“Till the Cows Come Home” (Part Two): The Social Life of Megaliths

A version of this article first appeared in Northern Earth Issue 129, Spring 2012, pp. 16-22 http://northernearth.co.uk/

In part one I traced the confluence of the movement of animals, stone and water in prehistory, exemplified by the appearance of non-local stones and cattle bones in the Stonehenge area, focused around the course of the River Avon. In this concluding part I return to the source of some of those stones, and a likely source for some of the cattle which travelled to this area, to explore possible social and cosmological dimensions of these journeys and the multiple life histories – human and other-than-human – of which they mark the course.


The cupules carved on rocks associated with springs on the rocky hill of Carn Menyni bring this place – one of the sources of the spotted dolerite among the bluestones used at Stonehenge – into the field of practices linking megaliths and pastoralism. The very name Carn Menyn – Butter Rock’ – evokes such associations, typified by stories surrounding a ‘tutelary being’ connected with herds of cattle in Scotland: the Glaistig. Said to have been a woman of honourable position, a former mistress of the house, she had been put under enchantments and now had a fairy nature given her. As she had a special interest in the cows and the dairy, a portion of milk was set apart for her every evening, in a hole for the purpose in some convenient stone. Unless this was done, something was found amiss in the dairy next morning.ii At night she kept the calves from the cows, and the substance in the milk. In summer she accompanied the cattle to the hill pastures, and there had her portion of milk duly poured out for her in the evening in a stone near the fold. In Iona, to the common called Staonnaig, the islanders brought their cattle in the summer; a glaistig stayed in a hole in the rocks there, and the people poured milk every night in a stone for her. The glaistig who attended to the cattle of Achindarroch, in Glenduror, had her allowance poured out for her every evening on a stone called Clach na Glaistig.iii

Perhaps, in the figure of the Glaistig, can be identified the shadow of a universal provider of prosperity, reduced spatially to the territory the group occupies, and conceived through the ancestral spectrum.iv Appropriated by a group, this “provider of the game” is “ancestralised and divided into many localised figures” containing “within one territorial group the potential prosperity of the place” based on “a permanent fear that strangers may steal it or turn it away”.v The glaistig that followed the house of Lamont at Ardnadrochit, once drove Lamont’s cattle away from a band of thieves. She drove them up the hill to a place called Meall na Lìre. Here she struck the cows, and converted them into grey stones. On coming up, the plunderers stood at these stones, and one of them, tapping with his broadsword the stone near him, said he felt sure this was “the Bed of the White Cow” (Bo Bhàn). At this, the stone split in two and the glaistig broke her heart.vi

A Scottish rhyme talks of

Three nines of hillocks

On each hillock three nines of stakes:

To each stake three nines of polled, dun cows tied.vii

Maybe Carn Menyn was the seat of a guardian of cows, like the legendary dairymaid who created Loch Tay when she forgot to secure the door of a spring, which then overflowed.viii Indeed, conceiving stone as a cow (symbolic or actual), renders Carn Menyn a ‘tethering-place’, like the ‘three nines of hillocks’, for cows/stones prior to their journey to Stonehenge.

A study of place names associated with pastoralism in the parish of Myddfai in the Black Mountains of Carmarthenshire, mentions Nant Menyn (‘butter stream’), which rises on the slopes below Llyn y Fan Fach.ix This lake is the most famous location of one of a genre of stories of supernatural women emerging from lakes, bringing herds of animals as a dowry for their human husbands. Here a young cowherd meets a lady from the lake, who he marries. Invariably, in such genres of story, a violent act or slight committed by the husband leads to the departure of the bride and her herds back into the waters.x

The conjunction of water, processional ways and cattle, discussed in part one, features in a legend which accounts both for the appearance of the first cows in Ireland and the first roads. A mermaid, captured by some fisherman on a beach in Imokilly, and prepared a place by the hearth, offered advice and prophecy for the people round. Her last instructions were for her return to the shore on May Eve. When in the water, she told the following throng to watch, come a year, for the arrival of three cows. Next May-Eve, the people saw these wonderful beasts swim out of the waves. At this time there were no roads in Ireland. The cows stood for a while as if deliberating, and the people observed that one was white, another red and the third black. Then all three walked abreast up from the strand, and great was the wonder of the multitude on observing that a fine broad road was already formed for them to walk on.xi

