The Future of History

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mummer's Day

Season's Greetings!!

Here's a little seasonal piece I wrote for the Review Group Blog: On the Feast of Stephen.  It's mostly about Mumming.

All the very best to you all!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Five Facts About Arthur

Barry Hill, just north of Alyth in Angus, photographed by Richard Webb.  Arthur's last battle was fought near here.

I've written quite a lot about prejudice, lately.  This comes partly from my work on the final chapter for The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, in which I analyse what makes people believe certain things - irrespective of, and often in direct contradiction of, the evidence.

Because the fact is that where a lot of history is concerned, prejudice dictates what we believe.  Hence, the revelation that Arthur was Scottish (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say North British) is either ignored or derided by people who prefer to cling to the notion that he was, in some strange, anachronistic sort of way, essentially English.

A couple of posts back, I flirted with the idea of posting a handful of facts, none of which is in any way speculative, about Arthur.  These indisputable facts point to one conclusion only - that the "King Arthur" we read about so often is a manufactured legend.  The real Arthur was not a "king".  He had no connection with southern Britain and was active somewhat later than the timeframe asserted by so many "experts".

So, here goes:

1. The earliest Arthur on record was northern.

Long before we encounter any English references to Arthur, a princely "Arthur" was written about.  He was Artur mac Aedain ("Arthur son of Aedan"), whose father, Aedan mac Gabrain, was ordained as King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.  The Life of Columba, written by Adomnan of Iona in about 697, drawing on earlier accounts written by previous abbots of Iona, suggests that Artur was present when his father Aedan was ordained.  St Columba predicted that this Artur would never be king but would "fall in battle, slain by enemies".  The Life of Columba goes on to confirm that Artur did indeed die in a "battle of the Miathi", the tribal name referring to the southern or Lowland Picts of central Scotland.

The Irish annals similarly indicate that Artur mac Aedain died fighting the Picts - his death in a "battle of Circenn" being dated to 594 (Annals of Tigernach).  Circenn was the old Pictish province which corresponds with today's Angus and the Mearns, just north of the Tay estuary in Scotland.

Like Adomnan's Life of Columba, the Irish annals ultimately derived from the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Argyll in western Scotland.  Key events were listed alongside the Easter Tables which allowed early monasteries to calculate the date of Easter each year; these events were later transcribed into the chronicles known as "annals".  The source of the information regarding Artur's death in a battle against the Miathi Picts, fought in Circenn (Angus) in about 594, was therefore the monastery on Iona which had been established by St Columba - the very man who "ordained" Artur's father Aedan in 574.

Most accounts of Arthur's life avoid mentioning the Irish annals or the Life of Columba because they reveal that, long before there was any mention of Arthur in a southern or "English" context, the Irish or Scots had already established that an Arthur died fighting against the Picts in Angus.  There are no surviving references to anyone named Arthur before these Irish accounts, which drew on contemporary references.  Some scholars insist that Artur mac Aedain could not have been the "real" Arthur but must have been named after an earlier hero called Arthur.  But the point needs to be made that no evidence whatsoever exists for anyone named Arthur before Artur mac Aedain.

2. The early British sources associate Arthur with the North.

No contemporary British accounts of Arthur survive, although we do have transcriptions of ancient poems and stories which were copied out in the Middle Ages.  They all point to Arthur having been a northerner, who associated with northern princes of the late-6th century (that is, the lifetime of Artur mac Aedain).

Starting with Taliesin, who proudly called himself the "Primary Chief Bard" of Britain and who flourished in the late-6th century, we find repeated references to Arthur as a contemporary figure.  For a while, at least, Taliesin was attached to the court of Urien, a king of North Rheged (Cumbria) who died in 590.  By his own admission, Taliesin was also based at Edinburgh for some time.  In addition to composing poems and elegies for Urien and his son Owain, Taliesin also praised Lleenog of Lennox (Loch Lomond) and his son Gwallog.  He also sang a death-song for "Uthyr Pen" ("Uther the Chief") and an extraordinary account of Arthur's funeral (Preiddeu Annwn).

Equally, Aneirin - a princely bard of the North who flourished in the late-6th century - made mention of Arthur.  Aneirin's masterpiece is known as Y Gododdin and sang of the warriors of Edinburgh and Lothian who perished in a military disaster fought shortly before the year 600.  The earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin, written in an archaic form of Welsh, includes a direct reference to Arthur (we will return to this).

