Stone Circles - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Go to content

Main menu:

Stone Circles

Ancient Sites

Stone circles represent the zenith of the megalithic era. Archaeologists date them to 2200-2000 though my date-dowsing places them in the 2600s BCE, all built within a few decades of each other. West Penwith has four surviving circles, though once there were around ten. Tregeseal and the Merry Maidens were once made up of two or three circles each (it's much debated), and Mên an Tol once was a stone circle.

Boscawen-unPenwith's four surviving stone circles are Tregeseal and the Nine Maidens in the north, and Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens in the south. These two pairs contrast one another in character and setting. Tregeseal and the Nine Maidens in the north are each overshadowed by a neolithic tor hill - Carn Kenidjack and Carn Galva. Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens in the south are situated on flatter rolling lands, once upon a time mainly wooded. This said, a significant hill is more distantly visible from both of the southern circles - Chapel Carn Brea from Boscawen-ûn and Carn Galva from the Merry Maidens.

All of them have a complex of orbital sites attached to them within 1km or so, made up of menhirs, barrows, stones and, in two cases, now-destroyed stone circles. They stand at the hubs of geomantic parks or landscape temples, each with a number of features and an enveloping landscape setting. These should not be seen as separate from the stone circles.

These settings are more visible nowadays in the two northern circles because they are located on open moorland while the southern circles are situated in farmland with hedgerows and undergrowth affecting the look and feel of their landscape temples.

The appliance of science

Then we come to their positioning - this offers clues about their purpose and role. The stone circles are located where they are because of megalithic scientific considerations, which were complex and carefully thought out. Nowadays we understand only snippets of bronze age science.

The megalith builders utilised advanced mathematics, astronomy, geometry and proportion. They understood the size of the Earth, the periodicity of the planets, the eclipse cycle, the precession of the equinoxes, the Golden Mean and Pythagorean geometry, 2,000 years before Pythagoras - and they embodied these principles in the design, size and shape of the stone circles. They planned out their megalithic works to reflect their perception of the cosmos - this much is visible in what they have left behind, though understanding these works is far more challenging.

Positioning contains further clues. The location of the stone circles in West Penwith is determined by backbone alignments - the circles are aligned with neolithic tor enclosures and cliff sanctuaries, the most important sites of the neolithic, a millennium earlier in the 3000s BCE. The people of the bronze age were plugging their technological inventions into what they saw as a natural network and ancient heritage, staked out by hills and headlands.

The stone circles were major nodes in a wider system of ancient sites spread out across the landscape. Their rings of stones formed containers within which the energy-fields and consciousness-fields the ancients evidently worked with could perhaps be focused and amplified, for public ceremonies or magical-spiritual operations they carried out.

Stone circles in West Penwith

The surviving stone circles

TregesealTregeseal - or the Tregeseal complex - is situated on alignment 83 going from Carn Brea near Camborne to the Brisons rocks just off Cape Cornwall, and passing exactly through Trencrom Hill and Lanyon Quoit (see map above). The anchor or contact-point for this alignment is not the stone circle itself but Botallack Common barrow, a short walk ENE of the circle, and part of the Tregeseal complex.

Tregeseal is what's called a Type A flattened circle with a diameter around 21m. Circles were flattened on one side in order to adjust the relationship between their diameter and circumference, to make it into a significant mathematical proportion reflecting astronomical factors such as the ratio of the length of the day and the night at the solstices, at this particular latitude.

Tregeseal stone circle is one of two or three original circles, one or two of which have been destroyed by landowners - the surviving circle was the easternmost of these. It is overshadowed by Carn Kenidjack and set in a slight bowl beneath it, with several chambered cairns and holed stones comprising the complex, as well as a small rock carn lying immediately southest of the circle, plus two more distant menhirs - Boswens ENE and Carn Eanes northwards. In its heyday, these circles would have formed an impressive presence.

The Merry MaidensMeanwhile, the Merry Maidens circle stands on alignment 112, on an exact alignment of Carn Brea (a tor enclosure), Gear Round, St Michael's Mount (a tor enclosure and cliff sanctuary) and Treryn Dinas (a cliff sanctuary). This is a remarkable alignment involving three aligned natural features. The Merry Maidens circle was placed exactly on this alignment.

