Mapping the Old Wife

For many years I’ve have a deep fascination with sites prefixed with the name ‘Old Wife’. With plenty of time on my hands, I decided to have a go at something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, create a map.

The map covers the three main linguistic elements of my researches. For clarification, the word Wife means woman, it has only been used to signify a woman’s marital status relatively recently, therefore the Old Wife means, Old Woman. The second main element is Cailleach, a Scots and Irish Gaellic word which is still in use today and means, Old Woman/Hag/Witch. The Final element is the word Carling, which is the the Scots equivalent of Cailleach. For completeness, I have also included a few sites with a Witch element in their names as these are relatively rare and may be relevant.

The sites that I’ve select are all physical places and are named on maps. The word Carling has been a little problematic as the element Carl means a free peasant in Old English and Old Scandinavian e.g. the etymology of the word Carlton would be a settlement of free peasants. Whereas the etymology of Carling Howe, which was originally called Kerlinghou, means the hill of the old woman or hag. I have tried my best to filter- out these name elements and have hopefully only added relevant sites on the map.

Key – Blue = Cailleach, Green = Carling, Red = Old Wife, Orange = Witch

When looking at the distribution map, I cannot think of any other mythological or folkloric figure who is so well represented in our landscape and yet, as my friend Graeme points out, remains so anonymous . I suppose, given a millennia and a half of an interlinked church and state, which in the past has actively suppressed to any whiff of witchcraft or the supernatural, especially when practiced by women, the fact that her name has survived and remains embedded in our landscape is quite remarkable. The distribution of sites may also say something regarding certain commonalities between the cultures of the early inhabitants of the northern and western parts our islands.

The Hag/Crone/Old Wife/Witch

Cailleach – Gaellic, Carlin/Gyre, Carling – Scots, Kerling – Icelandic, Kelling – Faroese, Kjerring – Norwegian, Karring – Swedish, Kaelling – Danish

The map is a work in progress, I will continue to work on it and hopefully add the interactive version to this site.

Thanks to Graeme Chappell for his encouragement, comments and providing me with a few sites that I’d not come across.

Wandering over Danby Rigg

Danby – Village of the Danes

Rigg – Ridge (OScand hryggr)

Little Fryup Dale – Crossley Side  – Old Wife’s Stones –  Enclosure 738 (Ring Cairn) – Rake Way – Double Dykes – Bakers Nab – Hanging Stone

If you have an interest in history Danby Rigg is a great place to visit. It was a busy place in the past,  the northern end of the Rigg is covered in prehistoric cairns, low walls, embanked pits, hut circles and dykes. There are also Medieval features including the Viking-Age Double Dykes, iron bloomeries and trackways. Many of these features are quite subtle, especially where the heather is long, but once you get your eye in you begin to spot them everywhere, trying to make sense of them is a different matter.

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The Rigg is also rich in folklore with the Old Wife’s Stones and a Corpse Road which leads from Fryup Dale across the Fairy Cross Plain to St Hilda’s Church in Danby Dale. The dales around the Rigg are littered with tales of Hobs, Spitits and Witches.

Many years ago, when I first started visiting the Rigg, I was overwhelmed by the amount of prehistoric remains that could be seen. Over the years I have learned to focus my visits on one or two features and try and work out their relationships to the landscape.

On this visit I decided to take a look at a natural feature called The Hanging Stone. On my way to the stone I thought I’d have a quick look at the Old Wife’s Stones and a large circular monument close to the Double Dykes. It was a blistering hot day with barely a breeze, following the Old Wife’s Stones road up the side of the Rigg, I realised that midday was probably not the best time to be doing this.

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On old OS maps the Old Wife’s Stones are shown as a pair of stones, today only one remains. It sits close to the Old Wife’s Stones Road at the base of the steep scarp and overlooks Little Fryup Dale, the Fairy Cross Plain and Round Hill. On the image above the road running off to the top left follows the route of the Church Road also known as The Old Hell Road, a late Medieval Corpse Road that runs over the Rigg from Fryup Dale to St. Hilda’s Church in Danby Dale.

ring

Just to the north of the Double Dykes is a large circular monument. The ring has a diameter of approximately 20 metres, it comprised of a low stone-built ring with a possible northern entrance.

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This site was interpreted in the past as a settlement site. It was originally excavated by Atkinson in 1863. It was excavated again in 1956 by W.H. Lamplough and W.P. Baker and then re-examined by A.F Harding and J. Ostoja-Zagorski in 1984.  Harding’s conclusion was that it was an Early Bronze Age, Ring Cairn, one of a number of similar monuments that run across the Rigg.

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Walking on to the Double Dykes, a number of fairly low upright stones can be seen along the earthwork.

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The Hanging Stone sits on the scarp edge of the Rigg overlooking Danby Dale. The rock itself is part of the Dogger Formation, a group of sandstones formed in shallow seas 170-174 million years ago. The stone is covered in graffiti, there are also a number of cup marks, one of which shows signs of being pecked. Given the amount of modern graffiti on the stone it is impossible to say whether the cup marks are prehistoric or modern.

Sources

Prehistoric and Early Medieval Activity on Danby Rigg, North Yorkshire. A.F. Harding with J Ostoja-Zagorski. Royal Archaeological Institute 151, 1994.