Moving onto the British stories of Arthur and his heroes, although these were transcribed by medieval monks during the Middle Ages, there is no good reason to presume that they were made up during that same period; rather, they almost certainly preserved a record which had been passed down orally by bards and storytellers.  In these stories (some of which were edited and translated in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and published as the Mabinogion or "Tales of the Early Age"), Arthur is consistently presented in the company of northern individuals of the late-6th century.

Such individuals include Taliesin, Urien of North Rheged and his son Owain, Cynon son of Clydno of Edinburgh and Peredur of York (Taliesin, Owain and Cynon are among those named alongside Arthur in Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem of a northern battle fought in the late-6th century).  These historical figures were later romanticised (Urien - Uriens; Owain = Yvain; Peredur = Perceval - compare Lleenog and Gwallog, who became the legendary father and son duo, Lancelot of the Lake and Galahad).

Others who appear to have accompanied Arthur on his forays "into the North" include St Cadog, one of Arthur's "four-and-twenty horsemen", who founded a monastery in central Scotland, and whose hagiography features several encounters with Arthur and other contemporary figures, such as Rhydderch of Dumbarton (died circa 614).  Rhydderch, meanwhile, is repeatedly associated with the Merlin-figure, Myrddin Wyllt, who "went mad" at a battle fought in the Scottish Borders in 573 and then spent much of his time in the "Caledonian forest", where at least one of Arthur's battles was fought, according to a list compiled in about 829 by a Welsh monk commonly known as Nennius.

3. The early romances associate Arthur - and the Grail - with the North.

As early as 1120, Lambert, the canon of St Omer in Brittany, wrote of the "palace of the warrior Arthur" as being "in the land of the Picts" - or Scotland, as we would now know it.  Lambert wrote in Latin, but used a Gaelic name for Arthur (Artuir militis).

Most mainstream accounts of "King Arthur" do not mention Lambert's testimony because it draws us away from the myth of the southern Arthur.  That myth was forged by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose account of Arthur's life and career formed part of his Historia Regum Britanniae or "History of the Kings of Britain", which he completed in about 1137.  Geoffrey appears singlehandedly to have invented the legend of Arthur's birth at Tintagel in Cornwall.  He also claimed that Merlin transported the "Giant's Dance" from Ireland by magic, bringing it to England where it became known as Stonehenge.  Very few people take that claim seriously, and yet a surprising number are eager to take the equally unfounded story about Tintagel as Gospel.  (In a later account, Geoffrey placed Merlin in the company of Taliesin, correctly identifying Myrddin Wyllt as the origin of the Merlin legend and a contemporary of the late-6th-century "Primary Chief Bard", but by then the damage had been done - those who wanted Arthur to have been "English" had the Tintagel myth to turn to, even though nobody before Geoffrey of Monmouth had mentioned it.)

Still, writers in Britain and on the Continent continued to link Arthur and his exploits with the North.  Beroul, for example, whose verse romance of Tristan was composed in about 1200, stated unequivocally that Arthur and his Round Table were located at Stirling, on the River Forth in central Scotland.  There was indeed a "Tristan" who was contemporary with Artur mac Aedain.  His name was originally Pictish - Drust - but the Scots came to think of him as "St Drostan" and placed him in the company of St Columba (as "Drosten", he is named on a 9th-century Pictish stone at St Vigeans in Angus, not far from the scene of Artur's last battle; an early British account has "Drystan" fleeing with his lover, Esyllt, into the "Caledonian forest").

In Chretien de Troyes's version of the Peredur story - Perceval ou le conte du graal - the sword presented to the Grail knight by his uncle, the Fisher King, could only be "rehammered, retempered and repaired" at a lake beyond the River Forth.  The Estoire del Saint Graal, composed in about 1230, stated that both Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly brought the "Holy Grail" to Britain, and his son Josephus were buried in Scotland.  At about the same time, one Guillaume le Clerc wrote his romance of Fergus, in which a young would-be knight encounters Arthur and his men in Galloway and then goes on a quest across much of Scotland.  The Queste del Saint Graal (circa 1230) remarked that Celydoine, an ancestor of the knights Lancelot and Galahad, was "the first Christian king to hold sway over Scotland".

An oral tradition concerning Arthur continued in Scotland - and especially in the islands of the Hebrides - until the tales were finally written down in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In one of these, which was recorded on the Isle of Tiree, very close to Iona, Arthur is "Chief Arthur son of Iuthar".

