BBC Scotland has reported the latest on the campaign to protect the Tigh nam Bodach pagan shrine in the Highlands from a hydro-electric dam scheme.
The stones, hidden in remote Glenlyon, featured in my 1996 book with Andy Roberts, Twilight of the Celtic Gods. In the book we presented the legend recorded by archaeologist Dr Anne Ross during the 1950s who interviewed the last ‘guardian’ of the stones. I blogged about the new threat to the site – possibly the last surviving example of a genuine pagan tradition in the British Isles – on 20 March.
On 4 May BBC news featured an interview with Scottish folklorist Margaret Bennett who warned of the dire consequences for those who disturbed the stones:
“Something will befall you; I don’t know what, but I certainly wouldn’t want to tempt fate.”
In our 1996 book I wrote: “[Supernatural] retribution and ‘bad luck’ for those who interfere with, move or use sacred ritual objects and certain stones is a well-known motif…[but] stories like these are not confined to the realms of folklore, for there is much recent testimony to suggest that certain ancient cult objects do indeed retain some kind of power, perhaps invested in their structure by a form of ritual or through generations of belief.”
The latest developments in the Glenlyon story was reported by BBC News Scotland on 4 May 2011:
“Glenlyon History Society fear Auch Estate’s Allt Cailliche project in Glenlyon will affect the setting of nearby Tigh Nam Bodach. Three weathered sandstone rocks representing an old man, woman and their daughter are believed to have been used in a pre-Christian ritual. The society held a walk at the site at the weekend to highlight its campaign. BBC Scotland’s news website has been unable to get a comment from the owners of Auch Estate at this stage on the hydro project and the opposition to it.”
You can watch the short TV news report here. By coincidence, this story broke as journalist and veteran folkorist Paul Screeton began work on a follow-up to his 1980 booklet Tales of the Hexham Heads. Paul investigated the weird story that had grown up around a trio of Celtic style stone heads that were unearthed in a suburban garden in northeast England in 1972.
The discovery of the stones was accompanied by weird hauntings by a frightening “werewolf”-type creature. This creature was seen independently by a number of people involved in the story, including Dr Ross, in whose home the stones were temporarily stored. When I interviewed Ross in 1994 she told me the stones brought an “evil presence” with them: “There was no doubt the haunting was that of a werewolf,” she told me. “The thing took form very gradually, and when it actually became not just audible and hinted at but tangible and visible, something had to be done, because it was definitely growing…” (the house was subsequently exorcised, but that’s another story….)
The Hexham legend is a real puzzle, partly because a resident of Hexham – lorry driver Desmond Craigie – came forward later to say the stone heads were not ancient stones, but toys made by him to amuse his daughter Nancy. Since they were examined by Dr Ross and others in the 1970s the stones have vanished. Subsequently, a story circulated that claimed their last custodian had been involved in a serious car crash.
But as a veteran investigative journalist, Paul is not put off by stories of Celtic curses and has re-opened his inquiries into the mystery, in the hope of finding the original stone heads (one was lost immediately, the others were carved in male and female form, the latter known as ‘the witch’).
The Hexham Heads legend has all the elements of an Edgar Allen Poe short story. I’m now looking forward to reading Paul’s book on a tale that I once described as “a classic in the supernatural field that remains an unsolved mystery to this day.” A film producer is currently working to produce a documentary based on the story. I have agreed to contribute a recorded interview for this project, due for release next year.