Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Legendary Giant Caw of Prydyn, An Early Pictish King?

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'.

Different Traditions

   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.

Some Sources

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.

Monday, August 5, 2019

King Arthur, a Lost Ruler and Rerigonion, the 'Very Royal Place'

   This article is the first in a series which will hopefully fully examine the faintest strand of tradition in Scotland: the tales of the Welsh speaking British kingdoms which once ruled northern England and southern Scotland. An unfortunate barrier to the study of these traditions for the unwary is the unwelcome over-writing of Arthurian 'tradition', a dubious palimpsest with both ancient and modern variants.

   Sites associated with King Arthur have been - to coin a phrase - done to death over the past few decades.  Every amateur historical sleuth unfortunate enough to be bitten by the Arthurian bug (when he or she should really be out investigating something more substantial) seeks desperately to nail the king or the battle-leader to specific points in the landscape, as if by doing this they would somehow substantiate his reality once and for all. Top of the list is, of course, Camelot - which may or may not be associated with Cadbury in Somerset.

   The unhappiest hunting ground for detectives seeking out the Once and Future King is perhaps the passage in the early 9th century Welsh composition Historia Brittonum which lists the supposes sites of Arthur's battles.  No-one has every satisfactorily and categorically identified the places in this lkist where Arthur is supposed to have fought.  Significantly, perhaps, the only place which seems clear is Coed Celyddon, the Forest of Caledonia, which must be within the confines of Scotland, but whether this means somewhere in the Borders area is still unclear. (The next most identifiable battle place is the City of the Legions, probably Chester.)  Opinion is divided about how ancient the incorporated list of conflict sites actually is.  The former view that the places were taken from an older poem celebrating the battles of Arthur is no longer given credence by every modern scholar.

   Battles aside, one major modern strand of current Arthurian speculation is the school of thought which tries to prove that Arthur came from the north.  A lot of this, in fairly dubious publications, insists that Arthur was the similarly named son of Aedan of Dal Riata, who died in 603.  The evidence for this equation is in fact pathetically weak and need not concern us here.  

   The second class of Arthurian site in Scotland is the Arthur names.  There is, of course, Ben Arthur near Loch Lomond and a cluster of Arthur place-names in Strathmore near the Perthshire-Angus border, plus a sprinkle of other places named after him, here and there.  But, in a category by itself perhaps, is the place named in Welsh legend as one of the three seats of Arthur, Pen Rhionydd

Gerthmwl Wledig in Welsh Tradition 

   The primary inhabitant of this place in the north (though he is not always named as such) is an extremely shadowy character who appears only in Welsh tradition and especially in the Triads, the summary grouping of related tales which served as memory aids to bards relating the full versions of ancient legends. In Triad 1, Three Tribal Thrones of the Island of Britain we learn about the elusive northern stronghold of power (the other places are St David's in Wales and Celliwig in Cornwall):

Arthur as Chief Prince in Pen Rhionydd in the North, and Gerthmwl Wledig as Chief Elder, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys as Chief Bishop

   Some Welsh commentators identified this with the Mull of Galloway and it is possible that it equates with Ptolemy's Rerigonion, which means 'very royal place'.  If so, it would be a remarkable instance of continuity of a place-name from the Iron Age to Medieval times, and all the more remarkable because the name is found in Welsh and not in any Scottish source. (It seems to be unique to the triads also.)

   But , before we venture to locate the 'very royal place,' we should take a pause to consider the people.  Arthur needs no introduction and the third person in the triad is the patron of Strathclyde, St Kentigern/Mungo. Like Arthur, the saint seems to have been drawn into the story and pinned to his locality by his regional, if not national, fame.  There are no historical, legendary or hagiographical associations with St Kentigern and the far west of Galloway whatever.  Gerthmwl Wledig is a trickier proposition, for we know very little about him.  The title wledig signifies he was of some imptotance.  Was he possibly a prince or warlord of the Novantae, the British tribe who occupied what later was called Galloway (and whose name means the Young Hunters)?

