The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 10

Nov 8th, 2013 | By | Category: The Grail

10 – Camlann

I predict a battle in Pictland …

For the many who come, by the means of the white-headed one,

Except for seven, death brings them misery afterwards.

Myrddin Wyllt

 

ROME FAILED to conquer the whole of Britain.  Huge fortifications were built right up to the edge of the Highland line but, even so, the indigenous peoples of the far north remained free from Roman rule.

Those independent tribesmen were dubbed Picti by the Roman soldiers – or Pecti, as Ammianus Marcellinus once spelled it.  The term is usually taken to mean ‘painted’ or ‘tattooed’, as in ‘picture’.  The variant Pecti, however, compares with the Old Scots Pecht – ‘Pict’ (Welsh Peithwyr, ‘Pict-men’) – and probably derived from the Latin pecten, a ‘comb’.

Two walls were constructed across Britain.  The more formidable of these 2nd-century barriers was the great wall of Hadrian, which straddled the shoulders of Britain from the Tyne in the east to the Solway in the west.  Soon afterwards, the more northerly rampart of Antoninus Pius was created between the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde rivers.  Begun in AD 142, the Antonine Wall was vacated by the legionaries just twenty years later.

By the 3rd century, Britain was divided.  Everything to the south of Hadrian’s Wall was governed, taxed and policed by Rome.  Everything to the north of the Antonine Wall was barbarian; this region was described as a veritable hell on earth by Procopius of Caesaraea, immediately before the time of Arthur.  Between the Roman walls stretched miles of upland country which was home to two major tribes: the Damnonii of Strathclyde and the Votadini (later the Gododdin) of Lothian.  The Roman authorities bribed these Britons to keep the peace along the edge of the empire.  They became foederati – frontier mercenaries in the pay of Rome.

These political divisions forged a lasting legacy.  The Romanised south eventually resolved into England, the wild Highlands becoming decidedly Gaelic.  The intervening buffer zone, which we now think of as the Scottish Lowlands, became the land of the Sassenach, the ‘Little Englander’ who spoke a language that, like English, had evolved from the old Germanic tongue; this was the dialect known as Lowland Scots.

Even when Scotland became a country in its own right it remained a land divided, the southern Scots sharing a language, more or less, with their English neighbours and abhorring the Highlanders whose culture remained fiercely tribal.  This antipathy had taken root when Rome occupied the southern half of Britain.  The western Damnonii and the eastern Votadini tribes of North Britain came to see themselves as Rome’s allies (hence the early spread of Christianity through Strathclyde) and the boar-like, barbarian Picts as their mutual foe.

Two Pictish tribes – the ‘Caledonians’ and the ‘Maeatae’ – were identified by Cassius Dio in the 3rd century.  In the late-4th century, these tribes were described as ‘Dicalydones’ and ‘Verturiones’, the latter occupying the low-lying lands to the south and east of the Highlands.  Their name corresponded with the Pictish province of ‘Fortriu’ and probably meant ‘People of the Forts’ – a reference to the massive fortifications built in Strathearn and Mentieth before the Romans abandoned Scotland.

The southern Britons habitually saw the ‘Picti’ and the ‘Hiberni’ (Irish) as their enemies, according to Eumenius, writing in AD 297.  Before long, the Picts had allied themselves with those Irish settlers who had crossed the sea from Antrim to Argyll and became known as the Scoti.  In 367, these northern tribes, in conjunction with the Saxons and the Attacotti – a ‘warlike race of men’ – formed a ‘barbarian conspiracy’ against Roman Britain.

Like the Jacobite army which invaded England in 1745 under the Bonnie Prince, Charles Edward Stuart, the Picts and their Scottish allies had become the terror of the ‘civilised’ south.

The Old North
St Gildas – himself a child of North Britain – described the Picts and the Scots as ‘differing from one another in manners but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all the more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it.’  Those selfsame southern prejudices which would later insist that Arthur must have been a man of the south were already entrenched by the mid-6th century.

When the last Roman legion was withdrawn from Britain in AD 409, the southerners hired Germanic mercenaries to deal with the northern tribes.  In return, the forerunners of the English demanded land on the east coast, next to Hadrian’s Wall.  Having gained their foothold in what would become the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, the ‘Saxons’ took to ravaging post-Roman Britain.

The Scots, meanwhile, had enjoyed good relations with the Pictish Epidii (‘Horse-People’) since they first established their Irish colony in Argyll.  Driven back from the Old North by the Germanic mercenaries, the Scots retrenched.  Fergus Mór mac Eirc travelled over from Antrim to become their first king in circa 498.  He was buried on Iona where, according to Hector Boece, he had founded a church which became ‘the burial place of the Scottish kings’.

It was the grandson of Fergus Mór – Gabrán, the father of Áedán – who redrew the political map of the North.  In about 525, Gabrán joined forces with the Britons, overturning the longstanding alliance of Scots and Picts, and invaded Pictish territory, stamping his name on the map in the form of ‘Gowrie’.  His son, Áedán mac Gabráin, married the sister of Bruide, who became king of the Highland (‘Caledonian’) Picts in 552.

By then, the Scots and their allies controlled most of what we would now recognise as Scotland.  But internecine rivalry soon put paid to any hopes of peace.  Bruide unleashed his Pictish spearmen against the Scottish settlers in Perthshire, slaying Gabrán, the King of the Scots, in about 559.

