King Arthur in Strathclyde

Arthur's O'on

Arthur’s O’on (Oven), a Roman monument near the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, demolished in the 18th century (from Roy’s Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, 1793).


The search for a ‘real’ King Arthur is a topic I usually try to avoid, mainly because I don’t think it adds much substance to the study of early medieval history. I say this as someone whose interest in the early medieval period began more than 30 years ago with a book called The Age of Arthur. In this controversial text, written by John Morris, the original Arthur behind the legend was depicted as a powerful warlord in post-Roman Britain. Gathering numerous scraps of information, Morris managed to weave a detailed historical narrative that many people still find compelling today. Although I initially came to the book via a fascination with Arthur, my attention was soon distracted by what Morris wrote about the Britons of the North. I had previously known nothing about this obscure people, yet their story of heroic kings and long-vanished realms soon held me enthralled. Since then, the North Britons have been at the forefront of my research on early medieval history, while Arthur has become a more shadowy figure in the background.

I simply don’t believe the legendary King Arthur is based on a real person who lived in the fifth/sixth centuries AD. This is why he rarely gets mentioned on this blog or in my books. My opinion on his historical existence is pretty much in line with the position taken by Professor Guy Halsall in Worlds of Arthur, a book I reviewed in the Scottish Archaeological Journal last year. In the review, I supported Halsall’s deep scepticism about Arthur’s historicity.

Like I said at the start of this blogpost, I generally prefer to avoid getting involved in the Historical Arthur debate. Avoidance isn’t difficult, because I don’t feel any great need to include Arthur in my own research on post-Roman Britain. To me, the overall picture is clearer without him. Sometimes, however, he nudges against subjects in which I have a keen interest, prompting me to take notice. This is what happened last week, when a new contribution to the Arthurian debate caused quite a stir in Scotland. ‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ said a newspaper headline, referring to a controversial theory by distinguished Celticist and place-name expert Andrew Breeze. Whatever I think of Arthur, any suggestion of a Scottish connection is bound to make me sit up, especially when the source is a renowned philologist who knows a thing or two about Dark Age history.

According to Professor Breeze, the Arthur of legend was a real warlord, a North Briton from the kingdom of Strathclyde, who fought a series of battles in what are now southern Scotland and Northumberland. This runs against a more conventional belief that the historical Arthur was associated with Cornwall and other parts of south-west England. Using the (in)famous battle-list in the Historia Brittonum – a text compiled in Wales in the ninth century – Breeze suggests that all except one of Arthur’s victories were won in the North. The exception is Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, which he identifies as Braydon in Wiltshire.

Of the other battlefields in the ninth-century list, the river Glein is identified by Professor Breeze as the Glen in Northumberland while the river Dubglas is seen as the Douglas Water near Lanark. I often wonder if these rivers did indeed bear witness to victories won by a Dark Age warlord – perhaps not a northern Arthur, but a Briton nonetheless – and the famous king Urien of Rheged springs to mind. The same might be said of the battle of ‘Celidon Wood’ which, as Breeze observes, must be somewhere in the Southern Uplands. These three identifications are fairly uncontroversial, unlike those proposed for the battlefields of Bassas, Tribruit and Agned, which Breeze locates respectively at Tarras Water (Eskdale), Dreva (Tweeddale) and Pennango (Teviotdale). He sees Bassas as an error for Tarras, which is the kind of typo a careless scribe might make when copying a manuscript. Castell Guinnion, which some historians identify as Vinovia, the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham, is associated by Breeze with Kirkgunzeon near Dumfries. Again, I think the battle at Guinnion might be a genuine northern event – a victory won by Urien or some other historical hero – that the Arthurian legend has subsequently absorbed. Finally, the battle-site named in Historia Brittonum as ‘City of the Legion’ is often placed at the Roman legionary bases of Chester or Caerleon (in Wales) but Professor Breeze offers his own suggestion of Kinneil at the eastern terminus of the Antonine Wall. It will be interesting to learn the detailed argument behind these theories when he presents them at the International Congress of Celtic Studies in Glasgow in July 2015.