The cows walked about a mile inland before their paths diverged. The red cow (Bo Ruadh) turned to the south west and walked along the coast towards Dursey Island, a journey echoed in archaeology. On the south-west coast of Ireland is a small peninsula where the earliest evidence of domestic cattle remains has been found.xii Excavations on the eroded remnants of a peninsula jutting into Ferriter’s Cove, Co.Kerry, found evidence of settlement on a wave-cut platform above the present high water mark. A hearth and a cache of five polished stone axes was found, near a pit and a cluster of cattle bones.xiii Contemporaneous with the final phases of Ireland’s later Mesolithic, the cattle bones indicated “some form of ‘neolithic’ presence on the site”. Their presence is explained as a result of cattle being imported from outside Ireland as part of gift exchange prior to the establishment of “a full Neolithic economy”.xiv


The selection of stone for the construction of the megalithic architecture that most conspicuously characterises the ‘Neolithic way of life’ was probably informed by similar reasoning to that behind the selection of stone for axe production – extracted from places with a distinctive character,xv and Creag na Caillich (Crag of the Old Woman), which dominates the western end of Loch Tay, is no exception.xvi Extraction of raw stone and the movement of ‘finished products’ cannot have been governed entirely by practical considerations, as some of the most suitable materials were underexploited, while preferred materials came generally from unusual, or difficult to reach, locations, contrary to the principle of least effort.xvii Axes, as objects with biographies, might have been considered as “pieces of places”.xviii The numinous quality of ‘place’ may have influenced the selection of bluestone from outcrops like Carn Menyn on Mynydd Preseli, a quality emphasised in the successful campaign to prevent Preseli becoming military training ranges in 1946-48, when the Reverend R. Parri Roberts told generals, who had suggested it was ‘merely’ grazing land, that the area nurtured souls.xix Assuredly, the generals argued their case from cast-iron utilitarian principles – ‘guns before butter’, indeed.

The ‘permeability’ of such rocky landscapes features in the story of Aine cnoc Aine (Aine of Knockainey), from west Donegal. A man had an only daughter called Aine. One day he told Aine to go to the hill and gather up the cattle and bring them home. Unable to find them before nightfall, she returned home. ‘Where are the cattle?’ her father asked, and when she said that she had not found them, he ordered her roughly to go, and not return until she had found them. Soon afterwards the man felt sorry for what he had done. He hurried out to call her back but he was only in time to see her walking into the rock called Creig na Caillighe (‘The Rock of the Old Woman’).xx There is a striking coincidence of such named features with the seasonal landscape of the upland summer pastures, typified in Scotland by the shielings – huts occupied by those who followed the herds. One shieling, on the slopes above Loch Tay in Perthshire – overshadowed by its own Creag na Caillich – had evidence of occupation in the early Neolithic, indicative of a complex history of occupation into modern times.xxi The shieling grounds are notable also for the abundance of cup-marked stones.xxii

The narrative motif of the disappearance of the wronged bride, or daughter, into the lake or the rock, corresponds to the socially ambiguous position of women, relating to the practice of exogamy, the ‘marrying in’ of women to a patrilocal group, in which women remained ‘outsiders’.xxiii The quality of outsiderhood is evident within the practice of transhumance in Norway and the departure to the upland grazing of the sætter – summer farms associated, like the Tayside shielings, with cup-mark sites – where the young woman is vulnerable to the attentions of the huldre men (beings akin to fairies), as she lives alone ina mountain hut, tendingcattle, making cheese, or weaving, living a marginal existence part of each year, outside the confines of the social life of her village.xxiv The etymology of the Greek word for ‘fairies’ – exotica – is revealing in this respect, meaning ‘ladies from outside’,xxv connoting both supernatural and social danger, viewed from the limited perspective of the patriarchal ‘insider’. Such a liminal situation is embodied in the Queen of the Fairies’ Chair, a stone marking a stretch of the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, which itself follows a transhumance route up the Hodder valley.xxvi

St. Genevieve guarding her flock, 16th century, Fontainebleau School. The sheepfold in which the patron saint of Paris keeps her flock appears to be a stone circle, just as the circles at Mitchells Fold and Callanish harboured magical cows.