4. Arthur's enemies were northern.

Traditionally, Arthur fought against the Saxons, who colonised much of southern Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.  The term "Saxon" is still used in Welsh (Sais) and Scottish Gaelic (Sasunn) to designate an "Englishman" and "England" respectively.  The term "England", however, derives not from the Saxons but from the Angles, who formed Engla land some time after they had established their kingdom of Northumberland.

The Angles did not lay claim to their first northern kingdom (Bryneich - or Bernicia, as the Angles called it) until about AD 547.  They later added the kingdom of Deira (British Deywr) in 559, and together these adjacent territories on the coast of north-east England formed the Anglian kingdom of Northumberland.  Forays were made into central Scotland (thus, Artur and his contemporaries fought them in Lennox, near Loch Lomomd, and at Craigmaddie Muir, north of Glasgow).  By 590, though, an alliance of British and Irish chieftains had pretty much driven the Angles back into the sea.  Only the treachery of a British petty-king, Morgan the Wealthy, whose power base was at the Edinburgh, caused the British resistance to collapse after the assassination of Urien of North Rheged.

Just five years later, the resurgent Angles overran much of the North.  They finally conquered Edinburgh and Lothian in 638.

Between 590 and 595, or thereabouts, the invading "English" underwent an astonishing change of fortune - from being all-but wiped out in 590 to taking control of much of North Britain in 595.

Artur mac Aedain, we should remember, died in a battle fought in Angus in 594.  During his lifetime, the Anglian threat had been contained, and almost eradicated, before an act of treachery led to the death of Arthur's companion, Urien, and then his own death opened the floodgates to the conquest of North Britain by the Angles.  The historical circumstances therefore square with the later legends of Arthur: he sought to hold back the English, and was remarkably successful in doing so, until treachery struck.  And with the death of Arthur, Britain was finished.

But the Angles were not his sole enemies.  Geoffrey of Monmouth - who acknowledged that Arthur had fought battles around Dumbarton and Loch Lomond, a very long way from his supposed base in the south - also noted that there had been "Scots, Picts and Irish" ranged against Arthur in his final conflict, and that the various factions who had been brought into alliance by a treacherous British chieftain included both pagans and Christians.  Geoffrey specifically stated that the "Saxons" were to be awarded with the land between the River Humber and Scotland - that is, Northumberland, the land of the Angles - in return for joining forces against Arthur.

5. Arthur's last battle was fought in the North.

We think of it as the "Battle of Camlann", and yet no contemporary references to any such battle survive.  The last battle of Arthur doesn't appear to have been referred to as "Camlann" until the Middle Ages, when it was entered into the Annals of Wales as Gueith cam lann, the "Strife of Camlann".

It is usually assumed that "Camlann" is, and could only be, a Welsh place-name.  This is not a reasonable assumption: the old Roman fort at Camelon, near Falkirk (just south of Stirling), is known as Camlan in Gaelic (Kemlin in Scots), and so we shouldn't suppose that cam lann was an authentic British (i.e. Brittonic) place-name.

In fact, the term cam lann translates via Anglo-Saxon - and via Lowland Scots, a derivative of the Old Germanic tongue spoken by the Angles, which had been established in southern Scotland by the 7th century - as "comb land".

Artur mac Aedain, we recall, died in 594 at a "battle of Circenn".  The term circenn combines two Old Irish words, cir  - meaning "comb" or "crest" - and cenn, meaning "heads".  The Angus region, which was then known as Circenn, appears to have been the capital of the Miathi Picts, who seem to have modelled their appearance on the boar (Galam, a chief of the southern Picts who was almost certainly killed by Arthur in 580, bore two epithets: Cennaleth, or "Chief of Alyth", and Cennfaeladh, meaning "Shaved-Head"; he was also known as "Little-Boar", Welsh Baeddan, or "Little Tufted One", Gaelic Badan, since his head was shaved to represent the tuft, crest or "comb" of a boar).

So, Artur mac Aedain died in 594 in a battle in Circenn, the land of the "Comb-heads" or the boar-crested warriors of the Miathi Picts.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to Anglian invasion.

The Arthur of legend died in a battle in "Comb land" or cam lann.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to the "Saxons", or the English as they are now known.

