The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 11

Dec 18th, 2013 | By | Category: The Grail

11 – Saints and Stones

Le corbeau dit:- Oiseaux chantez!

Vous n’avez rien à regrettez:

 Vous mourûtes en ces campagnes,

Mais nous, si loin de la Bretagne.

 Breton Song

THE CRISIS came at the confluence of a river.  The future of Britain hung in the balance, teetering on the shoulders of a battered band of famous warriors and their leader, the ‘emperor’ Arthur.  There was treachery and betrayal in the air.

Much of southern Britain was already under Saxon control.  The battle for North Britain, however, was still raging.

Artúr mac Áedáin, the first ‘Arthur’ on record, was around when the Britons finally joined forces to counter the threat posed by the Angles of Northumbria.  Taliesin the bard had promoted the young Arthur as ‘the longed-for one of the tribe’, and so successful were his military campaigns in the North that by AD 590, the Angles were clinging by their fingertips to their coastal redoubts at Lindisfarne and Bamburgh.

Just four years later, the first Arthur on record was killed in a battle of Circenn, fighting the ‘Miathi’ Picts.  Within a year of that battle much of the Old North had been overrun by the resurgent Angles.

What happened to Arthur in the vale of Strathmore had irreversible consequences.  His death removed a vital obstacle to the Germanic invaders – those Angles who went on to found Engla land.  The native Britons were soon confined to such regions as Wales and their shrinking territories in the North: Lothian, which fell to the Angles in 638, and Strathclyde, which was eventually subsumed into the kingdom of Scotland.

The death of Arthur meant nothing less than the end of Britain.

On the face of it, much of the internal strife which culminated in Arthur’s last battle was focussed on the cauldron of rebirth.

We remember – for example – that Artúr’s half-brother, Gartnait, buried a vat of silver and gold on the ‘Island of the Son of Cian’ (Cian being the Irish form of Cai, Arthur’s bodyguard and foster-father) when his own son, Cano, went to Ireland.  King Áedán subsequently invaded the island, massacred its inhabitants and took the precious cauldron ‘to his own store-room’.

Arthur and his heroes wrest the cauldron of Diwrnach from Ireland by violence in Culhwch and Olwen.  In the Mabinogion legend of the ‘blessed Raven’,  Brân, the Irish king Matholwch (‘Prayer-Sort’) explains that he is familiar with the cauldron.  He dismisses the warriors it has produced as ‘hated and unwelcome’, whereas Brân, the ‘crowned king’ of Britain, regards those same warriors as ‘the best that anyone has seen.’

Matholwch accepts the cauldron as a peace offering.  The Irish king and his followers then mistreat Brân’s sister.  When Brân discovers this, he launches a fleet of warships against Ireland.  The Britons are lured into a purpose-built hall on the promise of talks, but they soon discover that the Irish king has surrounded them with warriors hidden in sacks.

The Irish have the advantage of the cauldron, until Brân’s brother destroys it.  Only seven Britons survive to carry Brân’s head to its burial mound at a ‘fair royal place overlooking the sea’.

Le Chevalier Bran

When Lothian finally fell to the Angles, British refugees fled across the sea to Armorica – now Brittany, the ‘Lesser Britain’ – taking their memories of Arthur with them.  They thought of their homeland as the ‘Lion’s Land’, Leonais, which became the ‘Lyonesse’ of the later romances.

A Breton folksong was published in 1842 under the title, Le Chevalier Bran ou le Prisonnier de Guerre – ‘The Horseman Bran, or the Prisoner of War’.  It begins:

À la bataille de Kerlouan

                        Fut blessé le chevalier Bran!
                        À Kerlouan, sur l’océan,
                        Le petit fils de Bran le Grand.
                        Prisonnier, bien que victorieux,
                        Il dont franchir l’océan bleu.

[‘At the battle of Kerlouan, the Horseman Bran was wounded!  At Kerlouan, by the sea, the grandson of Bran the Great.  Captured, even though he was victorious, he was taken across the sea.’]

