The Lost Stone Circle – Brimham Rocks


 Around the year 1785, the antiquarian Hayman Rooke visited Brimham Rocks in search of ‘Druidic monuments’. As an early archaeologist, Rooke was following the current theory that stone circles, standing stones and other rock features were erected by the ancient Britons and their Druid priests. He presented his findings to the Society of Antiquaries in 1786, and a report appeared in the societies Archaeologia journal. (Rooke, 1787).

 In his report Rooke speculated that some of the naturally eroded crags and boulders at Brimham may have been adapted by the Druids for their religious practices, such as the oddly shaped Idol Rock, the group of Four Rocking Stones, and the Cannon Rocks etc. Amongst his speculations, Rooke also mentions that ….
“About eighty yards S. W. of the oracular stone, or great cannon, is a large tumulus of earth and stones one hundred and fifty feet in circumference : on the west side there seems to have been a little ditch and vallum, which probably enclosed the tumulus, and may have been destroyed for the repair of walls and roads, a thing which too frequently happens to these ancient monuments. About a quarter of a mile farther to the west is a Druid circle, with a vallum of earth and stones, thirty feet diameter. It is exactly of the same construction as those on Stanton Moor, in the Peak of Derbyshire. There are likewise several small tumuli. Thirteen of them are ranged in a kind of circle, the largest not above eighteen feet diameter. They are formed of earth and large stones. Two of these I opened; towards the bottom, the effects of fire appeared on the stones, and ashes were scattered about, but there were no urns to be found.”

 From his brief description it would appear that the Brimham stone circle was very similar to the Nine Ladies circle on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire, which Rooke had investigated a few years earlier. This type of monument is classified as a cairn circle, where stones are set into a low bank encircling a cairn in the centre. Although Rooke’s Druidic conjectures are rather fanciful, his report of the stone circle and cairns has more credibility, given his familiarity with the same features in Derbyshire.

The Nine Ladies Stone circle in Derbyshire (Ferguson 1872)

 Today, unfortunately, there is no trace of the stone circle or cairns to the west of Brimham Rocks, as reported by Rooke in 1786. This land below the crags has been cleared for agriculture, creating the fields around Druid’s Cave Farm. However, there is some support for Rooke’s observations, as a prehistoric carved rock is located at the edge of one of these fields. These type of Cup and Ring marked rocks are often associated with cairns, so to find an isolated example near the reported site of a cairn circle is significant.

 One problem in pinpointing the location of Rooke’s large cairn (and therefore the stone circle to the west of it) is that he appears to have made several errors in his Archaeologia article. The starting point for his measurements was a large outcrop which he called the Oracular Stone, describing it as having a small recess leading to a 2 feet wide hole running through the rock. He noted that the ‘country people’ called this rock the Great Cannon, however his illustration of the Oracular Stone is not either of the Cannon Rocks known today. His sketch appears to be a totally different outcrop (SE 20696 64965) located 160m north of the Cannon Rocks. Although this outcrop does have the recess, there is no 2ft wide hole passing through it. There is however a much smaller hole located where he marked the 2 foot hole on his illustration, which suggests either some mix up in his notes or in the printing of his article.

Rooke’s ‘Oracular Stone’ and part of the Druid’s Castle Rocks

 It has been assumed that Rooke made an error, and was actually referring to the Cannon Rocks further south, but measuring 80 yards to the south-west of the Cannon Rocks would place the cairn amongst large blocks of stone literally on a cliff edge – a very unlikely position for a 14m diameter cairn. Measuring from the outcrop identified as Rooke’s Oracular Stone (160m north of the Cannon Rocks) proves more promising, as 80 yard to the south-west of this rock would place the cairn in a clearing amongst the crags. Interestingly, William Grainge also mentions a conical hillock in this location, which he thought was probably a burial mound (Grainge, 1865), so this provides some confirmation of Rooke’s observations. This area around the ‘Sphinx Rock’ (SE 20675 64931) is very uneven and overgrown, so exactly which hillock both men thought was a burial mound is unclear. There is also the likelihood that this cairn may have been destroyed, as in the early 1800’s, Charles Fothergill noted that cairns on the Brimham Rocks site were being plundered for wall building material (Fothergill 1838). Whatever its fate, this would seem to be the location of Rooke’s cairn.


 With Rooke’s cairn located near the Sphinx Rock, this would then place the stone circle a quarter of a mile (400m) further west – in the fields alongside Druid’s Cave Farm. At this point another problem arises, as it is apparent from Rooke’s article that his estimation of longer distances was also a little off at times. In one case his quarter mile (400m) is actually about half that distance. This is perhaps understandable if he had no equipment for measuring longer distances, and had to ‘guesstimate’ on site, or from memory after his visit. Although not helpful, this only affects the approximate distance west from the cairn, and in this case the lay of the land also comes into play. Following a line due west from the cairn area, the land first drops over the crags running along the western edge of Brimham Rocks. From the base of the crags the land continues to drop down the boulder strewn slopes below the crags, until it reaches the more level ground around Druid’s Cave Farm. From this point on the land has been turned over to agriculture.