The circle is in quite good shape. Close to the road, it attracts more visitors than the other circles - if you're a meditator, you have to take your chances. This stone circle is exactly circular (only some stone circles are), and 24m in diameter. The field patterns and hedgerows surrounding it have obscured and decontextualised the other sites that make up this complex, and the one or two nearby stone circles have also been destroyed by farmers - the last vestiges of one, Tregurnow, were removed only in the 1990s.

The Nine Maidens or Boskednan stone circleThe Nine Maidens or Boskednan stone circle stands at the intersection and terminus of two major alignments, 96 and 38. Alignment 38 goes from Treryn Dinas through Boscawen-ûn, then to Lanyon Quoit, then to the Nine Maidens (specifically to a menhir, nowadays a broken stub, some 20m NW of the circle). Alignment 96 goes all the way from Rame Head near Plymouth, through Roundwood Fort near Truro, to Trencrom Hill and then to the centre of the Nine Maidens circle.

This is the most damaged of the circles (this time by miners), yet its location on a high moorland saddle under Carn Galva, overlooking a broad landscape, is the most inspiring of all of the stone circles. Like the Merry Maidens, the Nine Maidens is exactly circular, with a diameter around 22m. The original Mên an Tol stone circle down the hill formed part of its landscape temple, together with Bosiliack Barrow and several cairns and stones, as well as the nearby hills Carn Galva and Watch Croft. Although it is the bleakest of the four circles, it's rather lovable, especially if you relax with a flask of tea when you go there.

Boscawen-unFinally, Boscawen-ûn (pr: Boscaw-noon) stands at the intersection of six significant alignments linking it with many major sites: Godolphin Hill, St Michael's Mount, Lesingey Round, Stanon Circle on Bodmin Moor, Gurnard's Head, the Nine Maidens, Lanyon Quoit, Cape Cornwall, Maen Castle, Carn Lês Boel, as well as, on the Isles of Scilly, White Island cairn on St Martin's and South Hill on Bryher. That's serious, carefully-devised, intentional connectivity.

It is carefully and precisely positioned in the landscape so that Chapel Carn Brea with its hilltop cairns is framed between two slopes, and the sea is visible in a narrow window that becomes invisible if one moves just slightly away from the circle, as is the case also with a view of the distant Pipers menhirs at the Merry Maidens.

The placing of Boscawen-ûn in its immediate landscape is rather unimpressive, at least as it looks today, and one would be forgiven for wondering why it is there. But this intricate alignment positioning pattern suggests not only definite, intentional reasons for choosing this location but also a remarkable act of fitting it all together. How did they figure out all this without aerial photography, helicopters, theodolites and computers?
The quartz stone at Boscawen-ûn
Quartz stone at Boscawen-unBoscawen-ûn was classified by Prof Alexander Thom as a Type B flattened circle, though actually it is more like an ellipse oriented roughly NW-SE, probably aligned to the rising point of the newmoon at a summer solstice lunar maximum and the setting point of a winter solstice fullmoon lunar maximum. It is 24.9m by 21.9m in diameter - this proportion is probably astronomical too.

Two special features are a quartz stone on the circle's perimeter and a tall inclined stone located off-centre in the circle, pointing northeast up the main axis of the southwestern peninsula of southern Britain.

The disappeared circles

The majority of stone circles in Penwith have been destroyed. Those that are known are:

Boleigh (SW 4314 2444), over which there is some dispute. It was part of the Merry Maidens complex. It had seven stones and was '30 paces' across. It was still surviving when recorded by Borlase in 1740 and it was destroyed in the late 1800s. See also Tregurnow, below.

Bosiliack (SW 440 320 approx). A 'Druidical circle' has been noted by antiquarians but no signs of it have been found.

Botallack CirclesBotallack (SW 3669 3311). There is no sign nowadays of this rather exciting and unique multiple-circled site. It might not be a classic stone circle, and too little is known of it to judge. Borlase wrote: “Fronting the gate of Botalac town place there is a most remarkable miz maze, if I may so term it, of stones set on end, which if Ducaleon himself had thrown behind his back could not sufficiently stood up in greater disorder than they at present appear, but viewing them diligently this March 6th, 1737, I find the largest circle monument there of any I yet have met with, with several subordinate circles, some touching the circumferences, some breaking within it; together with two large erected stones, not many paces from the principal ring.” The stones were probably used in tin-mining construction in the 1800s.

