The Coninie Stone

The period 400 to 600 AD was a time when Christianity, the religion of the last Roman emperors, was gaining ground in many parts of Britain at the expense of home-grown pagan beliefs. The spread of Christianity brought an ecclesiastical infrastructure of churches, monasteries, priests and bishops. It also initiated a stonecarving tradition in which crosses and Latin inscriptions were incised on memorials to the dead. Some of the finest examples of this type of sculpture come from Southern Scotland, bearing witness to the growth of Christianity among the Northern Britons in the fifth and sixth centuries. In this blogpost I’ll be highlighting one such monument, the Coninie Stone, which is of particular interest because it commemorates a woman. Only rarely do we find women identified by name on early medieval sculpture, their minimal appearance on inscriptions matching their sparse treatment in contemporary literature.

Coninie Stone

The Coninie Stone formerly lay in the valley of the Manor Water, a tributary of the River Tweed, but is now kept in the Tweeddale Museum at the Chambers Institution in Peebles. It has been known since 1890 when it was associated with a cairn of smaller stones situated on sloping ground beside the Newholm Hope Burn. The cairn was demolished sometime between 1890 and 1934, when the Coninie Stone was transferred to the museum. Measuring just under a metre in length, the stone is an irregular slab of whinstone with a cross and a Latin inscription incised on the flattest side. The two-line inscription begins with the word Coninie, deriving from Coninia, a Celtic female name that may be of Irish provenance. The second word –tirie is incomplete and is missing a letter or two at the beginning. One theory proposes that the absent letters are M and A, thus making martirie (a form of the Latin word for ‘martyr’). An alternative view is that there’s only one missing letter, an E, for Ertirie, with the inscription then commemorating a woman called Coninia Ertiria. The form of lettering and the design of the cross suggest a date in the late sixth century.

Coninie Stone

Whoever she was, Coninia was clearly remembered with affection and respect by the people who commissioned her memorial. She may have been buried inside or beneath the cairn, or her stone may have marked a separate grave nearby. The cross and the Latin inscription tell us that she was a Christian, but this is as much as we can say about her. If her name is indeed of Irish origin, she might not have been a native of the area. Missionaries from Ireland, both male and female, appear to have been active in northern parts of Britain during the sixth century and this could provide a context for her presence in Tweeddale. Alternatively, she may have been a Briton with an Irish name, or someone with a name that isn’t actually Irish at all.

St Gordian's Kirk

St Gordian’s Kirk. Image via Wikimedia Commons © Chris Eilbeck / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

The stone and cairn were found close to a mysterious site traditionally known as St Gordian’s Kirk or St Gorgham’s Chapel. This is marked today by a small enclosure containing a Celtic-style cross (erected in 1873) and an early medieval cross-base. The latter was moved from a location some distance away and is often referred to as St Gordian’s Cross. It has been hollowed out to resemble a baptismal font but the basin was originally the socket for a (now lost) cross-shaft possibly carved in the tenth century. St Gordian’s Kirk has earthwork traces of buildings that, according to local tradition, are the remains of an ancient church. In the absence of a detailed excavation, the date and purpose of these features are unknown, but the prevailing view among archaeologists is that the visible remains look secular rather than ecclesiastical. On the other hand, nearby place-names like Kirkhope and Kirkstead are suggestive of an old church having stood in the locality at some point. The traditional connection with the obscure saint Gordian is also interesting. He was a Christian martyr executed in Italy in 362 but is hardly well-known in Britain. Even if there really was a church at this site in the secluded Manor Valley, we would be left to wonder why it was associated with him. A modern archaeological investigation could perhaps answer some of these questions. At the very least, it might enable us to provide Coninia and her memorial with a little more context.