St Columba negotiated a truce between Bruide’s Picts and the chastened Scots in 565.  Trouble flared up again, though, in 573, when a dispute between Áedán’s pagan priests and the Christian ‘shepherds’ protected by Rhydderch of Strathclyde escalated into the Action of Arderydd.  Gwenddolau – a pagan prince – was killed; ‘Merlin’ went mad; but a new hero had appeared on the scene.  Taliesin sang:

 

Druids versed in letters
Prophesy that Arthur
Is the longed-for one of the tribe.

 

The next year, Áedán led a punitive raid on Rhydderch’s stronghold at Dumbarton and then secured the Scottish throne, before the combined forces of the North checked the advance of the land-hungry Angles into the Lennox (Loch Lomond) region.

The ensuing years witnessed battle after battle.  The Angles were forced back to their east coast enclaves.  The Irishmen of Ulster launched attacks on Manau Gododdin (Stirling, on the River Forth) and were repulsed.  The ‘Miathi’ Picts were vanquished, first in Strathearn and then, in 580, in Angus, when Arthur retook the Gowrie lands, named after his grandfather, Gabrán.

The success of the princely alliance which had constellated around the figure of Arthur – the ‘Round Table’ of 24 horsemen based, according to the French poet Béroul in about 1200, at Stirling – meant that the North was pacified by 584.  Bruide died in a Pictish civil war, fought in Angus, and Áedán’s son Gartnait inherited the Highland throne.  That same year, Áedán’s Irish ally, Fiachna mac Báetáin, was awarded the guardianship of Manau Gododdin, becoming Manannán: the ‘Dear One of Manau’.

After years of fighting, the Men of the North were at last free to focus on driving the ‘Saxons’ back into the sea which had brought them over from Germany.

 

Mordred
Lindisfarne is a tidal islet on the Northumbrian coast.  A short distance to the south stands Bamburgh, once the principal bastion of the Northumbrian Angles.

In 590, the combined British forces of the North had the Angles pinned down at Lindisfarne – or Ynys Medcaut, as the Britons called it.

Many scholars presume that Arthur played some unrecorded role in delaying the Saxon advance through southern Britain.  His real achievement was much greater.  Thanks to his commanding genius, the Men of the North had been brought to the brink of a historic triumph: the eradication of the incipient English.

Arthur had turned the tables on the Angles.  Britain – or at least the northern half of the island – stood poised on the threshold of freedom.

Fiachna mac Báetáin, the land-holder of Manau, collaborated with Áedán mac Gabráin, King of the Scots, in besieging Bamburgh, one source claiming that Fiachna stormed the Anglian fortress and established a garrison.  Another Irish tale states that while Fiachna was fighting with Áedán in ‘Saxon-land’, Mannanán mac Lir sired a son in his stead.  The boy was named Mongán (‘Little Long-haired One’), the ‘son of Fiachna’ and the ‘son of Manannán’; he was probably the boyish hero known to the Britons as Gwalchmai (‘Gawain’), the nephew and foster-son of Arthur.

But as Áedán and his allies achieved victory at Bamburgh, disaster struck further up the coast.  Urien, the father of Owain, was murdered by a paid assassin.  It was left to Llywarch – one of Arthur’s ‘Counsellor Knights’ – to retrieve his cousin’s head from Aber Lleu (‘Mouth of the Lleu’).

The traitor was Morgan the Wealthy; one text lays the blame on the princes of Edinburgh, but since Morgan was the ‘Prince-Servant’ of Lothian it amounts to the same thing.  The motive, wrote Nennius in 829, was ‘jealousy’.

Arthur’s queen, we should recall, was forcibly abducted by a subordinate nobleman named ‘Mordred’ or ‘Medrod’ (‘Medrod son of Llew’ in the list of Arthur’s horsemen).  The Triads insist that this happened while Arthur was away from home, doing battle against ‘Rome’:

 

When Medrod heard that Arthur’s host was dispersed, he turned against Arthur, and the Saxons and the Picts and the Scots united with him to hold this Island against Arthur.

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth said much the same in 1137.  Arthur went to war with ‘Rome’, leaving his ‘nephew’ and his queen in charge of the kingdom.  Mordred then ‘placed the crown upon his own head …

 

What is more, this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage.

 

Mordred reputedly struck a deal with the Saxons, offering them ‘that part of the island that stretched from the River Humber to Scotland’ in return for their support.  The traitor also ‘brought the Scots, Picts and Irish into his alliance, with anyone else he knew to be filled with hatred for his uncle.’

The Triads tell us that the first of the three ‘Unrestrained Ravagings’ occurred when Medrod came to Arthur’s court: ‘And he dragged Gwenhwyfar from her royal chair, and then he struck a blow upon her.’

And so Gwenhwyfar was abducted.  Morgan the Wealthy – otherwise the ‘Skilful’ (Welsh medrod) – undermined the British alliance at Lindisfarne, probably in collusion with the embattled Angles of Northumbria, and then he kidnapped Arthur’s queen.

The same ‘Morken’ was – according to the Life of Kentigern – the ‘certain tyrant’ and ‘vile slave of Mammon’ who had previously persecuted St Kentigern or Cynon son of Clydno of Edinburgh, forcing him to flee from the North to the distant settlement of St David’s in south-west Wales.

Morgan had eventually been brought back into the fold, becoming an honoured member of Arthur’s circle.

But he betrayed them all.

 

THE GODODDIN
As we have seen, the Scots of Angus maintained the tradition that Gwenhwyfar and her abductor sought refuge in the Grampian Mountains.  Their most likely destination was the fortified Hill of Tillymorgan, the seat of the Clann Morgainn, in Strathbogie.  There were two old Roman camps nearby.