   He appears again in Triad 44, Three Horses who carried the Three Horse-Burdens.  The other two strands of the triads feature characters of the Old North and relate to incidents, one almost certainly fictitious and the second concerning a real battle.  The first tells of a supposed raid from the Strathclyde region to Anglesey (the horse burden of Elidir Mwynfawr) and the second mentions a prelude to the Battle of Arderydd in 573 (and a horse burden of the sons of Eliffer).  Although the incidents are likely unhistorical the people in them are likely to have actually existed. The third section concerns us in detail:

Heith, horse of the sons of Gwerthmwl Wledig, bore the third Horse-Burden:  he carried Gweir and Gleis and Archanad up the hill of Maelawr in Ceredigion to avenge their father.

   And there the story stalls, like many of the other triads.   Gwerthmwl  was evidently, in some other longer tale, killed in Wales, but we do not know the details.  The story may have originally been entirely set in the North; we will never know.  Rachel Bromiwch tells us that Allt Maelawr  is the hill-fort of Pendinas to the south of Aberystwyth.

   Even more intriguing is Triad 63 which gives a bare list of the Three Bull-Spectres of the Island of Britain (another version stated stag spectre) and includes:

...the Spectre of Gyrthmwl Wledig.

    The only other substantial wisp of tradition about this forgotten chieftain of Galloway is contained in the Stanzas of the Graves in the Black Book of Carmarthen, where Gyrthmwl, like many of his northern compatriots, is exhumed and given a grave somewhere in Wales, where traditions of the north migrated en masse.  In his case his resting place is designated as near Pontlliw in Carmarthenshire:

The grave of a chieftain of Britain in the open country of Gwynassed, where the Lliw goes into the Llychwr, in Kelli Friafael (is) the grave of Gyrthmul.
(The above translation is given by Bromwich.  The version by  John Bollard is: 'The grave of a chieftain of Pictland in the open land of Gwynasedd, where the Lliw goes into the Llwchwr; in Celli Friafael, the grave of Gyrthmwl.'   Jones give the following: 'The grave of a chieftain from the North is in the open land of Gwynasedd, where the Lliw flows into the Llychwr; at Cell Friafael in the grave of Gyrthmwl.')

   Barring the appearances in the Triads, Gwerthmwl 'the ruler' only fleetingly appears elsewhere, listed as one of the advisers of Arthur in the tale The Dream of Rhonabwy.  Then he vanishes from tradition and, unfortunately, we will never know who he was.

Ptolemy's Rerigonium

       The Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy wrote his Geographica in the 2nd century AD and was the first to add to the meagre written record of the peoples and places of early Roman Britain.  To him we are indebted for giving us the northern British tribal names of Damnonii, Selgovae, Carvetii, Novantae, Votadini.

The Location of Pen Rhionydd

   Where was Pen Rhionydd and was it identical with the earlier Rerigonium?  W.J. Watson stated:

Rerigonion stood on the Rerigonios gulf or bay, which is agreed to be by position and name Loch Ryan...and there can be no doubt that Penrhyn Rhionydd is the old Welsh name of the northern end of the Rhinns of Galloway, that is to say, on the promontory on the west side of Loch Ryan...Rerigonion this means "very royal place"; it was, in fact, the royal seat of the Novantae...

  The most significant modern feature of this peninsula is Cairn Ryan, which is possibly an unlikely candidate for 'a very royal place', being principally noteworthy as a ferry terminal which connects Scotland with Northern Ireland.  But there may be a clue here in its location.  It is often found that places on the borders of territories during the early Middle Ages had significance, both symbolically and politically. Such places were sometimes deliberately used as meeting places between kingdoms or peoples and sometimes religious settlements were deliberately placed there so  ecclesiastics could both mediate between tribes and have access to peoples on both sides of the border.  Any settlement here would be on the border, albeit a sea-separated one, between Britain and Ireland.

 In Welsh tradition also there is possibly a clue to the renown of the place, in fleeting mentions in the Book of Taliesin.  One poem, 'Teyrnon's Prize Song',  asks various questions regarding the qualities of an unnamed hero and includes the lines,' Is he famous, a wise one?/Or the ruler of Rheon', whci place may likely be Caer Reon, somewhere possibly in the vicinity of modern cairn Ryan.  Another poem, 'I Make My Plea to God,' speaks of warfare far and wide in Britain, 'From Penwith Head as far as Loch Ryan' (Pen ren Wleth and Luch Reon', Penwith in Cornwall and Loch Ryan).                                                 

