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White Stones & Burials

by Bernadette Weyde

White stones, ranging from the size of boys’ marbles up to that of small boulders, are plentiful in or on burial-places both ancient and recent. Almost every Manx tumulus excavated yields a quantity. In the remains of the keeills or cells they are found under the floor, under the doorway, even under the altar. A certain burial-place, most probably pagan, has a circle about 23 feet in diameter composed of white quartz boulders and filled up with smalls stones most of which are quartz also. Their use in modern graves is illustrated by the following excerpt from the Ramsey Courier newspaper of 22 July 1893:

“I have noticed at the digging of old graves in Bride Churchyard that at the bottom of nearly every old grave you will generally find a number of round white stones. These stones are often found close together and are about the size of hens’ eggs. I have counted as many as twelve in one heap, but very often the number is three, six or nine. I have been asking several old people the meaning of these stones, but can learn nothing regarding them save that the churchyard had been used as an old Catholic burying-ground, and that it was customary to put in the coffin these white stones so that the departed spirit could hurl them at the Devil, in case he was interfered with on his journey to the unknown world.”

None of the graves in question would have been more than a couple of hundred years old and most of them more recent.

Cemeteries now in use testify that the taste for white stones has not died out. Whether they were ever the occasion for any special ceremony or custom I do not know. It is so in southwest Wales. In 1933 I noticed extensive and peculiar arrangements of what looked like large sea-pebbles, white of course, on the graves in the picturesque old churchyard of Nevern in Pembrokeshire. An intelligent local tailor told me afterwards that on a convenient day between the hay and the corn harvest, every little community makes a picnic excursion to the seashore and gathers white stones which they bring back and arrange on the graves of relations and friends. The day of this annual practice is called ‘Glan-y-mor Day,’ – Sea-shore Day.

Apart from their use in and on graves, white stones are considered unlucky. In such a risky occupation as that of a fisherman, the fact that they thus are consecrated to the dead would be sufficient to veto their use in ballast or as sinkers. In the Orkneys, however, a different reason is assigned for avoiding them; namely, that they are symbolic or suggestive of white-crested waves.

It may be that the practice of putting white stones about the houses of the dead followed that of placing them about the houses of the living. How far, in the latter case, they are meant to be more than mere ornamental would be hard to decide. Gwynne Jones in his book ‘Welsh Folk-lore’ classes white pebbles inside and outside houses as ‘decorative charms’; adding that ‘these charm-survivals are more abundantly found where signs of the development of any decorative purpose are mostly absent.’

(source: A Third Manx Scrapbook by W Walter Gill (1963); photo http://bit.ly/1yUdV9j)

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