The Place Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire. A.H. Smith 1928

Maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

An Auld Wife’s End

Did ye ivver see an auld wife,

An auld, auld, auld, wife ;

Did ye ivver see an auld wife

Hung ower a dyke to dry ?

The day was het, the wife was fat,

And she began to fry ;

So there was an end o’ the auld wife.

Hung ower the dyke to dry

A while ago I found this nursery rhyme in the Denham Tracts (pub. 1895). I was drawn to the rhyme by the mention of the Auld Wife, I tried to make some sense of it but gave up. I recently returned to the rhyme after reading about harvest traditions in Britain and Europe. I suspect that the origin of the rhyme may lie in a tradition concerning the last sheath cut in the harvest.

willy Howe

In the past, in certain parts of  Northern Britain and Ireland, the first farmer to finish his harvest would create an effigy from the last sheath, it was then passed to his neighbour who finished harvesting next and so on until it reached the last farmer to finish his harvest. This farmer was then duty-bound to keep it safe until the following spring. The effigy was known as The Cailleach, Carlin or Carline. The English translation of the Gaelic word Cailleach is Old Woman, Hag or Crone.

HarvestSummer by Pieter van der Heyden

It’s interesting that this tradition is not just confined to the British Isles. In many parts of Europe the final sheath of the harvest is deemed to be a powerful Talisman and is often known as the old mother, old woman or grandmother. In Germany the last sheath is known as Der Alte, the Old One. In the Baltic countries the last sheath is referred to as Baba or Boba, the Old Woman. James Frazer wrote an account of this in his 1922 book The Golden Bough.

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James Frazer also describes a tradition in North Pembrokeshire were the last sheath of the harvest was known as the Hag (wrach). Once the Hag was cut it had to be taken into a neighbour’s house unobserved and dry. Neighbours would keep buckets and pans of water ready to drench anyone who may be trying to smuggle the Hag into their house. The person who managed to hang the Hag in a neighbours house was entitled to a small reward such as a jug of beer. I suspect the nursery rhyme may have it’s roots in the tradition of the harvest Hag, Hag being another word for an old woman.

Sources

The Denham Tracts, Michael Aislabie Denham. 1895

The Golden Bough. Sir James George Frazer. 1922

Wade & The Old Wife

A few weeks ago I was at a wedding at St. John the Baptist’s Church in Egglescliffe. In the porch of the church I noticed what Iooked to be a horned head carved into a stone beside the inner door, I then noticed another head carved onto the same stone. The only written reference I can find to the carved heads is in a 1993 Archaeological Assessment of the church which states that The imposts are chamfered beneath, and carried by jamb shafts with carved capitals (much worn) bearing simple volutes on the faces and human heads on the angle. 

To me, the head carved beneath the ‘volute’ may actually be an element of the original carving, possibly representing a horned character. Had the heads been carved after the volute they would have been carved into the stone rather than in bas-relief. I cannot say this with any certainty but it’s an intriguing thought.

Egglescliffe heads Egglescliffe heads i

There are a number of ancient stones in the porch, one that caught my eye was a stone is described in The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture

A (broad): Surrounded by wide grooved mouldings. Above a horizontal grooved moulding is a winged motif divided by a double vertical band which terminates in plant or scroll motifs. Above this may be the legs of two figures. No trace of decoration on the lower panel survives.

B (narrow) and C (broad): Tooled away. Possible traces of a grooved moulding on right edge of B.

D (narrow): A grooved moulding edges the shaft and divides it into two panels horizontally. The lower part of the upper panel bears a crude incised plant-scroll with a drop leaf falling from a coil. No trace of decoration on the lower panel survives.

Egglescliffe wayland Egglescliffe waylandi

In the discussion section of the Corpus is the following

This piece is clearly linked with Anglo-Scandinavian ornament. The strange motif on face A may be abstract (see Burton in Kendal, Westmorland: Collingwood 1927, fig. 195) or part of a draped figure (see Leeds: ibid., fig. 194; or York, Newgate: Pattison 1973, pl. 42). These motifs have also been interpreted as Weland and his flying machine: Lang 1972. The thick scrolls are also found at Burton in Kendal and at Chester-le-Street (no. 9, face C). Whether this winged creature is thought of as Weland or not, the combination of the bound element and the incised scrolls reflects Anglo-Scandinavian fashion.

Weland was the son of the giant Wade, his mother was Walchilt, a giant who lived beneath the sea. Wade is a well-known figure in local folklore. He is said to be responsible for, along with his wife, Bell, the creation of many of our moorland landscape features including Freebrough Hill, Blakey and Roseberry Toppings, he is also credited with building Mulgrave and Pickering Castles. The Roman road over Wheeldale bears his name and there are two standing Stones at Goldsborough known as Wade’s Stone.

It always thrills me to find local connections to the giant Wade. He features in both Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythologies and probably entered into the local folklore when these communities settled Northern England. What we may never know is was there a supernatural being prior to Wade?, who did the ancient Britons believe created the landscape. I believe clues to the identity of this being may be found in the folklore of the Scottish highlands as this area remained fairly untainted by Continental influences. The supernatural being responsible for the creation of many landscape features in these tales was the mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, the Cailleach. Professor Annie Ross describes the Cailleach as;

More static and more archaic than the gods, she remained tied to the land for which she was responsible and whose most striking natural features seemed to her worshippers to be manifestations of her power and personality.

I have previously written about the Cailleach’s connection to the area here The Old Wife’s Well