The movement of ‘exotic’ substances, like particular kinds of stone, may have borne similar associations to the movement of ‘the living’. Indeed, the concept of seasonal journeys to quarries is supported by ethnographic data,xxvii while expeditions to the mountaintop quarries such as Pike O’ Stickle may only have been feasible during summer months.xxviii This seasonal pattern coincides with the summer grazing of herds on upland pastures, suggested by the proximity of the Neolithic axe quarry at Creag na Caillich and the shieling grounds of Loch Tay. Supernatural forces needed to be placated at the axe quarries operated until the early twentieth century by the Tungei of Papua New Guinea, where two spirit sisters were held to control access to the stone.xxix The association of ‘female guardians’ with these quarries echoes a pattern of toponymy associated with natural and archaeological features, identifying the cailleach, or ‘old woman’. On Anglesey is a decorated neolithic chambered tomb called Barclodiad y Gawres, ‘the Giantess’s Apronful’, while in Lancashire is a barrow called ‘the Grandmother’s Apronful’.


The cosmological dimensions of pastoralism are expressed in the Irish saying that “this life is merely booleying (summer pastures) and heaven our old township (permanent dwelling) for eternal life”.xxx Thus the span of earthly life is described in the move to the upland summer pastures in May, while the move back to the township in November marks the end of this life. The Milky Way is the Bothar-bó-finne, ‘Road of the White Cow’, in Irish tradition, the celestial counterpart of a terrestrial road of the same name.xxxi Another dimension of psychogeography – Asger Jorn’s ‘science fiction of urbanism’xxxii – is configured in psyche (‘soul’), evoking a geography consonant with the belief that the Milky Way, in many traditional cosmologies, marks the path of souls to the otherworld. In Lancashire the Milky Way was believed to be the path by which departed souls went to Heaven and was called ‘Cow Lane’.xxxiii

Carvings in a rock shelter on the upper Loa River in Chile depict camelid species, such as llama and alpaca.xxxiv Located in a ravine known as Taira, the site is close to many springs. The location and content of the imagery, such as the suckling of a young camelid by a larger one, may resonate in Andean myths concerning a being called Yakana, seen both as creator of the llamas, and as a llama herself, who suckles her young and has her orbit within the Milky Way. At midnight she drinks from the sea and springs to stop the world being inundated. In prehispanic myths of the origin of llamas from Peru, they are responsible for the creation of three puquios or springs. Some springs are considered as having especially significant associations, being conceptualised in Aymara as ‘origin places’: juturi. In many regions of the Andes they are ‘creational holes’ for herds, and like Yakana are directly related to the existence and reproduction of the llamas and alpacas,xxxv redolent of the otherworldly herds which have emerged from Welsh lakes. On Pumlumon – the ‘five-peaked’ mountain from which the rivers Severn, Wye and Rheidol rise – is a rock configuration called Fuwch-wen-a-llo, ‘the White Cow and Calf’, close to the source of the Severn, and suggestive of a recurrent narrative motif linking white cows and river sources. The most well-known narrative concerns the River Boyne, named after a woman called Boann, ‘white cow’,who broke an injunction not to visit a secret well, which consequently overflowed and drowned her, forming the river that bore her name.xxxvi

