Legendary Rock: OS Grid Reference – NC 69128 61741
Along the A836 road between Tongue and Bettyhill, turn down towards Skerray at Borgie Bridge for 1.8 miles (2.87km) until you reach the little information sign at the roadside. Walk downhill and cross the little bridge and wander onto the west side of the beach. You’re likely to end up daydreaming… so once you’ve re-focussed, head into the middle of the beach and walk up the steep-ish sand-banks to your right (south). Once at the top, you’ll see a gigantic rock—the Ringstone—bigger than a house.
This gigantic boulder is part of one of Sutherland’s archaic Creation Myths as they’re known: ancient stories recounted by archaic societies about the nature and origins of the world. Such tales tend to be peopled by giants, gods, huge supernatural creatures, borne of chaos, eggs, darkness and primal oceans. Thankfully we still find some examples of these tales in the northern and northwestern mountainous regions of Britain, as the Church and Industrialism never quite destroyed the hardcore communities—despite what they might like to tell you…
The following folktale of the Ringstone was thankfully preserved by the local school headmaster, Alan Temperley (1977), before it disappeared from the oral traditions of local people (as is sadly happening in these mountains). It typifies stories told of such geological giants from aboriginal Australia, to Skye, to everywhere that people have lived. Mr Temperley wrote:
“Many years ago there were two giants, the Naver giant from the river at Bettyhill, and the Aird giant from the hill above Skerray. Normally they got on quite well, but one afternoon they became involved in a heated argument about some sheep and cattle, and both grew very angry. The Aird giant was standing on top of the hill above Torrisdale bay with the animals grazing around him, and the Naver giant stormed across the river to the beach below.
“Those are my sheep,” he roared up the hill.
“No they’re not,” the Aird giant said. “At least not all of them.”
“You stole them. You’re a thief!”
“No I didn’t. They came up here themselves. Anyway, you owe me fifty sheep from last year.”
“You’re not only as thief, you’re a liar!” shouted the Naver giant. If you don’t send them down this minute, I’ll come up and see to it myself.”
At this the Aird giant gave a disparaging laugh and made a rude face, and picking up a great boulder flung it down the hill at his friend.
The Naver giant was speechless with fury, and picking the stone up himself, hurled it back up the hillside, making a great hole in the ground.
The Aird giant saw things had gone far enough.
“I’ll send them back if you give me that silver ring you’re always wearing,” he said.
“Never!” roared his friend, his face all red and angry.
“Suit yourself then,” said the Aird giant, and picking the stone up again he tossed it back down the hill.
For long enough the rock kept flying between them, and in time the giant from Naver grew tired, because he was throwing it uphill all the time.
“Will you give me the ring now?” said the Aird giant.
For answer the Naver giant tried one more time to throw the stone up the hill, but it only got halfway, and rolled back down to the shore.
“Come on,” said the giant from Aird, for he wanted to be friends again. “Give me the ring, and I’ll let you have it back later.”
“No!” said the Naver giant from the bottom of the hill. “I’ll never give it to you!” His eyes began to fill with tears.
“Oh, come on, please!” coaxed the Aird giant. “Just for a week.”
“Never, never, never!” shouted the giant from Naver, and pulling the ring from his finger he threw it on the ground and jammed the great boulder down on top of it. Then he sat down on top of the stone and stared out to sea. Every so often he sniffed, and his friend, looking down at his broad back, saw him lift the back of a hand to his eyes.
They never made friends again, and after a long time they both died.
The ring is still buried under the stone, and so far nobody has ever been able to shift it.”
When I got back from visiting this immense rock a few weeks ago, a local lady Donna Murray asked me if I’d seen the face of the giant in the rock. I hadn’t—as I was looking to see if the name ‘Ringstone’ related to any possible cup-and-rings on its surface, which it didn’t (although I didn’t clamber onto the top). But in the many photos I took from all angles, Donna pointed out the blatant simulacra of the giant’s face when looking at it from the east.
However, on top of the slope above the Ringstone (not the Aird side), I did find a faint but distinct ‘Ringstone’ carving (without a central cupmark). Whether this ever had any mythic relationship to the tale or the stone, we might never know. The rocky terrain above Aird now needs to be looked at…
- Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
- Long, Charles H., “Cosmogony,” in Eliade, M., Encyclopedia of Religion – volume 4, MacMillan: New York 1987.
- MacLagan, David, Creation Myths: Man’s Introduction to the World, Thames & Hudson: London 1977.
- Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.
Acknowledgments: Massive thanks again to Donna Murray, for her help and for putting up with me amidst my wanderings up in Torrisdale and district.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 2017