With this in mind, we might return to the Y Gododdin poem of Aneirin, which sang of the heroes (many of them resident fixtures of the Arthurian legends) who fought so valiantly in a disastrous encounter with the Northumbrian Angles which took place not long before the year 600 and not all that far from Edinburgh.  Indeed, Aneirin tells us where it happened:

Again they came into view around the Allaid,
The battle-horses and the bloody armour,
Still steadfast, still united ...

The "Allaid" (Gaelic Ailt) was the Hill of Alyth, above the River Isla in Strathmore, the great valley of Angus.

As previously stated, the earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin includes a reference to Arthur.  This reference has been repeatedly mistranslated by scholars who do not want to think of Arthur as a northerner or to consider the possibility that Arthur might have been present at this disastrous battle between the Gododdin warriors of Lothian and the massed ranks of Angles, Scots, Irish and Picts.  Here's the passage which mentions Arthur:

Gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

We can now translate this passage thus:

"Black ravens sang in praise of the hero
of Circenn.  He blamed Arthur;
the dogs cursed in return for our wailing ..."

The "hero" (Welsh arwr) of "Circenn" (corrupted to caer and the genitive ceni in the transcription) was probably Arthur, who was blamed for his own death by his principle enemy whilst his black raven warriors sang their dirges over him.

As St Columba had predicted, he had "fallen in battle, slain by enemies".  This battle was fought against a motley bunch of Angles, Scots, Picts and Irish, and it took place in the "comb land" (cam lann) of the "Comb-heads" (Circenn), where Arthur - surrounded by those very princes of North Britain who would follow him into the legends - was fatally wounded near the Allaid or "Hill of Alyth", the chief seat of Galam, the onetime boar-king of the Miathi. 

This region is also known as Gowrie, after Gabran, the grandfather of Artur mac Aedain, who had annexed the territory in about 525.  The place where Artur fell is known to this day as Arthurbank, the precise spot still being known as Arthurstone.

Southern Britain never had an Arthur, nor even a figure remotely like Artur mac Aedain. 

The myth of the southern Arthur is exactly that - a myth. 

The real Arthur, as all the available evidence indicates, was a northerner, active in the second half of the 6th century, and only blind prejudice stands in the way of our recognition of Artur mac Aedain as the hero he was.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Grail - Saints and Stones

The last but one chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is now up on the Moon Books blog.  In this 11th chapter, we break the news that the "Grail" can still be seen on Pictish symbol stones in very close proximity to the scene of Arthur's last battle.

It's a difficult chapter, I'll admit.  Working this way (a chapter a month, published online, and then on to the next chapter) has been a very interesting experience, but not always an easy one.  Usually, I'd write out several chapters, then go back and revise them, move on to the next chapters, go back, revise, move forwards, back, revise, onwards, rewrite a section, rewrite another section, complete the manuscript, then revise it ... But not this time!  Oh no.  A chapter, when it's done, goes up on the blog.  It's published.  And on we go to the next one.

I'm beginning to look forward to reading through the completed manuscript when the final chapter is published next month.  It'll be interesting to see how (and if) the whole thing hangs together.  How much repetition is there?  What needs to go, what needs to be better explained ...

Anyway, the research has been fascinating.  As has been receiving feedback on each chapter (work-in-progress) from my brother-in-arms, John Gist, and planning each of the chapter images with my very talented near-neighbour, Lloyd Canning.  Lloyd lives round the corner from me; John lives in New Mexico.  It's been an international collaboration!

A lot of new material has been unearthed during the course of this project, and I'm hopeful that the final chapter will put most of it into perspective.  I look forward to being able to post the link.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Royal Shakespeare Company bookshop is now stocking Who Killed William Shakespeare?

"Made it, Ma!  Top of the world!"

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Finding Arthur

Very exciting to see this in the Scotsman newspaper yesterday.  It's a short piece about Adam Ardrey's latest Arthurian publication, Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Once and Future King.

I've had some contact with Adam Ardrey in recent years - although, keen as I am to preserve my historiographical independence, we've not exactly compared notes.  I read his Finding Merlin when it came out in 2007, and we've communicated once or twice since then.  But we're hardly collaborators.

I stress that for a couple of reasons.  First, let me quote Ardrey's words from the back cover of Finding Merlin:

"If I am right, it would appear that, for 1,500 years, those with the power to do so have presented a history that, literally, suited their book, irrespective of its divergence from the evidence, and that the stories of Arthur and Merlin which form the British foundation myth are almost entirely pieces of propaganda based on various biases.  If I am right, British history for the period from the late fifth to the early seventh century stands to be rewritten."

