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).
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.
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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