The last king of Strathclyde

Earl Siward

From the front cover of History Scotland magazine, Nov/Dec 2013. The illustration of Earl Siward and his children is from a painting by James Smetham (1821-89).


‘The last king of Strathclyde’ is the title of my article in the current issue of History Scotland. It’s a discussion of the final phase of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, from the Battle of Carham (1018) to the eventual takeover by the Scots (sometime before 1070). I consider several possible candidates for the label ‘last king of Strathclyde’ during a time of political upheaval involving famous figures such as Earl Siward of Northumbria, the English king Edward the Confessor and the Scottish king Macbethad (Macbeth). In the end, I acknowledge that we cannot be certain who ruled the last remaining kingdom of the Cumbri on the eve of its demise, for the information presented by the written record is incomplete. We can only note that the last king named in the sources is Eugenius Calvus (‘Owain the Bald’) who, in alliance with the king of Scots, achieved a memorable victory over the English at Carham.

History Scotland
Here’s the full reference for my article:
Tim Clarkson, ‘The last king of Strathclyde’ History Scotland vol.13 no.6, Nov/Dec 2013, pp.24-7

- and here’s a link to the History Scotland website (issues are available in print and digital formats)

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Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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The graves of the queens

Govan cross-slab

Early medieval cross-slab at Govan, re-used in 1723. From Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).


Yesterday on Heart Of The Kingdom I published a post which asked, and attempted to answer, a question about royal tombs: How many queens of Strathclyde are buried at Govan?

This isn’t a question that can be answered by browsing a book or searching online. No information – neither historical nor archaeological – can currently give a definitive answer. The best we can hope for is to make a rough guess, and this is what I’ve done in my blogpost.

Take a look and see if you agree with my reasoning. Comments are always welcome, either here or at the blogpost itself.

Heart Of The Kingdom: Female royal burials at Govan

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The lively maiden of Dumbarton

Clyde Rock & Dumbarton Castle

Clyde Rock, Dumbarton (from ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1892)


A number of medieval Welsh manuscripts contain information relating to the Cumbri or North Britons, the native Celtic people of Northern England and Southern Scotland. One of these is ‘Peniarth 47′, written in the 15th century and preserved at the National Library of Wales. It contains a collection of ‘triads’ – brief texts in which three items from the medieval storytelling tradition are grouped under a common theme. Triads were used by the bards of Wales as a kind of subject index to a huge repertoire of poems and stories originally retained in their own memories.

Some triads listed famous events, such as ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’. Others listed military forces such as ‘Three Faithful Warbands’ or renowned individuals such as ‘Three Chieftains of Arthur’s Court’. One triad refers to a trio of notable young women:

‘Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain’
Angharad Ton Velen, daughter of Rhydderch Hael,
and Afan, daughter of Meic Thick-Hair,
and Perwyr, daughter of Rhun of Great Wealth.

Afan’s father Meic (sometimes spelled ‘Maig’) was reputedly a 6th-century ruler of Powys, a part of Wales bordering the territory of the Anglo-Saxons or English. Not much is known about him, although the district of Meigen in Powys might preserve his name.

Perwyr’s father Rhun is identified in Welsh tradition as a prince of the North Britons and as a son of the famous warrior-king Urien Rheged (active c.580). Contrary to popular belief, the precise location of Rheged is unknown. It is no more than a modern guess that the name refers to a kingdom rather than to a smaller territorial unit such as a river-valley or group of estates.

One of Urien’s contemporaries among the North Britons was Rhydderch, king of Alt Clut, whose epithet Hael means ‘Generous’. Alt Clut (‘Rock of Clyde’) is an old Welsh and North British name for the imposing, twin-peaked volcanic ‘plug’ where Dumbarton Castle stands today. Rhydderch reigned in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and is one of the most recognizable figures in medieval Welsh literature, a key player in the so-called North British Heroic Age. Peering behind his literary fame among later Welsh bards we are probably seeing a powerful king of the early medieval period, a competent warlord who launched plundering raids against his neighbours. His adversaries apparently included Anglo-Saxons, Scots and fellow-Britons. Among his network of high-level contacts were Saint Columba of Iona and, less certainly, Saint Kentigern of Glasgow. In later Welsh folklore Rhydderch emerges as an oppressor of Merlin during the latter’s time as a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest.

