“Till the Cows Come Home” (Part One): Towards a Natural History of Megaliths

A version of this article first appeared in Northern Earth Issue 128, Winter 2011, pp. 16-22.  www.northernearth.co.uk

It has long been known that the megaliths known as the ‘bluestones’ of Stonehenge travelled there from the Preseli Mountains in south-west Wales during the Neolithic(i). Long distance journeys to the Stonehenge area are now known to have been made in this period by cattle from a variety of grazing areas in different parts of Britain(ii), including – in all likelihood – Preseli. Such journeys are not unique to prehistory; until recently drovers travelled with their herds from Wales to London, some routes passing Stonehenge, following well-established paths. In this two-part interpretation of the movement of stones and cows, I trace their paths in archaeology, folklore and myth. While this movement is explicable in the context of a pastoral way of life, I seek to show that the complexity of social relations involving human and other-than-human agents exceeds the limits of economics and archaeological periodisation. Over millennia, patterns of seasonal migratory movement, of humans and animals, traced paths to water and good grazing, formalised in the transhumant cycle of following herds to upland grazing in the summer and the return to the lowlands in the winter. Repeated journeys between locales renewed the potency of particular places on the path, a path trodden from prehistory to the present.


Certain geological formations, rock outcrops, boulders and megaliths have been integrated into narratives involving remarkable animals, such that these places are identified as the embodiment of these animals. Forms of matter, characterised within Western philosophical discourse as passive and inert, are, rather, seen as alive, ‘with agency and personhood, prior to human cultural activation’.iii Such perceptions, once dismissed as fetishistic in anthropology,iv are implicit in a common toponym applied to particular rocky features in and around Ireland and the British Isles: The Cow and Calf.v Subverting the binary of subject-predicate which characterises the linguistic system of Aristotle and Saussure, it implies an undifferentiated unity between the name given to the rocks and the rocks themselves. The White Cow of Crichie,in the Buchan, has a name “frequently given to great stones, presumably, as this one, of white quartz”.vi The Cow and Calf Rocks loom near a dense cluster of carved rocks on Ilkley Moor, West Yorkshire. The Buwch a’r Llo – ‘Cow and Calf’ – are two standing stones by the road near Melindwr, Ceredigion, Wales. Such names may be the last trace of narratives associated with these configurations,vii evoking the belief that ‘the presence of her calf was essential when a cow was being milked and that a cow deprived of her calf would retain her milk’.viiiL’ Épine Blanche (‘White Thorn’), the heroine of a Breton folktale, used a holly stick to strike a rock on the sea-shore, from which a cow emerged, to provide copious amounts of milk for the girl and her mother.ix One story, from Ireland, relates how a family on Dursey Island found a black bull and cow near the beach. The cow furnished sufficient butter and milk for all domestic wants, and soon a calf was added to the number. However, a wicked servant girl, milking the parent cow, struck the beast and cursed her. The animal turned to the other two and lowed to them, sorrowfully, and the three moved off to the sea. They plunged in, and forthwith the three rocks, since known as the Bull, Cow and Calf, arose.x


‘Milking legends’ surround megalithic structures such as Mitchell’s Fold stone circle in Staffordshire, where a witch milked a magical cow through a sieve, the cow thence ceasing to give her bounty of milk.xi During a famine, a benevolent white sea-cow provided milk at the Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis, until a witch milked her through a sieve.xii The Glas Gowlawn (the Grey Cow), presented itself every day before each house in Ireland, giving a day’s supply of milk. So she continued until an avaricious person laid in a quantity for traffic, whereupon she left Ireland, going into the sea off the Hill of Howth.xiiiY Fuwch Frech, ‘The Freckled Cow’, roamed the Mynydd Hiraethog near Ruthin. Her pasture was near a farm called Cefn Bannog (‘Horned Ridge’); she drank at the spring called Ffynnon y Fuwch Frech.xiv A stone circle, Preseb y Fuwch Frech (‘The Freckled Cow’s Crib’) was her shelter.xv Whenever anyone went to her for milk, she filled the vessel with milk of the richest quality, and she never became dry. Eventually, a witch took a sieve and milked her dry. In response she walked to Llyn dau ychain, the Lake of the Two Oxen, in the parish of Cerrig-y-drudion, followed by her two children the Ychen Bannawg, the legendary long-horned oxen, bellowing as they went. They disappeared into the lake and were never seen again.xvi In County Limerick, a cow emerged from the River Deel; if she were milked a hundred times a day she would each time fill a can. She departed into the river and was never more seen, when she was cursed by a woman milking her.xvii This confluence of stone, water and animals in these narratives is a discernible element in a wide array of rock art traditions worldwide.