Sounds a bit like me, doesn't it?  I too have argued that propaganda and bias have dictated the retelling of the Arthurian legends through the ages - just as propaganda and bias dictate what we allowed to hear, think and believe about William Shakespeare.

What is more, though, Adam Ardrey argues in his Finding Arthur book, not only that Artur mac Aedain was the original Arthur, but that he was buried on the Isle of Iona.

So we agree on that, too.

In other words, both of us have - independently - identified a known historical prince as the original "King Arthur", and we have both tracked down his grave to the sacred royal burial isle of the Scottish kings.  That's two intelligent and inquisitive individuals who have each devoted years to the subject arriving at very similar conclusions.

I posted the piece in the Scotsman newspaper (link above) to Facebook yesterday, and it was quickly shared by a very successful historical novelist.  The responses were most telling.

First came the observation that a Scottish historian had received coverage in a Scottish newspaper for his theory that Arthur was Scottish.  Evidently, this was all very suspicious (I pointed out that I'm an English historian with Welsh roots, and so the suggestion that only a Scot would think Arthur might have been Scottish doesn't quite stand up).  What makes this kneejerk rush to judgement so interesting is that there is no basis for it.  It is, in fact, a form of projection.  The fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that Arthur was what the English like to think he was gets instantly spun round, becoming no other culture is allowed to claim Arthur as its own, regardless of the evidence.

I posted a few days ago about the Ossian poems, translated from the Gaelic and published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, and the English response to the evidence of a thriving, heroic Gaelic culture at a time when England didn't even exist.  The response was nothing short of blind fury - a kind of spluttering outrage that the "primitives" and "savages" of the Highlands and Islands should presume to imagine that they had any pedigree, any marvellous history, for such cultural treasures belonged only to the English!!!

The same prejudice shows itself whenever the Scottish Arthur is mentioned.  Without viewing the evidence, the instinctive response is: "No, he can't have been."  I repeat - without viewing the evidence.  So we are not dealing with considered judgements here.  We are dealing with prejudice, pure and simple.  The implicit racism is apparent in the suggestion that only a Scottish historian would try to place Arthur in Scotland.  Even though the very first Arthur to appear in any historical record was a Scot!

There is, then, a wall of prejudice encountered by anyone who, having spent years studying and researching the evidence, concludes that there was only one viable candidate for the prestigious role of the original Arthur - and it was Artur mac Aedain, whose father was ordained as the King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.

It is reassuring, then, to find that others who have devoted themselves to uncovering the historical truth behind the Arthur legend have arrived at much the same conclusion as me - he was Artur mac Aedain, and he was buried on Iona.  The question, then, is when will the tide turn?  When will the wall of prejudice crumble in the face of the evidence?  When will the English finally admit that they have no claim at all to Arthur?

(I don't include the Welsh here because Arthur was British, and Welsh-speaking Britain extended at least as far north as the River Forth in his day; there are no grounds for presuming that, if Arthur was the son of a Scottish king, then he couldn't have been Welsh: rather, that argument is based on a misunderstanding of the geopolitics of 6th-century Britain.)

I'm tempted to post, over the next few days, a number of indisputable facts about Arthur.  These are not assumptions, but genuine facts.  And they all point in one direction, and one direction only.

The English might fight tooth and nail to cling to their myth of King Arthur.  But there can be no reasonable doubt as to who the original Arthur was.

Unless you're determined to ignore the evidence, that is.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The History Vault

A moment of fame ...

The wonderful online History Vault magazine has published a five-minute interview with me!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Ossian: Culture and Prejudice

It's taken me a while, but I've finally got round to researching the poems of Ossian.

"So what?" I hear you cry.  Well, each to his own.

Let me fill you in.

James Macpherson was born in the Scottish Highlands in 1736.  A native Gaelic speaker, he wasn't quite ten years old when the Jacobite rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie came to a terrible end at Culloden, not so very far from where Macpherson had grown up. 

There had been prominent rebels in his family - including Cluny Macpherson, who makes a colourful appearance in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

James Macpherson was clever, quick-witted and well-educated.  In 1760, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry - Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.  These Fragments introduced the world to the ancient world of Fingal (Fionn mac Cumhail), his son Ossian and grandson Oscar (yes, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was named after him).  They were an instant success.

