The Giants of the Blue Remembered Hills of Shropshire…
Since I was little I have liked giants: wicked giants, kind giants and silly giants, like the one who fell down the bean stalk; Oscar Wilde’s ‘Selfish Giant’ whose heart was melted by a gentle child bringing back spring to his garden.
As I got older I discovered there were older, more dangerous giants, movers and shapers who tore up mountains and cleaved chasms, shaping land and water. These giants were the stuff of legends….
‘When he peeped out in the lightening-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one other for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed into the trees far below, or splintered into bits with a bang… They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, Stone-Giants. The Hobbit.
When Brutus arrived in Britain he found it inhabited by giants. For years the Britons were harrassed by the giant Gogmagog and his kin. Then Gogmagog finally lost a fight to Corineus who threw him into the sea off the coast of Cornwall.
The Saxons knew all about giants. They wrote their acts into poetry and tales of heroic daring do, comparing the crumbling ruins of the ancient cities of Britain to the work of giants: Wraetlic is pes wealstan, wyrde gebraecon; burston brosnad enta geweorc.
‘This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed.‘
The Ruin, Exeter Book 10th Century, written 8/9th century
Giants are remembered in folklore all over the world but especially in Britain where they have shaped our landscape and our tales. The Giants Causeway in Ireland was made by the great Finn MacCool, it is said. The giant Wade built his giant wife Bell a causeway over Yorkshire moors so she wouldn’t have to trudge through the mud and mire to milk her cow. Bell would carry lose rocks in her apron which she would sometimes drop which explains the many cairns and piles of stones on the moors.
There is also Gawain’s Green Knight, the monstrous Grendel and Bolster of Bolster Bank in Cornwall. But what of Shropshire’s giants ?
Was there a Battle of Giants amongst the Blue Remembered Hills….?
The Clee Hills of Shropshire include Titterstone Clee Hill, its distinct shape a landmark for miles throughout the centuries. It is even on the Mappa Mundi.
These hills had some notoriety long before they were immortalized by Housman when he wrote of their being ‘blue’ and ‘remembered‘ due to old rumours of a Battle of Giants taking place up on the top of Titterstone Clee. This was recorded by both the Shropshire folklorist Miss Charlotte Burne and Augustus Hare.
‘The stones scattered about here are looked upon as relics of a battle of the giants, and the Giants Chair is pointed out here, as the Devils Chair on the Stiperstones’.
Augustus Hare 1898
There is little evidence of any battle but upon the slopes of Brown Clee Hill opposite may be found a large monolith called the Giants Shaft. This is said locally to be the shaft of an arrow once fired by a giant.
Engineers of the Landscape
Giants are often held responsible for the shape and contours of our landscape: causeways, ravines, hills, rivers. One such hill in Shropshire is the Wrekin, once home to the long forgotten tribe the Cornovii. (I was born in this area and one of my earliest memories is mum telling me that I was born on a hill called the Wrekin. For some reason I felt a bit special!)
The Wrekin came about as a result of a failed attempt by a giant (some say it was Gwendol-Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr) to destroy the town of Shrewsbury. The story goes like this:
This giant was pretty vile and would eat his victims but one day a young girl escaped and warned the town about him. The giant was so furious he set off towards Shrewsbury to bury it with a lump of earth he carried on a giant shovel. He lost his way and so asked a cobbler he met for directions. The clever cobbler was carrying a huge sack of old shoes and helpfully explained to the giant that Shrewsbury was still far, far away and that these were shoes he had already worn out trying to get there! In exasperation the giant dropped the earth from his shovel: this became the Wrekin and the Little Wrekin. Some say the Ercall formed where he wiped the earth off his boot. The giant stomped off to find more earth but he fell in the Severn and was drowned…..
There are other tales how the Wrekin came about. Another says it’s the spoil of a trench dug by two giants for the river Severn who left their footprints on the top of the hill where the grass still never grows. These giants quarrelled and one threw his spear creating the ‘Needles Eye’, a huge rock that looks like it has been hewn in half. A raven then pecked out the eye of the other giant, the tear from its socket forming the depression in the rock called the Raven’s Bowl. The blind giant was buried alive by his enemy under the Ercal, the small hill next door where his moans may still be heard at night.
Evolution of tales
More recently the handiwork of giants has become attributed to the devil in later versions of tales (giants were, of course, said to be the spawn of demons). Thus we have the Devils Chair up on the Stiperstones in the west, similar to the chair of the giant on Titterstone Clee. Giant’s Dyke may become Devil’s Dyke and Giants Bridge become Devil’s Bridge, you see how it went? Given that the devil is a relatively recent arrival compared with giants this suggests that older stories may be behind his claims to fame.
And in some tales the giant may become witch.
There is a well-known tale of the old witch up at the Bronze Age stone circle at Mitchell’s Fold, also known as Medgley’s or Medgel’s Fold but there is another version how the circle came to be used: it was where a giant use to milk his cows or so a seventeenth century tale tells us. By the turn of that century it was written that this was where the witch, Mitchell, milked a cow so dry she disappeared, much to the wrath of its Otherworld owners. These may be two separate stories of course….I prefer the first story, poor cow….
By the way, Shropshire giants are not all male: there is a female giant buried on the Welsh border on Llanymynech Hill along with her golden necklace. Three brothers tried to dig down for the necklace once and suddenly dropped dead.
And there’s many more….
The Roman city of Viroconium at Wroxeter was once taken over by giants and at the Red Castle on Hawkstone Hill there is a Giants Well once used by two giants later killed by Sir Lancelot.
Not far from Ludlow at the end of Wenlock Edge are two hills where there lived two giant brothers. They kept their treasure in a trunk in the cellars of Stokesay castle below and would call to each other from one hill to the next if they needed the key to it. One day the key fell into the moat where it remains today and the giant’s trunk remains in the cellars, guarded by a raven.
A Spadeful of Giants
So there we have a handful, or should I say spadeful, of Shropshire giants.
Last century giants were taking the stage again with more heroic roles: we had gentle Hagrid the custodian of strange and wonderful beasts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the Ents, J. R. R. Tolkien’s beautiful crafting of a race of tree shepherds (‘ent’ comes for Old English eoten, giant or monster).
The timeline of giants is interesting: from the seriousness and strength of the medieval giant Bendigeidfran as he walks through the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen and confront the king of Ireland to the silliness of later Victorian counterparts and the foolishness of the Ettins of Ettinsmore in the last century. Like other giants of Albion, our giants in Shropshire have evolved into less credible, comical beings. Could it be that one role of giants is to be in part reflective of the concerns and preoccupations of the time?
If this is the case then the ents are perhaps environmental representations of the challenges that face us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries along with the latest popularity of the Green Man. I will certainly be keeping an eye open for them ….
Shropshire Folklore, Roy Palmer, 2004.
Shropshire Folk-Lore, ed by Charlotte S. Burne, 1883.
The Land of the Green Man, Carolyne Larrington, 2015.