Petroglyphs in Galicia, northwest Spain, are categorised as part of an ‘Atlantic tradition’ of largely non-figurative rock art, which includes open air rock art in Britain and Ireland.xviii A characteristic motif of this tradition is the cupule surrounded by incised concentric rings, giving the appearance of ripples in a pool of water. Aquatic associations radiate beyond such formal resemblances. Carvings in the Lerez valley are close to streams, springs and branas – areas of land where rainwater has formed small pools that do not dry up until well into summer, which become good pasture land where ‘it is not uncommon even today to see animals openly grazing’.xix Many carved rocks in Galicia lie beside paths today favoured by free-ranging animals.xx Most rock art locations on the Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry are in elevated positions towards the heads of river valleys, and are interpreted as ‘a manifestation of a cult centred on water sources’. xxi

For eastern Norway, an association is suggested between ‘religion’ and ‘ecology’ in the motifs and location of rock carvings.xxii Elk migrate across the River Drammenselva close to carvings of elks, which are themselves by rapids.xxiii Elk are depicted on a rock by strong rapids on the River Etna at Møllerstufossen, Oppland, on a winter migration route for elk.xxiv Two elk figures carved on a big stone out in a rapid of the River Gudbrandsdalslågen at Eidefossen, Oppland, are at a point where elk pass in autumn and winter.xxv At Skogerveien, Drammen, Buskerud, elk/deer figures are carved on a surface with a wide view of the Drammensfjord. Elk still migrate into this now residential district during winter.xxvi In the Sogn og Fjordane district of Norway, rock art sites, composed of only cupmarks, are often associated with mountain summer farms.xxvii Engraved images in the Moroccan High Atlas – bovines, weapons, anthropomorphs, cupules and other animals – are associated with meadows, springs and tumuli, corresponding to zones today inhabited in the period of summer pasturing, a relation between carvings and transhumance activities that ‘all researchers agree on’.xxviii This pattern of distribution is nevertheless interpreted through an economic rationality, that sees carvings as ‘territorial markers’ for groups competing for ‘grazing resources’.xxix

This rationality informs a model of Neolithic transhumance proposed for Northumberland, in which watercourses define areas of upland on the Cheviot Hills, characterised as Inscribed Grazing Areas (IGAs), possibly the destination of a localised transhumance cycle. IGAs are marked by clusters of carvings which ‘formalise’ areas of the upland, all of which are surrounded for the most part by a continuous water body.xxx The proposed existence of Mesolithic ‘territories’ defined by watercourses and watersheds in the Pennine massif and adjacent areassuggests a continuity of animal movements across so-called ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ temporal contexts, these same features defining early Neolithic IGAs, meaning that IGAs may record the imprint of an earlier Mesolithic cognition of landscape configuration.xxxi The seasonal driving of animals in the Neolithic may likewise have inscribed hunter-gatherer paths more prominently, enhancing the symbolic potency of monuments that already lay along these paths.xxxii

Near a sandstone crag, Goldsborough Rigg, Co. Durham, two cup-and-ring-marked rocks border an embanked drove road.xxxiii Seasonal regularities of animal movement persist, in that the ‘wild’ white cattle of Chillingham, Northumberland, still apparently observe a comparable routine so far as the confines of their modern park allow.xxxiv An ancestral herd may have been enclosed when the park was formed in the 1220s.xxxv Significantly, there are prehistoric rock carvings around the park. A cup-and-ring-marked rock in Newcastle Museum, named ‘Chillingham’, came “off the fell”.xxxvi A cup-marked outcrop is in the vicinity of the Ox-Eye stone, close to the park; its boundary wall bisects Ros Castle hillfort, where carvings are reported on an outcrop.xxxvii Further afield, a possible ‘droveway’ has been found between the rock art site at Roughting Linn and a ‘henge-like’ enclosure at Coupland, the latter perhaps a corral for driven cattle.xxxviii

