The Magical Maenhirs of Pembrokeshire

By Terry John Pentre Ifan Standing Stones

Pembrokeshire has sometimes been called ‘the land of enchantment and magic’ and it’s true! Cynics may sneer, but within our county we have many large and ancient stones that were once believed to harbour supernatural powers…there were stones that danced, stones that healed, stones that concealed treasures or even marked the graves of outlaws and lovers and stones that mark the sites of forgotten battles. Still not convinced? Well, let me tell you more…

These stones are not boulders left over from the Ice Age, or lumps fallen from a rocky outcrop. They were deliberately erected by our distant ancestors some three to five thousand years ago, and their purpose is still not fully understood. It is thought that they were ritual in purpose and that they were carefully aligned to the movements of the sun, moon or the stars. It may be that people studied the risings and settings of these heavenly bodies because they believe that the planets foretold the times when the spirits of the dead were at their most powerful and could be more easily contacted or placated; or that there were seasons when the stars were at their most powerful; or that they foretold the most successful times to plant and harvest crops.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the journeys of the planets were carefully studied for they affected the lives of the people. In summer, the warmth of the sun nourished the soil and ripened the crops. Winter, when the sun was low and nothing grew in the frozen earth, must have been seen as a time of barrenness, even of death, from which the earth might never awaken if the proper rituals were not observed.

Other theories are that the stones marked places of assembly or marked ancient trackways or fulfilled in some way all the functions just mentioned. And they were not all erected at the same time but over a period of several thousand years, so it is entirely possible that the older stones had fallen into disuse when the younger ones were dragged into position.

What is clear from the archaeological evidence is that these stones had a very different appearance when first erected. Today they tend to be isolated, single maenhirs standing in fields or half-buried in hedgerows. In the Bronze Age, when the majority of them were put in place, each stone formed the focus of a carefully planned and extensive site. Excavation has also proved the maenhirs were very often one of a pair or even three stones. There are also rows containing up to nine or ten large stones or even dozens of smaller ones.

Amongst the most intriguing and inexplicable features uncovered by archaeologists at a number of sites have been the settings of smaller stones that appear to make patterns of concentric, curved or straight lines around the main stones. When a maenhir known as the Devil’s Quoit near Bosherston was excavated over 3,000 other much smaller stones were discovered arranged in upright rows to form a trapezoidal shape extending roughly north-eastwards away from the main stone. In the centre of this setting a large wooden post had once been placed and on the south-western side an alignment of upright water-worn stones led away from the main concentration.

Some stones were surrounded by boat-shaped settings of stones or even areas of cobbling. A common feature around many maenhirs were many small pits, sometimes outlined by pebbles, in which traces of cremated bones were found.

Few of the maenhirs seem to have been placed on hilltops or on ridges, where they would have been visible for great distances. Many occupy sloping ground, where the earth drops down into a valley, or stand on flat ground with a backdrop of hills or rising ground behind them; and many are within easy reach of streams and rivers. The long axes of the stones point towards the water courses.

Standing Stone Outside Bluestone Lodge
Where the stones exist in pairs, they often share similar features with other pairs. One may be taller with a squarish top, whilst the smaller one tapers to a point. Other pairs consist of a triangular stones set near a rectangular companion. Some people explain these features as indicating the male and female idea and they suggest that the stones once formed the centre of a fertility cult.

Some archaeologists think that stones were painted or stained with natural dyes to emphasise their sacred and ceremonial purposes. There are at least two stones in Pembrokeshire which are annually painted white, whilst others are decorated with flowers at midsummer.

We may never know exactly what these maenhirs represent, but as the centuries slid by, beliefs changed and developed and the standing stones fell into disuse. Stories and legends grew up around them, which may have contained a distant memory of ceremonies originally performed before the stones.

The Devil’s Quoit mentioned earlier is one of three stones near Bosherston which are said to dance leave their place each year on 29th December and make their way to a spot known as Saice’s or Saxon’s Ford. A coven of witches dances in the moonlight to the music of a flute played by the Devil, who sits on top of one of the stones. At daybreak, the party is broken up and the stones hasten back to their places.

On the mountain overlooking Newport in north Pembrokeshire stands a stone known as Bedd Morus,  the grave of Morus. He was said to be an outlaw who lived long ago in a cave on the mountain  side. For many years he attacked and robbed anyone foolish enough to pass by until at least the local people banded together and marched in force up the mountain, where they killed him and buried him in a hole over which the maenhir was erected.

An alternative version of this story is that Morus was one of two young men who fell in love with the same girl. She could not choose between them, so they fought a duel to the death to decide who should marry her. Morus was the loser and was buried beneath the stone, which ever since has been haunted by his ghost.

Several stones are said to guard hoards of treasure. The collapsed maenhir known as the Lady’s Gate Stone, near Strumble Head, not far from Fishguard, is the location of a fabulous treasure. It is haunted by a white lady, who will reveal the exact location to anyone who addresses her in the right manner - but woe betide the person who is disrespectful.

Another treasure lies beneath Carreg Fyrfddin, Merlin’s Stone, near Carmarthen. The unfortunate man who dug down beneath the stone to uncover the hoard was crushed when the stone toppled over on him.

Ffynnon Drudion standing stone, a few miles south-west of Fishguard, was once believed to have been the scene of Druidic rituals. However, the Welsh word for Druid is Derwydd, whilst Drudion means heroes or brave men. Perhaps the stone commemorates a long ago battle, in which great heroes fought. It may even be that after the battle they drank from the nearby spring which bears their name, Ffynnon Drudion, the Spring of Heroes.

Some stones were visited by local people because they were believed to have healing powers. Rainwater that collected in the cracks of the Dolgwm Stone near Carmarthen was thought to cure warts  and ‘white’ maenhirs, consisting of quartz or limestone were considered to have especially powerful healing properties.

However strange these legends may seem to us, the maenhirs continue to be regarded as special and worthy of respect. The Lady Stone on the outskirts of Dinas in north Pembrokeshire is one of these for, in the early part of the 19th century, passengers on board the mail coach that ran regularly between Fishguard and Cardigan would doff their caps and bow as they passed by. It’s still possible to encounter a few enthusiasts who do the same thing today.

 

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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