The song describes how the wounded Bran was incarcerated in a tower beyond the sea.  He begged a messenger to take his gold ring to his mother with the request that she should come to set him free.  If she agreed, her ship was to fly a white flag; if she refused, the flag should be black (this motif, borrowed from Greek myth, was also woven into the French romances of Drystan or ‘Tristan’, whose native land was ‘Lyonesse’).

The Breton song reveals that an oak-tree stood over the battlefield at Kerlouan:

C’est là que les Saxons ont pris
                        La fuite quand Even surgit.
[‘It was there that the Saxons were put
To flight when Even suddenly appeared.’]

Birds gather every night at this oak, singing hauntingly – all except for a white female crow and a young male raven.  The raven tells the birds to sing: ‘You have nothing to regret; You died in this country – But we, so far from Britain.’

The Arthurian elements in the folksong are unmistakable.  A horseman named Bran was wounded and taken hostage, even though the victory was his.  He was the grandson of ‘Bran le Grand’, just as Artúr was the grandson of Gabrán.  The ‘Saxons’ were put to flight by the sudden appearance of ‘Even’ (Owain son of Urien – or ‘Yvain’, as Chrétien de Troyes called him).  Owain’s presence at the climactic battle is attested in Y Gododdin, while the Dream of Rhonabwy portrays Arthur and Owain as being at loggerheads before the conflict of ‘Camlan’.

Like Arthur, the wounded Bran was borne away across the sea and his death mourned by a ‘white crow’ (the literal meaning of ‘Brânwen’, who was the sister of the ‘blessed Raven’, Brân).

We know from the Life of Columba that Áedán was the victor in the ‘battle of the Miathi’, although two of his sons (‘Artúr and Eochaid Find’) died there.  The Irish annals similarly report that Áedán won the battle but lost his sons (‘Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr’, according to the Annals of Tigernach; the Annals of Ulster have only ‘Bran and Domangart’ dying in the ‘battle of Circenn’).

The Horseman Bran – later romanticised as ‘Bron’ or ‘Brons’ – was obviously Arthur, spirited away as a ‘prisoner of war’ from his last battle, which was fought at ‘Kerlouan’ or Kêr Leon, the ‘Lion’s Fort’, as W.J. Watson rendered it in his Celtic Place-names of Scotland.

Kerlouan is a commune in the Finistèrre department of Brittany.  The place-name had followed the British refugees from Lothian to their exile in northern France.  It derives from kêr (Welsh caer) and the name of St Elouan, otherwise known as Luan or Llywan.

St Elouan is an elusive figure.  He was known in Scotland and Ireland as Lughaidh – also Moluag – and is thought to have been an Irish ‘Pict’ of the 6th century.  Variations on his name include: Lua, Molua, Mo-Luóc, Moloch and Murlach (meaning ‘kingfisher’ or ‘fishing-basket’ in Gaelic).  He is most famously associated with the island of Lismore, which he supposedly won by beating St Columba to it in a desperate race, and he is credited with bringing Christianity to the northern Picts, just as Columba spread the Gospel among the southern ‘Miathi’.  His death is ascribed to 592 – two years before Arthur fell in the ‘battle of the Miathi’.

A charter of 1544 suggests that ‘Saint Moloc’ was the patron saint of Argyll, the original kingdom of the Scots.  He was also commemorated at Clatt, near Percylieu in Aberdeenshire (see previous chapter), and his ‘Simmalogue Fair’ was held at Alyth in Angus.

Indeed, the only place where Elouan/Molua was venerated as ‘Luan’ was at Alyth, where the Church of St Luan now stands in Alexander Street.  The Alyth Arches are all that remain of an earlier church, dedicated to Luan, which was built on the site of a chapel believed to date back to the time of Arthur.

