Rock-Basins, or 'Bullauns', at Glendalough and Elsewhere (published in 1959)

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Original article published in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 89, No. 2 (1959), pp. 161-188

“Can a full list of ‘Bullauns’ not be compiled?” asked Mr. Hewson, in a note on ‘Bullaun stones in Rathlin Island’, in the Journal for 1938. No single person could do it, I’m afraid; there must be hundreds of them, scattered in all parts of Ireland, and each one would have to be examined in order to describe it properly.

Mr. Crawford was interested in these stones, and when writing about their association with cures, in the Journal for 1913, he remarked that Glendalough “possesses a greater number of bullaun stones than any other locality”.

Certainly the number is remarkable; there are at least 30 at Glendalough itself, and there are nearly as many more in the lands which formerly belonged to the monastery. It is not easy to see any special reason for such a concentration in one place. However, it may be worth while to list and describe them, with some others in Co. Wicklow and elsewhere, and to make an attempt to investigate how these basin-stones could have been used, somewhat in the same way as has been done in the first part of Mr. Lacaille’s paper on Stone Basins from the west of Scotland.

The location of most of the stones at Glendalough is shown on the map (Fig. 1). Many of them lie near the grass-covered track of St. Kevin’s Road on the north side of the river, or close to the river on the opposite bank, where they have been rolled down off the field near the saw mill; some are in the river. They were scattered over the low-lying ground on the north side of the graveyard, and extended beyond the river as far as the north side of the present Wicklow Gap road, and there are a couple outside the graveyard on the south side.

The field through which St. Kevin’s Road runs is overgrown with bushes and covered with stones; there are places in it where one fancies that the piles of stones look like the ruins of old huts.

D. The Deer Stone. The name is derived from the story which is told in the Life of St. Kevin, about the doe coming to give milk to the infant Faelan. The basin is conical-shaped, 10″ in diameter and 8″ deep.

a. ‘The Seven Fonts’. The surface of a large boulder has been cut away to a depth of 7″ to form a flat rectangular space 40″ by 29″, and there are three basins in the rectangle, an oval one 17″ by 9″, the other two 13″ by 12″, all about 5″ deep (Plate IX 1). In the end of this boulder, outside the rectangle, is a fourth basin, circular, 15″ in diameter and 7″ deep. The other three basins are in boulders close by; one is shown in Plate IX 2.

b. The upper part of a large boulder has been cut to form a rectangle 40″ by 24″: the surface is flat, and there is a circular basin in it 13½” in diameter and 7″ deep (Plate IX 3). The sides of the rectangle have been cut straight on three sides, and on the fourth it is marked off from the boulder by a groove.

c. A boulder with two basins.

d. A boulder which looks as if the upper surface was cut flat, leaving a projection at one side: one basin, 13″ in diameter, 4½” deep (Plate IX 4).

f. At the saw mill avenue gate: two basins, one broken (Plate X 2). Near this is the socket of a cross, which was found about 150 yards away when the road was widened; it was moved down to the gate.

e. g, h, i, j. Different sized boulders, each with a single basin (g, Plate XI: h, in the river, Plate X 3).

k. A boulder behind the saw mill (Plate X 4). The basin shown is circular, 10″ in diameter, 9″ deep. Another basin, slightly smaller, has been formed on the opposite surface, and the two basins have broken into one another, making the hole which is seen in the photograph. Near it is a boulder broken in two with the half of a basin showing in the broken surface (Plate X 5).

l. A basin in the weathered surface of a large slab which has been built into the wall: circular, 8½” in diameter, 3″ deep.

m. A large flat boulder, just above the Wicklow Gap road, with two basins, one 12″ in diameter, the other 14″ by 12½”, both 6″ deep (Plate XI 1). There are two other boulders quite close to it (one of them is shown in Plate XI 3) each containing a single basin; another has a shallow depression which looks like the beginning of a basin. Another boulder with a single basin is about 400 yards to the west, below the Wicklow Gap road (Plate XI 4).

n. A boulder south-east of the graveyard: basin 11″ by 9½”, and 6″ deep.

o. A long flat slab, south of the graveyard: shallow basin, 2½” deep. There is another, not far to the west of this.

On the path outside the south wall of St. Kevin’s Church (or ‘Kitchen’) there are four granite stones containing basins, two of them broken; they were formerly kept in the building (Plate XI 2). One of them has a second basin on the opposite surface, and a hole has been broken through between the two basins, as in the boulder at the saw mill (k).

There is a stone with a basin of a different shape in the grass at the north-west side of St. Kevin’s Church; the basin is circular, 10½” in diameter, carefully cut, with vertical sides 5½” deep and with the bottom slightly rounded, giving it the shape of a shallow U in section. This stone is quite different from the rock-basins listed above, and should probably not be described as a ‘bullaun’.

In the field where St. Kevin’s road is I have on occasions seen at least two other basin stones, but on revisiting the place have failed to locate them. The stones get covered up by grass and bushes so that it is sometimes hard to find them. Also I cannot say that the measurements of the basins are absolutely exact, as it is difficult to decide where the curve of the lip of the basin starts; I have noted different measurements for the same basin when taking them at different times.

In the area of St. Kevin’s original settlement near the Upper Lake I only know of one stone, a boulder with two basins, one 16″ by 13″ and the other 14″ by 13″, both 7½” deep (Plate XII 1); it is near the forester’s house in Derrybawn, about 200 yards east of the bridge leading to the Reefert Church.

All these stones at Glendalough have concave, bowl-shaped basins, except the Deer Stone and the stone in the grass near St. Kevin’s Church. The boulders are all granite, mostly too large to be moved.

There are also a number of rock-basins of the same type in the lands which formerly belonged to the monastery, particularly in the parish of Derrylossary, in which Glendalough is situated, and which was known by the name of Kildalagh in the seventeenth century, at the time of Petty’s survey.

In it I know of stones in the following places:

1. Killafeen, in Laragh East. A large boulder with four basins and another with two basins, both near the place where the road to Glendalough from the east crossed the Annamoe River (Plate XI 5).

2. Killalane, in Laragh East. A stone with one basin on the mountain side above the Glenmacnass road, near the boundary of Drummin.

3. Drummin. Five stones on the mountain side, west of the Laragh-Oldbridge road: on Drumray, one with two basins and the beginning of a third (Plate XII 2), another with two basins, and another with one basin: a little to the south, two more with single basins. A sixth stone brought down from the mountain is at the door of Glendalough House, Drummin: circular basin, 11″ in diameter. There is another boulder in Drummin, between the house and Oldbridge, with a basin 12″ by 11″ and 5″ deep.

4. Baltynanima. A stone with two basins, south of the road from Oldbridge to Roundwood.

5. Raheen. A boulder with three basins, near Derrylossary church, and another with one basin, between Oldbridge and Derrylossary.

6. At Derrylossary church, in Ballinacorbeg. A boulder with two circular basins and the beginning of a third (Plate XII 3), and the two other boulders, each with a single basin. Also another stone, with a conical cavity 11″ deep; it is in the ditch at the west side of the graveyard.

7. Ashtown or Ballinafunshoge. Inside the east end of the ruined church, a stone with a circular basin 14″ in diameter and 6″ deep. In the field north of the church, a boulder with a basin 13″ by 11″ and 4″ deep. Another stone brought from here is outside the door of Glendalough House, Drummin; it has a basin 15″ by 14″ and 6″ deep.

All these 20 stones are within six miles of Glendalough.

8. Cloghoge. Near the green road, just west of the Cloghoge river: a boulder with two circular basins, 11″ and 10″ in diameter, both 6½” deep. A hole 5½” deep has been bored at the bottom of the larger basin; this was made for a charge of dynamite to break the stone; holes of the same size can be seen in the stones in the walls and the bridge, which have been broken by blasting.

