“The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
THRICE TO THINE AND THRICE TO MINE
AND THRICE AGAIN, TO MAKE UP NINE.”
From Macbeth byWilliam Shakespeare
Photo of ‘Nine Standards’ by Barry Stacy
The Nine Standards cairns are a much loved landmark near the summit of Hartley Fell, high above Kirkby Stephen. Of uncertain origin and at least two hundred years old, they stand in a row on the skyline like sentinels watching over the town. Up close they have the friendly, reassuring quality of amiable trolls transfixed in a time warp and when I’m up there, if nobody else is around, I usually talk to them. I like to think they might remember me but they always maintain a dignified silence.
I instigated some major restoration of them in 2005 as part of the Discover Eden Project. They were all in a very poor state of disrepair; two had completely fallen down and another, the tallest of the nine, was in a perilously dangerous condition close to collapse.
Nothing much is really known about them. There have been some audacious claims regarding their age and function. In their present form, give or take some restoration work over the years, I don’t think they can be much more than two hundred years old. There is, undoubtedly, some evidence to suggest that nine stone markers of some kind existed previously but they are frequently called stones, in old boundary documentation, rather than cairns. The area around the summit was annotated as ‘Nine Standards Rigg’ on maps dating from over four hundred years ago but seemingly no specific descriptions, or indications, of nine markers in a row. Could it be that the original Nine Standards were standing stones rather than cairns and perhaps differently aligned?
Varied in shape and size, the middle cairn is the biggest and most impressive. Essentially cone shaped, it is 3.5 metres tall and 3.7 metres in diameter at its base, tapering to the top with two intermediate ledges around its circumference. Standing in an irregular line, roughly north to south and 75 metres from end to end, all of them are variously cone shaped except the one at the northern end, which was reconstructed years ago, as a square marker column, by the Ordnance Survey. Their location, only twelve metres lower, but all of 400 metres south of the summit, was obviously chosen carefully to ensure they could be seen from a wide spectrum of vantage points in the valley below. Had they been built further back, on the actual summit, they would have been a lot less visible.
The intriguing and overriding question is why are there nine? At one time nine of the villages and parishes around Kirkby Stephen were referred to as its townships. I wondered if that might have been the reason until further thought unleashed an astonishing line up of ‘nines’, many investing the number nine with a mindboggling array of real, religious, mythical or occultist significance.
Until Pluto’s recent downgrading from full planet status we had nine planets in our solar system. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, the French word for nine is neuf, which also means new and the human gestation period, before a child is born, is nine months. Noon, our word for midday, means nine, going back to the Roman’s ninth hour after sunrise. The spells cast by witches often include the number nine, their cats have nine lives and there are numerous ancient games with nine components like shove ha’penny, nine pin bowling and skittles. Dante’s 14th century epic poem the Divine Comedy tells of his journey through the nine circles of hell reflecting the fact that most of the world’s religions are full of stories involving the number nine.
There were nine worlds in Norse mythology, contained within a gigantic tree they called Yggdressel, which included a frosty realm of ice, lands of Giants and Elves, an underworld of the dead and a Middle Earth of the mortal Vikings themselves. As the Kirkby Stephen area is rooted in Viking culture, could there be a Viking connection? Did the original nine markers represent their nine worlds? And did they once form the shape of a Viking longship? Dead Viking warriors were often cremated and their corpses burned on a funeral pyre, set within an enclosure of standing stones arranged to resemble a ship.
Photographs dating back to 1918 show very clearly their height and profile at that time. Later photographs indicate they had been subject to regular repair and kept in more or less the same shape ever since. It went without saying that their restoration would involve dismantling and rebuilding as is necessary with any dry stone structure. Witness the hundreds of kilometres of dry stone walls, many probably older than the Nine Standards, painstakingly kept in good repair by the farmers. Crucially the photographs showing the complex structure of the cairns provided a vital guide to restoring them, as near as possible, to the shape they were in 1918.
Steve Allan, Cumbria’s premier dry stone wall builder, with two assistants and meticulous reference to the photographs, worked for eight days rebuilding the five cairns, which had been in a ruinous state and refurbished the other four. Their work won the North Pennines AONB Conservation Award 2005. Hopefully the funding will be scraped together in the future for more regular maintenance; after all, a stitch in time.......