A Book of Dartmoor/Chapter 5

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A Book of Dartmoor by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 5



Lucubrations of antiquaries in past times — How their imagination led them astray — Rock idols — Logan stones — Who originated the idea that they were oracular — Rock basins — Tolmens — The difference between the modern system of archaeological research and that which it has supplanted.

IT would be amusing were it not melancholy to read the lucubrations of antiquaries of the early part of the nineteenth century on the relics of the past found in such abundance on the moor. Their imagination played a large part in their researches, and references to curious customs in the Bible or in classic writings were drawn in to explain these relics. The antiquaries lacked the faculty of observing accurately, and instead of labouring to accumulate facts, and recording them with precision, employed them as pegs on which to hang their theories, and they whittled at what they did observe, so as to fit what they saw to elucidate these theories.

In rambling over the moor they discovered rock idols, logan stones, rock basins, and tolmens, and entered into long dissertations on their employment for worship, oracles, lustrations, and ordeals. There are, indeed, to be seen curious piles of rock, but none of these are artificial, and there is not a

Bowerman's Nose - A Book of Dartmoor.jpg

Bowerman's Nose

particle of evidence that any of them received idolatrous worship. Bowerman's Nose is the most remarkable, perhaps. Carrington, the poet of Dartmoor, thus describes it:—

 "On the very edge
Of the vast moorland, startling every eye,
A shape enormous rises! High it towers
Above the hill's bold brow, and seen from far,
Assumes the human form; a granite god,—
To whom, in days long flown, the suppliant knee
In trembling homage bow'd."

It stands up, a core of hard granite, forty feet high, in five layers above a "clitter," the softer masses that have fallen off from it. Had it ever been venerated as an idol, the worshippers would assuredly have done something towards clearing this clitter away, so as to give themselves a means of easy access to their idol, and some turf on which to kneel in adoration.

Another remarkable pile is Vixen Tor, presenting from one point a resemblance to the Sphinx. Not a single relic of early man is in its immediate neighbourhood. We can hardly doubt that prehistoric man was not as big a fool as we suppose him, and that he was quite able to see that Bowerman's Nose and Vixen Tor were natural objects as truly as the tors on the hilltops.

The logan stones on the moor are numerous, and these, also, are natural formations. The granite weathers irregularly; a hard bed alternates with one that is soft, and the wind and rain eat into the more crumbling layer and gnaw it away, till the harder superincumbent mass rests on one or two points. Either it topples over and becomes one more block in a clitter, or it remains balanced, and, if fairly evenly balanced, can be made to rock like a cradle.

Here is a specimen of tall twaddle from the hand of Mrs. Bray or the Rev. E. Atkyns Bray, her husband:—

"There must have been a more than ordinary feeling of awe inspired in the mind of the criminal by ascending heights covered with a multitude, to whose gaze he was exposed, as he drew nigh and looked upon these massive rocks, the seat of divine authority and judgment. How imposing must have been the sight of the priesthood and their numerous trains, surrounded by all the outward pomps and insignia of their office; as he listened to the solemn hymns of the vates, preparatory to the ceremonial of justice; or as he stepped within the sacred inclosure, there to receive condemnation or acquittal, to be referred to the ordeal of the logan, or the tolmen, according to the will of the presiding priest! As he slowly advanced and thought upon these things, often must he have shuddered and trembled to meet the Druid's eye, when he stood by 'the stone of his power.'"

All this rubbish is based on supposition. There is not a particle of evidence to support it. Toland was the first to start the theory that logan stones were used for ordeal purposes or as oracles. He says: "The Druids made the people believe that they alone could move these stones, and by a miracle only, by which pretended power they condemned or acquitted the accused, and often brought criminals to confess what could in no other way be extorted from them." Here is a positive statement. Toland died in 1722. Whence did Toland derive this? From his imagination only. Then Rowe quotes him as his authority for attributing to the logan stones this function of delivering oracular judgments. Appeal was wont to be made to a line in Ossian as a support

Logan Rock. The Rugglestone, Widdecombe.jpg

Logan Rock. The Rugglestone, Widdecombe

for the theory, but since Ossian has been proved to be a fraud antiquaries are chary of referring to him.

