This post is one of a series which looks at very early Pictish history and attempts to see what, if anything, can be recovered from that very remote periods. Fragments of stories about early kings, in the surviving king lists and saint's lives, can give clues about these characters, but in most cases the information is late, piecemeal, or grossly distorted.
Culhwch and Olwen
Caw of Prydyn - that is, Pictland - is one of those lost figures of the far north of who make a shadowy appearance in various places in early Welsh literature. Perhaps his best showing is as a fleeting character in the medieval tale Culhwch and Olwen (featured in the Mabinogion), where is one one of a dizzying cast of dozens who assist the hero defeat the evil giant Yspadaden Penkawr. (The cast includes the supposed eldest son of Caw, Hueil, who is also mentioned below. Another son, Gwarthegydd, is also mentioned.) Nora Chadwick believed that Caw may have played a more central part in this medieval tale in its primitive version, but this is difficult to confirm or deny. In the tale, Culhwch must complete a series of near impossible tasks imposed upon him by the giant before he can win Olwen.
The tasks themselves in the tale are so varied and encompass the assistance of so many heroes that it is difficult to disentangle the earliest strata of the story. There does seem to be a great many elements which point towards ill-remembered early British Celtic tradition. Caw is characterised as a leader in the far North, who 'rules the sixty cantrevs of Pictland'. He attacks the huge boar named Ysgithrwyn Pen Beidd, slicing its mighty head in two and keeping its mighty tusks as trophies. Later in the story he collects the still warm blood of a black witch and shaves the giant himself. Although many of the motifs in this story are ancient indeed, the editors of Culhwch and Olwen believe that the inclusion of Caw is largely due to his conspicuous part in a legendary incident in the life of St Cadoc, considered below.
The Giant Arises
The fullest account of Caw comes in a Life of St Cadoc, written at Llancarfan in South Wales by Lifric, of Lifric, at the start of the 12th century. In this work the saint is said to have lived for some time at the Pictish monastery of St Andrews in Fife. On his return to his homeland in the south he crossed the hills known as Bannog (Bannauc, Bannawg), which are known to have separated Pictish and British territory a little way north of Glasgow. Here he was instructed by an angel to halt and remain seven years, converting the people to Christianity. While he was engaged one day in digging the foundations for his monastery here he came across a huge collar bone belonging to some ancient hero. It was so large that a champion of horseback would have been able to ride through it unimpeded. Cadoc swore that he would find out the meaning of this marvel and that night an angel warned him to strengthen his priests and the local people with his words for fear they should fear for their lives.
'For tomorrow, at the first hour of the day,' the angel said, 'this ancient giant will be resuscitated, who will be your excavator as long as he lives.'
The next day, event before the saint had completed his oration to his people, the giant rose from the earth, horrible and immense. The spectators were justifiably terrified, declaring that a phantasm had appeared to them in human form in order to carry them away. But the hideous figure was compelled to fall at the feet of the holy man and begged him not to send his soul back to the awful whirlpools of Cocytus. Cadoc asked him who he was, and about his family and the manner of his death. The giant said that he had reigned for many years beyond Mount Bannauc, then he and his plunderers arrived at these coasts to gather booty and lay them waste. But the king of this region pursued him and slew him, and so he and his followers had been consigned to hell from that day. He said his name was Cau of Pritdin. Cadoc told him to rejoice, since he still had the chance of salvation, if he followed righteous actions. To this the giant replied, 'All the things which thou hast bidden seen light to me, and I will exceedingly fulfil the.' Caw was set to work excavating the foundations and laboured there until he died (for the second time).
Here were giants: Cambuslang in modern times
Later in the life we are told that the monastery was at Cambuslang and evidently the story of the giant was part of its foundation legend. Nora Chadwick pointed out the similarity of this immense figure with the giants who are said to be the ancestors of Arthur and his fellow heroes in another Welsh tale, The Dream of Rhonabwy. (The latter tale also features Caw's son Gwarthegydd, who has a role here as a counsellor of Arthur. In Culhwch and Olwen he is the first man killed by the monstrous boar.) But his immense stature may have primarily been influenced by the similarity of his name to the Welsh word cawr, which simply means 'giant'.
The Father of St Gildas?
St Gildas was the author of De Excidio Britanniae, a mid 6th century state of the nation which gave a bleak picture of the lamentable state of Celtic Britain following Roman withdrawal and under the threat of Anglo-Saxon settlement. From the British tyrants identified by Gildas, his operational knowledge seems confined to what is now south-west England and part of Wales. One of his lives, however, states that he was the son of a man named Cau or Caw from North Britain.
Although Welsh literature designates Caw as belonging to Pictland one of the lives of St Gildas states that Caw was the ruler of Arecluta, that is the Welsh (or Northern British) kingdom of Strathclyde. There are frustratingly few details in the document to be able to judge where this information might have come from and how relevant or truthful it is. Again, in St Cadoc's life, following the extraordinary story of the giant Caw, there is an incident where Cadoc encounters Gildas in Wales. We are told in this passage that Gildas is the son of Cau, presumably the same northern figure previously encountered, but the author makes no attempt to link the information and digresses into a tale wherein the two saints engage in a petty dispute about the ownership of a bell. The only additional information we receive is that Caw is callidus artifex, a 'skilled craftsman'. This may be a stray piece of legitimate tradition attached to the lost legend of this king, though we will never know for certain. The association with Gilas and Cadoc likewise may have been more explicit in earlier versions of their legends.
We can compare the two vitae of St Gildas to look at his supposed origins. The earlier composition was composed at Ruys in Brittany, possibly in the 9th century. In its opening chapter it is stated that Gildas was born in the 'very fertile region of Arecluta' and his father is called Caunus rex Albaniae and a most noble and catholic man. The 12th century Welsh life of Gildas, by Caradoc of Llancarfan, cays that his father was Nau, which seems to be a scribal error. Nau is described as 'the noblest of the kings of the north, who had twenty-four sons, victorious warriors'.
We can see that there is a variance in the records about Caw. In one source he is a foreigner, a Pict, who raids Britain as a freebooter. In another he is a noble and Christian king of Strathclyde. The blurring of identity need not necessarily point to a whole invented character. There was considerable crossover in identity between the Northern Britons and the Picts. Both peoples spoke a similar language and there were certainly times when the Picts were ruled by kings from Strathclyde. However, his name does not appear in any of the king-lists for that region. P. K. Johnstone attempted to show that the garbled name Galan Arilith in the Pictish king-lists was a corruption of Caw of Arecluta, though his argument was some distance away from being convincing.
There is disagreement two about the offspring of Caw of the North. The Ruys life of Gildas says that he was succeeded as ruler by his eldest son Cuillus, who is described as a great warrior. Besides him and Gildas, he had three sons and a daughter. These were all saints, who were venerated at various places in Wales. Caradoc's account, as we have seen, swells the number of children to twenty-four. He calls the eldest son Hueil and he became an enemy of King Arthur, who tracked him down in a place called Manau, which was either the Isle of Man, or the British region of Manau Gododdin in Scotland. Although Hueil does not emerge as a more likely historical figure than his father, it is certain that there was an active body of tradition about him in Wales in the Middle Ages. He features in the Triads (Triad 21) as one of the 'Three Battle-Diademed Men of the Island of Britain'. In later Welsh tradition, enshrined in the text called Bonedd y Saint, the children of Caw are cited as one of the three holy families of Britain.
The later genealogical lists which feature the progeny of Caw seem primarily to be associated with Gwynedd. Much material relating to Y Gogledd, the Old North in England and Scotland associated with ancient ancient British kingdoms, migrated to north Wales and could represent fragments from the history of that lost cultural region. In one genealogical tract Caw himself is said to belong to Dwrkelyn, a commote in Anglesey.
CC0 Public Domain (Karen Arnold)
The Oldest Animal: the Owl of Cwm Cawlydd
Another northern character which may have been relocated south to Wales from an original northern home is the Owl of Cwm Cawlydd. This creature appears in the Mabinogion also, as one of the oldest creatures on the earth. Its home, according to later tradition, was in the long vanished woods adjacent to Llyn Cowlydd, the deepest lake in Wales, in Snowdonia. But the local was likely transferred from some place in Pictland or southern Scotland. In Culhwch and Olwen, one of the tasks imposed upon the hero is seeking the legendary hero Mabon son of Modron. The owl is asked if it had ever heard of this person. Mabon seems originally to have have been a god and his cult was particularly evident north of Hadrian's Wall.
Rachel Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydain (2nd edn., Cardiff, 1978).
Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans (ed.), Culhwch and Olwen, An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff, 1992).
N. K. Chadwick, 'The Lost Literature of Celtic Scotland,' Scottish Gaelic Studies, 7 (153), pp. 115-83.
Jeffrey Gantz (trans.), The Mabinogion (Harmondsworth, 1976).
P. K. Johnstone, 'Caw of Pictland,' Antiquity, volume 12, issue 47 (September, 1938), pp. 340-1.