The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the north-west of Spain was the focus of one of the great mediaeval pilgrimage routes, reached overland or by sea along the Atlantic coastline.xxxvii It was also a cosmic journey, in that the road to Santiago was seen as the earthly projection of the Milky Way.xxxviii This lacteal path continues up the cathedral steps at Santiago, built into which are fragments of prehistoric ‘Galician-style’ carvings,xxxix encoding in an ecclesiastical setting the correlation between the paths of free-ranging animals and rock art sites in Galicia, embodied most conspicuously in the carvings of animal footprints on some Galician rock outcrops.xl Just as the spilling of milk accounts in classical myth for the formation of the Milky Way, so the spilling of milk precipitates the departure of the bounteous cow in legend. The spotted dolerite of Carn Menyn, with its pattern of white feldspar inclusions, has been described as “a rockbound equivalent of the stars of the night sky, a Milky Way trapped in stone”; an impression reinforced by the stone’s deeper shade when it is freshly quarried or made wet.xli This wonderful analogy embeds this stone within a ‘pastoral cosmology’, integrating celestial, terrestrial and aquatic realms.


The water’s edge, as seen in archaeology, folklore and myth, is a recurrent location for the emergence, as well as depiction,xlii of other-than-human agents – stones, animals, ‘supernatural’ entities – all actors in a web of social relationships, a communicative field involving human and non-human people. Again, a correspondence with psychogeographypresents itself: the dérive or ‘drift’ was the primary means of psychogeographic exploration, defined as “a transient passage through varied ambiances”.xliii The French verb, dériver,means “remove from the water’s edge”; it also means “drift”, influenced by English “drive”.xliv These definitions evoke the very riverine and cattle-driving themes exemplified by the passage of the bluestones from the banks of the Avon along the Avenue to Stonehenge. In a kaleidoscopic multiplication and superimposition of contexts, the same well-trodden paths may be perceived to radiate across time and space, where the dérives of urban psychogeographers in Paris or London correspond to the paths of pastoralists, drovers and their herds, their footprints linking ‘special places’ along the way. Paradoxically, Guy Debord’s invocation of Hegel’s odyssey of the spirit anticipates elements of the ‘new animism’ and its concept of ‘pre-given places’,xlvin stating that by virtue of this “mobile space of play the autonomy of place will be rediscovered without any new exclusive attachment to the soil, and thus too the authentic journey will be restored to us, along with authentic life understood as a journey containing its entire meaning within itself”.xlvi

iDarvill. T. 2007. Current Archaeology. ‘Message in the Stones’ http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/message-in-the-stones.htmhttp://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/message-in-the-stones.htmRetrieved 10/5/11

ii Campbell, J.G. 1900. Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, pp. 155-156.

iii Ibid., pp. 160-179.

iv Even, M-D. 1991. ‘The Shamanism of the Mongols’. Akiner, S (ed.) Mongolia Today. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, p. 190

v Ibid., p. 191.

vi Campbell, J.G. op.cit., p. 175.

vii Gordon, S. 1995. Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands. Edinburgh: Birlinn, p. 94.

viii Ibid.

ix Ward, A. 1999. ‘Transhumance and Place-Names: An Aspect of Early Ordnance Survey Mapping on the Black Mountain Commons, Carmarthenshire’. Studia Celtica XXXIII: 335-348, p. 336.

x Parry-Jones, D. 1992. Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore. New York: Barnes and Noble, p. 79.

xi Hackett, W. 1853. ‘Bovine Legends’. Trans. Of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Vol. II, pp. 311-319

xii Woodman, P. and O’Brien, M. 1993. ‘Excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, Co.Kerry.’ Shee-Twohig, E. and Ronayne, M. (eds.) Past Perceptions: the Prehistoric Archaeology of South-West Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press, pp. 25-34.

xiii Ibid., pp. 27-28.

xiv Ibid., p. 33

xv Bradley, R. 2000. An Archaeology of Natural Places. London: Routledge, p. 86.

xvi Edmonds, M., Sheridan, A. and Tipping, R. 1992. ‘Survey and excavation at Creag na Caillich, Killin, Perthshire.’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, pp. 77-112.

xvii Bradley, op.cit., p. 88.

