'Cliff castle' is something of a misnomer. They were probably more sanctuaries than defensive sites, with a range of purposes. So that's what we'll call them here.
Normally they are classed as iron age (500ish BCE to CE 200ish), but evidence from the 'backbone alignments' in West Penwith suggests they were important long before, preceding the bronze age menhirs, stone circles and barrows by a millennium in the mid-neolithic period around 3700-3300 BCE. This implies a large change in the way we understand the prehistory of West Penwith.
Gurnard's Head, telephoto from near Pendeen Watch
To the Neolithics, headlands were similar in importance to tors and hilltops in West Penwith. Places of awe and power, they were located in liminal space on the edge of the land, protruding into the vastness of the ocean - here you can look out toward the far rim of the world.
The elemental drama and vastness of the seas off Cornwall are emphatic and stirring - Cornwall's great asset. Cliff sanctuaries gave a sense of space to Neolithic people, living as they mostly then did in a rather shrouded, largely wooded environment.
These headlands are called 'cliff castles', a Victorian antiquarians' concept with which unfortunately we are stuck, but they were unlikely to be defensive sites. If or when they were fought over, of which there are no conclusive signs, it would have been because they were special places for reasons other than defence.
Cliff sanctuaries. Those with an asterisk are suggested, not recognised cliff sanctuaries
Major backbone alignments define the positioning of key sites in Penwith such as stone circles and particularly Lanyon Quoit. These alignments are anchored primarily to cliff sanctuaries and tor enclosures (see map here). The geomantic framework of West Penwith rests on these natural hilltop and headland sites.
Backbone alignments preceded the stone circles by a thousand years. So the cliff sanctuaries, together with tor enclosures, were key sites in the early megalithic period in Penwith, during the Neolithic.
In Neolithic times people had an emergent need to claim space as human space - a response to being surrounded by the much-wooded vastness of nature and to potential threats such as wolves, bears and boars. Increasingly people saw themselves as a distinct species - hence a need for demarcation of land in special places such as on hilltops or cliff promontories. This was our land, where human rules pertained, and the precursor to the notion of property - the rest was the domain of nature, of wild animals and things that go bump in the night.
Power suffuses these places even today, and cliff sanctuaries no doubt fulfilled a number of needs - perhaps as places of counsel, assembly for various purposes, for judgement of disputes, quiet retreat, teaching, healing and initiation, perhaps for safe storage of tribal valuables and assets, and as natural temples for ceremonies, invocations or rites of passage. The usage of each headland will have been different, and you can sense this if you visit them.
They might have been elemental places for being alone, perhaps for some people to give birth, or to die, to convalesce or simply to be quiet. They could have been hangouts for the eccentrics, shaman-druids, wise-women or hermits of that time. They were places where people could commune with the ancestors, the lineage of the tribe and the vastness of Creation. These possibilities are easily imagined.
Each site is different and unique. Here are a few impressions. To find out where these cliff sanctuaries are, click here for a map and look for blue square symbols around the coast.
On the Edge - a trip around the cliff sanctuaries
To see their locations on a map, click on the cliff sanctuaries' names
Carn Lês Boel (SW 3571 2325) wasn't inhabited - it was reserved for special things. It feels to me as if it served as a place where ovates (counsellors and judges) held court, or where ancient druids held special rites on special occasions - a distinct holy place. It's a place of steady, uplifting majesty, of space and awe, like a launchpad for the far beyond.
With its two guardian gateway stones (one now fallen), it feels like a consecrated place, mainly for initiates - not for everyone. Interestingly, most walkers on the nearby coast path just walk on by without going onto the headland itself. So perhaps the carn's sacred protection still holds today.
Carn Lês Boel has a strong feeling of spirit and the presence of ancient beings - hallowed space. It feels connected with the whole wide world, with an oceanic panorama to the south, west and north, with Africa and the Americas over the horizon. Yet it is otherworldly, deep and dimensional. It's worth settling down, closing your eyes and spending some time there. It has a lot of inner light. It's quite welcoming, at least to those who are open to it, even though it is exposed to the winds.
It is aligned with Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, the Hurlers stone circle in East Cornwall and Carn Brea in East Penwith, on the Michael Line. Progress that alignment southwestwards along a great circle route and you'll come to the Mayalands of Yucatan, Mexico.