Higher Trevorian (SW 4168 2626). Marked on old Ordnance Survey maps, little is known about this circle, though it is generally accepted to have been there.

Men an TolMên an Tol (SW 4264 3493). This iconic site, with its unique holed stone, is not what it was in ancient times. The two stones and much-loved holed stone making up today's Mên an Tol were so erected in the late 19th Century, using stones from the preceding stone circle. The site currently has three standing and six recumbent stones, plus one possible extra stone, a cairn and the famous holed stone.

Formerly it was a stone circle of probably 19 stones, up to 18m in diameter. This circle was connected with the nearby Nine Maidens stone circle, Carn Galva and Watch Croft, Bosiliack Barrow and other local features - they all formed a system, with Nine Maidens possibly serving as a sun circle and Mên an Tol as a moon circle.

Rosemergy (SW 4178 3647). Nothing remains of this presumed stone circle near Morvah, below Carn Galva and close to the cliff sanctuary of Bosigran Castle, except some stones removed to the hedge. The site was visited by Meyn Mamvro in 2015 and the exact position found by dowsing. Some doubt that it was a stone circle - though it was something. Its uncommon location close to the sea is interesting - stone circles customarily do not incorporate seascapes. It lies precisely between Gurnard's Head and Chûn Quoit, and between Bosigran Castle and Watch Croft. It played a part in a wider complex of sites, all overlooked by Carn Galva, and including two cliff sanctuaries, Bosporthennis Quoit and Porthmeor menhir.

Treen Common Circle (SW 4445 3665), on Gear Hill, between Zennor and Morvah. This has everyone flummoxed. It could be a kind of late neolithic henge, an unusual one-off bronze age stone circle or an iron age or even medieval enclosure, though it doesn't fit easily into any of these categories and it has never been excavated. It has a few ancient site alignments to it, including one from Gurnard's Head to Mulfra Quoit, suggesting it might have an older, neolithic or bronze age origin. The stones do not have the definite presence and menhir shape of other stone circles in this area. So it is probably not a classic stone circle. It's another something.
Carn Kenidjack busy hovering over Tregeseal
Carn Kenidjack from TregesealTregeseal (SW 3866 3237). Tregeseal originally had two or three stone circles close to each other, lying below the characterful hulk of Carn Kenidjack. The surviving one, the east circle, has 19 stones and is in reasonable health, though the stones on its western side might have been moved slightly after restoration following tin-mining explorations there.

The other one or two circles have been obliterated - the final remains of the central circle having been built into the nearby wall after being removed by a farmer in 1961. Borlase in the 1700s noted ten upright and four fallen stones in the central circle. It is likely that this was bigger than the surviving eastern circle. The western circle is marked on old maps but evidence for it is scanty except for crop marks identified in aerial photos, and some dispute that it was a stone circle. It's possible it was a big platform cairn, a bit like those not far away at Botrea Barrows, and conceivably used as a stage for ceremonial use.

The Tregeseal complex contains various cairns and holed stones (of a different kind to Mên an Tol) and the presence of the overlooking neolithic tor enclosure, Carn Kenidjack, suggests that the ceremonial centre of gravity on the tor in the neolithic shifted downhill, first to the neolithic cairns a few hundred yards from the stone circle around 3500 BCE, and then to Tregeseal stone circle during the bronze age, built (I believe) around 2600 BCE. The holed stones, ENE of the circle and 250m away, could be oriented stones pointing to parts of the Isles of Scilly.

Tregurnow (SW 4375 2455). This is part of the Merry Maidens complex. Its last two stones were broken up only in 2006 (the farmer has since recognised his error). Presumably it had 19 stones, like the Merry Maidens. It might have been more important or older than the Merry Maidens, if its position on the brow of the hill overlooking Lamorna and the wider landscape is anything to go by, but it certainly was a twin circle to the Merry Maidens.