Grazing rights were probably the oldest element in the common field system, descended from more extensive rights enjoyed ‘from time immemorial’, which Anglo-Saxon and Norman monarchs and lords did not graciously institute, but regulated and curtailed.xxxix Monasteries were also involved in the development of existing patterns of transhumance, which incorporated well-trodden paths; several miles of the boundary between the former North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, from the head of Nidderdale to the west bank of the River Ure, follow a drift-way still used by the herdsmen of Fountains Abbey late in the Middle Ages.xl Fittingly, there are rock carvings in Nidderdale.xli


Traditions of stones which move and drink, as animals travelling to water, suggest patterns of animal-human interaction, leaving archaeological traces. Alfred Watkins heard this story at TheCrown in Walton, Radnorshire:

They do say as how when the Four Stones hear the sound of Old Radnor bells they go down to Hindwell Pool to drinkxlii

In 1994 aerial photography revealed the arc of a ditch at Hindwell Farm. The site proved to be a palisaded enclosure, dating to about 2700 BCE, focused around Hindwell Pool.xliii The ‘anticipation’ by tradition of the movement of stones in the prehistoric past to water – like a group of hinds – is underscored by a possible cursus running between the Four Stones and the enclosure.xliv Cup-marks have been noted on one of the Four Stones.xlv Hindwell is comparable to the West Kennet palisades, two late Neolithic enclosures near Avebury henge, one of which is bisected by the River Kennet, in Wiltshire. Within them were found the remains of thousands of pigs, suggesting a ritual, porcine focus to the enclosures.xlvi Did Hindwell have a comparable cervid focus? The association of animals, water and stone feature in the relatively modern legend about the sacred springs around which the Roman city of Bath would develop, when the swineherd, Bladud, follows his pigs to the hot, healing springs. In Derbyshire, the sacred springs dedicated to a Romanised local goddess, are in the modern spa town of Buxton, a name which may mean ‘Buck Stone’.xlvii Intriguingly, routes through the Bull Ring, Staden Low and Arbor Low henges “appear to have led towards the warm spring where Buxton now stands – an area possessing the clearest evidence of earlier Neolithic occupation and one which… carried a nemeton (Celtic sanctuary) name into historic times – Aquae Arnemetiaexlviii The beating of a path by herds to such ‘waterholes’ may have further sanctified already ‘special’ features, leading to architectural formalisation of their approaches over time. Such movements may underlie the evolution of monument complexes around cursuses in the Thames Valley, leading to the mutual reinforcement of grazing and ceremonial spaces in the Neolithic,xlix whereby ‘an axial organisation of space’ came ‘to overlay the entire landscape’ linking ‘venerated places’.l The ‘metaphorical link’ postulated between the flow of rivers and processional movement along cursus monuments in the Neolithic, further merges the movements of animal, stone and water.li


Seeing stones as animate beings – in the disenchanted present – draws seemingly ‘unrelated’ phenomena together. The recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire are distinguished by the morphology of the recumbent and flanking stones, resembling nothing other than a pair of horns. Elsewhere, particular stones, like magical cows, have ‘emerged’ from the banks of rivers. A red sandstone slab displaying spiral decoration, possibly quarried from the banks of the Jedwater, travelled seven kilometres west to reach Bloomfield, near Ancrum.lii The red sandstone monolith, LongMeg, standing outside the stone circle of her Daughters,must have come from cliffs by the banks of the Eden, a kilometre west.liii The remnants of a chambered tomb in Liverpool, bearing spiral and human footprint motifs, evokes water in its name – the Calderstones – calder meaning “rapid stream”.liv Roaring water, resounding in the conjunction of migratory paths and rock carvings in Norway,lv resonates too at the rock art site at Roughting Linn, Northumberland, situated by a waterfall (‘linn’) roaring like a bull (‘roughting’).

To return to where we began, at Stonehenge; henges too conjoin the elements of water and stone. The orientation of double entrance henges often parallels the course of nearby rivers, while water would have periodically or permanently filled most henge ditches.lvi The banks of Mayburgh henge are composed of water-worn cobbles taken from the Eamont river.lviiSome enclosures and henges in lowland Britain were bisected by rivers or were subject to flooding.lviii In this ‘hydrolithic’ context we may place the – now departed – bluestone circle, which ‘grazed’ on the banks of the Avon, at the beginning of the Avenue linking the river – from which they perhaps emerged – with Stonehenge, the stones’ ultimate destination.lix

From exploring the ‘natural history’ of megaliths, the next part of this article will elaborate upon their social and cosmological resonance.

