so many well known prehistoric sites on Bodmin Moor and Penwith it is easy to imagine that the central region in between, around Falmouth, Redruth and Truro, is devoid of ancient monuments. However, they are there if you know where to look. Rather than standing alone with a backdrop of dramatic moorland, these relics are hidden in fields, pushed into hedges or tucked away in someone’s back garden. Often damaged and forgotten these stones are now testament to how highly cultivated and industrialised this area once was and to a certain extent still is.
With a little investigation and a good map of the area you can find barrows, cairns and prehistoric settlements where you least expect, close to industrial estates or surrounded by modern housing. You can also discover solitary menhirs, mysterious cup-marked stones, a tor enclosure at Carn Brea, Carwynnen quoit and Men Amber rock, as well as the remains of two ancient Bronze Age stone circles in the parish of Wendron.
Wendron Stone Circle
The circle, known as the Nine Sisters, once had an estimated fourteen or fifteen stones but only six survive and two of those are now positioned in the nearby hedge. When Borlase visited here in c1760 there were ten stones remaining. The uprights are fairly small, ranging from 0.8m to 1.2m (2.6ft to 4ft) tall. It is a circular circle (yes, I know but stone circles aren’t always round) and is roughly 16m in diameter.
There were once twin circles here but the second one which stood about 20m west of the Sisters has been almost completely destroyed. According to Craig Weatherhill in his book Cornovia, two of its stones are now part of a modern wall.
Difficulty in Counting?
Sometimes called the Nine Sisters, Nine Maidens or the Virgin Sisters, Wendron Stone Circle can be found not far from where the River Cober rises up on the Nine Maidens Downs. The name, Nine Maidens, causes a fair amount of confusion as it and other variations are a little over-used in Cornwall. As well as the Nine Maidens Stone Row on St Breock Downs many other stone circles in Cornwall, such as Boscawen-Un, Tregeseal and Boskednan circle, have been given that name too from time to time! And of course, perhaps most confusingly, there aren’t actually nine stones at any of the sites . . . apart from the Nine Stones Circle on Bodmin Moor, which does actually have nine stones . . . I think . . .
It is thought that ‘Nine Maidens’ is a translation of the Cornish ‘Naw Men‘ (naw meaning nine, men meaning stone but corrupted to maiden). According to B. C. Spooner possibly the earliest written use of this phrase comes from a charter from 1342 which mentions Goyn Nawmen (Down of the Nine Stones) but in this case refers to a barrow not a circle of stones.
So why do so many circles have the name Nine Stones or Nine Maidens given to them, when quite clearly there aren’t and probably never were actually nine stones?
One theory is that ‘nine’ may simply be contraction of the word ‘nineteen’, which is the number stones found in several circles in Cornwall but although this fits in some cases, others still have more or less stones in reality. Some theorise that the obsession with the number has absolutely nothing to do with actual counting.
The 19th century writer and collector of myths, William Bottrell, implies that there is some kind of magic associated with the number nine itself. He wrote:
“You know, everyone hereabout [ in Cornwall ] uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.”
Nine was indeed a common number used in folklore rituals; I have read of rocking a logan rock nine times at midnight in order to become a witch, curing a stye by rubbing it with gold nine times or passing through Men-an-tol or the Tolvern holed stone nine times to become pregnant or to cure some ailment.
In her book, Pagan Cornwall, Cheryl Straffon suggests that the connection to the number runs deep into our ancient Celtic past.
“Nine as a number in a ritual context is first seen as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic area (c10,000BC) on a cave painting at Cogus in Spain which pictures nine women dancing in a circle . . . Nine was certainly a sacred number for the Celts, 3 times 3, the triple Goddess of maiden, mother and crone, and its use may well date back to a much earlier period when the circles were constructed.”
Whether the use of the number nine in relation to these stones can be traced back to the Bronze Age is a matter of personal interpretation but the idea that the name was a universal one given to these stones circles because of some mythical or ritual association is an interesting explanation.