The medieval Book of Deer from Aberdeenshire described the chief of the Morgan clan as a tóisech – not a king so much as a feudal rent-collector or ‘baron-baillie’.  Morgan had become a subservient prince, the adoptive ‘son’ of the Pictish ‘Little-Boar’ (Welsh Baeddan).

Morgan the Wealthy surrounded himself with the comb-headed spearmen of the ‘Miathi’, who had not forgotten Arthur’s destruction of their Chief-Boar, Galam Cennaleth, at Badandun Hill ten years earlier.  The ‘Miathi’ Picts embraced Morgan as their new leader.  He became their ‘boar-king’, the prince who – as we read in the legend of Culhwch and Olwen – was transformed into a swine.

What is remarkable is that the realm of the ‘Caledonian’ Picts, which lay just west of the Hill of Tillymorgan, had been governed for six years by Gartnait mac Áedáin.  The fact that Morgan’s retreat neighboured the Highland territory then ruled by Arthur’s half-brother should have made Morgan’s position extremely precarious.  And yet, Gartnait did nothing to bring the treacherous ‘boar-king’ to book.

Morgan had destroyed the Britons’ chance of ridding their lands of the Anglian intruders.  He had commissioned the assassination of the much-loved Urien and had stolen Arthur’s queen.  Why, then, did Gartnait mac Áedáin not move against him?

One clue can be found in the Annals of Ulster, which record the ‘conversion of Constantine to the Lord’ in 588 (the Annals of Tigernach date this event to 586, the Welsh Annals to 589).

For his Christian conversion to have warranted mention in the annals, this Constantine must have been a significant person.  Geoffrey of Monmouth would later claim that, with his last breath, Arthur ‘handed the crown of Britain over to his cousin Constantine’.  Constantine – Welsh Cystennin – similarly appears as Arthur’s cousin in Culhwch and Olwen, while his son Goreu (‘Gilded’) makes several appearances of his own: he was said to have liberated Arthur from each of his three spells of ritual entombment.  The medieval Life of Pedrog also features a wealthy man named Constantine who was given an ivory horn when he was converted by one of Arthur’s celebrated horsemen.

Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern states that Constantine became king of Strathclyde after the death of Rhydderch in about 614.  Better known as St Constantine, he seemingly resigned the throne soon afterwards and was buried in his own church at Govan, the ‘Town of the Smith’, which is now part of Glasgow.

Constantine was a baptismal name.  His original name was surely Cano (‘Song’), the son of Gartnait whose birth (or baptism) drove a wedge between the Pictish king and his father Áedán.  According to the Scéla Cano, much of the family strife revolved around a gilded cauldron or ‘vat of silver and gold’ which Gartnait buried on a royal island after sending his son to Ireland.

The Aberdeen Breviary confirms that Constantine lived incognito as a monk in Ireland before he carelessly revealed his true identity.  Like Cano, he eventually returned from Ireland to claim his throne.

Constantine was supposedly the son of Rhydderch and Languueth (Myrddin’s sister), although this was almost certainly a fosterage arrangement.  He was the natural son of Gartnait mac Áedáin, and his baptism preceded Morgan’s treachery and the rape of Arthur’s queen.

The conversion of Constantine reopened old wounds, reviving bitter memories of Arderydd and the discord fomented by religious extremism.  This renewal of sectarian hostilities meant that when Arthur needed his half-brother Gartnait’s support in tackling the renegade Morgan, it was pointedly withheld.

 

Camelot
Another plan was needed.  If Arthur could not approach Morgan by land – because Gartnait had closed the Highlands to him – he would have to attack from the sea.

A special fleet capable of transporting men and horses had to be assembled.  Geraint son of Erbin, one of the ‘Three Seafarers of the Island of Britain’, travelled up from faraway Cornwall to assist the expedition; he would be rewarded with his own Mabinogion romance and glowing tributes from the leading poets of the day.

Warriors gathered in Lothian:

 

Men came to Gododdin, laughing, persistent,
Bitter in battle, blades marshalled,
A brief year of peace they observed.

 

Thus sang Aneirin –

 

Mead they drank, yellow, sweet, ensnaring;
For a year there was many a joyous singer …
Wine and golden mead was their liquor
For a year; against the noble duo,
Three men and three score and three hundred gold-collared ones.

 

The ‘noble duo’ was, of course, the treacherous Morgan and the adulterous Gwenhwyfar.

The year-long delay can be explained by the need to induct the new arrivals into the cauldron cult.  They had to be ‘knighted’ and to swear the battle-oath – Mithras, we recall, was the god of oaths, while the root of the name Lugh would appear to have been luige, an ‘oath’ (Welsh llw, Old Celtic lugio-n).

The correct time for such initiations was Beltane, the great fire festival of early May which ushered in the summer and the battle season.  Later versions of the legends glossed over the pagan festivities by referring to the Christian festival of Whitsun, or Pentecost, which took place at around the same time.  Thus, in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the Round Table knights behold a vision of the ‘Holy Grail’ on Whitsunday.

Aneirin’s Y Gododdin states that the drinking-horn was carried to the warriors at the ‘court of Eidyn’.  This would seemingly indicate Edinburgh – Din Eidyn to the Britons.  But the territory of Lothian extended westwards into Manau Gododdin, along the River Forth, and it is there that we might start our search for Arthur’s headquarters.

A massive Roman base had been established a little to the north of the Antonine Wall.  The original fort was constructed by a detachment of the Twentieth Legion around a Pictish roundhouse overlooking the River Carron.  A short distance away stood a Romano-British temple, ‘built without lime or mortar’, which was recorded in 1293 as Furnus Arthuri – ‘Arthur’s Oven’.

The remains of the Roman fortifications near Falkirk were discussed by Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, in 1695:

 

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.

