The first in a new series highlighting Cornwall’s megalithic masterpieces. One: Boscawen-un Stone Circle. Unless otherwise stated text and images © Roy Goutté

Boscawen-un Stone Circle
(SW 41222737)
The stone circle at Boscawen-ûn is considered to be one of Cornwall’s most popular prehistoric ceremonial centres as well as one of extreme aesthetic beauty. It lies beneath the southern slopes of Creeg Tol, enclosed by a later raised circular bank which, built in the 19th century to replace an earlier boundary that went straight through the circle, is an early example of archaeological conservation. The circle appears to have been carefully positioned within the landscape in such a way as to relate with key prehistoric landmarks, both natural and contemporary. To the north-west the rounded hill of Chapel Carn Brea fits neatly between the slopes of Leah and Creeg Tol. An unusual Neolithic long cairn lying on its southern slopes and an entrance grave on the summit are highlighted from the centre of the circle whilst to the south-south-east the dual menhirs of The Pipers and the Merry Maidens stone circle can be seen just below the skyline. The only glimpse of the sea is also in this direction at Boscawen Cliff. A positional change of the circle by just a few metres would render these sites invisible. (Historic Environment Service of Cornwall 2007).
And what a magical site it really is. Erected in the Bronze-Age the circle consists of an off-central leaning granite standing stone with what is believed to be two crude stone axes carved at the northern base of it and encircled by nineteen other upright standing stones, eighteen made of grey granite and one of white quartz. It is somewhat elliptical in shape with an axis of 24.9m and 21.9m. At the north-eastern edge of the circle two main ring-stones (7 & 8) have a cist type structure between them consisting of two reasonably large prostrate stones along with two smaller ones.
There is a wide gap in the west of the circle which suggests the loss of a stone, but on saying that, this gap may represent, as with the nearby Merry Maidens stone circle, an entrance. The centre stone is 2.7 metres high, but because of its strong inclination to the north-east, the tip is now about 2 metres above the ground. It is thought by some researchers that the off-central stone could represent the male phallus and the quartz stone representative of the female powers of the circle. We are all entitled to our views. There is reason to believe that the circle was not the first construct and it may be that the tall central stone was erected first in the 4th millennium BC followed by the stones 7 and 8 with the cist-like layout between them, and finally the circle itself. The two ring stones 7 and 8 which flank said cist are as close to a matching pair that you could get, both having opposite but identical slopes to their tops like a pair of book ends and straight inner sides. This would appear to be a deliberate act and once a stand-alone feature. Of course this then leaves the question…why would the circle then be built off-set from the ‘centre’ stone after using stones 7 and 8 as initial markers if it was indeed erected first?
Stones 7 and 8 and the ‘cist’ arrangement give the appearance of being a separate construct
William Camden the 16th century antiquarian and historian described the stone circle as, “In a place called Biscaw Woune are nineteen stones in a circle, twelve feet from each other, and in the circle stands one much larger than the rest.” Born in London, and educated at Christ’s Hospital, St. Paul’s School, and Oxford, Camden was in 1575 appointed Second Master in Westminster School, and Head Master in 1593, Camden spent his vacations in travelling over England collecting antiquarian information. His great work, Britannia, was published in 1586, and at once brought him fame both at home and abroad. It is a work of vast labour and erudition, written in elegant Latin. In 1597 Camden was made Clarencieux King-at-Arms which, setting him free from his academic duties, enabled him to devote more time to his antiquarian and historical labours.
It is very interesting that Camden does not mention the central stone leaning at an angle and that is important because it is the first thing observed and mentioned by all later antiquaries, authors and anyone visiting the circle for the first time. It suggests that in his time it was but a normal upright so we have to be careful how we interpret it today. In 1749 William Stukeley thought it may have been disturbed by someone looking for treasure resulting in the lean commencing. Measurements given over the years since Camden’s time by different antiquaries and archaeologists indicate that the lean has been gradually increasing. There could be a certain amount of truth to Stukeley suggestion, but not the whole reason surely as something that seems to have been overlooked is the ferocious winds that can cause havoc down in the far west of Cornwall. “Cornwall is exposed to the full force of the prevailing south-westerly winds that blow in from the Atlantic Ocean.” (Wikipedia, Geography of Cornwall). The stone leans to the north-east and the prevailing wind is from the south-west, so put two and two together, coupled with the possibility of treasure seekers digging away at the base of the stone and what have you got? Certainly a disaster waiting to happen that’s for sure!

A claim that keeps cropping up is that a direct line drawn from the quartz stone (18) through the centre stone passes straight through that collection of prostrate stones between stones 7 and 8. This simply isn’t true because a direct line goes directly between stones 9 and 10! Yet another claim is that the central stone was designed to lean towards that same collection of stones, but it doesn’t do that either as it actually points between stones 8 and 9! (See ground plan). Another well-known author states that the central stone is quartz which makes you wonder if they’d ever visited the circle at all!

The central stone as seen from the quartz ring stone
Photo by kind permission of A Brookes  ©

A cist between ring stones 7 and 8?