   It is believed that there were settlers  arriving from Ireland into this western extremity of Galloway from prehistoric times, though the population patterns are complicated by later movements.  Galloway as a whole was conspicuously Gaelic in speech and character into the 17th century, the result of Norse-Irish settlement in the Middle Ages.  But, before this and the English settlement in 8th century in the eastern part of the region, Galloway was ruled over by Celtic British, Welsh-speaking elite.  A trace of the linguistic and social structures remarkably survived into the modern era.  John MacQueen and others have pointed out the presence of local nicknamed in the Rhinns area: Creenies and Gossocks.  The Creenies was a rather derogatory nickname for a poor class of people in the peninsula ( as noted in the 1901 book Galloway Gossip by R. de B. Trotter).  Historians have recognised that this term is an Anglicization of Cruithneach, a people of northern Ireland and probably means that such a people migrated here and were regarded as low in status by other parts of the population.  Remarkably, the same source named the Gossocks as another work for this impoverished breed.  In this case the term appears to be cognate with the Welsh term Gwasog, meaning 'servile person'.  At some stage, therefore, there was a substantial Irish population here which was held in subjugation to some extent by a dominant class of Welsh/Brittonic speaking people.

   The prime candidate for Ptolomy's place-name has long been Innermessan, a site on the east side of the sea-loch of Loch Ryan (and between modern Stranraer to the south and Cairn Ryan to the north).  Although he is the only person who names this presumably important place, the Ravenna Cosmography mentions somewhere called Brigomono, which some have thought as the same place. Mike McCarthy has endorsed the identification of Innermessan, though we we never know more about the place until some happy accident of archaeological discovery. 


Bollard, John K. and Griffith, Anthony, Englynion y Beddau, The Stanzas of the Graves (Llanrwst, 2015), p. 35.

Bromwich, Rachel (ed. and trans.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein, The Triads of the Island of Britain (2nd. edn., Cardiff, 1978), pp. 1-4, 109-10, 170-1, 388-9.

Gantz, Jeffrey (trans.), The Mabinogion (Harmondsworth, 1976), p. 190.

Jones, Thomas, 'The Black Book of Carmarthen Stanzas of the Graves,' Proceedings of the British Academy, 3 (1967), pp. 97-137.

Lewis, Gwyneth and Williams, Rowan (trans.), The Book of Taliesin (London, 2019). p. 70,  p. 73.     
MacQueen, St Nynia (2nd edn., Edinburgh, 1990), pp. 45-47.

McCarthy, Mike, 'Rerigonium: a lost city of the Novantae,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 134 (2004), pp. 119-29.

Morris-Jones, Sir John, 'Taliesin,' Y Cymmrodorion, 28 (1918), p 222.

Watson,  The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926, rep. 1986), p. 34.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Satan Calls the Scots to Slaughter

The substantial quote below is from Robert Pitscottie's History and it relates how, a short time before the slaughter of the Battle of Flodden, a mysterious speaker turned up at the ancient Market (Mercat) Cross in Edinburgh and read out a muster call of those Scots due to die in that carnage. The speaker, identified us Plutock, equates with Pluto and is most commonly thought to be Satan. However,in my book The Afterlife of King James IV, I wonder whether he is perhaps the king of the fairies. Either way, the announcement is still unexplained five centuries later. Reading it still brings a chill to the spine:
there was a Cry heard at the Market-Cross of Edinburgh, at the Hour of Midnight, proclaiming as it had been a Summons, which was named and called by the Proclaimer thereof, The Summons of Plotock; which desired all Men, To compear, both Earl and Lord, and Baron and Gentleman, and all honest Gentlemen within the Town (every Man specified by his own Name) to compear, within the Space of forty Days, before his Master, where it should happen him to appoint, and be for the Time, under the Pain of Disobedience. But whether this Summons was proclaimed by vain Persons, Night-Walkers, or drunk Men, for their Pastime, or if it was but a Spirit, I cannot tell truly: But it was shewn to me, That an Indweller of the Town, Mr. Richard Lawson, being evil-disposed, ganging in his Galley-Stair foreanent the Cross, hearing this Voice, proclaiming this Summons, thought Marvel what it should be, cried on his Servant to bring him his Purse; and when he had brought him it, he took out a Crown, and cast over the Stair, saying, I appeal from that Summons, Judgement and Sentence thereof, and takes me all whole in the Mercy of God, and Christ Jesus his Son. Verily the Author of this, that caused me write the Manner of the Summons, was a landed Gentleman, who was, at that Time, twenty Years of Age, and was in the Town the Time of the said Summons; and thereafter, when the Field was stricken, he swore to me, there was no Man that escaped that was called in this Summons, but that one Man alone, which made his Protection, and appealed from the said Summons; but all the Lave were perished in the Field with the King.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

When the Saints are Against You... The King Arthur-James IV Link?