 

Similarly, William Stukeley reported in December 1720: ‘We may still discern the track of the streets, foundations of buildings and subterranean vaults.  The country people call it Camelon or Camelot.’

The Gaelic name for Camelon is Camlan (Scots Kemlin).  The more familiar name, ‘Camelot’, probably derives from Camulodunum, a Roman citadel dedicated to a Celtic war-god.  Robert Sibbald argued in 1707 that Camelon, near Falkirk, was once known as Camulodunum Brigantium – the ‘Camelot’ of North Britain.

The name ‘Camelot’ first occurs in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot tale, Le Chevalier de la Charette, where it seems to have been used synonymously with ‘Caerleon’, another name for Arthur’s court.  Properly, this was Caerllion – from Caer Legionis, the ‘City of the Legion’, which was also the location given by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum for Arthur’s ninth battle.  Camelon’s legendary associations, its size, strategic importance and close proximity to the ‘Round Table’ at Stirling, make the old Roman fort a strong candidate for the original ‘Camelot’.

 

Geraint
At the eastern end of the Antonine Wall stood another Roman fortress, formerly known as Kair Eden.  The headland of Bo’ness, adjacent to this ‘Fort of Eidyn’, was known to the Angles as Berwardeston – ‘Town of the Bear-Guardian’ – recalling the ‘bear’ element (arth) in the name of Arthur.

However, the common assumption that Arthur’s court was at Caerleon-on-Usk in South Wales should give us pause.  For one of the most easterly of the Roman fortifications in North Britain was on the bank of the River Esk, east of Edinburgh.  Like ‘Usk’, ‘Esk’ comes from a Celtic root word meaning ‘water’.

The fort at Inveresk covered 6.6 acres and had probably been a major cavalry station.  A substantial civilian settlement, incorporating what appears to have been an amphitheatre, grew up alongside the Roman fort.  Evidence of Mithraic worship was unearthed there in 2010 (see Chapter 6).

In his Inveresk Parish Lore from Pagan Times (1894), R. M’D. Stirling suggested that Aneirin had meant Inveresk when he sang of the ‘court of Eidyn’: ‘Here were a municipium and colonia, and the remains of a Roman villa prove a banqueting hall there also.’

A study of the Geraint and Enid romance points to the Grail cult having been active in this region.

The area was colonised by the Knights Templar and their Cistercian counterparts in the 12th century.  The Templars were granted the lands of the ‘Warrior’s Town’ – Balantrodach – a little further up the Esk by King David I in 1127, the Cistercian monks receiving the nearby site of Newbattle Abbey from the same Scottish king in 1140.

According to legend, King David was hunting near Edinburgh in 1128 when, close by Arthur’s Seat, he was startled by a huge white stag.  The miraculous vision of a shining crucifix between the stag’s antlers inspired the king to found Edinburgh’s Holyrood Abbey.

Another white deer was hunted along the banks of the River Esk by Robert the Bruce.  Sir William St Clair of nearby Rosslyn wagered his own head that the white hart would be caught before it crossed the March Burn.  Sir William won his bet, and the chief huntsman that day was knighted, thereafter displaying the hunting horn on his family crest.

The romance of Geraint and Enid opens with the Whitsuntide hunt for a white hart across the River Usk (or Esk) from the ‘City of the Legion’.  In Chrétien de Troyes’s version of the legend, Arthur and his barons then participate in a grand tournament ‘in the plain below Edinburgh’.

The story ends with Geraint son of Erbin entering the Enchanted Games.  Passing through a hedge of mist surrounded by heads impaled on stakes, he comes to a clearing.  A large apple-tree stands at the entrance to a tent.  A hunting horn hangs from a branch of the tree, and inside the tent sits a maiden in a golden chair.

Geraint sits in a chair facing the maiden and is instantly challenged by a knight, whom he overcomes.  As his prize, Geraint demands that the lethal game should no longer be played.  The defeated knight tells him to blow the hunting horn, ‘and when thou soundest it, the mist will vanish.’

Geraint son of Erbin was one of the last to be inducted into the cult, his encounter with death romanticised in his legend, which also features such luminaries as Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, Gwair Great Valour, Cai, Gwalchmai, Owain, Peredur, Goreu son of Constantine and Gwallog son of Lleënog.  The ‘game’ ceased following Geraint’s initiation because no one faced the ‘terrible desire’ after him.

But the memories remained, revived in the days of David I and the Bruce, and retold by the monks of Newbattle and Melrose – who perhaps glimpsed the significance of the horn, a blast of which signalled the initiate’s ‘rebirth’ after three days of enchanted imprisonment.

 

THE ROAD TO CAMLANN
The sources agree that Arthur’s final campaign began with an amphibious assault.

The Triads state that after ‘Medrod’ had united with the ‘Saxons and the Picts and the Scots’ in rebellion, Arthur ‘turned back with all that survived of his army, and succeeded by violence in landing on this Island in opposition to Medrod.’  Geoffrey of Monmouth remarked that ‘Mordred inflicted great slaughter on those who were trying to land’, but in the end, and ‘only with enormous difficulty, Arthur’s men occupied the sea-shore.’

Myrddin foresaw a ‘battle in Pictland’ and the arrival of seven ships from across the sea, with only seven Britons surviving the catastrophe.  Taliesin observed that three times the capacity of Arthur’s ship went on the sea, but only seven men returned – just as seven men survived Brân’s battle against a devious Irish king over the cauldron.