The Sisters Graves
How the circle near Wendron came by the other part of its name – the sisters or virgins – has occupied the minds of many of Cornwall’s antiquarians in the past, including Robert Hunt and William Hals.
“Nine Moor Stones are set near the road in the parish of Gwendron, or Wendron . . .The perpendicular blocks of granite have evidently been placed with much labour in their present position. Tradition says they indicate the graves of nine sisters. Hals appears to think some nuns were buried here. From one person only I heard the old story of the stones having been metamorphosed maidens.”Robert Hunt, 1865
From Hunt’s description one can’t help but wonder if he ever visited the site, as he would surely have noticed that there were not nine stones to mark nine graves. Equally Hals, writing two hundred years earlier in 1685, makes no mention of the numerical discrepancy and it seems to be him we have to thank for the virgin sisters connection.
“In this parish, by the post road or highway, are set up in a perpendicular manner about ten feet asunder in a line, nine large moor stones, commonly called the Nine Maids, or the Virgin Sister; probably set up in memory of so many sister nuns heretofore interred there.”
The mystery of who these nuns were is not elaborated upon, though Hals does make mention of a 16th century Hospital and Priory . . .
Landscape & Legends
Despite the impression that these sites can give they were never built in isolation, they were part of a community, part of a network of trackways and settlements, monuments and sacred sites, one linked to another. So it is always important to take into account what is around them. For example, writing in the 1930s H. O’Neill Hencken suggests that there was once a barrow here although side the circles, though there is no sign of it now.
The skyline is dominated by two hills however – Carnmenelis and Calvadnack look down on the site. The summit and slopes of both of these ridges are dotted with prehistoric remains including round houses and cairns. John Barnatt in his book Prehistoric Cornwall also a suggests that from the position of the circles the equinox sun rises above one of the cairns on Carnmenalis, though I cannot confirm this.
In addition to this Aubrey Burl notes that the twin circles were built not far from to a Neolithic greenstone axe factory. (Axes from the site have been found at the tor enclosure on Carn Brea.) But perhaps the most captivating story is that of Colvadnack barrow (sometimes called Goldvalnek or Galvadnick) which was first recorded by Borlase in 1754 and then again by Thomas Tonkin in 1811.
“In the year 1700 some Tinners opening a barrow of stones called Goldvadnek Barrow, in the parish of Wendron, came at last to some large [stones] disposed in the nature of a vault, in which they found an urn full of ashes, and a fine chequered brick pavement, which together with the urn they ignorantly broke to pieces; they also found in the same place several Roman brass coins of the second size and a small instrument of brass set in ivory, which I suppose the Roman Ladies made use of about their hair.”William Borlase, 1754
According to Borlase the coins were badly damaged but he was able to identify some and date them to around 138-147AD. How much of this account is factual is unclear, Borlase could not have observed any of it himself. And the description is certainly puzzling, a barrow with an urn inside but also Roman finds and what sounds very like a Roman mosaic??
Over the years I have come across several sad accounts of ancient monuments that have been deliberately destroyed, often through ignorance or by so called ‘progress’ . The colossal ‘Maen Pearn’ at Mabe, roughly eight miles from the Wendron circles, is thought to have been the largest ever standing stone in Cornwall. Some 7m tall, it was broken up in the 18th century to be made into gateposts. Or the huge Tolmen Stone near Constantine, a logan rock knocked from its seat by quarrying in 1869. Its loss was deeply felt by the local people they demanded the quarry owner be punished and his actions are thought to have led to new laws protecting ancient sites being introduced.
These historic losses are certainly tragic but they do make the stones that have survived, especially in these populated areas, all the more precious.
Notes on Visiting
The Nine Sisters can be found close to the B3267, in a field behind a house. There is limited parking available in a layby, carefully cross the busy road to the stile beside the house, follow the track down the field and the stones are just over the hedge.