Site of Rooke’s stone circle in a field next to Druid’s Cave Farm

 Rooke’s estimated quarter of a mile (400m) west of the cairn would place the site of the stone circle in one of the fields to the north of Druid’s Cave Farm. After the slopes below the crags, these fields occupy a level, but quite narrow terrace on the hillside, after which the land continues to drop down into the valley below. The fields on this terrace are only about 80m wide, and located 350m to the west of Rooke’s cairn – well within his ‘guesstimate’ range. Stone circles and cairn fields are rarely, if ever found on sloping ground, so to find this level terrace where Rooke reported the stone circle and cairns is again significant.
These fields are shown on the 1849 OS map, while parts of the Druid’s Cave farm buildings are apparently much earlier, dating to the 1600’s. This suggests that the farm was already established when Rooke saw the circle and cairns, possibly in the rough pasture alongside the farm. That he was able to dig two of the cairns also suggests that he had permission from the land owner, perhaps using the farm labourers to dig the cairns. Today the fields are still rough grassland enclosed by drystone walls, and it is poignant to think that if this is the site of the stone circle and cairns, then the stones from those monuments are probably built into those walls.

Cup and ring marked rock with Dacre Bank on the horizon

 The cup and ring marked rock is located in a field at the southern edge of the hillside terrace. This carved rock highlights a prominent feature of the whole terrace, in that it provides extensive views of the river Nidd valley below, and the higher moorlands beyond. This view shed is partly created by a side valley (Fell Beck) running into Nidderdale, and the viewpoints on the terrace may have been a factor if this is the site of the stone circle and burial cairns. It is also probably no coincidence that the main rock art sites in Nidderdale – Guiscliff and Dacre Bank, are also visible from the terrace. Looking at this from the opposite direction, it may be that the rock carvings at Guiscliff and Dacre Bank were placed there because those locations provided views toward the hilltop crags of Brimham rocks, and the stone circle burial ground on the terrace below. Most people visiting Brimham rocks are struck by the strangeness of the place as they walk amongst the curiously shaped crags and outcrops. In 1777, 10 years or so before Hayman Rooke, the travel writer Thomas Pennant also visited Brimham, and described his experience as … “On my arrival on the summit of the hill, the seat of wonders, my astonishment was unspeakable ; the whole was new to me; a flat covered with stones of forms the most singular, and many of sizes most stupendous.” (Pennant, 1804).

 This awe inspiring feeling may have been even more intense for our Bronze Age ancestors, perhaps leading them to regard this as an otherworldly place of power and spirits – a belief still lingering even in the late 1800’s. It should be no surprise to find that such a location, both natural and super natural, would be considered a suitable resting place for their ancestors, leading them to bury some of their dead beneath cairns on both the east and west side of the rocks. The spirits of those taken up to this higher ground for burial may have been thought to live on amongst the outcrops – perhaps even the original ‘Sons of the rock’? (see the Boggart Crag post).

A photo edit showing how the site may have looked in Hayman Rooke’s day

After Thoughts
 It is perhaps ironic that in this quite remote area, the stone circle and cairns may have survived into the late 1700’s due to the superstitious fear of disturbing such ancient remains. Hayman Rooke digging into some of the cairns may have broken this taboo, prompting the land owner to clear them away soon after – an activity noted by Fothergill as taking place here in the early 1800’s. In that way the circle and cairns would not be seen by later writers or the OS map surveyors in 1849. Fifty years after Rooke’s visit, a guide book to Brimham Rocks noted that searches had been made for Rooke’s stone circle, but without result (Linney, 1837).

The report of a stone circle and cairns on the west side of Brimham Rocks is matched by the Graffa Plain cairn cemetery on the moorland on the east side of rocks.

There are some similarities between Brimham Rocks and the impressive Wain Stones outcrops on the North York Moors. Like Brimham rocks, there are no prehistoric carvings on the actual Wain Stones crags, instead the carvings are on boulders at a ‘respectful’ distance from the outcrops. This might suggest that it was considered dangerous or disrespectful to carve on the actual ‘sacred rocks’.

Below the rock art sites at Guiscliff and Dacre Bank there is an old fording place across the river Nidd, which leads to a route along side Fell Beck and up to the burial site below the crags of Brimham Rocks.

Ferguson, J. (1872). Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries; their age and uses.
Fothergill, C. (1805) Diary for 1805.
Grainge, W. (1865) The Tourist’s Guide to Brimham Rocks.
Linney, J.L. (1838) An Historical and Descriptive Account of Brimham Rocks.
Pennant, T. (1804) A Tour from Alston Moor to Harrowgate and Brimham Rocks.
Rooke, H. (1787) Archaeologia Vol 8

The Lay of the Land


Blogs and websites

Get new posts alert by Email:

Folklore in the Landscape

Text and images copyright 2024