Stone circle design

As far as we know, all four surviving stone circles contain or once contained 19 stones. This indicates an astronomical purpose, since 19 stones represent the Metonic Cycle which unites the varying cycles of the Sun and Moon. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines this as: chronology, a period of 19 years in which there are 235 lunations or synodic months, after which the Moon's phases recur on the same days of the solar year. The cycle was discovered by Meton (fl. 432 BC), an Athenian astronomer.
The Merry Maidens
Merry MaidensExcept that, although Meton gained the credit, the megalith builders knew it at least two millennia earlier! This period of 6,939.6 days is equivalent to:
- 19 solar years,
- 20 eclipse years (cycles of eclipse positions),
- 235 synodic months (cycles of lunar phases),
- 254 sidereal months (lunar orbits),
- and 255 draconic months (lunar conjunctions with its North Node - eclipse-related).

The Metonic Cycle is accurate to the extent that it needs just one day's adjustment once every 219 years.

This 19-year time period was a human generation in length - a suitable interval for counting longer periods of time. Most ancient calendars had no start-point - instead they were counted in terms of generations or planetary cycles, such as the 60-year Great Mutation cycle of three Jupiter and Saturn synodic cycles.

Every third Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, the conjunction takes place in the same zodiac sign as 60 years before (plus a few degrees). Successive 20-year conjunctions would always be in signs of the same element (such as, today, air signs Aquarius, Gemini and Libra), and they shift element every 240 years. This fed into a larger cycle of 40 conjunctions, lasting 800 years, in which successive conjunctions would return to exactly the same zodiac degree as 800 years before. This provided the basis of a longterm calendar. Just as we say '14th Century', they might say, 'the third Great Mutation of four Grand Cycles ago'.

One consequence of using 19 stones is that no stone stood exactly opposite another stone in the circle - with just a few exceptions where an alignment of two stones to a distant point was clearly the intention. A stone was thus usually intended to face an open space between stones on the other side of the circle.

In Penwith, in most cases the stones are more flattened on the inside and more rounded on the outside, as if acting as reflectors focusing energy inwards into the circle.

In terms of subtle energy a stone circle can be seen as a resonator and an amplifier. Some dowsers have noted a spinning element to the energy field in a stone circle - Tom Graves' cyclotron effect, referring to the analogy of a particle accelerator. The idea here is that, if this spinning is amplified by consciousness work, dancing and chanting, it would create a strong field within which to work.

Every stone circle is placed on top of a blind-spring (or water dome), which is an up-flow or strong upward seepage of water from deep down, which then hits an impervious layer. This flow is then forced out roughly horizontally under this layer in a radial pattern of springs and seepages. It creates an energy-field on the surface above it that clearly interested the people of the bronze age. In case you think this is hocus-pocus woowoo, all you need to do is go to a stone circle, relax for a while, and you will find your mood and state significantly changed - generally in a happy direction. This consciousness-shift probably interested the ancients.

There is a vertically-oriented containing element to a stone circle, with the up-rising or vertically-alternating energy-flow that is emitted by a blind spring under the centre of the stone circle being concentrated and funnelled up-down, in the space inside the circle, or through the upright stones, acting as conductors between earth and sky.

The atmosphere at a stone circle is distinct and at times strong, and can change quite a lot at different times - no one has been able to study the periodicities of this - so choose your moment for visiting. And give thanks when it's time to go.

The Nine Maidens or Boskednan stone circle
Nine MaidensThe ancients weren't fixated on calendrical dates in the same way as we are, with our busy lives. But they did have an interest in understanding nature's cycles, for practical purposes such as planting and harvesting, for the timing of festivals and rites, and also because they saw themselves as active participants in spinning the wheels of time and season. This was their way of harmonising with the earth and cosmos.

Time has character, quality, meaning and potency, and working with change, time and season to capture and entrain this time power lay at the core of the megalith builders' worldview. To them, astronomy and astrology were the same thing. They built ancient sites to embody principles they perceived in nature and the universe, basing them on a principle of capturing time by representing it in mathematical and geometric form in the design of stone circles and other ancient sites.

