Scottish Arthurian/Merlin Myth

[Extra Articles Contents]

WHAT IS THE ARTHURIAN MERLIN MYTH? 

A bit like with the unicorns it depends a wee bit on where and when in time you are when you ask. The story itself goes a bit like this: 

We start in the late 4th century. Before Arthur was born, Merlin had been active and brought to the tyrant ruler Vortigern’s court. He helped with the downfall of this ruler. He then set about bringing Arthur into the world. King Arthur was the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine (who was married to the Duke of Cornwall at the time), who were brought together in order for Arthur to be conceived by the hand of Merlin, the Wizard. When the king was poisoned (obviously he had no unicorn horn to hand) Arthur, when still a youth, pulled Excalibur from the stone which fulfilled a prophecy cementing him as the succeeding king. Acting as a kind of foster father, he educates Arthur and prepares him to rule. He is a great aid in helping the young king establish his round table (round to negate there being a “head” of the group and putting Arthur & his knights on an equal footing), creating his loyal followers as knights, and fending off a succession of enemies. 

Merlin was made to be an inherently good character, on the side of right and justice, despite his origin as son of a demon who had had his way with a devoutly religious woman. This connected him with a Damien-a-like antichrist beginning, who should have, apparently, ended up destructive and evil, rather than this, however, he took on his mother’s character as someone sworn to do good deeds. This set the story as one dealing in good overcoming evil. His demonic half was why he was magically powerful and his renunciation of his demonic side meant he gained the ability to foretell future happenings from God. This last, makes him invaluable as far as battle strategy is concerned, meaning Arthur is able to score a succession of defeats, cementing his position as a heroic leader. Despite his illegitimate conception through adultery and being half demon, he isn’t taken as anything but a good and heroic character throughout the ages. 

What we can also see, is that, without Merlin, there would have been no Arthur, and, therefore, no victorious battles, no intrepid quest for the holy grail, &c. and the histories would have played out completely differently. The side stories include that of Galahad, who, like Merlin, was a super devout and godly personage, despite being an illegitimate product of adultery between Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and one of his knights and best friend, Lancelot, and who became keeper of the holy grail. 

This betrayal spells the end for Arthur and his court, which comes shortly after the grail’s arrival into Britain, as the revelation of Lancelot’s infidelity is made known. Due to a strength of honour he sentences his wife to death but Lancelot tries to save her. While Arthur has followed his former best friend into France in the pursuance of justice, Arthur’s nephew, or sometimes illegitimate son, Mordred takes the opportunity and turns traitor. He takes the throne after asserting Arthur & Lancelot have perished in France, forcibly marries Guinevere, and sacks the knights of the round table, replacing them with his own cohorts. Arthur hears of this, makes his way home, and finally comes up against Mordred’s army, in Camlann, dying in that final battle.  

Merlin, however, is said to have been severely mentally affected by this end of his king and men. He apparently went on an extended solitary wandering which ended as we’ll see. 

This is a brief synopsis on purpose, there are just so many versions of the Arthurian Legends, that to take every moment from all would be a time-consuming labour of love, were that project to be attempted. It’s not a necessary endeavour for our purposes here. 

The French were particularly enamoured with the Arthurian legends and it was spread by their mediaeval authors. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his ‘Historia regum Britanniae’ about the year 1138, which elaborated on the Arthurian myth. 

Chrétien de Troyes, at the end of the same century, wrote on this myth and introduced Lancelot and Guinevere’s story arc. 

Robert de Boron, in the early 1200s, elaborated on Arthur’s childhood and his winning of his crown by the extraction of Excalibur from stone, into which it was embedded. 

In the late 15th century, Thomas Malory, wrote his version in English, ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, though the story remained England-based up through the 17th century. 

Then Alfred Tennyson wrote his take of the Arthurian story in his ‘Idylls of the King’ in 1859. 

There have been varying versions of the King Arthur/Merlin legend in the 20th century, in multiple media. 

WHAT ARE THE VARYING VERSIONS OF THE CHARACTER MERLIN? 

   The controversy as to whether there were two Merlins is of no particular moment. Professor Veitch accepts the theory of the double identity. According to the story, the Welsh Merlin, celebrated by Spenser in the “Fairy Queen,” and by Tennyson in the “Idyls of the King,” is thought to have lived in the 5th century, and is said to have sprung from the intercourse of a Demon with a Welsh princess. He was naturally a prophet and an enchanter, and also, we presume, a bard. Perhaps the right view is that, being a bard, he was all the rest. The Caledonian Merlin is said to have flourished in the 6th century, and to have been a contemporary of St. Kentigern, our own beloved St. Mungo. Merlin Caledonius was known as Merlin the Wyllt or Wild. The story, double or single, may have had a historic origin, but quite manifestly it is full of myth, whether viewed from the Welsh or Scottish point of view. If we could accept the semi-demonic origin of the Welsh Merlin, there seems no reason why he should not be the Scotch Merlin. He may have got into bad odour in Wales, and thought it prudent to retire to Drummelzier, on Tweedside, a place admirably suited to a bard in exile. 