9. Sleanaglogh. West by south of Glendalough, on the boundary of Rathnew parish. A boulder with a circular basin, 12½” in diameter and 6″ deep. It is called ‘the wart stone’. It is about half a mile from a well called ‘Lady’s Well’.

Some of the lands south of Glendalough also belonged to the monastery, probably from an early period. On this side, in Knockrath and Rathdrum parishes, and within five miles of Glendalough, there are four rock-basins:

10. Ballintombay Lower, Knockrath parish. At the side of the road; a boulder with three basins, locally known as ‘the wart stone’.

11. Ballintombay Upper, Knockrath parish. Two stones, each having two basins, near a raheen, about half a mile north of the stone in Ballintombay Lower.

12. Ballyhad, Rathdrum parish. A flat boulder with two basins, on top of the hill south of Clara bridge, half a mile from the boundary of Knockrath parish.

Other stones in Co. Wicklow, east side:

Meetings, Rathdrum parish. The O.S. Name Book (1838) records “a large stone with a hole in it”, called St. Kevin’s Cup, in the south of the townland. It has now been placed beside the bust of Moore, at the Meeting of the Waters.

Bahana Whaley, Ballykine parish. Near Ballykine graveyard: a stone with a circular basin, 13|” in diameter and 6″ deep.

Cronebeg, Ballykine parish. A stone with a single basin was brought from here, and it is now at the house of Mr. D. O Dubhghaill in Ballymacsimon, Glenealy.

Clone, Kilpipe parish. A stone with a single basin; this also is now at the house of Mr. D. O Dubhghaill, Ballymacsimon.

Castlemacadam. Near Castlemacadam old graveyard: a stone with a circular basin, 14″ in diameter and 8″ deep.

Shelton Abbey, Kilbride parish, Arklow. In the garden: a stone with a circular basin 16½” by 15″ and 5″ deep. It was brought from Whitson Hill, where there is said to have been an old graveyard.

Ballyknockanbeg, Glenealy parish. Stone with a circular basin, 12″ in diameter and 7″ deep, said to have been brought from Coolnakilly. It has a hole in the bottom which, I was told, was bored by the farmer, who used it for feeding pigs.

Cronroe, Rathnew parish. A boulder containing an oval basin and a shallow depression, and another boulder with a circular basin. A well near them is said to have been called ‘the priests well’.

Glebe, Knockrobin, Rathnew parish. Near the site of Drumkay church. Boulder with a basin 13″ by 11″ and 7″ deep. A chip has been recently broken off one side.

Kilmartin, Killiskey parish. A shaped stone with a shallow basin, 8″ in diameter and 3″ deep. This is not a ‘bullaun’; it may have been a holy water stoup.

Ballinahinch Upper, Newcastle Upper parish. A boulder in a raheen: circular basin 8″ in diameter and 3″ deep.

Knockatemple, Calary (formerly Newcastle Upper) parish. Near the old graveyard: a boulder with a basin 16″ by 14″ and 6″ deep.

Tinnapark Demesne, Kilcoole parish. A stone in front of the house, said to have been brought from a field near Holywell.

Kilmurry South, Kilmacanoge parish. In the ruin of the church at the place called Teetample or the Monastery: a boulder with a basin 14″ by 12″ and 8″ deep.

Deerpark, Powerscourt parish. A large boulder with 4 basins, two circular and two elliptical: the surface of the boulder appears to have been artificially levelled: called ‘the praying stone’. It is near the site of an old church.

Tonygarrow, Powerscourt parish. At a site called ‘the Relic’. A large flat rock with a circular basin, 16″ in diameter and 8½” deep.

Monastery, Powerscourt parish. O’Curry in the Ordnance Survey Letters records “a baptismal font” as having been dug up in the glen near Enniskerry. It is not to be seen now.

In south Co. Dublin I know two boulders with basins at Rathmichael church, and a large boulder with two large conical cavities at Kill of the Grange church. At Glassamucky Mountain in Tallaght parish, just beside the boundary of Co. Wicklow, there is a large boulder (Plate XII 5, 6) with a circular cavity 18″ in diameter and 6″ deep, not basin-shaped but with steep sides and flat bottom; at the eastern end of the boulder there is a similar cavity, and beside it a basin-shaped hollow, partly broken away; near this are two shallow depressions. Some 500 yards to the north west there is a large boulder with a cross incised on it. There is a stone in Saggart graveyard called ‘the wart stone’; it was the socket of a cross.

Stones in west Co. Wicklow:

Kilbeg, Boystown parish. A boulder near St. Boodin’s well, with a basin 18″ by 14″ and 10″ deep.

Lackan, Boystown parish. Outside Templeboodin graveyard: a boulder with circular cavity 13″ in diameter and 6½” deep, cup-shaped, with sloping sides and rounded bottom.

Ballyknockan, Boystown parish. Near a rath which is now submerged: a large stone called ‘the wart stone’, with a circular basin 17½” in diameter and 8″ deep.

Crehelp. At the site of the old church, locally called ‘the Religeen’: a circular basin 10″ in diameter and 4″ deep, cut in the sloping surface of a small granite boulder (Plate XII 4).

Kilbaylet Lower, Donard parish. A boulder here which was broken up is said to have had five circular cavities.

Brittas, Donaghmore parish. A large boulder called ‘the holy stone’, with five basins: one called ‘the giant’s foot’, 28″ long, is formed by two basins with a low ridge between, and is shaped like a foot: the other four basins are circular. Near it is another large rock with four circular basins, and another boulder with a single basin.

Freynestown. In a field called ‘the bullock park’, said by local tradition to be the site of a monastery: a stone with a shallow circular basin 9″ in diameter and 2″ deep. This may perhaps have been a holy water stoup; the place may be the site of the Anglo-Norman church of Freynestown.

Rampere, Rathbran parish. A boulder with a basin, in a rath which was almost obliterated when the road was made.

Aghowle Lower, Aghowle parish. A boulder near the old church, with four basins, one broken (Fig. 2).

These are all the stones that I know of in Co. Wicklow, but it is quite likely that there may be more.

At Clane, Co. Kildare, there is a ‘bullaun’ stone with a circular basin 18″ deep; it is called ‘the wart stone’. Another stone near Clane which is called ‘the wart stone’ is the base of a cross. A similar stone at Crossmorris, Co. Kildare, with a diamond shaped socket for a cross cut in it, is also called ‘the wart stone’.

In Co. Carlow I have noted a large flat boulder with three basins at Clonmore, near the graveyard; at Ballycook a large boulder with a conical cavity, outside Kineagh old graveyard; at Aghade, in the graveyard, a stone with a basin 12″ in diameter and 5″ deep, which has been described as ‘an ancient font; at Kildreenagh near Bagenalstown, a large boulder with two conical cavities, beside the ruin of an old church.

In Kilcavan parish in north Co. Wexford there are two stones, both with some what broken basins, one at Killinierin and the other in the adjoining townland of Ballynestragh Demesne.

Descriptions have been given of a great many rock-basins in other parts of the country; I need only mention a few of the more remarkable. The well known stone called St. Bridget’s stone at Termon, near Blacklion, Killinagh parish, Co. Cavan, near the old graveyard, has nine basins with round stones in them; it has attracted particular notice because of the tradition that it was used as a cursing stone.

A limestone boulder at Meelaghans, Geashill parish, Co. Offaly, has six basins and three shallow depressions. There are two large granite stones, one with six and the other with three basins, at Gortavoher, Clonbeg parish, Co. Tipperary: some of the basins at the edges of the stones are partly broken away. According to tradition the hollows were formed by the knees of three saints who constantly prayed there.

A rock not far from the pass of Keamaneigh, near Gouganebarra, Co. Cork, has five basins with round stones in them; the story about it was that the stones in the basins were lumps of butter which had been turned into stone by St. Fiachna.

