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: the bridge over the burn.
From the bridge, an old track heads towards the Tweed.
For a while, the burn runs alongside the track.
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.
According to tradition, Merlin’s Grave was marked by a thorn tree.
The modern visitor usually makes for this particular tree, which stands alone in a wooden enclosure near the meeting of the waters.
There is an aura of tranquility at the water-meeting, where the little burn merges with the river.
Below the confluence, twisted tree-shapes overhang a stony beach.
The pebbles on the beach form a mosaic of pastel shades.
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.
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.
With the site of the original grave seemingly lost, our curiosity is inevitably stirred by any odd-looking arrangement of stones.
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 – 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.
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.
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:
Southern Scotland: the highlighted area in Upper Tweeddale is where I believe the legend of Merlin originated in the Dark Ages.
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My thanks to Freyja Appleyard-Keeling for taking the photographs.
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