Over the past year I have been observing with interest within my locality the development of a project run by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and funded by Natural England that aims to create new ponds and improve existing ponds for Great Crested Newts. In Hurst Grange Park, Walton Park, near Dog Kennel Wood, and at Brockholes Nature Reserve I have seen old ponds dug out and new ones created and this is only a small portion of the work that is taking place across Lancashire.
The great crested newt is ‘the UK’s most pond-dependent amphibian’. Since the last half of the twentieth century it has been in decline due to the destruction and loss of the pondscapes it inhabits. Many ponds on agricultural land have been filled in or destroyed because ‘they reduce the extent and crop yield of fields and are no longer needed for livestock due to piped water systems’. More have been got rid of to make way for housing, roads, industry, commerce, and recreation.
Some ponds have been lost to natural succession – if a pond is not regularly cleared of vegetation the dead plant matter builds up and the pond is filled in and dries out. Chemical pollution, nutrification, and the introduction of fish also make ponds unsuitable for great crested newts.
Another factor is the loss of terrestrial habitat – great crested newts favour ‘rough grassland, scrub and woodland’ and need dead wood and underground crevices beneath roots to shelter. Habitat fragmentation caused by human-made obstacles to their movement is another cause of decline.
North West England has ‘the highest pond density’ in England and Wales. Whilst many of these ponds are ‘flooded, abandoned marl pits’ dated to 150 to 200 years ago ‘they are interspersed with ponds of diverse origin’. Some are also man-made such as ‘brick pits, tile pits, pottery clay pits, gravel pits, sand pits, rock quarries, peat diggings, spoil hollows, water mill ponds, bomb craters, saw pits, mine entrances, textile mill lodges, public reservoirs, farm reservoirs, angling ponds, man-made subsidence hollows (flashes)… moats, duck decoys,’ and ‘ornamental ponds’.
Other ponds are much older and of natural origin such as ‘proglacial lakes, meltwater channels, kettleholes, inter-dune slacks, cut-off meanders and ox-bow lakes’ and ‘ancient subsidence hollows’. These could date back to after the Ice Age and have existed for over 10,000 years during which lowland Lancashire was a water country* of marshland, peat bog, reed bed, alder carr, willow scrub, and damp oak woodland interspersed with countless lakes, ponds, and pools – perfect newt habitat.
Great crested newts are one of Europe’s oldest amphibians. They belong to the family Salamandridae. The remains of their ancestors, salamanders, have been dated to the Jurassic (160 million years ago). The great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) developed as a species 40 million years ago and spent the Ice Age in the Carpathians then expanded its range across the rest of Europe after the glaciers melted.
It is possible to imagine a march of great crested newts moving slowly northwards, much like our ancestors, from pond to pond, crossing the land-bridge of Doggerland, making their homes here in Britain.
The great crested newt is so dependent on ponds because they are central to its life cycle. After hibernating through the winter under dead wood or underground it emerges between February and April and moves to ponds to mate. The male chooses a display area known as a ‘lek’ in an open part of the pond. Displaying his remarkable crest he rocks, leans, and whips and fans his white-striped tail to waft pheromones at the female. Once he has gained her interest, touching his tail with her nose, he deposits his spermatophore, which she collects in her vent before fertilisation takes place internally.
The female lays around 250 eggs in a jelly capsule with a light yellowish centre 4.5 – 6mm long on the submerged leaves of plants, carefully wrapping them with her back legs. Species favoured include grasses such as sweet or flote grasses (Glyceria spp.), small wide-leaved plants such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), and narrow-leaved plants such as water forget-me-not (Myosotisscorpioides).
The larvae hatch and develop in the pond and reach a length of 50 – 90mm before metamorphosing into juveniles known as ‘efts’ who grow up to 120mm in length and leave the pond for the first time. They have all the features of adults – black or dark brown skin with a warty appearance and orange ‘nail varnish’ on their claws, but it isn’t until the second season that the distinctive black patterning on their fiery bellies which marks each as an individual becomes fixed and, upon reaching sexual maturity that the male develops his eponymous crest and white tail-stripe. Males reach a maximum length of 170mm and females 130mm and on average they live for around 14 years.