Kerlouan, where the horseman Bran was wounded, compares with Caerleon, the legendary court of Arthur, and indicates a fortified enclosure named after ‘Luan’.  One such ‘Fort of Luan’ evidently existed at Alyth, where the last battle of Artúr mac Áedáin was fought.  The name also occurs in the Culhwch and Olwen legend, where Arthur and his men corner the monstrous boar at a river ‘between Llyn Lliwan and Aber Gwy’ (Lliwan or Llywan being the Welsh form of ‘Luan’).

A Scottish tradition recalls that Arthur’s wayward queen was held in the ‘glassy’ fort on Barry Hill and then buried at Meigle, adjacent to the ‘Glenluie’ position held by Arthur before he was wounded.  The floodplain of the River Isla was marshy here – hence the ‘Luan Lake’ (Llyn Lliwan), now indicated on the map by the Bankhead and Kings of Kinloch, between Meigle and Arthurbank.

Aneirin’s Y Gododdin implies that the battle came to an end on a Monday.  In Scottish Gaelic, luan means ‘Monday’ (or ‘moon’).  It is also the word for ‘Doomsday’.

The name that hovers behind all of these Luan references is Llew – ‘Lion’ (Gaelic leóghann, pronounced ‘li-aw-unn’).  Like ‘Raven’, ‘Lion’ was one of the initiatory grades in the cult of Mithras, and it is therefore telling to note that St Columba absent-mindedly blessed a knife belonging to Molua (a ‘grandson of Brian’), which was to be used to slaughter bulls.  Columba then hurriedly prayed that the blade would ‘never wound men or cattle’, so that Molua was unable even to puncture the bull’s hide.  The smiths of Columba’s monastery melted down the knife and applied a thin coating of its metal to all their iron tools.

What this story suggests is that the weapons with which Arthur (‘Molua’ = ‘My Luan’) was attacked were partly composed of the same material which had been used in re-enactments of the Mithraic bull-slaying ritual.  Arthur’s magic had been turned against him: he was slain by his own sacrificial blade.

Notably, the cauldron was also present when the adulterous wife of Llew Skilful Hand tricked him into demonstrating his vulnerability.  Llew rose from the cauldron on the bank of a river and was pierced by a poisoned spear.  The spear had been a year and a day in the making because it could only be worked on during Sunday services.

The Angles were not the sole beneficiaries of Arthur’s death.  There were also ‘Scots, Picts and Irish’ ranged against him – ‘some of them pagans and some Christians’.

The Church would conveniently forget that Christians had helped to bring down Arthur.  But the Triads remind us that three battles – ‘Goddau’ (Catlowdy), Arderydd and ‘Camlan’ – were ‘futile’: that is, they were civil conflicts caused by fanaticism and the determination of one religion to stamp out another.

The battle of Camlann was fought, not just over the body of Britain, but over its soul.  Though Heroic age propagandists would later insist that Arthur and his knights received a vision of the ‘Holy Grail’ and sought it as a symbol of Christian grace, the reality was very different.  Before the ‘terrible desire’ (sant grathail) could be transmuted into a Christian chalice, it first had to be neutralised – destroyed – along with the warrior-poets it had initiated.  St Columba, an Irish prince of the ‘Prayer-Sort’, considered these cauldron-born warriors ‘hated and unwelcome’, even though they were all that stood between Britain and oblivion.

Columba had taken possession of the Isle of Iona at Beltane in the year 563, having been exiled to the Scottish colony for raising a rebellion against the Irish High-King, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, who was closely related to Arthur’s foster-father, Cai or ‘Cian’.  On the 30th anniversary of his arrival on Iona, Columba watched as his pagan rivals celebrated their Beltane rites on ‘a rock across our island Sound’ (this would have been Eilean nam Ban, the ‘Island of the Women’).  Displaying the paranoia which is symptomatic of the Heroic age mentality, Columba declared that the pagans were out to get him.  Even after thirty years he had failed to rid the Scottish kingdom of its ancient traditions and the warrior-cult of the cauldron.