Manor Valley

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Notes

I visited the Tweeddale Musuem on 19th February 2020. At that time, the Coninie Stone was not on public display, having been moved to a storage area. I am grateful to Wendy at the museum and to Trevor Cowie of the Peeblesshire Archaeological Society for enabling me to see the stone and to take the photograph below. The stone lay on the floor under a tall shelf-unit and was partly obscured by other artefacts that were too heavy to move aside. I managed to crouch down and take this ‘snap’ using the camera on my phone. I will try and get a better-quality image on a future visit!

Coninie stone

For an excellent study of the Early Christian stones of Southern Scotland I recommend the following paper by Dr Katherine Forsyth, Reader in Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow:
K. Forsyth, ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the Inscribed Stones of Sub-Roman Southern Scotland’, pp. 113-34 in S.M. Foster and M. Cross (eds.) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century. (Leeds: Society for Medieval Archaeology, 2005)

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The Govan Stones: new discoveries

Govan Stones 2019
A major archaeological find at Govan has been causing quite a buzz in the past week or so. No doubt many of you will already be aware of the news from social media and other sources. The find is indeed exciting: three early medieval carved stones, long assumed to have been lost forever, have been rediscovered in the graveyard of the old parish church.

The discovery happened during a community archaeological project called Stones and Bones which is run by Northlight Heritage, a charity closely involved with the conservation of the church (known as ‘Govan Old’) and its collection of early medieval sculpture. The significance of the new find becomes clear when we look back at the long history of the Govan Stones.

wr_gopc

The story begins a thousand years ago, in the Viking Age, when Govan was a centre of royal power in the kingdom of Strathclyde. In those days, the site of Govan Old was occupied by a church that served the spiritual needs of Strathclyde’s rulers – a powerful dynasty of Britons whose realm extended northward to Loch Lomond and southward across the Solway Firth. The kings with their families and other members of the local elite worshipped at Govan, burying their dead in the churchyard and marking the graves with elaborately carved stones. After the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century, the line of local kings came to an end but the gravestones remained. In later times, when the old kingdom of the Britons was barely a memory, many of the stones were re-used by prosperous Govan families as memorials for their own deceased. Hence we see the initials of people who died in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inscribed on a number of stones, overlaying the Viking-Age carvings of crosses and interlace patterns. In the early nineteenth century, the churchyard still contained more than 40 ancient monuments. Most were recumbent cross-slabs, designed to lie flat over graves, but there were other types too, the most impressive being 5 hogbacks and (after its discovery in 1855) a magnificently carved sarcophagus.

Govan Stones

Hogbacks and cross-slabs in the churchyard of Govan Old, c. 1900 [T.C.F. Brotchie]

In the late nineteenth century, Glasgow landowner and politician Sir John Stirling-Maxwell arranged for cast replicas to be made of the early medieval stones. These were then individually photographed, with the images being published by Sir John in 1899 under the title Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan. Some years later, the sarcophagus was placed inside the church for safekeeping, to be followed in 1926 by many of the other stones. The rest remained outside. A plan of the churchyard, drawn in 1936 (see below), shows 19 stones lying in a line along the east wall. On the other side of the wall lay one of Govan’s famous shipyards.

Govan Stones

Govan Stones 2019

Aerial view of Govan in the 1930s, showing the churchyard (highlighted in green on this copy of the original), the River Clyde at upper right and the Harland & Wolff shipyard in the centre.

And so we come to one of the darkest chapters in the story of the Govan Stones. In the early 1900s, the shipyard erected huge sheds right up against the churchyard wall. These enormous buildings were demolished in 1973. Unfortunately, the demolition work brought debris crashing down on the ancient stones lying beside the wall. At the time, it was believed that nearly all of these precious monuments had been reduced to shattered fragments amongst the rubble. A few survived, though badly damaged, and are now inside the church.

Fast forward through four decades to 2019 and the Stones and Bones ‘community dig’. One of the dig’s local volunteers was Mark McGettigan, age 14, a pupil of Lourdes Secondary School in Cardonald. Mark was using a probe to search for objects buried beneath the surface near the eastern edge of the churchyard when he made a remarkable discovery:
I was just prodding the ground to see if there was anything there and suddenly it made a noise and I realised I had hit something. Myself and two of the archaeologists worked out the area of the object and started to dig it out and clean it. I wasn’t too sure at the start what it was. But then we checked with the records and we realised it was one of the lost Govan Stones. I am extremely happy, in fact I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.”