According to the triad of the Three Lively Maidens, Rhydderch had a daughter Angharad. Although we know very little about her, we cannot assume she was nothing more than a literary invention. It is entirely possible that she was a real princess of Dumbarton, a genuine historical figure like her father. Her epithet Ton Velen (‘Yellow Skin’ or ‘Yellow Wave’) denotes a defining physical characteristic and must have originated in a poem or story in which she featured. This tale, although now lost, was presumably well-known among the bards of medieval Wales and may have been circulating for a long time before it got ‘catalogued’ in the triad.

Some of the earliest and most famous examples of Welsh poetry and saga originated in what the bards called Yr Hen Ogledd, ‘The Old North’, the land of Urien Rheged and Rhydderch Hael. It is possible that the poem or tale featuring Angharad Ton Velen originated in this region rather than in Wales, either to praise her while she lived or as an elegy following her death. Such a tribute may have been composed by a bard at the royal court of Alt Clut, perhaps in the years around 600.

In the absence of additional information about Angharad we can do no more than sketch a hazy picture of her life.

Her name means ‘much loved’ and is pronounced ‘Ann-Harrad’ (stressed on the second syllable). Traditions of uncertain reliability, preserved at Glasgow Cathedral in the twelfth century, identify Rhydderch Hael’s wife as Languoreth, Queen of Alt Clut. This lady, who may have been a native of the Hamilton area, was presumably Angharad’s mother. The same traditions mention a son of Rhydderch called Constantine, who gave up the secular life to become a priest. He and Angharad are the only offspring credited to Rhydderch and, although neither is historically secure, they are not necessarily fictional. Constantine is the namesake of the mysterious saint commemorated in the dedication of the old parish church at Govan, 12 miles east of Dumbarton, and the two are perhaps one and the same.

Let us assume, for the moment, that Angharad existed. A tentative chronological guess would place her birth in the period 570-590. As a princess of Alt Clut she would have been a Christian like her father (and, no doubt, her mother too). During her early years, until she was old enough to marry, her time would have been divided between the old fortress on the summit of Clyde Rock and other royal residences visited by her father’s entourage. Displays of wealth and status were an important part of early medieval kingship and a royal daughter was expected to play her part. We can imagine Angharad wearing jewellery of gold and silver, and clothes woven from the finest fabrics. In her father’s feasting hall she would have eaten roast meat served in expensive bowls manufactured in France. The wine in her drinking-cup would have been imported from the Mediterranean lands. Servants and slaves would have been ever-present throughout her entire life.

Later Welsh bards regarded Angharad as a ‘lively maiden’ (whatever that means). A particular characteristic of her physical appearance was Ton Velen, for which we may envisage either a striking mane of curly blonde hair (‘Yellow Wave’) or an unusually sallow complexion (‘Yellow Skin’). The late Rachel Bromwich, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for her magisterial study of the Welsh triads, interpreted Ton Velen as ‘Yellow (or tawny) Wave’, noting that ‘the reference may be to the girl’s hair’. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic word buide, which also means ‘yellow’, borne as an epithet by the Dál Riatan king Eochaid Buide (died 629) a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. Eochaid evidently received the epithet very early in life, for we find it being used by Columba when he greeted Áedán’s sons at a time when Eochaid was a small child. A number of sources suggest that Áedán fought at least one major battle against Angharad’s father Rhydderch.

Like Angharad, Eochaid is usually assumed to have had ‘yellow’ (i.e. blond) hair, but alternative interpretations of buide are possible. Eochaid and Angharad seem to have belonged to the same generation, and either or both may have had strikingly fair hair or, if ‘yellow’ is a reference to complexion, unusually sallow skin.

If Angharad survived the many perils of childhood to become a teenager she would probably have had little say in her future when the time came to choose a husband. As the daughter of a powerful king she was not only a lady of high status and considerable wealth but also a useful political commodity. Marriage to a prince of a foreign kingdom seems a likely scenario, the wedding perhaps putting a formal seal on a newly forged political alliance. Such a marriage would have taken the ‘lively maiden’ away from her lofty home on the Rock of Clyde, perhaps to a strange new land whose speech and customs she found totally unfamiliar.

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Notes & References

In modern Britain, the most well-known bearer of the name Angharad was the Welsh actress Angharad Rees (1944-2012), who starred in the popular 1970s TV series Poldark.

More pronunciations of Welsh (and North British) personal names:
Rhydderch – ‘Hrutherkh’
Rhun – ‘Rhinn’
Urien – ‘Irri-yen’

Five years ago, Andrew Breeze suggested that ‘Languoreth’ might be an error for ‘Iunguoret’ (or ‘Unwared’ in Modern Welsh).
[See his article 'Telleyr, Anguen, Gulath, and the Life of St Kentigern' Scottish Language 27 (2008), 71-80.]

Rachel Bromwich (ed. & transl.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. 2nd edition* (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).
The triad of the Three Lively Maidens appears on page 199 as ‘Triad 79′.
Professor Bromwich briefly discussed Angharad Ton Velen in the extensive ‘Notes to personal names’ (at page 270).
* I haven’t consulted the 3rd edition for this blogpost.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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The son of the king of the Cumbrians

Govan hogback

Viking Age hogback tombstone at Govan (Photo © B Keeling)


A new post at my Govan blog deals with a series of events around the middle of the 11th century – a fairly mysterious period in Scottish history – and with a shadowy figure described as ‘the son of the king of the Cumbrians’. It also mentions various other people who were major players in the political events of the time: King Cnut (‘Canute’), King Edward (‘The Confessor’), Macbethad (‘Macbeth’) and Earl Siward of Northumbria. The main purpose of the blogpost is to seek an answer to a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland in AD 1054?

Heart of the Kingdom: A Govanite on the Scottish throne

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Is King Arthur buried in Scotland?

Yarrow Stone

The Yarrow Stone (Photo © B Keeling)


The answer to this question is Yes, at least according to Damian Bullen of Edinburgh, whose thoughts on the topic have been reported fairly widely in recent days. He thinks Arthur’s grave-marker is the Yarrow Stone, an Early Christian monument standing in the valley of the River Yarrow near Selkirk. A number of Scottish newspapers have picked up on his theory, two of these being the Daily Record and the Southern Reporter.

The Yarrow Stone is one of the most important ancient monuments in Scotland. It bears a Latin inscription, probably carved in the early 6th century, commemorating the princes Nudus and Dumnogenus (‘Nudd’ and ‘Dyfnyen’), two sons of Liberalis. Nothing else is known about these people but they belonged to a prosperous ‘royal’ family that had been Christian for at least a generation. The names of the deceased show that they were Britons or, more precisely, that their family favoured the use of Brittonic names rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic ones. Liberalis (‘Generous’) presumably held land and authority in the Yarrow Valley.

There is no mention of Arthur in the inscription, nor is there any obvious reason to connect him with the stone. Hence, not everyone agrees with Mr Bullen’s view that it marks the grave of the historical figure behind the legends. Simon Stirling, author of the forthcoming book The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, is rightly sceptical of the Yarrow theory and has his own views on Arthur’s true identity. Simon supports the idea that the historical Arthur was really Artúr of Dál Riata, a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. On his blog he offers an alternative location for the burial-place and will no doubt say more about it in his book. In the meantime, I recommend Michelle Ziegler’s comprehensive study of Artúr mac Áedáin in the Arthurian-themed first issue of The Heroic Age. Dál Riata is also the setting for another ‘Historical Arthur’ candidate, as explained in an interesting blogpost by Mak Wilson.

Another note of caution on Mr Bullen’s theory is sounded by Melissa Snell who, like me, prefers to keep an open mind on the question of Arthur’s historicity. After discussing the Yarrow idea, Melissa adds a summary of her own views: ‘Arthur may have existed — I have never denied the possibility. But until some real, physical, unequivocal, archaeological or documentary evidence comes to light that supports his existence, I must continue to tell you We don’t know.’ More of Melissa’s wise words can be found in an older post entitled The Truth of Arthur.

It’s always interesting to see what local historians think of a new theory relating to their area. Selkirk-based Walter Elliot, well-known for his research on the Roman fort of Newstead (Trimontium), was reported by the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser as saying: ‘Mr Bullen has certainly researched the Yarrow Stone and the various stories about Arthur very well. Whether the two can be joined together is a matter of question.’ Walter’s comments appear in a longer article which can be found via this link.