The fleet sailed in the summer of 594, probably from the mouth of the River Esk at Musselburgh (which the Romans, as R. M’D. Stirling noted, ‘compared not unfavourably with the Bay of Naples’).  The flotilla turned northwards, heading for what Taliesin called the ‘coast of Mordei’ – from mordai, ‘large houses’ or ‘courts’, the ‘Miathi’ Picts also being known as the Verturiones or ‘People of the Forts’.

Arthur’s companion, Drystan (‘Drostán’), had spent several years in Aberdeenshire, where he helped to establish a monastery at Old Deer after St Columba’s conference with Bruide in 565.  With Drystan as navigator and Geraint as admiral of the fleet, the armada sailed towards the great headland of Peterhead, 95 sea-miles from the mouth of the Firth of Forth.

They beached on a wide, curving stretch of sand due east of Morgan’s refuge in Strathbogie.  The Irish annals recorded the battle of ‘The Headland’ (Áird Sendoim), although Taliesin knew it by another name:

 

In Llongborth I saw Arthur,
Right bold, hewing with steel,
Emperor, leader and champion.

 

Llongborth (literally, ‘Ship-port’) appears on the map today as Long Haven, the name of an inlet at the north end of the beach where Arthur’s warriors came ashore.  The name is repeated in the Hill of Longhaven and Longhaven House, nearby.  Arthur himself is commemorated at Cave Arthur, south of the beach, and the Steps and Busks of Arthur Fowlie (foghlais, a ‘little stream’) to the north.

The beach is the Bay of Cruden – that is, the Bay of Steel or ‘Severe Affliction’.  Taliesin described the grain-fed horses charging ashore, ‘white with foam’, to become ‘jaded and gory from battle’.  There were ‘biers beyond number’, ‘men in terror, bloody heads’.  Morgan’s Pictish spearmen were braced for Arthur’s assault, and ‘before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter’.

‘In Llongborth,’ sang Taliesin, ‘Geraint was slain’.

The seafarer had travelled up from south-west Britain to join Arthur’s enterprise.  He brought the Gododdin warriors to the Bay of Cruden.  Then he passed through a hedge of mist lined with human heads – a Druidic ‘ghost fence’ at the head of the dunes, now marked on the map as Ardendraught or ‘rising ground of the enchantment’ (àrden + draoidheachd; also Scots draucht, an ‘artful scheme’) – and there his journey ended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth would later confuse Geraint with Gawain, believing that it was the latter who fell when ‘Mordred inflicted great slaughter on those who were trying to land’.  But Aneirin, who witnessed the campaign, paid Geraint a proper tribute in his Y Gododdin epic:

 

Geraint from the south gave a shout,
Lightning-white the gleam on his shield.
Lord of the spear, liberal lord,
Sound of the sea, praise of the sea,
The way of the sea was the way of Geraint:
A generous lord you were.

 

With the beachhead secured, Arthur and his men advanced inland to attack the Hill of Tillymorgan.

 

The boar-hunt
The Annals of Tigernach list four battles for the year 594:

 

The battle of Ratha in Druadh & the battle of Áird Sendoim.  The slaying of the sons of Áedán i.e. Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán was the victor, & the battle of Corann.

 

The first two battles were closely linked, the battle of Áird Sendoim (‘The Headland’, near Peterhead, on the ‘coast of Mordei’) being immediately followed by Arthur’s ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ of Morgan’s Tillymorgan hill-fort.  The Annals of Ulster described this as the ‘battle of Ràth in druaid’ (Early Irish ràth, a ‘residence surrounded by an earthen rampart’).  It took place in the ‘Sorcerer’s land’ (Early Irish drui – a ‘Druid’; genitive druad).  Morgan was considered ‘skilful’ (medrod) by the Britons, which would imply some level of Druidic knowhow – including, no doubt, the art of raising a ‘ghost fence’, such as that which Geraint fatally crossed above the sands of Cruden Bay.

The Arthurian legend of Culhwch and Olwen recalls that ‘when Arthur had landed in the country’ in pursuit of the fearsome king-turned-boar, Twrch Trwyth, ‘there came unto him the saints of Ireland and besought his protection.’  There were Irish monks at Old Deer, just west of Peterhead.  Arthur then went ‘as far as Esgeir Oerfel’ – the ‘Cold Ridge’ of the Grampians – ‘where the Boar Trwyth was with his seven young pigs.’

There followed three days of fighting, after which Arthur sent in his interpreter to parley.  Morgan’s spokesman vowed that he would yield nothing to Arthur: ‘“And tomorrow morning we will rise up hence, and we will go into Arthur’s country, and there we will do all the mischief that we can.”’

Morgan escaped with Gwenhwyfar, quite possibly in the Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy (‘Car Morgan Mwynfawr’), which became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain: ‘if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’  Arthur, meanwhile, sought to block the arrival of any hostile reinforcements from his half-brother’s Highland kingdom.

The evidence for this move on Arthur’s part is the presence of an Arthur’s Seat (Suiarthour in 1638; now it is just Suie) at the head of Glen Livet.  This was the channel, on the eastern edge of the Highlands, through which Gartnait’s warriors might have hastened to Morgan’s defence.

What happened next was hinted at by Myrddin:

 

I predict a summer of fury,
Contention of brothers,
Treachery out of Gwynedd:
The lofty exile and the good-pledge [i.e. ‘hostage’],
The tall one [Gwenhwyfar] from the land of Gwynedd.
Seven hundred-ships from Saxon-land,
Blown north by the wind;
And in Aberdeen they confer.