The stone turned out to be a cross-slab from the Viking Age, carved in the 10th or 11th century. Nor was it a lone discovery: another two slabs were also found. All three have been matched to their corresponding photographs in the Stirling Maxwell survey, published 120 years ago, and identified as ’30’, ’38’ and ’40’ according to Sir John’s classification of the Govan monuments. The composite image at the top of this blogpost shows the three photographs grouped together (by me) but in the original 1899 publication they appear on separate pages.

Conservation and analysis by specialists are the essential next steps for these important relics of Scotland’s ancient past before they can be put on public display. In the meantime, it is quite possible that other stones – hitherto thought to have been reduced to rubble – survived the disaster of 1973 and still await rediscovery. We shall see what happens in the coming months but these are certainly interesting times for Govan’s ancient heritage.

Below are some photographs of the new finds, reproduced here by kind permission of archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

Govan Stones 2019

Uncovering one of the three cross-slabs (Mark McGettigan kneeling at top right).


Govan Stones 1899

Frazer Capie (Riverside Museum) and Ingrid Shearer (Northlight Heritage) using the 1899 survey to identify the three slabs.


Govan Stones 2019

An early medieval masterpiece revealed (the stone shown as ‘No. 40’ in the picture at the top of this blogpost).


Govan Stones 2019

Photogrammetric recording by Dr Megan Kasten of the University of Glasgow.

Finally, a message for those of you who enjoy getting out and about to see Pictish stones and similar ancient stuff. If you haven’t yet visited the collection at Govan Old, you’re missing out on one of Britain’s premier ‘Dark Age’ attractions. The Govan Stones are an absolute must-see for anyone who has an interest in Viking-Age sculpture, Celtic art or Scotland’s early history. Govan was the capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the last realm of the Cumbri or Northern Britons. Hardly anyone seems to know about this kingdom, even though it was a major player on the turbulent political stage of the ninth to eleventh centuries. Its inhabitants are the most obscure, the most enigmatic of Scotland’s early peoples. If you think the Picts and their symbol-stones have an aura of mystery, see what you make of the Northern Britons and their hogbacks. Stepping inside Govan Old feels like entering the heart of a strange, forgotten realm that somehow got left out of the school history books. The exciting new discoveries by Mark McGettigan and his fellow community diggers have brought a little bit more of this long-lost kingdom into focus.

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Notes & Acknowledgments

My thanks to Frazer Capie for telling me about the discovery and to Ingrid Shearer for letting me use the press release images and other media information.

The Govan Stones and the churchyard have Scheduled Monument status and are protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The Stones and Bones community dig has scheduled monument consent from Historic Environment Scotland.

The Govan Heritage Trust is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to secure the future of the church and its rare collection of early medieval sculpture. Anyone wishing to support the Trust can contribute via this link.

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Links

The Govan Stones Project has a website and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

Other useful Twitter accounts for news and updates about the latest discoveries:
Northlight Heritage
Love Archaeology
Dr Megan Kasten
Dr Kasten has produced a superb 3D image of one of the newly unearthed cross-slabs.

And, lastly, a couple of media reports, one from Scotland and one from the USA:
Lost Glasgow
New York Post

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Tintagel and the Battle of Camlann

Tintagel Castle

Modern sculpture of King Arthur on the summit of Tintagel Island.

Although this blogpost briefly mentions Scotland it is mainly about the far south-west corner of England. It does however deal with the early medieval period and with another of the ‘Celtic’ regions of Britain. It is one of a number of non-Scottish posts that occasionally appear here at Senchus.

