The Future of History

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Arthur on Mull

A couple of days ago, I blogged about the legendary apparition of a headless horseman on the Isle of Mull.  The apparition appears in the vicinity of the spot where - as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy - the headless body of the original Arthur, Artuir mac Aedain, was buried.

After the burial of his body in the "Spirit-hill of the Stream of the Sons of Arthur", his head was carried down to the shore of Loch Scridain (left), where a ship was waiting to carry the funeral party down the loch to the Isle of Iona.

In the book, I point out that, according to Charles Maclean (The Isle of Mull: Placenames, Meanings and Stories), Loch Scridain was known, up until about 1790, as Loch Leffan or Lough Leven.

Arthur started his life on another Loch Leven - or, rather, on an island in that loch.  Now known as St Serf's Island, the islet in Loch Leven, Fife, was associated with Arthur's British kinsman, Serwan, and was the home to some sort of religious settlement, almost certainly connected with healing.  Immediately to the south of the Loch Leven in Fife is a high ridge known as the Sleeping Giant, although it's proper name is Benarty Hill (locally, this is interpreted as "Arthur's Ridge").

Although Loch Leven appears to share its name with the River Leven, which runs from Loch Lomond into the River Clyde near Dumbarton, quite some distance to the west of Fife, the two Levens do not seem to have the same derivation.  In Gaelic, the River Leven is Uisge Leamhna - the "Elm-Water".  Loch Leven, on the other hand, is Loch Liobhann, which has no obvious meaning.  I suggest in The King Arthur Conspiracy that it was originally Loch Leomhainn - the Lake of the Lion.  The Lion, in this instance, being Arthur himself, who is styled "Lion" on several occasions.

It is interesting, then, to discover that, until a couple of hundred years ago, the sea-loch in south-west Mull along which Arthur's head was transported to its last resting place on Iona - the water overlooked by the place where Arthur's headless body was buried, and the shores of which are haunted by a headless horseman on a Dark Age war-pony - was known as the Leffan or Loch Leven.  It is, in effect, another "Lake of the Lion", just like the one where I believe Arthur was born.

But here's a funny thing.  Donald Munro, Dean of the Isles, recorded in 1549 the fact that the early Scottish kings were buried on the Isle of Iona "because it was the most honourable and ancient place that was in Scotland in their days".  Dean Munro also referred to a stretch on water in Mull as Lochefyne, which, from his description, can only have been Loch Scridain (formerly, the Leven or "Lion Lake"), which opens into the sea opposite the tiny Isle of Iona.

There is another Loch Fyne in western Scotland.  On its eastern shore lies the bay of Strachur, the traditional base of the Clann Arthur, an ancient family which traces its descent from Arthur.  The Celtic placename expert W.J. Watson noted that two ancient Scottish documents refer to a "powerful Lion of Loch Fyne" and "The chief-hero of Loch Fyne".  The Gaelic term cura - a "protector" or "guardian" (Early Irish caur; Welsh cawr, a "hero", "champion" or "giant") - appears to explain the meaning of Strachur (Strath Churra, the "glen of the champion"), where Arthur's family took root.

Loch Fyne is Loch Fine in Gaelic - it means "Lake of the Kindred" or "Family".  The kindred, in this sense, was quite possibly Arthur's "war-band" (the Welsh teulu, pronounced "tey-li", can mean a war-band or a family), which we came to think of as the noble warriors of the Round Table.  And so it is intriguing to discover that, in addition to the "Lake of the Kindred" in Argyll, where Arthur's family was based in the Glen of the Champion, there was also a "Lake of the Kindred" in Mull, where Arthur's body was buried.

Returning to the Mull legend of the phantom headless horseman, we find that a fortified "crannog" or artifical island in Loch Sguabain, beyond the head of Loch Scridain (or Leven, or Fyne), was named after this legendary horseman who lost his head in a battle against his uncle (a battle caused, moreover, by the intemperate behaviour of his wife, known in the Mull legend as the "Black crane").  If, as I argued in my last-but-one blogspot, the legendary "Ewen of the Little Head" was in fact Arthur son of Aedan, whose body was buried close by, then it is striking to find that we have two dwellings associated with Arthur (the progenitor of the MacArthurs, and of the "Sons of the Lad of Aedan") which lie in very close proximity to lakes named after a famous "family" - the one connected with a "powerful Lion" and "chief-hero", the other also named Leven ("Lion-lake") and haunted by a headless horseman who, as well as being buried nearby, was also (re)buried on the Isle of Iona.

Equally impressive, the crannog with its fortified dwelling (the "Castle of Ewen of the Little Head") lies in Loch Sguabain, a little inland lake which appears to take its name from another legendary figure, a giant called Sguaban.  In a manner typical of giants everywhere, Sguaban seems to have spent some of his time hurling boulders at other giants.  As we have noted, however, the Welsh word for a "giant" is cognate with the Gaelic word for a "hero" or a "champion".  For that reason, I prefer to use the word "champion", rather than the woefully misleading "giant".

Still, the lake in which the "Castle" of the headless horseman sits is named after a "giant" - akin, one might feel, to the "chief-hero" and "powerful Lion" of the other Loch Fyne.

In The Celtic Placenames of Scotland, W.J. Watson observed that there are now no traces of Loch Scridain in Mull having been known as Loch Fyne ... except for a place, close to the mouth of Loch Scridain, near where it opens into the sea by Iona.  It was called, in Watson's day, Aird Fineig ("Ardfenaig" on today's map), which appears to mean a height or promontory of the fiann - a regular band of warriors (the similarity of fine to the early form fian, and its genitive feine, should be instantly apparent, the "family" of Loch Fyne also being, essentially, Arthur's war-band).  This "promontory of the war-band" lies immediately beneath Beinn Aird nan Giullan, the "Mount of the Promontory of the Lad".

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I argue that the ship which picked up Arthur's funeral party on the shore of Loch Scridain disembarked briefly, very near the Aird Fineig promontory of the war-band, to deposit Arthur's damaged sword in a lake.  The lake itself is known as Loch an Dreaghain, the "Lake of the Dragon" or "Champion", which is little more than a kilometre over the rough ground of the Ross of Mull from the last surviving reminder that Loch Scridain was once the "Lake of the Kindred", the onetime home, and still the haunt, of Artuir mac Aedain, the original Arthur.

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