With regard to the axe carvings to the base of the leaning centre stone, I Cooke (Mermaid to Merrymaid, Journey to the Stones) wrote in 1987, “I visited the circle just after the summer solstice in 1986 and arrived shortly before dawn with the purpose of making some drawings. As the sun rose, I could see two very sharp and most unnatural shadows low down on the northern face of the pillar. On closer examination they turned out to have been caused by the sides of two elongated triangular ‘axe-heads’ which had been cut into the stone… the axes faced the direction from where the sun would rise on the long summer days and they could only become visible during that time for a few hours after dawn.”

William Borlase mapped the circle in 1754 showing eighteen stones standing and one fallen and sometime in the next one hundred years a Cornish hedge (stone wall) was constructed through the circle. The hedge is first mentioned in 1850 by Richard Edmonds and around 1862 the owner of the land, Miss Elizabeth Carne, had it removed and the hedge around the circumference of the site we still see today, built. This is, as such, an early example of the preservation of an archaeological monument. In 1864 the area around the stone circle was first studied in depth. The excavation reports show that the central stone was already inclined. A burial mound was discovered near the stone circle, in which urns were found. From this time originates one of the first illustrations of the circle, which John Thomas Blight sketched and included in his book Churches of West Cornwell. He also drew a plan of the burial mound and sketched one of the excavated urns.

John Thomas Blight’s 1864 sketches of the Burial Mound, Urn and Circle

Interestingly, at the time, a circle with 19 ring stones were not thought uncommon in Cornwall. In his Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall (1754), W Borlase says that Boscawen–un is just one of four circles in Penwith with 19 stones, the others being the Merry Maidens (now thought to have been 18), Tregaseal (now thought to have had 21/22) and Boskednan (now thought to have had 22). However, although not mentioned, there was once another now lost. At this time, although Gulval was to be incorporated into the parishes of Penzance, Madron and Ludgvan in 1934, it was within the district of Penwith in 1754 and researching has discovered yet another 19 stone circle there. In his 1819 book The Circles, or Historical Survey of Sixty Parishes or Towns of Cornwall, author William Penaluna says: “In this parish of Gulval, there is an elliptical ring, formed wholly of perpendicular stones. These stones were originally nineteen in number, all placed at nearly equal distances from one another, but not with any particular regard to exactness. Of these stones, thirteen only remained erect, when Dr. Borlase wrote; the other six, having been thrown down, lay on the ground near the places in which they once stood. No rule seems to have been observed in the selection of these pillars or stones, with regard either to their height or their magnitude. They vary from one another in a promiscuous manner, leaving us wholly at a loss to conjecture the end for which they were collected, and placed in their erect positions.”

Casting an eye around the area of the Boscawen-un circle with the help of a detailed map, it is comparatively easy to pick up on some local landmarks whether they be naturally occurring or placed there by man. In the near distance are two tall standing stones to the north-east in the field west of Boscawen Noon Farm built into a hedge alongside the farm driveway and the other one to the north. But to get a fuller picture check out the plan of Boscawen-un below and the directions of principal landscape features around it.

Alignments, which always seems to be of interest to some but nonsensical to others, are a very important part of the megalithic and mystical scene and can keep discussion alive for hours on end, even though sometimes it can get somewhat over-heated! To me, this is one of the most interesting parts of our hobby trying to decipher what monuments such as Boscawen-un stone circle are all about and why they are placed where they are in the landscape, because, if truth be told, we are really no further significantly advanced about their use and placement than we were in the days of the likes of John Aubrey and William Stukeley! Plenty of assumptions but little concrete proof… and maybe there never will be!

Boscawen-un stone circle showing the stones together with directions of principal landscape
features from the approximate centre of the circle

Directions to Boscawen-un stone circle:

The more easy-going route avoiding what can be deep cover, nettles and undergrowth if you are walking. Travelling westwards on the A30 past Penzance toward Land’s End and just prior to the turning right to Sancreed, you will see an upright rectangular double-brown sign at the entrance to a driveway on the left with Boscawenoon and Chyandwens Farmhouse written on them.

The driveway and public footpath to the farmhouse

Park up sensibly to avoid blockages

Not only is it a driveway but also a public footpath up to the aforementioned properties. If driving a car make your way up this driveway very nearly to the farm until reaching a very nice long pull-in on the right adjacent to a tall pointed standing stone (previously mentioned) built into the hedge/wall with a large farm building just a little further on to the left. Park sensibly to avoid blocking farm vehicles from passing. From there, continue on foot down the driveway passing some farm buildings on the left and follow the driveway around to the right and past a house on the left. Continue on and you will shortly come to a divide in the driveway with a vertical sign between the two declaring that Boscawen-un is straight ahead!

The divide… take the path to the right

You’ve arrived… a magical moment awaits!

Take the path to the right which is like a high-hedged alleyway. Midway along you will come to a stile on the left showing the right of way but don’t go over it keep straight on up the alleyway until reaching the Boscawen-un stone circle entrance sign and gate on the left. You have arrived and once through the gate the circle awaits you!

If you prefer to take the ‘ramblers route’, then drive/walk on past the driveway entrance to Boscawenoon on the A30 for about half a mile until you reach a small pull-in on the left (2 cars) with a gated entrance and a small sign. A rough path takes you to the circle but it can be heavy going in the summer months if the undergrowth has not been kept down. Whatever route you choose to take, go carefully and enjoy your visit. You won’t be disappointed.