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Hollow Hills

Jeremy Harte

Few archaeologists have been as skilled at identifying earthworks as the late Leslie Grinsell. But sometimes even he met with the unexpected. In 1934, during a survey of Surrey he called on Lord Camrose’s place at Chertsey and mentioned a prior arrangement to view some barrows. Yes, they could be seen from out in the yard. He walked round the corner and there, lined up against the wall, every wheelbarrow on the estate stood ready for inspection (Grinsell 1987: 10).

After a few words of explanation, Grinsell strode on in his inimitable way (he never bothered with the temptations of private transport) towards Barrow Hills on the Chertsey-Egham border. Here three mounds had appeared as threm burghen in a charter of 672-4, and so they were duly scheduled in the county list as Chertsey nos.1-3. But ironically, inspection later on showed them to be natural hillocks - landmarks which were no more archaeological than the wheelbarrows in the yard. Grinsell, like the estate workers, had been misled by a similarity of name.

Just because a site is referred to as a beorh in an Old English text does not mean that it was a gravemound. We should not even jump to the conclusion that it was the sort of hump or hillock that looks like a grave mound. King Alfred, after all, refers to the Alps as beorgas in his translation of Orosius, and though living at some distance from them he must have had an idea that they were not artificial. The ‘mountains round about Jerusalem’ of Psalm 125 were turned into muntbeorgas in translation. The word comes from Indo-European (IE) *bhergh, ‘height’, and its original sense of ‘high place’ persists in later languages - the Celtic Brigantes were, literally or metaphoricaly, ‘the high ones’ (OED s.v. barrow, mount).

Old English (OE) beorh would long ago have disappeared from the language if it had not proved serviceable to archaeologists. Obsolete in written English by 1500, the word left four dialect descendants - in the North barf, ‘a low ridge or hill’; in Sussex berry, ‘a hillock’; in Anglo-Cornish burrow, ‘a heap or hillock’ (often of mining waste); and in Wessex barrow, ‘a gravemound’. Ancient tumuli, rather than topography or tin-mining, were a proper object of study for gentlemen; besides, Aubrey’s classic fieldwork was undertaken on Salisbury Plain; so the Wiltshire word won the day against its competitors.

What’s in a name?

Had the geography of scholarship been different, we would not be thinking of the gravemounds of the Bronze Age as ‘barrows’ at all. Camden in 1607 says ‘they are called Lawes: the people round about say they were raised as memorials to the slain’ (OED s.v. law). He was drawing on research in Derbyshire where, until the 1860s, Peak District antiquaries continued loyally to refer to their sites as ‘lows’. The word derives from OE hlaew which, like beorh, can in certain contexts describe a grave mound. But that is not its primary meaning, for hlaew comes from IE *klei, ‘to slope’, and belongs to another group of words for hills. Some of the most imposing hills in the North are designated law, from Bolt’s Law in Weardale to Cockburn Law in the Lammermuirs.

In southern England, a barrow was equally likely to be a hill (Mills 1986). Worbarrow Tout and Hambury Tout in Dorset are hills overlooking the sea; Dogbury is an isolated rise along the great chalk escarpment which divides Blackmore Vale from the Downs, while Bulbarrow stands at the highest point of that scarp and represents, if anything does, the omphalos of the county. Creech Barrow in Purbeck is a steep-sided, volcanic-looking hill, visible from a great distance. So is Colmers Hill, after which the village of Symondsbury is named. Barrow Hill in Loders and Bugbarrow in Bere Regis are isolated small round hills.

The study of Old English topography from charters can be misleading; after all, they were written to define boundaries, and the prudent surveyor will be more interested in small mounds than large hills when settling a border. Nevertheless, Grinsell conducted fieldwork in Berkshire specifically to test the suggestion that OE beorh in charters might mean a natural, not an artificial hill, and found that this was often so (Grinsell 1938).