The placing, design, mathematics and orientation of ancient sites were all carefully calculated to embody the eclipse cycle, the anomalistic year, the solstices and cross-quarters of the year, lunar phases and probably longer-term cycles such as the sidereal and synodic cycles of the planets. But we're only a small way in to deciphering this.*

The ancients sought to play their part in the fluxings of the universe and the intelligence or the heart of nature - and if they failed in this, they felt things could deteriorate or go wrong. This might seem superstitious, except in our day the cycles and fluxings of the biosphere and climate indeed are going seriously wrong, and we know it, so there's a lesson to learn from this.

They emulated the patterns and cycles of the universe in their ancient sites and rituals. They weren't solely seeking to calibrate their calendars, as many reductionist archaeologists would believe. Their calendars were living, breathing, life-determining, religious things, not just statistical day-counters.

The Merry Maidens
Merry MaidensSolar and lunar calendars

The ancients had a double calendar - solar and lunar. The solar calendar was anchored in the solstices and equinoxes, divided into sixteen periods - each quarter of the year being divided into two and four segments.

The lunar calendar was anchored in the lunar phases, particularly newmoons and fullmoons, of which there are around 12.5 cycles per solar year. The lunar and solar cycles are out of sync, though they synchronise with each other once every 19 years.

The solar calendar relates to the seasons of the year and the lunar calendar to cycles of tides, water levels, light at night and natural fertility. Though the coming of spring or autumn is determined by the sun's cycle, the actual visible changes, when flowers come out or the leaves fall off the trees, when birds migrate and the weather turns, are timed by the moon.

The 19 stone circle thus embodies the integration of solar and lunar calendars, indicating also a preoccupation with eclipse cycles. This went deeper: it concerned subtle energy and inwardly-felt change and fluctuations. These cycles were incorporated into the design of stone circles. By lining up a stone on one side of the circle with a stone on the other, an exact alignment would become visible, pointing to a place on the horizon where the sun or moon would rise at a certain critical point in the ancient calendars.

The problem is that we do not know which stones were used in combination with which, or which were counted as significant for what purpose. There are many possible permutations: were alignments taken from the centre of one stone to the centre of another on the other side of the circle? Or was it taken from the right-hand side of one to the left-hand side of another? From one stone it is possible to take a sightline to at least seven stones on the other side, and to at least three positions on each stone (left side, centre and right side) - so we have at least 21 variables to play with, from each stone. The people of the bronze age left no instruction manuals - their knowledge was passed through whispered lineages.

The problem is that we don't understand the full extent of the design principles involved in stone circles. But there are some clues provided by archaeoastronomers and mathematicians. Prof Alexander Thom, an engineer and archaeoastronomer of the 1950s-70s, noticed that stone circles were different shapes - not just pure circles. He identified two main types of flattened circle - a circle where half of it is circular and the other half is pushed in to make a flattened half. These required different complex geometries.

Trouble is, pioneers get some things right and some wrong. In the case of Boscawen-ûn, Thom identified the circle as a flattened circle when in fact it is oval - equally flattened at both sides. Nevertheless, surveying hundreds of circles, especially in Scotland, he established principles of stone circle design that hold true and constant.

Geometry of Boscawen unThom showed how the megalith builders had units of measurement which he called the Megalithic Yard (2.72ft). This has recently been reviewed with the discovery of the Megalithic Foot (14.142in) by Harris and Stockdale. All stone circles across Britain are measured in these terms.

Metrology, the science of ancient measuring systems, is complex (introduction here), yet it is one of the most detailed clues for understanding the megalithic mind and the advanced nature of its science. Archaeologists avoid it studiously. (Here's an exception: a video discussion between metrologist John Neal and Oxford Prof Michael Vickers.)

The megalith builders utilised a complex geometry, involving advanced astronomical knowledge which included the size of the Earth and the difference between the polar and tropical circumference of the Earth (since the Earth is wider at the equator than at the poles).

So the stone circles were conceptually much more sophisticated than first meets the eye. In them the ancients left a tangible record of their knowledge and science, for posterity. The stone circles also represented microcosmic embodiments of cosmic laws, represented in geometry, measure and proportion. In clarifying the principles of these cosmic laws, the ancients emulated universal principles, bringing heaven, earth and the human world into harmony - something which, in their eyes, presumably aided human fortunes and contributed something to the wider universe. They had rather Taoist attitudes, around two millennia before Lao Tzu wrote them down in China.

This is important in our modern day. Technologies in the 21st Century now need to emulate nature, reflecting its principles, to avoid the polluting and destructive effect of so many modern technologies. This was the underlying message of John Michell, the man who unearthed the importance of ancient geometries and metrology, who also established the first principles of the alignments system of West Penwith in 1972 book The Old Stones of Land's End.
Stone Circle Complexes

These complexes are as important as stone circles themselves, orbiting around the gravity-centre of the stone circles. They are quite different from each other in shape and character. The complex around the Merry Maidens is very definite with a wide range of features. Around Tregeseal it's also quite definite, but nowadays in a poor state. Around Boscawen-ûn it is comprised mainly of menhirs acting as foresights to be seen from the circle, with a proportion of them astronomically aligned. The Nine Maidens complex is not pronounced but this circle, together with its former sister circle at Mên an Tol, plays a part in an array of sites that seem more terrestrially than astronomically significant. All of these complexes need much more research.

The Merry Maidens complexMerry Maidens complex

This once comprised two or three stone circles and a number of menhirs, including Cornwall's largest (The Pipers), and a number of cairns. It is arrayed mainly along a WSW-ENE axis that is highlighted by the main yellow alignment passing through it (see map right), leading from Carn Brea, through St Michael's Mount to Treryn Dinas - a major backbone alignment. This has an azimuth of 54.3° - the rising point of the sun around early June and mid-July (if indeed it is astronomically oriented - it might be more terrestrially signiicant).

A sub-axis in the complex follows a short internal alignment from Gûn Rith, through the centre of the Merry Maidens, through a now-fallen menhir and a hedge menhir to the now-disappeared Tregurnow stone circle, with an azimuth of 81.1°. It's blue on the map above.

In the northeast of the complex, the adjacent Pipers menhirs clearly act as a pair. The southwestern Piper seems to handle alignments within the complex (in blue on the map), while the northeast Piper takes alignments from further away. One example is an alignment of Tregurnow stone circle, through the northeast Piper to Boscawen-un stone circle and ending up at Bartinney Castle.
NE Piper menhir
NE Pipers menhirThe Pipers are counterweighted on the other side of the Merry Maidens by the twin Boscawen Ros menhirs. The western menhir is aligned with the centre of the Merry Maidens and then the Pipers. Meanwhile, the eastern menhir aligns with the southeastern edge of the stone circle and the Pipers. The headscratcher is, why? What's the purpose of this?

A comprehensive multi-discliplinary survey of the Merry Maidens complex is needed. It is very much affected by the road and hedgerows in the vicinity when, clearly, in the complex's heyday, it would have been some sort of parkland with different visual characteristics and horizon from those of today.

Notable are a number of holed stones (pink on the map above). The best estimate is that these were very accurately aligned to obtain exact readings for certain astronomical phenomena. The holes are not large. The chances are that this concerned observation of a rising star or planet rather than the sun or moon: a narrow series of aligned holes would counteract extinction, when stars disappear when they are close to the horizon (because their light is insufficient to get through the earth's atmosphere when low on the horizon). However, it would also exploit the virtues of the slight atmospheric magnification that stellar objects have when close to the horizon. It was perhaps an early bronze age scientific precision instrument.

Alignment 123 from the Merry Maidens goes to Carn Lês Boel, then to Knackyboy cairn on the Scilly island of St Martin's, then to a kerbed cairn on Gweal Hill, Bryher. Another interesting alignment went from Tregurnow stone circle to Sancreed Beacon, through the Botrea Barrows to Pendeen Watch, a significant cliff sanctuary on the north coast of Penwith.

Boscawen-un complexBoscawen-ûn complex

This complex is more spread out and radial than the Merry Maidens complex, with a gaggle of menhirs a few fields, 600-800m away, from the stone circle, with more further still. Boscawen-ûn is more of a hub than any other stone circle in Penwith: it stands at the very centre of the southern half of the peninsula, with radial alignments reaching out to several of the major cliff sanctuaries - Carn Lês Boel, Treryn Dinas, Cape Cornwall, Gurnard's Head, Maen Castle and St Michael's Mount. Their relative angles need analysis.

It's one of those stone circles where you can spend time alone, because it is a little tricky to find so tourists and walkers tend not to go there. But it has frequently displayed a classic and uncanny symptom of an 'alive' stone circle: when you arrive, someone else might just be leaving, and when you leave, someone else comes along. And then, just as you're about to leave, someone else comes along to take over. Stone circles can have a presence and a will of their own.

Boscawen-ûn is fondly regarded by many. It was saved from destruction in the 1860s by a lady in Penzance, Miss Elizabeth Carne, who, hearing the farmer was about to destroy it, bought the property and had the circle's enclosing wall built to protect it - one of the first instances of antiquity preservation in British history. God bless Miss Carne and her cotton socks.

Boscawen-unMany argue that the stone near the centre of the circle leans accidentally owing to damage, but this is unlikely. Although such a stone is quite unusual amongst stone circles in Britain, it looks intentionally inclined, and dowsers report the power centre of the circle to lie directly under the top tip of the stone, not at its base.

It feels as if this stone has national significance. It points up the peninsula of the southwest of Britain at an azimuth of 53° in the local-horizon direction of the summer solstice sunrise. It's as if it stakes down the national energy-field of Britain at one of its corners (perhaps with the Ring of Brogar in the Orkney Islands at the other end). Boscawen-ûn was known in the Welsh Triads as one of the three chief Druid gorsedds or eisteddfod sites of southern Britain (the other two conceivably being at Caerleon and Old Sarum).

Much more study is needed of the various orientations of Boscawen-ûn's surrounding menhirs, and of their original intervisibility in the days before today's agricultural landscape was installed, since they clearly constitute one unified system. Notable also is the orientation of Chapel Carn Brea, visible WNW from the circle, together with a gap or entrance in the circle of stones that opens to the hill.
Creeg Tol
Creeg Tol, Boscawen-unThe rock outcrop 150m to Boscawen-ûn's northwest, Creeg Tol, is quite energetic, providing a panorama of the circle - it lies on the above-mentioned alignment from Tregurnow stone circle to Boscawen-ûn and then to Bartinney Castle. Both Bartinney and Chapel Carn Brea were beacon and ceremonial sites, visible from the Scillies.

Boscawen-ûn might plausibly host a number of rock carvings on its central stone, representing two axe-heads or feet, and another higher up. This is important since carvings on menhirs and stone circles are rare. The possible alignment of the elliptical shape of the circle to the lunar maxima and of the near-central stone to the summer solstice rising point indicates an intentional marrying of the solar and lunar calendars, and a positioning and shaping of the circle to integrate these into the structure of its design.

Tregeseal complexTregeseal complex

This complex is different again, though it has some parallels to the Merry Maidens complex, inasmuch as its long axis runs roughly WSW-ENE. It is also linked by backbone alignment to Carn Brea near Camborne (not to be confused with Chapel Carn Brea above) and it had two or three stone circles and at least four holed stones in former times.

But it is different since Tregeseal is dominated and cradled by Carn Kenidjack, and its main peripheral features are cairns and tumuli rather than menhirs. Just to the SSE of the surviving circle is an interesting rock outcrop with a spring, not usually recognised as an active part of the site, but quite energetic, acting as a viewpoint overlooking the circles and slightly counterweighting them in relation to Carn Kenidjack, the Hooting or Howling Tor.

The holed stones were presumably oriented (they had fallen down and were re-erected by a farmer), possibly pointing at or towards the more distant Boswens menhir, or toward certain points on the Isles of Scilly. The holes were mostly quite small (3in or 8cm). It's difficult to know what they were there for.
Tregeseal. The destroyed central circle was in the ploughed field to the right
Inside the circle six intersecting underground streams meet (at different levels) and it has been found that natural radiation inside the circle is significantly lower than outside it.

A number of chambered cairns lie to the ENE of the circle and close to the holed stones, mostly in a poor state. One of them is kerbed and the other has a distinct stone chamber. Another chambered cairn is southwest of the stone circle. Menhirs are not part of this complex, except for Boswens menhir, visible up on the hill to the ENE, which is connected by alignment to the southwestern chambered cairn, the surviving circle and West Lanyon Quoit.

