By Tim Porteus

AN ANCIENT burial ground lies not far from Elphinstone.

It is set amongst the fields which surround this old former mining village. The graveyard is reached taking a short walk which follows an old rail line. The surviving gravestones are not so old, yet I felt an immediate aura of antiquity as I entered the place.

As I wandered there I knew nothing of its past. I had stumbled upon it during a short walk from the village. I always explore when I get the chance, never knowing what I might find. It seemed neglected and strangely positioned, away from the village and no evidence of a kirk nearby. I assumed it to be connected to nearby Elphinstone Tower.

Yet soon afterwards I discovered that on the north-west of the graveyard there had indeed been a kirk; a medieval pre-reformation chapel no less. Its foundations remain buried under the surface, its stones yet to tell its stories.

However, that is just one layer of this graveyard’s history, for it is described as overlying a prehistoric site of “national importance” by Ancient Monuments UK. I had been walking within an ancient fort, possibly as early as the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. While visible evidence of this is now all gone, I can testify to the aura of antiquity which hangs there. Historic sites are often not just what you can see, but what you can sense and feel.

But the graveyard was not why I was in Elphinstone that day. I had taken a trip to this village to visit Meg’s Chuck. It’s a ‘bullet stone’ set in the village.

There is more than one story about this stone. One tale tells us that an elf is trapped within it. According to this story the elf was a servant of an Elphinstone witch called Meg.

One day the witch travelled in her carriage to a nearby burn and there had eaten food, refusing to share it with her elves. While she was having a post-scoff snooze, an elf snuck into her carriage and took the leftovers. The angry witch incarcerated the elf within the stone as a punishment.

The primary school have a version of this story painted in the playground and the children there are best to tell that tale! It’s a story which suggests a reason for the village name: ‘Elf in Stone’!

But as is often the case, there is also an older folk tale about the stone, mentioned well over 100 years ago by P M’Neill in his fascinating book of the traditions of the area. In this tale Meg is also the main character. Here is my re-telling of this old story:

The stone which now stands in Elphinstone village once stood by the smiddy. It was owned by a well-kent witch of the village called Meg. She was not the only witch in the area, for she had many friends who were also witches. They were all married women, with heavy domestic duties to perform and little time for themselves during the day.

However, as night fell and their “auld gude men lay soond asleep at hame”, this happy group of witches would meet up at Harry’s Burn, a short distance from the village but far enough away to be out of earshot of a sleeping husband.

Here the sisterhood would have witchy fun and play games. Meg would bring the bullet stone for a game of chuck (I suspect the same as chuckie), a game in which four stones are laid on a surface while one is thrown in the air. The player must pick up all the four stones, then catch the thrown stone as it falls back to the ground.

Perhaps this huge stone was actually the one thrown into the air. After all, they were witches and so a normal game of chuckie would have been a bit mundane. I do not know exactly how heavy it is but it would defeat anyone trying to lift it without magic or machinery.

In fact it would have been a fair challenge to carry from the village to the burn, even for a witch. And that is why Meg didn’t carry it to her liaisons. She used magic, of course. As her husband snored in the house she would creep out to the stone and turn it into a horse. I can visualise her mounting this confused beast in the light of the moon, then riding speedily with joyful laughter towards Harry’s Burn to meet her friends and enjoy the short time of freedom from domestic duties.

There at Harry’s Burn she would dismount and greet her friends. No doubt they all had different and novel methods of travel to get to their location: a flying sieve, riding a wolf, even a husband changed into a horse are all possibilities according to the beliefs of the time!

Upon her arrival Meg would lead the horse to the burn to drink. As soon as it had quenched its thirst, Meg changed it back to a stone. And so the heavy stone was successfully transported so the witches could play their game.

Then, when the fun was over, Meg turned the stone back into a horse for the return journey, carefully dismounting at the end of her journey on the same spot by the smiddy, and then transforming the poor creature back into stone.

And so the bullet stone remains in the village after Meg’s final journey. It can be found opposite the primary school and is called Meg’s Chuck. As far as I know it hasn’t been a horse since the last time Meg changed it into one, so it will be desperate for some exercise by now.

There is no reason not to believe that Meg also trapped an elf within the stone, as the later tale suggests. She was, after all, a witch with powerful magic.

So if you sit on it, be careful about the words you mutter. You might just accidentally say the spell that transforms it into a horse, and then you’ll be off on a terrifyingly wild ride to Harry’s Burn, possibly in the company of a hyperactive and by now very hungry elf.

Or maybe that would be fun! I wonder what the spell was. Maybe the children in the school have an idea?