– Glasgow Herald, 4th May, 1889. 

   There is now no doubt that the mass of Arthurian tradition can be traced to Celtic sources, and particularly to the Cymric branch of the Celtic family, and accordingly wherever we find traces of the Cymri there are very similar traditions, diversified only by local circumstances. Thus, each of the four great divisions of ancient Cymric territory, Strathclyde, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, have their separate traditions of Arthur and Merlin, and their Merlin shrines. The Scottish pilgrim will find the Cymric bard’s grave by the peaceful Tweed in the sweet vale of Drummelzier. The Welshman goes to dragon-haunted Dinas-Emrys, amid the fastnesses of Snowdon, or to the Mynydd Merlin or Merlin’s Hill, near Caermarthen. The haunt of the Cornish pilgrim would be fairy Tintagal or that mysterious tomb referred to in Sir Thomas Malory, where, to quote a quaint Scottish reference to the legend, that ‘wykede womane closede him in a cragge of Cornwales coste.’ And Brittany? Amid the giant stones of Carnac, or on that little islet of Sien, between Raz and Croissant, off the west coast of Bretagne, the faithful still look for the grave of Merlin. Truly it is a tangled web which the romancists have woven around the story of Merlin! 

   Here then we have, speaking generally, three Merlins – the Scottish, the Welsh and Cornish, and the Breton. The first of these became known through time as the Scottish Merlin or Merlinus Caledonius; the second as the Welsh Merlin, Myrdin Emrys or Merlinus Ambrosius; the third as the Breton Merlin, Marthin, or Marzin. The first I shall call the Merlin of history, the second the Merlin of tradition, and the third the Merlin of romance

Scottish Review, Vol. 20, Oct., 1892, pp.321-337. – by Arthur Grant. 

   The Merlin of this poem is Merlin Caledonius, known also as Merlin Wylt and Silvestris. He ought not to be identified with Myrdin Emrys, or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the vates of Vortigern, and also apparently of Aurelius Ambrosianus, – the man of Roman descent who superseded Vortigern in the Cymric supremacy, and lost it again about 465. This Myrdin Emrys was probably also the Merlin of Uther Pendragon and of Arthur. While the name of the latter is associated with Dinas Emrys, or Fort of Emrys, in the Vale of the Waters – Nant Gwynant, which circles round the rugged grandeur of the southern slopes of Snowdon – that of the former, Merlin Caledonius, is inseparably joined to the wavy, far-spreading, and heather-streaked hills between which the Powsail Burn makes its way to the Tweed in the haugh of Drummelzier. Out of the two Merlins – the earlier and the later – the romancers of the eleventh and following centuries formed a third or legendary Merlin. Now the personage appears as a vulgar wizard and soothsayer, master of the art of glamoury, to be finally overcome by a woman’s wiles, and kept for ever in hopeless captivity.

– Professor John Veitch’s Preamble to his poem ‘Merlin’ in 1889. 

WHAT MAKES MERLIN CALEDONIUS SPECIFICALLY SCOTTISH? 

   It seems at first sight singular that a Wizard who is especially claimed as belonging to the Kymric or Welsh branch of the Celts should be so associated with the south of Scotland. But Merlin, like Arthur, belongs not so much to a district as to a race. And we must bear in mind that thirteen hundred years ago the distribution of the population in Britain was different, as regards races, from what it is now. Arthur is called the king of the Dumnonians; but there were two races in Britain so called. One occupied the south-western peninsula of Britain now known as Cornwall; the other occupied the greater portion of the middle Lowlands of what we now call Scotland. That the people of these two far-divided territories were of the same great family of Celts is obvious from the place-names that still exist on the Borders – Traquair, Trahenna, Polwarth, Penvalla, and many others that closely resemble names in Cornwall; as likewise from such river-names as the Tweed, the Teviot, and the Timah, all of which have analogues in Wales. The Cornish, like the Gaelic tongue, is regarded by philologists as an older form of Celtic than the Welsh; and the fact that we find names in the south of Scotland that resemble names both in Cornwall and in Wales, may be regarded as supporting the theory that it was the older or Gaelic-speaking Celts who first occupied the country, and that these gave place later on to a second wave of immigrant Celts who spoke Welsh. Bearing this in mind, therefore, it is not difficult to understand how the mythologies of the Celtic race should be found embodied in the place-names of districts so far apart as Cornwall and the Scottish Border. 