I’ve marked the places suggested by Professor Breeze on the map below.

Arthur's battles

Click on the image to enlarge.
Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

Those of you who are familiar with J.S. Glennie’s old book Arthurian Localities (1869) will be aware that the idea of a Scottish context for the Historical Arthur has been around for a long time. However, a number of places identified by Professor Breeze have not previously been linked to the Arthurian battle-list so, in that sense, his theory is certainly a new one. It will inevitably spark further debate when the conference paper is presented.

Last week, in an article in the Scottish newspaper The National, Professor Breeze was quoted as saying “I know that my views will be controversial”. His ideas have already been challenged by Stuart McHardy and Simon Stirling, two authors of books locating Arthur in Scotland, who quickly responded via the comments thread at the newspaper’s website. Last Friday, also in The National, Professor Thomas Owen Clancy of the University of Glasgow gave a strong rebuttal, arguing not only against the identification of Arthur as a Strathclyder but also against the whole notion that the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum were fought by a Dark Age warlord. I share Clancy’s doubts. Much as I would welcome a narrative to plug the gaps in Strathclyde’s early history, I don’t think Arthur brings us any closer to finding it. On a more positive note, if Professor Breeze’s theory inspires more people to take an interest in Dark Age Scottish history, then even the diehard sceptics among us ought to see this as a good thing.

Take a look at the links below and see what you think…

‘Was King Arthur a Glaswegian from Govan?’ The National, 3 March 2015.

‘King Arthur battle site unearthed near Peebles’ Peeblesshire News, 3 March 2015.

‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ The National, 6 March 2015.

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for drawing my attention to the first two links and to Michelle Ziegler for sending me the third via Twitter.

J.S. Glennie’s book Arthurian Localities is available as a facsimile reprint from Llanerch Press.

Tim Clarkson: Review of Guy Halsall, ‘Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages’ in Scottish Archaeological Journal, vol.33, Issue 1-2, pp. 84-86.

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[This blogpost was edited and expanded on 13 March 2015]

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29 comments on “King Arthur in Strathclyde

  1. Susan Abernethy says:

    What happens to historians who come up with these theories and then get them debunked by others? Are they run out of town? Does their reputation suffer in any kind of way? Just wondering Tim!

    • Tim says:

      An interesting question, Susan. Perhaps it depends to some extent on thickness of skin? The old adage about there being no such thing as bad publicity might also apply in some cases.

    • richard heaver says:

      Well, sort of… This is not the first time Mr. Breeze has found ‘less than universal acclaim’ for his ideas, and by now the grains of salt are applied by the cartload….

      • Tim says:

        The suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh was fought near Lanchester in County Durham is probably the instance that many of us recall. Andrew Breeze knew he was sticking his neck out with that one, but I’m glad he suggested it. Whatever we think of the theory, it gave us a timely reminder that there is still plenty of room for doubt over the candidacy of Bromborough in Cheshire.

        Whenever Breeze tackles high-profile controversies such as Brunanburh and Arthur, it’s easy to lose sight of his groundbreaking work on less well-known topics. I’m thinking now of his study of the battle of Winwaed (AD 655) and his identification of the mysterious ‘Wilfar’s Hill’ (a place mentioned by Bede) which I featured in a blogpost three years ago.

  2. After your demolishing of the ‘sounds a bit like’ argument for Brunanburh, I’m amazed that the method still holds any traction at all (other than for entertainment, which is fair enough).

    • Tim says:

      Yes, Brunanburh is a similar case. I think we can be fairly certain that the allure of sounds-like etymology will be around for a long time yet. Even I, despite my frequent warnings, sometimes find it hard to resist. But I still don’t think it will help us to identify Brunanburh – or Arthur’s battles.

