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.

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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Kindle edition of ‘Strathclyde’

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
My latest volume on early medieval Scottish history is now available as an e-book. The paperback was published a couple of months ago but many people now prefer digital editions so I’m posting the relevant Amazon links here.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Kindle edition) – via Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

More information about the book, with a list of chapters, can be found in a blogpost on the paperback edition.

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The English invasion of Strathclyde

Edmund of Wessex

A thirteenth-century depiction of Edmund, king of Wessex (939-946)


In 945, the English king Edmund – a grandson of Alfred the Great – launched a devastating raid on the territory of the Strathclyde Britons. Contemporary annalists noted the event in their chronicle entries and some of these brief reports have survived (more or less) in later texts. Last month I wrote a short article on Edmund’s campaign for the website of History Scotland magazine. This is now online and can be accessed via the link below:

History ScotlandThe English invasion of Strathclyde

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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New book on the Viking period

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

My fifth book on early medieval Scotland was published this week.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age traces the history of relations between the Cumbri or North Britons and their English neighbours through the eighth to eleventh centuries AD. It looks at the wars, treaties and other high-level dealings that characterised this volatile relationship. Woven into the story are the policies and ambitions of other powers, most notably the Scots and Vikings, with whom both the North Britons and Anglo-Saxons were variously in alliance or at war.

As well as presenting a narrative history of the kingdom of Strathclyde, this book also discusses the names ‘Cumbria’ and ‘Cumberland’, both of which now refer to parts of north-west England. The origins of these names, and their meanings to people who lived in Viking-Age Britain, are examined and explained.

The book’s main contents are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Cumbrians and Anglo-Saxons
A discussion of terminology and sources.

Chapter 2 – Early Contacts
Relations between the Clyde Britons and the English in pre-Viking times (sixth to eighth centuries AD).

Chapter 3 – Raiders and Settlers
The arrival of the Vikings in northern Britain, the destruction of Alt Clut and the beginning of the kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbria.

Chapter 4 – Strathclyde and Wessex
Contacts between the ‘kings of the Cumbrians’ and the family of Alfred the Great.

Chapter 5 – Athelstan
The period 924 to 939 in which the ambitions of a powerful English king clashed with those of his Celtic and Scandinavian neighbours. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Brunanburh.

Chapter 6 – King Dunmail
The reign of Dyfnwal, king of Strathclyde (c.940-970) and the English invasion of ‘Cumberland’ in 945.

Chapter 7 – The Late Tenth Century
Strathclyde’s relations with the kings of England in the last decades of the first millennium.

Chapter 8 – Borderlands
The earls of Bamburgh and their dealings with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Carham (1018).

Chapter 9 – The Fall of Strathclyde
The shadowy period around the mid-eleventh century when the last kingdom of the North Britons was finally conquered.

Chapter 10 – The Anglo-Norman Period
Anglo-Scottish relations in the early twelfth century and the origin of the English county of Cumberland.

Chapter 11 – Conclusions

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

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

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In the pipeline

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
Six weeks ago I mentioned my latest book, the writing of which reduced my blogging output to a trickle in the first half of 2014. Well, the thing is now being prepared for printing and will soon emerge from Edinburgh as a bright new paperback.

This is the only one of my books to have its own website, which has now been up-and-running since the middle of August. The image above – a preview of the finished product – was posted there earlier today.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (WordPress blog)

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Clan Galbraith: Part 4 – Viking Britons (again)