… 

   We have seen the tradition of Merlin’s death which Lord Tennyson has adopted for poetical treatment; that which relates to the death of Merlin the Wild, or Merlin Caledonius, is quite different both as to the locality and the circumstances of it. From Broceliande we are brought back to Tweedside, and instead if the wily Vivien, with her woven paces and her waving arms, we have the sticks and stones of a rough band of ancient Border shepherds. 

   This latter story of Merlin’s death is curious, and must have been written by one who was familiar with the locality, as the mature of the ground at the spot where the Wizard is said to have been killed is precisely such as the circumstances attending his death would lead us to expect. Moreover, it is just possible that the person to whom the name of Merlin Caledonius was applied may have been a real person, as the name given him in life is Llallogen, and it is only Bower in his continuation of the Scotichronicon, which he wrote so late as the fifteenth century, who seeks to identify this Llallogen with Merlin the Wild. It is possible also that the poems which are attributed to this Merlin the Wild may have actually been written by Llallogen; and on account of this poetical faculty and the mental aberration of his later years, the people may have come to regard him as a second Merlin, the one name in the course of time supplanting the other. And so, instead of the place of burial being called after Llallogen – a name foreign to Saxon lips – it was reconsecrated with the more familiar appellation of Merlin’s grave. 

   In the life of St Kentigern – better known in Scotland as St Mungo – written in the twelfth century, we read of a certain Lailoken or Llallogen who lived in the court of King Rydderch as a kind of jester, but who, after the death of the saint, became very melancholy, and began to utter prophecies, which were rendered memorable by their realisation. Bower, who connects him with Merlin the Wild, gives a different version of Llallogen’s relations with the saint. 

– Peeblesshire Advertiser, 9th January, 1892, p.3. 

Druidism, which had well-nigh disappeared among the Southern Britons, still flourished among the Men of the North, as the Scottish Cymri were sometimes called. Many of the noble families proudly held to their ancient belief, and, as Christianity crept in amongst them, the breach between Christian and Pagan Cymri grew wider and wider. The chiefs of two ancient royal houses took opposite sides in this struggle – Rydderch Hael leading the Christian, and Gwenddolew the Pagan factions. Both appear to have been men of more than ordinary ability, and both are mentioned in the ancient ‘Triads of Arthur and his Warriors,’ Rydderch as one of ‘the three generous ones,’ and Gwenddolew as one of ‘the three bulls of battle’ of the Island of Prydain (Britain). Gwenddolew was also called ‘the father of songs,’ evidently in recognition of his patronage of the bards. With both sides, also, are associated the names of the two representative men of the rival creeds – St. Kentigern with Rydderch Hael, and Merlin with Gwenddolew. 

… 

   We now come to consider how our Merlinus Caledonius, 

‘Magnified by the purple mist 

The dusk of centuries and of song.’ 

became the great Merlin of tradition and romance. 

   As time wore on the unremitting attacks from Scots and Saxons began to tell on the little Cymric kingdom of Strathclyde. For a time Stirling was the common march of the three races, and Hollinshead tells us that on the old Stirling bridge the following couplet was carved:- 

‘I am free march as passengers maie ken, 

To Scots to Britains and to Englishmen.’ 

But in 756 Rydderch’s capital of Alclyde11 fell into the hands of the Scots, then Cumberland and Westmorland were lost, and at last in 870 the final exodus took place, when in the words of Hollinshead, the Cymri ‘departed into North Wales, where they placed themselves in the country between Conway and the river Dee, out of which they expelled the Englishmen (that were in possession thereof) and therewith they erected a kingdom there which they named Stradcluid, maintaining wars against the English manie years after.’ (Reprint of 1805, Vol. I., p. 278).12 

… 

The great body of the Cymri, however, must have gone southwards to North Wales, and it was natural that they should carry with them their traditions, their songs of the bards in which were preserved their nation’s hopes and fears. It was their Arthur who had won the twelve battles. It was their Merlin who had prophesied a happier time in the future. 

‘A mystery to the world, the grave of Arthur,’ 

says an old Cymric poem, and deep down in the national heart there slumbered the hope that the mystery had some connection with their king’s final triumph. Arthur therefore was their great king and Merlin was his prophet, and although this connection between king and prophet existed only in romance, there was really only an interval of thirty-one years between Arthur’s last battle and Merlin’s, between Camlan and Ardderyd. It was natural, too, that the names should be finally localised in Wales, and by the twelfth century both the Welsh localisation and nationalisation of the Merlin myth was fully established. 

… 

   As to the manner of his death, we have again to fall back upon the Scotichronicon. It tells the tragic end to a tragic life. By the banks of upper Tweed at Drummelzier, or Dunmeller9 as it was anciently called, Merlin was attacked by the shepherds of Meldred, a princeling of the district, and stoned and beaten to death. His body was then flung into the stream upon a sharp stake, on which it lay impaled. Villemarqué’s short but graceful comment on this account is well worth quoting:- 

     ‘Depuis l’antique Orphée jusqu’à l’Orphée celtique, oombien d’autres sont morts de même! C’est la lutte éternelle de la force brutale contre l’intelligence, douce et sublime inspirée du ciel, dont le royaume n’est pas de ce monde.’ 

     [‘From the ancient Orpheus to the Celtic Orpheus, how many others have died in the same way! It is the eternal struggle of brute force against intelligence, sweet and sublime inspired by heaven, whose kingdom is not of this world.’] 

… 

   At Drummelzier, in Peebleshire, where the Powsail burn flows into Tweed, a thorn still blossoms in the spring over the traditional grave of the Scottish Merlin, and there, we too can sit in the shadow. Looking upwards and around from that old thorn by the river Tweed to the green rounded hills of the Borderland, we see a deeper meaning in Merlin’s own words- 

‘Are not the buds of thorns 

Very green, the mountain beautiful, and beautiful the earth?’ 

   In Scottish literature, no doubt, his name has been almost entirely associated with his prophetic character. His prophecies linked with those of Thomas the Rhymer were in the old days household words to generations of Scotchmen, whilst his personality was lost in that final exodus of the Cymri from Scotland to Wales. Saxon historians necessarily knew little of the ancient British prince, prophet, and bard, but local tradition has preserved for thirteen centuries the memory of his last resting-place. 

… 

   The striking features of the histories of the Scottish and Welsh Merlins are seized upon and moulded to suit the spirit of the time, the spirit of mediævalism… Even as Christ was both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man,’ born of a Virgin, so Christ’s victory over Satan could only be nullified by the birth of a being who was both son of the Devil and born of a virgin. Such was the high keynote on which the mediæval Romance of Merlin was pitched, and the opening chapters describe how Satan’s scheme for thus ruining mankind was attempted, and how signally it failed. The child Merlin who was to be his agent was born, but all Satan’s efforts were counteracted by the spotless purity of Merlin’s mother. Merlin endowed with the wiles of the Devil his father thus turns these very powers into factors for good instead of evil.17 Merlin is thus made the personification of a second victory of Christ over Satan, and the reader is prepared for the further development of Merlin’s character from that of a pagan prophet to that of the adviser and friend of the typical Christian King Arthur. The Merlin of romance becomes the prophet-founder of the Round Table and the originator of that most sacred of all quests, the search for the Holy Grail. 

Scottish Review, Vol. 20, Oct., 1892, pp.321-337. – by Arthur Grant. 

9  Ultra oram Tuedae fluminis praeruptam, prope oppidum Dunmeller [Beyond the rugged coast of the Tweed River, near the town of Dunmeller], – so runs the Chronicle. 

11  The early Cymric connection with Alclyde is still shewn in its present name of Dunbarton – Dun Bretton – the fort or castle of the Britains. 

12  Mr. Skene quotes an entry from the Brut y Tywysogion to the same effect. 

17  It was this very connection between Merlin and the Devil which afterwards brought these romances into disrepute, when master-minds like Rabelais and Cervantes turned the extravagancies of chivalry into ridicule. An example from Cervantes is the burlesque poem on Merlin in Don Quixote, beginning:- 

‘Yo soy Merlin, aquel que las historias 

Dicen que tuve por mi padre al diablo.’ 

(I am Merlin, of whom the histories tell  

That I had the Devil for my father.) 

                                       Don Quijote, Pt. II., cap. xxxv. 

   The Caledonian Merlin is a sufficiently distinct historical personage. He was the son of Morvryn, who was descended from Coel Godebawc, the head of one of the main royal lines of the Cymri. He had a twin-sister Gwendydd. He was the friend of the Prince Gwenddoleu, a lord or king of the North, and he was present at the decisive battle of Ardderyd in 573, when the contest lay between the Pagan and Christian forces of the time. Merlin was on the Pagan or losing side. After the defeat and the death of his leader Gwenddoleu, he fled to the wilds of Drummelzier, in the wood of Caledon. There he spent some years, reputed insane, probably only heart-broken, and despairing of the Cymric cause and his own fortunes, – perhaps doubting the trustworthiness of his original faith or Nature-worship. Finally, he is said to have died at the hands – rather stones and clubs – of the herdsmen of a princeling of the district, then incorporated in the kingdom afterwards known as Strathclyde, and ruled over by Rydderch Hael, originally lord of Llanerch, or Lanark. Merlin’s grave is pointed out by tradition near the village of Drummelzier, by the side of the Powsail Burn as it joins the Tweed. There can be little doubt, looking to external and internal evidence, that this Merlin was the author of certain poems now preserved in the “Four Ancient Books of Wales,” and that to him also are to be assigned portions of the Merlinian poems, in which there occur interpolations of a later date. 

– Professor John Veitch’s Preamble to his poem ‘Merlin’ in 1889. 

… In Geoffrey’s legends, Arthur’s lineage is deduced more immediately from Cornwall, or the country of the south-west Britons, and his headquarters, when he is not going on circuit, are represented as generally somewhere in what is now southern England and Wales – at London, at Winchester, at Camelot (supposed to be Cadbury, in Somersetshire), at Caerleon-upon-Usk. Accordingly, man or myth, he has been long a familiar possession of these parts of the island, and they would be loth to part with him. Of late, however, and from various quarters, there has been a good deal of argument to prove that the Arthurian legends are not indigenous to these parts, but have been imported into them by a literary process, and that the true Arthurian region, the actual birth-ground of the legends, must be sought for farther north. In the romances, Arthur’s circuit is so frequently northwards that, next perhaps after the famous Camelot, it is at a dreamy Carlisle that we think of him holding his feasts and jousts. In Geoffrey’s legends, the amount of reference to the north is still more remarkable. It is against the Saxons of the north, in the wood of Caledon, or here and there else in the present southern Scottish Lowlands, that Geoffrey makes Arthur do most of his direct anti-Saxon duty; and if there is any part of his narrative where Geoffrey seems in spite of himself to be introducing a lump of positive historical tradition into his wilder legendary matter, it is where he follows Arthur in his expedition, beyond these northern Saxons, into the country of the Picts and Scots. He follows him from Alclyde, or Dumbarton, all round Loch Lomond, not only giving the name of that loch, but lingering over the description of it and its marvellous islands where the Picts and Scots had taken refuge, and whence Arthur dislodged him. Then, as if to signalise the permanence of the impression of Arthur’s presence in this part of Britain, he tells us how Arthur divided all the territory he had wrested there from the Saxons and the Picts into three kingdoms, which he bestowed on three brothers, relatives of his own. One of these kingdoms, the kingdom of Lothian, he gave to Lot, or Lothus, who had married his (Arthur’s) own sister, and was the father of that fatal nephew Mordred, by whose treachery Arthur was to perish at last… Apart altogether from books, the genuine Arthurian region of Britain seems to assert itself by the tenacity with which it has preserved Arthurian terms and associations to this day. What part of Britain is fullest of Arthurian names of places, and of traces of an Arthurian cult, or folk-lore, older than all Anglic or Saxon tradition, and which even the weighty subsequent deposit of such tradition, and centuries of custom in the English speech, have not been able to obliterate? According to the English Arthurian inquirer, Mr Nash, not southern England, not middle England, not even Wales or Cornwall, but the northern borders of Northumbrian England and the Scottish Lowlands south of the Firths of Forth and Clyde… Quite recently, under the title of “Arthurian Scotland,” there was published by Mr J. S. Stuart Glennie a very curious and suggestive paper, giving the results of his own perambulation of the region under notice in quest of Arthurian names of places and local Arthurian associations. He enumerated no fewer than sixty-five distinctly Arthurian spots found within the limits of his perambulation. There is “Ganore’s grave,” or the grave of Guinevere, at Meigle, on the borders of Perthshire and Forfarshire – for it was the hapless woman’s lot, it seems, to die far off among the Picts; there is also Merlin’s grave at Drummelzier, on Tweedside; Ben Arthur, at the head of Loch Long, trumpets itself; in Edinburgh is the famous Mynyd agned, or Castle of Maidens; from Edinburgh, exactly bisecting as it did the northern frontier of Arthur’s British domain, the hero could gaze wistfully across the Forth into that Pictish haze and chaos in which Guinevere had been swallowed up and lost; and when he did so gaze, where would he be but on Arthur’s Seat? 

– Scotsman, 3rd November, 1868, p.6. 

   Despite the minstrels of a later time, who would fain carry Merlin off to Brittany, the natives yet point out the grave of the Wizard by the Burn of the Willows, near where it joins the Tweed below Drummelzier kirk. And we know how death, as in the case of Ossian, ended a profound melancholy that closed around his spirit. In his last years 

“He walked with dreams and darkness, and he found 

A doom that ever poised itself to fall, 

An ever-moaning battle in the mist, 

 World wear of dying flesh against the life, 

Death in all life and lying in all love, 

The meanest having power upon the highest 

And the high purpose broken by the worm.” 

… Is there not something of the sublime in the vision of this grand pagan, clinging to the Druidic Nature-worship of his fathers, stifling the doubt that will present itself, choosing rather, like Ossian, to be in Hell with his beloved kindred than in Paradise with the pervert?

– Scots Magazine, 1st February, 1888, pp.205-208. 

Professor Veitch’s notion, whether historical or not, is very interesting. St Mungo made a pilgrimage to the wilds of Drummelzier to try and convert Merlin to Christianity. That the old bard was touched with the new ideas is probable, but, like Ossian, whom St. Patrick tried to convert, he relapsed into or preferred his old faith of nature-worship. He, in fact, worships the sun – 

“I worship Thee, O sovereign of the sky, 

They symbol of the God who is unseen. 

Inspirer thou of life and hope and joy, 

My pulses beat with thine.” 

Merlin is as little understood on the banks of the Tweed as at Arthur’s Court – if the two Merlins are one – and the result is that he falls a victim to the boors and dunces of Drummelzier. They call him “Wizard” and “Devil’s son;” and, of course, they drown him in the Tweed. His body was buried near the junction of Powsail Burn with the River. 

– Glasgow Herald, 4th May, 1889. 

… There are other traditions; and that one of them which more immediately concerns us has for its scene one of the loveliest spots in all the Scottish Border. This is on the river Tweed, bear Broughton. Here, at the junction of the Drummelzier or Powsail Burn with the Tweed, is a whitethorn-tree, which is said to mark the spot where Merlin died and was buried. It forms a fit sleeping-place for the great Bard of Celtic mythology. It is in the very heart of Tweeddale. The Tweed has already flowed northward in a narrow valley between closely-flanking hills, leaving far behind its pellucid source amongst the high brown slopes of Hartfell. But here at Drummelzier the valley broadens out, and the river starts on its eastward course with a full current, broad and majestic, overshadowed by the soft green hills that bound its farthest holms. 

… 

It so happened that on the same day Llallogen in the course of his wanderings was met by the shepherds of a certain chief called Meldred, at his place of Drummeldred or Drummelzier, and these, probably regarding the Wizard as the cause of calamity to themselves or their flocks, seized him, and proceeded to stone him and beat him to death. At the last moment the wretched man stumbled over a steep bluff or bank overhanging the Tweed, his body falling upon the sharp point of a stake which had been stuck into a little fish stew in the water, and upon which he was impaled. This manner of death, it was found, corresponded with the prophecy which he had that day made, that he should die by three kinds of death, namely, by stoning, by drowning, and by impalement. The high bank above the Powsail Burn, at its junction with the Tweed, corresponds with the description of that over which the Wizard is said to have fallen. 

– Peeblesshire Advertiser, 9th January, 1892, p.3. 

SUPPOSED HISTORICAL EVIDENCE FOR OUR PROTAGONISTS’ EXISTENCE. 

If Mr Skene’s investigation of the Arthurian tradition has yielded results that are to be taken as accurate, or even probable in the main, the chance that he may have overstrained his ingenuity in particulars that need not delay our pleasure, along with him, in that accession of legendary importance which he vindicates for the country round about us here – all the country near and between our two south Scottish Firths. How he has cleft back into the past for us, and enabled us to see, as if glimmering through the cleft, a vision of all this, our familiar region of plain, hill-range, river, and sea-surge, removed back into a depth of antiquity some centuries beyond our previous historic reach? Said I not, too, that, for us in Edinburgh, he had interpreted into quite a new significance that name of Arthur’s Seat, with which we have all puzzled ourselves? No longer is the name a mystery by itself; it is the most prominent surviving fragment of a wider mystery that has melted away, but has left other fragments of itself still recognisable. Back in that shimmering vision of our Firth-bounded region, thirteen hundred years ago, we see our mountain and its peak still venerable and picturesque and far-visible as now in the very midst; and we find the reason of its name in the fact that all around it, thought and action, as well as scenery, was then somehow Arthurian… “This, then, is Arthur’s Land!” 

– Scotsman, 3rd November, 1868, p.6. 

   The chapter on Arthur and the Arthurian legends is exceedingly interesting, and contains information which will probably be new to most of Dr Veitch’s readers. He adopts the theory of Mr Skene respecting this famous semi-mythological hero, and holds that Arthur was the leader of the Northern Cymri in the sixth century in their struggles for national independence against their Pictish and Anglian oppressors. He contends that Arthur’s twelve celebrated battles enumerated by Nennius, were fought in succession and in one region – that they represent a campaign, not a series of isolated struggles, and that the district in which this campaign was carried out was the kingdom of the Northern Cymri, now the Lowlands of Scotland. 

   The first battle he thinks was fought at the mouth of the small river Glen, which falls into the Irvine, in the parish of Loudoun; 

the second, third, fourth, and fifth took place in the region of Lennox, near Lochlomond; 

the sixth at Dunipace, in Stirlingshire; 

the seventh in the wood of Caledon on the Lyne, a tributary of the Tweed; 

the eighth between the Heriot water and the Lugate, tributaries of the Gala; 

the ninth at Alclyde, or Dumbarton; 

the tenth at Stirling; 

the eleventh at Edinburgh; 

and the twelfth at Bouden Hill, not far from Linlithgow. 

Twenty-one years after this last great battle, A.D. 537, Arthur fell at Camelon, on the Carron, 

fighting against his nephew, Modred, the head of a mixed Pagan party – Angle, Pict, and infidel Cymri – who was himself killed in the fight… 

   In the chapter on Merlin the famous wizard, Dr Veitch has skilfully disentangled the real incidents in the life of this potent and mysterious personage from the mythical tales which in later ages gathered around him. He seems to have been a leader of the Britons, held in high respect for his learning and sagacity. He fought at the great battle of Arderydd, near Carlisle, in 573, on the side of the defeated Pagan Cymri. After this disastrous conflict, in which his nephew fell, as well as friend and patron, Gwendolen, the leader of the Pagan host, Merlin fled to the upper district of the Tweed, and passed the remainder of his life, reported insane, among the glens which sweep from the Dollar Law to the Broad Law, and from the watershed between the burns that flow northwards to the Tweed and those that run southwards to the Meggat Water. “There is no wilder or more solitary mountainland in the south of Scotland than these high-spreading moors; there is no scene which could be more fitly assigned to a heartbroken and despairing representative of the old Druidic nature-worship, at once poet and priest of the fading faith, yet torn and distracted by secret doubts as to its truth, and not knowing well where his beloved dead had gone, or what was their fate in that mysterious spirit-world he felt was above and around them.” It was while wandering in these glens in the upland wilds of Tweeddale that a meeting is said by tradition to have taken place between the half-insane Cymric bard and Kentigern. While kneeling in solitary prayer on the wilds of Drummelzier, the saint was suddenly confronted by a mysterious figure, weird-like and unearthly in look, who proclaimed himself, “once the prophet of Vertigern, Merlin by name, now in this solitude enduring privations.” 

– North British Daily Mail, 2nd January, 1878, p.5. 

The truth is, however, that Merlin was more than the story imparts. Tennyson’s idea is that Merlin was the most famous man of his time:- 

“Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts, 

Had built the King his havens, ships, and halls, 

Was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens; 

The people called him Wizard.” 

It is clear from these words that Merlin was King Arthur’s First Lord of the Admiralty and Chief Commissioner of Works. Probably he was Sanitary Inspector, if not also Inspector of the Meat Market, and had ideas far in advance of his time. For instance, Merlin possibly desired to construct an adequate fleet for King Arthur, and the Opposition may have made it so hot for him that he deemed it best to resign, and come North. 

– Glasgow Herald, 4th May, 1889. 

   The battle of Ardderyd was that at which Rydderch, by his victory over the pagans, established himself as king of Cumbria or Strathclyde, embracing within it all the petty Kymric tribes, and among them those who inhabited Tweeddale. If partial insanity befell Llallogen after his defeat at Ardderyd, it is possible he may have been allowed to wander about the king’s court, as told in the Life of Kentigern; and it is equally possible that in the later stages of his madness he may have taken to the forests and wilds, as narrated by Bower. 

– Peeblesshire Advertiser, 9th January, 1892, p.3. 

   At last the crisis came, when the Christian and Pagan forces met on the battlefield of Ardderyd in the year 573 A.D. In this fratricidal struggle the Christian army was victorious, and Prince Gwenddolew himself was slain. Rydderch Hael then consolidated the petty Cymric states into his kingdom of Strath Clyde or Cluyd, with Alclyde or Alcluyd (Dunbarton) as his capital, and with Kentigern as primate in the See of Glasgow. Merlin’s, own poems show that he was present at this fatal battle, fighting on the side of his friend Gwenddolew, and that after the battle he fled broken-hearted, if not altogether insane, to the Wood of Celyddon where, if we are to believe his poems, he wandered about for fifty years. Apart from the Merlinian poems, there is an entry in one of the old chronicles – the Annales Cambriae – which connects Merlin with Ardderyd:- 

     Anno 537, Bellum Armterid inter filios Elifer et Guendoleu filium Keidian: in quo bello Guendoleu cecidit: Merlinus insanus effectus est.3 

[In the year 537, the war of Armterid between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu the son of Keidian: in which war Guendoleu fell. Merlin became insane.] 

   Here not only is the death of Gwenddolew chronicled, thus identifying ‘Armterid’ with Ardderyd, but the sons of the Elifer above referred to are also mentioned in Merlin’s poems as ‘seven heroes,’ and as having been present at Ardderyd. As to the site of this battle, there is a curious chapter in the old Latin edition of the Scotichronicon,4 which gives an account of a meeting between Kentigern and Merlin. Here Merlin is said to explain his connection with the battle of Ardderyd, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carvanolow situato [which was situated in an area between Lidel and Carvanolow].’ Carvanolow, now corrupted into Carwhinelow, is simply the Latinized form of Caer-Gwenddolew, the city of Gwenddolew, and not far from the Liddel and Carwhinelow streams is the Ardderyd of the poems, now called Arthuret. The battle was fought therefore near Carlisle close on the Borders. 

… When all is over and the field of battle is left to ‘the ravens screaming over the blood’ of the slain, there is the retreat across the wilds of Liddesdale into the recesses of the Wood of Celyddon, and to that part of the ancient forest which still bears a name hallowed by sorrow – the Ettrick Forest.7 

… 

… In the Latin Scotichronicon, a Scottish source totally independent of and unconnected with the Cymric poems, we find Merlin described as ‘eum, qui vulgo Lailoken vocabatur’ [the one who was commonly called Lailoken]. Gwendydd’s pet name for her brother had thus become associated with Merlin long after its original meaning had ceased to be intelligible to the monkish chronicler. 

… 

   To return to Merlin himself, we have no direct evidence as to the exact date of his death. Hollinshead merely states that he flourished about the year 570, thus corroborating at least the date of the turning-point of Merlin’s life, the battle of Ardderyd (573). A Brevis Cronica attached to an old copy of Wyntoun’s chronicle gives under date 605, ‘about this tyme Merlyng the prophet of Brettane deceissit with greit pennance’; and the Scotichronicon states that ‘Merlin and S. Kentigern died in one and the same year,’ which, according to the Annales Cambria, would be 612. The implied date of the Avallenau, as we have seen, would bring him down to 623 A.D. 

Sometime, therefore, during the first quarter of the 7th century may safely be considered as the period of Merlin’s death. 

Scottish Review, Vol. 20, Oct., 1892, pp.321-337. – by Arthur Grant. 

3  Cit. Skene, Villemarqué, Bishop Forbes’s Life of St. Kentigern. 

4  ‘Fordun’s Scotichronicon, with Bower’s continuation’ – Goodall’s Edition, Edinburgi; Roberti Flamini, 1759; Lib. III., Cap. xxxi., entitled, De Mirabili poenitentia Merlini Vatis

7  The following quotation from Hollinshead shews that the Wood of Celyddon was particularly associated with Merlin’s country of Upper Tweed:- ‘The water of Clide divideth Lennox on the north side, from the baronie of Renfrew, and it ariseth out of the same hill in Calidon-woodfrom whence the Annand falleth.’ Vol. I., Cap iv. 

HOW IT’S UNLIKELY THEY ACTUALLY EXISTED. 

   This co-existence of traditional legends regarding Arthur and Merlin in places so widely separated, is distinctly unfavourable to the claims that have been put forward for these men as being really historical personages. It is difficult to regard them as such. The great battle of Mons Badonious, or Badon Hill, fought 493 A.D., is one with which Arthur’s name is associated. But the historian Nennius, who professes to give the names of this and other battles fought by Arthur, lived some centuries after the date of that event, and our best scholars regard his compilation of so-called Arthurian battles as of doubtful authenticity. Whereas the Welsh historian Gildas, who was born in the same year as that in which the battle of Mons Badonious was fought, and who makes special reference to the battle, does not mention Arthur’s name in connection with it, nor does he moreover seem ever to have heard of any military leader of the name of Arthur. If Arthur really lived and reigned and fought the battles attributed to him against the enemies of his country and his race, it is difficult to understand how an historian who lived during the same years, and belonged to the same nation, should have failed to give his life and deeds emphatic record. 

   If we are unable to recognise Arthur as an historical personage, it is on similar grounds that Merlin too must be regarded as mythical. But a special difficulty crops up in the case of Merlin. According to the Arthurian legends, Merlin was a man of great influence and great powers of necromancy long before Arthur was born; and according to the same cycle of legends, we find the Wizard fighting at the battle of Ardderyd in 573 A.D., more than a hundred years later. And not only so; but the Wizard is reputed to have wandered for forty years among the hills that surround the sources of the Tweed and Clyde, in a state of semi-madness in consequence of his defeat at Ardderyd, thus extending his life to something like a hundred and seventy years. The old legend writers were aware of this difficulty, and so, to get rid of it, were obliged to invent a second Merlin. The one who is said to have lived in Wales under Arthur’s father (Uther Pendragon), and under Arthur himself, they call Merlin Ambrosius; the other, who is alleged to have lived in Scotland and to have fought at Ardderyd, they call Merlin Caledonius. We have voluminous and highly-wrought narratives of the wonderful deeds of both Arthur and Merlin; but these narratives are not earlier than the twelfth century, and they possess the unfailing characteristic of all myth stories, that those writers who lived farthest from the time of the heroes are able to give the fullest details of their history and deeds, while the one historian who was contemporary with them is absolutely silent. 

– Peeblesshire Advertiser, 9th January, 1892, p.3. 

[We’re told by Arthur Grant that Geoffrey was responsible for a number of obvious fabrications, one example of which was given as the “story of Stonehenge,” where he makes the claim that Merlin was responsible for bringing the monolithic stones from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. Where we now know that they’re made of Welsh bluestones from the Preseli Hills in west Wales.]

One thought on “Scottish Arthurian/Merlin Myth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s