The Goors o' Gowrie - Devil's Work or Ancient Tribal Meeting Place?
At Invergowrie, west of Dundee, there were two stones sitting in the shallows of Invergowrie Bay known as the Goors or Gows of Invergowrie. Some say that they were called by other names and others say that there was only one stone which fell into the river when the Devil threw his burden from the opposite shore in Fife. Either way the object or objects have a peculiar power and are said to have been creeping slowly back to land. And when they reached the shore it would herald the end of the world.
The story of these stones had first come to widespread attention in the 1826 first edition of Robert Chambers' classic folklore compilation The Popular Rhymes of Scotland and included in all subsequent editions:
THE EWES OF GOWRIE
When the Yowes o' Gowrie come to land,
The day o' judgment 's near at hand.
A prophecy prevalent in the Carse of Gowrie and in Forfarshire. The Ewes of Gowrie are two large blocks of stone, situated within high-water mark, on the northern shore of the Firth of Tay, at the small village of Invergowrie. The prophecy obtains universal credit among the country-people. In consequence of the deposition of silt on that shore of the Firth, the stones are gradually approaching the land, and there is no doubt will ultimately be beyond flood-mark. It is the popular belief that they move an inch nearer to the shore every year. The expected fulfilment of the prophecy has deprived many an old woman of her sleep; and it is a common practice among the weavers and bonnet-makers of Dundee to walk out to Invergowrie on Sunday afternoons, simply to see what progress the Yowes are making! (Chambers 1870, pp. 256-7)
The rhyme was believed to be the work of the late 13th century seer True Thomas of Erceldoune and involved the belief that the stones in the river would one day return to dry land and when that happened it would signal the end of the world. It is interesting that Chambers neither attributes the verse to Thomas nor attempts to give an explanation about how the stones first came to be deposited in the River Tay. Later writers tapped into a common folklore motif which stated that Satan was furious that a Christian Church was being built north of the Tay. Standing near the Fife shore he hurled three massive boulders at the building. Two of these fell short and fell into the river. A third stone was also wayward, flew way past the kirk and landed almost a mile to the north, where it still rests. Tales of this type are common throughout the British Isles, used to explain prominent monoliths, regarded as being somehow uncanny in the landscape, and the agent responsible is usually Satan, though sometimes a flying witch or an angry giant is blamed. (Tales of Satan taking aim at Christian edifices are also not uncommon. He threw stones at one church from the peak of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.)
Can we attempt to find a meaning behind the story of the stones here? Seeking definitive 'truth' from folklore is probably a fool's errand. But various suppositions can be made. If we discount a natural process which stranded the stones in the River Tay it would be tempting to say that the stones ended up in the water because someone placed them there on purpose. Might we suggest that agents of the first Christian church removed pagan objects of local veneration and that the story of them returning to dry land reflects a fear that the old religion might one day return, signalling the end of the world, at least to devout Christians?
Various other stones in Britain are reputed to be either humans or animals petrified. If we suppose that Yowes = Ewes as one of the traditional names of the stones, we can look elsewhere for standing stones associated with sheep. There are not many. The Strathclyde saint Kentigern had a ram which was turned into a stone and there was a stone in Devon which was worshipped with the daily sacrifice of a sheep. There are several accounts of stones which move. Stones which slowly move closer to land from a watery position almost seems unique to Invergowrie. True Thomas also reputedly visited Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire where he threw several stones in the River Ythan. If they every returned to the castle, it would spell misfortune.
Analysis of traditional tales can obviously lead to connections being seen everywhere, even when the evidence is thin. There is some supposition later on in this article which hopefully does not stray too far from reason. But consider the following as a cautionary example. Very close by the site of the ancient church at Invergowrie was a supposed Roman marching camp which was known locally as Catter Milley. This is supposed by some to be a corruption of Cathair Melin, the 'Fort of Melin'. We find the name of the hero Melin in the Highlands at Loch Broom where he is remembered for throwing a great stone across that loch. It landed at a place afterwards called Leckmelm, the 'Stone of Melin' . Is there a connection with the Devil throwing the stones at Invergowrie? Probably not.
The Third Stone
The stone which flew past the church and came to rest about about half a mile to the north and was called by various names, including the Paddock Stane and the Deil's or Devil's Stane. It is described by the First Report by the Committee on Boulders as a 'mica schist boulder, 8 x 6 x 4 feet'. The boulder stands in the perimeter of the mansion which was once named after it, Greystone House. D. M. Watson, the owner of the estate in the 19th century, was also the proprietor of nearby Bullionfield Paper Works and he had the boulder enclosed in an iron railing so that people could see it from outside. The great house was later turned into a hotel, formerly The Greystane Hotel, The Swallow Hotel, and now The Landmark Hotel. (The map reference for the stone is NO346310.)