To me, this is one of the most special places in Penwith. I go there occasionally at particular moments in life when I need to hear the 'still, small voice' or step out of my everyday world. I find it pulls me inward into a deep place inside. So approach it with respect, stay there awhile, and you might well find that you receive a gift of grace in your heart and soul. Here you'll share space with gulls and cormorants, peregrine falcons, seals, sometimes dolphins - and a sense of infinity.
Carn Lês Boel is very visible from the Isles of Scilly together with Cape Cornwall, and these two were used in navigation between the islands and the mainland. Sailing from the Scillies, head toward the midpoint between the two and you'll reach Sennen beach. Sailing the 25ish miles from the mainland to the Scillies, which you can't see from a boat until you're about five miles from them, you'd keep your eye on these two headlands behind you to navigate to the islands.
Pordenack Point (SW347243), just up the coast, is not a proper cliff sanctuary, though it has a friendly feeling, as if gatherings and celebrations took place there. It has an inspiring rock platform on top that can easily accommodate fifty people.
It also has a remarkable collection of simulacra or zoomorphic rocks close by - almost like an assembly of rock-beings or a gallery of geological artistry.
Probably it's an inspiring place to get married on a nice day, or an impressive place to offer up your newborn children to the deities. Though not a cliff castle it has many of their qualities. It's the site of a chambered mound located exactly between Carn Lês Boel and Maen Castle (another cliff sanctuary up the coast). South of Carn Lês Boel, Carn Barra also has a similar clifftop platform viable for gatherings.
The whole 3-4 mile coastline from Tol Pedn (Gwennap Head) to Maen Castle could well have been a kind of pilgrimage route with a series of headland stations along it, each of them possessing a special character of its own. One gets a distinct feeling of pilgrimage when walking along this stretch of the coast path.
This is a series of high buttressed cliffs guarding the Isles of Britain. The rock giants or simulacra at Pordenack Point, staring out over the Western Ocean, ward off the assaulting ocean waves and the storm gods, as if holding Britain in place and protecting it. On a fine summer's day, it's a slice of greatness, beauty and glory. While Pordenack Point is not a cliff sanctuary, it's worth mentioning here, and worth a visit too.
Treryn Dinas (aka Logan Rock, SW 3972 2198), has a daunting feeling of magic with a certain brooding mystery to it - a place not to be messed with. Enter with respect or the Cosmic Trickster might knobble you! You get the feeling things have happened here. It's a place of mystery, power, sorcery and truth, and not exactly tranquil, though it is impressive in feeling. In folklore it was the home of giants.
This headland has two parts, the rocky headland itself and a large encampment to its landward side, built in the Iron Age - though its first use was probably in the Neolithic. It was the most inhabited of the cliff sanctuaries except perhaps for St Michael's Mount, and it was strategically placed too, not far from Porthcurno, one of Penwith's prime landing beaches. The encampment was large, hosting quite a few roundhouses and separated from the surrounding landscape by a rampart and ditch.
Unlike many other cliff sanctuaries, Treryn Dinas had significant practical and economic value, with good farmland and fishing grounds nearby and a commanding position overlooking Porth Curno. Whether the encampment was all-year or a summer tribal residence is difficult to say. The magical, witchy quality of the dinas itself is very present, and it is rather tortuous to get around. Apparently the ancients would insert relics and valuables into fissures in the rocks on the headland.
One wonders whether rocking the logan rock at Treryn Dinas was done to make sound for geomantic reasons, to pulse the earth, or even occasionally perhaps even as an ancient kind of foghorn when sea mists were down - it might have sounded out a slow drumbeat. The rather unique upstanding stone at its summit gives Treryn Dinas special character.
Uncannily, Treryn Dinas aligns exactly with St Michael's Mount and with Carn Brea near Camborne, and the Merry Maidens stone circle lies exactly on this alignment. In addition, a major alignment runs from the Dinas to Boscawen-ûn, Lanyon Quoit, Bosiliack Barrow and a menhir just yards from the Nine Maidens (Boskednan) stone circle.