Historic Scotland also reserve judgment on the matter: ‘The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) records indicate that ‘the Yarrow Stone was set up to mark the grave of two British Christian chieftains. It dates from the early 6th century and falls into place in the early Christian series more richly represented in Wales and Cornwall.’ As such, we certainly believe it is of national importance.’ This quote is from an article in Archaeology Daily News.

I can’t see many people being convinced by Mr Bullen’s theory. On the other hand, I do think he might be on the right track when he suggests that the name Dumnogenus means ‘born of the Dumno’ in the sense of ‘member of the Dumnonii’. The latter were a people of Devon and Cornwall who gave their name to the early medieval kingdom of Dumnonia. A Roman map shows a similar name Damnonii on the western side of the Forth-Clyde isthmus around what is now the Greater Glasgow urban area. If, as seems likely, Damnonii is a misprint for Dumnonii, then the ancient Glasgwegians and their Cornish compatriots belonged to two geographically-separated groups who happened to bear the same name. If the prince Dumnogenus/Dyfnyen buried at Yarrow was given this name because he was a member of a northern Dumnonian gens then we might envisage the territory of this people extending a considerable distance southward and eastward of Glasgow. This seems broadly consistent with later evidence (or a very strong hint, at least) that the kingdom of Strathclyde – the presumed successor of the Damnonii or Dumnonii – encompassed Teviotdale and other tributary valleys of the Tweed in the 10th and 11th centuries. The River Yarrow eventually flows into the Ettrick Water which itself joins the Tweed near Selkirk. Perhaps the native inhabitants of this area considered themselves ‘Dumnonian’ in post-Roman times as well as answering to Clyde-based kings five centuries later?

Postscript: I discuss the Yarrow Stone and its historical context on pp.34-5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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New blog on early medieval Govan

Replica cross at Govan

Replica of a 10th-century cross at Govan (Photograph © B Keeling)


This week I’ve launched a new blog called Heart of the Kingdom. It’s about Govan, an important royal site in the kingdom of Strathclyde and a major centre of stonecarving in the 9th-11th centuries. The old parish church at Govan has an important collection of monuments dating from this period, including the original shaft of the replica cross shown above.

I plan to run the new site alongside Senchus as an additional venue for jottings about the North Britons. Senchus will remain my main venue for posts on things like Rheged, Gododdin, Alt Clut and the battle of Arfderydd and will still host the ongoing series on Strathclyde. Heart of the Kingdom will have a narrower focus on Govan and on the sculpture of the ‘Govan School’. It will also cover news of events or projects in present-day Govan that relate to the carved stones and their period.

Here’s a link to the new site: Heart of the Kingdom

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Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons

Stone of the Britons

Clach nam Breatainn, the Stone of the Britons (Photo © B Keeling)


Here’s a link to an article that appeared a couple of days ago at the website of the Scotsman newspaper. It’s written by Alistair Moffat (co-author of The Scots: A Genetic Journey) and deals with a number of DNA-related topics. Alistair begins by looking at the Strathclyde Britons, a group whose history is of particular interest to me. He mentions two iconic sites associated with this people: Clach nam Breatainn, the ‘Stone of the Britons’ in Glen Falloch beyond the northern tip of Loch Lomond; and the ancient stronghold of Dumbarton (Dun Breatainn, ‘Fortress of the Britons’) on the north bank of the Clyde. He also mentions the Galbraiths, a leading family of the area around the loch, whose surname means something like ‘Stranger Briton’. Other families referred to in the article include the MacFarlanes of Arrochar, the MacDonalds and MacLeods of the Isles, the Kennedys of Galloway and the royal Stewarts whose forefather was Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland. Alistair even brings in a bit of his own history by recalling the days when he played rugby in the Scottish Borders against tough opponents called Beattie – a surname whose genetic origins go back to the Irish kings of Leinster. As an extra bonus, the article is headed by an excellent photograph of the Falls of Falloch in full spate.

Scotland’s DNA: Land of the Britons by Alistair Moffat

[I am grateful to Phil Ramsay for bringing this article to my attention]

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Did Merlin really exist?

Merlin

Gustave Dore's iconic depiction of Merlin with Vivien

Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. This isn’t just because I’m a devotee of the wizard’s latest TV incarnation courtesy of the BBC. No indeed. My belief in a historical Merlin goes back more than three decades, to my first encounter with a famous entry in the Welsh Annals under the year 573:

bellum armterid inter filios elifer et guendoleu filium keidiau; in quo bello guendoleu cecidit; merlinus insanus effectus est.
‘The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddoleu fell; Merlin went mad.’

In 1876 the renowned Celtic scholar W.F. Skene identified Arfderydd as Arthuret, a parish on the Anglo-Scottish Border a few miles north of Carlisle. Skene also proposed that the nearby place-name Carwinley, recorded in the 13th century as Karwindelhou, derives from an earlier Caer Gwenddoleu, ‘Gwenddoleu’s Fort’. Most historians now accept this derivation. The fort itself is either the Roman one at Netherby or a native stronghold beneath the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle of Liddel Strength.

Much academic attention has been directed at the Welsh Annals to assess their original date of composition. They seem to have been compiled c.900, probably at the great monastery of St David’s, by a monk who gathered information from a number of earlier sources. It is likely that the entry for Arfderydd was originally a brief notice of the battle (bellum armterid) and that the details of the participants were added later. The information about Merlin may have been inserted c.1150 after the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and possibly reflects traditions enshrined in older Welsh poems attributed to the ‘wizard’ himself. In these poems, we see Merlin fleeing in terror from the carnage of Arfderydd to seek a refuge in the forest of Celidon, a wild region of what is now southern Scotland. There in the deep woods he lived alone as a fugitive, hiding from King Rhydderch of Dumbarton who sought to capture him. In medieval Scottish legend it was believed that Merlin’s grave lies beside the River Tweed at Drumelzier, a village between Biggar and Peebles.

Wales makes its own claim for Merlin in the Arthurian stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in folklore about the town of Carmarthen whose Welsh name Caerfyrddin is said to mean ‘Myrddin’s Fort’ (Myrddin is an old Welsh form of Merlin). Glastonbury in Somerset is another place associated with Merlin in his familiar guise as King Arthur’s chief counsellor. For me, however, the ‘real’ Merlin is the one from the lands around the Anglo-Scottish Border. He was the bard of King Gwenddoleu at a royal caer near Carwinley in northern Cumbria. He fought at the battle of Arfderydd in 573 where he witnessed the slaying of his lord. Afterwards, he fled into the wild woods of southern Scotland to live out his remaining years as a hunted man.

Why do I believe this to be history rather than legend? The answer is fairly straightforward: it’s a hunch, an instinct, a quirky personal preference. I could try to justify my stance by adding that I’ve been interested in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Arfderydd for more than 25 years, looked at scholarly papers on the earliest Welsh traditions and reached a conclusion based on the views of experts. But this wouldn’t be entirely true. Most experts are rightly cautious about who Merlin was and whether he was ‘real’. Their careful consideration of the literature doesn’t account for my unbridled enthusiasm in placing him among the historical figures of 6th-century North Britain. Like I said, it’s really nothing more than a hunch.

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Notes & References

* On the oldest traditions of Merlin see: A.O.H. Jarman, ‘Early stages in the development of the Merlin legend’, pp.335-48 in R. Bromwich & R.B. Jones (eds) Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd/Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978).

* An excellent and accessible discussion of the northern Merlin is given by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book The Quest for Merlin (Sevenoaks, 1985).

* Skene’s identification of Arfderydd as Arthuret was announced in a paper presented to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh: ‘Notice of the site of the battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth’ PSAS 6 (1876), 91-8.

* While visiting Carwinley in search of Caer Gwenddoleu, Skene heard of a local legend about a great battle between ‘Picts’ and ‘Romans’. Was this a genuine tradition of the bellum armterid of 573, preserved in Cumbrian folklore? I explored this question in a short article published sixteen years ago: ‘Local folklore and the battle of Arthuret’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 95 (1995), 282-4.

The battle itself occupies one half of Chapter 5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).

* For additional information on these topics, take a look at Diane McIlmoyle’s blogposts on Merlin and the battle of Arthuret.

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Gododdin: where’s the beef?