Often enough, then, the ‘broken barrow’ of an old boundary is not a hero’s grave pillaged for treasure, but a hill defaced by quarrying (Grundy 1919: 182). At first this comes over as a nuisance; one would like to have some less vague word as a hint to field archaeologists. But the apparent vagueness of beorh and hlaew is only a product of our own cultural preoccupations. We think that the Alps are different from the Three Barrows because we grade landscape features by size, from hillock to mountain, a practice introduced quite deliberately in the 1640s and dependant on the sort of familiarity with proportions required by landscape art (OED s.v. hill). Our ancestors, however, would have had great difficulty in understanding The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain - their topographical language being based on experience, not measurement. In the case of beorh, we are being told that the hill is one which can be seen from far off, or that you can stand on it and look into the far distance. It may be large or small; it may be natural or artificial; these are secondary considerations.

The early antiquaries, when trying to describe gravemounds to each other, were often at a loss which word to choose. Sir Thomas Browne speaks of ‘artificial hills, mounts, or barrows’ in correspondence with Dugdale, who had consulted two other scholars on the subject, none of them being certain what the monuments really were (Piggott 1988: 266). Lambarde in his description of Kent has to tell his readers that the hillocks in question are ‘called Barowes . . . which signifieth Sepulchres’ - playing on the pseudo-etymology of barrow from burial (Lambarde 1576/1826: 392). Leland, however, refers to gravemounds west of Exmoor by the local word tors, adding that they ‘be round hillockes of yerth cast up of auncient tym for markes and limites’, with never a mention of sepulture (Leland 1907: 168). As a rule, writers until the 1690s communicated the connection of barrows with burials as a fresh discovery, made either from Continental texts (Verstegan, or Wormius) or from personal investigation. From the Isle of Wight, Sir John Oglander noted triumphantly that ‘buries’ were ‘hills whose name in ye Danische tounge signifieth theyre nature . . . Dig and you shall find theyre bones’ (Piggott 1989: 120). The experiment was tried by some with a more personal interest: in 1621 two speculators turned up in Dorchester, ‘to dig in a hill at Upway . . . for some treasure that lies hidden underground’, but three days’ labour turned up ‘nothing but a few bones’ (Grinsell 1959: 69). Clearly they were surprised as well as disappointed at this skeletal result.

Where the fairies dwell

Approaching the fairy mound. From Olaus Magnus.

If beorh had always meant a hill rather than a grave, it is easy to see how the passage of a thousand years might obliterate the memory that certain hills had once been raised over the dead. The notions of country people about barrows show little memory of their purpose: the tumuli on Bincombe Down, to which the disgruntled commissioners of 1621 trudged after wrecking Upwey, were known principally for the fairy music which could be heard from inside if you put your ear to the top at noon (Harte 1986: 40). Something similar was proposed by James Walsh, the cunning man of Netherbury, when hauled up before the authorities at Exeter in 1566 and asked how he was able to commune with the fairies. ‘He speaketh with them upon hyls, where as there is great heapes of earth, as namely in Dorsetshire. And betwene the houres of xii and one at noone, or at midnight he vseth them’ (Davies 1985: 62).

Earlier, in the fifteenth century, a recipe for summoning a fairy involves burying hazel wands ‘under some hill whereas you suppose fayries haunt’. Vixerunt ante Agamemnona multi fortes - many a magician was familiar with the fairies before the days of Bob Stewart, though they ran greater risks than he. In the 1670s a Yorkshire healer did his business ‘with a white powder which, he said, he received from the Fairies, and that going to a Hill he knocked three times, and the Hill opened, and he had access to, and converse with a visible people’. He was acquitted, though not without the threat of a whipping (Briggs 1970: B1.404).

