The Old Wife of Danby Rigg

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The Old Wife’s Stone – OW1 (NZ 71036 05926)

Danby Rigg is a large promontory hill on the northern edge of the North York Moors, 12 miles to the west of Whitby.

The first edition OS map (1857) marks two stones on the east side of the hill as the “Old Wife’s Stones”. Today, a single large boulder remains on the site, while the fate of the second stone is unclear. Identifying the position of the missing stone is not helped by the 1892 edition map which marks the two stones in a slightly different position to the earlier map. Overlaying the maps on the modern aerial view also shows the mapping to be out by several metres – placing the stones a little to the south of the surviving Old Wife’s stone (OW1). Re-aligning both maps on this stone provided two possible positions for the ‘lost’ second stone.

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OS map (1857)  Map credit NLS.

A visit to the site found nothing at the point identified from the 1892 map, but the original 1850 position looked more promising. This older map placed the two stones approximately 18m apart and on a east/west alignment. Although there were no signs of a rock at the 18m point, a large broken earthfast boulder was noted at 23m from the Old Wife’s Stone. Given that the distance between them was estimated from the maps 100ft scale, and that the stones are unlikely to have been precisely surveyed on the original map, it would seem highly likely that this damaged rock is the second Old Wife’s stone (OW2). The rocks fractured upper surface indicates that several large pieces have been sheared off and removed, probably for wall building or road mending. This type of quarrying was a common practice in the past, and involved repeated blows with large sledgehammers to fracture the rock.

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The second Old Wife’s Stone? – OW2 (NZ 71012 05920)

 Prior to this damage the stone would have been taller, possibly as high as the other stone. Even the surviving stone appears to have had some its upper surface broken off and its height reduced in the same way. Other rocks in the area show the same damage, and the likely culprits are the infamous road menders who are said to have destroyed stones at several prehistoric sites. The broken stone seems to be located on slight ridge leading towards the surviving stone, and the stone is also part of an arc of 3 (possibly 4) earthfast rocks. Whether this curving line of stones is natural or part of some larger arrangement on the site is not clear. Three earthfast rocks were also noted 20m to the east of the surviving Old Wife’s stone. These 3 stones are located side by side, and look suspiciously like the remains of a structure – possibly a cairn.


Remains of a Cairn? (Old Wife’s Stone in background)
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The Historic Environment Record lists the Old Wife’s standing stones as Scheduled ancient monuments of probable Bronze Age date, and part of a larger Bronze Age landscape. This landscape extends across the top of Danby Rigg, and includes 2 cross ridge earthworks and a large cairn field of over 700 cairns. Once again the folklore figure of the Old Wife is connected with a prehistoric site, and specifically, standing stones and a cairn field (see also The Old Wife of Lund Ridge and the Old Wife’s Neck – Sneaton Moor).

Stone Throwing Giants

 An old track called the ‘Old Wife’s Stones Road’ passes on the west side of the stones as it climbs up the side of Danby Rigg. In the late 1800’s, the Rev. J.C. Atkinson (vicar of Danby) heard this track referred to as the ‘Old Wife’s Way’, which suggests that both the track and the stones were connected with the Old Wife in the past. Elsewhere on the moors the ‘Old wife’s Trod’ is a trackway along which this giantess is said to have travelled. When she journeyed across the moors she would carry heaps of stones in her apron, and where her apron strings broke, the stones would fall to the ground and form a cairn, or perhaps leave a conspicuous boulder.

 The Rev. Atkinson also heard a local story about 2 large stones being thrown across the valley by two giants who were standing on the south end of Heads Hill – one mile to the south east of the Old Wife’s Stones (Atkinson, 1891). His description has the stones landing between the Old Wife’s track and a cairn on the hill top above the Old Wife’s Stones. Atkinson was told that these stones were broken up by road menders in the early 1800’s, and so they were only known to a few older people in the area. Although Atkinson reported the site of the two stones being on top of the hill, it is hard not to see some connection with the two Old Wife’s standing stones located 170m further down the slope. Is it possible that they were the original stones thrown by the giants? These stones are also located between the track way and the possible remains of a cairn, with at least one stone having being broken up. 

Cairn ?

It is also curious that Atkinson does not mention the Old Wife’s Stones at all in his description, even though he was familiar with the area, and did note the Old Wife’s Way which passes by them. A possible explanation for this omission is the context in which he relates the stone throwing giants folklore. Atkinson included several examples of local folklore in a book about his life in the Danby parish (Atkinson, 1892), however his reference to the stone throwing giants legend is a little more unusual. This folklore appears in a children’s story book written by him, with each chapter inspired by a local legend, which he notes in the introduction. From the fragments of Dales folklore he basically ‘fleshed out’ a much longer story suitable for children. For the purpose of his book, the reverend may have ‘tweeked’ the folklore to match his own story where the thrown stones land on the hill top, leaving out the Old Wife’s Stones to avoid confusion. This would seem to be the likeliest explanation given the reverends local knowledge.

 This ‘tweeking’ may have extended to the giants themselves who are described as both being male in his children’s story, however, they may have originally been the giant Wade and his ‘Old Wife’ – Bell, if the folklore was actually connected with the two Old Wife’s Stones. The cairn on the hill top mentioned by Atkinson does exists but a search of the area around it found no obvious remnants of the long flat rocks described in his story, and such large rocks would seem to be out of character with the areas geology. This may add some weight to the suggestion that his story was adapted from one originally connected with the boulders of the Old Wife’s Stones on the slopes below.

 With the Old Wife’s name being attached to these stones it suggests that there would have originally been a story to explain the connection. Other tales from the region tell of her giant family (husband Wade and their son) throwing hammers and boulders across the moors, so it is likely that the story here involved the Old Wife either throwing or dropping the two rocks. It would be quite a coincidence if the Reverend Atkinson heard a totally separate story about two giants throwing two stones which landed pretty much in the same location. Unfortunately there has been no serious attempt to record the folklore of the North York Moors, especially in the 1800’s when it was already dying out. The Rev. Atkinson is one of the few sources for folklore in this area, and in this case, the only reference for the stone throwing Giants of Fryup Dale. His notes and manuscripts are kept in the Whitby Museum library and archive, so it is possible that they may contain more information.

After Thoughts
Do the stones ‘point’ across the valley towards the cairns on Heads Hill?
Any connection with the Round Hill at Fairy Cross Plain?
Would road menders be quarrying stone on the hill top?

Atkinson, J.C. (1891) Forty Years in a Moorland Parish.
Atkinson, J.C. (1892) Last of The giant Killers Or, the Exploits of Sir Jack of Danby Dale. 

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The Lay of the Land


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