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A holiday on the north coast of Cornwall last year gave me an opportunity to visit a couple of places associated with King Arthur. One was Tintagel Castle, a strikingly impressive site that I was lucky enough to explore on a warm, cloudless day. The other was Slaughterbridge, a Cornish candidate for Camlann – the site of Arthur’s final battle where both he and his treacherous nephew Mordred were said to have perished.

Battle of Camlann

Arthur and Mordred in combat at Camlann, painted by William Hatherell (1855-1928)

The question of whether or not the Arthurian legend preserves the authentic story of a sixth-century warlord called Arthur/Artorius is, of course, a matter of debate. My own thoughts on this controversial topic appeared most recently as a chapter in Scotland’s Merlin, published by Birlinn Books in 2016. For the record, I currently favour south-west Scotland as a possible source of the Arthurian legend’s original core, but this does not necessarily mean that I see Arthur himself as any more ‘real’ than Batman. Maybe Arthur existed, maybe he didn’t. The question is not, in any case, a crucial one for historians of early medieval Britain. Hence, Arthur’s story is frequently absent from modern textbooks on the period, including my own study of the Britons of southern Scotland (The Men Of The North, published in 2010). I nevertheless retain an interest in Arthur’s legend – and Merlin’s too – especially at places with tangible ‘Dark Age’ connections. In Cornwall, both Tintagel and Slaughterbridge fall into this category, each of them being sites where objects from the sixth century – the time when Arthur supposedly existed – can still be seen today.

map_cornwall_map2

Tintagel Castle

Old engraving of Tintagel Island and the castle ruins.

Tintagel

The island of rock now crowned by Tintagel’s medieval castle formerly supported a substantial high-status settlement occupied in the ‘Arthurian’ era of the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Archaeological excavations have unearthed artefacts and structures from this period, ranging from pottery and glassware to traces of buildings. The pottery includes large jars (amphorae) that once contained wine imported from Mediterranean lands. These show that Tintagel’s inhabitants were involved in long-distance trading networks with other parts of what had once been the Western Roman Empire. Plenty of information about the archaeological finds is available online and I have included a couple of links at the end of this blogpost.

For many visitors, what attracts them to Tintagel Castle is its claim to be the place where Arthur was conceived. The claim derives from the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain described how Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, used deception to satisfy his lust for Lady Igraine, the beautiful wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. A potion concocted by Merlin enabled Uther to disguise himself as Igraine’s husband so that he could spend the night with her in the Duke’s stronghold at Tintagel. The offspring of this deceitful liaison was Arthur, who eventually succeeded to Uther’s throne.

Whatever our opinions on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s value as a source of early British history, there is no doubt that he knew how to tell a good tale. His dramatic account of Uther and Igraine ensured that Tintagel would forever have a place in Arthurian lore. Needless to say, the teams of archaeologists who have excavated there (most recently in 2018) have found no trace of Geoffrey’s characters – despite the discovery in 1998 of a stone inscribed with the suggestive name Artognou. Yet the popular belief that this was a place well-known to Arthur and Uther 1500 years ago is still alive in the popular imagination.

The following photographs give an idea of what the modern visitor to Tintagel Castle can expect to see.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

Looking back from the castle ruins on the summit of Tintagel Island to the adjacent mainland.



Tintagel Castle

Looking along the coast of North Cornwall from the ruins of Tintagel Castle.



Tintagel Castle

The outlined shape of a rectangular building from the 5th/6th century settlement.



Tintagel Castle

Information board for a group of excavated ‘Dark Age’ buildings.



Tintagel Castle

A pair of early medieval buildings nestling on the slope below the summit.



Tintagel Castle

Looking down from the castle to a small cove and beach.



Tintagel Castle Merlin's Cave

In the cliffs below the castle lies Merlin’s Cave (the cave on the left).



