Feature Articles – The Hitching Stone
An enigmatic boulder on the moors of Yorkshire reveals an intriguing mythological dimension, which is now mostly forgotten.
by Philip Coppens
The Hitching Stone sits on the moors, between Keighley and Skipton. It is not the best-known landmark, as both the Lund Tower and Wainman’s Pinnacle, both on Earl Crag, sit to North and are more widely visited. Still, Wainman’s Pinnacle car park can be used for visiting the Hitching Stone, which sits within an easy line of site. Nevertheless, though only a few hundred yards from the road, there officially is a path – if you can find it – but getting to the stone mostly relies on trying to find some dry ground across the moors, trying as much to walk along the boundary that visually leads you straight to the crest of the hill… but in practice has you deviate on occasion. “Officially”, two paths lead from the road to the general vicinity of the stone, but as to one of the paths, even the local farmer objects to it being labelled a path. Small wonder then that the stone is seldom visited, most preferring either the Pinnacle or the Tower – which do provide better viewpoints. However, it is the Hitching Stone that is a remarkable feature of this area – both geologically and historically.
The Hitching Stone is reputed to be Yorkshire’s largest boulder. It sits all alone, a geological oddity, on the crest of a hill. Estimated to weigh 1,000 tons, it measures 29 feet long, 25 feet wide and 21 feet high. The stone is of glacial origin and almost certainly originated on Earl Crag. On the north-western side, there is evidence of a “tube”, which runs throughout the length of the rock. Geologists believe it is caused by a fossilised tree (called Lepidodendron) that has since eroded away, leaving the “tube”.
The stone is a primary landmark and was thus used in organising the land: it marks the boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire, the townships of Cowling, Sutton and Keighley meet here, as do the wapentakes (an assembly or meeting place) of Skyrack (Leeds) and Staincliffe (Keighley, Settle, Skipton, Stainburn).
The Hitching Stone is therefore an important boundary marker. It therefore sits within the same tradition as many standing stones, which in Celtic times functioned as tribal boundary markers. The only difference is that most standing stones were purposefully placed on site by Man; the Hitching Stone was obviously considered to be a natural “boundary marker”, which somehow “imposed” its “rule” on Man. The Southern face The sides of the Stone are oriented towards the four cardinal points. On the western side is the most impressive feature: sometimes labelled a “hole”, it is better described as a “chamber”. It sits about eight feet from the ground and holes in the stone have been carved to allow the agile to climb into it. A chain on the left hand side provides additional help.
There are markings on the walls and roof. It appears that the chamber was once enlarged. Looking out towards the west from inside the chamber, the shape of Pendle Hill looms on the horizon. The chamber also emits a low resonating hum. This created by the wind blowing over the mouth of the hole, which therefore acts as an organ pipe. From a distance, the western side of the stone looks like a face. The southern side of the stone looks like a seat. The “seat” itself normally has a pool of water, around four feet wide by eight feet long… perhaps being three feet deep at the far end – all of this obviously subject to the weather, which, it being Yorkshire, is nevertheless quite often wet. A remarkable stone, and obviously not devoid of legends and rituals. The legends mostly have to do with its origins.
One story has it that a witch, on the tops of Ilkley moor, was so annoyed at having her view of the land around spoiled by this huge rock, that she stuck the handle of her broomstick into the stone, lifted it high and flung it across the valley. The broomstick obviously was placed inside the “tube”.
The Hitching Stone is not unique in the region. One similar stone, however, has since disappeared, when it slipped down the hillside, blocked the beck and was therefore broken up. The “Giant’s Lap stone” also had its fair share of folklore and ritual as it was “the name given to a large boulder which once stood alongside Baysdale beck on the North York Moors. A legend describes how the rock belonged to a giant who lived in a cave on Stoney ridge on the moors to the south, and how his daughter dropped the boulder beside the stream.
Women could seek the Giant’s blessing to ensure healthy children by performing a folk-ritual which involved visiting the stone on a Monday, climbing on top of the boulder and reciting a verse, and finally throwing a left shoe into the beck.” The Stone also formed the centre of many meetings and initiations. One local legend recorded by John Gray (1891) recounts the initiation of neophytes. The chamber assumed the role of the so-called Druid or Priest Chair. The “Druid Chair” is normally a smaller type of stone, shaped in the form of a chair. In France, this type of structure is often known as a “Fauteuil du diable”: the Devil’s Seat. As mentioned, from its Southern angle, it does look like a seat… The Hitching Stone was also the site of a Lammas fair until 1870, with the racing of horses nearby. Lammas, or loaf-mass day, was the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year, on which day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop. The festival occurred on August 1, and therefore is one of the so-called quarter days of the “Celtic calendar”, which is closely linked with the solar calendar, based on the equinoxes and solstices.
