The origin of the Merlin legend

Scotland's Merlin
Regular visitors to Senchus will already be aware that my latest book examines the historical roots of Merlin’s story. I’ve written several blogposts about it in recent months, as the date of publication has drawn ever nearer. Scotland’s Merlin: a Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins has now been published.

A summary of the book’s contents is printed on the back cover:
Who was Merlin? Is the famous wizard of Arthurian legend based on a real person? In this book, Merlin’s origins are traced back to the story of Lailoken, a mysterious ‘wild man’ who is said to have lived in the Scottish Lowlands in the sixth century AD. The book considers the question of whether Lailoken belongs to myth or reality. It looks at the historical background of his story and discusses key characters such as Saint Kentigern of Glasgow and King Rhydderch of Dumbarton, as well as important events such as the Battle of Arfderydd. Lailoken’s reappearance in medieval Welsh literature as the fabled prophet Myrddin is also examined. Myrddin himself was eventually transformed into Merlin the wizard, King Arthur’s friend and mentor. This is the Merlin we recognise today, not only in art and literature but also on screen. His earlier forms are less familiar, more remote, but can still be found among the lore and legend of the Dark Ages. Behind them we catch fleeting glimpses of an original figure who perhaps really did exist: a solitary fugitive, tormented by his experience of war, who roamed the hills and forests of southern Scotland long ago.

The chapter headings are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin
A study of the most familiar version of the Merlin legend as told by medieval writers from the twelfth century onwards.

Chapter 2 – Myrddin Wyllt
The Welsh traditions of Myrddin Wyllt (“Wild Merlin”), legendary founder of the ancient town of Carmarthen.

Chapter 3 – Lailoken
The old Scottish tales of a wild madman who possessed strange powers of prophecy and whose story seems to lie at the root of the Merlin legend.

Chapter 4 – The Battle of Arfderydd
This is the historical battle, fought in AD 573, in which Myrddin/Lailoken went mad and afterwards fled into the wild woods.

Chapter 5 – Christianity and Paganism
Many people today see the “real” Merlin as a pagan shaman or druid. This chapter suggests instead that he was a Christian.

Chapter 6 – Wild Man and Seer
A discussion of the Wild Man character as a popular motif in medieval literature.

Chapter 7 – Arthuriana
The legends of Merlin and Arthur are closely entwined and both are often believed to be based on historical figures who lived in Scotland in the sixth century AD.

Chapter 8 – Scottish Merlins
The development of the Merlin legend in medieval Scottish literature. This chapter also looks at a selection of modern theories about the legend’s Scottish roots.

Chapter 9 – Scotland’s Merlin: Fact or Fiction?
The final chapter draws the various strands of history and legend together to reconstruct the life and career of the “real” Merlin, who is here identified as a sixth-century North British warrior called Llallogan.

Appendices
Extracts from the oldest sources of the Merlin legend – the Lailoken tales, the story of Suibhne Geilt and the poems of Myrddin Wyllt.

Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Illustrations include maps, photographs and a genealogical table.

Published by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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Scotland’s Merlin in the news

Merlin the Enchanter

Merlin the Enchanter by Louis Rhead (1857-1926)

My latest book Scotland’s Merlin was mentioned in the Scottish media this week, with a full-page feature in Monday’s edition of The National.

Merlin_National25apr

The image on the top right of the page shows the famous ‘Merlin window’ at Stobo Kirk in Upper Tweeddale in the Scottish Borders. A black-and-white version of the same photograph (taken by Freyja Appleyard-Keeling) appears in the plate section of my book. The accompanying text summarises my theory about the real Merlin, whom I suggest was a forest-dwelling fugitive in the remote uplands of Southern Scotland at the end of the sixth century AD. A number of other writers have voiced their support for this view of Merlin’s origins, so my theory is by no means a new one. However, I’m sceptical of the popular belief that this ‘Wild Merlin’ was a pagan shaman or druid. In my book I suggest instead that he may have been a Christian.

The image below shows the front page of my own copy of Monday’s newspaper and, below it, the cover of my book (which was also published this week).

Merlin_National25aprCover

Scotland's Merlin

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King Ecgfrith of Northumbria

Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians
This blogpost is about a book published last year – a biography of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith who ruled from 670 to 685. Ecgfrith was an ambitious warlord whose army campaigned far beyond the frontiers of his kingdom. During his reign, Northumbrian forces clashed with those of Mercia – the main English power in the midlands and a frequent adversary of Ecgfrith’s forebears – as well as with various Celtic peoples. In 684, Ecgfrith sent one of his henchmen across the Irish Sea at the head of a raiding army. The ensuing assault on the territory of the Southern Uí Néill also targeted churches and monasteries, much to the dismay of clergyfolk back home in Northumbria. Ecgfrith’s belligerence finally came to an end on 20th May 685 at the battle of Nechtanesmere in the land of the Picts. There he perished with nearly all of his warriors.

