The Two Lads site on the moors over Horwich has long been a place of local interest, offering stunning views over the county. A number of explanations have been put forward for the reason that two stone cairns stand at this imposing place. This page will look at the evidence and argue that the most likely explanation is that they are the remnants of Bronze Age burial cairns, but other alternative explanations will also be explored.
The Two Lads cairns are drawn on the Yates Map of Lancashire in 1786. Intriguingly, they are the only such landscape feature shown, most of the rest being towns, halls, churches and waterwheels. This clearly shows their importance and probable longevity. Interestingly, one appears slightly larger than the other.
The most valuable early description we have of the site is written by Dorning Rasbotham, an author and antiquarian and one time High Sheriff of Lancashire. He gives an account where he was guided by the landlord of the Moorgate alehouse in Horwich to see the Hanging Stone (also called the Giant’s Stone), a natural stone formation on the moor. He carried out this journey on September 12th 1787. As part of the account, he writes a description of Two Lads, which he passes enroute, as he recalls them from a visit twelve years earlier in 1776. He refers to them as the ‘Winter Lads’ and then the ‘Wilder Lads’ in his writings.
Rasbotham writes: “To the right of the road from Bolton to Chorley upon the summit of Horwich Moor lie the Wilder Lads, two rude piles of stones, so called from the tradition of the country that they were erected in memory of two boys who were wildered (bewildered) and lost in the snow about this place.”
Here we have the first written account of the folklore about two boys becoming lost on the moor, and Rasbotham shoehorns ‘wildered’ into ‘bewildered’ meaning they became puzzled or confused as to their whereabouts. The actual meaning of Wilder is difficult to pin down, but it is fairly safe to say it does not mean bewildered. There is a reference to nearby Wilderswood in a document from 1430. This woodland still exists today, and lies at the bottom of Wilder’s Moor. The names of places are usually derived from landscape features or are named after an individual person. The closest match from the Nottingham University Place Name website is ‘Wilden’, which has possible meanings of willow trees, wild (i.e. desolate or uncultivated land), or it could be a personal name.
Rasbotham continues: “They lie about quarter of a mile SE by E from Rivington Pike, and may be distinctly seen for a considerable distance as you pass along this road, from which at Horwich Chapel they are something more than a mile distant. They are undoubtedly of very high antiquity, and were originally united by a circular mound, about three-quarters of which yet remaineth visible”.
Rasbotham then goes on to describe their size and positions: “Their circumference is about 24 feet and a half, and the passage between them about 6 feet.”
He then gives a further description of the ‘mound’: “The remains of the mound are about four feet wide, but upon the east side for a space of 17 feet is entirely levelled. The account and drawing was taken in 1776, but they have been lately raised, I imagine by the proprietor of the common, with the view of their being more distinctly seen from his house.”
What Rasbotham’s description shows is that in the late 1700s there were two large cairns standing about 6 feet apart from each other, surrounded by a ring-shaped earthwork (the ‘mound’), not all of which was visible.
Over the years, the folklore about the identities of the ‘two lost lads’ has grown. The human mind searches for explanations of mysteries and, without a good explanation, will often settle for a bad one as a solution.
The above quotations from the writing of Rasbotham are printed in Horwich: Its History, Legends and Church, a book published by Thomas Hampson in 1893. Hampson goes on to mention two more stories about the origins of the site. The first is that they are the sons of Bishop James Pilkington, lost in the snow at the site. James Pilkington was born at Rivington Hall. He repaired Rivington Chapel, founded Rivington Grammar School and was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1560. It is known that Bishop Pilkington’s sons, Joshua and Isaac, did die young, and there is a story told that they were kidnapped near some saw pits in the wood behind Rivington Hall. That they died young is not contested, but the story of their kidnapping is, and quite probably is just local folklore. Thomas Hampson states that he does not think the Two Lads cairns are related to the Bishop’s boys.