Gurnard's Head (SW 432 386) has a mysterious feeling of depth, as if a portal to the underworld. There's something intensely gentle and still, immovably abiding, about it - a kind of quiet darkness with a glimmer of light within it. It's fiercely elemental, with a feeling nevertheless of deep interiority - perhaps a good place for vision-questing or retreat in ancient times.
Gurnard's Head was occupied during the Iron Age, at least seasonally. On the right-hand slope in the picture here, the remains of 16 huts have been found. Life there was probably rather spartan, likely for inspirational more than practical purposes. It's exposed to northerly winds. One could imagine it as the abode of an oracle or soothsayer, or of hermits. It is not as high as most other cliff sanctuaries - when approaching, you walk down to it - yet it definitely stands out. This is a place of solitude, not a social meeting place for gatherings or ceremonies - Bosigran Castle (see below) is better for that.
Unlike most of Penwith's cliff sanctuaries, which are of granite, Gurnard's Head is metamorphic Devonian greenstone - hence its rather different feeling.
Maen Castle ('stone castle', SW 3476 2576) near Sennen seems quite functional and panoramic - perhaps as a lookout and a place for monitoring boats coming into Sennen beach from the Scillies when the weather and winds were favourable. Iron age pottery sherds found there are sometimes interpreted as signs of residential occupation, though equally they could be interpreted as signs of feasting and temporary residency, probably in summertime.
It's not as prominent as many cliff castles, though it's the only one in its vicinity. It's viable as a gathering place. It was the home to the mythic giant Myên Du. At times it has a rarefied, space-rich, wide-open atmosphere. It's aligned with Boscawen-ûn and St Michael's Mount in one direction and with South Hill, Bryher, on the Scillies in the other, so it is geomantically prominent and one of the key mainland connection points with the Scillies.
One mysterious question is this: Maen Castle is not the most prominent headland in the area, yet it is definitely a cliff sanctuary. Pedn-men-du to the north and Dr Syntax's Head to the south are more prominent. Its importance as a cliff sanctuary is highlighted by the above-mentioned alignment, suggesting that the ancients considered alignments to be more important, at least in some cases, than the obvious, visible landscape qualities of a place.
There's a story of Bosigran Castle (right, SW 4169 3688) being the home or court of a queen, and possibly it was a place of teaching too - the name means 'Ygraine's home'. It has a happy, light, healing feeling - inspiring though not occult in atmosphere. Good for staying on when the weather is pleasant in summer - probably a great place for neolithic picnics. For ceremonies or social gatherings it could likely accommodate 200 people. There is no evidence of occupation. It lies below Carn Galva and had strong connections with it, perhaps as a kind of tribal summer residence or visiting place. It has an iron age rock rampart sectioning it off from the surrounding land, though it is doubtful that this was defensive - the usual interpretation of such things. There is a logan or rocking stone on the top. In our day, the cliffs here are popular with rock climbers.
Some cliff sanctuaries were probably lookouts for boat traffic and fish shoals, or beacon sites, the prehistoric equivalent of lighthouses - St Ives Head, Pendeen Watch, Cape Cornwall, Gwennap Head and Treryn Dinas, for example.
A few of them will have been connected with trade - St Ives Head and the twin Cape Cornwall and Kenidjack Castle (enclosing a cove involved in the early tin trade), and Treryn Dinas, overlooking Porthcurno, and St Michael's Mount.
Pendeen Watch behind Gurnard's Head, from Carn Naun
Pendeen Watch (SW 3797 3590) is not commonly recognised as a cliff sanctuary, though its name, Pen Dinas, betrays this purpose. The cliff castle, judging by the alignments leading to it, seems to have had two centres, one just northeast of the lighthouse and the other underneath the house on the hill immediately southeast of it.
It has a commanding view and is excellent for watching the summer solstice setting sun. There are no traces of a cliff castle here - if there were traces they will have been obliterated by the building of the lighthouse and its entry road.
But it's undoubtedly a cliff sanctuary. There is a direct alignment through Lanyon Quoit to the summit of St Michael's Mount, another through Botrea Barrows and Sancreed Beacon to the now-destroyed Tregurnow stone circle near the Merry Maidens, and another passing over Carn Galva and Trencrom Hill, through the Wendron Nine Maidens stone circles to Nare Head on the Roseland peninsula and on toward South Devon.
