Like so much of Penwith the parish of Sancreed is pretty much bursting with ancient remains. From Bronze Age standing stones and Iron Age villages to holy wells and Celtic crosses. This is an incredibly rich historic landscape that offers us so much and needs our protection. So it was wonderful to hear in February 2022 that Cornwall Heritage Trust had announced that Caer Bran hillfort, close to Sancreed Beacon, had become their latest acquisition.
“Caer Bran is a neighbouring site to Sancreed Beacon, which we have owned for over 30 years; as such it has been on our wish list for a long time because of the heritage value of the site and also the free public access – both of which are really important to us when identifying potential sites.”Cathy Woolcock, CEO, Cornwall Heritage Trust
But what is it that makes this hilltop enclosure so special, what is it’s history and what do the legends attached to it tell us about Cornwall’s distant past?
Caer Bran hillfort stands on the summit of Brane Hill with fine views in all directions, taking in the sweep of Mount’s Bay to the east and the first and last hill, Chapel Carn Brea to the west.
The fort consists of two concentric rings of defensive ditches and ramparts roughly 115m in diameter, enclosing a central space about 60m across. Much of the stonework from this site is said to have been taken for more modern building work during the 19th century but that the outline of this hillfort is still impressive, especially when the undergrowth is low in the winter.
The views are breath-taking whatever the season!
This is no straight forward, ordinary Iron Age hillfort, however, the history of this site is actually far more complicated than first impressions might indicate.
Recent research by Peter Herring and Anna Lawson Jones has radically changed the way we interpret this ancient site. They have revealed that Caer Bran is actually a multi-layered, multi-age monument which contains remains from both the Bronze Age and the Iron Age periods.
During the Bronze Age, roughly 4000 year ago, Caer Bran is thought to have consisted of three small ring cairns set within a hill top enclosure or larger ring cairn, then there was a subsequent re-enclosure of the site which took place in the Iron Age, around 2000 years later, when a new generation of Cornish folk built a more substantial bank and ditch system.
These two different phases of building help to explain the obvious difference between the inner and outer rings which is clearer in aerial photographs.
However early visitors to the site, such as William Borlase, clearly noted this difference. Unlike the earthen bank of the outer ring, the inner ring was constructed of loose stones, as did archaeologist H. O’Neill Henken in 1932, he wrote:
“Caer Brane, a small fort . . . upon a high hill in Sancreed parish consists of two stout ramparts; the outer one nearly 400m in diameter, is of earth and the inner, now almost obliterated, was evidently of masonry.”
Fort Raven & Bran the Blessed
Caer Bran translates from Cornish as ‘Fort Raven’, a name that has been in written use since at least 1323 (but has probably existed for far longer). However, the antiquarian William Borlase refers to the hillfort as ‘Brennus’s Court’ in his book on antiquities publishing in 1754. While over a hundred years later in 1861, likely following Borlase’s lead, the writer and artist J. T. Blight called it ‘Brennius’s Castle’.
The expert on the origins of Cornish place names, Craig Weatherhill, further connects this site to a living person. Weatherhill writes that while meaning crow or raven ‘Bran’ could also be taken as the name of an individual, making the hillfort the ‘Fort of Bran’. And there are a couple of theories as to the identity of this man called Bran.
One is that the hillfort was named for Bran the Blessed, a Welsh warrior king or god, who was written about in Welsh mythology and whose severed head, supposedly buried in London, protects Britain from invasion.
“Bran the Blessed, the raven or crow god of the sacred head, Celtic seat of the soul. The land of Cornwall is a particularly associated with Bran, whose name appears in Caer Bran, the Iron Age hill top site in West Penwith, St Breward on Bodmin Moor (from Branwalder – raven lord) and the Men Scryfa standing stone . . . which is engraved with the lettering RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI meaning ‘Royal Raven, son of Cunouallos’.Cheryl Straffon, Pagan Cornwall, 1993
The other myth refers to a more local hero, Rialobranus, who is commemorated with an inscription on the standing stone known as Men Scryfa. Like Caer Bran this monument has two distinct phases, the standing stone itself is Bronze Age while the inscription on it is thought to date from between the fifth and seventh centuries.
Local legend has it that Rialobranus, the Royal Raven, was a Cornish petty king or tribal leader in the area, who repelled invaders in a bloody battle close to where the menhir stands. The inscription was carved in his honour, some say to mark his grave. Is it possible that there is a connection between Bran and Rialobranus? And did they perhaps once occupy Caer Bran hillfort?