It seems that fairy hills, like the Tardis, are larger inside than out. Isobel Gowdie ‘went in to the Downie hills: the hill opened, and we came to a fair and large braw room in the day time. There are elf bulls routing and skoyling there at the entry, which feared me’. She would have been better off keeping her fear for the world outside, where she was convicted and burnt in 1662 (Murray 1931: 57). Another woman accused of witchcraft, to the far north in Orkney, confessed to seeing a fairy people rise out of the hill called Greinfall as they made their way to feast at the expense of mortals during Yule (Dalyell 1835: 532—3). In 1613 Isobel Halfdane of Perth was carried out of her bed and into a fairy hill, where she stayed for three days learning secret knowledge (Hole 1957: 73). On hills above Lanark and Kilmaurs, John Stewart was initiated by the king of the fairies into the Black Art (Scott 1830: 160). And in about 1670 George Burton spoke to a very self-possessed ten-year-old at Leith, who showed off his drumming skills and announced that ‘every Thursday night I beat all points to a sort of people that use to meet under yonder hill (pointing to the great hill between Edenborough and Leith)’. Next Thursday night he was closely guarded, but the boy had prudently acquired enough of the skills of his friends to vanish unperceived from the room about midnight, and the neighbourhood never saw him again (Briggs 1970 B1.219).

Among the arts of the seventeeth-century ‘walker between the worlds’, then, was a knowledge of fairy hills. Some of these were what we would call hills, some were what we would call barrows: fairies and magicians, like the Anglo-Saxons, saw no difference between them. Modern scholars, however, have made heavier weather of it. Right from the foundation of the Folklore Society there was competition as to who should come up with the true solution to the problem of fairy origins. They never did, of course, since the problem existed only in their own heads: the existence of the supernatural is not a conundrum to be resolved like a game of Cluedo. But everyone had fun trying, including Grant Allen, author of the now forgotten free-thinking Evolution of the Idea of God. He proposed that fairies were ghosts - or rather, as he did not believe in ghosts, memories - of the Neolithic dead: because Neolithic people were buried in barrows, fairies were seen at barrows (Allen 1881). The theory has enjoyed some popularity, on and off, ever since (Spence 1946). Is there anything to it?

Aarne-Thompson motif F211.0.1, ‘barrow as fairy dwelling’, is certainly common in recent folklore. Leslie Grinsell - taking time off from finding ancient sites to recording their legends - quotes about twenty instances in Britain, together with various forts, brochs, duns, and mesolithic shell-mounds haunted by the Good People (Grinsell 1976). Unfortunately the prevalence of sites which are not gravemounds tends to diminish the significance of those which are, and this eclecticism becomes even more apparent when we include others which are not prehistoric at all into the reckoning. The Fairy Hill at Bishopston was due to be levelled, when the pick and shovel men heard a voice from within say, ‘Is all well?’. ‘Yes’, they stammered. ‘Then keep well when you are well’, bellowed the voice, ‘and leave the Fairy Hill alone’. Thanks to this intervention it still stands, making it possible for field investigators to identify it as a twelfth-century castle motte (Westwood 1985: 400). In fact many of the most celebrated fairy mounds are not archaeological at all. The Fairy Hill at Aberfoyle has achieved a certain notoriety as the place where the Rev Robert Kirk died, or seemed to die, two years after drafting The Secret Commonwealth. In that work he had said a great deal about the ways of the hidden people, and no-one was surprised when his spirit afterwards appeared to announce its captivity within their stronghold. But the Fairy Hill is a natural knoll (Kirk 1893: 21).

Travellers’ tales

Any attempt to connect fairy hills with haunted gravemounds must meet the objection that, in historic times at least, people did not know that barrows were gravemounds; the process of association must therefore be a very early one. If this were so one would expect barrows to predominate in the earliest literature, hills in the later stories. The reverse is true. Although barrows are common in recent oral tradition, seven out of the eight accounts gathered from the witchcraft era relate to hills; and when, in the same generation, Aubrey has a tale of entry into Faerie, it involves a cave such as that at Borough hill in Frensham, or a natural rise such as Hackpen Hill at Avebury (Aubrey 1719: 3.366; Grinsell 1976: 116). In the ballad of True Thomas, the road to fair Elfland lies through a hill, identified by tradition with the massive peaks of the Eildon Hills, and this ballad derives from a fifteenth-century romance (Westwood 1985: 452—8). The Welsh life of St Collen - another fifteenth-century romance, now popularly presented as ancient Celtic wisdom - locates the underworld palace of Gwynn ap Nudd within Glastonbury Tor (Baring-Gould 1913: 4.376).

