Sacred Rocks: OS Grid Reference – SE 267 490
Also Known as:
- Ormscliffe Crags
This is an outstanding site visible for miles around in just about every direction – so getting here is easy! If you’re coming from Harrogate, south down the A658, turn right and go thru North Rigton. Ask a local. If you’re coming north up the A658 from the Leeds or Bradford area, do exactly the same! (either way, you’ll see the crags rising up from some distance away)
Archaeology & History
This giant outcrop of rock rises out from the meadowlands here like a miniature volcano, visible for many miles all round. The history and legends surrounding the aged edifice are prodigious and the view from its tops on a fine day is one to be remembered. It is likely, although there is little corroborative historical evidence, that is was an “omphalos”, or navel centre of the universe for the local people many centuries ago. A great cutting runs through its centre and “runs from nearly north to south, and forms the boundary between the townships of Rigton and Stainburn, so that a portion of the rock is in each township.” On the respective sides of this division are carved the letters “T.F.” and “E.L.”, being the initials of the families who owned the land here in olden days, Thomas Fawkes [of the legendary Guy Fawkes' family] and Edwin Lascelles, of the ancient Harewood family.
Although Almscliffe Crags have been described in a great many local history books, it almost beggars belief to find it omitted from all the ancient mystery or “sacred sites” books ever written. Curious… Such lesser sites as Alderley Edge, the Cow and Calf rocks, Kilburn’s White Horse, Twelve Apostles stone circle, and many more, whilst having their respective virtues, don’t touch this place for ritual or sacred intent.
First described in the early 13th century records of Fountains Abbey, A.H. Smith (1961) thought the name of Almscliffe itself originally came from a hypothetical lady’s name, which seems an all-too-easy proclamation to make, instead of the humble option of “I don’t know”! But Smith wasn’t the only one to throw some curious ideas up about the etymology of Almscliffe. Said by some local etymologists to derive from the Celtic Al-, a rock or cliff, and mias, an altar, there are other attempts to bring its rocky form into a consensus meaning. The anglo-saxon Ael or El, being fire, and messe, or mass; and the Scandanavian Ormcliff, being the “cliff of the serpent”. In Jones’ History of Harewood (1859), he tells
“it to have derived its name from the distribution of almes, at certain times, agreeably to the tenor of legacies left to the chapel which stood there in the sixteenth century, and was at that time dedicated to the Virgin Mary.”
It’s difficult to say which one tells its true title. Many a druidic tale has also been carved into its form. Such is the nature of this site that Grainge (1871) wrote how,
“it would not be difficult to show, with the exception of the artificial temple or circle of stones, this place possesses all the accessories of that ancient worship as…typical of the worship of the sun.”
A remark that was even echoed by one of Yorkshire’s finest and most sober historians, Harry Speight. (1903) Grainge also pointed out that in his day there were three standing stones by the great Crags, one fallen, but “two of these rocks yet stand upright.” A few years later we find that the ranting christian writer, Henry T. Simpson (1879), described similar megalithic remains here, though his description was of a “cromlech.” (illustrated here) I can find no trace, nor further references to these relics; but think it reasonable to suggest that, perhaps, Simpson’s cromlech and Grainge’s standing stones may have been one and the same monument.
In the field 100 yards immediately north of the Crags (the one with the two rocks in it) there used to be seen the remains of some primitive early walling, suggestive of a small, early settlement site. Very little can be seen of these remains today and, as far as I’m aware, no archaeological survey was ever done of them. In all honesty, it’s highly probable that a number of other important prehistoric sites were once in evidence at varying distances around Almscliffe Crags…
The creation myth of Almscliffe tells that, long long ago, the great giant Rombald — whose main place of residence tended to be Ilkley Moor — was having a fight with the devil upon his homeland heath. As is common in the myths of giants, the ‘devil’ picked up a great boulder and threw it at Rombald, but it missed and fell just short of the village of North Rigton, creating Almscliffe Crags. A variation of this tale tells that it was Rombald and his wife having the argument and she threw the stones to create the place. Several sites have been named as the place where the mythological argument occurred: the Cow and Calf rocks, the Great Skirtful and Little Skirtful of Stones all cited in the folktales of our Yorkshire peasants. Another variation of the tale tells that the devil was simply carrying some stones (as devils and giants are renowned to do in the folk-tales of the world) and he accidentally dropped them where the Crags now stand. Such rock-throwing tales are, once more, symptomatic of cailleach tales more commonly found in Ireland and Scotland.
