The Ingleby Greenhow Wishing Stone

Maid of the golden shoon

  The village of Ingleby Greenhow is located at the foot of the Cleveland Hills on the northern edge of the North York Moors, 6 miles to the south of Guisborough.

  The Hand of Glory by J. Fairfax-Blakeborough (1924) includes a story called ‘The Maid of the Golden Shoon’. The original folk tale was noted down in the early 1800’s from an old lady called Betty Ellis, who in turn heard it from her grandmother during the 1770’s, when she was living at Ingleby Greenhow. This written version was later adapted and extended to create a Mell Supper play, and the manuscript eventually came into the possession of Richard Blakeborough in the 1890’s, who then ‘put together’ the Maid of the Golden Shoon folk tale in its current form.

  Reading the story does suggest that an original piece of folklore has been adapted and extended to create a much longer drama, with a virtuous and moralistic conclusion. The first part of the story seems to be the older, more authentic section, with the stealing of several babies from their mothers side during the night, which is a well known fairy theme, but in this story it is a group of witches who are suspected. The local wise man is sent for, and in a dream his spirit is taken to a boulder known as the ‘Wishing Stone’, which is located on the moors above Ingleby Greenhow. Here, he witnesses the witches ceremony as they transform the babies into black cats to act as their familiar spirits. The wise man later instructs four men to visit the stone and perform a ceremony in order to learn from the fairies how to recover the missing children. From this point onwards the story takes on a more moralistic tone with the introduction of the ‘Lady Winifreda’, who seeks a virtuous knight to help her fight the witches – now transformed into dragons.

  With the story being based around the village of Ingleby Greenhow, it is interesting to note the reference to a boulder known as the Wishing Stone, located on the moor above the village. Was this a fiction? or was it an actual site connected with the original piece of folklore back in the 1700’s? As the story was handed down within the village, this might point to it being a real location on the moor, as any made up site would be easily queried by the villagers. Today there are no ‘Wishing Stones’ marked on the OS maps of the area, but perhaps this large boulder still lies forgotten some where on the moor?

 In the story the Wishing Stone is simply described as a boulder on the moor above the village. It appears to have been flat topped, with space around it, and large enough for several men to be concealed behind it. A visit to the area noted many large rocks and boulders on the slopes of Ingleby Bank, but there seemed to be no significant boulders on the moorland along the bank top leading past Tidy Brown Hill and on towards the prominent burial mound of Burton Howe. Eastward, and further out onto the moor, several clusters of rocks can be seen amongst the heather, and this ‘stony-ness’ increases across the low ridge called Middle Head. At the northern end of the ridge there is a large and unusual shaped boulder called the Cheese Stone, which sits alongside a group of other large rocks on the ridge top. After walking the moor it would seem that the Cheese Stone group are the most prominent boulders in the area. The Cheese stone itself is the largest, and only named rock on the moor, where it also forms a point on the eastern boundary of the Ingleby Greenhow parish. Is it possible that the Wishing Stone was another name for the Cheese Stone?

A rock basin with the Cheese Stone in the background

  One unusual geological feature of the Battersby and Ingleby moors area is the occurrence of large circular basins eroded into the rocks. Several basins can be seen on low lying rocks on Battersby Moor, while a larger number occur on Ingleby Moor, concentrated mostly on the rocks on the Middle Head ridge. The Cheese Stone stands out as having a group of these rock basins on its upper surface.

  It seems to have once been a general belief in many parts of the British Isles that the water collecting in these kind of rock basins had healing properties, and that the stones were some how holy or sacred. Although the church suppressed such beliefs, in some locations their use continued under the relatively innocent pretext of the water being ‘good for sore eyes’ or removing warts. One of the basins on the top of Almscliff Crags was known from this practice as the Wart Well, while the water from a basin on the Pots and Pans Rock near Saddleworth was used as a cure for sore eyes.

  A little further afield, in Ireland similar rock basins are called Bullauns, and here the belief in their ‘power’ has survived up to the present day. The people’s strong belief and attachment to these ‘rock fonts’ led to them being incorporated into Catholic religious practice. Bullauns became part of devotional patterns, where prayers are said at points around a holy site, with a stone being turned within the rock basin after a prayer is said in front of the bullaun. Although the ‘power’ associated with these rock basins was normally used for good ie. prayers and healing, in some locations people would also use them as Cursing Stones, turning the stone within the basin anti clockwise in order to lay a curse on those who had wronged them.