Hampson then goes on to relate what he calls a ‘still older tradition‘. This is that Two Lads are the burial mounds of a Saxon king’s two children. This he finds more plausible, stating that the area was once known as ‘Edgar’s Den’. He says that the author of the Pictorial History of Lancashire states that Winter Hill was once known as Edgar Hill, named after a petty Saxon king that hunted on its slopes.
There is very little evidence for any of this. Winter Hill has been known by the alternative name of Egberden Hill (or Egberdenhill) as the map from 1662 shows. Presumably, the leap has been made from Egberden to Edgar’s Den and then to Edgar’s Hill. Carole Hough in her paper Women in the Landscape states that Egberden derives from an Old English (i.e. Saxon) personal name, but for a woman. So here a Saxon personal name has been conflated to being a local Saxon ‘king’ who lost two sons. Again, there is no evidence for this story at all, it is just local folklore. While the Saxons did make large earth burial mounds for their highest status individuals, none have been found in Lancashire.
Evidence for Two Lads Being a Prehistoric Burial Site
Burial mounds are found on the hills of Lancashire, and these are from the Bronze Age. Near to the Two Lads site are the Bronze Age burial mounds of Noon Hill and Winter Hill (click the links to read more about them on this website). Both of these have clear lines of sight towards Two Lads.
However, they do differ from Two Lads in their construction. If Two Lads is a pair of burial cairns, they seem to have mostly been made of stone. Winter Hill and Noon Hill cairns are what are termed ‘composite monuments’. This means that they were constructed with both stone and earth, and made in a specific way. Composite cairns are laid out in a circle, with stones forming a boundary (known as a kerb) around the edge. Inside the circle is mostly soil and turves of grass, and the centre usually has a core made of stones. Often a Bronze Age pot is found in the centre, with cremated bones inside it. Pockets of bones without pots are dug into the earth part of the monuments. Over the years peat naturally accumulated, covering these monuments and protecting them from being disturbed.
Two Lads appears to be a different kind of construction, being made out of large piled up stones. These kind of monuments are much more visible in the modern landscape and more easily destroyed. Other examples of this kind do exist in Lancashire, for example the Devil’s Apronful Cairn on Apronfull Hill near Pendle, and Paddy’s Pole Cairn on Fair Snape Fell in Bowland. Two Lads have been treated in a terrible manner in recent decades, and their original shape or even position cannot be known for sure. For more clues, we must turn to the more recent historical record.
In 1953, John Winstanley began to take an interest in Two Lads and its surrounding area. Winstanley was the curator of Hall in th’ Wood Museum, and led the excavation of the Noon Hill burial cairn in 1958. He made a number of finds around the Two Lads site, which he would often attribute to the Romans, who he believed had a camp in the area. While undoubtedly knowledgeable, the finds he made were often hard to date due to lack of local expertise, and the glass and pottery he found around Two Lads that he claimed was Roman was probably not. However, he was an avid collector of flints, and there were many of these in the area, putting the site firmly in the prehistoric (although not necessarily in the Bronze Age).
One of the first thing that Winstanley writes about in his journals on reaching the site is what he calls the ‘glacial boulders’. Visitors at the site today will be struck by the large rocks that litter the ground, much larger than those that make up the monument. The surrounding moorland does not look like this, but is covered with vegetation and peat.
While casting around for artefacts at the Two Lads site he found clay pipe stems and bowls, as well as small pieces of broken glass, indicating the site has been a place to visit and sit at for years. Clay pipes were in use throughout the 1800s and before, so these would be from relatively recent visitors, historically speaking.
Winstanley wanted to do an archaeological excavation of the site, and had even obtained permission from the local water board, who owned it, to carry one out. However, in the end he did not. This is a pity, because the work he did at Noon Hill was to a good standard (as his notebooks reveal), and could have answered some of the questions the site raises.
Developments in the 1980s
By the late 1980s, the Two Lads cairns were in a poor state, little more than rubble strewn across the site. A local historian, David Owen, took it upon himself to start to rebuild the cairns. The task was then taken over by another local historian, Robin Smith. During the reassembling of the cairns pieces of old pots, jars, clay pipes and pieces of leather were found, all artefacts from the last two hundred years or so.