Ponds are the only food source for newt larvae and and are an important part of the diet of adults, who feed on the tadpoles of frogs and sometimes other newts and invertebrates such as ‘water lice (Asellus spp.), water shrimps, small snails, lesser water boatmen (Corixa spp).,’ ‘fly larvae including the phantom midge (Chaoborus spp)’ and also ‘zooplankton such as water fleas (Daphnia spp)’. They also forage above ground, eating invertebrates ‘such as earthworms, insects, spiders and slugs.’
Most of the foraging activities of great crested newts take place within 250m of their breeding pond. When the juvenile newts disperse they may travel up to 1000m to colonise new ponds and attract a mate. Great crested newts fare best in a metapopulation – ‘a group of associated populations’ who ‘breed in, and live around a cluster of ponds.’ This means there is less threat if one or more ponds are lost.
Thus current conservation efforts are focusing on areas that are already well endowed with ponds in the North West. A whole new terminology, coined by Robin F. Grayson in 1994, has developed around this topic. A pondscape is a ‘landscape with six or more ponds shown on Pathfinder maps in each adjacent 1 km square of the National Grid.’ A ‘core pondscape is ‘where the mapped pond density is 15 or more ponds per 1 km square’. A pondway is ‘a linear tract of pondscape, typically 10 or more km in length’. A pond supercluster is ‘a large tract of pondscape, typically covering 100 square km.’
Pondways have been identified across Lancashire. I was delighted to find out there is a South Ribble Pondway, which is located not only in the borough of South Ribble, but covers a strip 25km long and 5km wide from the estuary of the river Douglas to Brockhall Hospital in Blackburn. Grayson links the end of the pondway with the failure of Northern Drift – sands, clays and erratics deposited by glaciers. There is also a North Ribble Pondway 9km long and 2.5km wide, a Wigan Pondway that links to the South Ribble Pondway in Croston that stretches 50km, and a Fylde Supercluster.
The creation of pondscapes for great crested newts fits well with other projects aiming to restore the water country such as the re-wetting of the drained wetlands around Martin Mere (WWT) and Leighton Moss (RSPB) and peat bogs such as Chat Moss and Winmarleigh Moss (LWT).
As winters become cooler and wetter and summers hotter and drier as a result of the climate crisis, the restoration of wetlands will be essential not only for human needs such as flood mitigation and carbon capture, but as homes for the wetland plants and creatures who are at increasing risk due to human and climatic pressures.
*The area around Martin Mere was known as ‘the Region Linuis’ ‘the Lake Region’ and John Porter refers to the Iron Age Setantii tribe of the Lancashire lowlands as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.
Robin F. Grayson, ‘The Distribution and Conservation of the Ponds of North West England’, Lancashire Wildlife Journal, Numbers 2 & 3, (1992/3)
Robin F. Grayson, ‘Surveying and Monitoring Great Crested Newts’, English Nature, vol. 20, (1994)
Tom Langton, Catherine Beckett, and Jim Foster, Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook, (Froglife, 2001)
‘New life to Europe’s oldest reptile and amphibians’, LIFE-Nature Project, (2006)
I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.
The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.
In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.
Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.
Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.
Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?
Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood
The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster andare now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.
‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.
Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.
Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.
As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.
Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.
Training with Scáthach
Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.
Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga: ‘thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.
During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.
The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.
The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn
After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.
Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.
When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.
‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’
In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.
He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.
Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.
Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.
The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn
Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.
Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:
Two hearts that beat as one, we were comrades in the woods, men who shared a bed and the same deep sleep after heavy fighting in strange territories. Apprentices of Scáthach, we would ride out together to explore the dark woods.
After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.
His lament is heart wrenching:
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I wounded and dripping with gore, your chariot standing empty.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – I leak blood from every pore and you lie dead forever.
Sad is the thing that became Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons – you dead, I bursting with life. Courage has a brutal core.
It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.
Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.
He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.
Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).
With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).
A Hero of the Setantii?
Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.
As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.
The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.
(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha. (2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the north; I live on, they are in the grave.
I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain From the east to the south; I live on, they are dead. (3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’. (4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn. (5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006) Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008) Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932) Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/ Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981) John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017) Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014) Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.
‘The elk found under a bungalow provides compelling evidence of a hunt in early winter 13,500 years ago. The badly injured elk escaped but died in a pool, whilst his human hunters went hungry.’ The Harris Museum
It was a time of hunger for hunters and for elk; all skeletal, ragged hip bones, like the naked birch. Snow fell on the heads of reeds, on bulrushes, on spiky sedge. The elk limped on, broad-footed, in his rolling gait, in spite of the barbed point stuck in the bone of his left foreleg. His hunters followed. For them with their two legs the wetland was treacherous, each patch of ice an unknown depth. Hunger, the gnawer of bellies and deadly as a spear in the guts, drove them on, following the prints.