Wilde gives a drawing of a stone at Cong in which there are five basins, and he describes another at Inchagoill “with an oval-shaped depression 6 by 4 inches in diameter”; he suggests that these were primitive fonts.

A cross is incised on a boulder at Carrowmore, near Clonca, Co. Donegal, in which there is a rock-basin; the water in the basin was used to cure many diseases. The place is said to be the site of the old monastery of Both Chonais.

A drawing of Wakeman’s shows another incised cross in a basin in a boulder of red sandstone near the lake at Drumgay, Co. Fermanagh; he describes this basin as “worked out with a punch”. He gives a sketch of another basin at Gortaloughan on the north shore of this lake; he says this place was considered sacred, and that the water in the basin was used to cure eye diseases; he saw rags hanging on the bushes. St. Molaisse’s famous monastery of Devenish is about a mile to the west of these two stones.

A boulder at Garranes, Kilcaskan parish, Co. Kerry, has several basins in it, in which there are rounded pebbles. The site is called Temple Feaghna, and the story that these were butter rolls, changed into stone by the saint, is told here as well as at Keamaneigh.

A large sandstone slab near Kilmalkedar church, Co. Kerry, has several basins in it, some of them now covered by the grass (Plate XIII 1). They are locally called ‘keelers’ or ‘beisti’ (milk-tubs); the local people say that the legendary cow, the Glas Ghaibhneach, was milked into the basins by the monks.

A boulder with two hollows at Boherduff, Kilconickny parish, near Loughrea, Co. Galway, is locally known as the holy well of Tobermacduach (Plate XIII 2).

A stone called ‘Doughnambraher Font’ in the townland of Killian, Templemaley parish, Co. Clare, has a hollow in which there are nine round stones (Plate XIII 4); it is said to cure warts. There is another wartstone at Kilvoydan, Co. Clare, which is the socket of an ancient cross.

Mr. T. J. Westropp adds a list of some other ‘bullauns’ in the same county and says “There are several basins in the crags of the Burren, often near forts and dolmens, but I believe them to be natural”.

The story now told about the Deer Stone at Glendalough is that a wild doe came from the mountain every day in answer to St. Kevin’s prayer and filled the hollow with milk to feed the infant of a workman whose wife had died. This is only a modern version of the legend, told in the Irish lives, that at St. Kevin’s command the doe left her milk daily in a hollow stone for his fosterling, the infant Faelan.

The hollow stone is an addition put into the legend by the composer of the Irish life; in the earlier Latin life the story is told in a simpler form which is common to many of the saints’ lives: at the saint’s prayer a wild doe comes from the mountain to be milked.

The connection between hollow stones and the story of the deer is found elsewhere. There is a stone called cloch na h-eilte at Tullylease, Co. Cork; the legend is that a deer used to fill the hollow in it with milk for the workmen when they were building the church.

A story very like the Deer Stone legend is in the late Latin life of St. Mochulleus, of Tulla, Co. Clare. A doe led him to the site of his church; in levelling the foundation he came on a stone with a polished surface and a deep hollow like a large ewer (hydria); the doe used to come every day to this hollow as if to a milking pail (mulcrum), and leave its milk in it of its own accord (uberibus spontanea voluntate lac eodem distillare), in order to nourish the saint and a sick brother whom he had with him.

Another story of this class is the one I have mentioned about the Glas Ghaibhneach being milked into the basins in the stone at Kilmalkedar. That rock-basins were mysterious objects and that the people had no recollection of the purpose they served is clear enough from the stories that were told about them.

Sometimes the hollows are said to have been made by a saint’s knees, as in the Gortavoher stone. A stone with two hollows, about two miles south of Kilkenny, is called Glun Padraig or St. Patrick’s Knees.

The same sort of story is told about a stone in Wales; there are several large artificial oval basin-shaped hollows in it, and the legend is that they were made by the heads of saints who sheltered against the stone. This is near the old gold workings at Gogofau in Carmarthenshire; the writer suggests that the hollows were produced in the process of crushing the ore.

As Lacaille says of the folklore associated with the Scottish stones, “that story should have become attached to so many is already an indication, if not of considerable antiquity, at least of the passing from memory of their purpose”.

The basins in most of the stones mentioned above are undoubtedly artificial. The broken one (Plate X 5) shows the usual shape. One does, however, find rounded cavities which have been produced by natural agencies. Lacaille gives examples of natural rock-basins; he prints a photograph of a limestone boulder in Co. Laoighis showing two deep hollows; these look artificial but the Geological Survey notes that this limestone weathers out into holes along lines of bedding.

He reproduces drawings of basins which have been formed by weathering in granite, but these are usually of a rather irregular shape. The basin in the middle of the stone at Glassamucky Mountain (Plate XII 5, 6) could hardly have been produced by weathering, but it is probably weathering that has partly broken away the basin at the edge of the stone, and this may also account for the broken basins at the edge of the Gortavoher stone.

At Glanreemore in Co. Wicklow there are hollows in the slaty rock in the bed of the stream which the local people regard as artificial, one circular one in particular being very evenly shaped; but there can be little doubt that in fact they have all been formed by the action of water.

Expert examination would be necessary to decide whether the basins in the limestone boulder at Meelaghans are natural or artificial. A stone near Kilree church, Co. Kilkenny, which I was told was called Glunbride, is a small boulder of limestone with irregular hollows in it which are obviously natural. Limestone is especially liable to weather into these rounded hollows.

In the Burren district on the borders of Co. Clare and Co. Galway this produces the natural basins which Mr. Westropp speaks of. It is there and in the Aran Islands that the word ballán is used by Irish speakers for a round hole in a rock. As Joyce says, it is this word which has been borrowed by modern antiquarians who use ‘bullaun’ to mean an artificial rock-basin.

Perhaps this modern sense of the word originated among persons who were familiar with the hollows in the limestone of the Burren. It would not have come from Co. Mayo, for, as Professor Delargy has kindly informed me, Irish speakers there do not use the word ballán in this sense.

It is possible, however, that some word similar to ballán was in use for these basin-stones in the 17th century. The three Irish lives of St. Kevin tell the story of the doe leaving her milk in a hollow stone. Two of them have isin cloich thuill, ar cloich thuill, ‘in (or on) a hollow stone’; the third has ar chloich tholta, ‘on a hollowed stone’.

A copy of this third life was made in Cork in 1627 by a scribe who, as Plummer says, was not content to be a mere copyist, and in this phrase he has altered the word tholta into phollta; the literal meaning of this would be ‘pierced, perforated’, which would not seem to be the sense that the story requires. If the change to phollta has any significance, it would suggest that he knew some such word as pollán for these basins.

Most of the stones in which ‘bullauns’ are found are boulders which are too large to be moved; sometimes they are large blocks which can be handled even though they are heavy. Two of the stones at St. Kevin’s Church have round stones in them, and so has one of the stones at Glendalough House, Drummin, but I doubt if these have any significance; the district is full of water-worn rounded stones, and it is quite likely that somebody saw a stone that would fit a basin and put it into it.

As Crawford says, they could not be used for grinding, for they are so large that they crush the fingers. Anyone can find this out by experiment. If the basins were intended for grinding, some smaller implement must have been used. Crawford suggests that these large round stones were used for ‘turning’, like the stones in St. Bridget’s Stone at Blacklion.

There are, however, two stones at Glendalough with a basin on each side, which have met at the bottom and broken through the stone; one of these is shown in Plate X 4. A similar stone is recorded from Devenish, Co. Fermanagh. A stone from Aghalee old church, Co. Antrim, has two basins hollowed on opposite sides, but these have not broken through.