There are a great many cup-markings on the top surface of these Crags, most of which seem natural, but it is not unreasonable to think that, perhaps, some may have been carved by human hands? (not sure misself) Eric Cowling (1946) sincerely believed the antiquity of some carvings here. One of them particularly, three feet across and eighteen inches deep, though seemingly natural, has for several centuries been known as the “Wart Well.” Its name is attributed to folklore that is more commonly found in Ireland and the Scottish highlands; that is, should you have a wart, prick it with a pin until a drop or two of blood drips into the water that gathers in the stone bowl, then dip your hand in afterwards. The wart is sure to vanish. Another method to achieve the same end is to merely wash the skin affliction in the water, and it will soon fade. (Interestingly, an old psychotherapist friend, afflicted with the damned things, did just this and they promptly vanished.)
A more minor creation myth tells that the stone bowls we see on top of the Crags here – including the Wart Well – was actually made when the giant Rombald stepped from his home onto the Crags and left his footprint embedded in the rock face. He was said to have made it in just one step, from the Giant Skirtful of Stones prehistoric cairn [where one legend reputes him buried].
Faerie folk were also long held to live here. On the northwest side of the Crags is the entrance to a small cave that was always known as the Faerie’s Parlour, as it was said to be an entrance to their supernatural world. In times past, many people have scrambled down into the cave, but never reached their Otherworldly paradise. William Grainge (1871) wrote how the little people “were all powerful on this hill and exchanged their imps for children of the farmers round about.” This is typical of old changeling lore! In outlying villages surrounding the Crags there is a particular excess of faerie and old heathen lore.
One very curious-sounding tale tells how a goose was sent down the hole and, after some considerable time, re-emerged 3½ miles away out from a well near Harewood Bridge. The goose is one of the many symbols of the sun and one of its primary symbolic attributes is that of winter. Interestingly perhaps, as the rock art writer Graeme Chappell has pointed out, the underground journey of the goose from Almscliffe to Harewood Bridge coincides closely with the rising of sun on morning of the winter solstice. This tale may simply be a folk remnant — and an archaic one at that — of just that event: ritualising winter solstice from these Crags. In Norse lore, shamans tell of geese carrying the great god Wotan across the skies at the coming of the Yule period.
Another ritual date that was celebrated here was Beltane, or May 1. Not only do we find many of the outlying villages possessed their own maypoles, but in 1879 Mr Simpson of Adel reported seeing Beltane fires atop of these rocks. Other meetings were made here as the Crags are spliced in half by the local boundary line, and perambulation records show that people came here during the ‘beating of the bounds’, as they used to be called. This boundary perambulation moot ingredient is what strongly implies the site to have had ritual importance. And the fact that a mass of folktales emerge from here adds to this. Then of course we have the physical situation of the Crags at the heart of the mid-Wharfedale landscape. All these ingredients combined, strongly suggest the site would have been, not just the ritual meeting place of tribal elders in pre-christian times, but an omphalos: it rises majestically from the land and all monuments gaze towards its giant form. Important giant prehistoric monuments from the hills miles away tell of myths that come and go from this proud mass of stone. Although we have other omphali just over the extended horizons from Almscliffe, this is where the World began in the creation myths of ancient times in mid-Wharfedale, at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Elmet.
But there is still more lore to be told of these rocks…
The centre piece of the Crags is known as the Altar Rocks. Upon its western side is carved the “figure of a large tree, which we take to be the monogram of the Celtic Jupiter,” says Grainge. This assumption is derived from an eighteenth century writer who, said Speight (1903), told that “Almnus and Alumnus are titles of Jupiter, to whom this high altar was dedicated.”
The highest part of the Crags, to the west, is known as Lover’s Leap where, in 1766, a daughter of a respectable Rigton farmer of the name Royston, having been disappointed in love, decided to kill herself. She jumped, so legend reputes, from a point some sixty feet above ground, but a strong wind blowing at the time caught hold of her dress and carried her through the air until she landed safely in an adjoining field with naught but a sprained thumb! The said lady realised the stupidity of her ways and was said to have lived out a long and fine life.
In recent years earthlights (UFOs) have been seen floating above and around the great outcrop. It is likely that these were the same things which, in days of olde, the people would call the faerie. I highly recommend visiting the place!
Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Milverton 2001.
Bogg, Edmund, From Eden Vale to the Plains of York, James Miles: Leeds 1895.
Bogg, Edmund, Higher Wharfeland, James Miles: Leeds 1904
Cowling, E.T., Rombald’s Way, William Walker: Otley 1946.
Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
Grainge, William, History & Topography of Harrogate and the Forest of Knaresborough, J.R. Smith: London 1871.
Jones, John, The History and Antiquities of Harewood, Simpkin Marshall: London 1859.
Simpson, William, Archaeologia Adelensis, W.H. Allen: London 1879.
Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire – volume 5, Cambridge University Press 1961.
Speight, Harry, Kirkby Overblow and District, Elliott Stock: London 1904.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian