THE MOUSELOW MYSTERY
originally published by Peak District magazine 2003
One of the strangest stories in the folklore of the Peak District concerns a group of ancient carved stones found on a hill near the town of Glossop during the reign of Queen Victoria. Visitors to Buxton Museum can inspect the stones which are built into an archway in the permanent galleries, but they will learn nothing about their power to generate fear and suspicion from the caption which accompanies them.
The Museum says “their precise origins are unknown, but the consensus of opinion is that they are of Celtic (Iron Age) origin, and may have belonged to larger groups of carvings of cult significance.” The stones take their name from Mouselow Castle which is a prominent landmark above Old Glossop. Archaeologists have found the site, known locally as ‘Castle Hill’ was used by native tribes as far back as the Bronze Age. The hilltop may have remained a Celtic stronghold when the Romans arrived in the 1st century AD and began work on their fort at Melandra, on the opposite side of the River Etherow.
It was at Mouselow, in 1840, that a Wesleyan Minister, the Reverend George Marsden, discovered “some curiously marked stones” whilst searching the ruins of an old building which local tradition said had once been the foundations of a Catholic chapel. Having removed them from the hill Marsden built them into the gable end of his house in Hadfield, where they remained for a number of years before they were taken out and presented to the Glossop Antiquarian Society, and finally Buxton Museum.
Even at this early stage the stones were surrounded by mystery because they were decorated with carvings and symbols that had connotations of superstition or witchcraft. Perhaps in a bid to downplay their power, in 1905 a local historian described the stones as being of “early Anglo-Saxon origin” and wrote “ some of the symbols have been recognized as representing the river of life, the wind blowing from the four quarters of the earth, Thoth, one of their gods and other objects which they worshipped.” Unfortunately, Thoth was an Egyptian deity, not an Anglo-Saxon god!
Today, archaeologists believe the stones were produced not by Anglo-Saxons, but by native Celts whose traditions had been influenced by the brief Roman presence in the High Peak. The most striking is a rectangular block featuring a crudely-incised face with what appear to be horns sprouting from the brow of the head. As horns were a symbol of the devil to Christians, this stone may have been regarded as a focus evil power. In fact, it is similar to other crude native carvings found on the Roman wall, and may represent a Celtic warrior or the god known as Cernunnos (‘the horned one.’)
Their reappearance in Glossop, in 1985, triggered a series of bizarre phone calls which led an archaeologist to temporarily suspend an exploratory excavation on the hilltop where they were found. The archaeologist, Glynis Reeve, herself a local woman, had always been intrigued by the history and folklore of the valley, particularly the ‘dark ages’ between the departure of the Romans and the Norman conquest. In 1984, with the backing of Manchester University and the Peak District National Park, Glynis undertook an extensive fieldwork survey and planned a small excavation on the summit of Mouselow in a bid to learn more about the age of the earthworks. The work was overshadowed by a series of strange events that has left a certain amount of ill-feeling in the district to this day. For it seemed the archaeologists had unearthed something more than they had bargained for.
Glynis described how it was not long after volunteers began work that things began to go wrong. “We had not been up there for very long when we started to get anonymous phone calls, quite late in the evening from people obviously very concerned that we were digging on a site which had some special significance to them.” The calls asked ‘why are young digging up there?’ and ‘what are you trying to find?’, and there were warnings about horned figures and ‘the Old Ways.’ The dig was based in a small field centre in Glossop and soon a number of people began to come in demanding to know what they were doing, some of whom were “quite annoyed.” Relations with local people worsened when Glynis began to research the history of Mouselow Stones and arrangements were made for them to return for an exhibition in the field centre.
“I thought we would perhaps arouse some local interest and maybe find out some more about them,” said Glynis. “But I was totally unprepared for the reaction.” One man visited the display and looked at the stones for a long time. When Glynis said she wished she knew what she wasn’t supposed to find on the hill, the visitor turned and said: “What you did not find was the entrance to hell.”
Undeterred, Glynis reopened the dig again in the summer of 1985. This time, every member of the team suffered an accident on the site. “We found it very hard to put to the back of our minds, especially when everybody had drawn blood, and we had to get to the bottom of what it was that was disturbing people so much.” Her suspicions were confirmed when a Celtic scholar, Dr Anne Ross examined the stones. She said they appeared Celtic in style, if not in date, and may have once formed part of a pagan Celtic shrine. Dr Ross said she believed Glynis had stumbled across what she called “a strong local feeling about certain stones which had been sacred, which were believed to have certain powers.”
In an effort to calm nerves and extend the hand of friendship to the mysterious followers of ‘the Old Ways’, Glynis decided that on the eve of the old festival of Beltane, May 1st, she would try to communicate with them. “A member of my team and I decided we would go up on to the site at night. It was very dark and lonely and we were frightened, because we kept hearing rustlings in the trees and couldn’t tell whether it was the wind or perhaps someone watching us.” When the two reached the summit, Glynis stood and announced: “You have nothing to fear from us.” She then slowly walked down towards another member of the team who was waiting in a car. They were all unnerved when he said that while the pair was on the hill, he had seen a number of torchlights moving about on the lower slopes.
“I don’t know who they were but after that night the harassment stopped,” Glynis said afterwards. “There were no more phone calls, nobody else came into the field centre and made a fuss, and it was made known to us that we were perfectly welcome to carry on with our excavation so long as our interest remained purely archaeological. They were doing us no harm any longer, so that’s how we left it – we had our interpretation of the site and we left them and their beliefs to history.”
But what about the stones themselves? What was it about them which aroused such intense suspicion and hostility? No clear answer can be found, because like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, many of the original stones have been lost. Two additional stones were added after the eight original stones were exhibited in Glossop, but not all appear to be of the same age and although some are Celtic in style, others are clearly medieval and may possibly have formed parts of gravestones. Archaeologists have been unable to explain their meaning after decades of study, and the mystery looks set to continue.
Prehistoric stones are often associated with fertility rites and one of the stones from Mouselow contains a phallic symbol of Roman style. Others contain Celtic ‘roses’ and the letter ‘A’ which may have formed part of an inscription of dedication to a deity, perhaps ‘Anu’ or ‘Arnemetia’, the Celtic goddess who presided over the thermal springs at Buxton. A number of stones contain symbols grouped like a domino that connect them with a woman or women whose graves they may have originally marked.
The most mysterious stone in the Mouselow collection, and possibly the earliest in date, tapers towards one end and reveals its secrets only when placed upright and cross-lit. Then, what appears to be a pattern of lozenges is transformed into the figure of a woman wearing a distinctive tartan garment and with her hair drawn up into a bun. According to experts the nearest archaeological comparison is found in Bronze Age Denmark. If correct, this stone is truly Celtic and was carved by the people who buried their dead on Mouselow Hill long before the arrival of the Romans.
Movement of sacred stones and their handling by people from outside the tradition which created them, has always been surrounded by strong taboos in folklore. Also typically Celtic is the existence of ‘guardians’ who preserve sacred stones and charms, which in parts of Scotland and Ireland have been passed down through generations of families. It appears that in this part of the Peak District, centuries after the arrival of Christianity, there are still some who continue to follow ‘the old ways.’ They continue their respect for sacred places and certain stones which have special powers, and questions from outsiders will always remain unwelcome.
Copyright D.Clarke 2011