Many years ago there was a time when it was almost impossible to earn enough money to put food on the family table. In the long cold winter months it was even harder as there were no fruits, berries or nuts in the hedgerows. Is it therefore surprising that when hungry men were on the moor they looked longingly at the sheep that grazed on the grassy tor sides. Many must have thought how just one sheep would feed his starving family for a month and how their mouths must have watered at the prospect. Fortunately the majority of moorfolk were God fearing and law abiding, no matter how badly they needed food it would be unthinkable to steal it, especially sheep. But as always there are one or two that can’t resist temptation either through desperation or greed. The first stolen sheep would have provided nourishment and maybe a little profit and once a quick gain comes into the equation the second and third sheep become easier and easier. Eventually when the profit is growing it is hard to reason why a day should be spent in honest labour with little return as opposed to a couple of hours spent skulking on the moors and getting a purse full of coin.
So it was that such a rogue was living on the edges of the southern moor. Granted there was a time when he was a honest, hard working peat cutter but the lure of easy money quickly turned his head. On dark nights he would steal out across the moor in search of a stray sheep, if trade was good he would take his lurcher and silently drive several to a secluded spot where he could butcher them. The moor folk became suspicious as there was always meat on his table and coin to spend down the inn but nobody could actually prove any misdeed. For sure the local farmers were complaining about the numbers of sheep they were losing and despite nightly vigils they couldn’t catch the culprit.
One November day a butcher from Plymouth came to the moor in search of the sheep stealer. It did not take long to find his shabby cott and to get down to business. The butcher had heard that the man could supply him with cheap, no questions asked mutton and being as equally greedy was in search of a sly deal. After much wheeling and dealing it was decided that the butcher would take one trial carcass and then if he was pleased others would be needed. The sheep stealer knew deep down that maybe this was not such a good idea, afterall the farmers had brought their flocks nearer to the farms and they were still mounting their midnight patrols. To make matters worse he would be risking getting caught for just one sheep which hardly made it worth it.
But greed got the better and that very same night the sheep stealer stole out onto the dark, moonless moor. It seemed to him that he had been scouring the gullies and gerts for hours and still there was no sign of a sheep. He even saw the silhouette of a farmer ride across the skyline but still he carried on searching. It must have been about one o’clock when the sheep stealer decided he was getting cold and needed some ‘spiritual’ guidance and so slumping down on a large rock he fumbled for his flask and took a mighty swing of brandy. As he sat on the rock he heard a faint bleating noise coming from a large tinner’s gert to his left. The man strained his ears for confirmation and yes it definitely was the bleat of a sheep, maybe tonight was not such a waste of time. He stuffed his flask back into his jacket and scurried off in the direction of the gert. Luckily it was a deep gully and the sheep stealer knew that if he was quick he could corner the animal at the head of the gert and slit its throat before it could make too much of a commotion. That was the plan and that was what he successfully did. Within minutes the life flowed from the sheep as quickly as it’s blood gushed out of the gaping gash across it’s throat. It was in good condition for the time of the year and the man knew the butcher would be pleased with the fleshy carcass. Not wishing to linger any longer than necessary he tied a short piece of rope to both legs, this would act as a sort of harness which would make the carrying easier. With a well practiced heave the bloody sheep was slung over his back, one leg each side of his head and the rope across his chest.
It was a scramble to get out of the gert but eventually the sheep stealer breathlessly scrabbled over the top and scuttled off towards his cott. He had only gone about a quarter of a mile when he thought he heard the snort of a horse. With his head cocked to one side he silently paused to listen to the still moor air, nothing, probably an old pony. A couple of seconds later there was a shout and the sound of a galloping horse, he looked around to see the figure of a mounted man coming charging out of the murky darkness. Again there was a shout for him to “stay where ee be,” little chance of that he thought. Once again greed got the better of him, logically it would have been better to dump the carcass and run into a clitter but the lure of coin persuaded him to try and escape with the sheep. There was another gert to the right and so hoping to lose the rider he darted into the yawning gash in the hillside. There were young Rowan trees growing out of the rocky sides and the sheep stealer knew nobody could ride a horse past those. For a moment or two he was safe but he knew that somehow he had to get out of the gully, once daylight came he would be a marked man. Quietly the man crept up the bank and slithered into a small rockfield. The horse and rider were still at the top of the gert and had not seen him slide out. His local knowledge told him that if he could only clear the plain below he would be safe and so he made a dart for freedom.
The first pallid hues of daybreak where spreading across the distant tors which signalled the urgency to get off the moor. The man broke into a jog, the bloody carcass bouncing on his back. Suddenly he heard a sickening shout and the sound of thundering hooves, the rider had spotted him. In blind panic he found hidden strengths and started to hurtle across the flat grassy plain, his legs pumping like flat rods. Without warning a huge leaning rock appeared directly in his path and as he made to dodge around it the sheep got caught. The man’s momentum combined with the sheep being firmly wedged on the rock jerked the rope up under his chin. There was a loud crack as the sheep stealer’s neck snapped back and then he slowly slid down the rock. The rider was not far behind and spurred his horse on, by the time he reached the large leaning rock the sheep stealer was dead. Nobody was sure whether he died from a broken neck or by hanging, either way the moor was well rid of him. To this day the fated rock is known as ‘The Hanging Stone’ and serves to warn all men about the perils of sheep stealing.
That’s the fanciful side of the Hanging Stone, reality dictates that the stone is a menhir which dates back to the Bronze Age. Butler (1994, p. 162) has the following to say about the menhir:
“… a massive leaning slab 2.2 m high and 1.2 m across at the base with the letters BC cut into the east face. Though appropriated as a boundary marker the stone is much larger than the usual posts put up for similar purposes elsewhere on the moor, including the neighbouring one in a series, and may well have been erected as a standing stone in prehistoric times“.
Some have suggested that the bounds which the stone marked were that of Cholwich Town hence the BC. However, Brewer (2002, p.235) refutes this and argues the letters are more likely to denote the limits of the original China clay sett, ‘C’ representing – clay. The menhir is also sometimes known as the ‘Leaning Rock’ for reasons that are obvious when viewed from a certain angle, this is one of several such named stones on the moor, with at least one having the same legend attached to it.
Brewer, D. 2002 Dartmoor Boundary Markers, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.
Butler, J. 1994 Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities – Vol. III, Devon Books, Exeter