The local council did not take kindly to the cairns being rebuilt, and ordered them to be pulled down for safety reasons as they were so tall. After this was done, locals then rebuilt them. This is still an ongoing problem, as although the council no longer seeks to demolish them, they are periodically pulled down either in acts of vandalism, or collapse from people climbing on them.
Here at Lancashire Past we believe that that ‘Two Lads’ is probably a corruption of ‘Two Lowes’. The word lowe comes from the Old English word ‘hlaw’. This is a Saxon word which often denotes the existence of a prehistoric burial mound. In Lancashire and Derbyshire, ‘hlaw’ became ‘lowe’ or ‘low’, in Yorkshire ‘howe’ and in Scotland ‘law’. Very few lowes have been excavated in Lancashire, but in Derbyshire many that have been dug have been found to contain Bronze Age burials. So ‘Two Lowes’ becomes over time, ‘Two Lads’, which is a more meaningful description of the two mounds, and local people develop a story of two lost brothers.
Are there parallels to this idea elsewhere? A strikingly similar site in Scotland is named Twin Law, which has cairns known as the Twa Brithers, Scots for Two Brothers. These are both stone built cairns, and have a folklore story attached to them about two brothers separated in childhood, fighting on opposite sides in a battle between the Scots and the Saxons. Both lost their lives in the fight, and when their identities were revealed the twin cairns were erected over their bodies.
Nine Standards Rigg is the name of cairns that stand in a row on Hartley Fell near Kirby Stephen. Like Two Lads, it’s not clear when they were built, but they have long been drawn on old maps and mentioned in historic documents. Also like Two Lads, their shape and numbers vary, but more recently there has been a concerted effort to keep them in good order.
What is to be Done?
The Scottish Twin Law cairns mentioned above were used as target practice during the Second World War. They have since been rebuilt and can now be entered into and have small alcoves and seating within them. One even has a visitors’ book. They are in a much more remote location than Two Lads, and so do not suffer from casual vandalism or misuse. They have been constructed by expert dry stone wallers, as have the cairns at Nine Standards Rigg. Exposure to high winds and continual freezing and thawing of water on the monuments mean that they must be monitored and maintained.
At Twin Law, Lady John Scott (born Alicia Ann Spottiswoode) found a stone cist at the base of each of the cairns. A cist is a stone ‘box’, made of flat stones – one for each of the four slides and capped with a stone lid. Generally, smaller ones contain cremated bones and larger ones can contain a full skeleton. John Winstanley looked for flat stones that could have been the top of cists around Two Lads, but the one he uncovered proved not to be. However, his survey and excavation was limited, and cists may well exist on the site. This is why a modern archaeological survey of the area would prove very interesting.
Two Lads have been deliberately damaged, and this behaviour continues right up until the present time, as recent articles in the The Bolton News show. If they were to be rebuilt by drystone wallers this would make them more robust, but without putting concrete mortar between the stones, they will always be susceptible to being pulled down. There are no easy or obvious solutions here.
The Woodland Trust through their management of Smithills Estate have recently taken an interest in Two Lads. There is also a Facebook campaign (search for ‘Saving Two Lads Rivington’). The founder of the campaign is in the process of writing a book about the history of the monuments.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
Two Lads stand on Crooked Edge Hill on Open Access land. They are a few minutes walk from the Winter Hill Transmitter aerial complex.
Grid Reference (655 133)
The quickest way up to see them is to park at the small car park at the junction of George’s Lane and Old Rake Lane. Head up the George’s Lane in a northerly direction and there is a public footpath sign on the right. The path goes on to Wilder’s Moor. A map would be useful to navigate with.
Alternatively, there is a direct route to Two Lads on the footpath from Pike Cottage, not far from Rivington Pike Tower.
Horwich: It’s History, Legends and Church, Thomas Hampson (1893). Available at archive.org.
The Winter Hill Scrap Book, Dave Lane (2009), Lulu publishing
Nine Standards Rigg
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