The Importance of High Places
It is fair to say that something in our nature draws us to high places. Prominent hills, lofty moorland tors or towering headlands, these locations not only offer us epic views but psychologically they are places of safety and of scared importance. They are retreats where we can survey the surrounding countryside, where we can more easily defend ourselves and where perhaps we can be closer to the elements and the gods. Those ideas it seems have been passed down through our collective consciousness.
Shirley Toulson proposes, in her book ‘The Moors of the Southwest’, that it could have been the security that Caer Bran afforded ancient people that has led to its more recent reputation as a place of refuge from evil spirits.
“In local legend Caer Bran is said to be a sanctuary from evil spirits and is also reputed to be the haunt of the elusive Small People.”Craig Weatherhill, Belerion, 1981
The reason that the Bronze Age people, and then subsequently the Iron Age, chose this particular hill to build their fort had practical reasons as well as spiritual ones however. The south -west slope of Caer Bran has a concentration of springs which would have provided a reliable water supply and the stream in the valley below was also once a rich source of alluvial tin. A precious commodity to prehistoric people.
But it is unlikely that sites such as Caer Bran were permanently occupied. It is perhaps more probable that they were built as a deterrent against aggression as well as serving many other purposes such as marking territory, providing a symbol of strength and unity for a community and acting as a seasonal gathering place.
The communities that it served lived close by, almost certainly at Carn Euny settlement roughly 400m away on lower ground to the west and Goldherring settlement about half a mile to the south.
And these people were most probably laid to rest in the numerous burial mounds nearby or perhaps at the wonderful Brane chambered cairn. And maybe it was them who also raised the Blind Fiddler or the stones that make up Boscaswen-un stone circle.
Like all ancient monuments Caer Bran is/was just part of a much wider social and ceremonial landscape.
Supporting Cornwall Heritage Trust
Cornwall Heritage Trust is a wonderful organisation that was founded in 1985 to protect and strengthen Cornwall’s rich and distinct heritage. The Trust not only aims to preserve our Cornish history but they also want to make sure that these cultural significant sites remain accessible to all and that they promote engagement with the places in their care in a sensitive way, as their CEO, Cathy Woolcock, confirms:
“We pride ourselves on managing our sites really well and always with the historic, environmental and ecological needs of a place at the forefront of our minds. We will ensure that the public can freely access and enjoy the site [Caer Bran] safely which means that we will be fencing off some of the mining remains in the near future. Our longer term management plan is currently a work in progress, however it will include new interpretation signage and an annual clearance schedule to enable the natural environment to thrive.”
So far Cornwall Heritage Trust manages 12 important sites across Cornwall including Dupath Well, Castle an Dinas, The Hurlers stone circle, St Breock Downs Monolith, the Treffry Viaduct, King Doniert’s Stone and Carn Euny, to name just a few, Caer Bran being the latest. And all are free to visit.
Excitingly there are hopes/plans for the Trust to be able to add to this list in the not too distant future, so watch this space, as Cathy Woolcock explains:
“Our aim is to grow our portfolio of sites however we will be doing this slowly and with a limited budget! When we take on a new site we always look at its heritage value; how easily accessible it is; what the management implications would be for the Trust; and the geographical location of a site and its proximity to our other properties. We have a few opportunities bubbling at present however these things take a lot of time to develop! We hope to have more good news to share later on this year.”
One way that you can support the Trust and their amazing work is by becoming a member, which I have found is incredibly good value!
The CHT membership starts at just £15 for 12 months and gives you FREE access to all English Heritage sites in Cornwall, such as Pendennis Castle, Tintagel Castle, Launceston Castle etc and discounts to museums like the King Edward Mine or Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum.
I have been a member for a while now and as well as knowing that I am doing something positive to protect the heritage I love so much it also saves me money on days out. Since joining I have returned to places in Cornwall that I hadn’t been to for years because I couldn’t afford the entrance charges! For example, a single adult membership with CHT costs just £15 and that gives you free access to all the sites for 12 months but for a non-member just one adult entrance ticket for Tintagel Castle costs £16.
So by joining you can help protect Cornwall’s heritage and save money! Just something to consider . . .
Author’s Note: This post was sponsored by Cornwall Heritage Trust but all opinions are the author’s own.