On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin

New posts here at Senchus have been rather infrequent in recent months. This kind of slowdown has happened before and is usually due to my attention being distracted by a book-writing project. Last year’s distraction was Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, published in October 2014. This year it was Scotland’s Merlin: a Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, currently scheduled for publication in April 2016.

Some of you may recall an older blogpost (‘Did Merlin really exist?’) in which I stated my firm belief that a historical figure lies at the root of the Merlin legend. In my new book, I explore this topic in more detail and reach the same conclusion. For me, the Merlin legend is a tapestry of medieval invention woven around a Dark Age fact. At its core I see a real person who lived in Northern Britain in the sixth century AD: a warrior of noble ancestry who later became a ‘wild man of the woods’. I believe that his name was Lailoken (or Llallogan) and that he fought at the Battle of Arfderydd, a famous clash between rival groups of Britons in the year 573.

The early Welsh version of the Merlin legend calls its central character Myrddin and associates him with the town of Carmarthen in Dyfed as well as with the Arfderydd campaign and the Old North. It is in a poem belonging to this tradition that we encounter the name Llallogan. In the medieval Scottish version of the legend, the main character is called Lailoken but is clearly identified as Merlin in notes added to the surviving texts. Lailoken is said to have been buried at Drumelzier, a village in the upper valley of the River Tweed, in the territory of a king called Meldred. Drumelzier lies within the bounds of the ancient forest of Calidon or Celyddon in which – according to Welsh tradition – Myrddin/Merlin lived as a solitary wild madman. The Scottish legend tells how Lailoken was given holy communion by Saint Kentigern of Glasgow (also known as Mungo) but local folklore in Tweeddale asserts that this was actually a ceremony of Christian conversion and that Lailoken was originally a pagan. The ceremony is commemorated in a stained glass window at Stobo Kirk, a few miles downstream from Drumelzier. It shows the wild man, here called by his Welsh name ‘Myrddin’, kneeling before the saint. Local tradition points to a large boulder – the Altar Stane – as the venue where this scene occurred.

I was keen to visit all these places to get a sense of the landscape and to obtain photographs for the book. So, in August this year, a forecast of fairly decent weather prompted a journey to Tweeddale. The expedition’s photographer-in-chief was art student Freyja, who happens to be a devotee of the Merlin legend. In the following sequence of images, Freyja’s camera takes us on a visual tour of the Tweeddale traditions, starting with a search for Merlin’s Grave.

Medieval lore says that the grave lies near the confluence of the River Tweed and a stream once known as Powsail. The latter is marked on modern maps as the Drumelzier Burn, running beneath a bridge near the village church….

Drumelzier Bridge

Drumelzier: the bridge over the burn.

From the bridge, an old track heads towards the Tweed.

From the bridge, an old track heads towards the Tweed.

Drumelzier Burn

For a while, the burn runs alongside the track.

Drumelzier Burn

Track and burn once shared the same alignment all the way down to the river, but the burn’s course has been changed and it now bends away sharply, running in a new channel.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

According to tradition, Merlin’s Grave was marked by a thorn tree.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

The modern visitor usually makes for this particular tree, which stands alone in a wooden enclosure near the meeting of the waters.

Tweed and Powsail at Drumelzier

There is an aura of tranquility at the water-meeting, where the little burn merges with the river.

Drumelzier - Merlin's Grave

Below the confluence, twisted tree-shapes overhang a stony beach.

The pebbles on the beach form a mosaic of pastel shades.

The pebbles on the beach form a mosaic of pastel shades.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

Some of the riverside trees look as if they’ve stood here for hundreds of years.

This tranquil spot certainly has its own special aura. However, are we really looking in the right place? The present-day merging of river and burn lies a short distance upstream of the original confluence. Prior to the 1800s, the burn followed a more ancient course, joining the Tweed lower down. The true site of Merlin’s Grave must therefore lie near the original water-meeting, not far from the end of the green track leading down from the bridge.

Sir of Merlin's original grave at Drumelzier

Old maps suggest that Merlin’s Grave originally lay at the edge of this field, to the right of the fence. Folklore speaks of a cairn or stone-lined burial, but no trace can be seen today.

Merlin's grave at Drumelzier

With the site of the original grave seemingly lost, our curiosity is inevitably stirred by any odd-looking arrangement of stones.

Merlin's Grave at Drumelzier

Old thorn-trees, such as this one, overlook the Tweed near the original confluence. Might they be descended from the tree that once marked Merlin’s grave?