xviii Ibid.

xix Wyn, H. 2008. Battle of the Preselau. Maenclochog: Clychau Clochog.

xx Logan, P. 1981. The Old Gods: the Facts about Irish Fairies. Belfast: The Appletree Press, pp. 55-56.

xxi Atkinson, M. 2000. ‘Rural settlement in north Loch Tayside’. Atkinson, J., Banks, I. And MacGregor, G. (eds.) Townships to Farmsteads: Rural Settlement Studies in Scotland, England and Wales. Oxford: BAR British series 293, pp.150-60, p. 157.

xxii Ibid., p. 150.

xxiiiBreen, R. 1980. The ritual expression of inter-household relationships in Ireland. Cambridge Anthropology 6 (1-2), pp. 33-59.

xxiv Leavy, B.F. 1994. In Search of the Swan Maiden. New York University Press, p. 286.

xxv Henningsen, G. 1990. “The Ladies from Outside”: an archaic pattern of the witches’ sabbath. In Ankarloo, B. and Henningsen, G. (eds.) Early Modern European Witchcraft. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 191-215.

xxvi McDonnell, J. 1988. ‘The Role of Transhumance in Northern England’. Northern History Vol. 24: 1-17, p. 8

xxvii Sharpe, K. 2007. Rock Art and Rough Outs: exploring the sacred and social dimensions of prehistoric carvings at Copt Howe, Cumbria. InMazel, A., Nash, G. and Waddington, C. (eds.) Art as Metaphor: The Prehistoric Rock-Art of Britain. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 151-173, p. 161.

xxviii Ibid.

xxix Ibid.

xxx Lucas, A.T. 1989. Cattle in Ancient Ireland. Kilkenny: Boethius Press, p. 65.

xxxi Hull, E. 1928. Folklore of the British Isles. London: Methuen, p. 150.

xxxii Khatib, A. 1958. Attempt at a psychogeographical description of Les Halles (Internationale Situationniste No. 2, pp 13-17), in Andreotti, L. and Costa, X. (eds.) 1996. Theory of the Dérive and other situationist writings on the city. Barcelona: ACTAR, pp. 72-76, p. 76.

xxxiii Hardwick, C. 1872. Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England). London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co., p.182.

xxxiv Berenguer, J. and Martinez, J.L. 1989. ‘Camelids in the Andes: rock art environment and myths.’ Morphy, H. (ed.) Animals into Art. London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 390-416.

xxxv Ibid., pp. 401-403.

xxxvi Rhys, J. 1888. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom. London: Williams and Norgate, p. 556

xxxvii Bradley, R. 1997. Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe. London: Routledge, p 33.

xxxviii Roob, A. 1997. Alchemy and Mysticism. Köln: Taschen, p. 700.

xxxix Bradley, op.cit., p. 33.

xl Bradley, op.cit., p. 194.

xli Darvill. T. 2007. Op.cit. It seems that Tim Darvill is not the first person to have noticed the resemblance of spotted dolerite and the night sky, as this blog post shows: http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/in-praise-of-night-sky.html (retrieved 20/10/12).

xlii Helskog, K. 2001. The Shore Connection. Cognitive Landscape and Communication with Rock Carvings in Northernmost Europe. Norwegian Archaeological Review Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp 73-94.

xliii Debord, G. 1958. Theory of the Dérive (Internationale Situationniste No. 2), in Knabb, K. 1981. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley, CA.: Bureau of Public Secrets.

xlivTowards a lettrist lexicon’, Potlatch no.26, 7 May 1956. In Andreotti, L. and Costa, X. (eds.) 1996. Theory of the Dérive and other situationist writings on the city. Barcelona: ACTAR, p. 60.

xlv Wallis, R.J. 2009. Book Review of Cruickshank, J. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. University of British Columbia Press. In Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture Vol.2 Issue 1, pp. 93-98.

xlvi Debord, G. 1981. The Society of the Spectacle. London: Practical Pirate Publications, Thesis 178. Emphasis added.

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