The Hemlock Stone

By Mr Emsley Coke

The Hemlock Stone.The Hemlock Stone.

Various theories have been put forward in explanation of the Himlack (or Hemlock) Stone, and may be divided under two heads: (1) That it is entirely the work of nature; (2) That it is mainly the work of man.

At one time it was thought to have been cut out by the Druids as an object of worship, and later opinion suggested the remains of a quarry. In the memoirs of the Geological Survey, published in 1880, Mr. Aveline says: “Twenty years of further observation would incline me now to place more stress on sub-aerial denudation than on marine. I believe that whatever may have been the first denuding agent, sub-aerial agencies have given the finishing touches to the moulding of the physical features of the district as we now see them, and that the striking pillar of rock, the “Himlack Stone” has slowly worn into its present shape after the country was raised above the sea for the last time.”

I entirely agree with Mr. Aveline in this; the adjoining Bramcote and Stapleford hills are of the same formation and no doubt are the remains of strata which at one time extended over the entire district. The “Himlack Stone” is probably the last remnant of a harder piece of the rock which has taken longer to remove.

There is no evidence, so far as I can learn, that any quarry was worked in the vicinity, and I believe the ground has been examined to see if there are any remains, but nothing was found.

It is quite possible and likely that this stone was associated with worship in ancient days, most of the striking natural objects usually have been.

Mr. Shipman considers the Hemlock Stone the remains of a huge hill which has been washed away and crumbled by the dislocations or “faults,” and by weather, its origin somewhat resembling that of Nottingham Castle rock. The upper part of it, of the hill at Stapleford behind and of the hill at Bramcote in front, he considers to be Keuper, he and Mr. Wilson thus differing from most geologists, who regard it as Bunter, like the Castle Rock. The lower part is considered to be mottled sandstone. The particles of the upper portion maintain their firmness through chemical action, the substance apparently being sulphate of barium.

Mr. Samuel Page holds that the use of the Hemlock Stone for Druidical rites may be definitely traced. He believes it to have been a Tothill, one of those eminences, natural or artificial, which were dedicated to the worship of the Celtic deity, Teut (Egyptian “Thoth”). He sends us the following paper in support of this theory.



Though there may be difference of opinion as to the origin of the Hemlock Stone, yet, in my view, the use of it for Druidical rites may very definitely be traced. I would refer to a letter in Hone’s Year Book, 1831, page 867, on the subject of the Toothills, from the text of which I take the following extracts :—

“The able manner in which you have elucidated the antiquities and customs of Britain, and especially the ‘Midsummer Fires,’ and other Pagan relics, prompts me to draw your attention to what, though intimately connected with them, you seem hitherto to have neglected or overlooked namely, the Toot Hills, formerly consecrated to the worship of the Celtic deity ‘ Teutates,’ many of which still remain with scarcely any alteration of their designated names. . . . Mr. Payne read a paper before the Royal Society of Literature, in 1829, in which he identifies the Celtic Teutates with that benefactor of mankind, who, from the invention of various useful arts, was worshipped in Egypt and Phoenicia under the name of Thoth, in Greece as Hermes, and by the Latins as Mercury. To shew the connection between Tot and Teut and the Egyptian Thoth, it may also be remarked that Bruce says the word Tot is Ethiopic, and means the dog-star; now the Egyptians represented Thoth with the head of a dog, and Mr. Bowles remarks that ‘the Druids cut the sacred Vervain at the rising of the Dog Star.

There can be little doubt, at any rate, that the Thoth of Egypt, deified in the Dog-star, was transferred to the Phoenicians, who derived their astronomical knowledge from Egypt, and who ‘held their way to our distant shores on account of commerce, thus, perhaps, leaving some relic of their knowledge behind them; and indeed the Egyptian Thoth, the Phoenician Taautus or Taute, the Grecian Hermes, the Roman Mercury, and the Teutates of the Celts (so called from the Celtic Du Taith, Deus Tautus) are among the learned admitted to be the same. . . .    

A stone was the first rude representation of Tuisto, or Teut, and these dedicated stones were placed on eminences, natural or artificial, most commonly by road sides, and hence called Tot-hills or Teut-hills, and in various parts of the kingdom are so called at present. These hills would, of course, still remain after the Druidical rites were abrogated by the Romans; and as that people paid especial attention to the genii loci of the countries they conquered, and, besides, considered these Teut-hills as dedicated to their own Mercury, they would probably venerate them equally with the conquered Britons. . . ‘According to my idea,’ observes Mr. Bowles, ‘Thoth, Taute, Toute, Tot, Tut, Tad, Ted, Tet, are all derived from the same Celtic root, and are in names of places in England, indicative of some tumulus, or conical hill, dedicated to the great Celtic god, Taute, or Mercury.’”

Many names of places derived from Taut are scattered all over the country, to mention locally, Toothill Lane, Mansfield; Toton, near Nottingham; Toth ill, near Alford, Lincolnshire; Totley, Derbyshire; Tatenhill, near Tutbury; which latter name is also of the same derivation. At least sixty names are given in Hone’s Year Book.

But it will be asked, what connection has all this with the Hemlock Stone, and where is the Tothill to be traced?—(the name Hemlock, by the way, I think, was sometime Cromlech, though the late Mr. Lowe gives a different derivation). If we look around for Tothill I think we need not go very far. An ancient little stream called the Tottle Brook rises near Trowell Domesday Torwell—and flows not very far from the Hemlock Stone. Further on, it forms the boundaries of some parishes, and then pursues its winding course to the distant Trent, into which it empties itself opposite Wilford Church. How probable it is that this little rivulet acquired its name many centuries ago from an important Tothill close by! Mr. F. W. Dobson informs me that there are certain streams in Wales which undoubtedly derive their names from local Cromlech stones, and this strengthens my theory. To my mind, at least, there is here some evidence that this Hemlock Stone was the Tothill, and that here the Druids celebrated their worship, brought their sacrifices, and lit their prodigious fires on the eves of May Day, Midsummer, and the 1st of November. Probably, owing to the action of nature during prehistoric ages, they found the stone in much the same shape as we see it now, though, from denudation, less in height from the level of the ground, and utilised it for their purposes. Of the Druids and their rites our knowledge is limited, but I venture to suggest that in the name of this little stream may lie the key to some of the antecedents of the Hemlock Stone, the mystery of which has so long puzzled the antiquary.

Mr. Page’s theory is disputed by another correspondent, who considers that there is no evidence connecting the stone with Druidical observance, and who suggests that the etymology of “Toothill” is merely an example of the process known as the reduplication of synonyms.

The name, as well as the origin and use, of the Hemlock Stone is a matter of speculation. It has been suggested that it was named from the plant Hemlock, which was greatly celebrated by the ancients, and which may have grown in abundance about the column.

A brief stay was made by the party at the Hemlock Stone, most of the company having already inspected it.