Viking Longship
It’s been three years since my last blogpost on the origins of Clan Galbraith. Back in 2011, in the third installment of the series, I considered the possibility that the name of the clan (Gaelic: Gall Breathnach, ‘Foreign Briton’) might derive from ancestors who were ‘Viking Britons’. The reasoning behind this theory was based on the fact that Gaelic speakers in early medieval Scotland and Ireland usually applied the term Gall (‘Foreigner’) to people of Viking stock. I speculated that the original ‘Foreign Britons’ whose descendants emerged as the Galbraiths of the Lennox in the twelfth century were associated with the kingdom of Strathclyde, perhaps as warriors of Scandinavian stock who served the kings of the Britons as mercenaries. By way of analogy, I pointed to theories about the mysterious Gall-Gáidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’ –> ‘Viking Gaels’) of the ninth to eleventh centuries. The Gall-Gáidhil are generally regarded as Gaelic-speakers from Ireland or the Hebrides who adopted a ‘Viking’ lifestyle of sea-roving and raiding. Why they chose to behave in this way is uncertain: it may have been due to Scandinavian ancestry or to prolonged contact with Vikings. Three years ago, I wondered if the forefathers of Clan Galbraith were members of a similar group among the Britons of Strathclyde, perhaps arriving originally as Vikings but eventually assimilating by intermarriage until they became Britons themselves. They would, I proposed, have adopted the Cumbric language of their hosts, eventually switching to Gaelic after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century. All of this seemed to fit with the Galbraiths’ ancestral connection with the Lennox – the land between Loch Lomond and the River Clyde – and with their self-identification as Breatanuich (Gaelic: ‘The Britons’) and Clann-a-Breatannuich (‘Children of the Britons’).

Strathclyde Lennox Map

Loch Lomond and the western part of the Lennox. The red dot indicates the island of Inchgalbraith, ancient stronghold of the Galbraiths.

I described my theory as ‘new’ but acknowledged that it might not be. At the time, I knew of only one similar train of thought, which I had found in William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland of 1926. Watson saw a possible analogy between Gall-Gáidhil and Gall Breathnach when he wrote that ‘the name Galbraith goes to show, as has been noted, that there were ‘foreign Britons’ as well as ‘foreign Gael’.’ It occurred to me that Watson and myself were probably not the only people to wonder if these two enigmatic names might have similar origins. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that other references were out there. I figured that if historians were in broad agreement that the Gall-Gáidhil were ‘Gaels who behaved like Vikings’, then surely some must have speculated that the Gall Breathnach were people of similar sort, i.e. a group of Britons who displayed Viking traits.

Fast forward to January 2014 and I found myself re-reading a bunch of old journal articles as research material for my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. One of these was a landmark study in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1960. Its author, P.A. Wilson, demonstrated beyond doubt that the term ‘Cumbria’ was used in early medieval times as an alternative name for the kingdom of Strathclyde. In one section, he also discussed the origin of the territorial name ‘Galloway':
‘The form from which the medieval and modern territorial name derives was the name of a people, the Gall-gael, the foreigners, no doubt preponderantly Norsemen, who were Gaelic-speakers (having supposedly acquired that speech from Ireland). The survival of the personal name Galbraith suggests that there were also British speakers who were recognised as in some sense ‘foreign'; perhaps they were natives who had adopted the mode of life, and even the religion, of the foreigners.’

It is clear that Wilson was musing on the possibility that the Galbraith forefathers were not Vikings who assimilated with Britons – as I suggested in my blogpost – but native Britons who behaved like Vikings. Unfortunately, he left the matter there and didn’t pursue it any further. I do, however, think his idea is worth considering. In fact, I’m tempted to prefer it to my own. Back in 2011, my thoughts were influenced by the supposedly Scandinavian character of the five hogback tombstones at Govan – the most impressive examples of sculptural art from the kingdom of Strathclyde. Three years later, I’ve realised that these monuments might have little or no connection with Scandinavian culture. In other words, their presence in the last kingdom of the North Britons does not necessarily imply an influx of Viking settlers. If the Govan hogbacks did not mark Viking graves, then there is no need to envisage a distinct Scandinavian community in the heartland of Strathclyde. This also removes the need to identify the Gall Breathnach as people of Scandinavian ancestry. They may have been, as Wilson suggested, a group of native Britons who embraced the Viking lifestyle. One plausible scenario is that they were members of the Strathclyde nobility who simply chose to increase their wealth by piracy, perhaps plying the seaways in dragon-prowed longships. Another possibility was mooted to me in an email from Barry McCain who has been studying the ancestry of his own clan. Barry suggested that the Gall Breathnach could have been a group of Cumbric-speakers among the predominantly Gaelic-speaking Gall-Gáidhil. Whatever the true origin of the name Galbraith, the idea of ‘Viking Britons’ prowling the Firth of Clyde in the ninth to eleventh centuries – whether as part of the Gall-Gáidhil or as an independent group of raiders – seems far from outlandish.