Returning to Drumelzier village, a short walk along the road brings us under the watchful gaze of Tinnis Castle, a ruined medieval fortress perched on a distinctive conical height. The castle lies on top of a Celtic hillfort, presumed by some to be the stronghold of King Meldred who is said to have ruled this district in the sixth century. According to Scottish legend, Meldred arranged for the wild madman Lailoken (i.e. Merlin) to be buried at Drumelzier. An older form of the name ‘Drumelzier’ is Dunmeller which may mean ‘Meldred’s Fort’ – this was possibly an ancient name for the structure that preceded Tinnis Castle.

Tinnis Castle at Drumelzier

Tinnis Castle – was this the dun of King Meldred 1500 years ago?

And so we continue our journey, onwards and northwards through Upper Tweeddale, following the river as it flows down towards Peebles. A couple of miles out from Drumelzier, on a minor road to Dreva, we come to Altarstone Farm. Nestling amid a deep undergrowth of trailing plants sits the Altar Stane itself, its pale hue making it easy to identify.

Altar Stane of Kentigern and Merlin

The Altar Stane, where St Kentigern supposedly converted Lailoken/Merlin to Christianity.

And then onto Stobo Kirk, an old church standing on the site of an even older one dating back to the twelfth century. The beginnings of Christian worship at Stobo might lie a long way back indeed, perhaps even to the time of Lailoken and Kentigern in the sixth century.

Stobo Kirk

Stobo Kirk

Kentigern and Myrddin at Stobo Kirk

Stained-glass window at Stobo Kirk: the wild man ‘Myrddin’ kneels before St Kentigern.

Here ends this brief tour of places associated with the Scottish Merlin tradition. More could be said, of course, and my new book deals with the history and folklore in much greater detail. Any attempt to identify the real or original Merlin involves wading into a controversial topic and not everyone is going to agree with my view, which is essentially that the Merlin legend originated in Scotland as the true story of a sixth-century warrior who lost his mind during a battle. The actual site of the battle is on the English side of the Border, but the tales that eventually developed into the Merlin legend began on the Scottish side. This, at least, is how I see it. I’m usually wary about the idea of real historical figures lurking behind legendary ones – see elsewhere on this blog for my scepticism about King Arthur – but in Merlin’s case I’m happy to make an exception.

* * * * *

The following maps give the geographical context of the places mentioned in this blogpost:

Scottish Merlin legend

Southern Scotland: the highlighted area in Upper Tweeddale is where I believe the legend of Merlin originated in the Dark Ages.

Scottish Merlin legend

* * * * *

My thanks to Freyja Appleyard-Keeling for taking the photographs.

Freyja at Drumelzier

* * * * * * *

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36 comments on “On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I love the mystery around Merlin, and why shouldn’t he have been an old man living in the woods ,It doesn’t mean to say he was mad. Maybe he just preferred living in natural surroundings with the trees, flowers animals etc.,As for magic spells well , there are magicians now are there not ? I thinks the spells have been blown out of all proportion over time.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, I suppose magic was the default explanation for anything supernatural or out-of-the-ordinary in those days. There’s a modern British magician called Dynamo whose amazing feats do make me wonder if magic might exist after all 😉

  2. Just for interest here’a a short video of Liddel Strength near Carwhinley

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Howard. An interesting bird’s-eye tour of the earthworks.

      The Lailoken legend says the battle of Arfderydd was fought “in a field between Liddel and Carwinley”, which perhaps locates it in the farmland beyond the far (southern) side of Liddel Strength as viewed in this video.

  3. Ray says:

    Thank you so much for a great post dealing with a very interesting topic. May Merlin assist you in your continuing searches for further information. Who knows a second book about him may be in the near future.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for these encouraging words, Ray. There’s certainly enough material for a second book among the numerous theories on Merlin’s origins.

  4. Looking forward to the new book. I had a good hunt around the ruins of Tinnis Castle last summer, but found nothing of particular note.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Bernie. On our swift visit we didn’t have time to go up the hill but I’d like to explore it sometime. Looks like a fine view of the valley from the summit.

      • Helen McKay says:

        Thanks for the great photos to yourself and Freyja – its wonderful to be able to do a virtual walk when I’m sitting at the far end of the world. About Tinnis hill – a great conical hill like that, sitting at the junction of major roads and rivers, it screams ancient usage. But the known castle there is relatively recent. Often these hills were named for the Cailleach, but that’s another story. I was talking about this hill with a mate recently, and we were wondering if the ‘tinnis’ may be a derivation of the ancient Celtic word for ‘fire’. WP says it derives from ‘thanes hill’. A Celtic placename in this critical position would not be too unexpected though, especially if the fires were used not just for ritual bonfires, but also for warnings along the routes. DId you happen to come upon any information to help here?