Slaughterbridge

According to the ancient chronicle known as Annales Cambriae (‘Welsh Annals’), the year 537 witnessed the bloody battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred were slain. The antiquity of this information is uncertain and cannot, on present evidence, be shown to pre-date the tenth century when the Welsh Annals were compiled. Two hundred years later, in the 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Camlann in Cornwall, on the River Camel. Cornish tradition has long located the battlefield at Slaughterbridge near Camelford, some 4 miles south-east of Tintagel. Another candidate for Camlann is the Roman fort of Camboglanna (now Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall. Camboglanna is a Celtic name borrowed by the Romans. It means ‘crooked valley’ in the old language of the Britons and could have become Camlann in medieval Welsh. However, there were no doubt many crooked valleys in Roman Britain, so the name Camboglanna might have been a common one. It is also possible that Camlann derives from a different name such as Cambolanda (‘crooked enclosure’).

At Slaughterbridge there is a fascinating visitor attraction called The Arthurian Centre which tells of the local Camlann tradition. The Centre has a tearoom, gift shop and plenty of information on Arthur, as well as a walking trail over part of the presumed battlefield beside the River Camel. The trail meanders through pleasant woodland and ends at a viewing platform above the river. Below the platform, and close to the water’s edge, lies a remarkable Early Christian gravestone from the sixth century. It is carved with a Latin inscription: LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MA[…]RI (‘Here lies Latinus, the son of M…..’)

Along one edge of the stone runs another inscription, in the ancient Ogham script of Ireland. Although badly weathered, this has been interpreted by at least one expert as possibly containing the same name Latinus. Unfortunately, we have no idea who Latinus was. He may have been a local Briton, or perhaps an Irishman. Whatever his origins, he was clearly a person of sufficient importance to be commemorated in this way. It is interesting to note that the name also appears on another sixth-century memorial, the famous Latinus Stone from Whithorn in south-west Scotland, which marked the grave of a father and daughter.

Unsurprisingly, given the local connection with Arthurian legend, the Cornish Latinus stone has been seen in some quarters as a relic of the battle of Camlann. A separate belief associates it with a battle fought in 825 at a place called Gafulford, where the Britons of Cornwall clashed with the neighbouring West Saxons. Gafulford is thought by some historians to mean ‘Camel-ford’, but others interpret the name differently and place the battle elsewhere. The simple truth is that neither Camlann nor the ninth-century battle can be placed with certainty in the valley of the River Camel, or indeed in Cornwall.

During my visit I was saddened to learn that the inscribed stone is at risk of being harmed by floods. In fact, it has been placed on the At Risk Register, which is a matter of concern. We can only hope that this important monument will soon be protected, perhaps by standing it upright (as it formerly was) and moving it higher up the riverbank (which may have been its original position). Some kind of intervention certainly needs to happen before it is overwhelmed by the river.

Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The trail from the Arthurian Centre, looking towards the supposed battlefield of Camlann.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The sixth-century inscribed stone lying beside the River Camel.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The Latin inscription.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

Information board on the viewing platform.



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Notes and Links

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling.

Readers may be interested in an article by Professor Andrew Breeze: ‘The Battle of Camlan and Camelford, Cornwall’ Arthuriana 15.3 (Fall 2005): 75-90

The Arthurian Centre has a website and a Facebook page

The Tintagel Dig on Twitter

Information on Tintagel Castle at the English Heritage website

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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.

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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

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

Freyja at Drumelzier

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The Battle of Gwen Ystrat

Six years ago, in a post at this blog, I discussed the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat. The former is mentioned in a medieval Welsh poem (or group of poems) known as Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) where it is presented as a defeat for the Britons of Edinburgh at the hands of Anglo-Saxon foes. Gwen Ystrat was the scene of a victory for the North British king Urien Rheged, apparently over Pictish enemies, in a poem attributed to the bard Taliesin. The poem has the title Gueith Gwen Ystrat (Welsh gueith = ‘strife, battle’) and its historical setting is the sixth century AD.

