The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle
The Old Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) is a series of elegies on an army of Britons who died at the battle of Catraeth. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Scotland’s oldest poem’ because it was probably composed at Edinburgh. The battle it commemorates took place in the late 6th or early 7th centuries at a time when Edinburgh and adjacent parts of Lothian formed the heartland of the kingdom of Gododdin. In the poem, the Gododdin warriors are given a sumptuous feast by their king in his royal hall at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before setting out on their fateful journey to Catraeth. We know enough about the rituals of feasting in early medieval times to guess that the main item on the menu was beef from the king’s own cattle-herd. Beef, of course, had high-status connotations in this period. Ownership of cattle was a key indicator of wealth and status, hence the many references to cattle-reiving in the heroic poetry of Britain and Ireland.
A recurrent theme in Y Gododdin is the link between the generous feast provided by the king and the burden of debt this placed on his warriors. The beef they consumed at Din Eidyn came with a hefty price-tag at Catraeth: they paid for it with their lives. But they fought courageously, fighting hard until all were overwhelmed. The poem gives vivid portraits of individual heroes in the thick of battle, highlighting their skill and bravery. Among them was a warrior called Edar who, with his sharp sword and white-washed shield, went to war ‘after the feast’.
Cynydyniog, calchdrai, pan grynied grynai,
nid adwanai, rywanai, rywaned.
Oedd mynych gwedi cwyn i esgar ei gyflwyn,
oedd gwenwyn yd traethed.
A chyn ei olo o dan dydwed daear
dyrllyddai Edar ei fedd yfed.
‘Unyielding, with shattered shield, when pressed he thrust forward,
the man that he had struck did not strike back.
Frequent after the feast was his gift to the enemy,
he was cruelly treated.
Before he was buried beneath the cover of earth
Edar deserved his drink of mead.’
Before riding off to war, Edar and his companions would have chewed their way through an impressive amount of beef during the banquet in the royal hall, high up on the crags where Edinburgh Castle stands today. But where did the meat come from? Where was the royal cattle-herd kept, and where were the animals slaughtered?
Archaeological excavations at the castle between 1988 and 1991 found traces of human settlement from the time of the Gododdin kings but didn’t turn up any indication of cattle being butchered there. The evidence, or rather the absence of evidence, suggested instead that the beef for the feasting-hall must have been brought up to the fortress from below, as ready-to-cook carcasses. Presumably the king maintained a cattle-pen and slaughterhouse somewhere close by, on the lower land near the base of Castle Rock, and sent his servants down to fetch the meat. Pinpointing the exact location wasn’t going to be easy. Centuries of building and development in the heart of old Edinburgh made it unlikely that anything of significance would be found.
Remarkably, it now looks as if the site in question may have been discovered. According to an article in the latest volume of PSAS, a recent excavation in the Grassmarket (an old part of the city below the Castle) found evidence of a settlement with a long history. It was clearly of lower status than the royal citadel but seems to have been occupied continuously throughout the early medieval period (c.300-1100) and beyond into the time of the first burgh. The site was used for various purposes, ranging from crafts such as metalworking and leatherworking to food processing (of fish, shellfish and cattle). The remains of certain species of dung-beetle imply a lot of manure such as would be found in a holding-area for cattle or horses. Specific evidence for cattle came from a foot bone and a jawbone, the latter with cut-marks indicating a butcher’s blade.
Although the data cannot confirm that this is indeed where cattle were slaughtered for the feasts of Din Eidyn the hints do seem fairly strong. If butchery wasn’t being undertaken on the summit of the Rock it must have been happening somewhere. To quote from the excavation report, maybe it was being done ‘at a nearby site, such as the Grassmarket, established to service the high status site above.’ Perhaps the place where Edar and his fellow-warriors got their beef has at last been found?
* * * * * * *
Notes & references
* The full details of the PSAS article are:
James McMeekin et al, ‘Early Historic settlement beneath the Grassmarket in Edinburgh’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140 (2010), 105-128. The excavations took place between September 2007 and November 2008.
* The extract and translation from Y Gododdin is from A.O.H. Jarman (ed.) Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul, 1988), p.64-65 except for the penultimate line which uses John Koch’s translation from his book The Gododdin of Aneirin (Cardiff, 1997), p.17.
* On the lack of evidence for the slaughter of cattle at the royal fortress of Gododdin see Finbar McCormick ‘The faunal remains from Mills Mount’, pp.201-12 in S.T. Driscoll & P.A. Yeoman, Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 (Edinburgh, 1997).
* * * * * * *