A little over a year later, Arthur was dead – ambushed by the ‘hidden warriors’ of the Irish prince.

The records state that Columba had predicted this: Arthur son of Áedán would ‘fall in battle, slain by enemies’, while the mysterious Gúaire son of Áedán would be killed by a companion – his own knife! – whom he did not suspect.

That other prophet, Myrddin Wyllt, foresaw the costly treachery of the ‘white-headed one’ (Columba was in his seventies) whose scheming would result in the deaths of all but seven of Arthur’s men.  Taliesin would soon denounce the ‘chief of baptism’ who had broken ‘our shield’ against the Miathi, leaving Britain defenceless.

Two of the followers of Columba who conspired against Arthur were themselves described as saints.  They appear, suitably disguised, in Culhwch and Olwen, where they side with the rebellious Morgan.

One is named Llwydog Gofynniad – the ‘Holy One of Govan’ or the ‘Smith’.  When Arthur’s men chase the Boar-King south into Angus, this ‘Holy One’ escapes to Ystrad Yw, the ‘Vale of Yews’ (probably Iona, the ‘yewy’ isle or ‘plain of yews’).

The other is designated Grugyn Gwallt Ereint – ‘Ant Silver Hair’.  In Culhwch and Olwen, he flees to ‘Din Tywi’.

Aneirin’s poem of Arthur’s last battle also mentions Grugyn:

Season of storm, storm season,
The spears ranked before the royal champion.
From Din Dywydd they came,
Passionate in their piety,
Grave in their godliness,
Keen as bees.
A complete hundred-man army,
Grugyn’s shield.
Before the bull of battle
The vanguard gave way.

This compares with a parallel stanza in the older version of Y Gododdin:

A standing stone on open ground
In the manner of Lleu’s land:
The boundary of the Gododdin border.
To battle, to battle, blow the horn, blow the horn!
A tempest of pilgrims*, a righteous pilgrim army,
Swarming blades measured in a broad line.
From Din Dyrwyrt they attacked,
Grugyn’s fellowship – before the battle-crisis,
The front line broke.

[*trameryn – could mean ‘foreigner’, as in ‘across the sea’, or a ‘wayfarer’ who travels to and fro.]

Grugyn appears in Culhwch and Olwen as the Boar-King’s mouthpiece who separates from Morgan’s army and makes his way to ‘Din Tywi’.  According to Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, meanwhile, Grugyn’s human ‘shield’, his ‘fellowship’, attacked from ‘Din Dywydd’.

Both Din Tywi and Din Dywydd suggest a ‘Fort of David’ (Welsh Dewi, formerly Dewydd).  This should remind us that Iddog, the ‘Churn of Britain’ who, in the Dream of Rhonabwy, admits that he caused the Battle of Camlann by twisting Arthur’s conciliatory words, was styled ‘son of Mynyo’.  The Welsh name for the site of St David’s community in south-west Wales was Mynyw (Latin Menevia).

Some of Arthur’s closest companions were associated with Tyddewi, the ‘House of David’ in Dyfed.  Pedr (‘Pedrog’) and his son Bedwyr (‘Bedivere’) were its overlords.  St Kentigern (otherwise Cynon, whom Aneirin praised as a ‘foe-searing serpent’) sought sanctuary at St David’s when he was hounded from Lothian by ‘Duke Morgan’.  It is probable that Arthur himself was raised by his foster-father Cai at the ‘Red Fort’ – Caer Goch – close to St David’s little city at Mynyw.

Another of Arthur’s heroes came from South Wales.  St Cadog almost certainly spent time at St David’s: a medieval Life of Cadog reveals that Cadog reacted angrily when David was elected Archbishop of Wales.  The same Life describes Cadog’s wanderings in North Britain, his founding of a monastery in central Scotland and the duplicitous trick he played on Arthur, Cai and Bedwyr when the ‘most illustrious king of Britannia’ demanded compensation for the killing of three of his soldiers.