In my blogpost from 2009, I referred to a suggestion by the Celtic scholar John Koch that the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were one and the same. I also mentioned an objection to this idea by Graham Isaac, who proposed that Gueith Gwen Ystrat should be seen not as an authentic poem from sixth-century North Britain but as an ‘antiquarian’ composition from eleventh-century Wales. I ended the blogpost on a rather sceptical note, sharing Isaac’s doubts as to whether the battle of Gwen Ystrat was a historical event rather than a literary creation.

Fast forward to 2015 and to the latest issue of the journal Northern History. This contains an article by Andrew Breeze in which the case for seeing Gueith Gwen Ystrat as a genuine North British poem of the sixth century is re-stated. Professor Breeze also discusses the possibility that the battle may have been fought in the valley of the River Winster in southern Cumbria. This idea was first proposed by the nineteenth-century Welsh scholar Thomas Stephens who observed that another poem attributed to Taliesin mentions a place called Gwensteri as the scene of a battle fought by a northern king called Gwallawg. Stephens wondered if Gwensteri might be an error for Gwen Ystrat and suggested that both names refer to Winsterdale. Breeze thinks Stephens was right to identify Gwensteri as the River Winster but sees the name Gwen Ystrad as an error for Gwensteri rather than the other way around. He proposes Gwensteri as a native Celtic (Brittonic) name for the Winster.

Other river-names in Cumbria certainly have names of Celtic origin but Winster has generally been regarded as Norse. An explanation of this name based on Norse vinstri (‘left’) was suggested by the Swedish philologist Eilert Ekwall nearly 100 years ago but Andrew Breeze thinks a more likely base is Brittonic gwen (‘white’). A name with the simple meaning ‘white river’ does indeed seem more likely than the harder-to-explain ‘left-hand river’. Taliesin’s poem also mentions a place called Llech Wen (‘White Stone’?) which Breeze identifies as Whitbarrow, a high fell on the east side of Winsterdale. Whitbarrow has a name of Anglo-Saxon origin meaning ‘White Hill’ and a prominent crag called White Scar.

Placing the battle beside the River Winster fits with Breeze’s broader vision of the geography of Urien’s kingdom (Rheged) which he envisages as straddling the Pennine hills to encompass parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria. This is in keeping with a consensus view on sixth-century political geography in which Urien is envisaged as ruling an extensive realm centred on the Solway Firth. I am not with the majority on this matter, nor do I think the name ‘Rheged’ can be written on a map with any measure of confidence – or without an accompanying question mark. The reasoning behind my scepticism (or heresy?) is set out in my book The Men of the North.

Andrew Breeze makes a good case for amending Gwen Ystrad to Gwensteri and for identifying the latter as a Celtic name for the Cumbrian river Winster. His article builds on his other recent work on the Old North and adds further weight to conventional opinion on the location of Urien’s realm. Heretical voices, such as mine, can only respond with a rather pessimistic view on the authenticity of Taliesin’s poems, or with the bleak suggestion that Rheged’s geography might be irretrievably lost.

River Winster

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References

Andrew Breeze, ‘Urien Rheged and Battle at Gwen Ystrad’ Northern History 52 (March 2015), 9-19. [I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me a copy of this article]

Other Rheged-related articles by Andrew Breeze….
‘The Names of Rheged’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society 86 (2012), 51-62.
‘Early Welsh Poetry and Rossett, Cumbria’ Northern History 49 (2012), 129-34.
‘Northumbria and the Family of Rhun’ Northern History 50 (2013), 170-9.
‘Yrechwydd and the River Ribble’ Northern History 47 (2010), 319-28.

Graham Isaac, ‘Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the Northern Heroic Age of the Sixth Century’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70.

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010) [see pp.68-78 for a discussion of Rheged]

My blogpost from 2009: Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat.

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Stones of the Britons

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)


One of the main roads to the Scottish Highlands is the A82 which carries travellers from Glasgow to Inverness via Fort William. After leaving the outskirts of Glasgow, this well-known highway passes Dumbarton and Alexandria before running north along the side of Loch Lomond. The loch is eventually left behind as the A82 continues onward through Glen Falloch to Crianlarich and Tyndrum.