The Deil's Stane
The stone has an enduring reputation for being uncanny. During my early childhood in the early 1970s I visited the stone with a friend and mocked his remark that you had to spit on the stone to prevent Satan appearing there and then. He did so, but I held off until I was some way up the road, then shamefully and fearfully returned to complete the act. This probably says more about myself than the particular power of folklore at this site. If I were to hazard a guess at the origin of this 'tradition' I might be inclined to believe it was linked to the custom, attested at other stones, of placing offerings there to appease whatever otherworldly force was resident therein. Tradition states that each morning at cock crow the stone spins around three times. Exactly the same thing is said about another Angus stone, The Cauld Stane of Carmyllie which sat on the boundary of the parishes of St Vigeans and Carmyllie. It was also dropped by the Devil (or a flying witch).
The stone's setting is undoubtedly significant. I discuss below the ancient significance of stones on boundaries, but even in the modern age they were used to mark important local borders. The Paddock Stone is said to have sat at the intersection of three roads before the building of Greystane House. In Angus the famous Girdle Stane of Dunnichen is significant in this respect. A huge, marked boulder, it sits on the meeting place of the parishes of Dunnichen and Rescobie and also at the intersection of the lands of Dunnichen and Ochterlony. It was said to have been dropped into its location by a witch flying overhead (Warden 1882, p. 190). Close by the boulder stone coffins, containing rude clay urns and human bones have been recovered.
Other Stones and the Ritual Landscape
There is a tradition that another was hurled by Satan and that this one also missed its target. Alexander Hutcheson insists that there was only one enormous stone and that it exploded in mid-air, dividing itself into four separate boulders (Hutcheson 1927, p. 12). Whatever the truth of it, this other stone landed on the high ground some distance to the east of Invergowrie, on the high ground now covered by the housing estate on the western side of Dundee named Menzieshill. When the land was open country this stone, set on a mound, was surrounded by a knoll of trees known locally as The Dark Stane Roundie. The name was either reference to the reputation or the spot or because of the dark Scots fir trees clustered there. The anonymous author of A Series of Excursions (p. 113) noted that the top of this standing stone had been 'shivered off by lightning' and the broken piece was lying nearby. Hutcheson also confirms this and states that the site was destroyed in 1884. The Roundie was used as a weekend resort by card playing gangs of roughs, so the tree were grubbed up and the ancient monument was smashed into pieces which were used in the construction of nearby roads. The site was then ploughed over (Hutcheson 1927, p. 12. Elliot 1911, p. 206, says the stone was broken up in 1888 and some bones were found on the site.) . Eighty yards south-east of the Roundie is Invergowrie House, possibly on the site of an earlier baronial power centre, though another clump of trees in the locality was also identified as the earlier site (Myles 1850, p. 113).
Some distance to the north-east of the Paddock Stone is the remains of a stone circle at Balgarthno. It is nothing to look at now and sits forlornly at the western fringe of the Dundee suburb of Charlestown near Myrekirk Road. It was described as comprising of 9 large and 4 small stones in the mid 20th century (Melville 1975, p. 178). A more recent description states that the circle was about 20 feet in diameter and consists of 9 stones, only one of which was still upright (Coutts 1970, p. 18). The map reference is NO 353316.) These prehistoric monuments may all be related to each other as part of an ancient ritual landscape. Another stone which should be noted is the 16 feet upright stone which served as a slab bridge over the burn near the Dargie Kirk. It was re-erected in modern times, although its ancient position is unknown (Hutcheson 1927, p. 2).
Alexander Hutcheson writes of another important large ancient monument in the vicinity. He states this is 'practically within the area of the Goors,' but does not directly identify the site. He describes the Stone Circle of Invergowrie as follows:
The Invergowrie Circle measures about 40 feet in diameter. It consists of nine stones, with a tenth one not set up in the circle with the others; it may be the sole survivor of a inner circle, or it may have been moved out of place in 1856, when the circle was explored. Only one stone remains upright, and that is about 5 feet high. One of the recumbent stones has a hollow on its upper surface, and is known as 'The Deil's Cradle'. (Hutcheson 1927, p. 13).
