The Boroughbridge Mystery Stones
The whole world knows about the prehistoric megaliths at Stonehenge, but how many people in Boroughbridge know that they have a Bronze Age mystery right on their doorstep?
If Stonehenge is the best known prehistoric monument in the world then the Devil’s Arrow must be the least heralded, lying virtually forgotten and little appreciated in a couple of fields just outside Boroughbridge.
Like Stonehenge, no-one has any real idea of what the Devil’s Arrows are meant to be, where they came from and who built them. Like Stonehenge, we don’t know for sure how old they are – there are plenty of theories but no certainties – but they may date from as early as 2,000 BC. What is known is that the largest of the three standing stones reaches a height of 6.7m and has a girth of 1.4m, making it considerably larger than single stone at Stonehenge.
It’s also thought that the three Devil’s Arrows still standing were part of a single row of stones, the biggest in England but one of many similar megalithic monuments scattered throughout western Europe. They are larger than any of the 3,000 menhirs in Carnac, Brittany, or the Neolithic remains at Evora in southern Portugal. Closer to home, there is a world-famous double row of standing stones leading away from the henge at Avebury in Wiltshire, but none of these can compare to the Devil’s Arrows in size.
Some people believe that they were erected by Roman legions to commemorate a great battle victory.
The first known written evidence of the Devil’s Arrows dates from 1316, when records show that a nearby field was called ‘Cringles Carr’, which translates into modern English as ‘the circle by the marsh.’ Documents from the 1560s show that at least four stones were standing at that time; the map maker William Camden wrote of seeing ‘foure huge stones of pyramidal forme, but very rudely wrought, set in… a straight and direct line….’
The fourth stone disappeared soon afterwards, but half of it may have been used to make the bridge that runs across the River Tutt. Today the three remaining stones stand in strict alignment along a 200m axis; they are made from local millstone grit mined from Plumpton Rocks near Harrogate, and as the lightest one weighs over 25 tons, how they were transported to the site at Roecliffe Lane in yet another mystery. It is possible that they were pulled along a wooden track that was constantly picked up and re-laid as they progressed. Historians reckon the seven mile journey may have taken a team of 200 men up to six months to complete.
Theories about the purpose of the stones abound. Some people believe that they were erected by Roman legions to commemorate a great battle victory, and there certainly was a Roman fort almost next door. Others suggest that they mark the passage of ley lines across the county, but the most widely accepted theory is that they were the work of Neolithic tribesmen, constructed to align with the southernmost moonrise and were connected in some religious manner to other henges found at Thornborough,10 miles away, near West Tanfield.
And their name? Over the centuries the stones have been known as the Three Sisters, the Three Greyhounds and the Devil’s Bolts. Today’s name comes from a 17th century legend: Old Nick was angry with the monks at Fountain’s Abbey and in order to kill them threw the standing stones towards the abbey from the heights of How Hill. They fell well short of their mark.