In the winter the Penwith landscape is all the muted tones of grey and soft brown as if the granite bedrock has leeched up into the vegetation. The bracken is burnt black with the cold winds. It is only when the sunlight spills across the ground that details in the countryside appear. Quite suddenly I am looking at an ancient bronze age menhir standing in the middle of a field.
This is the Men Scryfa, which literally means inscribed stone in Cornish, and craved down one side of it, the words disappearing into the dirt, is “Rialobrani Cunovali Filii”. This too is Cornish and roughly translates to Rialobran or Royal Raven, son of Cunoval. So who, you may ask, is the Royal Raven?
The words were craved into the hard granite of this standing stone hundreds of years after its original purpose had been forgotten. When it was already a historical feature in the landscape. Cornwall’s first graffiti artist was commemorating a 6th century warrior. Rialobran, legend tells us, was a warrior prince, his kingdom was the West Penwith and he gave his life in battle near to this stone. His castle overlooked Mount’s Bay and Penzance and when the area was invaded by an unknown enemy from the east he fought his foe with an evil fury. It isn’t clear whether Rialobran received his nickname before or after the battle but these large black birds would certainly have been a impressive and menacing symbol.
I have a fondness for ravens. Ravens arrived in the graveyard next to our farm about 20 years ago. They built their residence in the highest branches of the enormous pine trees which grow against the north and eastern hedges. Despite their historical and mythological associations with death and war I have always found their company comforting. I like the croaking caw they make to each other and when they soar above the valley on the rising air their jet-black shadows look mysterious and beautiful silhouetted against the sky.
They, however, are considered a bird of ill-omen in many cultures, many thought that they could bring bad luck and disease. If they ever abandon their nests it is a sign of impending calamity (I’ll keep an eye out for that). To the Norse poets they were drinkers of blood, to the North American Indians they were the trickster, the transformer and to the ancient Celts, of which Rialobran would have been one, they were potent symbols of warfare, probably because they were thought to lurk around battlefields and feed on the bodies of the dead.
But despite all that negative press ravens are extremely intelligent and are excellent mimics. They mate for life and are long-lived, in all likelihood the two ravens who moved in all those years ago are the same ones that I see today.
I have been visiting the ancient stones on the Penwith for more than 20 years now and whether it is in the dry heat of high summer or the soggy wet of early spring it has always been a landscape that inspires me and fills me with joy. It is also a place full of mystery. Rialobran, of course, is no exception. Like all the best heroes his legend says that he never really died in that battle, that he is just sleeping in his grave, sword in hand, waiting for the moment when Cornwall needs him again.