 

Morgan’s ‘Saxon’ allies – the Angles of Northumbria – sent seven ships, each carrying 100 men, to supplement his Miathi spears (Geoffrey of Monmouth later bumped this up to ‘eight hundred ships’).  Arthur almost certainly spied these reinforcements from the hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (an Arthur’s Cairn – Arthouriscairne – was recorded there in 1595), having paused at Percylieu (perc-y-llew, the ‘Lion’s Perch’; rendered as ‘Preseleu’ in the Culhwch and Olwen legend) en route to the coast.

The Gododdin were with Arthur, meaning that Lothian was barely defended.  Morgan and his supporters saw their opportunity to race south and seize Manau (Stirling) and the Edinburgh capital of Lothian.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen recounts the bloody pursuit of the Boar-King from the ‘Cold Ridge’ towards the ‘Vale of Manau’ (‘Dyffryn Amanw’).  Morgan’s spokesman had sworn that they would ‘go into Arthur’s country’ and there do ‘all the mischief that we can.’  And so Morgan, with his Saxons and his Picts, made for the crucial bulwark of Manau Gododdin.

Arthur and his battered war-band followed them into Angus.

 

Catraeth
Aneirin’s Y Gododdin has been misinterpreted for many years.  ‘Men went to Gododdin’, stated the poet; ‘Men went to Catraeth’.

It has long been assumed that Catraeth was the Roman fort of Cataractonium – now Catterick – and that the poem laments the annihilation of a Lothian war-band at an unknown battle in North Yorkshire.  But there is no evidence that such a battle took place.

The poem mentions landmarks that are many miles from Catterick – the Allaid or Hill of Alyth being one – and nobody has yet explained the presence of ‘Irishmen and Picts’ at the battle.  Furthermore, part of the poem refers to the death of Domnall the Speckled at the Battle of Strathcarron in AD 642.  Evidently, that section is an interpolation, but it is surely telling that a verse was added to Y Gododdin which dealt with a historical battle in Scotland and the killing of a Scottish king who was actually a nephew of Artúr mac Áedáin!

Taliesin, in one of his poems, cited the ‘men of Catraeth’ and their ‘victorious battle-lord’, Urien – the implication being that the ‘men of Catraeth’ were a sort of standing army, analogous with the fabled Round Table and sworn to defend a ‘battle-shore’ (cad + traeth).  Their ‘soldier-oath’ (cadwr + rhaith) bound them together, as it bound Arthur’s equestrian band and the warriors who worshipped Mithras, the patron of soldiers and oaths.  The ‘battle-shore’ these warriors protected (cadwriaeth – ‘guardianship’) would have been the Lothian shore of the Firth of Forth, repeatedly targeted by Germanic raiders, and the strife-torn plain of the River Forth (Manau Gododdin).

Aneirin’s elegy does not relate to a long-forgotten British disaster at Catterick.  It tells of Arthur’s last campaign, the roll call including such heroes as Owain and Cynon, Taliesin, Elffin, Peredur, Llywarch, Gwyddno, Geraint, Áedán and ‘Gwair the Tall’.

Catraeth was not the scene of the last battle.  The familiar name – ‘Camlann’ – reveals where it took place.

The earliest mention of ‘cam lann’ is found in the Welsh Annals.  These date from the 12th century, although they were probably copied from a 10th-century original.  Subsequently, the Triads of the Island of Britain referred to a ‘Battle of Camlan’ as having taken place after Arthur ‘succeeded by violence’ in landing on the coast.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote of a bloody landing, a cross-country pursuit and a climactic battle by the ‘River Camblam’.

The mistake made by many commentators is to presume that Camlan is a Welsh place-name.  We have already seen that Camlan is the Gaelic name for Camelon, where a ‘little ancient city’ had been founded by the Twentieth Legion in central Scotland, and so the insistence that Camlan can only be Welsh is irrational.

Within a year of the death of Arthur son of Áedán in the ‘battle of the Miathi’ in 594, the Northumbrian Angles had overrun much of the Old North.  By the following century their language, known as Northumbrian Old English, was established throughout southern Scotland; the Scots dialect evolved from this primitive form of English.

In Lowland Scots, the terms came, kem and camb all meant ‘comb’ (a kame could be a heap of stones or a mound formed by silt and granite beside a river).  Lan’, laan and lann all signified ‘land’.  Thus, in Anglo-Saxon, as well as its Scots derivative, Camlann meant ‘Comb-land’.

Artúr mac Áedáin was killed in a battle of Circenn (cír meaning ‘comb’ or ‘crest’; cenn, ‘heads’).  He died in Angus, the land of the ‘Comb-heads’.  As we have seen, the very word ‘Pict’ might be a corruption of ‘Pect’, from the Latin for ‘comb’.

The Strife of Camlann – ‘Gueith cam lann – therefore took place in the ‘Comb-land’ of the ‘Comb-heads’: the Pictish province of Circenn.

 

THE FINAL CONFLICT
The Heroic age, with all its prejudices, altered the stories of Arthur and the Grail.  But the people of Angus honoured his memory.  An Arthur’s Seat can be found at Dumbarrow, close to Dunnichen, near the town of Forfar.  Writing in 1845, the Reverend James Headrick remarked:

 

A confused tradition prevails of a great battle having been fought on the East Mains of Dunnichen, between Lothus, King of the Picts, or his son Mordred, and Arthur, King of the Britons, in which that hero of romance was slain.

 

This tradition was not as confused as Headrick imagined.  If propagandists hadn’t invested so much energy in spreading falsehoods about Arthur we might all know where his last battle was fought – and we would have recognised the Grail in the carved Pictish stones of the area.  The rival armies did indeed pass this way, standoffs and skirmishes punctuating their progress, until the battle lines were finally drawn up a few miles west of Dunnichen.

The Culhwch and Olwen legend tells us that Morgan was making for Llwch Tawy (Loch Tay).  Arthur and his men chased him into Cwm Cerwyn.  Geoffrey of Monmouth probably misread this as Caerwyn – ‘White-Castle’ – and invented a battle at Winchester, but Cwm Cerwyn really means ‘Vale of the Vat’ and points to the bealach through which the Alyth Burn flows at the foot of Barry Hill.  This was almost certainly the birthplace of Muirgein, Arthur’s sister, the Alyth Burn being known here as the Water of Quiech – as in cuach or quaich, a two-handled drinking cup.

The Gododdin had tailed Morgan’s army into the great valley of Strathmore.  Morgan finally ‘went between Tawy and Ewyas’, and there he was driven into a river ‘between Llyn Lliwan and Aber Gwy’.

The precise spot can be pinpointed.  Arthur, in one of his legendary guises, was ambushed when he rose from a cauldron or vat beside the River Cynfael.  This was a corruption of Cennfaeladh – ‘Shaved-Head’.  The river is now known as the Isla.

The River Isla flows through Strathmore to its meeting with the River Tay (‘Tawy’).  Between that confluence and a place identified as ‘Ewyas’ (probably Eassie, with its farmstead of Ewnie, six miles south of the Hill of Alyth) the epic boar-hunt came to a bloody end.

Midway between Eassie and the Tay, a T-junction is formed where the River Ericht (Areicht in 1570, from airecht – a ‘gathering’) joins the River Isla.  Aneirin’s Y Gododdin confirms that the final conflict took place at an aber or ‘river-mouth’.  Overlooking this confluence is a natural ridge or ‘kame’ known as Arthurbank.

The Bankhead of Kinloch, adjacent to Arthurbank, suggests that the south bank of the Isla here was a watery meadow or marshy ‘lake’; the farmstead known as Glenluie or Glenlouie, due east of the Kings of Kinloch, calls to mind the Welsh Llyn Lliwan (see next chapter).  This had once been the realm of Arthur’s grandfather: the town of Blairgowrie, four miles up the Ericht from the Arthurbank ridge, reminds us that this was Blàr Ghobhraidh, the ‘plain’ or ‘battlefield’ of Gabrán’s land.

Llew Skilful Hand was attacked on the bank of the Cynfael river as he stood with one foot on the rim of a cauldron and the other on the back of a goat.  Curiously, a mosaic dating from 1165 in the Italian cathedral of Otranto features ‘Rex Arturus’ riding what appears to be a goat.

In Welsh, a ‘goat’ is gafr (Gaelic gobhar, which is also a ‘branching river’).  The ‘goat’ was Arthur’s grandfather, Gabrán.

With one foot in his grandfather’s land, Arthur met his destiny at the mouth of the Ericht.  As Aneirin remarked, rather ominously:

 

No one living will relate what befell
Lliw, what came about on Monday at the Lliwan lake.

 

The ford
This was border territory.  The junction of the Ericht with the Isla is marked on the map as ‘Aberbothrie’, in which the Celtic place-name expert, W.J. Watson, detected the Roman name for the River Forth – Boderia.

The Forth (Gwerid in Welsh) marked the original boundary between the Britons and the Picts.  Arthur had effectively pushed the Forth northwards when he killed Galam ‘Chief-of-Alyth’ and reclaimed his grandfather’s land of Gowrie (Gouerin in the Middle Ages).  The Isla therefore became the ‘new’ Forth.

The new border was marked by a ‘red cross’ or pillar-stone which was recorded in 1534 as standing between the Hill of Alyth and Bamff (Banbha – ‘Ireland’), approximately five miles north of Aberbothrie.  One side of this stone depicted a man with a sword pointing at his men; the other showed ‘ane picture of ane schier with the manner of ane ball within the plaits and schering of the schiers’ (Ramsay, Bamff Charters A.D. 1232-1703).

The Bamff pillar-stone clearly marked where the land of Arthur (the man with the sword pointing to his head) met the land of the Pictish ‘Comb-heads’ (the picture of the shears cutting the hair in Mohawk fashion).  The deadly mission undertaken by Arthur and his men in Culhwch and Olwen was to seize ‘the comb, razor and shears’ which were ‘between the two ears’ of the Boar-King, Twrch.  Morgan had adopted the boar’s-crest tonsure of the ‘Miathi’ Picts.  Arthur was after his scalp.

The pursuit of the king-turned-boar had brought both armies into Strathmore.  Arthur confronted his nemesis at the ‘mouth’ of the Ericht.  The place where last ditch talks were held is described in the Mabinogion tale of the Dream of Rhonabwy.

In his hallucinatory dream, Rhonabwy crosses a great plain with a river running through it.  He meets a man who identifies himself as Iddog son of Mynyo, also known as the ‘Churn of Britain’, for it was he who provoked the ‘battle of Camlan’.

Together, Rhonabwy and Iddog approach the Ford of the Cross (Rhyd-y-Groes).  An army is encamped on either side of the road, and Arthur is seated with his counsellors on a little flat islet beside the ford.  Iddog draws Rhonabwy’s attention to the ring, set with a stone, which the Emperor Arthur wears, since the gemstone will ‘enable thee to remember that thou seest here tonight’.

The ford was also mentioned by Aneirin as the ford of the ‘grey’ or ‘holy mount’ (‘rhyd benclwyd’).

