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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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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