But the main feature of the site is Carn Kenidjack, the Hooting Tor, so named because of sound phenomena that are reputed to arise during storms. It is also a hauntingly mysterious tor, used as a sacred hill in neolithic times. Two natural simulacra (rocks looking like beings) are on the carn (see right and below).

Carn Kenidjack hovers over Tregeseal stone circle, holding the circle in its lap. An interesting alignment runs from Carn Kenidjack, through the now-destroyed central circle to a cairn close to Carn Lês Boel many miles away.

Carn KenidjackA leaflet by CASPN tells of the folkloric tales of the area:

This area of Truthwall Common is rich with legends of the Otherworld: fairy folk, demons and devils. One story tells of how a local miner chanced upon a Fairy Feast at the circle and was bound in gossamer thread and left there all night; another tells of an encounter with the Devil himself on Carn Kenidjack, which dominates the horizon from the circle; and yet another tells of Pee Tregear who was piskey-led here and encountered the little folk. All these stories may be memories of the ancestors and spirits of the dead, for this whole area was formerly covered with prehistoric barrows, burial mounds and megalithic monuments.

Nine Maidens complex

The Nine Maidens is on a rounded north-south ridge passing south from Carn Galva, and overshadowed by it. From the circle Carn Galva looks like a rounded pyramid. Carn Galva was originally, in the neolithic era, a tor rising up out of the trees and a central place in the peninsula because of its prominence but, during the bronze age, considerable woodland clearance denuded the ridge on which the Nine Maidens stand, clearing the space for the stone circle and its complex.

The ridge would have been sweeter and less bleak and peaty in the bronze age, a warmer and more equable time than now, and then also unaffected by tin-mining at the nearby Ding Dong mine.

There are probably far more cairns and barrows around the stone circle than now are visible in the tufty heather. Close-in, the complex follows the ridge from a few cairns to the south to a standing stone in the north-west and then, further still, at Boskednan Cairn, there is a group of barrows which, although robbed, nevertheless have quite a strong feeling. Following the track down toward Mên an Tol, there is the felled Four Parishes stone, a boundary marker rather like a menhir.
Mên Scryfa from the Nine Maidens (telephoto shot)
Men ScryfaFurther down the hill are Mên Scryfa, a rare inscribed stone taken to be from the Romano-British period but very much like a menhir that was later carved on, and then Mên an Tol, formerly a second stone circle but now much reduced. Its current format was set in Victorian times. The two stone circles were clearly a pair and complementary.

Overlooking the whole area is Carn Galva, chief mountain of Penwith, even though the neighbouring hill, Watch Croft, is actually the highest. It's not just a visual impression but an example of the way that earth energy and the bold shape of Carn Galva can modify our perception to make this lower hill look higher or more impressive than Watch Croft. Carn Galva is a neolithic tor hill - in the neolithic one of Penwith's most important sites.
Watch Croft from Mên Scryfa. Right, a trig point, left, the menhir
Watch CroftWatch Croft has one or two barrows on its summit and, rather mysteriously, a little way down the hill is a menhir in a seemingly inconspicuous place. It's natural to wonder why precisely it is there. However, there is a good reason: as seen from just below the Nine Maidens, close to Mên Scryfa, it stands out on the horizon. Why this should be, we do not know, but it is clearly intentional.

A lament

It is regrettable that more of the stone circles are not alive and present in the Penwth landscape today. We know little about the disappeared circles. Even today there are ongoing battles to keep the existing circles in good health, with threats particularly from mobile phone masts, cattle grazing and offical English Nature land management policies and detectorists.
Carn Galva from the Nine Maidens
Nine Maidens and Carn GalvaSad to say, even the authorities cannot fully be relied on to understand or protect Penwith's ancient sites, easily tempted as they are by short-termist, narrow and vested interests. After all, phone masts are more profitable.

These are not just historic monuments. They are sacred technological devices with a value and significance that is gradually becoming more visible to us as our ideas change and we confront the enormous question of sustainability, balancing the world's climate and ecosystem and correcting humanity's relationship with them. The stone circles and other megalithic sites give clues as to how this might be done.

Now that's a thought.

Map of Ancient Penwith:
Back to content | Back to main menu