It was a bare few weeks before the Battle of Flodden between England and Scotland in the autumn of 1513. King James IV was determined to enter England, partly to aid his ally France, which was currently at war with England. The Scots kings implicitly believed in himself as a warrior and could not have known that he would, in a very short time, have the dubious honour of being the last monarch in the British Isles to be slain on a battlefield.
In the evening he went to hear the service in the kirk of St Michael's at Linlithgow, immediately adjacent to his royal palace. Surrounded by the usual crowd of courtiers and servants, the king was a little apart from them all and possibly in a pensive mood when he was approached by a man in a blue gown who began to warn him not to go to war. The figure came out of nowhere and, more remarkably, once his lecture was over, he vanished into thin air. Nobody knows who he was. There was speculation that he was an actor hired by the king's wife Margaret, sister of Henry VIII, who was against the upcoming war. Or the culprit could have been Sir David Lindsay, a man of the court who became a notes playwright and poet.

The historian Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing a few decades after the event, imbues it with mystery and foreboding. It is generally assumed that the messenger was heavenly in origin, though later writers are divided about his exact identity. Some say St James, others St John, and yet others St Andrew the patron of Scotland, of course. The mystery, of course, will ultimately never be solved. I even allow the possibility in my book The Afterlife of King James IV that the event might not have actually happened.
That aside, I gave the variants on all the heavenly contenders for the saintly messenger and thought I had covered all the possibilities. But, lo and behold, I read in a book that the mysterious figure was none other than King Arthur! News to me. It came to late to be included in my book. Would I have included it if I had found it earlier? Er, nah. Some things are just too far fetched, even when relating visions and the miraculous.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Stories on the Birth of King James VI

In a previous post I alluded to the stories surrounding the birth of King James VI in June 1566.  It's well known that the king's unfortunate father, Lord Darnley, cast doubt on his son being his.  Equally clear is the knowledge that this is almost certainly more a mark of Darnley than of Mary, Queen of Scots.  The alleged real father was the queen's murdered secretary, the Italian, David Rizzio.  But Rizzio was well advanced in middle aged and not the kind of man who might have caught the queen's eye.

   And yet the tales persisted.  It was said that, in later years, a baby's body was found interred within the walls of Edinburgh Castle and some malicious people stated that this was the queen's true son and the boy she raised as king was an impostor, a son of Lady Reres or the Earl of Mar.


   It was true that Lady Reres was pregnant at the time and one of the few ladies attending the queen before she gave birth.  Five years later, Lady Rere's cousin Andrew Lundy had dinner with John Knox and relayed to the reformed a stranger superstitious belief which Margaret Bethune, Lady Reres, had; namely that the childbirth pains of the queen had been supernaturally transferred to her through the intercession of the Countess of Atholl, who was accounted a witch.  The revelation to Knox was recorded by his secretary, Richard Bannatyne:

On Tuysday, the 3 of Julij, 1571, Andro Lundie beand at dener with my maister, in a place of the lard of Abbotshalls, called Falsyde, openlie affirmet for treuth, that when the quene was lying in ieasing of the king, the Ladie Athole, lying [lodging] thair lykwayis, baith within the Castell of Edinburgh, that he come thair for sum business, and called for the Ladie Reirres, whom he fand in her chalmer, lying bedfast, and he asking hir of hir disease, scho answrit that scho was never so trubled with no barne that ever scho bair, ffor the Ladie Athole had cassin all the pyne of hir (the Queen's) child-birth vpon hir.

   But what of the child in the walls?  In 1835 there was a fire in Edinburgh Castle which necessitated rebuilding work to part of the structure.  A small coffin was found in the walls of the royal apartments, containing an infant wrapped in a shroud of silk and gold cloth, with a letter J upon it.  The finding was reported in magazine literature at the time but, curiously, the coffin and its contents have vanished.  One story says that they were re-interred within the castle walls.