Going back further in time, we have a cluster of stories from twelfth-century chroniclers about people who entered a mysterious Otherworld from somewhere in the British isles. The heroes are King Herla, Elidyr the priest, William Peveril’s swineherd, an East Riding rustic and a Gloucestershire hunter: they adventure through, respectively, a cave, a tunnel, a cave, a barrow and a hill (Briggs 1977; Westwood 1985). The story of the barrow is told by William of Newborough, about Willy Howe, a massive Neolithic mound within the ‘Great Wolds sacred landscape’ (Haigh 1994). Here a rustic was wobbling his way back home from a party c.1150 when he heard the sound of singing and dancing coming from within. ‘Perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld the house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet’. One of the attendants brought him a cup which, after the graceless manner of mortal men, he stole.

Gervase of Tilbury, writing thirty years later, steals the story itself and transfers it to the Forest of Dean, where there are no barrows; instead the scene takes place on a mount in a forest glade. There are Scandinavian versions in which the sacramental implications of the cup are developed for, as Tony Roberts pointed out, the story is one about the transference of magical power, not food and drink (Roberts 1977). But as far as locale is concerned, hollow barrows occur as only one among many entries to the world of Faerie.

The 'witte wyves' of Holland as barrow dwellers.

Sir Gawain’s Green Chapel

Nevertheless, the descriptions of Otherworldly places have often been collated with archaeological evidence. Towards the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero makes his way to the appointed tryst at the Green Chapel, and can find no such place:

‘save a lyttel on a launde, a law as it were,
A balw berw bi a bonke the brymme bysyde . . .
Hit hade a hole on the end and on ayther syde,
And overgrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere;
And al was holw inwith, nobot an olde cave’
‘but a little way off on the level there was a kind of low,
A smooth barrow on a bank sloping down to the brook . . .
It had a hole at the end and one to either side,
And grass grew over it all in great clumps;
Inside it was hollow and only an old cave’. (2171—2182)

The use of words derived from beorh and hlaew has disposed commentators to see this site as a tumulus - presumably some kind of chamber tomb with sidepassages. But barrow and low are simply synonyms for ‘hill’ - indeed the site is ‘that hyghe hil’ a few lines later (2199). The Green Chapel may be pure imagination, but local historians have found a cave-pitted knoll called Thurshole or Fiend’s House, near Wetton, that fits the bill very well (Stewart and Matthews 1989: 98—9).

Improbable tales

To see any English legend as having derived from imaginative response to a chambered tomb is premature until alternative explanations have been ruled out. At Torbarrow Hill near Cirencester, for instance, two men are reported in 1685 to have ‘discovered an entrance into the hill, where they found several rooms with their furniture’. That is exciting - one immediately thinks of them stumbling across something out of the Cotswold-Severn group. But the story goes on, getting wilder, with Roman urns, coins, groaning heads, and a figure in armour that strikes out the light. The details are taken from mediaeval legends of the magician Gerbert, probably via the Gesta Romanorum, and there is no long barrow at the site. Instead, the two men challenge credulity by claiming to have entered the hill itself, sinking a gravel pit twelve feet down and then working sideways. The fact that pamphlets of this kind were frequently made up by some London publisher a hundred miles away does not help our unbelief much either (Grinsell 1976: 143-4; Westwood 1985: 320—2).

Unknown hollow hills

The persistent legends of secret passages into hollow hills invite links with the megalithic legacy of chambered tombs, because these are . . . well, secret passages into hollow hills. And the wonders of modern photography have made us all familiar with the key sites; when Janet Bord writes, ‘it is quite an experience to enter one of these’, we can see at once what she means (Bord and Bord 1986: 27).