A ford did indeed cross the Isla at its junction with the Ericht.  In his Agriculture of Perthshire, published in 1799, Rev. Dr Robertson noted that a ‘large Druidical temple’ had been discovered at Coupar Grange, adjacent to this ford.  The temple consisted of two concentric walls, with a paved way leading from east to west and a ‘large free stone, standing erect between the circles’, rising several feet above the pavement.  In Christian times, this stone might have been rebranded as a cross – hence the ‘Ford of the Cross’ in Rhonabwy’s Dream and Aneirin’s ford of the ‘holy mount’ (or ‘Greymount’, as it appears on the map near Aberbothrie).

The ford passed immediately to the west of an oval-shaped islet, measuring 100m x 40m, which lies close to the south bank of the Isla, below the Arthurbank ridge.  The Dream of Rhonabwy has Arthur seated on a flat islet beside the Ford of the Cross on a boundary river, his troops spread out along the riverbank.  Aneirin, meanwhile, had ‘Gwair the Tall’ in position ‘at the ford of the holy/grey mount’ (‘foremost his horses, / Far-reaching his fame, perforated his armour’) before he was ‘buried under turf’.

This was at the aber or ‘mouth’ of the Boderia – the boundary of the Gododdin’s border.

 

Churn of Britain
Morgan and his warriors – ‘some of them pagans and some Christians’, wrote Geoffrey of Monmouth – occupied the north side of the Isla and the timber-laced fortress on Barry Hill: this vitrified hill-fort, Dum Bhairraidhe (pronounced ‘doom varri’), was later romanticised as the ‘Isle of Glass’ or Isle de Voirre, where Gwenhwyfar was held prisoner.

Arthur’s horsemen were ranged along the south bank of the Isla, from the Roman fort at Cardean to the ridge of Arthurbank.  Arthur then moved onto neutral ground – the islet in the river – in order to parley.  But the talks failed.  Iddog explained why to Rhonabwy:

 

I was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrod his nephew, at the battle of Camlan … and through my desire for battle, I kindled strife between them, and stirred up wrath, when I was sent by Arthur the Emperor to reason with Medrod … and to seek for peace, lest the sons of the Kings of Britain, and of the nobles, should be slain.

 

In his Y Gododdin poem, Aneirin also indicated that the peace talks got nowhere:

 

The little men scorned the sanctity of the temple:
The wrath of the fire, strong that protection.
Tuesday, they put on their black gear.
Wednesday, they made ready their armour.
Thursday, it was inevitable, they said.
Friday, the struggle ensued.
Saturday, it was clear they were acting in concert.
Sunday, their blades red with action.
Monday, as far as the Peak of the Pasture
there was slaughter to see.

 

The ‘Peak of the Pasture’ (‘benn clun’) points westward from Barry Hill, and the Hill of Alyth, to the Forest of Clunie (Cluainidh – ‘Meadowy’; Early Irish clúain, Welsh clun) on the west bank of the Ericht.  The Baden Burn runs along the flank of Benachally hill, above the Glasclune (‘Green-Meadow’) Burn.  The latter flows into the Morganston Burn, through Morgie Den, at the edge of the Clunie forest, passing the field of the Morganstone before it joins the River Ericht north of Blairgowrie.

Arthur’s pleas for peace had been twisted into provocations.  There was now no avoiding the battle.

The Dream of Rhonabwy states that Arthur then moved his men into position ‘below Caer Faddon’.  This was the fort of the ‘Little-Boar’ (Baeddan), atop Barry Hill.

From the raised ground of Belmont, above Balmacron (Balmachreon in 1661, possibly from baile ma chridhean, ‘place of the gallant favourite’), Arthur stared across the River Isla at the Allaid or Hill of Alyth and Morgan’s rebel army.  He had been lured into a trap – like the blessed ‘Raven’, Brân, who was invited to peace talks by a religious Irish prince only to find himself surrounded by hidden enemies.

St Columba, meanwhile, summoned his monks and told them, ‘Let us now pray fervently to the Lord for this people and for King Áedán, for even now they are going into battle.’

A little later, he announced: ‘Now the barbarians are turned in flight and victory is granted to Áedán, though it is not a happy one.’

We know that Áedán won the fight but lost his sons, including Artúr, in the ‘battle of the Miathi’, just as St Columba had predicted.

The Triads indicate that Arthur divided his force into three, probably to attack both flanks of Morgan’s army.  Peredur died at the ‘Pigsty Castle’ or ‘Bloody Fort’.  Lleënog perhaps found the secret passage which led into the fortress on Barry Hill from the Balloch below: a later tradition has ‘Lancelot’ going to war with the Northumbrian Angles at Guinevere’s request and gaining access to their stronghold by way of an underground cavern.

But while Arthur waited at Belmont for Morgan’s panicked spearmen to come streaming towards him, his real enemies were approaching from the rear.

KEY SOURCES
Giles, JA 1841 The Works of Gildas and Nennius, Translated from the Latin. London: James Bohn.

Green, CW 1998 Jocelyn, a monk of Furness: The Life of Kentigern (Mungo). New York: Fordham University.

Headrick, J 1845 ‘Parish of Dunnichen’: New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol XI. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons.

Morris, J 1973 The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. London: The History Book Club.

M’Pherson, JG 1885 Strathmore: Past and Present. Perth: S. Cowan & Co.

Stirling, R M’D 1894 Inveresk Parish Lore from Pagan Times.  Musselburgh: T.C. Blair.

Warrack, A 1911 A Scots Dialect Dictionary: The Words in Use from the Latter Part of the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day. London: W & R Chambers.

Simon Andrew Stirling trained as an actor at LAMDA before turning professional as a writer.  He has written for several hit TV drama series, as well as adapting an opera libretto and providing scripts for the Open University.  An avid historical researcher, he is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero (The History Press, 2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013).  He lives in Worcestershire, UK.

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