The boulder called St. Columb’s Stone at Derry has two artificial oval hollows on each side. The explanation usually given, as Crawford says, for the curious feature of the two Glendalough stones is that the hollow became too deep for the purpose it was intended to serve, and that the stone was turned over and a fresh basin was formed on the opposite side.

The suggestion that the stones were used for ‘turning’ would hardly account for these cases where basins on opposite sides have broken into one another. They would seem to imply a grinding process, continued until it broke through the stone. Wakeman thought that ‘bullauns’ were to be associated with cup marks and concentric circles, and he describes some stones on which basins and markings of this kind are found together. He includes the hollows in the large stone troughs found in the passage-graves at Newgrange and Sliabh na Caillighe; these are, however, quite different from ‘bullauns’.

Among his cup-marked stones he illustrates some curious slabs with small shallow depressions from the paving of a cist which contained a cinerary urn. Could these have perhaps been used for grinding pigments?

Westropp mentions an artificial basin in a stone which is in front of a megalith at Newgrove, in Tulla parish, Co. Clare. Professor de Valera has kindly informed me, however, that this stone does not form portion of the tomb and that it is very doubtful whether it has any connection with the original monument.

Lacaille mentions artificial basins which accompany prehistoric rock carvings in Scotland, some of them in association with cup-marks. One of Wakeman’s illustrations shows a stone of this kind at Pubble, near Tempo, Co. Fermanagh. These prehistoric basins are rare, however, in comparison with ordinary ‘bullaun’ stones, like those which I have illustrated.

Many ‘bullaun’ stones were believed to have the power of healing diseases; stories about some of them have been noticed above. The tradition that the water in them would cure warts was very general. Stones in Scotland were also said to have curative powers. The water in a partly natural basin at Killin, in Perthshire, was said to cure whooping-cough.

There was a tradition about two stones near Inverness that their virtues would aid childless women who bathed in their waters; one of them, at Killianan, near Abriachan, was said to have been used by St. Columba as a font; the other is near the church of Arpafeelie; the usual folk-story was told about the disturbances which occurred when it was moved.

It was only in the 18th century that observers began to publish stories about these cures, but the traditional beliefs were no doubt much older. The use of water in a hollow stone to cure diseases is mentioned in two of the Latin lives of the saints, the miraculous power in each case being attributed to a hollow made in the stone by the head of the infant saint.

Basin-stones were formerly in common use for preparing food in Scotland, and less commonly in Ireland. Basins in roughly shaped blocks were used for bruising furze in places in the north of Ireland. Mr. Hewson’s note, which I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, has a photograph of one in Rathlin Island, which was said to have been used “for bruising whins, oats, for food stuff for horses, etc.”; another was then (1938) “still in use as a mortar for the bruising of cereals for human and animal consumption”.

Mitchell writing in 1880 shows a ‘knockin’ stane’ which he saw being used in Shetland, and Curwen gives a photograph, taken in 1902, of a man using one in the island of Foula. These were heavy roughly shaped stones with hollows in them. The implement employed was a wooden pounder or mallet; Mitchell illustrates one which is very carefully shaped.

A description from St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides, of pounding barley in a mortar to remove the husks says it was done with a wooden pestle studded with nails. Kinahan when in Donegal in 1883 found that stone basins were being used there “for crushing oats into meal or malt for illicit distillery purposes, the pestle they use being an iron one made by the country smith”, like an apothecary’s pestle.

Hollows in boulders were used in the same way for preparing food, for example at Colonsay island, off the south-west coast of Scotland.

Lacaille mentions a rock-basin in Argyllshire which had been used as a mortar; the basin was cut in a flat rock-outcrop, almost on the threshold of a cottage. In a note he mentions a communal mortar which he saw in Jamaica, and examples from America of rocks containing several basins are given by Bennett and Elton.

Stone basins were used for preparing food in all parts of the world. I have seen a picture taken recently in Indonesia of grain being pounded in a stone mortar with a wooden pestle which looks just the same as the pestle shown on an ancient Greek vase (Plate XIII 3, reproduced from RIG 1918 i p. 19).

What we know about ‘bullauns’, then, is that they are basins or hollows, usually bowl-shaped, in rocks or boulders or heavy blocks of stone. Some of them seem to have been formed naturally, but the great majority are artificial. A few are found in association with prehistoric rock carvings and are probably of Bronze Age date.

In most cases, however, they are found in boulders which are at or near early church sites. There is no evidence to show when these were first made. Passages in 11th or 12th century lives of the saints show that already at that time legends had become attached to them. In more recent times we find various stories told about the hollows being made by supernatural means, or about the miraculous purposes for which they were used: the water in them could heal diseases, or cure barrenness in women: turning stones in them could bring a curse on the person against whom the stones were turned.

In remote districts of Scotland they have been used within the past 150 years for pounding barley and preparing food, and they were used in the same way in some places in Ireland. There is very little in this to throw light on the purposes for which ‘bullauns’ were originally made or used. It is a question which has aroused a good deal of interest, and different conjectures have been put forward which, of course, is all that can be done, seeing that there is so evidence.

Lacaille’s paper is mainly descriptive; he appears to regard rock basins as intended for domestic use, except when they occur in connection with cup-markings or prehistoric rock-carvings; but he does not offer any opinion about their use in antiquity.

A paper published some years ago stresses the ritual purposes for which the stones were employed, and suggests that the ‘bullaun’ is a development of the cup-mark, and that its origin is to be sought in the megalithic cult. The evidence for this, however, is slight.

It is a common belief that ‘bullauns’ could cure warts, but so could other stones; some of the ‘wart stones’ have rectangular cavities and were undoubtedly the sockets of crosses. From this it appears that stones belonging to the Christian period could become objects of superstition once people had forgotten what they really were.

A curious example of healing powers being attributed to an object the use of which had been forgotten is recorded from Scotland; two stones of white quartz, which were originally sockets in which the vertical axles of millstones turned, were believed by the local people to have the power of curing inflammation of the breasts.

Crawford makes an important observation on this subject of cures in a note about a stone at Killerry, Co. Sligo. This is a flat slab, with round stones lying on it: the tradition was that in order to cure strained sinews these stones should be turned while a prayer was said. Crawford notes that there was said to be a spring of water under the slab, but that in fact there was no sign of water; “the assertion that there is water under the stone may”, he says, “be due to a general idea that water in some form should be associated with monuments of the kind”.

This may be the explanation of the cures; it was probably to the water in the ‘bullauns’ or other cavities that curative properties were ascribed, by an extension of the widely held belief in the healing power of the water of holy wells. The paper referred to also suggests that the turning of stones for cursing shows the pagan origin of ‘bullauns’. Wakeman records this tradition about St. Bridget’s Stone at Blacklion, but I have not found it told of any other ‘bullaun’. It is not a practice specially connected with ‘bullaun’ stones.

At Inismurray the stones called ‘cursing stones’ are lying on flat slabs on the top of the clocha breaca altar. There was a cursing stone at Kilcummin, near Killala, Co. Mayo, which is well remembered in local tradition even at the present day; this was a flat stone, said to measure about two feet by 18 inches, which was turned over by the person invoking the curse; the superstition was so strongly attached to it that it was removed from the graveyard to prevent people using it.

At Killerry the turning of the stones on the slab was done in order to effect a cure. There was a basin-stone at Kilcatrine church ruin on Colonsay, and near it were some small bits of pavement with holes through them; a practice existed of turning a pear-shaped stone sunwise in the largest piece of pavement, but the people did not say what they turned the stones for. In an old chapel on the island of Rona there was a plank of wood with holes in it, and stones on the holes. In these two instances the stones may have been turned for the purpose of obtaining some advantage, as at Killerry.

The practice of turning stones looks like a survival from pre-Christian times of some half forgotten magical rite, but the evidence does not show that it had any primary association with ‘bullaun’ stones. The evidence put forward by the writers in this paper to show that “bullauns played an important role in the old fertility worship” seems equally unsatisfactory.