Simon Crook

i The sandstone Altar Stone, within Stonehenge, probably travelled from the Brecon Beacons. http://www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/stonehenge/stonehenge07-06.html (Stonehenge Riverside Project 2010). Retrieved 11/5/11.

ii Viner, S. Evans, J. Albarella, U. and Parker Pearson, M. 2010. ‘Cattle mobility in prehistoric Britain: strontium isotope analysis of cattle teeth from Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, Britain)’. Journal of Archaeological Science Vol.37, Issue 11

iii Wallis, R.J. 2009. ‘Re-enchanting Rock Art Landscapes: Animic Ontologies, Nonhuman Agency and Rhizomic Personhood’. Time and Mind Vol. 2 Issue 1: 47-70. ‘Pre-givenness’ is resistant to the ubiquitous dominance of the concept of production – it is, veritably, ‘the grit in the machine’. The discourse of production insists that all ‘meaning’ and ‘personhood’ is producedby labour, an alienating process which reflects the production and circulation of commodities through which the economy functions as the definitive measure of ‘value’.

iv Anthropologists often rationalise the ‘erroneous’ perception of a ‘pre-given’ autonomous material reality as a form of ‘representation’, restating the Victorian dismissal of fetishism.

v Other place names of this type include the Grey Mare and her Colt.

vi Coles, F. R. 1904. ‘Report on the stone circles of the north-east of Scotland: the Buchan district’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 38, pp. 256-305, pp 261-2.

vii Toponymic principles may outlast the original context of their development. Many ‘Cow and Calf’ rocks around the world acquired the toponym from Anglophone mariners, but not all would ever have had their own legends.

viii Lucas, A. T. 1989. Cattle in Ancient Ireland. Kilkenny: Boethius Press, pp. 45-46.

ix Souvestre, E. 1858. ‘Jean Rouge Gorge’, Foyer Breton: Contes et Récits Populaires. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, pp. 100-117.

x Kennedy, P. 1998. Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts. Felinfach: Llanerch, p. 110.

xi Bord, J. and Bord, C. 1978. The Secret Country. London: Paladin, p 26.

xii Ibid., p. 27.

xiii Hackett, W. 1853. ‘Bovine Legends’. Trans. of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Vol. II, pp. 311-319, p. 303.

xiv Owen, E. 1996. Welsh Folk-Lore. Felinfach: Llanerch, p. 129.

xv Menefee, S. 1996. ‘Meg and her Daughters: some traces of Goddess-beliefs in Megalithic Folklore?’ Billington, S. and Green, M. (eds.) The Concept of the Goddess. London: Routledge, pp. 78-90, p. 78.

xvi Owen, op. cit., p. 129.

xvii Hackett, op. cit., p. 316.

xviii Bradley, R. 1997. Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe. London: Routledge.

xix Nuňez, A. 1999. Galician petroglyphs in the valley of the river Lerez, Pontevedra. Tracce No.3. http://www.rupestre.net/tracce/gali.html Retrieved 10/5/11

xx Bradley, R. Criado Boado, F. and Fábregas Valcarce, R. 1994. ‘Rock art research as landscape archaeology: a pilot study in Galicia, north-west Spain. World Archaeology. Vol.25 No.3, pp. 374-90.

xxi O’Sullivan, A. and Sheehan, J. 1993. ‘Prospection and Outlook: Aspects of Rock Art on the Iveragh Peninsula, Co.Kerry’, in Shee-Twohig, E. and Ronayne, M. (eds.) Past Perceptions: the Prehistoric Archaeology of South-West Ireland. Cork: University of Cork Press, pp. 75-84, p. 83.

xxii Mikkelsen, E. 1986. ‘Religion and Ecology: Motifs and Location of Hunters’ Rock Carvings in Eastern Norway’. Steinsland, G. (ed.) Words and Objects: Towards a Dialogue Between Archaeology and History of Religion. Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

xxiii Ibid., p. 132.

xxivIbid., p. 130.

xxvIbid., p. 128.

xxvi Ibid., p. 132.

xxvii Walderhaug, E. 1995. ‘Rock art and society in Neolithic Sogn og Fjordane’. Helskog, K. and Olsen, B. (eds.) Perceiving Rock Art: Social and Political Perspectives. Oslo: Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, pp. 170-171.