Cadog was originally known as Cadfael (‘Battle-Prince’).  After he underwent his own cauldron initiation in North Wales he was given the Druidic-sounding name, Collen (‘Hazels’).  He appears to have acted as foster-father to Arthur’s queen: Croes Gwenhwyfar (‘Gwenhwyfar’s Cross’) stands in Collen’s parish of Llangollen.  In Scotland, he became known as the ‘Little-Cat’, Catán or Cathan – a name which compares with the ‘Cathen’ who conspired to drive Kentigern out of Lothian when Morgan the Wealthy seized the throne from Cynon’s father, Clydno of Edinburgh, in about 559.

He was also known by a shortened form of his name as ‘Docus the Briton’.  This found its way into Gaelic as M’Aedóc – ‘Madóc the pilgrim’ in the Irish Leabhar Breac – and it was as ‘My Aedóc’ that Cadog was honoured at St Madoes in Gowrie and at Kilmadock, the ‘Hermitage of My Docus’, near Doune, north of Stirling.  The 9th-century Martyrology of Óengus referred to him as Mo Maedóc mind nAlban – ‘My Maedóc, Scotland’s diadem’.

Traditionally, St Cadog was one of the three knights who became ‘keepers of the Grail’.

The Fort
The Gaelic Aedóc became Iddog in medieval Welsh.  It was ‘Iddog son of Mynyo’ who provoked the battle in Circenn.  He was Arthur’s trusted companion, Cadog, but he was under orders to thwart any peace talks and thus he became, in a sense, Morgan’s spokesman – the ant-like ‘Grugyn’ who vowed to do as much mischief as he could.

In the Dream of Rhonabwy he explains:

… three nights before the end of the battle of Camlan I left them, and went to the Llech Las [‘Grey Stone’] in North Britain to do penance.  And there I remained doing penance seven years, and after that I gained pardon.

The Grey Stone still exists.  It is a landmark boulder which lies on the bank of the River Teith, a mile from the old Roman fort at Doune.

The name of the Teith possibly derives from the Welsh taith (a ‘message’ or ‘pilgrimage’).  The river is formed by two waters, one of which emerges from Loch Venachar as Eas Gobhain – ‘Cascade of the Smith’ – and runs past Kilmadock and the promontory of Doune before its meeting with the River Forth near Stirling.

The Life of Cadog states that the saint was ordered to spend seven years at ‘a certain fort … which is said to be situated in the middle of Scotland’.  This ‘certain fort’ was almost certainly at Doune (Gaelic An Dùn: ‘The Fort’).  The time Cadog spent there is commensurate with the seven years penance which Iddog did at the Grey Stone nearby, and according to tradition St Cadog passed seven years at the ‘Hermit’s Croft’, where be built his own church beside the River Teith.  The site of his ruined chapel is by the mouth of the Annet Burn (annaid – an abandoned ‘mother-church’), below a waterfall known as the Cauldron Linn.  It was perhaps a northern offshoot of St David’s community at Mynyw, its alternative name (Din Dyrwyrt) suggesting a ‘Fort of Penance’ (cf. dirwyol, ‘pertaining to a fine’).

Iddog confesses to Rhonabwy that he quit the field ‘three nights before the end of the battle of Camlan’ – presumably on the Friday, after the negotiations had failed and, as Aneirin remarked, ‘the struggle ensued’.  He had made sure that the conflict was not averted; he then slipped away to his settlement near Doune, approximately forty miles from Alyth.  It is conceivable that he took the cauldron with him for ‘safe keeping’.

Warrior-monks had travelled up from Mynyw in distant Dyfed.  On the Sunday, they celebrated Mass and the poisoned spear that would take Arthur’s life was prepared.  They then set out on their mission to attack Arthur whilst two-thirds of his force was assaulting Morgan’s stronghold: the vitrified fortress on Barry Hill.