Cape Cornwall, (SW 350 319) or Kilgooth Ust, near St Just, has been very much affected and modified by tin mining and smelting on the cape in recent centuries - the chimney on the top being a remnant. There are no ancient remains here - all presumably destroyed - but it was undoubtedly a cliff castle. It cannot not be so. It aligns with Zennor Hill, St Ives Head and St Agnes Beacon, and a direct alignment goes from here through Botrea Barrows to St Michael's Mount.
It is prominent and strategic, with a harbour cove on either side, and it was close to early tin-streaming workings up and down the coast. There was gold in the vicinity in neolithic times - the metal trade in West Penwith started with gold. It is very visible from the Scillies, and the Priest's Cove (Porth Ust) below it was probably one of the landing places on Penwith for boats arriving from Scilly.
Impressive, it was probably hot property in neolithic times. It's a place of the setting sun and geomantically it is a major node. Ballowall Barrow, a large neolithic chambered cairn, is just southwards, and the Brisons, a double island just off the Cape, was probably not an island in neolithic times.
Up to late Victorian times, Cape Cornwall was regarded as the Land's End, but measurements made at that time proved that today's Land's End is a little further west. But Cape Cornwall's shape and prominence still makes it geomantically the land's end.
St Ives Head, with Carrick Du in the foreground
St Ives' Head, another Pen Dinas, or 'The Island' at St Ives (SW 5208 4115), is not usually thought of as a cliff sanctuary yet it's a classic, not unlike Cape Cornwall in shape and also connected with it by alignment.
Like Cape Cornwall, remains of its ancient history have been obliterated by subsequent events, in this case from the Christian period and in connection with the local cult of St Ia, a christianised druidess-healer from Ireland, who reputedly sailed in on a leaf to inspire and lead, or perhaps even to brow-beat, the locals some 1,500ish years ago in the early-medieval time of the Celtic saints.
The headland was a cliff sanctuary overlooking the majestic St Ives Bay, paired at its other end by Godrevy Point which, though not a cliff sanctuary, had many characteristics of one and is a bronze age and earlier ancient site.
A considerable alignment node, there seem to be two centres to St Ives Head - one where the chapel lies (possibly a barrow in former times?) and one where the coastwatch station stands (more like a classic cliff castle position).
St Ives was a landing place for boats from Ireland, Wales, the Hebrides and the Severn Sea. In medieval times it was a pilgrimage harbour linked to St Michael's Mount by a path now called St Michael's Way, for pilgrims heading to Santiago di Campostela in Portugal. The headland guarded a trading harbour at the current harbour site at St Ives. The history of this place is obscure, but it's clearly one of the key cliff castles of Penwith, staking out one of the peninsula's corners.
St Michael's Mount
Then there is St Michael's Mount (SW 5143 2984), which could be classed either as a tor enclosure or a cliff sanctuary. This is a very special, archetype-rich island, very much the focal point in Mount's Bay, and known for its long involvement in the ancient tin trade and for visits by foreigners over the ages.
The Greek traveller Pytheas, who circumnavigated Britain by boat sometime around 325 BCE in Alexander the Great's time, visited here. When back in Greece he left accurate descriptions of his travels, including plausible references to St Michael's Mount.
Unlike many of Penwith's ancient sites, the Mount has had an almost continuous history of use through many historic periods, as a fort, a trading place, monastery and stately home. In neolithic and bronze age times it was not an island - it was a mount standing above woodland. It became an island later on, possibly in connection with a tsunami emanating from Portugal or the Azores - and remains of the woodland are occasionally revealed under the sand during fierce storms.
Tol Pedn Penwith / Gwennap Head
Finally, Tol Pedn Penwith or Gwennap Head (SW 3672 2180). It is slightly surprising that no obvious or recognised cliff sanctuary exists here, since it is the southwesternmost point of the Isles of Britain.
But there are scanty records of one, and there is a viable location too (here, looking southeast over a flattish area as seen from the coastwatch road). It is an area on Tol Pedn with no enclosing banks, though the whole plateau that forms the headland and the valley eastwards protect it, should it need protecting. Further down, there is a rock headland that is characteristic of some cliff sanctuaries.