xxviii Hoarau, B. and Ewague, A. 2008. ‘New rock engravings at Yagour, Moroccan Western High Atlas’. International Newsletter on Rock Art (INORA). No.51, pp. 8-15, p. 15.

xxix Ibid., p. 15.

xxx Waddington, C. 1996. ‘Putting Rock Art to Use’. Northern Archaeology. 13/14, pp. 147-177, p. 157.

xxxi Ibid., p.158.

xxxii Tilley, C. 1994. A Phenomenology of Landscape. Oxford: Berg, p 207.

xxxiii Beckensall, S. 1999. British Prehistoric Rock Art. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 61-63.

xxxiv McDonnell, J. 1988. ‘The Role of Transhumance in Northern England’. Northern History Vol. 24: 1-17, p 5.

xxxv Hemming, J. 2002. ‘Bos Primigenius in Britain: Or, Why Do Fairy Cows Have Red Ears?’ Folklore113: 71-82.

xxxvi Beckensall, S. 1983. Northumberland’s Prehistoric Rock Carvings. Rothbury: Pendulum, p168.

xxxvii Ibid., p. 169

xxxviii Waddington, op.cit., p. 171.

xxxix Joan Thirsk 1964, cited in Thompson, E.P. 1991. Customs in Common. London: Merlin, p. 133.

xl McDonnell op.cit.

xli Beckensall 1999, p. 78.

xlii Watkins, A. 1925. The Old Straight Track. London: Methuen, p 18.

xliii Gibson, A. 1998. ‘Hindwell and the Neolithic Palisaded Sites of Britain and Ireland’. Gibson, A. and Simpson, D. (eds.) Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Stroud: Alan Sutton, pp. 68-79, pp 68-69.

xliv Gibson, A. 1999. The Walton Basin Project: Excavation and Survey in a Prehistoric Landscape 1993-7. Council for British Archaeology. CBA Research Report 118, p. 154.

xlv Darvill, T. and Wainwright, G. 2003. ‘A Cup-marked Stone from Dan-y-garn, Mynachlog-Ddu, Pembrokeshire, and the Prehistoric Rock art from Wales. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society69, pp. 253- 264, p 259.

xlvi Whittle, A. 1991. ‘A Late Neolithic Complex at West Kennet, Wilts.’ Antiquity 65, p 152.

xlvii Cameron, K. 1959. The Place-Names of Derbyshire. Cambridge University Press, p.53.

xlviii Loveday, R. 1998. ‘Double Entrance Henges – Routes to the Past?’ Gibson, A. and Simpson, D. (eds.) Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Stroud: Alan Sutton, pp. 14-31, p. 31.

xlix Barclay, A. and Hey, G. 1999. ‘Cattle, cursus monuments and the river: the development of ritual and domestic landscapes in the Upper Thames Valley’. Barclay, A. and Harding, J. (eds.) Pathways and Ceremonies: the Cursus Monuments of Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books. p 71

l Last, J. 1999. ‘Out of Line: Cursuses and Monument Typology in Eastern England’. Barclay, A. and Harding, J. (eds.) op. cit., p. 87

li Barclay and Hey op.cit., p. 73.

liiFrodsham, P. 1996. ‘Spirals in Time: Morwick Mill and the Spiral Motif in the British Neolithic’. Northern Archaeology 13/14, pp. 101-141, p 109.

liii Ibid.

liv Cameron, K. 1961. English Place-Names. London: Batsford, p 38.

lv Goldhahn, J. 2002. ‘Roaring Rocks: an Audio-Visual Perspective on Hunter-Gatherer Engravings in Northern Sweden and Scandinavia’. Norwegian Archaeological Review Vol.35 No.1, pp. 29-68.

lvi Richards, C. 1996. ‘Henges and Water’. Journal of Material Culture Vol.1 (3), pp. 313-336.

lvii Topping, P. 1992, ‘The Penrith Henges: a survey by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monument of England’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 60, pp. 285–324, p 250.

lviii Fowler, C. and Cummings, V. 2003. ‘Places of Transformation: Building Monuments from Water and Stone in the Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute No.9, pp. 1-20, p 8.

lix Catling, C. 2009. ‘Bluestonehenge’. Current Archaeology. Issue 237, pp. 22-28.

%d bloggers like this: