The Future of History

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Twelve Hundred Words

Part of this week was spent trying to explain in 1,200 words why Artuir mac Aedain, the "Scottish Arthur", is worth considering as a candidate for the Real King Arthur.

Sometimes, you can say a lot with a thousand words.  But it's also a case of deciding what not to include.  So that, for example, there was no space to point out that Edinburgh has Arthur's Seat while the Trossachs have Beinn Artair ('Arthur Mountain') and there are many, many other Arthurian place-names in Scotland.

Nope, no room for that.

Other things could only be alluded to, such as the battles of Arthur, which ranged from the Borders region up to Aberdeenshire.

So what did make it into the piece?

Well, I began by explaining that when a certain long period comet appeared in the sky in 574 (it was the comet now known as McNaught-Russell, and its next visit came in 1993/4) it heralded a historic event.  This was the first recorded instance in the British Isles of a king being anointed by a Christian evangelist.  Adomnan of Iona told the story in his Life of St Columba.  Aedan mac Gabrain was ordained king of the Scots on the Isle of Iona by Columba, and several sons of King Aedan were present.  One of them was Arthur.  St Columba took the opportunity of predicting that Arthur would never become king but would die in battle.

Sixteen years later, the British Men of the North, along with their Irish allies, had the Angles of Northumbria pinned down in two coastal fortifications.  The "English", as they came to be known, were about to be driven back into the North Sea which had brought them over to Britain.  Then tragedy struck.  Treacherously, a British king named Morgan the Wealthy arranged for the assassination of another British chief, Urien of North Rheged, and the British alliance crumbled.

That was the end for the Britons.  Arthur's death came four years later in a battle fought in Angus.  After that, the Angles invaded much of the Old North.  Britain was finished.

One would hope that any historical Arthur could be placed at the very heart of the British resistance to the invasion of the Germanic tribes from Angeln, Saxony and Jutland.  And so it is rewarding to discover that Artuir mac Aedain was there.  Only the year before his father became King of the Scots, his friend Menw (later known as Myrddin Wyllt, later still as Merlin) had gone mad at a battle fought in the Scottish Borders.  Arthur's adulthood coincided with the concerted actions carried out by British and Irish allies to pacify the North and force the Germanic Angles out of Northumbria.  In their hour of triumph, the coalition partners were brought down by treachery.  And with the death of Artuir mac Aedain four years after the British disaster at Lindisfarne in 590, the battle for North Britain basically came to an end.

So that alone makes Artuir a promising candidate for having been the original Arthur - he was there during the crucial period of British resistance, the most effective counterattack yet mounted in Britain against the Germanic invaders.  And when he died, so too did the hopes of the Britons.

But that's just the start.  The early legends repeatedly associate Arthur with a group of historical individuals who can all be traced to North Britain in the late sixth century.  The same names appear in the Welsh romances and the early British poems of the time, as well as on medieval lists of the Four and Twenty Horsemen of the Court of Arthur and the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain.

The Welsh romance of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain opens with Arthur relaxing in his chamber with Owain son of Urien and Cynon son of Clydno.  Owain's father was the victim of the assassination plot carried out at Lindisfarne in 590.  Cynon is named as one of the few survivors of Arthur's last battle; he appears in a contemporary poem of Arthur's last battle (as does Owain), and his homeland was Lothian.

Both Owain and Clydno appear on the list of Arthur's twenty-four knights.

Other names keep recurring: Llywarch of South Rheged, for example, who carried the head of his cousin Urien away from the scene of his murder at Lindisfarne; Peredur, who ruled the military stronghold of York and went on to become the romantic hero Sir Perceval; Drystan, or 'Sir Tristan', whom the Scots knew as St Drostan ... the list goes on.

They were all contemporaries, near-neighbours and kinsmen of Arthur son of Aedan.

And then there was the Round Table, identified as early as circa 1200 as having stood at Stirling.  Earlier this year, local historians and archaeologists, along with researchers from the University of Glasgow, ran geophysical surveys of the King's Knot earthwork in the meadow below Stirling Castle - the place known for centuries as the Round Table - and found evidence of a "circular feature" beneath the turf of the mound.

The first reference to the Round Table at Stirling came in the romance of Tristan by Beroul, a French poet.  The Fair Yseut had sent her squire with a message for Arthur.  Before he was directed to Stirling, the squire had gone to Caerleon, expecting to find Arthur there.

Caerleon - the 'City of the Legion' - was not far from the Round Table at Stirling: about nine miles, by the old Roman road.  It was a massive military encampment which had been built on the banks of the River Carron, just north of the Antonine Wall.  The place is known as Camelon, near Falkirk.

Camelon has just two syllables - 'came-lon'.  In Gaelic, it is Camlan.

In 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, was revising William Camden's Britannia.  He wrote of what remained of the Camelon fortifications:

"There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city, where the common people believe there was formerly a road for ships.  They call it Camelot."

A historical "Camelot", just nine miles south of a historical "Round Table" ... a prince named Arthur (the first on record to bear that name) who commanded the Britons and their allies in the front line region of Britain (Stirling and the River Forth) ... whose kinsmen and contemporaries joined him in the legends ... whose lifetime saw the counterattack which nearly chased the English out of Britain, and whose death opened the floodgates of the Anglian conquest of the North ...

Can we really pretend that Artuir mac Aedain - the "Scottish Arthur" - isn't a promising candidate?

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