In the case of the two stones near Inverness, at Killianan and Arpafeelie, which have been mentioned above, the tradition was that bathing in the water in them would aid childless women. This is an example of healing properties, similar to the power of curing barrenness which is attributed to some holy wells.

The suggestion is also made that a connection with fertility rites is evident in the case of a stone at Monea* near Ardmore, Co. Waterford. The story told about the stone seems to show phallic symbolism. “It is a stone of about 2 feet long by 18 inches in breadth, and 18 inches in depth, and is hollowed into an oval trough-like shape – probably an old Pagan ‘rock-basin’. . . . There is a hole in its centre, in which, on Ash Wednesday, the sporting bachelors of the village stuck a wattle with a quantity of tow tied to its top; they . . . brought with them all the old maidens they could muster, and made them dance round . . . holding the pendent tow”; they then dragged them through the village seated on old logs of wood.

I have not seen this stone, but it does not seem to be an ordinary ‘bullaun’; a drawing of it is given by Westropp; he says it resembles a rude cross-base, and that is certainly what his illustration looks like. Brash regarded this as the remnant of some old phallic rite. However, if the stone was a cross-base, the ceremony obviously was not originally associated with it.

In any case it seems probable that this Ardmore performance is to be explained as a transference of old superstitions to an object the purpose of which was no longer known. It may be another decayed survival of some sort of prehistoric rite, but that such practices were originally connected with ‘bullaun’ stones is very doubtful. More probably it was because the purpose of such stones had faded from memory that legends became attached to them.

In many of the notes which have been published about ‘bullaun* stones, the writers have described them as baptismal fonts. It is difficult, however, to accept this explanation. There is not much published information about early Irish fonts. The few of which there is any knowledge have little resemblance to ‘bullauns’.

A very unusual one, which seems to be old, is the large granite basin at Tallaght, Co. Dublin; it is 5 ft. 5 ins. long and the bowl is 1 ft. 4 ins. deep. O’Curry thought it was used for the baptism of adults. The stone vessel at Kiltiernan church, Co. Dublin, which is illustrated by Wakeman, seems to be a font; it is shaped like a bowl, and it has a drain-hole.

At Killeshin, Co. Laoighis, there is a font with a funnel shaped basin 16 ins. in diameter and 16 ins. deep; the stone is circular and has three plain bands carved round the outer surface; there is a drain-hole in the bottom, and a socket on the rim which was probably intended to hold a lid. It is difficult to say, however, whether this is a pre-Norman or a post-Norman font, since Killeshin church was in use up to the 16th century and later.

The same difficulty arises about giving a date to the broken font which is lying in the old graveyard at Rathnew, Co. Wicklow; the stone is circular in shape, and it has a round basin, 18 ins. in diameter and 10 ins. deep, with a drain-hole in the bottom.

Some other examples are almost certainly post-Norman, such as the large square font at Kilmosanctan church in Glenasmole, Co. Dublin; it is like the one not far away at Cruagh, which is described by Ball; there is a broken font of much the same type at Clondalkin.

Some fonts in Co Wicklow also appear to be post-Norman; one at Killiskey was octagonal in shape, though it is now very badly weathered; it has a circular basin 20 ins in diameter and 8 ins. deep, with a drain-hole at the side, and there are two slots in the upper surface evidently meant for holding a lid. Figure 3 gives sketches of three others, copied from rough drawings which I made on the spot when visiting the sites.

The vessel at Rosahane has a slit and a groove at one side; if it was a font, as its appearance suggests, it presumably had a lining. The Inchinappa vessel is broken. Part of the rim of the Ballymaghroe font has been chipped away; there are two crosses in relief placed opposite to one another on the outside of it. There is a font in the Cistercian Abbey at Baltinglass which is like this one in shape but is not ornamented.

The name ‘The Seven Fonts’ is given on the Ordnance map to the remarkable group of boulders at Glendalough (Plate IX 1, 2), but there can hardly be any doubt that this is a mistake; the carefully shaped rectangular trough with three basins in the bottom could not have been made for use as a font.

Boulders with several basins, like that at Kilmalkedar (Plate XIII 1), are most unlikely to have been fonts; and except for the number of basins there is no difference in type between them and the numerous ‘bullaun’ stones which have only one basin. Although at an early period on the continent special baptisteries were built over running water, it was not until the 9th century that fonts came into general use.

In Ireland and in Wales the practice of the early saints was to administer baptism in rivers or springs. A few of the fonts that have survived in Wales are said to be early, but one writer goes so far as to suggest that there were no pre-Norman fonts there: “We could only expect the Font when Christianity had become settled and organized. But organization, diocesan and parochial, in the Welsh Church, came with the Normans”.

Some un-ornamented basin-stones are included among the illustrations in a paper on Scottish Baptismal Fonts, but the writer does not date them. Lacaille speaks of Scottish pre-Reformation fonts as ranging “from rude hollowed boulders to well-executed shapely vessels”; but he appears to doubt that any of them are of great antiquity. Some vessels which are described as fonts of Norman date he considers to be heavy mediaeval mortars.

If the rock-basins which are found at so many old churches in Ireland were made for use as baptismal fonts, it seems difficult to understand how their purpose came to be so quickly forgotten that fanciful stories were already being told about them in the 11th and 12th centuries. The suggestion that ‘bullaun’ stones were simply mortars used for the preparation of food has often been made. A writer in our Journal nearly a century ago said that they were generally supposed to be very rude and very ancient fonts, but that he felt dissatisfied with this, and had “come to the conclusion that they were rude mortars, in which the priests living in connexion with such churches, in a very early age after the introduction of Christianity, had ground their corn for food”, the grinding being done in the shallow hollows by turning a stone on them, and in the deep hollows with a pestle formed from hard timber.

Dr. Raftery has expressed an opinion to very much the same effect: “The percentage of associations of bullauns and early monastic sites leads one to believe that they were mainly for use in connection with the grinding or pounding of herbs or roots in such establishments though they were in all probability known and used earlier”.

This explanation, that the basins were mortars, is of course just as conjectural as the other theories, but on the whole it seems less open to objection. I have mentioned the use of rock-basins in the Scottish islands for making pot-barley, that is, barley from which the outer husks have been removed. An account of the way the barley was beaten with a wooden mallet until the husks were rubbed off is given in an article written in 1900.

The people of Colonsay in 1881 described how the basins were used. One was in “a large earthfast boulder stone several tons weight. In the middle of the stone is an artificial round hole or basin about 12 inches deep and the same wide. Alexander M’Neill . . . pointed out the stone. He said that in his young days pot barley was made in the hole in the stone by beating it with a wooden hammer having a long handle, some water being put into the hole along with the rough barley. Pot barley was last made in this stone about forty years ago. The stone stood in the open air and was common to all the neighbourhood, each person waiting their turn, the work being mostly done by women.

Mrs- Archibald M’Neill, wife of the farmer on Garvard Farm, and a native of the island, also explained the process, having seen her mother making it. . . . Archibald M’Neill, fisher man, Riskbuie, remembers his mother and other persons having used the one in Riskbuie burying-ground. . . . Knocking stones were all outside the dwellings, and were round holes or basins in some convenient earthfast boulder stone or rock; sometimes they were natural holes or partly so, but oftenest artificially made. Mr. James Munn, the old weaver in Kilchattan, pointed out three, one of which he had made himself”.

The boulder near Kilcatrine church had a hole in one side of it, like the barley knocking stones; it was said to have been the priest’s baptismal font. It was near this boulder that the pear-shaped stone which was turned in a piece of pavement was lying.

