The Future of History

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Arthur's Ghost?

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I describe a crisis apparition which is said to appear whenever a senior clansman of Arthur's descendants, the Campbells (a cadet branch of the Clann Arthur), is about to die.

The apparition takes the form of an ancient galley, which appears over Loch Fyne, close to the site of Arthur's settlement at Strachur (the original base of the MacArthur clan) and then sails westward, over the land, towards the place of Arthur's burial.

The last reported sighting of the ghostly galley of Loch Fyne was in 1913.  Reputedly, three men are visible on its deck.  According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, three men crewed the ship which carried Arthur's mortal remains to the Isle of Avalon.

Another crisis apparition is worthy of mention here - because it is not included in The King Arthur Conspiracy.  This is the "best-known and most dreadful spectre in the West Highlands".  It's the phantom of a headless horseman which haunts the Glen More region of the Isle of Mull.

The spectre was last seen, apparently, in 1958.  It is associated with the Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie, and its appearance heralds the death of a senior member of the clan.  Distantly related to the neighbouring Macleans of Duart, the Maclaines give the Gaelic version of their name as Mac'ill-Eathain.  Translated into English, this would be "Son of the Lad/Servant of Aedan".

Aedan (the name of Arthur's father, Aedan mac Gabrain) is a version of the Irish Aodhan, meaning "Little fiery one".  It was originally pronounced something like "Eye-than" and appeared in Welsh as Aeddan.  A later variant was Eathan, from which the Maclaines and Macleans take their clan name.

The phantom headless horseman of Glen More is known as Eoghann a' Chinn Bhig ("Ewen of the Little Head").  The name Eoghan appears to have meant "well-born" (literally, "yew-born"), and variants of the name crop up frequently in the early Arthurian literature.  Two historical rulers of the British kingdom of North Rheged - both of them contemporaries, kinsmen and comrades of Arthur - bore the names Urien and Owain, each of which compares with the Gaelic Eoghan.

Towards the end of The King Arthur Conspiracy, I trace the descendants of Arthur to the Isle of Ulva, off the west coast of the Isle of Mull. The Clan MacQuarrie claims its descent from one Guaire son of Aedan.  Mentioned in Adomnan's Life of St Columba (circa 697 AD), this Guaire was the strongest or most valiant layman in the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata.  Arthur's father, Aedan, was ordained King of Dal Riata by St Columba in 574 AD.  The name Guaire appears to be related to the Gaelic cura, a "protector" or "guardian".  I noted in my book that the main village of the MacQuarries on Ulva was Ormaig, where a piper named MacArthur founded a famous piping school.  The ancestral burial ground of the MacQuarries, close to the village of Ormaig, is known as Cille Mhic Eoghainn ("Kilvikewan'), the "Chapel of the Son/Sons of Ewen".

In addition to relating to the yew-tree, the name Eoghan might also have been associated specifically with another island which lies off the west coast of Mull.  The Isle of Iona was known, as late as the 9th century AD, as Eo.  It was the "Island of the Yew".  Adomnan, who tells us about the death of Arthur in battle, referred to it as "the yewy isle" (Ioua insula).  This was almost certainly because the sacred isle of Iona was considered an omphalos or "World-Navel", and was the site of the "World-Tree".  This tree appears to have been known as Eo or Io - both meaning "yew".

In the context of Mull and its outlying islands - Ulva and Iona - it is possible, then, that the name Eoghan could mean "Yew-born" or "Born of Iona" or, indeed, both, Iona being the island of the sacred yew or World-Tree.  Variants of the name were applied to some of Arthur's closest associates, and possibly to Arthur himself.

It is unclear exactly who Eoghann a' Chinn Bhig - Ewen of the Little Head - was, or when he lived.  What we do know, however, is that he was a "Yew-born" youth of the Clan Maclaine, the Sons of the Lad (or Servant) of Aedan, the Aedan in question quite possibly being Arthur's father, Aedan mac Gabrain.  In Hebridean tradition, the father of Arthur is sometimes identified as Iuthar (the MacArthur clan call him Iobhair), which also derives from iubhar, the Gaelic name for the "yew", and athair (Old Irish athir), "father".

The story of Ewen of the Little Head goes like this.  Ewen had married a difficult, demanding woman who became known as Corr-dhu, the "Black Crane" (the crane was held sacred by the Druids, who believed that the letters of their alphabet were inspired by the shapes made by a crane's legs in flight; the tendency of Celtic seers to stand on one leg when making prophesies probably owed something to the crane).  His wife insisted that Ewen demand more land, and eventually Ewen found himself in dispute with his uncle.  Battle loomed.

On the eve of the battle, Ewen encountered a bean-nighe or Washer at the Ford.  These supernatural washerwomen were adept at predicting death and disaster.  Again, in The King Arthur Conspiracy, I indicate that Arthur's half-sister Muirgein ("Morgana") fulfilled the role of a Washer at the Ford.

