Location : United Kingdom – Boroughbridge, North Riding of Yorkshire
The three huge standing stones on the western outskirts of Boroughbridge are among the least understood and most neglected historic monuments in Britain. Where they came from, how many there were originally, what their purpose is, and who placed them and when, have been for hundreds of years – and are still today – matters of conjecture.
They are 18ft, 22ft and 22ft 6in tall, the last of these being taller than anything at Stonehenge. The smallest of the stones is rectangular – about 8ft 6in by 4ft 6in. The 22ft stone is 5ft by 4ft in girth and the third and tallest 4ft 6in by 4ft. This last and tallest stands by the roadside among trees immediately on the west side of Roecliffe Lane, the other two are across the road in a field which is flanked by the lane which leads to Boddy’s timber yard and the Boroughbridge Marina.
They have been variously known as The Devil’s Bolts, The Three Greyhounds and The Three Sisters but are generally referred to today as either The Three Arrows or The Devil’s Arrows.
The story which led to the latter name is thought to date from the end of the 17th century: Old Nick, irritated by some slight from Aldborough, threw the stones at the village from his stance on How Hill (south of Fountains Abbey). His aim, or his strength, being below par the “arrows’ fell short by a good mile. It was also claimed, and perhaps still is, that walking 12 times around the stones anti-clockwise will raise the Devil.
There have been suggestions that the stones were part of (or perhaps were intended to be part of) an immense henge a mile in diameter. But the most likely conjecture so far is that the stones date from around 2000 BC and that they are probably part of an isolated single row of stones – one of a large number of such megalithic monuments scattered through Western Europe.
Stone rows vary in complexity, starting with a pair of standing stones and going on to short rows and then longer rows. The long rows, of which the Arrows would seem to have been an early example, are found in south west England and Northern Ireland and seem to follow on from the earlier long double rows or avenues (such as that at Avebury). The stones of these rows do not compare in size with the Arrows.
A missing stone
It is almost certain that there were at least four stones in the row and possibly five or even more. A report of a visit by John Leland in the 1530s gives a clear and detailed description of four standing stones. Thirty years later William Camden wrote of seeing “foure huge stones, of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a straight and direct line… whereof one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to find treasure”.
The upper section of the fourth stone is claimed to stand in the grounds of Aldborough Manor and the lower part is believed to form part of the bridge which crosses the River Tutt in St. Helena just a few hundred yards away on the route into the town centre. Large pieces of the same millstone grit have turned up in the garden of a house bordering the field in which the enclosure containing the largest arrow stands.
Two large boulders of the same material as the stones have been found in the garden of a house only a hundred yards or so from the line of the stones and may possibly be part of the fourth stone which was broken up by treasure hunters..
The remaining arrows stand in a NNW-SSE line almost 200 yards long, and marks left by a wedge in one of them show that attempts have been made to break up these stones too for building material.
The stones are composed of millstone grit and the likely source is Plumpton Rocks two miles south of Knaresborough where erosion has produced large quantities of individual slabs. The lightest of the Arrows weighs over 25 tons and would have had to be pulled over a distance of some nine miles. Recent experiments (including one televised in 1996 “Secrets of Lost Empires”) have proved the feasibility of moving and erecting such stones without the benefit of modern equipment and technology.
It will be noticed that each of the standing stones has a series of grooves at the top which were once thought to have been carved by man but are now known to be the result of weathering. They show no trace of tool working – and the same grooves of varying lengths can be observed at Plumpton rocks where the stones are likely to have originated.
The first recorded excavation at the foot of the stones was in 1709 when a 9ft area around the central stone was opened. This revealed that, just below the topsoil, cobbles, grit and clay had been packed around the stone to a depth of 5ft. The base of the stone had been worked to produce a flat bottom which sat squarely on the hard packed clay beneath. The stone below ground had been dressed by pointed tools to give it a smoother appearance. Above ground, of course, weathering has roughened the surface of the stones. Before the hole was re-filled a lead box containing four William III and Queen Anne halfpennies was deposited at the foot of the stone. An excavation of the smallest stone in 1876 revealed a hole 4ft 6in deep and, five years later, an excavation of the tallest Arrow showed 6ft of it to be buried in the ground.
Some people have suggested that the stones were erected by the Romans to commemorate some great victory and there certainly was a Roman fort immediately to the west of the stones. Others have attempted, without much success, to connect them to ley lines. More feasible is the theory that the line was built in prehistoric times to align with the southernmost summer moonrise. Inevitably a religious purpose is ascribed to the stones more than any other. But it has also been suggested that they are monuments to the power or prestige of a local chief, that they are an avenue leading to a henge, or ford, or burial, or….
What can be seen on the site today may, of course, be only a fraction of the original structure: other stones may have been broken up and removed, wood may have rotted or been burnt, mud washed away…. Some have recently conjectured that there may be a connection with post holes recently discovered just to the north at Dishforth airfield. Such conjecture is a game we can all enjoy playing.