   The story received wider attention in the early 20th century when Alice, Lady Forbes, wrote about them in The Scottish Historical Review (Vol. 15, No. 58, Jan., 1918). In an answering article in the same journal, R. K. Hannay cast doubt on the conclusions that the infant was the true king; not least the information that Lady Reres was in fact rather old to be bearing a child at that time and her  words about pain and childbirth were hopelessly muddled both by her cousin and John Knox's secretary.
   We will never know the truth about the matter for sure, unless and until the remains of the possible prince are discovered again.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Commercial Break - New Book Out Now!

While I take a short (and possibly well-deserved) break from my blogging schedule, can I bring your attention to my recently published book, The Afterlife of King James IV, published by Chronos Books.

   This work is very much an alternative history of one of the best beloved Scottish monarchs, King James IV, who died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  Or did he?  There were persistent rumours that the monarch survived the battle, being either captured by the English, rogue nobles in the Scottish army, or taking himself away on a spiritual, one way journey from the Holy Land. So, a raft of conspiracies theories which were born out of the bloody mire and confusion of battle?  That's true, but there was certainly more, uncommon intrigue afoot.  The tantalising image and reputation of the king - plus the possibility of his murder or survival - were tangible elements in the tempestuous politics of the post-Flodden period. The king's own wife, Margaret Tudor (sister of King Henry VIII) fully indulged in the intrigue, for her own purposes, claiming that James IV survived for several years after the fateful battle.

   More than this, the king was also linked to the Otherworld, with several strands of tradition aligning him with the theme of the Undying King, whose interest in the recondite traditions of his realm prompted his removed from the physical world, a captive in Fairy Land.  The persistent legends of his links with this realm are evident in witch trials and resurface in subsequent centuries, a fascinating ingredient in the postmortem reputation of this most alluring Stewart monarch.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Robert Bruce: Saints and Superstition

To estimate the religious impulses of a long dead ruler is just one aspect of trying to determine their character and the more public facing and orthodox in form their devotions are, the more difficult it is to determine their underlying beliefs.  As a ruler Robert Bruce is judged by military exploits, both in those rather few set piece full scale battles which he won and as a guerrilla ruler before his ascent to power.  His political achievements and statesmanship were also great, but his devotion to his nation's saints also needs examined, not least because it throws light on his interaction with the complex native culture in Scotland.

   Bruce's family in background were little different from the other dynastic players active in the period, such as the Comyn and Balliol families.  All were descendants (in sometimes disputed degrees) from the native Celtic kings of Scotland, and all saw their chance at the prize of the throne when that direct line died out in the later 13th century.  Norman and English blood of course mingled with Scottish ancestry and they had extensive land holdings and associated loyalties south of the border.  Bruce himself was probably born in south-west Scotland, where the region of Galloway (larger then than the area is understood to be now) was a bastion of Gaelic language and culture.  Did the king himself speak Gaelic and participate in the the native culture of the area, including the veneration of native saints?

   Raised at Turnberry Castle in Carrick, the area would still have been within the Gaelic speaking milieu.  Obviously there would be a family inheritance of Norman French, as well as some knowledge of Scots dialect and Latin.  Having a scant understanding of the tongue of the peasantry is one thing, but understanding their culture is quite another.  John Barbour's epic account The Brus tells how the king, in the wilderness before his final triumph, encouraged the flagging spirits of his guerrilla band with tales of heroes who overcame great adversity.  The tale of Hannibal attacking Rome is mentioned, but Bruce also told tales of other ancient heroes, among them Caesar, but could he also have drawn on native legend and folklore to encourage his men with great deeds closer to home? 
Thus gat thaim comfort the king/And to comfort thaim gan inbryng/ Auld storys off men that wer/Set intyll hard assayis ser/And that fortoun contraryit fast,/And come to purpos at the last.

Bruce and the 'Celts' - The Wider Picture

The audacious Bruce incursion into Ireland fell victim to that country's factionalism(a pattern which echoes through every subsequent century) and should not be viewed as an attempt to create a kind of pan-Celtic vision for the Bruce dynasty.  They did, for certain, recognise the shared culture of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, but the sense of kinship between other 'Celtic' countries was probably absent.  