It would be a fine place for summertime residence, perhaps for fairs, ceilidhs or ceremonies - or perhaps for viewing the winter solstice sunset, which would be prominent at this location. However, it is completely unsheltered in high winds, so as a residential site it is not advised. It has a cove on each side - Porth Gwarra and Porth Loe, both of them later on being smugglers' coves - and a magic rock pinnacle on the south side of the headland called Hella Point. It's a funny place though, slightly bleak and a tad uninspiring by comparison to other nearby clifftop locations.
Hella Point, part of Tol Pedn
Every tribe will have treasured its landscape assets carefully, and a prominent headland would have been a valued asset. It would have been a place of peace, space, wonder and power, a sanctuary for the group soul of the tribe, where occasional gatherings or rites might be held and offerings made.
Watching for the movements of fish shoals, seals and dolphins was a factor, not just for hunting and fishing but also to read the signs and significances of their movements, in an oracular or prophetic sense.
During times of social stress, cliff sanctuaries might perhaps have been scrapped over, but it doesn't really figure that these places were built as defensive sites. While many are defensible, they are too easy to lay siege to, many of them not being easy to escape from safely by boat. They were mostly not very strategically placed, unless perhaps for a last stand - which, as far as we know, never happened. So their apparent defensive function is something of an illusion. Yes, they were strongholds of a kind - sanctuaries - but a military function is highly unlikely.
All-out warfare in Penwith was unlikely - there are hardly any signs of conflict in Penwith. What aggression took place probably involved feuding, raids or men strutting their stuff, especially in the iron age between around 500 BCE and Roman times. Occasionally the peninsula would have been liable to attack from the sea, but not many cliff castles would be valuable defensively to guard against this, except for St Ives Head, Cape Cornwall and Treryn Dinas. It would be beaches and landing places that needed defence - and there is no cliff castle overlooking Sennen beach, Penwith's best landing place apart from St Ives and Mount's Bay. Cliff sanctuaries would have been valuable as lookouts though.
Penwith staked out
The cliff sanctuaries mark out the peripheries or bounds of West Penwith. Look at the map on the right and you'll see how cliff sanctuaries are spaced roughly evenly around the peninsula.
It would be easy to look on this as a defensive system, except beaches and landing places would most need defending, and cliff sanctuaries don't on the whole help greatly with that - though they will have their defensive value when needed.
If the ancients thought of Penwith as a magical landscape, then the cliff sanctuaries, as places of magical-spiritual power, guarded or geomantically 'held' the Penwith peninsula.
By sanctifying the cliff sanctuaries and significant hilltops of Penwith, the health and spirits of the whole peninsular landscape could be enhanced. This was a fundamental principle of geomantic activity: if the subtle energy-structure of the land was healthy, all would be well in heaven, on earth and in the realm of humans.
In this way of looking at things, the immunity of the peninsula to attack or ill fortune rests upon 'holding the light' of Penwith and maintaining energy-balances in the area. A key intention behind the geomantic system was thus arguably to enhance Penwith's spirit and fortunes.
The spacing of cliff sanctuaries shown on the map suggests that three further sanctuaries are possible, at Carn Naun in the north (where an outcrop and flat encampment area could qualify), and Kemyel Point and Penlee Point in the south-east. Lescudjak hillfort above Penzance could qualify as part of this system too.
The straight alignment from St Michael's Mount to St Ives Head, passing through Trencrom Hill, acted as the landward energy-boundary of Penwith. The place is thus ring-fenced. It also has a subtle yet distant relationship with the Orkney islands at the other end of these sceptred isles. Together, they anchor the Isles of Britain.
If we were to look on Penwith as a landscape canvas stretched out within a containing frame, then the above cliff sanctuaries would act as that framework. See the yellow lines on the map - the backbone alignments - and you'll notice that cliff castles and major hills determine them.
Thus it is that the cliff sanctuaries were arguably neolithic in first use. The iron age evidence found at many of them - boundary banks, artefacts and a few signs of settlement - do not indicate first use. The cliff sanctuaries' perhaps most significant period of use was likely in neolithic times. Their use in iron age times would thus partially be on the strength of ancient tradition as well as their perceived worth in the iron age.
And they are well worth visiting today.
For more about the geomantic significance of tors and cliff castles: The Backbone.