There are some really fine logan rocks on Dartmoor. Perhaps the largest is one above the West Okement, which I remember seeing many years ago, when a boy, rolling in a strong wind like a boat at sea. That on Rippon Tor measures 16½ feet in length, and is about 4½ feet in thickness and nearly the same in breadth. It still logs, but not so well as formerly, owing to mischievous interference with it. There is a large one in the Teign, above Fingle Bridge, that can also be made to roll with the application of a little strength.

The Rugglestone, near Widdecombe-in-the-Moor, measures 22 feet by 14 feet in one part, and 19 feet by 17 feet in another, and is 5 feet 6 inches in mean thickness. Its computed weight is 110 tons, whereas the celebrated logan in Cornwall weighs 90 tons. This stone is poised upon two points.

Roos Tor, which the Ordnance surveyors playfully render Rolls Tor, possessed two logan stones, but quarrymen have destroyed one, together with the fine mass of rock on which it stood. Near it lay a huge menhir, never removed till these depredators broke it up. I give an illustration of the head of the tor with its two logans, taken in 1852; one alone remains. On Black Tor, near the road from Princetown to Plymouth, is a small logan, with a rock basin on the top, and with a projection like a handle. It can be made to oscillate without difficulty. A small logan is near the stone rows on Challacombe in the miners' workings. Its existence is purely accidental. Another is near a collection of hut circles on the slope of Combeshead Tor.

The rock basins are numerous; they are hollow pans formed on the surface of granite slabs by the action of wind and water, assisted by particles of grit set in rotation by the wind. "That this rude and primitive species of basin formed part of the apparatus of Druidism there can be little doubt," says Mr. Rowe, "but the specific purpose for which they were designed is not clear." Josbroke unhesitatingly pronounces rock basins to be "cavities cut in the surface of a rock, supposed for reservoirs, to preserve the rain or dew in its original purity, for the religious uses of the Druids."

All this assertion must be put aside. The bowls are excavated by natural agencies, and there is not a scrap of evidence to show that they were put to superstitious or any other use. The largest is on Caistor Rock, and this has been railed round, as

Rods Tor, with its Logans, Previous to Destruction.jpg

RoOs Tor, with its Logans, Previous to Destruction.

sheep floundered in and got drowned, or could not get out again. Mis Tor has a fine basin, called " The Devil's Frying-pan."

These basins may be seen in all stages of growth on the tops of the tors.

The tolmen is either a holed stone or a rock supported in such a manner as to preserve it from falling, and supposed to have been used as an apparatus of ordeal, by requiring those accused of a crime to creep through the orifice.

Holed stones have unquestionably been employed for the purpose of taking oaths and sealing compacts, the hands being passed through an opening and clasped. And certainly S. Wilfrid's needle, in the crypt under Ripon Minster, was made use of as a test to try whether a maiden accused of incontinency was guilty or not. There is, however, no well-defined tolmen on Dartmoor that can be pronounced to be artificial. A holed stone in the Teign was pierced by the action of the water, and a suspended rock at an incline on Staple Tor, called by Mrs. Bray and Mr. Rowe a tolmen, is a natural production also. It is, of course, possible that stones thus poised may have been employed for the purpose, but we have no evidence that those on Dartmoor were so used.

Of rocks supported at one end by a small stone there are plenty. There is a good one on Yar Tor, above Dartmeet.

The old school of antiquaries started with a theory, and then sought for illustrations to fit into their theories, and took facts and distorted them to serve their purpose, or saw proofs where no proofs existed. The new school accumulates statistics and piles up facts, and then only endeavours to work out a plausible theory to account for the facts laboriously collected and registered. It never starts with a theory, but applies practices in savage life still in use to explain the customs of prehistoric men, who lived on the same cultural level as the savages of the present day.

One word of caution must be given relative to the Druids, who are credited with so much. It is true that there were Druids in Britain and in Ireland, but they were the schamans, or medicine-men, of the earlier Ivernian race, who maintained their repute among the conquering Celts, and their representatives at the present day are the white witches who practise on the credulity of our villagers.