The name of Lammas originated from the ‘Feast of Lughnasadh’ or Lugh, the Celtic sun god. Lammas was also the time when Saint Catherine was celebrated. Her instrument of martyrdom is a wheel. As a consequence, the wagon wheel is linked with Lammas, which could explain why horse races were held nearby, at the time of the Lammas fair. As part of the festival, a wagon wheel would be tarred, taken to the top of a hill, set on fire and rolled down, symbolizing the decline of the Sun God. That decline is also linked with the autumn equinox, which of course ties the Hitching Post into its equinoctial alignment. The Hitching Stone is not a one off. It forms part of a sacred landscape, in which Pendle Hill seems to be an important ingredient. As it sits to the west, it means that it is aligned to the equinox setting of the sun (March 21 and September 21), thus forming the backbone of a possible calendar system. However, much closer to the Stone itself, other parts of this “sacred landscape” can be identified. From the top of the stone one can see another rock, half a mile to the north-west, known as the ‘Winter Hill Stone’…This stone got its name as it is said that the winter solstice sunrise (December 21) appears from behind the Hitching Stone on the horizon.
It seems that the only “missing ingredient” therefore is the stone that would mark the summer solstice sunrise, or sunset (June 21). Other prominent rock outcrops, such as the Wolf Stones and Maw Stones, may once have been part of the sacred geography. A straight boundary line still connects the Maw Stones with the Hitching Stone. The Kid Stone may have been used as another prominent marker. The “tube” where the tree once used to be; (inset) looking inside the tube (northern face) The term “Hitching Stone” itself is quite intriguing and brings memories of a similarly named stone in Machu Picchu, in Peru. The Intihuatana stone (meaning “Hitching Post of the Sun”) has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. Like the Yorkshire Stone, the Intihuatana is designed to hitch the sun at the two equinoxes. However, the two are – unsurprisingly – not totally alike. The Peruvian stone works for midday on March 21st and September 21st, when the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun “sits with all his might upon the pillar” and is for a moment “tied” to the rock. At these periods, the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they “tied the sun” to halt its northward movement in the sky. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the December solstice (the summer solstice of the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind Pumasillo (the Puma’s claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range, but the shrine itself is primarily equinoctial.
That, of course, is apparently what the Hitching Stone is as well: primarily connected with the equinoxes, though incorporating key alignments to the solstices. Both the Hitching Stone and the Winter Hill Stone have a series of cup marks, the symbolism of which is today largely unknown. Nevertheless, Scottish antiquarians of the late 19th century have been able to uncover some folklore on these enigmatic markings.
The Rev J.B. Mackenzie commented on cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, stating that even when these hollows were or seemed natural, they were nevertheless given a sacred character. Mackenzie added that “some of these stones were undoubtedly ancient boundary markers, while others had been used in the preparation of food stuffs. All have a certain mystery about them, and several still preserve around them traditions of the possession of supernatural powers.” These observations sit in line with the observations made at the Hitching Stone, which we know was – and is – a boundary marker; its connection with Lammas seems to underline the food connection.
Mackenzie added that the natural hollows were sometimes used “among other purposes, for the pounding and rubbing down of grains before the invention of the quern.” This allows for some powerful images: if the stone was seen as sacred, by using the holes – cup marks – to prepare the food, which may then have been offered to the gods – as well as partaken by the community – the stone hence formed the centre of preparation of food, offering, and initiation of certain individuals of the community. The Hitching Stone is not the only enigmatic stone marking the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. Slightly further west is the “The Great Stone Of Fourstones”. Originally, there were three other stones, but these have disappeared (broken up for building stone) – hence the name. Like The Hitching Stone, it stands alone, on top of a hill. It is not as impressive as The Hitching Stone, as it is “just” a boulder, into which steps have been carved to allow an ascent to the top.
Local myth tells how it was accidentally dropped by a witch who was carrying it on her broomstick to Kirkby Lonsdale where she was building Devil’s Bridge, while another story explains that it was thrown over from Ireland by the giant Finn McCaul.
The stones were also the meeting place of ancient councils, from the tribes either side of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. From the site, on a good day, one can see the three peaks of Yorkshire: Whernside (736m), Ingleborough (723m), the fire or beacon mountain, and Pen-Y-Ghent (694 m), the Head of the Winds, suggesting a connection to a sacred landscape.
Their presence also had mythic relationship with the Queen of Fairies Chair, about a mile southeast, along the same boundary line. This stone is small and unimpressive. Harry Speight (in 1892) described this “conspicuous group of rocks… one of which has an artificial opening and is called ‘The Queen of the Fairies Chair.'” Speight also told that “here on bright moonlit nights, say the believing dalesfolk, the airy sprites (faerie) of Burn Moor used to hold festive revel”. As well as being a spot where the beating of the bounds occurred, it was also an ancient seat of initiation. Today, the stones aer a distant memory and hardly at the centre of any community life… Only the maps reveal some of its ancient importance. Looking inside the chamber, with tube at back running upwards.