But would medieval, or Roman, or Iron Age people have shared that experience? Even today, after archaeological restoration has done its best, there are not many sites in England and Wales where a tunnel leads into the hill. The industrious Jacquetta Hawkes notes ‘torch needed’ for only five. They are West Kennet, Stoney Littleton, Hetty Peglers Tump, Barclodiad y Gawres, and Bryn Celli Ddu (Hawkes 1986). Some if not all of these were sealed until recently; West Kennet was first broken into in the 1690s, and the passageway was not covered again until 1859; Stoney Littleton remained intact until 1816. Nine times out of ten the fate of a chambered tomb was to have its mound robbed and the capstones of the passage and side chambers slid away for building purposes. The original entrances had been covered not long after the disuse of the sites by earth slipping from the mound, so that it is fair to say that between 2500 BC and AD 1800 no-one in southern Britain had acess to the geomantic experience now enjoyed, or abused, by visitors to West Kennet.

This is not to suggest that the great mounds of the Neolithic were not venerated for long ages after their construction. It is just that none of the later worshippers had any idea what was inside them. At Newgrange a golden hoard of Roman workmanship was buried, and coins were offered, by strangers from outside the Irish world - presumably local people were also making gifts, but of more perishable things. All these offerings were made, however, around the standing stones before the tomb, while its decorated kerbstones and entrance passage remained hidden under earth until the mound was cleared in 1699. Knowth is surrounded by burials of many dates, from Iron Age to mediaeval, but although these show what veneration there was for the mound, their effect was to block its entry into the hill rather than revealing it: early Christian and Viking barrow-raids were followed by renewed collapse (Brennan 1983: 18, 27; Raftery 1994: 180, 196, 210).

There is a paradox here. As a physical object, Newgrange was, until 1699, a rather ragged looking hill with some stones at the foot of it, and to all appearances was no more hollow than Ben Bulben. But as an Otherworldly place, the Bru na Boinne, it was not only hollow inside but positively capacious, containing inter alia the Dagda, his son Oengus ind Oc, three fruit trees which were always in fruit, an inexhaustible cauldron, and three times fifty sons of kings (Brennan 1983: 10—14). Moreover it contained these things as a hill, not as a tomb or gravemound. When dispossessed by the sons of Mil, the Tuatha De Danann went into the hills, or sidhe, becoming the People of the Hills, the Aes Sidhe. They did not die but transformed themselves into a invisible people (Kittredge 1886: 195—7). The epics are quite clear about this and, as the epics contain a great many people who do die, and are buried in ordinary graves, it would seem as if they knew the difference. Not until the eleventh century, when Christian redactors tried to make sense of the situation, was it suggested that the Bru na Boinne marked the graves of the kings of Tara and not the supernatural court of the living Oengus - a theory intended to repress, not express, the popular belief (O’Kelly 1982: 45—6).

Back to Britain

The folk tales of Britain do not aspire to heroic fantasy on the Irish model, but they have their moments. Child Rowland, setting out from Carlisle towards Elfland, comes to a round green hill terraced from top to bottom, walks round it three times widdershins and calls for the door to open. It leads to a long passage, studded like a rough grotto with gems. At the end he finds himself in a vast hall, a room whose magnificence left the plain Aberdeenshire storyteller at a loss for words, but he thought it might be something like Pluscardin Abbey before its ruin - only with gold, silver and pearls substituted for mere Gothic masonry. From the arched vault hung a carbuncle which by magic illuminated the room, and by its light Child Rowland saw his lost sister, and the king of Elfland, whom he slew (Briggs 1970: A1.180).

On to Orkney

Joseph Jacobs suggested that the fairy hill in Child Rowland might be a distant memory of chambered tombs such as Maes Howe, and in more recent times Tony Roberts has developed the theme (Jacobs 1890: 241—4; Roberts 1986). If so, the legend has made several architectural improvements on its prototype; but Jacobs is pertinent in singling out Maes Howe, for alone among the monuments of its kind, this can be shown to have stood open in the mediaeval period. The twelfth-century runes on its walls record, in ambiguous fashion, that someone called Hakon bore the treasure out of the mound, three nights before ‘they’ (whoever they were) broke into it. The breaking must have been done from the top downwards, with ladders, and not via the passage, for many of the runes are carved above head height. The runemasters had time and light enough to make a neat job of their work. Maes Howe was eventually sealed again, perhaps after the occasion recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga when two men went mad after staying there overnight, for reasons not stated (Grinsell 1976: 186—7).