  3. David Hillman says:

    I reckon the literature could well originate from stories of Arthur ap Aedan, but with date, location narrative and raison d’etre all changed. Wild stories were often told of Princes who died young (for example Waldhere son of Waccho of the Lombards, dozens of princes of Wessex and Mercia) and when such stories were taken up abroad they could become hero tales with surprising varations in locality, nationality etc (for example Frankish Nibelungs and so on in stories of that ilk). So if the stories were given their initial kick off from some person really called Arthur ( but with little organic connection to stories later developed) any searching around for place names similar sounding to those that would appear in later stories is beside the point.

    • Tim says:

      You’ve made a good point, David, on these possible analogies from other legends. Simon Stirling’s book The King Arthur Conspiracy sets out the case for Aedan’s son being the original Arthur, and plenty of people seem to agree with the idea. But they should also read Michelle Ziegler’s note of caution in her article in The Heroic Age.

  4. Willie Johnstone says:

    Arthur and death by peer review seems a popular pass time with some academics.

    Dr Caitlin Green thoroughly debunks the notion of an historical Arthur in her book “Concepts of Arthur”, published under the nom deplume (so toxic the brand) Thomas Green; circa 2007.

    Was Arthur a deity or an aspect thereof? a view put forward for consideration in Greens book. Probably. There certainly is a case that points a pre Historia Brittonum “tradition” of Arthur, which seems entirely mythical in nature.

    I’m interested in the mythical Arthur and Fionn (both fulfil the same essential mythical function, one brythonic the other gaelic and share too many attributes to be simple coincidence) and have pretty much come to see them as a post christian manifestation of the god Lugh, or depository of lore once attributed to him: folk hero/other worldly consort of a sovereignty deity/associated with heights/otherworld raider/leader of hosts etc.

    Both have associated pseudo histories, but only one has been subject to the “runaway” fancy from the likes of the scribe formally known as Nennius, Geoffrey and the resulting romanticisation.

    Kim McCone “hammer of the nativists” sees the Fiana of Ireland as surviving in organised form into the 8th century and the likely last vestige of traditional paganism surviving under their patronage in some form until the ultimate demise of the practice. Was Fionn (and therefore possibly Arthur) an aspect of Lugh venerated by the Fiana, the divine hero for those outside the tribe? Were there still free born youths/un propertied free born adults, active in raiding hunting and riding the marches for a living in 6th & 7th century northern Britain?

    As to Arthur’s relevance to the history of Strathclyde, there is Beinn Artair and it’s position on the marches between Strathclyde and Dalriada. A popular theory for many is to see Ben Arthur as being named for Aedan’s son Artair and Artair being named in turn after an historical British hero/war leader.

    I see it more likely to be the other way round and think it more likely that Aedan named him after the very hill it’s self knowing full well the significance by way of projecting his expansionist ambition onto his progeny.

    Beinn Artair: Ben Arthur: The Cobbler, there’s a strong continental Lugus/Lugh association with making shoes. The naming of the hill fits well with the Arthur (& Fionn) of widespread topographic association and myth, hence why Arthur is just as much from Glasgow as he is Cornish, Welsh, Breton, from Edinburgh etc.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for adding this info about Green’s book, the Fiana legends and Ben Arthur. The name of the hill is indeed intriguing. Its position on the frontier between Scots and Britons is worthy of note and may be significant in the naming.

      • Willie Johnstone says:

        The name is intriguing, triple summits or peaks seem to be a feature with many topographical motifs concerning an Arthur, the Eildon Hills, Arthur Seat in Edinburgh etc. Also doubly named hills, Ben Arthur/The Cobbler, Benarty/Ben Vane (Fife).

        The interesting aspect of this name is it’s adoption into Gaelic if indeed the name commemorates the Arthur of Brythonic legend, rather than a Dalriadic prince. Either way, in the chapter “pre-celtic names” from W.F.H Nicolaisen’s book “Scottish Place Names” the author’s suggested methodology (see table III “the river livet and it’s tributaries” for a graphical summary) for discovering the oldest names, would indicate that the name is likely to be of some antiquity. The bigger the feature, the less likely it is to be renamed by incomes. In this case it may suggest that a language change didn’t precipitate a renaming, rather an adaptation of an existing name, Arthur or Artair being a very uncommon place name feature in gaelic regardless of it’s origins.

        The most common name is of course “The Cobbler” which may well originate, as suggested and quoted by P Drummond in his book “Scottish Hill and Mountain Names” (p. 113) from a local gaelic name recorded by John Stoddart in book, 1800, “The Scenery and Manners in Scotland”, An Greasaiche Crom: The (bent, stooped or) crooked shoemaker, referring to the over hanging peak of the three summit features.

        Drummond in his book’s reference to the Cobbler mentions that there is a tradition that new Chiefs of the Clan Campbell would prove themselves worthy by climbing to the top of the Cobbler’s cowl or hood, the summit stone. The reaching of which involves climbing through the keyhole feature, known as Argyll’s Eyeglass.

        Anecdotally, an interesting aspect in common with Irish lughnasa hills and traditions is that of a character known as Crom Dubh, the practice of hill pilgrimages is still referred to as Crom Dubh Sunday, literally bent/stooped/crocked black: the dark stooped one. On such hills Fionn is often associated with the same feature or some other nearby.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks again for your input. I’ve often wondered how The Cobbler got its name, but the idea of a straight translation of the Gaelic word for ‘shoemaker’ seems very likely if this already existed as a name for the summit feature. I didn’t know about the Campbell tradition – an interesting snippet of folklore – and I’ve made a note of Drummond’s book for future reference.

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    In a way I hope the identity of Arthur is never solved, Tim, because I love the legends and the mystery! There’s something about the ‘once and future king’ that can’t fail to draw you in. But I can also see how you were fascinated by the North Britons and their little-known story, which I know more about now from reading your blog and your book. Meanwhile, Glastonbury is high on my lists of places to visit! 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Jo. I still enjoy the Arthurian legends and have long been a believer in the ‘real’ Merlin, which is probably why I liked Glastonbury when I went there c.25 years ago. It may have changed since then, but perhaps not too much. The shops were just as I imagined – filled with all kinds of mystical Celtic stuff.

  6. dearieme says:

    What a load of rubbish. Arthur was from Kelso: everyone knows that. And Merlin lived in the Dumfriesshire woodlands.

  7. dearieme says:

    More seriously, Morris’s “The Age of Arthur” is a wonderful read. I look upon it as a bravura work of historical fiction, filling in the huge gaps between the smidgens of evidence for Britain in the Dark Age. A modern analogy would be Wolf Hall, where the author uses the facts known about Thomas Cromwell and fills the gaps with her imagination.

  8. Tim says:

    Previous readers of the above blogpost might wish to note that I have expanded/revised it today (13th March) to include a lot more detail about the new theory. I feel that the original version was too lean, as well as being overly negative.

    • Andrew Breeze says:

      I am Andrew Breeze and thank everybody for the interest. The lecture for the Glasgow Conference next July is based upon a twenty-eight-page paper, now submitted to an English historical journal. I shall be happy to send a copy to those wishing to read it for themselves. Seven of the nine battlefields are located on the basis of W. J. Watson’s _The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland_ (1926), so the evidence for identifying them has been in print for a long time.

      I believe that my conclusions are based upon coherent thought and consecutive reasoning, although I may (of course) be wrong. In any case, nobody will be more interested than I shall be if others can prove them to be unfounded.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for visiting, Andrew. I am sure many of us will be keen to obtain the article.

        Leafing through Watson’s book today, I saw a place-name that I’ve probably skimmed over on previous readings: Aghaidh Artair, ‘Arthur’s Face’, in Glen Kinglas near the head of Loch Fyne. Watson describes it as a rock “with the likeness of a man’s profile” but I cannot find a picture of it anywhere online. He mentions it on the page where he gives Suidhe Artair, ‘Arthur’s Seat’, as an alternative name for Dumbarton Rock, alongside the better-known example from Edinburgh.

      • Foremastjack says:

        Andrew, my surname is Cochran (also spelled Cochrane) which is a place-name from the lands of Cochrane in Renfrewshire (near present day Johnstone). The origin of this name has eluded researchers for quite a while. It appears on the Blaeu Atlas as “Cochern” (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Blaeu_-_Atlas_of_Scotland_1654_-_RENFROANA_-_Renfrew.jpg).

        While researching, I came across the account of the Battle of the Caledonian Forest (Cat Coit Celidon) that is sometimes referred to as Cad Achren which seems to be the same battle referred to in Preiddeu Annwfn where it is called “Caer Ochren”.

        Have you encountered this place-name before? I’d love to hear from you if so.

  9. adam ardrey says:

    Dear Tim.
    The earliest reference to ‘Merlin’ has him at the battle of Arderydd in 573CE. The following year Arthur Mac Aedan was at the hillfort Dunardry (his dad was inaugurated king two miles to the north at Dunadd in 574CE). ‘Merlin’ & Arthur and 573 & 574 and both a places that have similar names and… pure coincidence? One of the legendary Arthur’s most famous battles was Badon. The land between Dunardry and Dunadd is still called Badden (named after Arthur Mac Aedan’s relative Baodan). Mere conincidence. I write about this and more in my books Finding Merlin (2007) and Finding Arthur (2013).
    Best Wishes
    Adam Ardrey
    PS Enjoyed your books.

    • Tim says:

      Hello Adam, and thanks for this extra info on Dunardry and the Dal Riatan Arthur. On the battle of Arfderydd/Armterid, I’m a steadfast supporter of Skene’s identification (Arthuret in Cumbria). But I have your Merlin book on my summer purchase list and will look forward to reading the details of your argument. I’m planning to read Simon Stirling’s Arthur book as well, so I’ll be able to compare the two.

  10. Jana says:

    Jana says:

    While it is near impossible to name and place King Arthur within the confines of known history, the very fact that this character from beyond the mists of time continues to intrigue and inspire still stands. How many students and young readers have come to academics because of Arthur? Winston Churchill himself noted that while Arthur may very well have been fashioned from bits and pieces of Britain’s notable history there still remains something very real in the end–and if not real in terms of historical evidence then in terms that support the idea that Arthur should be a reality and a reality who moves us forward in the best possible way. Please note that Arthur’s influence goes beyond the shores of the British Isles and the Americas. Like all true heroes, Arthur travels the distance and endures. Academic research may never be able to settle the question of Arthur and the many tales that surround him, however it is without question that this hero will remain a force to be reckoned with and considered for all time. And, considering the present situation in the world, perhaps it is time for Arthur to return! One can only hope….

    • Tim says:

      True words, Jana. Arthur certainly has durability and won’t be pushed into the shadows anytime soon. I agree that there is something ‘real’ about him, regardless of any debate about whether or not he was a historical figure.

  11. badonicus says:

    As you know, Tim, I lean towards there having been a historical Arthur of the late-5th and early-6th centuries. Where he was from and where he may have fought will be debated for eternity… if not longer. I have never liked the ‘sounds like’ theories (amongst many others) but am intrigued as to why he came up with some of the locations. Some are not new, others are. I suppose I’m going to have to fork out £25 for his paper to find out; unless some kind individual wants to send me a copy. Good article as usual, Tim.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Mak. I’ve included many of Andrew’s proposed locations on the map of Arthur’s battles in my new book Scotland’s Merlin. While not feeling totally persuaded by all the sites, I’m starting to think he may be on the right track in placing the Arthurian legend’s origins in Strathclyde.

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