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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Set in Stone: the Birth of Alba

Invermay Pictish Cross

Fragment of the Invermay Cross (illustration from The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903)


Few places are more closely connected with the Picts than the village of Forteviot in Perthshire. Nestling in the fertile valley of Strathearn, it was formerly a royal palace of Pictish kings, the most famous of whom was Cináed mac Ailpín (“Kenneth MacAlpine”) who is said to have died there in AD 858.

The lands around the village have yielded some of the finest examples of Pictish sculpture, most notably the Forteviot Arch and fragments of several crosses. One very large cross formerly stood south of the village near Invermay House until it was broken up in the 1700s. Its surviving pieces are, however, providing inspiration for a new monument. This will celebrate ancient Alba, the Gaelic-speaking kingdom ruled by Cináed and his successors, in which Picts and Scots were united as one people. The project will be managed by the Tay Landscape Partnership who have commissioned stonecarver David McGovern of Monikie Rock Art in Angus.

Modern representations of large Pictish monuments are often breathtaking (the replica of the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab being a prime example) so I’m looking forward to seeing the new Forteviot stone. It will eventually reside in the village as an enduring symbol of the rich archaeological heritage of Strathearn.

More on this story can be found at the website of The Courier newspaper: Perthshire village’s role in the birth of Scotland carved in stone

Other links:
Monikie Rock Art
Tay Landscape Partnership – Forteviot: the Birth of Alba
Canmore database record for the Invermay Cross

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The origin of the Merlin legend

Scotland's Merlin
Regular visitors to Senchus will already be aware that my latest book examines the historical roots of Merlin’s story. I’ve written several blogposts about it in recent months, as the date of publication has drawn ever nearer. Scotland’s Merlin: a Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins has now been published.

A summary of the book’s contents is printed on the back cover:
Who was Merlin? Is the famous wizard of Arthurian legend based on a real person? In this book, Merlin’s origins are traced back to the story of Lailoken, a mysterious ‘wild man’ who is said to have lived in the Scottish Lowlands in the sixth century AD. The book considers the question of whether Lailoken belongs to myth or reality. It looks at the historical background of his story and discusses key characters such as Saint Kentigern of Glasgow and King Rhydderch of Dumbarton, as well as important events such as the Battle of Arfderydd. Lailoken’s reappearance in medieval Welsh literature as the fabled prophet Myrddin is also examined. Myrddin himself was eventually transformed into Merlin the wizard, King Arthur’s friend and mentor. This is the Merlin we recognise today, not only in art and literature but also on screen. His earlier forms are less familiar, more remote, but can still be found among the lore and legend of the Dark Ages. Behind them we catch fleeting glimpses of an original figure who perhaps really did exist: a solitary fugitive, tormented by his experience of war, who roamed the hills and forests of southern Scotland long ago.

The chapter headings are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin
A study of the most familiar version of the Merlin legend as told by medieval writers from the twelfth century onwards.

Chapter 2 – Myrddin Wyllt
The Welsh traditions of Myrddin Wyllt (“Wild Merlin”), legendary founder of the ancient town of Carmarthen.

Chapter 3 – Lailoken
The old Scottish tales of a wild madman who possessed strange powers of prophecy and whose story seems to lie at the root of the Merlin legend.

Chapter 4 – The Battle of Arfderydd
This is the historical battle, fought in AD 573, in which Myrddin/Lailoken went mad and afterwards fled into the wild woods.

Chapter 5 – Christianity and Paganism
Many people today see the “real” Merlin as a pagan shaman or druid. This chapter suggests instead that he was a Christian.

Chapter 6 – Wild Man and Seer
A discussion of the Wild Man character as a popular motif in medieval literature.

Chapter 7 – Arthuriana
The legends of Merlin and Arthur are closely entwined and both are often believed to be based on historical figures who lived in Scotland in the sixth century AD.

Chapter 8 – Scottish Merlins
The development of the Merlin legend in medieval Scottish literature. This chapter also looks at a selection of modern theories about the legend’s Scottish roots.

Chapter 9 – Scotland’s Merlin: Fact or Fiction?
The final chapter draws the various strands of history and legend together to reconstruct the life and career of the “real” Merlin, who is here identified as a sixth-century North British warrior called Llallogan.

Appendices
Extracts from the oldest sources of the Merlin legend – the Lailoken tales, the story of Suibhne Geilt and the poems of Myrddin Wyllt.

Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Illustrations include maps, photographs and a genealogical table.

Published by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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Scotland’s Merlin in the news

Merlin the Enchanter

Merlin the Enchanter by Louis Rhead (1857-1926)

My latest book Scotland’s Merlin was mentioned in the Scottish media this week, with a full-page feature in Monday’s edition of The National.

Merlin_National25apr

The image on the top right of the page shows the famous ‘Merlin window’ at Stobo Kirk in Upper Tweeddale in the Scottish Borders. A black-and-white version of the same photograph (taken by Freyja Appleyard-Keeling) appears in the plate section of my book. The accompanying text summarises my theory about the real Merlin, whom I suggest was a forest-dwelling fugitive in the remote uplands of Southern Scotland at the end of the sixth century AD. A number of other writers have voiced their support for this view of Merlin’s origins, so my theory is by no means a new one. However, I’m sceptical of the popular belief that this ‘Wild Merlin’ was a pagan shaman or druid. In my book I suggest instead that he may have been a Christian.

The image below shows the front page of my own copy of Monday’s newspaper and, below it, the cover of my book (which was also published this week).

Merlin_National25aprCover

Scotland's Merlin

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King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Links

Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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Merlin update

Scotland's Merlin

Merlin depicted by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)


Today I’ve learned that my new book Scotland’s Merlin is about to be sent away for printing and binding. Publication is now only a few weeks away.

It seems a long time since I started writing this book (back in May 2015) and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product. I’m especially pleased with the cover, which really captures the Merlin I’ve described in the text – a “wild man of the woods” rather than the mystical wizard of Arthurian lore. The design is by James Hutcheson who has created the covers of all my books. It incorporates an image of Merlin from a medieval manuscript.

Scotland's Merlin

I’ll be posting more updates as the publication date draws nearer. In the meantime, the essence of the book can be found in a blogpost from December: On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin.

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The Over Kirkhope Stone

Over Kirkhope stone
This curious piece of Early Christian sculpture was found in the mid-nineteenth century at Over Kirkhope, a farm in the valley of the Ettrick Water in the Scottish Borders. It was discovered by Jim Elliot, a local shepherd, in a field that had once been an old burial ground. The stone is one of the oldest Christian monuments in Scotland and was probably carved in the fifth or sixth century. It is a roughly shaped pillar of sandstone, some 4 feet tall, with a human figure – usually interpreted as male – carved near the top. A small cross is inscribed on the front of his tunic and the letters PP can be seen in a rectangle above his head. His arms are raised in what appears to be the ancient way of praying, hence he is usually identified as an ‘Orans’ figure – an image in Christian art representing the soul of a dead person who, having gone to Heaven, prays for the souls of the living.

The burial ground may have been associated with a very early church and, although there are no visible traces of such a structure, the first element of the place-name Kirkhope is certainly suggestive. A few hundred yards to the north – according to tradition – there once stood a chapel. This may have been built on the site of something far older, perhaps even a small wooden church dating from c.500 AD. Only a modern archaeological survey could shed more light. In the meantime, we now have plenty of interesting food for thought, courtesy of renowned local historian Walter Elliot whose great-grandfather discovered the Over Kirkhope stone. Walter undertook his own ground-based survey in September 2015 and his report can be viewed at Richard Strathie’s Border Archaeology website (see the link below).

The stone is now at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. The close-up of the Orans figure at the top of this blogpost is taken from an illustration in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903). Here is the original illustration which shows the shape of the whole pillar:

Over Kirkhope stone

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Links

Border Archaeology – Over Kirkhope: the story so far by Walter Elliot

National Museums of Scotland – database record for the Over Kirkhope stone

Over Kirkhope

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