  5. dearieme says:

    “the ancient forest of Calidon or Celyddon”: is there any evidence for this supposed wood at that time? Pollen evidence, for instance. (I’m assuming that ‘forest’ is being used in the sense of woodland, rather than in the medieval sense of hunting ground for deer.)

    • Tim says:

      I haven’t delved into the vegetation history yet, but it’s an interesting question. Pollen evidence for this area may have been published somewhere. It seems to have been part of, or adjacent to, the region known in medieval times as The Forest. From what I’ve read, this was a true woodland rather than a hunting ground of mixed terrain.

      • dearieme says:

        The “Forests” of Jedburgh, Ettrick, and the Pentland Hills were mainly moorland in the middle ages. (Oliver Rackham “The History of the Countryside” 1986 p315)

        I suppose there might have been patches of deciduous woodland in the valleys.

  6. Beth says:

    Very much looking forward to this book! 😀

  7. Clas Merdin says:

    Excellent news Tim. I look forward to the book’s publication.

  8. […] On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin – Is Merlin real, and was he from what we now call Scotland?  “For me, the Merlin legend is a tapestry of medieval invention woven around a Dark Age fact.  At its core I see a real person who lived in Northern Britain in the sixth century AD: a warrior of noble ancestry who later became a ‘wild man of the woods’.  I believe that his name was Lailoken (or Llallogan) and that he fought at the Battle of Arfderydd, a famous clash between rival groups of Britons in the year 573.”  A fascinating read. Senchus […]

  9. Perspeculor (Travel & History) says:

    Thank you for such a fascinating post! I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for your book next year. I also can’t help but wonder whether you’ve looked into the similarities with Buile Shuibhne, which seems to be something of an Irish equivalent.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for visiting. The Irish wild man Suibhne/Sweeney pops up quite frequently in the book, not only because of his similarity to Merlin and Lailoken but also because I think his own legend was directly influenced by theirs (as opposed to vice-versa).

  10. I first came across this character in the Irish King Sweeney story: Sweeney voyaged to Britain where he befriended the wildman of the woods. First he travelled, ‘keeping the king’s court on his right’ I think the Seamus Heaney has it. The wildman, Alan (an Englishing of the name Ealladhan), had to die in one year’s time, at Eas Dubhthaigh. I translated this as the waterfall of the Black Mountain.
    For some reason I imagined the journey (Sweeney came to land from Ailsa Craig) as going north to Argyle, with Dumbarton Castle on his right: AD 570 held by King Riderch Hael. I surmised this Black Mountain to be the Black Mount next to Ben Dorain. Argyl and Bute.
    A very welcome blog. Be great to hear any more on this subject!

  11. Tim says:

    Cheers Michael. Interesting to note your theory about the location of the black mountain/waterfall. In the book, I haven’t hazarded a guess of my own. Not sure if it’s meant to be a real place – maybe symbolic? a literary motif?

  12. Jo Woolf says:

    What a fascinating project, Tim! Merlin is a subject I’ve always been interested in, so I’m looking forward to it already! Will be delighted to give you a review, if you’d like.

  13. […] There is a Christian component to the legend also. It is stated that, just before his death, Myrddin asked to be baptised by Kentigern, the priest of the early church at Stobo nearby. As with the other elements of the story, it is questionable to what degree this reflects reality; the church was in the habit of retroactively Christianising famous pagan figures through story, and so this part of the tale may be a later concoction. Whatever the truth, Myrddin’s body was fished out of the river and buried, not in the church-yard, but at the meeting place of the River Tweed and the Drumelzier Burn. By tradition, a whitethorn tree was planted to mark the For more, accurate information on this, there’s a book coming out in the spring by Tim Clarkson of the Senchus blog. You could do far worse than pick up a copy; his piece about the legend you can find here. […]

  14. Thank you for this virtual tour – I’m hoping to visit Drumelzier this year and this will be a helpful guide. I’m looking forward to your new book 🙂

  15. badonicus says:

    Looking forward to this one Tim. It’ll probably be out long before I finish mine!

    • Tim says:

      Glad to see you’re still working on your project, Mak.

      • badonicus says:

        I’ve been away from it for over a year, due to ill health. I’ve come back to it, but who knows how long for? By the way, thanks for the blog link, but I thought I should let you know that this one is no longer active. Keep up the great work.

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