This circle is obviously not identical with the Balgarthno one, but seems to refer to a site at Mylefield (NO334301). This lies south-west of the Paddock Stane and west of the Dargie Kirk and near the current Dundee-Perth road, just inside Perthshire. It is also significantly close to the supposed Roman marching camp in the area. Unfortunately the site no longer exists. Strangely a modern archaeological evaluation of the vicinity of Mylnefield House (Cachart 2009) has not found any ancient remains. Yet there is corroboration published in 1911 that the stone circle here did exist, albeit with a different count of the stones there: 'The location at Mylnefield was eliptical in form, and consisted of six large boulders—three at the east, three at the west, with a gap between capable of containing an equal number of stones' (Elliot 1911, p. 204). What happened to this large archaeological site remains a mystery.
Beyone the prehistoric and Roman periods, this vicinity remained significant into the Early Medieval era. In a previous article I wrote about the significance of the location of the Dargie kirk at Invergowrie. The ancient church is reputed to stand on the site of a foundation made by a saint possibly called Curetán or Boniface who was associated with the 8th century Northumbrian Roman mission to the land of the Picts. There was a Roman camp nearby and also possibly a Pictish power centre. Invergowrie stands on the border of the modern counties of Angus and Perthshire, and more precisely the districts of Gowrie and Angus. The church was on the left hand of the Invergowrie Burn, Gowrie side, and the later settlement of Invergowrie was within Angus on the east side of the burn. It is likely that this represents the ancient frontier between two Pictish provinces. Borders were places of some significance to ancient peoples in these islands. Treaties were often agreed at the intersection of tribal zones and there may have been a ritual significance to such places.
There were Pictish stones erected at Dargie/Invergowrie itself and also prominently at Benvie, the Angus parish to the north-west. The Invergowrie area has also shown evidence of souterrains and there is early medieval archaeology persent in the shape of square barrow crop marks and long cist burials.
The Names of the Stones
There is no definitive agreement about what the Invergowrie Bay stones are called. The following phonetically similar terms are used: The Goors, Gows, Yowes, Ewes. The latter two names, Scots and English synonyms, may suggest that there was a belief that the two river stones were transformed animals and this may also be linked with the notion that the boulders were capable of movement. The words goor and gow are less easy to comprehend. Goor has connotations of slime or dirt according to the Dictionary of The Scottish Language (https://dsl.ac.uk/), which may accord with their location in the shallows of Invergowrie Bay. None of the various meanings of gow would seem remotely applicable to a large boulder. There is a possibility that the name mundanely comes from the Scots version of the word gull because the rocks were frequented by those seabirds (First Report by the Committee on Boulders,1871-72, p. 17), but this seems rather unsatisfactory.
What Happened to the Stones?
Where where the stones in the 19th century when writers first noticed them and where are they now? The answers are no clear cut. Andrew Jervise noted in his day (1855, p. 445) that the stones were nearer to the land at Invergowrie than they previously been and inferred that this was because the railway line from Perth to Dundee was built here on reclaimed land. The anonymous compiler of A Series of Excursions Around Dundee (p. 45) noted in 1900 that, 'A footpath on the left-hand side of the road and skirting the east side of the [Invergowrie] burn leads to the kirkyard and the ruins, and between the [Dargie] kirkyard and the railway are the " Gows"...'
The consensus of writers seems to be either that the stones were situated within the floodmark or that they were displaced by the railway works. Gershom Cumming (1843, p. 3) states that they lay immediately in front of the church, and within the flood-mark. This was confirmed too by Myles in 1850 (p. 112). William Marshall stated that in his time (1875, p. 47), 'The making of the Dundee and Perth Railway has rather rudely discredited the prophecy. That line runs some distance outside of the "Goors," and has brought them to land...' The liminal area between high and low water marks is a recognised spiritual no man's land, being neither fully land no water, where strange things where sometimes reckoned to occur.
There was uncertainty in 20th century reports about the fate of the stones. The Dundee Courier reported on 23rd January, 1929, that a rubbish dump had developed near the shore on the Angus-Perthshire border near the burn and at least one of the stones was buried beneath this. Domestic refuse 'on a spectacular scale' was being brought in from Dundee. But, although the details are vague, the article hints that something was visible regarding the stones:
About two months ago a couple of visitors arrived at Invergowrie Station with the express intention of seeing the historical stones. They left by the earliest possible train, but what they did see impressed them greatly.
Further reporting in 1950 seems to confirm that one boulder a