At sunset they saw him illuminated before the blood-red sun and dug deep into a place beyond our understanding of endurance, readied bows, spears, called for blessings from the gods and spirits of the hunt. And they ran, as quickly as two-legged beings can, leaping between frozen tussocks of grass. For the elk had slowed and when he looked back at them they had seen his death in his eyes. The icy puddles and the pools glinted red with the sun’s reflection. Startled widgeon flashed up in a whistling flock and fled toward the coast. Somewhere a curlew called and called and did not stop calling.
The hunters ate the distance between them and the injured elk and also, it seemed, between them and the huge red sun. The elk limped and plunged. They released their flint-tipped arrows, singing through the air, thudding into his ribcage with thumps that sounded like the last heart-beat before death.
Stalwart, the fastest runner, the strongest hunter, sprinted up and thrust his spear into the elk’s chest. Its barbed point he had splintered from elk antler, carved, nocked, blessed, for this very moment in response to a dream. He clung onto the haft as the elk’s forefeet plunged onto ice, through ice, into water, as down he dove into the icy pool. With a crash, a splash, a splintering and bucking, both elk and hunter disappeared. All that was left as the sun sunk was a red pool and the curlew’s bubbling call.
The cold of the ice stole Stalwart’s breath before his lungs filled with freezing water. Something told him to let go of the spear, to swim up, to swim away toward the dim red light, yet he could not. It was if his hands were glued to it with birch bark tar – his fate and the elk’s bound together. They shared their final agony, the filling, the burning of lungs, the darkness of the deep growing darker, warm bodies entangling and growing colder as they floated down to rest together in a muddy bed.
When Stalwart opened his eyes the whole sky was crimson and the watery landscape a vivid blue. There was an elk-shaped hollow beside him, elk-prints leading away, reminding him briefly of something. Prompted by the hunting instinct within he got up and follow the prints through a landscape both strange and familiar – birch trees who greeted him with open arms, widgeon whose whistles contained messages he could not quite decipher, two long-legged cranes dancing in the distance.
As the light bled from the sky Stalwart lost sight of the prints. In the inky indigo of twilight the landscape became stranger, terrifying. A group of alders shaking their cones when there was no wind. One moment the grove was on his left and then it was on his right. Dark shapes began to pull and splash themselves out of the water. He began to run, tripped over what he thought was a root then realised was the leg of a man, lying face down, arrows and a spear-haft protruding from his ribs.
A memory tugged at him. Like a barbed point lodged within his chest. But fear drove him to flee. On and on, sinking waist-deep, feeling something slimy-cold and eel-like brush his leg, staggering out trembling. On and on not sure where he was going or whether he was getting anywhere. On and on until he looked back and was appalled by his guilty relief when he saw far behind him the dark creatures crowded around the dead man, necks sinking, heads rising, sharp teeth full of flesh as they fed.
As the light ebbed out of the sky flickering campfires flared up where he was certain no camp had been with the scent of smoke, and drumming – a beat that awoke something within him like a heart.
Its thump bore his steps, walking on water, to the camp of elk-skin tents. Lining each side of the way to the central tent, which was topped by a mighty pair of antlers, were people with drums and rattles, clad in elk-skins, with rattling bone necklaces. The men wore antlers and the women did not.
Some of the younger men and women were dancing ecstatically and all were shouting their welcomes.
“The Chief of the Herd returns.” “The Chief of Elk.” “Our Chieftain.” “The Timekeeper.”*
As Stalwart looked about him for this regal figure the crowd descended on him as one, fighting to touch his flesh. They lifted him up high, yanking him up by his armpits and waist, many hands on his thighs, knees, and lower legs, bearing him upright to the central tent and the woman before it.
She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was tall. Long auburn hair flowed over strong, broad shoulders. Her eyes were dark and liquid. Her lips looked soft as her large, bare breasts.
“My love you have returned,” she spoke softly as he was set down and she cushioned him in an embrace. After she kissed his stiff then unresisting lips and stepped back she said, “you are much changed.”
“I… uh… I think there’s been a mistake…” Stalwart stammered weak at the knees.
As the woman looked at him uncertainly an older man, with heavy antlers, leaning on a staff, reassured her, “Chieftess, he has spent long on the Otherside. Memory loss is common. Once he has eaten our food, drunk our drink, been re-crowned, our Timekeeper will recall himself and our stories.”
The Chieftess of the Elk took Stalwart’s hand and guided him gently into the central tent. She sat him beside her on a fur at the head of the tent and the rest of the herd seated themselves cross-legged on furs in a circle around the warm fire that blazed in the centre. How so many managed to fit into the tent, which suddenly seemed so warm and womb-like, so large and spacious, he could not guess.
Children entered with wooden bowls filled with birch leaves wrapped around mashed up bark. Stalwart knew he shouldn’t eat the meat of trees, the food of the Otherside, but he couldn’t remember when he last ate. He was so, so hungry. So he tucked in, chewing with strong molars, savouring the bitter taste, dimly aware of the chomping of the herd around him. The meal was washed down with cups of the blue, blue, water, the sweetest, clearest, purest water he had ever tasted.
“Now for his re-crowning,” spoke the old man. The herd got to their feet and cheered and roared as the antlers from above the tent were carried in and set upon Stalwart’s swimming head. They didn’t fit, they felt too big, they reminded him of something kicking in the water, yet he did not resist as they were forced down and stuck on fast. A heavy weight, an unbearable weight, for an imposter.
“Now, Timekeeper, do you remember?” asked the old man with a show of long yellow teeth.
A man, stuck with arrows and a spear face-down in the water, the dark things eating him. “No stories.”
“Perhaps,” said the Chieftess, glancing meaningfully around the gathering, “I may have a chance to revive his memory.
The herd exchanged knowing glances. When they had departed Stalwart slept with the woman. As he watched their shadows cast by the fire on the tent-walls he almost remembered someone else’s face.
When they were done she took his chin in her hand, turned it toward her, forced him to look into eyes filled with the shades of her strange land. “Do you not remember anything? Do you not feel?”
“No,” said Stalwart helplessly. “Nothing at all.
“You will,” the Chieftess embraced him fiercely, “you must,” almost crushing him. “For the fate of the herd depends on it. Only our stories maintain the Elk-Scape, keep the Dark Ones of the Seas at bay.”
The next morning Stalwart and the Chieftess left their tent with elongated faces ending in dexterous lips, thick furred coats, on four broad-footed legs. By day, at the head of the herd, they feasted on long tussocky grasses, reared up to tear down leaves from the highest birches, plunged deep into the pools and rose dripping with green tresses of underwater plants hanging from their mouths. When the crimson light began to fade and the dark things beneath the water to stir they set up camp.
After they had eaten and drunk, “last night,” said the old man, “we were lucky. Although another poor storyless soul was not. The Dark Ones feasted well, were well fed, on one newly passed, but tonight they will be hungry again. One of our herd, a piece of the Elk-Scape, will be lost if we have no stories.”
“Timekeeper.” “Chieftain.” “Please.” The herd implored Stalwart. “Our people are dying.” “Our land shrinks.”
Stalwart shuddered with guilt and fear as he recalled that horrible feast. “Is this true?” he asked the Chieftess.
“Yes,” she replied, squeezing his hand. “Please try to remember. For our people. For me.”
“Perhaps if you tell me a little about the Dark Ones that will jog my memory?”
“You once told us,” said the Chieftess, “that they are the last remnants of the primal waters of Old Mother Universe, the birthing and devouring goddess, from whose womb our world was born.”
Two bodies tangled together in the darkness and the tugging of a bond between them like conjoined twins.
“That the god who can not only control them but rides their fury is the Hunter, Lord of Death and the Deep.”
A dream of the Hunter gifting him an antler, guiding his hands as he carved and blessed the barbed point.
“He who favours neither man nor beast, hunter nor hunted, nothing but the thrill of the hunt, its finale. When we complained that antlers were not enough to defend us from the Dark Ones he gave us stories, and when they began to fail you went to the Otherside to the Man-Scape, to find new tales…”
“So I did,” it was not Stalwart who spoke but his story which seized his tongue. “I was born a man.”
The herd gasped in collective disbelief.
“A small boy in a land of water and ice. Three days after my birth a Wise Woman proclaimed that I would grow up to be a mighty hunter, and so it was, for I was shooting arrows before I could walk. Widgeon rained down from the skies and my barbed spears felled all my prey in one throw, but one elk.
“He haunted my dreams standing on the red horizon looking back at me with his death in his eyes. The Hunter said the hunting of the Chief of Elk was my destiny. The Wise Woman told me that it would be my undoing. I… fell in love…” he glanced guiltily at the Chieftess. “I had seven children. My herd, I mean my people, were hungry, we had nothing to eat. I swore I’d give my life to save them.
“When the Chief of Elk finally appeared I couldn’t believe I missed. That’s when the Hunter appeared in my dream. For seven days and seven nights and seven days again we tracked him and on the seventh night I killed him yet I lost my own life in the pool and here I am and…” as the realisation washed through him, “before he could make it back to his people he was eaten by the Dark Ones.”
“The Chief of Elk became a man?” “A man the Chief of Elk?” “Who is who?” “Are you truly our Chief?”
“I… really don’t know,” admitted Stalwart.
As he spoke laughter began to echo around the tent. Laughter that shook wooden bowls, rattled necklaces, like the wind tore away the tent flaps leaving only a mightier set of antlers above and their wearer on the back of a black water-horse with countless legs churning the skies, gnashing its teeth.
“Well, that’s a story to keep the Dark Ones at bay,” said the Hunter. “They’ll be fuddled for days and days can last forever in the Elk-Scape where the light and the land are held together by a good story.
“Yet on the Otherside the people you swore to stand by, for whom you gave your life, are starving. They too need stories, their Timekeeper, to stop the Dark Ones rising from the pools and from the Seas.”
As the first crimson light appeared Stalwart found himself submerged beneath bloody waters. This time he let go of the spear-haft that bound him to the man who had been eaten by the Dark Ones of the Seas. Lungs bursting, he struggled up, up and away from the sinking elk toward the patch of light.
His wife, Sinew, pulled him out, an auburn-haired, strong, broad-shouldered woman. His people roared and cheered, although they lamented their loss of the elk. They ate little but roots and bark that night, but Stalwart told them a story beginning, “I’m not who you think I am… I should explain…”
Afterwards the Timekeeper moved between the worlds, between man and elk, maintaining the stories. For many thousands of years the Elk Pool was known as a special and sacred place. When the last elk on the Island of Britain was killed he returned to the Otherside and his tales were forgotten. Since then there has been no-one to stand vigil at the pool and no words to hold the Dark Ones back.
When the bones of the Chief of Elk and the barbed point that bound two hearts together were dug up the Timekeeper returned from the Elk-Scape and my rattling fingerbones were seized by his story.
*The elk in the Harris museum has been nicknamed Horace from the Latin ‘Hour in Time’ or Timekeeper’. **With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the image from a video display about the hunting of Horace in the Discover Preston Gallery.
‘the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire’ David Barrowclough
Until recently it was believed that the 23 human skulls found on Penwortham Marsh during the excavations for Riversway Docklands provided evidence for human sacrifice or a mass murder. This was based on the premise that they were all contemporary with the Bronze Age spearhead, the remants of a wooden lake dwelling, and two dug-out canoes, which they were found with.
Since then a sample of the skulls have been radio-carbon dated to between 4000BC and 800AD. Four are from the Neolithic period, one the Romano-British, and one the Anglo-Saxon. The range shows these people died at very different times. This has led professor Mick Wysocki to put forward the theory that the skulls belonged to people who died upriver, their corpses floating down to a tidal pool at Penwortham Marsh where their heavy skulls sank whilst their bodies washed out to sea. Wysocki’s theory is widely accepted among historians and archaeologists.
I believe that, for many cases, Wysocki might be right. However, considering the surrounding evidence, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of the skulls were purposefully deposited in Penwortham Marsh. Lancashire (the historic county) has many examples of ritual depositions of severed heads.
On Pilling Moss was discovered ‘the head of a woman with long plaited auburn hair… wrapped in a piece of coarse woollen cloth and with it were two strings of cylindrical jet beads, with one string having a large amber bead at its centre.’ The jet beads date it to the Early Bronze Age. Another female head with plaited hair, from Red Moss, Bolton, remains undated.
From Briarfield, on the Fylde coast, we have the head of a man aged less than 50 years ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ and dated to the Late Bronze Age. Another male skull, of a similar age and date, was found on Ashton Moss, Tameside. A skull from Worsley was dated to between the Bronze Age and Romano-British periods. Found near the famous Lindow Man, the head of Lindow Woman has been dated to 250AD. Heads, as yet undated, were also found at Birkdale, near Southport.
The purposeful deposition of the heads, without their bodies, suggests they were deposited for ritual purposes. The plaited hair of the females seems significant. The jet and amber beads with the woman on Pilling Moss implicates she was an important figure among her people. These burials appear to have been made with great reverence. I wonder whether they are suggestive of the belief that the head is the seat of the soul and if it is treated in a certain way the soul might remain present so that a group of people can commune with the deceased until the time of its burial.
The existence of this belief within Brythonic culture is supported by ‘The Second Branch’ of the medieval Welsh text, The Mabinogion, in which Brân the Blessed’s head continued to speak for eighty years before its burial beneath White Hill in London to protect the Island of Britain from attack (until it was dug up by King Arthur who couldn’t stand anyone defending the country but him). It seems possible these heads also had a apotropaic function, demarking territory, repelling enemies.
Whilst the two female heads appear to have been buried reverently, the head of the man from Briarfield was badly mutilated – defleshed and and the mandible removed. David Barrowclough suggests the ‘separation of the mandible’ might show it was a ‘battle trophy’. That the removal of the flesh and the mandible might have been representative of one group or person over this person. One can imagine this gory spectacle as a symbol of glory over a defeated foe and a warning to an enemy.
Again this tradition is hinted at in medieval Welsh mythology. In Culhhwch and Olwen,prior to his beheading and the placement of his head on a stake the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, had his ears cut off and his flesh was pared down to the bone. In Geraint there is an enchanted game where heads on stakes stand in a hedge of mist and it is implied that any who lose the game end up losing their heads.
In The Red Book of Hergest exists a poem attributed to Llywarch Hen in which the sixth century northern British ruler carries his cousin Urien’s head back to the kingdom of Rheged after his assassination:
A head I bear by my side, The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army– And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched…
A head I bear from the Riw, With his lips foaming with blood– Woe to Rheged from this day!
It has been suggested that Llywarch Hen ruled Ribchester in Lancashire (amongst many other places!)
Ritualised beheadings, burials (and unburials) of heads continued in Britain until 1747 when the Jacobite leader and Scottish clan chief, Simon Fraser, was publically beheaded at Tower Hill.
I therefore believe it is possible that some of the heads from Penwortham Marsh were ritual depositions. It seems to be of no coincidence that, of the six examined, three died violent deaths. A Neolithic man was killed by a stone axe and a Neolithic woman by ‘trauma to the right and back of her skull’. A Romano-British person (the sex cannot be determined) met his or her death through ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’
These people could have been killed and their corpses deposited in the Ribble upriver. Or they might be the heads of people in the group of lake dwellers who at one point built a wooden structure on Penwortham Marsh. Perhaps they were locals killed in battle or enemies whose heads they had taken.
A further possibility is that they were human sacrifices. The Lindow Man famously died a ‘three-fold death’. He was struck on the head (with a blow that fractured his skull), garrotted, then drowned. Lindow Man was buried whole, but only Lindow Woman’s head was buried. The reasons why, in one instance, a whole body was deposited and in another only the head remain unknown.
Perhaps examinations of the other 17 skulls from the Riversway Dock Finds would provide further clues?
Another tradition that has lived on here is the deposition of stone heads (perhaps modelled on an ancestor?) rather than the heads of the dead in the Ribble as evidenced by this specimen in the Harris Museum.
*With thanks to the Harris Museum for permission to use the photograph.
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)William Skene (transl.), ‘Red Book of Hergest XII, Four Ancient Books of Wales, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab060.htm (accessed 12/01/2020) Display in the Discover Preston gallery in the Harris Museum
‘Now, at that highest point on the fells, no trace remains of what was done so long ago, but its name has endured. They call it the Wardstone.’
– Joseph Delaney
What was done so long ago?
Bog feet squelch across the moors.
Black peaty waters know.
Underground streams pour.
Its name has endured.
Sphagnum knows the springy secret
of the one known as the ward
but cannot keep it.
They call it the Wardstone,
say it keeps the fells in place,
some Annuvian monster down. At the highest point no trace.
I’ve lived in Lancashire since I was six but this is the first time I’ve been to Ward’s Stone, the highest fell, made hauntingly legendary by Joseph Delaney in his awesome Wardstone Chronicles.
It’s a wonderful place although not many humans seem to visit. I saw one group of students who gave up after the first few boggy patches and a couple who vanished into the earth at the Queen’s Chair. Somehow, in spite of all the bogs, I didn’t get wet feet. Walking boots are the best invention ever!
The twenty day public inquiry into whether fracking will take place at Roseacre and Little Plumpton opened on Tuesday the 8th of February at Blackpool Football Stadium. I travelled from Preston to join local people and protestors from anti-fracking groups to stand against Cuadrilla’s appeal and for democracy.
I don’t feel massively comfortable at protests. I’m not naturally smiley or sociable and am not good in crowds or with loud noise. However I went and literally stood for what I believe in and heard some good speeches from campaigners, students, faith groups, trade unions and a representative from a Lancashire based renewable energy company presenting viable alternatives to fracking.
Surprisingly for the first time I saw a small group of pro-fracking campaigners with signs saying ‘WE’RE BACKING FRACKING’ ‘JOBS JOBS JOBS.’ Following questions about how much they’d been paid they left. Hmm…
Feelings about how the hearing will go are mixed. Speakers shared doubts about whether Greg Clark will listen to the views of Lancashire’s people and councillors after his proposal to classify fracking sites as ‘nationally significant infrastructure.’ Yet campaigners are taking heart in their success in preventing fracking over the last four years.
Once the demonstration was over I walked from South Pier to North Pier. Nearly everywhere was closed and shuttered down. Instead of walking by forlorn skeletons hanging over abandoned horror houses, occasional shops selling sticks of rock and walking sticks with flashing lights, announcements ghosting from hidden speakers, I chose to walk by the sea.
The huge fierce insurmountable sea crashing and crashing against the promenade with the tireless energy of its tidal pull: grey waves riding in and with a smash banking at head height in cascades of foam. After the tension of the protest it was invigorating to stand before the sea, let its saltwater splash over me, safe yet aware of its immense power.
Wave by wave to allow the frustrations of politics to be washed away; outrage at Westminster forcing fracking on Lancashire, the futility of the political system, the lies and double-dealing of politicians, the constant need to fight against a world of men in suits, corrupt corporations and political-speak of which I have no comprehension.
To stand before the awe of the sea beneath a silver cloud-lit sky pierced by winter sunshine making rainbows in the spray. To stand before a quicksilver panorama of sky and sea.
To see the Big Wheel stopped. The Big Wheel stopped. The Big Wheel stopped on Central Pier. And pray likewise fracking can be stopped, the wheel of industry and the political machine.
This is a song for the nine
who stood against fracking:
the nine who stood firm
the nine who stood
against the tyrants’ gall.
This is a song for the nine
who stood for land and people:
democracy and hope.
This is a song for the nine
who stood for Lancashire:
our children free from harm.
This is a song for the nine
the nine we will remember
for standing firm
standing for us
in centuries of song.
This song came to me near whole and of its own accord the morning after Cuadrilla’s proposal to frack at Little Plumpton was refused by Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee 9-4 (2 abstained).
I e-mailed it to Peter Dillon, who was also involved in the protests. He told me that night he’d dreamt of a tune. With a few tweaks it fit the wording perfectly and wasn’t far off the tune I had when the song came to me.
I’ve sent a copy with a thank you e-mail to the nine at Devcon today. We may be singing it somewhere in Preston soon.
“I’m going to frack here! I’m going to frack there! I’m going to frack every-fracking-where!”– Mr Frackhead
It has been a fraught five days in Lancashire. On Tuesday 23rd of June decisions amongst fifteen members of Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee began on Cuadrilla’s applications to drill and hydraulically fracture (frack) four wells at Roseacre and Little Plumpton on Preston New Road. Beforehand Mr Perigo (the Senior Planning Officer for LCC) had suggested Roseacre be refused and Little Plumpton should go ahead.
On the Tuesday I was part of a crowd of protestors who gathered outside Preston’s County Hall. Preston New Road Action Group, Roseacre Awareness Group, Frack Free Lancashire and Friends of the Earth came together with numerous other anti-fracking and environmental groups and local individuals to stand against Cuadrilla’s application.
I had to leave on Tuesday afternoon because I had taken temporary admin work that demanded…