A Superstitious King? Prophecies and Marvels

   Bruce was a king of many cultures.  His family, before the necessary duality of the Wars of Independence, held lands in England and Scotland.  Languages he would have been familiar with in south-west Scotland would have included Gaelic, Scots, Latin, Norman French.  How credulous was he as a man.  We know, as will be seen below, that he used popular legendary characters to further his agenda, but that is some distance from viewing him as an expert in the traditional lore of his native land.  John Barbour in The Brus (book four) has Robert Bruce being assured of his ultimate success by a seeress in his home region, and yet Bruce does not give her supernatural endorsement unqualified welcome.  He listened to her whole prognostication and thanked her fully, being somewhat heartened by it.  And yet he did not wholly believe, for he wondered how she or anyone could entirely have knowledge of things to come:
The king that herd all hyr carpingThankit hyr in mekill thing,For scho confort him sumdeill,The-quhethir he trowyt nocht full weill hyr spek, for he had gret ferlyHow scho suld wyt it sekyrly...
   Bruce certainly deployed ancient but nevertheless effective cultural weapons against his enemies.  The prime prophet of the island of Britain, recent regenerated by Geoffrey of Monmouth, was of course Merlin.  On May 15 1307, several days after the engagement between Scots and English at Loudon Hill, a pro-English Scot reported that the allies of Bruce were being strengthened by the continual efforts of false preachers in his army.  These propagandists were disseminated the forthcoming death of Le Roy Coveytous - the English monarch - after which happy event the people of Wales and Scotland would band together and recover full lordship  and live in peace together until the end of the world.  According to Barbour again, the people of Scotland had knowledge of the predictions of that more recent seer, True Thomas, or Thomas of Erceldoune, who had apparently foreseen his ascent.  Bishop Wishart of Glasgow is made to ponder, after hearing of Bruce's decisive slaying of Comyn: 'I hop thomas prophecy off ercildoune shall werefyd be'.  Such was the magnitude of the struggle that supernatural support had to be gathered from whatever source it could be found, be that sacrilegious or not.

A Religious King? The Record of His Religion

   In speaking to his troops before the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert Bruce mentioned - among others - the national saint Andrew, whose cult had become preeminent in the nation perhaps a century before. After his death, Archbishop Bernard Linton  likened the Bruce to that apostle. As a king, and before that date as a leading noble Bruce had participated in the recognition and veneration of St Thomas Becket also, which was also evident in the reign of his son David II.  Did Robert Bruce see significance in the date of 7 July 1307, the Translation feast of Becket, when Edward I died at Burgh-on-Sands, near Carlisle, an event which prevented another English invasion of Scotland?

   As the historian Michael Penman puts it, Bruce was not slow in copying the English example of covering a wide veneration base of saints: 'As a bachelor in Edward I’s household before 1296, and often in attendance on the English king in England and Scotland up to 1305, Robert surely came to understand the political value of... public devotions.' ('“Sacred Food for the Soul”: In Search of the Devotions to Saints of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, 1306–1329,' Speculum 84, 2013.)

   So there is no suggestion that Bruce somehow showed a preference for 'native' saints of either Scotland or Ireland as an effort to differentiate his fragile regime and foster a sense of cultural difference from England. It does show, however, that the saints of these two nations were powerful components - allies - in his spiritual armoury which helped him defeat an overwhelming foe. The 15th century Scotichronicon details a supernatural event which carried the righteous cause of Bruce into the heartland of the enemy. On the eve of the Battle of Bannockburn, the sacrist of Glastonbury Abbey was surprised in the evening by the appearance of two knights on white steeds. He offered them hospitality, but they refused and informed him that they had case to fight that very day at sunrise in a battle between Scots and English at a place named Bannockburn, on the side of the Scots, to provide revenge for the death of Simon de Montfort, killed by the royal army of England at the Battle of Evesham fifty years before. They then 'glided from the sight of the listener and were seen there no longer' much tom the man's astonishment.

   At Bannockburn, Bruce commanded that the relic of Colum Cille, the Brecbennachbe paraded before his native horde, and this was doubtless a divine inspiration which reinforced the army's identity and demonstrated to the community of the realm of Scotland that the kingdom of heaven, as represented by local saints, was firmly on their side.  It is obvious that the deployment of saints was a political act which emphasised allegiance to a broad spectrum of beliefs and those who ascribed to them in the kingdom. Conventional piety had its limits and Bruce was able to function - for periods at least - on the dark side of the line, within the territory of damnation as defined by the Church. So when he was excommunicated for his claiming the Scottish crown, he continued regardless to press this claim. And, when he sacrilegiously killed his rival Comyn in a church in Dumfries, in February 1306, the repercussions were grave, but he was prepared to live with them.

