The Merlin Trail

Merlin & Kentigern

Saint Mungo (Kentigern) and Merlin (Myrddin) depicted in a window at Stobo Kirk in Upper Tweeddale [© Freyja Appleyard-Keeling]

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).

CrichtonBookCover

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.

QFM_FM

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.

* * * * *

LINKS

Merlin Trail

Robin Crichton’s book On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age: the history behind the legend at Traquair.co.uk

* * * * *

ScotlandsMerlincover

* * * * * * *

9 comments on “The Merlin Trail

  1. grdtobin says:

    Drumelzier is Fraser and Tweedy territory.

    • Tim says:

      I came across the name Tweedy/Tweedie quite a lot during my research for ‘Scotland’s Merlin’. They held the barony of Drumelzier from the 1200s to the 1600s, if I recall correctly.

      • My grandmother was a Tweed by birth. Her ancestors came from Cambridgeshire, where parish records show them living since the late 1400s, though one couple went out-of-county to wed at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
        The earliest government records has their grandfather Richard Tweed and his son (also Richard) in Essex in the early 1400s.
        Before that, there’s _speculation_ that the elder Richard was a son of George Twedy/Tweedie of the Drumelzier Tweedies.
        However, the pattern of settlement of Tweeds prior to the dispersion caused by the industrial revolution matches that of Breton settlers from the Norman Conquest era, particularly the Honour of Richmond.
        This agrees with the Tweeds of Scotland, who dwelt solely in Ayrshire in the early decades of the 1800s. Ayrshire was where the Bretons (including the Bruce and Stewart clans) settled when invited by King David I in the early 1100s.
        Whereas the Tweedies were found only in the Tweed Valley, but not in Ayrshire.
        Both the Tweeds and Tweedies produced very capable soldiers in modern times.

  2. K N Bettess says:

    The Merlin Trail and Brunanburh

    Thanks for the info on the Merlin Trail and Robin Chrichton’s book, (just ordered).  In one of your four part series , Men of the North etc, you made a mention about the battle of Brunanburh.  l would like to draw your attention to an article , A history of Preesall with Hackensall, Part 3, Chapter 8 , The Black Lake Mystery. The author mentions the possibility of the Black Lake being associated with the battle.  Other local historians also believe that the battle could have been fought somewhere in the region of the Fylde.  The History of Preesall with Hackensall Chapter 1, The Travellers Tale gives an overview of the area concerned.  As a local person it is not inconceivable that the battle was fought in this part of Lancashire.  We have Roman and pre-Roman roads that lead to the modern A6 and the nearby, much overlooked, River Wyre , a haunt of the Vikings in their time.  Hope you find this snippet of information of interest.  Regards Jen Harrison

  3. jeremyhw says:

    I recently read Scotland’s Merlin (& have read Ardrey’s Finding Merlin). I am Scots but of South African origin. In the heady days of the demise of apartheid “urban myths abounded driven by hopes, fears, superstitions and prejudices. Stories of incidences just up the road popped up in relocalised form thousands of miles away. Recurrence of common factors “proved” validity. Social media online was in its infancy. This was mainly social “media” through rumour. But it was almost instant. Now consider the recurrence of themes such as Merlin or his archetype moving across space and time over generations where superstitions equated to reality, hearsay and oral tradition took in and morphed details to local social conditions. Wishful thinking such as wanting to identify with the subject, intentional embellishment to tell a good story or the“adjustment” perceptions by bards or early Christian writers do the rest. Is the modern world that different?

    • Tim says:

      A useful comparison, Jeremy. I guess the need to create stories that adopt/adapt popular themes or famous events to a particular locality is part of the human condition and therefore timeless. Modern urban myths are a good example. The fluid geography of the Merlin story is another. Even today, plenty of people are determined to prove that Merlin, Arthur or Robin Hood lived in the fields behind their house, often using snippets of local legend to weave a bundle of ‘evidence’.

  4. ritaroberts says:

    Fantastic post. I as well as many others love these old legends i.e. King Arthur, Robin Hood and Merlin whether they are true or myth is no matter we all enjoy them even now. However, with modern technology maybe some proof may be found of their existence. Wouldn’t that be great !!!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Rita. Part of me would like to know the truth about Arthur & Co but the mystique of these legendary figures is so alluring that it might almost be a shame if they were brought down to earth because of some irrefutable evidence of their existence. I actually rather doubt that such evidence will ever come to light, even if archaeologists in the future are armed with even more sophisticated gizmos than the ones they use today. I always smile when I see a book claiming to ‘prove’ who King Arthur was or where Robin Hood lived, when really it’s just another theory to throw into the pot (to bubble merrily alongside my own and other people’s speculative scribblings about the ‘real’ Merlin).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s