The Needles Eye and Wishing Stone – Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks
Brimham Rocks

  The crags and strangely shaped rock formations known as Brimham Rocks are spread across a moorland hilltop 8 miles to the north-west of Harrogate.

  The rocks at Brimham have attracted tourists since at least the mid 1700’s, when the Romantic Movement inspired the ‘gentry’ to seek out natures wonders. Before this time the weird rock formations would have only really been known in the Nidderdale area, where they seem to have featured in local folklore and customs. An example of this was recorded by Hayman Rooke who visited Brimham Rocks around the year 1785, and noted that bonfires were lit on midsummer’s eve alongside a tall pillar of rock known as the Noon Stone. At midwinter this pillar also caused the sun to cast a long shadow onto a nearby cottage at midday. There is also a reference to a stone circle surviving in the same area, so this too probably featured in local beliefs.

  In 1792, the land owner built a house on Brimham Moor to accommodate visitors, and provide a home for a guide and his family who would give tours around the rocks for a small fee. These local guides are said to have named many of the rock formations from their resemblance to various animals and objects such as the Dancing Bear, the Sphinx, the Druids Idol, etc. However, there are some named rocks which might have been part of the local folklore before the area became a visitor attraction.

Boggart Crag

Boggart Crag with the Druids Writing Desk on top

  The first edition OS map (1854) shows the ‘Druids Writing Desk’ as standing on top of Boggart Crag. At that time there was still a real belief in ghosts and spirits, with the Boggart being a supernatural shape shifting creature who haunted certain locations, waiting to menace and terrify any one passing that place. Some conformation of these rock dwelling spirits come from Edmund Bogg writing in the late 1800’s, when he visited Brimham Rocks and noted…

“In bygone days these immense stones were supposed to be the habitation of spirits. The echo given from the rocks was said to be the voice of the spirit who dwelt there, and which the people named the Son of the Rocks. From a conversation we had with the peasantry not far from here, it seems the ancient superstition has not yet fully disappeared.” (Bogg, 1894)

  It is also possible that the weirdly shaped stone on top of the crag had some connection with the ‘Boggart’ before the Druid name was attached to it. From this it seems quite likely that this haunted crag was already known to the local community, and probably avoided (see an earlier post about Boggart Crag).

The Needle’s Eye

The Needle’s Eyes

  A little less menacing was the ‘Needle’s Eye’ – a tall but narrow crevice in the crag known as the ‘Lovers Leap’, where it is possible to squeeze through the opening, and enter a chamber within the outcrop. Elsewhere in the country the Needle’s Eye name is connected with folklore practices attached to crevices or gaps in rocks. People (usually female) would squeeze through the openings in the belief that they would then soon be married. This seems to have been the more ‘respectable’ face of older beliefs where this activity was thought to promote fertility and ease child birth.

  At Brimham, the old guide books note that it was the eligible bachelors who squeezed through the crevice, being invited to ‘thread the needle’, while their lady friends looked on. More portly gentlemen were advised not to try, and so in a way this marked out the slim, agile and ‘vigorous’ men.

The Needle’s Eye crevice and a not so agile old chap

  In the past it seems that ‘Threading the Needle’ also had sexual connotations, so this activity at the Brimham Needles Eye at least shows an awareness of the beliefs connected with these features elsewhere. The Victorian guide book only mentions men squeezing through the crevice, but given the time and the wealthier class of visitors, it would probably be seen as un-lady like for any women to try.
Like the Boggart Crag, it is possible that the Needle’s Eye was also part of the earlier folklore in this area. There is also mention of a witch (or Mother Shipton) dwelling in the cave behind the Needle’s Eye, which again sounds like a fragment of older folklore.

The Wishing Rock

The Wishing Rock

  Brimham also has a Wishing Stone, which is located near the precariously balanced ‘Idol’. The Wishing Stone is a tall rock, at the base of which there is an opening around a short stone pillar with a hole through it.

Make a wish

  The old guide book notes that people placed the middle finger of their right hand into the small hole, and then made a wish. Another reference mentions placing the right arm around the pillar itself, in order to bring luck.
The Wishing Stone name may have been given to this rock feature by the tour guides, or it may have been another part of the areas older folklore. In either case it shows that the belief in wishing stones existed hereabouts, and was familiar to visitors. Wishing Stones in other parts of Britain often required some action or ritual to be performed before making the wish, such as walking around the rock 3 times. There may have been something similar at the Brimham Wishing Stone, perhaps involving crawling through a gap in the rock below the wishing pillar.

The Druids Idol

After Notes
  Today, Brimham rocks are a popular and often busy ‘visitor attraction’, with a large car park, surfaced paths, and even somewhere to get a coffee or ice cream. In the past however, the scene was a little more desolate,with the crags spread across an exposed stretch of treeless moorland, overgrown with heather and bracken. Anyone walking around the oddly shaped crags and balanced rocks back then would perhaps find the moor a strange and isolated place, and so it is perhaps no surprise to hear that it was believed to be home to Boggarts and other spirits.

  Even today, during the quieter winter season, there is an eerie silence about the place in the late afternoon when everyone has gone home. With the light fading, there is a strong feeling that its time to head off the moor, leaving the rocks and crags to the Jackdaws, and perhaps any spirits that still dwell there.

(James Holme (1835)
Dark mountain desert, awful piles of stone,
Like giant ruins! How ye seem to mock
The puny efforts of such feeble things
As we, frail mortals, are! Far round I see
Strange broken columns rise, shapelessly grand;
As if some more than merely human race
Had made their dwellings here.
Through gloomy pass I wander,
formed by none of Adam’s sons;

Bogg, E. (1894) From Edenvale to the plains of York.
Holme, J . (1835) Leisure Musings and Devotional Meditations: In Humble Strains of Poetry
Linney, J.L. (1838) Brimham Rocks – an historical and descriptive account.
Ogle H.W. (1920’s) Brimham Rocks – the wonder of Nidderdale.

The Lay of the Land


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