I have not found any references in Ireland to rock-basins in large boulders being used for preparing food (unless perhaps it was basins of this type that Kinahan was referring to). Heavy stones like the knocking stones described by Mitchell and Curwen are found in Ireland, especially in the north, but they are not as common as the rock-basin. I think, however, that we are entitled to take into consideration the evidence from Scottish islands where primitive practices survived down to recent times; investigations into old customs there were carried out in the past more realistically than in Ireland; there is no Irish work to correspond to Martin’s Western Islands, which was published in 1703.

No evidence exists either in Scotland or in Ireland to show that rock-basins were used in antiquity for preparing food; but the accounts that have been given of their use for making pot barley and for mashing potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables in a number of remote districts and islands of Scotland suggest that the custom was once more widespread.

In Wales, rock-basins are very rare, according to a writer who describes one near Carmarthen, at a place called Pare y Ceryg Sanctaidd (‘the field of the holy stones’), the water from which, according to tradition, was sprinkled on coffins at funerals; he notes another one, a flat recumbent stone with two cups, at Pendine Head, Carmarthenshire.

The stone at Gogofau, in the same county, has been mentioned above. One wonders whether the scarcity of such stones could have anything to do with the fact that very few remains of early monastic sites have been preserved in Wales; for instance, no trace has been found of the monastery of Bangor, or of St. Cadog’s monastic settlement at Llancarfan or St. Illtud’s at Llantwit Major.

There is a curious stone at Llanthony in Monmouthshire with three small basins 4 to 5 ins. in diameter and 2\ to 3 ins. deep; but the stone has been carefully cut to shape, and it could not, in its present form, be regarded as a basin stone of the ‘bullaun’ type. Possibly it was a piscina. Unlike Scotland, stone basins do not seem to have been used for any purpose in recent times in Wales. Many rough stone mortars like knocking stones, however, are known from old settlement sites. A collection of mortars, quern stones, and stone pounders from Holy Island, off Anglesea, is shown in the illustration (Plate XIV 1) which I have reproduced from Bennett and Elton’s book; it may be compared with the illustration of Scottish stones found in the brochs at Keiss, Caithness.

Stone mortars are also found on late Roman sites in Britain. One is shown among the Roman mortaria in the British Museum. I have seen another among the mortaria in the Museum at Chesters in Northumberland which has a bowl 8 or 9 inches in diameter. There are also in this Museum two large stones with deep basins, and there is another large stone like them outside the settlement which adjoins the Roman fort at Housesteads; the bowl in this one appears to have been chiselled out (Plate XIV 2).

The mortarium of coarse pottery is an object which turns up in great quantities at Roman sites. It was a kitchen utensil, and its use in Roman Britain for preparing food must have been universal. These mortars were either imported from Gaul or else came from some of the numerous places in Britain where pottery was manufactured. After the barbarian invasions and general disorder of the 4th and 5th centuries in Britain and Gaul the supply of pottery mortaria must have come to an end, but mortars were still wanted, and the local people evidently made stone ones for themselves in Wales and elsewhere.

The mortarium was perhaps meant to be fitted into a hole in a table or into a wooden stand. Some stone mortars imitate its shape more or less. Other roughly made ones were found fixed in the ground, which would of course keep them steady if materials were being pounded in them. The large roughly shaped stone at Housesteads was heavy enough to stand firmly by itself, like the Scottish knocking stones; such stones, though very unwieldy, had the advantage that they could if necessary be moved from one place to another.

Many stone mortars are known from post-Roman sites in Anglesea. What is more interesting for the study of rock-basins is that two examples have been recorded of a large block of stone having a basin made in it after it had ceased to be used for its original purpose. One is a stone which was found by Wheeler in the course of his excavation of the ruins of the Roman fort of Segontium (the modern Carnarvon). It is a column capital in which a basin has been hollowed out for use as a mortar; it was found on a 4th century floor. The basin appears to be 6 or 7 ins. in diameter. Plate XIV 3, which is copied from the photograph in the report, shows the stone. The other stone was found in the Roman fort at Caerhun, near Carnarvon; it is described as a broken Roman column capital hollowed out, probably in Romano-British times, to form a mortar. No dimensions are given.

Thus there is some evidence for the existence in the post-Roman period in Britain of basins hollowed out in large stones, as well as of mortars. I would suggest that these are the ancestors of the rock-basin and the knocking stone. Over most of the country they must in the course of time have been replaced by the ordinary domestic mortar which was in use in every house; as Lacaille says, “for centuries the preparation in mortars of home necessaries and food for animals was part of household and farmstead routine”. But these were carefully made vessels, and they did not reach the remote localities where Mitchell and others found the knocking stone and the rock-basin; the people there went on using primitive appliances, perhaps through conservatism, but probably chiefly as a result of poverty.

In Ireland, however, there are no Roman settlements; what then have Roman mortars got to do with Irish ‘bullauns’? The answer may be ‘that the ‘bullauns’ served the same purpose. My suggestion is that the basins were made in imitation of the mortars of post-Roman Britain, and that they were intended for the preparation of food. In that case, who made them?

Here the remarkable concentration of rock-basins at Glendalough seems significant, as well as the frequent occurrence of ‘bullauns’ at old church sites. I suggest that it was early Christian immigrants coming from Britain to Irish monastic communities who introduced the basins into Ireland for use as mortars.

British Christian slaves are mentioned in the life of one of the early Irish saints; but there are also several references to British monks in the Lives. For example, a story in the life of Munnu of Taghmon, who died in 635, tells that a monk of British race lived in Munnu’s community; he was a skilled carpenter and made wagons and other utensils for the brethren.

Sanctan, the bishop who had a church at Kilmosanctan in Glenasmole, is said to have been a Briton. In general, to quote Kenney, “the occurrence of an exodus to Ireland of Britons, especially of the clergy and learned classes, as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, is not an unreasonable hypothesis”; and he speaks of the Church in Ireland as developing its ecclesiastical system in close relationship with the Christian Britons.

The Rev. J. Ryan, S.J., writes to the same effect: “We may regard it … as certain that in the opening half of the sixth century the relation between the [British and Irish] churches was largely that of master and disciple”. Again, “The tradition of both countries is at one in declaring that in the sixth century the Irish were the borrowers”. He is speaking of matters of liturgy and ecclesiastical organisation, but it seems reason able to suppose that, as well as Christian teaching, the British introduced features of ordinary Roman civilised life into the country.

According to tradition, St. Modomnoc of Tibraghny, who was a pupil of St. David in the sixth century, introduced bees into Ireland. Whether the statement of Solinus that bees were not known in Ireland is true or not, this story shows that there was nothing strange in the idea that new refinements of life were brought from Britain at the time when there were very close contacts between Wales and eastern Ireland.

If people who hollowed out basins in the capitals of fallen columns in ruined Roman towns wanted to make mortars when they came to Ireland, where there were no such ruined buildings, why should they not use some of the boulders that were lying about everywhere?

If we suppose that Christians from Britain made the rock-basins for use as mortars, it would suggest that they had ways of preparing food which were not in use in Ireland at that early period. What information have we about the food that was used in Ireland in the sixth century, or about the way it was prepared? As regards mortars, very little seems to be known about them.

The only recent records of mortars that I have found are in the excavation reports of the crannogs of Lagore and Ballinderry no. 2; these are four rather flat stones with very shallow bowls about 1 in. deep. Their date is not certain; they are not earlier than the 7th century and may be later. They do not look as if they were meant for pounding grain or vegetables. I have not found any account in Ireland of mortars of the Anglesea type which are shown in Plate XIV 1.
Documentary sources would hardly be likely to describe how food was prepared or to tell us what utensils people had. There is a story in the life of St. Kevin which might refer to a rock-basin, but it is not concerned with food. A smith belonging to the community was one day
grinding a stone in a mortella when a chip broke off and flew up and blinded one of his eyes. Its sight was miraculously restored at the saint’s prayer. Mortella is a rare word which is believed to mean a mortar. It is possible that here it is used in the sense of a rock-basin, like those that are to be seen in the boulders at Glendalough.

