The Merlin Trail

Merlin & Kentigern

Saint Mungo (Kentigern) and Merlin (Myrddin) depicted in a window at Stobo Kirk in Upper Tweeddale [© Freyja Appleyard-Keeling]

Many visitors to this blog will no doubt be familiar with a theory that the legend of Merlin originated in Scotland rather than somewhere further south, such as in Wales or Cornwall. The theory is fairly well known, having been around since medieval times. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’) located a large part of the legend in Scotland. Medieval Scottish tradition later equated Geoffrey’s Merlin with a ‘Wild Man’ called Lailoken who featured in stories about Kentigern (aka Mungo), the patron saint of Glasgow. It was easy to make this connection, not least because Lailoken, Kentigern and Geoffrey’s Merlin were all believed to have been active in the late sixth century. All three were depicted as contemporaries of Rhydderch Hael, a king of the Northern Britons whose chief citadel lay at Dumbarton Rock. We know that King Rhydderch actually existed. Kentigern’s historicity is somewhat less certain but is generally accepted nonetheless. What, then, of Lailoken and Merlin? Were they real or fictional, and were they one and the same?

These and other questions were addressed in my book Scotland’s Merlin, published in 2016. The book appeared around the time that a project called The Merlin Trail was taking shape in the Scottish Borders. This project is the brainchild of Robin Crichton whose tireless efforts have recently come to fruition. In March 2018, the Trail and its accompanying website were officially launched. The website describes the routes of the trail and the places visited along the way. On the ground, the trail is marked by information boards at key historic sites across a broad swathe of southern Scotland, reaching westward as far as the Rhinns of Galloway. Robin Crichton discusses the Scottish Merlin in his book On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age which can be purchased via the trail website (see the links at the end of this blogpost).

CrichtonBookCover

One page at the website contains the following text:
Merlin is known the world over as the wizard of Arthurian legend. But behind the fiction was a real man who lived in Southern Scotland in the late 6th century….. He was of royal blood, a man of learning, one of the last of the great druids living in comfort and luxury until the genocide of his clan brought his way of life to a cataclysmic end. Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of the mass slaughter, he fled into the forest. For over a decade, he survived the elements, hiding in a mountain cave and living off what the forest could provide.

Similar words could be employed as a summary of my own book on Merlin, the main difference being that I muse on the possibility that the real figure behind the legendary one might have been a Christian rather than a pagan. I realise that in taking this stance I’m swimming against a heavy tide of popular opinion. Merlin’s paganism is, for many people, a big part of their fascination with the legend. It is strongly emphasised in Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, first published in 1985, a book that kickstarted my own interest in the legend’s historical roots. Indeed, many of the key locations in Count Tolstoy’s book (such as Hart Fell near Moffat in Dumfriesshire) are included on the itinerary of the Merlin Trail. A pagan Merlin living in southern Scotland is likewise envisaged by Adam Ardrey in Finding Merlin, a book that puts the main action in the Glasgow area. For myself, the key location is neither Dumfriesshire nor Glasgow but rather the upper valley of the River Tweed, around the village of Drumelzier. Needless to say, all of these areas are covered by the Trail and are mentioned in Robin Crichton’s book.

QFM_FM

Eventually I hope to visit every site along the Trail, although it may be a while before I get around to them all. Some sites are already familiar from previous journeys around southern Scotland (or northern England, in the case of the ones connected with the sixth-century Battle of Arthuret). At each site I will look forward to reading the new information boards and seeing how everything fits together in the overall narrative. What the Trail will hopefully achieve in the longer term is a boost in visitor numbers for parts of Scotland that have tended to be overlooked by the main stream of tourists heading north to Edinburgh and the Highlands. Many of the Merlin sites have not been highlighted as places of interest before, so it is heartening to see their heritage value being acknowledged in this way. Robin Crichton and his team should congratulate themselves on what is undoubtedly a substantial achievement.

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LINKS

Merlin Trail

Robin Crichton’s book On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age: the history behind the legend at Traquair.co.uk

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ScotlandsMerlincover

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Æthelflæd arrives

aethelflaed_TCcopy3

Last week I received from my publisher (Birlinn Books of Edinburgh) the first of six ‘author copies’ of my newly published biography of Æthelflæd. I am very pleased with how it looks and took this quick photo. The other five will hopefully be coming down the M74 in the next few days. They won’t be around for long and will be heading off in different directions soon after I receive them. But this one, being the first to arrive, I will definitely be keeping for myself.

A more detailed announcement of the book can be found over at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

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Cobwebs

I’ve been away from blogging for more than a year and a half, my longest period of absence since the launch of Senchus ten years ago. Distractions of various kinds have caused me to drift off the radar, but now I’m gradually making my way back. All three of my blogs have lain dormant since the autumn of 2016. Returning after such a long break means oiling their wheels, kick-starting their rusty engines and clearing the cobwebs off my WordPress dashboard.

Although absent from the ‘Blogosphere’ I’ve still kept in touch with history and archaeology. In April 2017, the Stove Network invited me to their headquarters in Dumfries to give a talk about Dark Age Galloway. The event was part of a cultural heritage project called Our Norwegian Story which looked at links between Scandinavia and South-West Scotland, so the Vikings featured prominently in my presentation. On a similar note, I was honoured to give the 2018 Oddveig Røsegg Memorial Lecture to the Scottish Norwegian Society a couple of months ago. My topic was ‘Strathclyde and the Vikings’, with an emphasis on the Norse aspect. A nice souvenir of the evening was a Society badge incorporating the Scottish and Norwegian flags (see below).

SNSbadge300high

Also in 2017 I wrote a book, my seventh on early medieval history and the first without a Scottish focus. It’s a biography of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Æthelflæd ruled the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia in the early tenth century and led her armies against the Vikings. Her death in June 918 is being commemorated 1100 years later at a number of places in what was once her domain. My book is scheduled to appear around the time of the anniversary and is being published by Birlinn of Edinburgh. The front cover shows a sculptured portrait of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, the site of one of her fortresses.

Aethelflaedcover_500high

I’ll be posting about Æthelflæd at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, which seems the most relevant venue, but occasional updates on the book will also appear here at Senchus.

Those of you who keep an eye on news about Dark Age Scotland will know that there have been some interesting developments in the last year or so. I hope to report on these as I slowly get back to blogging.

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Saving the Wemyss Caves: thirty years of SWACS

Pictish boat carving

Carving of a boat in Jonathan’s Cave.


With considerable regret I’ve had to turn down an invitation to speak about the Picts at an important event happening in Fife next month. Personal circumstances mean I am unable to travel to Scotland on the weekend in question. The event is the 30th anniversary of SWACS, the group behind the campaign to preserve the famous caves on the shoreline at East Wemyss. Many of you will know that the walls of these caves are inscribed with Pictish carvings, one of which shows a boat propelled by oars.

I’ll be sorry to miss what will surely be an exciting afternoon of Pict-related info and discussion. The range of topics can be seen on the leaflet below:

Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society

Attendance is free and is open to all. To reserve a place, use the online booking form at Eventbrite via this link.

If you haven’t already visited the Wemyss Caves it’s not too late to have a guided tour. The final tours of 2016 are taking place this Sunday (25th September) as part of Scottish Archaeology Month. Tours start from the SWACS Environmental Centre in the basement of East Wemyss Primary School. The Centre will be open on that day from 2.00pm-4.30pm, but you’ll need to arrive before 3.00pm if you want to join a tour.

SWACS (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society) also has a website and a Facebook page.

Photographs of two of the caves, together with illustrations of some of the Pictish carvings, can be found in a blogpost I wrote last year: Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves.

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Dandaleith Pictish Stone

Dandaleith Pictish Stone
This fabulous monument is a fairly recent addition to Scotland’s corpus of Dark Age sculpture, having been discovered only three years ago. It was unearthed in a field at Dandaleith Farm near Craigellachie in Moray and, after conservation work, is now on display in Elgin Museum.

It stands 1.7 metres tall and is a typical example of a “Class I” stone, being adorned with Pictish symbols but lacking any overtly Christian motifs. The date of carving is probably within the range 550 to 650 AD. Unusually, it has symbols on adjacent faces (or sides) instead of on one face only.

The symbols comprise two pairs: a notched rectangle & Z-rod below a mirror (or mirror-case); and a crescent & V-rod below an eagle. All four symbols are known from other stones elsewhere across the former territory of the Picts. The meaning of Pictish symbols remains a mystery and continues to spark lively debate in various quarters (including several threads at this blog). I’m inclined to interpret these enigmatic designs as names, seeing those in pairs as patronyms or matronyms, i.e. “X, the son (or daughter) of Y”. If this is the correct interpretation, the pairings could represent a Pictish equivalent of the Christian memorial inscriptions (written in Latin) on contemporary stones outside the Pictish lands, examples of which are found in southern Scotland, Wales and England.

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about the Dandaleith Stone in the near future. Its discovery raises many interesting questions that archaeologists will want to answer. For whom was it carved and what purpose did it serve? Was it a memorial to the dead or did it mark a boundary? Was there a Pictish settlement nearby or did the stone stand alone in its immediate landscape?

We shall have to wait and see. In the meantime, here are some links to further information:

Elgin Museum archaeological collections [look out for the Dandaleith Stone in one of the photographs]
Aberdeenshire Council: Sites & Monuments Record
National treasure: Museum to unveil rare Pictish Dandaleith Stone
Archaeologist try to unlock secrets of Pictish find

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A note on the illustration

Having not yet visited the Dandaleith Stone I don’t have any photographs to put at the top of this blogpost. I merely offer a very rough sketch, using a simple outline technique (I cannot claim any artistic talent whatsoever). My points of reference were photographs and drawings found online, none of which are in the public domain so I couldn’t reproduce them here. I should add that my intention was to evoke the style of John Romilly Allen (1847-1907) who produced so many fine illustrations of Pictish stones for his and Joseph Anderson’s magisterial ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, published in 1903). The result of my efforts is little more than a homage to Allen’s brilliantly effective artwork. On a personal level it helps me to imagine how the Dandaleith Stone might have appeared in ECMS if it had been discovered in 1813 rather than 200 years later.

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Bede’s World reborn

St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

St Paul’s Church, Jarrow.


The Venerable Bede was an English monk who spent almost his whole life at the dual monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He wrote about the evolution of early English Christianity in his best-known work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD 731. Despite its title the book is far more than a religious chronicle and contains a wealth of information on kings, kingdoms and politics in Dark Age Britain. Bede is one of our key sources on Pictish history. In fact, his book is a useful one to wave around whenever someone asks “Do we really know anything about the Picts?”

Bede

Bede on his deathbed in AD 735 (a painting by James Doyle Penrose).

Jarrow is situated on the south bank of the River Tyne. Its parish church, St Paul’s, stands on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery and preserves some of the original stonework. Nearby stands Jarrow Hall, an eighteenth-century mansion which opened to the public as the Bede Monastery Museum in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, in 1993, a new museum and heritage centre called Bede’s World was unveiled. This had a “living history” aspect which included representations of Dark Age farming with real animals of the type an Anglo-Saxon monk would have seen. I visited Bede’s World a couple of times and always enjoyed it. As well as the historical displays and archaeological relics it had a nice gift shop and cafe (the latter being located in Jarrow Hall). Beyond the old monastic boundary lay the post-industrial landscape of Tyneside but this just seemed to add something to the overall experience.

Anglo-Saxon window at St Paul's Church, Jarrow.

Anglo-Saxon window in the wall of St Paul’s Church at Jarrow.

However, the recession of the early twenty-first century has had a big impact on heritage tourism sites, especially those that rely on government funds to supplement visitor revenues. Bede’s World was one of the places that fell victim to the cutbacks. Despite attracting more than 70,000 visitors per year, this unique and exciting venue was forced to close its doors in February 2016.

However, the story did not end there. A few weeks after the closure, some very encouraging tidings were heard. South Tyneside Council, the landowner of the Hall and museum, announced that the venue had been saved from oblivion. A charity called Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle would be taking over as the new operator.

Things have moved further along in the intervening months. Last week it was reported that the site will re-open in October as “Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum.”

This is all good news. I look forward to seeing the new version of Bede’s World in the autumn. If it’s even half as good as the old one it will be well worth a visit.

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Bede

The sad tale of the closure of Bede’s World and the rather happier story that followed can be traced via the links below.

Bede’s World: Cash crisis forces closure of Jarrow tourist attraction

Bede’s World attraction in Jarrow saved from closure

Former Bede’s World museum to reopen as Jarrow Hall

More links….
Jarrow Hall – Anglo Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum
Jarrow Hall on Twitter
St Paul’s Church, Jarrow

Wearmouth & Jarrow: Northumbrian Monasteries in a Historic Landscape, a book by Sam Turner, Sarah Semple and Alex Turner (published in 2013).

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The Kilmorie Cross (again)

Kilmorie Cross
This magnificent cross-slab from the Viking Age stands in the churchyard of Kirkcolm in the Rhinns of Galloway. I blogged about it two years ago, reproducing a nineteenth-century drawing (see below) together with photographs from Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (published in 1903). Here’s an extract from my description of the carvings:

‘On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.’

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland

After describing the stone I added these words: Having not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross I don’t have any photographs of my own to accompany this blogpost. This situation can now be remedied. A recent holiday in Galloway has given me an opportunity to see the monument in all its glory.

Kilmorie Cross

The hammerhead cross on the front of the slab.

Kilmorie Cross

Interlace patterns on the front face.

Kilmorie Cross

The rear of the slab.

Kilmorie Cross

The Christ figure.

Kilmorie Cross

The pagan figure (possibly representing Sigurd?)

Kirkcolm Church, Galloway

Kirkcolm Church

Kilmorie Cross

Visitors to the church are invited to view its Dark Age monument.

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Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

My original post on the Kilmorie Cross can be found via this link.

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