After writing last week about William Mountsey’s Persian inscription at the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, I came across a short and interesting booklet about him by Charlie Emett, called William Mounsey and the ‘Jew’ Stone (Giggleswick, 1990). It adds something to the story of Mounsey’s life, gives a little context for his family, and tells the story of the re-erection of the Jew Stone at Outhgill in 1989. (I assume in fact that most of the information in other sources comes from Mr Emett’s essay, so ‘add’ is simply a matter of the order in which I happened on them.)
Captain Mounsey (the author doesn’t bother with the assumed ‘Major’) was an intriguing man. His family was a prosperous one, its fortunes made in ecclesiastical law (for the diocese of Carlisle), legal work for several of the great landowners of Cumberland, political agency and the calico-printing which was booming at Carlisle in the late eighteenth century. Mounsey & Giles was a leading Carlisle solicitor’s firm; Mounsey, Lawrie & Co. a leading calico-printer. On the strength of this, William Mounsey’s father, who took on the family businesses, bought Rockcliffe manor and built a large villa, Castletown House, while cannily managing the enclosure of much of Rockcliffe’s common land.
William, born in 1808, was destined to be a solicitor like his father, but first had a fairly undistinguished military career in Persia of which nothing significant is known at all, other than that during it he clearly learned Persian and Hebrew, and began his fascinated exploration of Jewish culture and history. He bought commissions in three regiments (ensign in the 30th Foot, lieutenant in 15th and Captain in the 4th, King’s Own). He sold his captaincy in 1844, perhaps on his father’s death, and returned to England.
Back in Carlisle, William took over the family firm and maintained his antiquarian and linguistic interests. He wrote at least one article, on mazes, for Notes and Queries, the leading forum for scholarly antiquarian research (today, sadly, given over almost entirely to literature, reflecting the disappearance of the learned amateur antiquarian like Mounsey). But the traces he has left are concrete, cut into the landscape he loved. He walked widely in Cumberland, and carved his name in a variety of languages. In the Eden gorge near Armathwaite he chiselled in 1855 a mischievously amended verse by Isaac Walton as well, perhaps, as a number of curious faces. At St Constantine’s Cells, also on the Eden, he added in 1852 to existing Roman graffiti a ninth century Welsh verse meaning This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, let her beware of her fate: she is old though only born this year, and a verse of his own in praise of Ituna, the Eden. His inscriptions were full of cryptic, sometime astrological references, and he had a penchant for reversing letters, and frequently his own name, which often (as on Hoy) became YESNOUM SUMELILUG or (at Wetheral) MHW.
He also had an interest in the mazes cut by shepherds on the Solway marshes, of which there were three in his youth (the illustration above is said to be of one). In Notes and Queries he wrote that “the herdsmen at the present day are also in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures which they also call ‘the walls of Troy,’” and related this to the Welsh Caerdroia, the word for a shepherds’ maze in Wales. Quite what they were for is debated, and shepherds may have cut them and perhaps danced them by Mounsey’s time simply because their fathers and grandfathers had. They are found across northern Germany and Sweden, and may have been used as a way of enticing and trapping evil spirits by leading them noisily into the maze and then leaving them trapped at the centre. Mr Emett suggests that foreign sailors may have brought the original pattern, but in fact the Rockcliffe mazes are only three of the twenty-nine listed in Britain by W H Matthews in 1922, ten of them having ‘Troy’ in their names. I am interested by this, living as I do within a mile of another turf maze on the common at Saffron Walden, with a similarly intricate path-pattern designed only to lead from the edge to the centre.
But the focus of Mr Emmet’s essay is the Jew Stone. Mounsey, as I noted in my last, was clearly fascinated by Jewish culture and adopted a costume and beard based on Jewish practice, presumably as he had seen it amongst the Jews of Persia. We have to imagine his walking about the country heavily bearded and perhaps dressed in robes of some kind – hence his name, ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ There certainly weren’t any local Jews there in the mid-nineteenth century from whom he could draw clues. And to judge by his inscriptions, although he was interested by Kabbala and Jewish scholarship, he remained an orthodox, if rather florid, Anglican. The Jew Stone was cut and mounted in a lonely spot on Black Fell Moss. Seven feet high and covered in inscriptions, it must have been an odd thing to encounter near the source of the Eden – odd enough to provoke a bunch of navvies engaged in laying the Carlisle-Settle railway to smash it in 1870. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin were supplemented with a Star of David – Solomon’s Seal – and a triple T sigil symbolizing the Trinity. The Greek inscription reads Seek the river of the soul – whence it springs, whence thou hast served the body in a certain order – when thou hast acknowledged thy duty to the sacred scriptures – thou shalt be raised again to the order from which thou art fallen. Let us flee with the ships to our dear native land; for we have a country from which we have come and our Father is there.
In 1989 a group of local people in which Charlie Emett was a moving force worked with an Israeli called Shalom Hermon to replace the stone with a carefully made replica. Hermon had been an artillery officer with Jewish Brigade, training at Catterick in 1945 and intrigued by the Jew Stone marked on his Ordnance Survey map, but not to be found where marked. By the eighties a minister in the Israeli government, Hermon was able to help with fund-raising, and attended the inauguration of the new stone on Outhgill village green, where it should be safer from vandals. A curiously interesting story, which leaves one wondering what else William Mounsey did, read and thought about – and where else he carved his name.