‘Grappling with the dead man within’

In later years the mound was haunted by something called a hogboy, which turns out to be the Norn version of Norse haugbui, ‘barrow-wight’. Gravemounds in Scandinavia are haunted by these creatures, and rocks or crags by the bergbui; we also hear of alfar who, like the Scots elves and English fairies, could be consulted on magical errands. In Kormaks Saga the witch ordis sends a man in need of healing to ‘a hillock not far from here, in which dwell elves; take the bull which Kormakr slew, and redden the outside of the hill with bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed’ (Ellis 1943: 111). The similarities with British rituals are clear, but the difference lies in the fact that the Norse haugr would contain, and be known to contain, an ancestral burial; there are in fact a great many stories about the hero descending into some howe in search of treasure, and there grappling with the dead man within. Such an animated corpse, or draugr, is a figure of horror and not to be compared with the peaceful and benevolent dead, usually ancestral kings, who responded with good luck and fertility to the living when people venerated their mounds.

Olaf of Geirstad received offerings made on his gravemound, and for that reason was known as an alf - which very much suggests that the dead man was seen as approximating to the world of natural spirits, and that the spirits were not simply an extended group of dead men. Mound-spirits were part of a larger company haunting geomantic sites, the other types having no connection with the burial of the dead. In Christian Norway it was forbidden to believe (and therefore evidently was believed) that the landvaettir lived in groves, waterfalls and haugar. The early Icelandic settlers, shortly after landing, made compacts with certain Otherworldly beings living under stones and hills. This cannot have been a cult of the ancestors, for there were as yet no ancestors to cultivate (Turville-Petre 1964: 193, 237). In the lands washed by the northern seas, north and west of Scotland, two streams of tradition seem to be flowing side by side. On Orkney and Shetland the alfar venerated by the first Norse settlers have become the trows, and their hills are known as trowie knowes; these beings are ugly and sullen, but in other respects conform to fairy lore (Marwick 1975: 33—42). In the Western Isles, and along the coast to Caithness, the same hills are known as sitheans, and they are inhabited by the People of Peace - who have about them something of the beauty and dignity of the Gaelic tradition, but are otherwise, again, typical fairies (Campbell 1900: 11—14). Some trowie knowes and some sitheans are ancient burial mounds but this is not necessarily the case. The two classes of monument are in any event geomantically identical and equally frequent in both areas.

What strikes me as curious is that the Norse colonists of Orkney and Shetland had been accustomed to bury their dead in gravemounds right up until the introduction of Christianity in the eleventh century, while the Gaelic settlers in the Hebrides came from regions where barrow burial had been virtually unknown for two thousand years. Yet you could not discern any such difference in their fictions, or insights, about haunted mounds. It is enough to persuade me that the folklore of barrows does not derive, as many a comfortable academic author has suggested, from memories of their historic role or prehistoric origin, but from something else entirely. Inquiries in this field have been subdued of late. When the Rev Robert Kirk returns from his involuntary researches under the Fairy Hill at Aberfoyle, perhaps he will favour us with a second edition.

A postscript

Throughout this article I have referred to the work of both Leslie Grinsell and Tony Roberts, and the allusions could have been multiplied, for both men were crucial in their own ways to the developments of geomythics - to use Tony’s own word. Without all the diligent work by the one, and the prophetic voice of the other, my own researches would never have begun, and I can only regret that now I cannot talk to either of them on the subjects we shared. For death comes, and what use are a few books on the shelf without the friends who wrote them? But bless them both, the giant and the barrow-wight, wherever they are, and let this note stand as one more tribute to what they achieved.


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Originally published in At the Edge No.5 1997.

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