Joyce gives an elaborate description of the food used in ancient Ireland, but he has only a few early references; they are to the 7th century (Adamnan, Muirchu). St. Jerome’s contemptuous reference to Pelagius as ‘Scotorum pultibus praegravatus’ (written about 415-6) cannot be regarded as evidence about the food of the Irish at that time; it is only Jerome’s emphatic way of calling him a clumsy primitive barbarian; puls was the word Latin writers used to describe the food of the primitive Romans. He had previously said the Scoti were cannibals; he calls them a British race.

I cannot point to anything in the Irish sources that would directly support the suggestion that the basins in ‘bullaun’ stones were used for preparing food. What we know of the use of mortars in other countries, however, seems to show that this may have been what rock-basins were intended for.

Bennett and Elton’s History of Corn Milling deals at some length with the use of mortars in antiquity for grinding and pounding grain; corn continued to be pounded in them right down to the first century A.D. in Rome, and, as Curwen says, they could be used for pounding roots and vegetables as well as small grain. A poem attributed to Virgil describes a peasant crushing herbs in a mortar to prepare a particular kind of food, more turn, which was a savoury dish made of garlic, herbs, cheese, honey, etc., mashed up into a paste. The rock basin could very well have been used for making this sort of a dish.

Bennett and Elton quote a statement of Pliny’s that in his day when corn was scarce acorns were ground and made into a kind of bread in Spain and other countries. Coming to recent times, they give a long description of the way the Yosemite Indians in North America prepared acorns for food; they hulled them and ground them into flour, and treated this with boiling water to remove the bitterness; when sweet the flour was cooked and made into cakes. Acorns are mentioned several times in the Irish Annals (e.g., habundantia dairmesa, AU 769). They were, of course, fed to pigs but one may suppose that in times of scarcity
they were used for human food. Tacitus says that they were ground into meal in Gaul. Here the rock-basins might have been used, not only for the grinding, but also for removing the hull or outer skin.

More curious is an account of the use in Norway of crushed elm bark for making a substitute for bread during times of famine. The bark was peeled from young branches not more than 2 or 3 years old, and it was dried and ground into meal, after the primary bark {cortex) had been removed with a knife. The writer suggests that the Vikings or the Anglo Saxons might have introduced this elm-bark bread into Great Britain and Ireland, where famines often occurred.

The rock-basin could have been used for crushing beech nuts, or for pulping the vegetable known as meacdn; this meant any edible root; it is glossed radix in the early glosses. It would be misleading to think of it as being like our parsnips or carrots; some of the roots used in the sixth century must have been very coarse and hard. Praiseach, meaning pottage
or porridge, is derived from brassica, the Latin word for cabbage. There is a story in the notes to the Martyrology of Oengus about St. Columba in Iona eating praiseach made of nettles. Nettles were a common article of food, though in the time of the writer of the story (perhaps 12th century) the idea evidently was that only poor people would eat them. They might have been pounded in rock-basins.

Hazel nuts were a common food, and we have evidence of their early use in Ireland, for
they were found with cereal grains in the course of the excavation of the burial cairn at Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow. They might have been ground into a paste, perhaps with wild garlic and cheese or butter, something like the way the peasant made his moretum.

The Scottish islanders used the knocking stones and rock-basins for removing the husks from barley. Barley is recorded from the Bronze Age in Ireland. It was grown from a very early period in Britain. It would appear, however, that soon after the end of the Roman period in Britain a change took place in the species of barley that was grown, as a result
of which some method of removing the husks may have come into use.

A study of grain impressions in prehistoric pottery, and of finds of carbonised cereals, has been carried out in Britain and Ireland by Danish scholars. Their tabulated statements show firstly, that throughout the period investigated barley was the commonest grain, and secondly, that there was a change in the period after the late Bronze Age in the species of barley that was cultivated. They record 335 impressions of barley grains out of a total number of 426, and they point out (p. 42) that “in the British-Irish finds naked barley has yielded much the greater number of the impressions in the early finds, whereas hulled barley prevails in the finds from the time after the Late Bronze Age. . . . From Anglo-Saxon times impressions of only three grains of naked barley compared with 80 of hulled barley
have been seen”. This is paralleled in Denmark, where “naked barley is still dominant in the Pre-Roman Iron Age, but it becomes markedly in the minority in the Roman Iron Age”.

The figures they give for Ireland are small (naked barley 33, hulled barley 2). The two impressions of hulled barley were found on a food vessel from Jamestown, Kiltiernan, Co. Dublin, on which there were also four impressions of naked barley.

Professor M. J. Gorman has kindly explained to me that the difference between the two species is, that in naked barley the kernel falls out of the hulls naturally and freely at maturity, while in hulled barley the grain consists of the kernel firmly enclosed by the hulls, and the hulls have to be removed by some mechanical treatment. The growing of hulled barley would mean that less grain would be wasted in the fields, but it would be necessary to have some way of removing the husks. It would seem from Jessen and Helbaek’s investigation that it was in the post-Roman period in Britain that the growing of hulled barley became general.

At this time stone mortars were in use, and the descriptions of the use of knocking stones show that the dehusking could have been done by pounding it in mortars; so British Christians may have been in the habit of using mortars for the purpose. This is the time at which it is supposed that an exodus of British clergy and others to Irish monasteries was taking place. Hulled barley apparently existed in Ireland, though less commonly than the other kind. They might have made it a more widely known crop. In any case, if they needed to remove the husks from barley, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may have made basins in ‘bullaun’ stones in order to do it.

The basins could also have been used for grinding grain, in the same way as it was ground in mortars before querns came into general use. There were, of course, querns at Glendalough; Plate XI 2 shows a large one. But in the sixth century they may still have been comparatively rare and expensive implements, and it may have been the rock-basin that was ordinarily used.

Bennett and Elton’s explanation seems to me to be convincing when, speaking of “the mystery” of St. Bridget’s Stone at Blacklion (the so-called cursing stone), they say, “we may recognise in the relic nothing more than the common mealing stone of the early settlement on the site of Killinagh”.

Perhaps the introduction of the quern may explain how it came about that as early as the 12th century some of the rock-basins were supposed to have supernatural powers. They may have ceased to be used for any kind of grinding as soon as the use of rotary querns became general. Once a rock-basin was abandoned, it would fill with water, and belief in the
healing properties of the water might give rise to legend. It is difficult to say when rotary querns became common, but it must have been fairly early.

At Cahercommaun, Co. Clare, a stone fort of ninth century date, two upper stones and 33 fragments of rotary querns were found; there were also 6 saddle querns, but nothing in the nature of a mortar.

Besides the great number of ‘bullaun’ stones at Glendalough itself, which Crawford commented on, there seems to be an unusual number in the surrounding lands which belonged to the monastery. What is known about the places where these stones are found suggests that it may have been the Glendalough monks who spread the use of them through the district.

Killafeen, where there are two stones, is near the place where one of the roads to Glendalough crossed the river; the monks there belonged to St. Kevin’s monastery, and according to the Irish Lives they supplied him with food. At Ballinabarny the Ordnance Map shows ‘Site of Monastery’. There are no remains at the site, and no local traditions; but it is only half a mile from the stone at Ballintombay Lower called ‘the wart stone’, which has been described as being in Ballinabarny. I believe it is the place to which the Lives say St. Kevin sent Cellach the monk. It is probable that this stone and the other stones in Ballintombay mark the site of Cellach’s hermitage, Cill Cheallaigh, and that this also was an outlying settlement of monks from Glendalough.