Ecgfrith’s new biography is written by Professor Nick Higham, well-known as author or editor of a number of books on the Anglo-Saxon period. Nick supervised my PhD in the 1990s and helped me to navigate a path through the intricate maze of early medieval history. Many readers of this blog will, I am sure, be familiar with his published works, such as The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 (1993), King Arthur: Myth-making and History (2002) and The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, co-authored with Martin Ryan).

Much of what we know about Ecgfrith comes from the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (published in 731) documented the rise of Northumbria as a major political power. Bede was himself a Northumbrian, so a lot of his information on the kingdom came from local sources. Some of his contemporaries had known Ecgfrith personally. In 685, when news of the disaster at Nechtanesmere reached English ears, Bede was a young monk of twelve or thirteen, living at the monastery of Jarrow beside the River Tyne. In later life, when writing his Ecclesiastical History, he interpreted the Pictish victory as divine retribution for the callous destruction unleashed by Ecgfrith’s soldiers on Irish religious sites in the previous year

Nick Higham’s book is more than just a study of Ecgfrith’s reign. The first two chapters set the scene by introducing the reader to seventh-century Northern Britain and to the various (often enigmatic) literary sources that purport to describe what was going on. Here we also obtain useful information on ethnic/cultural identities, on the nature and practice of early medieval kingship, and on the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the North. In the third chapter, we get to know King Oswiu, Ecgfrith’s father, who ruled the Northumbrians until his death in 670. This brings us to the mid-point of the book and to the start of Ecgfrith’s reign. Those of us with a keen interest in Northumbrian relations with the Picts may find the fifth chapter especially useful, in particular a 15-page narrative under the sub-headings ‘Ecgfrith and the North’ and ‘685’. The same chapter ends with what is, for me, a major highlight of the book: a detailed discussion of how Ecgfrith’s death was reported and interpreted by contemporary observers in Northumbria and elsewhere.

This is a book I heartily recommend (and would do so even if the author had not influenced my own approach to the early medieval North). Writing a biography of a seventh-century Northumbrian king is a challenging project for any historian, even for one who understands the scale of the task better than most. I believe Nick Higham has done a great job here.

N.J. Higham, Ecgfrith: King of the Northumbrians, High-King of Britain (Donington: Sean Tyas, 2015)

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Links

Check out Nick Higham’s article on Ecgfrith at the History Extra website: The Anglo-Saxon who (almost) united Britain

I’ve blogged previously about the battle of Nechtanesmere where Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts – Against iron swords: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

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Merlin update

Scotland's Merlin

Merlin depicted by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)


Today I’ve learned that my new book Scotland’s Merlin is about to be sent away for printing and binding. Publication is now only a few weeks away.

It seems a long time since I started writing this book (back in May 2015) and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product. I’m especially pleased with the cover, which really captures the Merlin I’ve described in the text – a “wild man of the woods” rather than the mystical wizard of Arthurian lore. The design is by James Hutcheson who has created the covers of all my books. It incorporates an image of Merlin from a medieval manuscript.

Scotland's Merlin

I’ll be posting more updates as the publication date draws nearer. In the meantime, the essence of the book can be found in a blogpost from December: On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin.

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Free Pictish stuff

Groam House Pictish Lecture
The good folk of Groam House Museum have made available as free downloads seven out-of-print titles from their Annual Academic Lecture series.

Groam House, as many of you will know, holds a superb collection of Pictish sculpture. The museum is located in the picturesque village of Rosemarkie in Easter Ross, on the shore of the Black Isle. Many of the museum’s carved stones come from a nearby ecclesiastical site known in early medieval times as Ros Maircnidh. This was a major monastery of the Northern Picts. At the end of the seventh century, the abbot of Ros Maircnidh (Rosemarkie) was Saint Curadán or Curetán, a signatory to the famous ‘Law of Innocents’ promulgated by Adomnán of Iona in 697.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

The hardcopy versions of the Groam House booklets are very nicely produced. I’ve purchased a few over the years and keep them within easy reach on my bookshelf. I really ought to obtain more titles in the series – ideally all of them. Most of the ones I do possess are from the 1990s so I need to catch up and fill the gaps. The booklets are a handy size for quick reference and I frequently consult them on specific points – or simply browse them at leisure.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

I have all but one of the seven out-of-print lectures, the exception being Isabel Henderson’s The Art and Function of Rosemarkie’s Pictish Monuments. So far, I only possess two lectures from the current century: Fraser Hunter’s Beyond the Edge of the Empire and Sally Foster’s Place, Space and Odyssey. These aren’t free but both are well worth buying.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

This year’s Annual Academic Lecture was presented in May by Victoria Whitworth under the title Bodystones and Guardian Beasts: The Pictish Recumbent Grave-Markers in Their Wider Context. I would have liked to attend but was unable to make the trip, so I will definitely buy the published version when it appears.