Edinburgh Castle

The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

The Old Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) is a series of elegies on an army of Britons who died at the battle of Catraeth. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Scotland’s oldest poem’ because it was probably composed at Edinburgh. The battle it commemorates took place in the late 6th or early 7th centuries at a time when Edinburgh and adjacent parts of Lothian formed the heartland of the kingdom of Gododdin. In the poem, the Gododdin warriors are given a sumptuous feast by their king in his royal hall at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before setting out on their fateful journey to Catraeth. We know enough about the rituals of feasting in early medieval times to guess that the main item on the menu was beef from the king’s own cattle-herd. Beef, of course, had high-status connotations in this period. Ownership of cattle was a key indicator of wealth and status, hence the many references to cattle-reiving in the heroic poetry of Britain and Ireland.

A recurrent theme in Y Gododdin is the link between the generous feast provided by the king and the burden of debt this placed on his warriors. The beef they consumed at Din Eidyn came with a hefty price-tag at Catraeth: they paid for it with their lives. But they fought courageously, fighting hard until all were overwhelmed. The poem gives vivid portraits of individual heroes in the thick of battle, highlighting their skill and bravery. Among them was a warrior called Edar who, with his sharp sword and white-washed shield, went to war ‘after the feast’.

Cynydyniog, calchdrai, pan grynied grynai,
nid adwanai, rywanai, rywaned.
Oedd mynych gwedi cwyn i esgar ei gyflwyn,
oedd gwenwyn yd traethed.
A chyn ei olo o dan dydwed daear
dyrllyddai Edar ei fedd yfed
.

‘Unyielding, with shattered shield, when pressed he thrust forward,
the man that he had struck did not strike back.
Frequent after the feast was his gift to the enemy,
he was cruelly treated.
Before he was buried beneath the cover of earth
Edar deserved his drink of mead.’

Before riding off to war, Edar and his companions would have chewed their way through an impressive amount of beef during the banquet in the royal hall, high up on the crags where Edinburgh Castle stands today. But where did the meat come from? Where was the royal cattle-herd kept, and where were the animals slaughtered?

Archaeological excavations at the castle between 1988 and 1991 found traces of human settlement from the time of the Gododdin kings but didn’t turn up any indication of cattle being butchered there. The evidence, or rather the absence of evidence, suggested instead that the beef for the feasting-hall must have been brought up to the fortress from below, as ready-to-cook carcasses. Presumably the king maintained a cattle-pen and slaughterhouse somewhere close by, on the lower land near the base of Castle Rock, and sent his servants down to fetch the meat. Pinpointing the exact location wasn’t going to be easy. Centuries of building and development in the heart of old Edinburgh made it unlikely that anything of significance would be found.

Remarkably, it now looks as if the site in question may have been discovered. According to an article in the latest volume of PSAS, a recent excavation in the Grassmarket (an old part of the city below the Castle) found evidence of a settlement with a long history. It was clearly of lower status than the royal citadel but seems to have been occupied continuously throughout the early medieval period (c.300-1100) and beyond into the time of the first burgh. The site was used for various purposes, ranging from crafts such as metalworking and leatherworking to food processing (of fish, shellfish and cattle). The remains of certain species of dung-beetle imply a lot of manure such as would be found in a holding-area for cattle or horses. Specific evidence for cattle came from a foot bone and a jawbone, the latter with cut-marks indicating a butcher’s blade.

Although the data cannot confirm that this is indeed where cattle were slaughtered for the feasts of Din Eidyn the hints do seem fairly strong. If butchery wasn’t being undertaken on the summit of the Rock it must have been happening somewhere. To quote from the excavation report, maybe it was being done ‘at a nearby site, such as the Grassmarket, established to service the high status site above.’ Perhaps the place where Edar and his fellow-warriors got their beef has at last been found?

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Notes & references

* The full details of the PSAS article are:
James McMeekin et al, ‘Early Historic settlement beneath the Grassmarket in Edinburgh’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140 (2010), 105-128. The excavations took place between September 2007 and November 2008.

* The extract and translation from Y Gododdin is from A.O.H. Jarman (ed.) Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul, 1988), p.64-65 except for the penultimate line which uses John Koch’s translation from his book The Gododdin of Aneirin (Cardiff, 1997), p.17.

* On the lack of evidence for the slaughter of cattle at the royal fortress of Gododdin see Finbar McCormick ‘The faunal remains from Mills Mount’, pp.201-12 in S.T. Driscoll & P.A. Yeoman, Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 (Edinburgh, 1997).

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