Irish Bullaun Stones at Killinagh and Kilbarrymeaden (Image credit)

  The prayers and healing rituals performed at the Irish rock basins shed light on the surviving folklore in Britain. The offerings left in the Wishing Stone bullaun at Maulinward is echoed again at Almscliff Crags, where people wishing for good luck would drop pins into the basins on top of the crags. There are no records of such activities taking place at the basins on Ingleby Moor, but this is unsurprising given that no real attempt was made to collect such folklore in this area before it died out. The passing reference to a Wishing Stone on the moor and the presence of the rock basins, does at least hint at the possibility of some unrecorded folk practices taking place there in the past. With the Cheese Stone being the most prominent boulder on the moor, it might seem to be the obvious choice for any Wishing Stone, however the Cheese Stone does not match the general description of the Wishing Stone in the story, and the basins are high up on the rock, and not easily accessible.

The “Rock”

  The tour around the moor did take in another boulder, which is simple marked as the “Rock” on the first edition OS map (1857). This proved to be a large, flat topped boulder with a wide and deep basin on its upper surface. Alongside the basin there is a letter ‘P’ carved on the rock, which probably relates to it being a point on an old boundary. The shape and dimensions of this boulder, with its well shaped and accessible basin, along with the rocks location on the ridge leading up to the Burton Howe burial mound, suggested that it might be a better candidate for the Wishing Stone. This ‘hunch’ was somewhat enhanced when a curiously rounded stone was spotted laying in the grass directly in front of the basin. Turning the stone over revealed a roughly flattened surface on the reverse, giving the distinct impression that the stone had been deliberately shaped. Lifting the stone up onto the rock, it was found that it sat quite nicely in the bottom of the basin, where, using two hands, it was possible to turn the stone within the basin in the same manner suggested for the ‘Prayer Stone’ found on the Hebridean island of Canna in 2012. Although the curved surfaces of the rounded rock and the basin were not a perfect match, this also appears to be the case with the Irish Bullaun stones, where it is the act of turning a stone within the basin that is significant.

The basin Rock and the Canna Prayer Stone (Image credit Thomas Small)

  When standing alongside the basin rock, the Burton Howe burial mound can be seen on the ridge to the south east, while stepping up onto the rock itself, then the peak of Rosebery Topping (anciently called Odin’s Berg) comes into view to the north. It is perhaps worth noting that in the story the 3 ‘witches’ stand upon the Wishing Stone to perform their ritual, and there is also a folklore reference to women performing a ritual from the top of a boulder at Hob Hole in nearby Baysdale.

  As with most of the Arcanum posts, much is speculation (hopefully informed) the intention being to try and tease out or highlight possibilities at folklore sites when the details are lacking. In some cases it seems that the folklore that did get recorded might have been the last faded and jumbled memories of the original beliefs connected with the site. The Ingleby Greenhow story includes young children stolen from their mothers side, while faerie spirits and Hobmen are present at a Wishing stone boulder on the nearby moor, and the same stone is used by ‘witches’ (village wise women?) in a ceremony involving the young children. Might these elements have once been an example of the well known child stealing fairy folklore – where the changling is left at an exposed location in the hope that the real child would be returned? Or is there a garbled memory of village wise women visiting the rock (and the spirits dwelling there) with sick children for healing purposes, as mothers did at Runswick Bay?

  The Heritage Environment Record suggests that the “Rock” had some significance in prehistoric times – possibly ancient rock carvings. With its curious rock cut basin, perhaps it was always regarded as a ‘stone of power’, located on the same ridge as the large burial mound and in sight of the significant peak later known as Odin’s mountain. If the ‘Rock’ was the Wishing Stone then its reputation still existed in the late 1700’s, with the power to grant wishes, which may have involved turning the rounded stone within the basin.

After thoughts
The basin rock and Burton Howe and the Round Hill barrow on Urra Moor are in a line on the map.
There are 3 witches in the story – any connection with Three Sisters Springs on Ingleby Moor?
There is a Bullaun called the Witch’s Stone at Antrim – the basins are said to be the imprint of her knee and elbow.
Turning the stone within the basin would produce a fine dust. In some parts of the world people suffering from illness or infertility would eat the rock dust produced by making cup marks. (Rau, 1881)
The Cheese Stone and the basin Rock are on a parish boundary, so would be accessible to both parishes.

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Fairfax-Blakeborough, J. (1924) The Hand of Glory.
Rau, C. (1881) Observations on cup-shaped and other lapidarian sculptures etc North American Ethnology Vol 5.

The Lay of the Land


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