Click the link below to go to the download page.

Free publications from Groam House Museum

Groam House Pictish Lecture

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Yeavering report online

Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor
The full report of the excavations at Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) is available as a free download.

This monumental tome runs well beyond 450 pages and is one of the most frequently cited texts on post-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Originally published in 1977, it has remained a standard reference tool for researchers working on the history and archaeology of Northeast England and Southeast Scotland in the fifth to seventh centuries. The downloadable version has been made available by English Heritage via the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York.

Yeavering was a major centre of power for the Northumbrian king Edwin (died 633) who established a royal palace there. It was mentioned in the following century by the Venerable Bede, who called it Gefrin – a native Celtic name meaning ‘Hill of Goats’. The hill in question loomed above Edwin’s palace and was formerly used by local Britons who had a fortified settlement on the top. One unusual feature unearthed at the palace by Hope-Taylor’s team was a timber grandstand which accommodated spectators at formal public events. This has long been regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

As well as describing the excavations, the report also includes an extensive historical discussion which – nearly 40 years on – is still a valuable source of information on the early kingdoms of the North.

Link Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria [free download]

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Bits & pieces

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (see fourth item below). Photo © B Keeling.


Just a random selection of interesting items….

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‘Cult and Kingship – Understanding the Early Pictish Royal Centre at Rhynie’ was the title of a paper presented by Dr Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University to the Royal Scone Conference. A video of this and other presentations can now be viewed at the blog of archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen.

Scone with its ‘Stone of Destiny’ is famous as the place where medieval Scottish kings were crowned. The conference Royal Scone: A Scottish Medieval Royal Centre in Europe, held in Perth in November 2014, sought to better understand this important site by placing it in a wider North European context. Scholars from Scotland and beyond came together to discuss themes such as royal inauguration, state-formation and the archaeology of assembly places.

This is the kind of event I’m always sorry to miss😦

Link Papers from the Royal Scone Conference, 2014.

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Here’s something else I’d like to see, if I can get to it between now and May…

Roman Empire: Power And People, McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee. 24 January to 10 May, 2015. Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sunday: 12.30-4.30pm.

This exhibition of sculpture, jewellery and other items from the British Museum is a showcase of the wealth of the Roman Empire. Material from outlying territories such as Scotland is also included.

Below are links to two media reports on the exhibition, followed by a link to the McManus itself.

Report from Herald Scotland website

Report from BBC News: Tayside & Central Scotland

McManus Art Gallery & Museum

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James Drummond was a renowned Scottish artist and antiquarian of the Victorian era. His illustrations of historic sites and old monuments include a number of images relating to the time-period covered at this blog.

A selection of Drummond’s work can now be seen at the Canmore database after being digitised by trainees on the RCAHMS Skills for the Future scheme. I spotted a couple of images with early medieval connections: the Cat Stane (although Drummond didn’t show the Early Christian inscription) and the Loth Stane (where the legendary King Loth of Lothian is supposedly buried). There are also some nice pictures of standing-stones from various parts of Scotland.

Link Highlights from the James Drummond Collection at RCAHMS

Link ‘Fine lines: Edinburgh-born James Drummond’s art digitised’ (BBC News)

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‘Wall of Eternity’ is the new name for Hadrian’s Wall in promotional literature to Chinese tourists.

The name emerged as the top choice during a poll in China which asked people to suggest suitable names in Mandarin for 101 tourist sites in Britain. A sign featuring the new name has already been produced for the Roman fort at Housesteads.

I quite like one of the alternative suggestions – ‘Great Wall of Britain’ – but I have to admit ‘Wall of Eternity’ does sound more evocative.

Link ‘Hadrian’s Wall given new Chinese name as part of tourism campaign’ (article in the Newcastle Chronicle)

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Last but not least, a new location for a popular blog…

Historical novelist Nicola Griffith has recently moved her excellent Gemaecca site to WordPress where it can now be found at gemaecce.com (note the different spelling). Fellow-bloggers will need to amend their links accordingly, to keep track of Nicola’s research on St Hild of Whitby and seventh-century Britain.

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