An Ossian connection in Essex?

The true nature of the Braxted folly in Braxted Park, Essex, has been in question. The building has been variously described as an ice house, a bath-house, a hermitage or a cave. However, the map evidence is clear, because on the Ordnance Survey maps published from 1874/5 to at least 1974, the folly is referred to as ‘The Cave’. Other evidence takes us further and points to the folly as being not just a cave, not even just an artificial cave – which it is – but a special artificial cave, one with pretensions way beyond its realisation. The Cave at Braxted Park was to be the Ossian connection in Essex – a romantic, but very modest, evocation of Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in Scotland. Proof of this extravagant claim is not absolute, but it is hard to avoid this conclusion when the circumstances are closely examined.

The Braxted folly was probably built between 1804 and 1808 when the grounds of Braxted House were re-landscaped by John Johnson for Peter Du Cane II. There is little about the folly to indicate that it was an ice-house. Structurally it does not resemble one. It stood at an inconvenient distance from the main house and, more to the point, early maps show that the estate did possess such a building and that this was only about 175 m away from main house. (The precise site of the ice house appears to be indicated on Google Earth where it shows up as a greenish circular patch on the ground (Plate 1).) Similarly, too, the idea that the folly had been a bathhouse seems unsustainable in terms of the physical remains which survive today.

Four factors are crucial to its interpretation: 1) the likely date of its construction, 2) its relationship to the lake and the water-level in the lake, 3) the fact that it looks like a cave because of the way the folly sits in relation to the earth bank into which it was cut and, above all, 4) the presence inside the building of blocks of basalt. To understand the folly, we need to go back to the late 17th and 18th centuries. Three key ‘discoveries’ are very relevant here. These turned out to be gifts to tourism in Scotland and ‘Celtic’ culture generally and were subjects of considerable academic and popular interest. First came the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland in 1692. Then in 1762-5 came Ossian and his epic poems about the Scottish hero Fingal. Finally, only a few years later, in 1772, came Fingal’s Cave off the west coast of Scotland. These ‘discoveries’ all dovetailed beautifully together to produce some compelling mythology about Ireland and Scotland’s long-lost Gaelic past set in some of the most romantic natural settings imaginable.

The Giant’s Causeway was discovered or at least brought to the public’s attention supposedly by the Bishop of Derry in 1692. In academic circles, intense debate followed as to how the causeway had been formed. Possible explanations included natural forces, men with tools, and even a giant named Finn MacCool. In the years to follow, the site became a major tourist centre.

Between 1761 and 1765, James Macpherson famously published his translations of a cycle of ancient Scottish poems which he claimed to have found in oral and documentary forms. The most influential of these was an epic about a heroic Scottish king called Fingal. The poems were very well received and enjoyed considerable international attention (Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson were enthusiasts) although, from the beginning, doubts were expressed about their authenticity. The poems were narrated and supposedly composed by the blind bard Ossian who was Fingal’s son. The poems were so highly regarded by some that Ossian was seen as Scotland’s equivalent of Homer.

Fingal’s Cave, although off the coast of Scotland, is formed from the same volcanic outflows that make up the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and has the same basaltic columns. The cave was a later and accidental ‘discovery’, this time by botanist Joseph Banks in 1772. It is a sea-cave, meaning that the floor of the cave was formed by the sea. At that time, the cave was practically unknown even in the Hebrides. Banks was bowled over by what he saw and heard – walls of tall columns of black basalt, a high, arched roof, and eerie echoes of the sea. ‘Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men!’, he wrote (Banks in Pennant 1774, 302 – see below). The cave soon became famous and, despite being isolated and difficult to reach, developed into a fashionable tourist spot for the affluent. By the time Braxted folly was built c 1805, the public interest in Ossian, Fingal and the Giant’s Causeway was intense. Inevitably, complaints followed about the way its atmospheric solitude was being spoilt by too many tourists. But still they came, including the great and the creative in search of inspiration and a desire to experience the magic of the place. The list is an impressive one and includes Walter Scott (in 1810), John Keats (in 1818), Felix Mendelssohn (in 1829), J M W Turner (in 1832), William Wordsworth (in 1833), Jules Verne (in 1839), Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (in 1847), Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alice Liddell of Alice in Wonderland (in 1878), Robert Adam, David Livingstone (in 1864), and Robert Louis Stephenson (in 1870).

Peter Du Cane II must have been caught up in all the excitement to the extent that he wanted to create his own piece of the legend. Perhaps he, too, had been a visitor to Fingal’s Cave. But his creation would not have been unique. There are at least four Ossian Caves, in Scotland. Three are natural structures (Glen Coe, Arran, and Aonach Dubh), whereas the famous Ossian Cave in Dunkeld is an 18th-century Folly.

It is sometimes said that Fingal’s Cave was given its name by Mendelssohn who composed his evocative Fingal’s Cave (Hebrides Overture) as a result of his visit there in 1829. If this were true, then this would present us with a problem because it would mean that the Braxted Folly as a cave would have been too early to have been associated with Ossian, Fingal and hence (crucially) blocks of basalt. But Mendelssohn did not give Fingal’s Cave its name. The cave was known by this title when Joseph Banks discovered it in 1772. The evidence for this lies in a revised version of a travel book, A Tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides 1772, by a botanist called Thomas Pennant. Published in 1774, the book includes an account by Joseph Banks himself of his discovery of the cave (pp 299-309). Banks describes a conversation with one of his guides in which he was told the cave was known as Fingal’s Cave. He also gave Pennant permission to publish an engraving of a drawing which John Frederick Miller, one of his draftsmen, made of the cave at the time. The illustration is captioned in Pennant’s book as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, making no doubt about the early date of the name.

Peter Du Cane II offered a hundred pounds to anybody who would spend a year in the cave in Braxted Park without washing or shaving. Plainly he also saw the cave as a hermitage as well as a place to be associated with the Fingal legends. Interestingly and significantly, the builder of the Ossian Cave in Dunkeld tried to find a hermit for his cave, too. Evidently Peter Du Cane was successful in his search (Wells & Derrick 2009, 27) but, given this was just a temporary exercise, it seems that we should be content to regard the building as a folly which was evidently known for many years known as The Cave.
by Philip Crummy

The Colchester Archaeological Trust was commissioned to carry out some exploratory investigations in Braxted folly for its owner Duncan Clark. The full report can be found here.