High up on the western slopes of Glen Falloch, on the opposite side from the picturesque Falls, stands Clach nam Breatann, ‘The Stone of the Britons’. Like a space-rocket ready to launch, this enigmatic monument leans up from its base to point towards the sky. The topmost piece or capstone rests on deep-set boulders that seem to grow out of the ground. These foundations are sunk so deeply in the hillside that they might indeed be a natural rocky outcrop. The whole assemblage sits on a conical mound of earth and stone which appears to be partly man-made, like a large cairn now covered with grass.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

Tradition asserts that Clach nam Breatann marked the boundary between Picts, Scots and Britons. Its association with the latter suggests that it lay within their territory and therefore belonged to them in some way. Historians generally assume that it defined the northern limit of the kingdom of Alt Clut or Dumbarton (c.400-870 AD) and also of the successor realm Strat Clut or Strathclyde (c.870-1070). The assumption is no doubt correct, although we should also keep in mind the possibility that the stone simply commemorated a famous battle involving the Britons. In the nineteenth century, the Scottish antiquary W.F. Skene suggested that an unidentified ‘Stone of Minuirc’, scene of a battle between Scots and Britons in 717, may have been Clach nam Breatann. The geographical setting of Glen Falloch would certainly be consistent with a frontier clash between opposing forces from Dál Riata and Clydesdale, but Skene’s theory was only a guess and Minuirc remains elusive.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)

I visited Clach nam Breatann some fifteen years ago. I had never seen anything quite like it before. Not only did it look imposing and ancient, it also had a strangeness, an eccentricity, that I found hard to explain. Since then, I’ve mentioned the stone in my book The Men of the North (with an accompanying photograph) and in several posts at this blog. I would like to make a return visit, to refresh my memory and to take more pictures. Getting there is by no means easy, for the approach involves a trek up a steep hillside over rough, boggy terrain. However, the effort is definitely worth it, especially on a clear day when the view is truly breathtaking.

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 1998)

Clach nam Breatann

Clach nam Breatann (© David Dorren 2002)

As well as re-visiting Clach nam Breatann, I’m keen to see another impressive landmark for the first time. This is a gigantic boulder known as Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich, ‘The Briton’s Stone’, a glacial erratic nestling on the southern flank of Ben Donich near Lochgoilhead. As with Clach nam Breatann, tradition asserts that this solitary megalith stands on an ancient boundary between the Clyde Britons and their neighbours – in this case, the Scots of Cowal. Both stones may in fact be part of a single frontier – they are, after all, only 12 miles apart. The possible course of such a divide was traced by the late Betty Rennie who published her findings in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1996 (see reference below). Rennie’s pioneering work on ancient boundaries has been continued by two of her former colleagues in the Cowal Archaeological Society – David Dorren and Nina Henry – whose research on the mysterious Druim Alban (‘Ridge of Alba’) was highlighted in an earlier post at this blog.

The following images of Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich give a good idea of its size and of its position in the landscape.

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 2010)

Clach A' Bhreatunnaich

Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich (© David Dorren 1999)

Stones of the Britons

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Notes & references

I am again grateful to Dr David Dorren for allowing me to reproduce his photographs here at Senchus.

Elizabeth B. Rennie, ‘A possible boundary between Dál Riata and Pictland’ Pictish Arts Society Journal 10 (Winter 1996), 17-22.

Armand D. Lacaille, ‘Ardlui megaliths and their associations’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.63 (1929), 329-32. [This article describes Clach nam Breatann and can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]

A link to my blogpost on Druim Alban.

Entries on the Canmore database for Clach nam Breatann (under its alternative name Clach na Briton) and Clach A’ Bhreatunnaich.

From the Annals of Ulster, under the year 717:
Congressio Dal Riati & Brittonum in lapide qui uocatur Minuirc, & Britones deuicti sunt.
(‘An encounter between Dál Riata and the Britons at the rock called Minuirc, and the Britons were defeated.’)

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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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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