In the townland of Drummin there are five stones on the high ground called Drumray, and another a short distance to the east, near a spot which is known as St. Kevin’s road. Mr. R. C. Barton kindly informs me that there are marks of old tillage and field banks on Drumray, and that although he has been trying for many years to find out when the ridge was cultivated, no traditions about it have been preserved even by the oldest men in the district, though they still remember who the people were who grew potatoes and oats on the high slopes of the other hills around more than 100 years ago, before the famine.

The name St. Kevin’s road, I believe, marks part of an old track which led over the mountain by Killalane south westwards to Glendalough. I suggest that these stones, and the stone at
Killalane, show that some of the monks established themselves near the old road, and that the place where they settled at Drumray was inhabited for many centuries afterwards. It might be the same as the place called Cnockre, where one of the followers of Phelim McFeagh O’Toole of Castlekevin lived in 1601; the marks of tillage may be vestiges remaining from the early 17th century.

There is a persistent local tradition that St. Kevin lived for a time near Lough Tay, and it has been said that there were ruins of a monastery in the Luggala valley. No trace is to be seen there of any such building, and the Lives contain nothing which would support the tradition. The double ‘bullaun’ at Cloghoge, however, is about half a mile south of Lough Tay in the valley between Luggala and Lough Dan. If there was a settlement of monks from Glendalough at this place, it would account for the tradition that St. Kevin had lived in the valley. The actual site might have been forgotten; this stone might be the only thing remaining to mark it.

The monks in such settlements, who were no doubt in search of solitude and the ascetic life, had to provide themselves with food. Perhaps they also helped to supply the parent monastery. When the great monastic orders were established in Ireland at a much later date, granges were set up on their lands and farmed by the monks. Is it too far-fetched to suppose that the men at the head of our early monasteries had some similar way of obtaining meal or other provisions from these little outlying communities?

I have suggested that the Glendalough ‘bullauns’ were made by British Christians. But it may be objected that St. Kevin had no contacts with Britain. There is no tradition of his having studied in Britain or of British saints having visited Glendalough.

The Irish Life does have a reference to Britain: “many kings and chiefs among the kings of Ireland and of Britain chose to be buried in Glendalough”. This may be only a way of saying how important the monastery was; it may have no significance. It is not said, however, of any of the other well known cemeteries; this is the only place in the saints’ Lives, so far as I know, where such a claim is made. The Life of St. Carthach lays stress on the great numbers of British who came to be monks with him, but nothing to this effect is said about his place of burial.

It would be a mistake, however, to confine ourselves to what we are told about St. Kevin, when trying to investigate the early history of Glendalough. Other saints have a part in the story; St. Berach is one. Later tradition does not connect him with Glendalough, and St. Kevin’s Life does not mention him; but St. Berach’s Life attributes to him several of St.
Kevin’s miracles, such as the rescue of the king’s son, Faelan, from the druidesses.

St. Kevin was established in tradition as the patron saint by the time the Life of Berach was composed, and Berach is represented as being under his direction; but the “mighty works” are Berach’s. The demons could not be cast out till he came, and “no power of demons, nor plague, nor punishment shall be there so long as Berach’s bell shall be therein”. He
leaves “pre-eminence of learning and devotion” in Glendalough.

We would know nothing about this if St. Berach’s Life had not preserved an account of it. One of St. Maedog’s miracles is also attributed to him. There is no mention of British monks in his Life. He is principally a Connaught saint. His death is not mentioned in the Annals. Plummer suggests that he lived in the latter part of the 6th and the early 7th century.

Maedog, one of the saints who is particularly connected by tradition with Britain, died in 626. He may have had something to do with Glendalough. His Life tells of his promising aid to Brandubh, king of Leinster, before the battle of Dun Bolg, which took place in 598. There is a long saga about this battle, which was of course composed at a much later date, and in it he is called Aedain bishop of Glendalough. It seems unsatisfactory to explain this merely as a mistake; the connection of Maedog with Ferns was well known, and Glendalough has nothing to do with the story. The saga contains a certain amount of old traditional material, and it may here have preserved a recollection of some connection between Maedog and Glendalough, of which we otherwise know nothing.

St. Moling, who died in 697, was also at Glendalough, but this must have been at a later period.

For Christians coming from Britain to south-eastern Ireland in the 6th century Glendalough was as favourably placed as, for example, Taghmon or Clonard. The lack of record of such a movement can hardly, I think, be taken as proving that men from Britain did not come there.

It may be as well to stress, what is of course obvious to anyone who reads these remarks, that the theory I have put forward is only surmise. That ‘bullauns’ were mortars, used for preparing food, is a conjecture based on general considerations, in the absence of historical facts. Even traditions about them come, with one or two exceptions, from recent times. I have therefore tried to bring together any miscellaneous bits of information which could have any bearing on the subject. These ‘bullaun’ stones are such curious objects, and notes about them not only at Glendalough but all over the country have been published so often, that to try even by guess work to explain their nature and purpose may be legitimate.


A list is given of about 30 ‘bullaun’ stones at Glendalough, and about 25 within a few miles of it on the former monastic lands. ‘Bullaun’ stones are found in all parts of Ireland, very often associated with old church sites.

Local traditions exist about many of them; the water in them is said to cure diseases, and the basins have been used for cursing by turning stones in them. In most cases the basins have been artificially made, but natural basins are sometimes found, especially in limestone. Stones with similar basins have been used in recent times in remote parts of Scotland for pounding barley and for crushing vegetables.

It has been suggested that the traditions connected with ‘bullauns’ indicate that they are of prehistoric origin, but this seems very doubtful; similar traditions exist about stones which are not ‘bullauns’. Stories about their curative powers are probably due to the water in them.

They have been described as baptismal fonts, but they do not seem suitable for this purpose.
It has often been said that they were mortars. This seems to have more probability.

Stone mortars were used in post-Roman times in Britain for preparing food. Column-capitals fallen from Roman buildings have been used as mortars by having basins made in them.

Christians from post-Roman Britain are believed to have come to Irish monasteries in considerable numbers. They may have brought with them methods of preparing food which were not in use in Ireland.

‘Bullauns’ could have been used like mortars for crushing various foodstuffs as well as for grinding cereals. A new species of barley, which had to be ground or pounded to remove the grain from the husk, came into general use in post-Roman times. It could have been pounded in ‘bullauns’; the stone basins in Scotland were used for this purpose.
It is suggested that the Irish ‘bullauns’ were mortars, and that the basins were made by people coming from Britain in early Christian times and were used for preparing food.


I am most grateful for help received in the preparation of this paper, both to those I have already mentioned, and, in particular, to Miss G. C. Stacpoole, who mapped out the stones at Glendalough for me and helped me to locate several of them, and who also gave me most of the photographs used to illustrate the paper: also to Miss F. Henry, D.-és-L., and Mr. A. T. Lucas, both of whom have offered helpful suggestions and criticisms; to Mr. R. C. Barton, who showed me a number of the stones and gave me much local information about them: and to Dr. A. Farrington and Lt.-Col. R. Going for the photographs of the stones at Glassamucky and Housesteads. I have also to acknowledge permission kindly given to
me to reproduce photographs by Messrs. T. H. Mason & Sons, Ltd., for Plate XI 2 (stones in St. Kevin’s House), and by the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion and Sir Mortimer Wheeler for Plate XIV 3 (Roman capital re-used as a mortar), which is reproduced from Y Cymmrodor, Vol. XXXIII (1923), ‘Segontium and the Roman Occupation of Wales’, Fig. 51,
facing p. 129. I am obliged to Mr. C. 6 Cuileanain for the illustration (Fig. 2) of the stone at Aghowle, Co. Wicklow.


Reproduced with the kind permission of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.     

 Original article in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 89, No. 2 (1959), pp. 161-188

NOTE: This article contains numerous footnotes which are not published here due to reformatting issues. Please see original article.

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