The Scottish literati then raised the funds for Macpherson to make a research trip to the Highlands and Islands with a view to collecting more scraps of traditional Gaelic verse, either orally or in manuscript form.  The result of this expedition was Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Sixth Books.

Macpherson had made his name.  His Ossianic collections were the talk of Europe and beyond.  Thomas Jefferson considered them his favourite books; Napoleon Buonaparte never went into battle without a copy to hand, and Goethe was hugely inspired by the Gaelic epic.  Romanticism - the predominant aesthetic movement of the 19th century - owed a great deal to Macpherson's work.  Felix Mendelssohn made a sort of pilgrimage to the Western Isles after reading the Ossian poems, and was inspired to write his stirring Hebridean Overture, although sea-sickness had prevented him from viewing "Fingal's Cave" on Staffa.

But the English hated the Ossian poems.  Led by the bullish figure of Dr Samuel Johnson, the southern establishment poured scorn on Macpherson's efforts.  Johnson demanded that Macpherson reveal his sources and produce the Gaelic manuscripts from which he had drawn his translations.  As far as Dr Johnson was concerned, the whole thing was a hoax.  There were no historic manuscripts concerning Fingal.  Macpherson had made the whole thing up.

Not true.  There were mentions of Fingal and Ossian in historical manuscripts, and subsequent research has shown that Macpherson did indeed base his work on original, authentic Gaelic poetry.  And yet Macpherson - and Ossian - are little known today.  So one could say that Dr Johnson and his English crew succeeded.  They threw enough mud for some of it to stick.

Why, though?  Why was it so important to Dr Johnson, and others like him, to undermine James Macpherson's achievements?

At the time, Gaelic society was in decline.  It has since been sentimentalised and fetishised, but first its roots had to be torn up and the culture pretty much destroyed.

The crowns of England and Scotland had been united in 1603 under James Stuart, the sixth King James of Scotland (but usually referred to as James I - his English designation).  It was not until 1707, though, that the Scots were bribed and bullied into accepting an Act of Union with England.  This was very much to England's benefit - it meant that France lost a valuable ally north of England's border - and very much to Scotland's disadvantage.  Indeed, the Union was detested on both sides of the English-Scottish border.

The last serious attempt to break up the Union, or to restore the Stuart line to the throne (if only in Scotland), came when Charles Edward Stuart landed with seven men in the Outer Hebrides.  It ended with the disaster at Culloden in 1746.  The English, under the "Butcher" Duke of Cumberland, a son of the reigning Hanoverian king, raped and massacred their way through the Highlands.  The wearing of Scottish dress (the tartan kilt) was banned, as was the possession of weapons.

Before too long, the time-honoured clan system was breaking down.  The clan chiefs were replaced by landlords, who held no sense of responsibility to the inhabitants of the Highlands.  Sheep were more profitable than people, and so houses were burned down, possessions confiscated, and thousands of men, women and children herded into overcrowded vessels to make long and painful journeys to the farthest flung corners of the Empire.  The Highlands became a wasteland, an exclusive playground for the very rich.

With the determined annihilation of Gaelic culture well and truly underway, Macpherson's publications were a bit of a problem.  They demonstrated that the culture of the Highlands (and, in particular, the west) was truly ancient.  Some even considered the Ossianic poems comparable with the works of Homer and Virgil.  It was as if, just as the English and their supporters in the Lowlands were systematically crushing Highland society, a Highlander had come along and shown that the Gaels had a culture and tradition which far surpassed anything that any Englishman could boast of.

To men like Dr Samuel Johnson, the Scots were primitives, a ragged bunch of scheming savages.  English racism - never very far from the surface - was making exaggerated and hysterical claims about Scots migrating en masse to London and taking jobs, houses and women (sound familiar?).  South of the border, words like "Scot" and "Scottish" were a form of abuse

Things worsened when John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, became the first Scottish prime minister of Great Britain.  Bute was a favourite of King George III (the "mad" one), but he bore the hated name of Stuart, and he was a Scot - so the English loathed him.  Macpherson had dedicated his Ossianic works to Lord Bute, which gave Englishmen like Dr Johnson another reason to attack Macpherson and his discoveries.

There is much that is magnificent in the Ossianic poems, even if Macpherson had embellished the original Gaelic verses he collected throughout the Highlands and Islands.  They give flashes of insight into a heroic society and glimpses of life at a time when Christianity was just beginning to establish itself (there are no Christian references in the poems).  What is more, they offer proof that the western seaboard of Scotland was home to a remarkable culture before the invading Angles and Saxons converged to form England.  They deserve to be better known.  No; more than that - they are part of the ancestral heritage of the British Isles, and it was a cultural atrocity on the part of the English to try to wipe them from the record and to impugn the reputation of the man who collected, translated and published them.