Ewen demanded to know what the outcome of his battle with his uncle would be.  The Washer made a strange prediction.  If, on the morning of the battle, Ewen's wife provided him with some butter for his breakfast, without having to be asked, then Ewen would triumph.  If no butter appeared at the breakfast table, Ewen would die.

Naturally, there was no butter for breakfast.  Ewen went into battle mounted on his pony - generally described as a small black steed with a white spot on its forehead.  It is said that the prints left by this pony's hooves are not like those of normal horses.  Instead of being horseshoe-shaped, they are round indentations, "as if it had wooden legs".  This is probably because, in Arthur's day, the familiar horseshoe had not been invented.  His own war pony would have been shod with "hipposandals", a kind of iron plate or oval-shaped cup of metal which protected the sole of the hoof.  These had been introduced into Britain under the Roman Empire.

The battle ended when Ewen's head was removed from his body by a single sword stroke.  His headless body remained on his horse, which bolted.  The horse finally came to the Lussa Falls in Glen More, where Ewen's body fell from its back.  Ewen's headless body was reputedly buried there, before it was removed to the Isle of Iona.  The site of his initial burial was close to the well-defended artificial island or "crannog" in Loch Sguabain (see photo at top of this post) which is still known as Caisteal Eoghainn a' Chinn Bhig ("Ewen of the Little Head's Castle").

Such ancient crannogs were very much a part of Arthur's world (there is one in Loch Arthur, near Dumfries).  Otherwise, there are intriguing similarities in the Mull legend and the story of Arthur.  Like Arthur, Ewen was married to a difficult woman who seems to have kept on at her husband to demand more land.  It was she who caused the battle at which Ewen died - just as Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar was held to blame for his last battle.  In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I point out that Arthur's worst enemy in his final campaign was his uncle, just as Ewen went into battle against his uncle.  And the prophecy of the Washer at the Ford (who so resembles Arthur's half-sister) indicated that success or disaster was dependent on the appearance of butter on the morning of the battle.

In one of the most revealing accounts of Arthur's last battle, as given in the Welsh tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy, we find that the battle was caused when Arthur's messenger deliberately relayed false, antagonistic messages to Arthur's opponents.  The individual concerned (who is identified in The King Arthur Conspiracy) explains that, because of his provocative behaviour, he is known as Cordd Prydain - the "Churn of Britain".

Butter, of course, comes from a churn.  And according to the Churn of Britain in The Dream of Rhonabwy, the troublemaker made himself scarce before the last day of the battle.  It was not a lack of butter that morning which signalled disaster - it was the absence of a "Churn"!  And because the "churn" in question was in cahoots with Arthur's troublesome wife, the churn's absence on the morning of the battle could be blamed on Gwenhwyfar, or the "Black Witch", as she is known in another Welsh tale.

The ghostly ancient galley which appears over Loch Fyne whenever a senior member of the Clan Campbell dies is a crisis apparition based - I suggest - on the ship which carried the wounded Arthur from Loch Fyne to the place of his burial.  In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I explain how the ship, which was bound for the Isle of Iona, put in at Carsaig on the Isle of Mull.  Arthur's body was carried up into the hills of Brolass.  He was decapitated and his body buried at Sithean Allt Mhic-Artair ("Spirit-hill of the Stream of the Sons of Arthur") above the hamlet of Pennyghael ("Head of the Gael").  His head was then carried to the Isle of Iona for burial.

It is odd, then, to discover that the glen immediately to the east of Pennyghael is haunted by a headless horseman.  The description of Ewen's pony corresponds to the exact sort of mount which Arthur and fellow horsemen or "knights" would have ridden into battle.  And so, just as the imminent death of one of Arthur's Campbell descendants causes a crisis apparition to appear over Loch Fyne, so the death of another clansman from another line - the Maclaines, or the Sons of the Lad of Aedan - provokes another crisis apparition: that of a headless horseman.  Arthur's headless body was buried by a stream on Mull, just as Ewen's headless body was supposedly buried beside the Lussa Falls nearby.  And Arthur's head was carried to the adjacent Isle of Iona, as were Ewen's disinterred remains.

In the 19th century, visitors to the Isle of Iona were shown what was said to have been a carved stone commemorating Ewen of the Little Head.  This was probably the Maclean's Cross (above), a 15th century carved stone, produced on Iona, which has the image of a mounted horseman on its base.  It stood beside the medieval Street of the Dead.  And in The King Arthur Conspiracy I indicate where, on the Street of the Dead, Arthur's head was finally laid to rest.

Could it be that the infamous headless horseman who haunts the route across Mull to the Isle of Iona was not an obscure member of the Clan Maclaine, but none other than that greatest of all heroes, Arthur son of Aedan?  I think it might be, and that this is just one of the many Scottish traditions relating to Arthur, the Scottish prince who became a mythical hero.

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