Govan Hogback

One of the hogbacks at Govan Old Parish Church.

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Notes & references

My 2011 blogpost: Clan Galbraith: Part 3 – Viking Britons?

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). The Galbraith reference is in a footnote on page 174.

Wilson, P.A., ‘On the use of the terms Strathclyde and Cumbria’ Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. 2nd series, vol.66 (1960), 57-92. The Galbraith reference is on page 91.

Barry McCain runs the McCain Clan Blog and the website of the Mid-Argyll Kingship Group. His genealogical research looks at historical documents alongside DNA data.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness

I don’t have a particular axe to grind as far as Scottish independence is concerned. I’m not a Scot, nor do I live in Scotland. I don’t have a vote in the referendum. However, as someone with a keen interest in Scottish history I do take an interest in the debate. I’m particularly interested in how the terms ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ (and ‘Scot’ and ‘Briton’) are used by people on both sides, usually when a point about identity is being raised. In recent years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how these terms were used in Scotland in the early medieval period or ‘Dark Ages’, the era of the Picts and Vikings. In two books (one already published, the other forthcoming) I’ve looked at what it meant to be a Briton in the Scotland of a thousand years ago, and why people in those days regarded ‘Britishness’ as different from both ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Englishness’. Early medieval texts show that even the umbrella term ‘Britain’ could be used in ways that excluded Scotland and England, to distinguish the territories of the Britons from those of the Scots and English.

The Britons of early medieval times were descended from the people we used to call ‘Ancient Britons’ in the school history lessons of my childhood. We were taught that the Britons fought the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons (the ancestors of the English) and that their language survives today in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. All of this is broadly true, although more could be said. In Scotland, the clearest reminder of the Britons of old is the distinctive, twin-peaked mass of Dumbarton Rock, which gets its name from Gaelic Dùn Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’.

Dumbarton Rock

‘Fortress of the Britons': Dumbarton Rock, viewed from the south bank of the River Clyde.


Fast forward a thousand years and we’re all Britons now, regardless of whether we live in England, Scotland or Wales. The modern notion of a common British identity is fairly easy to grasp – or at least it should be. Unfortunately, not everyone who voices an opinion on Scottish independence seems to understand what ‘Britishness’ means in the twenty-first century. Some commentators think the name ‘Britain’ applies exclusively to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They believe a Yes vote on 18th September will herald the ‘end’ or ‘break up’ of Britain. They’re mistaken. Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish it from Brittany or ‘Little Britain'; the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State. An independent Scotland will still be part of the island of Great Britain. The people of an independent Scotland will still be British. Separation from the UK will not dilute their ‘Britishness’ in any way. This is a simple geographical fact. It is not affected by the outcome of next week’s referendum.

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Epilogue: Some references to ‘Britishness’ in early medieval Scotland
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1. Scots, Britons and English (Anglo-Saxons) as separate peoples.

From the Annals of Ulster:
952 AD – Cath for Firu Alban & Bretnu & Saxonu ria Gallaibh.
‘A battle over the men of Alba [Scots] and the Britons and the Saxons [English] was won by the Foreigners [Vikings].’

From the Prophecy of Berchan:
c.960 AD (reign of King Ildulb of Alba) – ‘Bretain, Saxain, maircc fria a linn, fria a re an lonsaiglithigh airmglirinn mo glienar Albancha leis idir thuaith is eglais.
‘Woe to Britons and Saxons in his time, during the reign of the champion of fine weapons; joy to the Scots with him, both laity and clergy.’

[The Britons mentioned in these two references were the people of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the Britons in the North.]
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2. Britain = ‘territory ruled by Britons’ (not ‘the island of Britain’ as a whole)

From the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba:
c.972 AD – Cinadius filius Maelcolaim regnavit [xxiv] annis. Statim praedavit Britanniam ex parte.
‘Cináed son of Máel Coluim reigned 24 years. He frequently plundered part of Britain.’

[‘Britain’ here means Strathclyde which lay on the south-west border of Cináed’s kingdom.]

Govan The Sun Stone

Sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons: the Sun Stone at Govan (tenth century AD).

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