And there's more.  The Ossian poems give us an insight into the society of Arthur.  Yes, Arthur.  That Arthur - the one the English falsely insist on calling "King Arthur".

English prejudices run deep.  If they can't have Arthur all to themselves, then no one can.

The real, original, historical Arthur was a Scottish prince.  There never was an "English" King Arthur, and no evidence at all exists for an Arthur in the south.  He was a North Briton, and his world was the world of Fingal and Ossian and Oscar.

But just as English scholars refused to allow the Scots to have an ancient, heroic culture - refused even to let them have a language, or a home - so English commentators continue to tell lies about Arthur, if only to prevent the world from knowing that his father was King of the Scots.

One day - let us hope - the Ossianic poems will take their place alongside the native tales of Arthur and his heroes (which continually refer to "the North").  Macpherson will be honoured as he should be: as the man who preserved these traces of authentic tradition and was cruelly satirised and savagely lambasted for doing so.  The crimes committed against the culture and people of the Highlands will be fully recognised and acknowledged.  And it will be possible to investigate and celebrate the genuine Arthur of history, rather than the insipid legendary concoction foisted upon us by the propagandists of the south.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


I was in Holland when I saw the TV images of him being released from prison.

A year or two later, I was on an open-top bus, travelling the carnival route of the Birmingham Mela.  There was a member of the ANC - soon to become the governing party of South Africa - also on the bus.  He was there to observe local government.

Not so long after that, I was in Birmingham's Town Hall, becoming an instant fan of Hugh Masekela, and especially his stunning Stimela (The Coal Train) song.  A few feet away from me sat Madiba himself, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, in whose honour the concert was being held.  We gave him a standing ovation.

Now, Madiba is gone.  His long walk to freedom is over.

I had wanted to blog about the hypocrisy of a right-wing politician who called for him to be hanged, and who helped to prolong the despicable apartheid system in South Africa, going on television to describe this good man as a "hero of our time".  I had wanted to refer to Charles Moore's review of Conservative MP Daniel Hannan's absurdly revisionist "history" of what he calls the "Anglosphere", with its fanatical pretence that England singlehandedly invented liberty and freedom (Moore even acknowledges that Hannan's ludicrous argument relies on "a bit of false memory syndrome", but he lets him off because apparently some historical lies are "good").  I had wanted to query how Moore's observation that "In all countries, at all times, there are a shocking number of people who want to diminish freedom" squared with his own party's hatred of freedom-fighters like Nelson Mandela and its active and determined support for the brutish, fascist regime which imprisoned him and brutalised his people.

But I won't.  Rest in peace, Madiba.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Saint William?

With apologies for taking so long to post since my last offering, let us now return to the subject of Shakespeare portraiture.

It's a thorny subject.  There are quite a few portraits which have been "identified", at one time or another, as Shakespeare, but only a few appear regularly enough to be considered "authentic".  But maybe we're missing something here.

This is the so-called "Flower Portrait", which has been in the Royal Shakespeare Company's collection since it was donated by Mrs Charles Flower in the 19th century.  The portrait is so similar to the more famous Droeshout engraving - printed at the beginning of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 - that for many years it was assumed that the portrait was the original upon which Martin Droeshout the Younger based his engraving.

It was probably the other way round.  Although the Flower Portrait bears the inscription "Willm Shakespeare 1609", it is not contemporary with Shakespeare.  The gold paint visible on Shakespeare's doublet was not available before the early 1800s.  The portrait is a late forgery.

But let us not dismiss it straightaway. It might be a rather crafty copy of a better known image of Shakespeare, but that does not mean it has nothing to tell us.

The Flower Portrait was, in fact, painted over an earlier image.  That earlier image represented the Virgin Mary with the Christ child and St John the Baptist.

I was intrigued when I first came across that snippet of information.  It meant that this image of Shakespeare was painted over a religious image - a Catholic image, you could say.  Bear in mind the fact that William Shakespeare's parents were John (Shakespeare) and Mary (Arden), and you should spot a fascinating coincidence: the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare replaced, as it were, an image of a special child accompanied by two sainted individuals who happen to have borne the names of Shakespeare's mother and father.