   On a personal basis, the king's own health shows that he believed in the possible power of saints' intercessions as much as the next man or woman in his day and age. His leprosy was cured, or at least ameliorated by, a holy well in Ayr. He afterwards erected houses around the well for eight lepers and paid for sustenance for them. The place became known as 'King's Ease'. After he was on the throne he paid for the prayers of Dominicans to assist his ill health; they prayed for the well-being of his soul after he died. When he was suffering his final illness in 1329, Bruce made the arduous pilgrimage to seek the benediction of St Ninian at Whithorn on the coast of Galloway.

Two Particular Saints Particular - Malachy and Fillan

   The Bruce family in the west of Scotland had a long and interesting relationship with the Irish saint Máel Máedóc (Malachy).  According to the Chronicle of Lanercostthe second Lord of Annandale, Robert Bruce, was visited the saint in the 1140s, who interceded with him to spare the life of a condemned thief. But, when Bruce hanged the man, Malachy laid a curse on the Bruces and on the town of Annan (which was subsequently flooded). The effect of the malediction is mostly unrecorded, but we know that a later Bruce prayed at the saint's tombs later in the century and asked for the malison to be annulled. Robert Bruce the King paid for a candle and lamp for St Malachy before the saint's altar at Coupar Angus Abbey in 1326.

   Behind the legend there is of course some truth.  The Cumbrian monks who composed the Chronicle of Lanercost were notably dismissive and hostile to their northern neighbours and the tale of the Bruce family's negative interaction with a hero of the western church was written at a time when the latter day Bruces were vying for the vacant Scottish crown with the Balliols and others. So the promulgation of the legend was, in part, a carefully weighted put down of this Anglo-Scottish kindred and their regal aspirations. The saint's own contemporary vita details his departure from Ireland (some time between 1134 and 1143), bound for Rome. Arriving from Scotland he met King David I (1124-1154), who begged the saint to assist his seriously ill son. Malachy blessed the boy with holy water and assured him: 'Have confidence son; this time thou shalt not die.' The boy recovered the next day, of course, to the jubilation of the whole court. (Prince Henry survived until 1152.) The Bruce family's interaction with this cleric who had such impeccable royal connections was likely to have been more straight forward than Lanercost suggests and shows they were in tune with the prevalent channels of power in their age. Linkage with a superstar of the Irish church could only have been a good thing for their prestige.

The 'Fillan miracle' connected with Bannockburn only appears in a somewhat later source, the history written by the unreliable Hector Boece, which was published in 1527. According to this, the king prayed to the saint on the night before the battle and was rewarded by a vision of the silver reliquary of the saint which contained Fillan's arm bone, opening and closing by itself. When a priest examined the case he was surprised to find that the bone was indeed inside, which surprised him as he had removed the artefact and secreted it in Stirling castle before he brought the reliquary to safeguard against its loss on the battlefield.
Detail of the crozier of St Fillan


The king enlarged the chapel dedicated to Fillan in Strathearn in 1318, placing in the care of the canons of Inchaffray Abbey. Later, in 1329, his natural son Sir Robert Bruce of Liddesdale gave £20 to that church. Fillan was well established in Strathearn and was reputedly an 8th century Irish saint who settled in the area. His crozier was kept in the strath and was reputed for its magical ability to locate lost goods and cattle. A document from 1487 states that the current keeper of the crozier was Malice Dore, whose forebears had 'ane relik of Sanct Fulane callit the Quargich in keping,' even since the time of Robert Bruce. The important resonance of Fillan as a truly national saint lasted at least into the late 15th century at the highest levels. At the coronation of James IV in 1488 there was a procession led by a man holding St Fillan's Bell, renowned for its power in curing mental problems. A decade later the king confirmed his personal devotion to the saint when he confirmed the Dewars’ privileges as relic keepers. The king's allegiance to the saint is supposed to have arisen in situ. In 1306 Bruce fought the pro-English Macdougalls of Lorne in an encounter later termed Dalrigh, 'the king's field'. Bruce prayed to the great saint of the district, St Fillan, whose shrine was nearby at Kilry, and assured himself of victory. It was at this battle that Bruce is supposed to have lost the famous silver jewel which later became the property of the Campbells and then the Macdougalls, known as the Brooch of Lorne.