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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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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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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Did Merlin really exist?

Merlin

Gustave Dore’s iconic depiction of Merlin with Vivien

Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. This isn’t just because I’m a devotee of the wizard’s latest TV incarnation courtesy of the BBC. No indeed. My belief in a historical Merlin goes back more than three decades, to my first encounter with a famous entry in the Welsh Annals under the year 573:

bellum armterid inter filios elifer et guendoleu filium keidiau; in quo bello guendoleu cecidit; merlinus insanus effectus est.
‘The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddoleu fell; Merlin went mad.’

In 1876 the renowned Celtic scholar W.F. Skene identified Arfderydd as Arthuret, a parish on the Anglo-Scottish Border a few miles north of Carlisle. Skene also proposed that the nearby place-name Carwinley, recorded in the 13th century as Karwindelhou, derives from an earlier Caer Gwenddoleu, ‘Gwenddoleu’s Fort’. Most historians now accept this derivation. The fort itself is either the Roman one at Netherby or a native stronghold beneath the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle of Liddel Strength.

Much academic attention has been directed at the Welsh Annals to assess their original date of composition. They seem to have been compiled c.900, probably at the great monastery of St David’s, by a monk who gathered information from a number of earlier sources. It is likely that the entry for Arfderydd was originally a brief notice of the battle (bellum armterid) and that the details of the participants were added later. The information about Merlin may have been inserted c.1150 after the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and possibly reflects traditions enshrined in older Welsh poems attributed to the ‘wizard’ himself. In these poems, we see Merlin fleeing in terror from the carnage of Arfderydd to seek a refuge in the forest of Celidon, a wild region of what is now southern Scotland. There in the deep woods he lived alone as a fugitive, hiding from King Rhydderch of Dumbarton who sought to capture him. In medieval Scottish legend it was believed that Merlin’s grave lies beside the River Tweed at Drumelzier, a village between Biggar and Peebles.

Wales makes its own claim for Merlin in the Arthurian stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in folklore about the town of Carmarthen whose Welsh name Caerfyrddin is said to mean ‘Myrddin’s Fort’ (Myrddin is an old Welsh form of Merlin). Glastonbury in Somerset is another place associated with Merlin in his familiar guise as King Arthur’s chief counsellor. For me, however, the ‘real’ Merlin is the one from the lands around the Anglo-Scottish Border. He was the bard of King Gwenddoleu at a royal caer near Carwinley in northern Cumbria. He fought at the battle of Arfderydd in 573 where he witnessed the slaying of his lord. Afterwards, he fled into the wild woods of southern Scotland to live out his remaining years as a hunted man.

Why do I believe this to be history rather than legend? The answer is fairly straightforward: it’s a hunch, an instinct, a quirky personal preference. I could try to justify my stance by adding that I’ve been interested in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Arfderydd for more than 25 years, looked at scholarly papers on the earliest Welsh traditions and reached a conclusion based on the views of experts. But this wouldn’t be entirely true. Most experts are rightly cautious about who Merlin was and whether he was ‘real’. Their careful consideration of the literature doesn’t account for my unbridled enthusiasm in placing him among the historical figures of 6th-century North Britain. Like I said, it’s really nothing more than a hunch.

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Notes & References

* For a photographic tour of the Merlin legend around Drumelzier, see my 2015 blogpost On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin.

* On the oldest traditions of Merlin see: A.O.H. Jarman, ‘Early stages in the development of the Merlin legend’, pp.335-48 in R. Bromwich & R.B. Jones (eds) Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd/Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978).

* An excellent and accessible discussion of the northern Merlin is given by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book The Quest for Merlin (Sevenoaks, 1985).

* Skene’s identification of Arfderydd as Arthuret was announced in a paper presented to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh: ‘Notice of the site of the battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth’ PSAS 6 (1876), 91-8.

* While visiting Carwinley in search of Caer Gwenddoleu, Skene heard of a local legend about a great battle between ‘Picts’ and ‘Romans’. Was this a genuine tradition of the bellum armterid of 573, preserved in Cumbrian folklore? I explored this question in a short article published sixteen years ago: ‘Local folklore and the battle of Arthuret’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 95 (1995), 282-4.

The battle itself occupies one half of Chapter 5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).

* For additional information on these topics, take a look at Diane McIlmoyle’s blogposts on Merlin and the battle of Arthuret.

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