Maybe that is just a coincidence.  But the portraits of Shakespeare present us with a conundrum.  The only hint that there might have been portraits of William Shakespeare around during his lifetime comes in a play performed by students at Cambridge University in 1601.  In The Return from Parnassus a character named Gullio expresses great admiration for "sweet Mr. Shakespeare" and vows to obtain a picture of him for his study.

Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the surviving portraits said to be of William Shakespeare was painted during his lifetime.  But quite a number of "Shakespeare" portraits appeared after his death.  Why?  And why are so few of these accepted as genuine?

There are perhaps two problems here.  The first is, what would count as an authentic image of Shaespeare (and how would we know it if we saw one)?  The second, then, is: what if some Shakespeare portraits were not intended to be exact likenesses, but were intended to perform some other function?  Getting a portrait painted was usually a pretty costly business.  You'd have to be a big fan of the dead poet to want your own version of his portrait.

I think the Flower Portrait might provide the key to this problem.  It was obviously a copy of a well-known Shakespeare image, and it was painted over a religious image.

In the years that followed Shakespeare's death in 1616, a radical and fanatical faction - the Puritans - enjoyed a period of predominance.  These Puritans hated religious imagery with a passion: they considered it "papist" and somehow anti-Christian.  The ownership of any such Catholic imagery would not only be an invitation for an armed mob of Puritans to visit your house and destroy your precious artwork - it would be seen as proof that you were a "popish" traitor.  You could then be imprisoned, tortured, possibly executed, and all your possessions seized.

On the other hand, there were plenty of people who retained their Catholic faith, and many of these belonged to wealthy families.  Whether they supported the Royalist side during the English Civil War or simply clung to the Catholicism of their forefathers, these people bravery trod a dangerous path.  Their ultra-Protestant enemies sought for any opportunity to denounce and ruin them.

Now, as I have tried to establish in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, the Bard was a victim of the vicious sectarian infighting which was rife during his lifetime.  As a Catholic, or a Catholic sympathiser, Shakespeare was always a little suspect, and his death became inevitable when the Puritan faction began to gain ground at the Court of King James.  His death was then followed by a suspicious, eerie silence, as if those who knew anything at all about Shakespeare's beliefs and the circumstances surrounding his death thought it prudent to keep very, very quiet indeed.

If Shakespeare was indeed a martyr to the old religion, his image would have become rather precious to those who, like Shakespeare, kept the faith through the terrible years that followed.  To have a portrait of William Shakespeare would perhaps seem relatively innocuous - "I'm a lover of literature, that's all" - but, at the same time, it was a way of remembering and honouring a famous victim of Puritan malevolence.

The Flower Portrait might be an extreme example of a Catholic devotional image (the Virgin Mary, Christ child and St John) being hidden beneath a portrait of William Shakespeare (parents, John and Mary), but that fact might help to explain the proliferation of Shakespeare portraits after his death.  They were a way for certain families to commemorate a Catholic martyr whilst being able, at the same time, to deny that they were anything other than devoted lovers of plays and poems.

This would indicate that there are, in fact, two kinds of Shakespeare portrait.  These two kinds are not in any way mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, there are the portraits - like the Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery - that are about as accurate and authentic as you could get.  On the other, there are portraits which were definitely intended to represent Shakespeare, although they might not have aimed for the exact same degree of truth-to-life as the Chandos example.  But they were, all the same, portraits of the Bard, commissioned by an individual or a family which wanted to honour a victim of the Protestant ascendancy and its trademark brutality.

They were, that is, relics - of a sort - and further proof that Shakespeare was a dissident.  Born to Catholic parents, he spent much of his life and career pleading the cause of the embattled "papists".  It was a cause he died for.  And those who remembered this commemorated him by means of his portraits.

We would have known this, had we not been forced into forgetting Shakespeare's Catholicism and the ferocious violence and illegal persecution which was meeted out against the Catholics by the new order.  Such was the determination with which later Protestants sought to distance Shakespeare from his Catholic roots that they perversely created relics of their own - secular mementos designed to honour Shakespeare, not as a Catholic dissident, but as a Protestant mouthpiece.  And after a while, the purpose of the many Shakespeare portraits was forgotten.  They became mysteries, uncertain images of an uncertain subject.

The subject, though, was probably Shakespeare - and the likenesses, though not exact, were close enough to reflect the man who was being remembered and honoured, like a British saint.