Tintagel and the Battle of Camlann

Tintagel Castle

Modern sculpture of King Arthur on the summit of Tintagel Island.

Although this blogpost briefly mentions Scotland it is mainly about the far south-west corner of England. It does however deal with the early medieval period and with another of the ‘Celtic’ regions of Britain. It is one of a number of non-Scottish posts that occasionally appear here at Senchus.

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A holiday on the north coast of Cornwall last year gave me an opportunity to visit a couple of places associated with King Arthur. One was Tintagel Castle, a strikingly impressive site that I was lucky enough to explore on a warm, cloudless day. The other was Slaughterbridge, a Cornish candidate for Camlann – the site of Arthur’s final battle where both he and his treacherous nephew Mordred were said to have perished.

Battle of Camlann

Arthur and Mordred in combat at Camlann, painted by William Hatherell (1855-1928)

The question of whether or not the Arthurian legend preserves the authentic story of a sixth-century warlord called Arthur/Artorius is, of course, a matter of debate. My own thoughts on this controversial topic appeared most recently as a chapter in Scotland’s Merlin, published by Birlinn Books in 2016. For the record, I currently favour south-west Scotland as a possible source of the Arthurian legend’s original core, but this does not necessarily mean that I see Arthur himself as any more ‘real’ than Batman. Maybe Arthur existed, maybe he didn’t. The question is not, in any case, a crucial one for historians of early medieval Britain. Hence, Arthur’s story is frequently absent from modern textbooks on the period, including my own study of the Britons of southern Scotland (The Men Of The North, published in 2010). I nevertheless retain an interest in Arthur’s legend – and Merlin’s too – especially at places with tangible ‘Dark Age’ connections. In Cornwall, both Tintagel and Slaughterbridge fall into this category, each of them being sites where objects from the sixth century – the time when Arthur supposedly existed – can still be seen today.

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Tintagel Castle

Old engraving of Tintagel Island and the castle ruins.

Tintagel

The island of rock now crowned by Tintagel’s medieval castle formerly supported a substantial high-status settlement occupied in the ‘Arthurian’ era of the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Archaeological excavations have unearthed artefacts and structures from this period, ranging from pottery and glassware to traces of buildings. The pottery includes large jars (amphorae) that once contained wine imported from Mediterranean lands. These show that Tintagel’s inhabitants were involved in long-distance trading networks with other parts of what had once been the Western Roman Empire. Plenty of information about the archaeological finds is available online and I have included a couple of links at the end of this blogpost.

For many visitors, what attracts them to Tintagel Castle is its claim to be the place where Arthur was conceived. The claim derives from the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain described how Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, used deception to satisfy his lust for Lady Igraine, the beautiful wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. A potion concocted by Merlin enabled Uther to disguise himself as Igraine’s husband so that he could spend the night with her in the Duke’s stronghold at Tintagel. The offspring of this deceitful liaison was Arthur, who eventually succeeded to Uther’s throne.

Whatever our opinions on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s value as a source of early British history, there is no doubt that he knew how to tell a good tale. His dramatic account of Uther and Igraine ensured that Tintagel would forever have a place in Arthurian lore. Needless to say, the teams of archaeologists who have excavated there (most recently in 2018) have found no trace of Geoffrey’s characters – despite the discovery in 1998 of a stone inscribed with the suggestive name Artognou. Yet the popular belief that this was a place well-known to Arthur and Uther 1500 years ago is still alive in the popular imagination.

The following photographs give an idea of what the modern visitor to Tintagel Castle can expect to see.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

Looking back from the castle ruins on the summit of Tintagel Island to the adjacent mainland.



Tintagel Castle

Looking along the coast of North Cornwall from the ruins of Tintagel Castle.



Tintagel Castle

The outlined shape of a rectangular building from the 5th/6th century settlement.



Tintagel Castle

Information board for a group of excavated ‘Dark Age’ buildings.



Tintagel Castle

A pair of early medieval buildings nestling on the slope below the summit.



Tintagel Castle

Looking down from the castle to a small cove and beach.



Tintagel Castle Merlin's Cave

In the cliffs below the castle lies Merlin’s Cave (the cave on the left).



Slaughterbridge

According to the ancient chronicle known as Annales Cambriae (‘Welsh Annals’), the year 537 witnessed the bloody battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred were slain. The antiquity of this information is uncertain and cannot, on present evidence, be shown to pre-date the tenth century when the Welsh Annals were compiled. Two hundred years later, in the 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Camlann in Cornwall, on the River Camel. Cornish tradition has long located the battlefield at Slaughterbridge near Camelford, some 4 miles south-east of Tintagel. Another candidate for Camlann is the Roman fort of Camboglanna (now Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall. Camboglanna is a Celtic name borrowed by the Romans. It means ‘crooked valley’ in the old language of the Britons and could have become Camlann in medieval Welsh. However, there were no doubt many crooked valleys in Roman Britain, so the name Camboglanna might have been a common one. It is also possible that Camlann derives from a different name such as Cambolanda (‘crooked enclosure’).

At Slaughterbridge there is a fascinating visitor attraction called The Arthurian Centre which tells of the local Camlann tradition. The Centre has a tearoom, gift shop and plenty of information on Arthur, as well as a walking trail over part of the presumed battlefield beside the River Camel. The trail meanders through pleasant woodland and ends at a viewing platform above the river. Below the platform, and close to the water’s edge, lies a remarkable Early Christian gravestone from the sixth century. It is carved with a Latin inscription: LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MA[…]RI (‘Here lies Latinus, the son of M…..’)

Along one edge of the stone runs another inscription, in the ancient Ogham script of Ireland. Although badly weathered, this has been interpreted by at least one expert as possibly containing the same name Latinus. Unfortunately, we have no idea who Latinus was. He may have been a local Briton, or perhaps an Irishman. Whatever his origins, he was clearly a person of sufficient importance to be commemorated in this way. It is interesting to note that the name also appears on another sixth-century memorial, the famous Latinus Stone from Whithorn in south-west Scotland, which marked the grave of a father and daughter.

Unsurprisingly, given the local connection with Arthurian legend, the Cornish Latinus stone has been seen in some quarters as a relic of the battle of Camlann. A separate belief associates it with a battle fought in 825 at a place called Gafulford, where the Britons of Cornwall clashed with the neighbouring West Saxons. Gafulford is thought by some historians to mean ‘Camel-ford’, but others interpret the name differently and place the battle elsewhere. The simple truth is that neither Camlann nor the ninth-century battle can be placed with certainty in the valley of the River Camel, or indeed in Cornwall.

During my visit I was saddened to learn that the inscribed stone is at risk of being harmed by floods. In fact, it has been placed on the At Risk Register, which is a matter of concern. We can only hope that this important monument will soon be protected, perhaps by standing it upright (as it formerly was) and moving it higher up the riverbank (which may have been its original position). Some kind of intervention certainly needs to happen before it is overwhelmed by the river.

Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The trail from the Arthurian Centre, looking towards the supposed battlefield of Camlann.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The sixth-century inscribed stone lying beside the River Camel.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The Latin inscription.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

Information board on the viewing platform.



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Notes and Links

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling.

Readers may be interested in an article by Professor Andrew Breeze: ‘The Battle of Camlan and Camelford, Cornwall’ Arthuriana 15.3 (Fall 2005): 75-90

The Arthurian Centre has a website and a Facebook page

The Tintagel Dig on Twitter

Information on Tintagel Castle at the English Heritage website

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A visit to Meigle

I’ve visited Meigle Museum several times (three times, if I recall correctly) but as with so many heritage sites in Scotland three visits isn’t enough and I’m long overdue a return trip.

Many of you reading this blogpost will need no introduction to this excellent Perthshire museum and its fabulous collection of early medieval sculpture. Even if you haven’t had a face-to-face encounter with the 26 Pictish stones you may have seen drawings or photographs of them in books or online.

Below are some photos from my last visit, which was probably a dozen years ago. I offer them here as a gallery of images without descriptive text. For those of you who are planning a first trip to Meigle in 2019 these images are just a ‘taster’ of the treasures that await.

At the end I’ve added a link to the Historic Scotland webpage for the museum, which gives useful information such as opening times.

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 1

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 2 (‘Vanora’s Stone’)

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 3

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 4

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 5 (front)

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 5 (side, showing Pictish symbols)

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Link: Webpage for Meigle Museum

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling

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The origin of the Pictish symbols

Logie Elphinstone Pictish symbol stone

Pictish symbols on a stone at Logie Elphinstone in Aberdeenshire (from J. Stuart: Sculptured Stones of Scotland)


Nothing epitomises the mysteriousness of the Picts so much as their symbols. I’ve written about these strange designs in a number of blogposts, as well as in my book The Picts: a History. Like many people I have a particular view on their possible ‘meaning’, while acknowledging that it might not be the correct one. It’s a topic that has always attracted competing theories, as can be seen in the comment threads here at Senchus and in a plethora of other places online. The symbols have been seen as representations of various kinds of objects or ideas – religious, agricultural, astronomical, and so on – or as a form of writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. My own belief is that they represent the names of individual Picts in a pictorial way that to some extent imitates the Latin alphabet. The latter was adopted by the southern neighbours of the Picts, i.e. the Britons whose lands had been conquered by the Romans. I’ve long tended to assume that this imitation coincided with the appearance of Christian memorial stones among the Britons in the period c. 450 onwards, after the Roman withdrawal. The British memorials I had in mind were those typically inscribed in Latin with ‘X son of Y’ in commemoration of the deceased. It seemed to me that the pairs of symbols on many Pictish stones might be an attempt to replicate this kind of inscription, with the most frequent symbols representing the most common Pictish names. Where three symbols occurred together on a Pictish stone, I interpreted them as commemorating ‘X son of Y son of Z’. I always felt on fairly solid ground with this theory, mainly because I wasn’t alone in supporting it, but I continued to keep an open mind and listened to other explanations. A variant idea, for instance, saw the symbols as name-elements or components that could be combined in different ways to represent complete names.

Last month, the journal Antiquity published an article presenting new research on the chronology and purpose of the Pictish symbols. As one of the most significant contributions to the debate in recent years it has rightly received a lot of media exposure. To anyone with an interest in the symbols I strongly recommend reading this article (see the link below). Briefly, its authors propose that the symbols comprise a system of writing comparable to Irish Ogam and Scandinavian runes. It sees all three systems as responses by non-Romanised ‘barbarian’ cultures to the Latin literacy that had taken root among their neighbours inside the Roman Empire. As far as the Picts are concerned, the key point is that their symbols seem to have originated in the third and fourth centuries AD, contemporary with Ogam and perhaps slightly later than runes. This is a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional chronology which has tended to place the origin of Pictish symbols in the sixth century, long after the end of Roman rule in northern Europe, rather than in a period when the Empire still flourished.

Assigning precise dates to abstract carvings isn’t an easy task but the new chronology is based on scientific dating of archaeological material from recent excavations at a number of Pictish sites. In Aberdeenshire, at the high-status sites of Dunnicaer and Rhynie, the symbol-carved stones appear to be contemporary with material that can be dated to the third and fourth centuries AD. This is the very period when the Picts were first identified as a distinct group by Roman writers. One crucial piece of data from the excavations at Rhynie is that the main occupation phase lay in this early period. If, as seems likely, the symbol carvings are associated with this phase, we can infer that the symbol system was devised when the notion of Pictishness itself was taking shape, both developments being part of a cultural response to the Romanising, Latinising influences to the south. Like Ogam and runes, the Pictish symbols did not replicate the Latin alphabet but instead offered a home-grown alternative to it that was overtly (and probably deliberately) non-Roman in form. On the purpose of the symbols, the article notes their proximity to carved human figures on a number of later stones (from the eighth century) and suggests that they were ‘labels’ representing personal names in a non-alphabetic way. This fits with my own preferred interpretation as outlined above. Others will find that the article challenges rather than validates their ideas. On the chronology, however, there seems little reason to doubt that the new, earlier origin-date for the Pictish symbols is correct.

Reference and link:
Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg and Derek Hamilton: The development of the Pictish symbol system: inscribing identity beyond the edges of Empire Antiquity vol. 92, no. 365 (October 2018), pp. 1329-1348

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Pictish symbol stone discovered at Dyce

Pictish symbols

Pictish symbols: mirror (top), triple disc and notched rectangle.

A Pictish symbol stone has been discovered on the banks of the River Don at Dyce near Aberdeen. This exciting find was publicised today and is understandably attracting a lot of attention on social media. New discoveries of early medieval sculpture are as rare in Scotland as anywhere else, so the unearthing of a previously unknown Pictish stone is a significant event.

Photographs of the new stone published online show the carved symbols to be well preserved and easily identifiable. Archaeologists have recognised a triple disc, a notched rectangle and a mirror. The stone itself is an unshaped boulder with no overtly Christian carvings, so it falls into the category known as ‘Class I’. It was probably carved between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, before the influence of the Church led to Pictish sculpture becoming more sophisticated. Stones from the later classes tend to have regular shapes and Christian iconography. A common form of Class II, for example, is an upright slab with an ornate cross carved on one face and Pictish symbols on the other.

The new stone came to light because water levels in the Don had fallen after weeks of warm, dry weather. A fisherman spotted the stone and informed the University of Aberdeen, where the archaeology department is a renowned centre of research on the Picts. Historic Environment Scotland, the national archaeological body, subsequently became involved, together with the local authority and AOC Archaeology. A specialist team retrieved the stone from the river so that it can be conserved, studied and eventually put on display.

By the time my blogpost appears, the discovery of this stone will no doubt be well known in Scotland and beyond. I look forward to following the story in the weeks and months ahead. More information is sure to appear, with social media a good place to look for updates. With this in mind, I’ve included a useful and relevant Twitter account in the links below.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Dyce is already a familiar place on the Pictish sculpture map. At the ruined church of St Fergus are several stones, two of which stand out as fine examples of Class I and Class II respectively. The former is carved with two symbols while the latter has four. Common to both is the enigmatic ‘crescent and V-rod’ and I wonder if it might be significant that the Class II stone also shares the equally mysterious ‘triple disc’ with the new stone from the river.

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LINKS

The Scotsman newspaper: Stunning Pictish stone discovered in river by fisherman

Twitter: Bruce Mann (archaeologist for several local authorities including Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire) I regularly retweet news from Bruce Mann at my own account Early Scotland

Pictish stones at Dyce, St Fergus’ Church (Canmore database)

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Early Christianity in Glen Lyon

Next week, on Thursday 30 August at 1.00pm, Dr Anouk Busset of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department will be giving a talk at Govan Old Parish Church. This is an event I would very much like to get to but unfortunately can’t make it. Those lucky enough to attend will hear Anouk speak on the following topic:

The Early Christian landscape of Glen Lyon: investigating sacred movement in the Early Middle Ages

Glen Lyon is a place I’ve visited a few times. It’s a scenic gem – a long valley in the Highlands with picturesque views of the surrounding hills. It’s also an area rich in history and archaeology. Cairns, stone circles and standing stones bear witness to the glen-dwellers of prehistory. Those same folk probably held sacred the majestic old yew of Fortingall at the eastern end of the glen, a tree that is still alive thousands of years later.

Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew in the early 1800s.

Christianity eventually supplanted the local pagan religion, bringing a new package of beliefs and rituals. At Fortingall, the village church has long been assumed to occupy the site of an ancient predecessor, perhaps a monastery founded by missionaries from Iona. Fragments of finely carved Pictish cross-slabs are displayed in the present building while other, simpler Early Christian monuments can be seen outside. In September 2017, to widespread dismay, a Celtic hand-bell dating from the seventh or eighth century was stolen from a niche inside the church.

Further along Glen Lyon, a standing stone known as St Adamnan’s Cross bears the name of the famous abbot of Iona who died in 704. According to local tradition, Adamnan (Adomnán) undertook missionary work among the glen’s pagan inhabitants and performed a miracle that the monolith supposedly commemorates.

Anouk Busset gained her PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2017 and is one of the new generation of up-and-coming archaeologists whose work is making a difference to our understanding of Scotland’s early medieval past. This year she was part of a team undertaking a project in Glen Lyon, hence the theme of next week’s event at Govan Old. Her talk is sure to be enthralling, and I recommend it to any Senchus readers who want to know more about the Early Christian archaeology of the Highlands. It’s free to all, with no need to book a seat in advance (and with free refreshments too).

Anouk Busset's talk at Govan Old

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LINKS

Anouk Busset on Twitter

Jo Woolf’s articles on St Adamnan’s Cross and the Fortingall Yew.

Website of the Govan Stones at Govan Old Parish Church

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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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