The panic still sounds in Aneirin’s voice –
To battle, to battle, blow the horn, blow the horn!
Just as the battle was being won across the River Isla, Arthur – the Mithraic ‘bull of battle’ – was attacked by Cadog’s ‘fellowship’.

Aneirin indicated where the attack took place:
A standing stone on open ground …
The boundary of the Gododdin border.

A large cup-marked megalith stands just south of Arthur’s position at Belmont.  It is misleadingly known as ‘Macbeth’s Stone’, although it was Arthur who was attacked here, on the border of the Britons’ territory.

The front rank of his guard scattered.  Fighting for his life, Arthur battled his way across the level ground of Camno to Arthurbank, a mile to the west.  Numerous cropmarks discovered near the farmhouse of East Camno hint at a host of burials in this fertile plain.

A monolith stood at the east end of the Arthurbank ridge, until it was taken down in the 1790s and used in the building of Arthurstone House.

Known as the Arthurstone, it marked the spot where Arthur fell.

The Irish sources associate Cadog (‘Maedóc’) with the monastery of Fid Dúin in Kilkenny.  However, we learn from the Life of Columba that the monastic establishment on Iona had a daughter-house on the Scottish mainland.  This was known in Latin as cella Diuni – the ‘Hermitage of Doune’ – and the name of its prior was given as Cailtan, the Gaelic equivalent of Collen.

An Arthurian connection is evident in the Life of Cadog, wherein the saint has a bizarre encounter with one Caradog Pendiuin, a ‘malicious’ guard and kinsman of Cadog’s, whose epithet meant ‘Chief-of-Doune’.  He also appears in Welsh legend as the ‘Caradog son of Brân’ who was left in charge of Britain when Brân the Blessed went to war with the treacherous Irish prince.  Caradog’s heart broke when he and his fellows were attacked by a sword which hacked at them from a veil of mist (Welsh caddug – ‘darkness’, ‘fog’).

St Columba, we are told, had foreknowledge of the imminent death of his prior on the mainland.  The Life of Cadog confirms this.  St Cadog had been miraculously ‘translated’ to the ‘Beneventan’ monastery (the Latin name points to a town or market on the ‘horn’ of land, which aptly describes the Fort at Doune).  Cadog was then allowed to choose martyrdom.

He was told that ‘a certain cruel king’ would ravage his monastery, and a ‘certain soldier, leaving his confederates, will enter the monastery, and piercing thee with the point of a spear will cruelly slay thee over the altar.’

Returning to the Irish annals, we remember that after the battles of ‘The Headland’ (Cruden Bay), the ‘Fort in Druid-land’ (Tillymorgan) and ‘Circenn’ (Angus), in which Arthur was killed, there was a ‘battle of Corann’.  The term corran indicates a tapering promontory, like the ‘horn’ of land upon which Doune stands.  The last of the battles of 594 was therefore an overspill of the conflict in Strathmore: it was a revenge attack on St Cadog’s monastery in retaliation for the assassination of Arthur.

Corroboration of this can be found in the poem Pa gwr (‘What Man is the Porter?’), which is essentially the death-song of Arthur and Cai.  The two warriors apply for entry to the Otherworldly hall of heroes and cite their many battles.  The poem ends abruptly, with Cai heading off to tackle a ferocious cat:

His wonderful shield went
Against cath palug.
When the people inquire
Who killed cath palug?
Nine score wild
And angry ones were its meat.
Nine score princes …

This monstrous creature, which killed 140 of Arthur’s men, was properly the ‘cat priest’ (cath + balog), otherwise Cadog or Cathan.

The hagiography of Cadog, who had now acquired the epithet ‘Wise’, states that ‘the aforesaid tyrant, having collected his army, wasted the suburbs contiguous to the town’ and then ‘one of the horsemen … with impetuous speed and fuming wrath pierced him [Cadog] with a lance as he stood by the altar’.  Cadog was buried nearby.  A ‘great basilica’ was built over his tomb, ‘into which no Briton is permitted to enter.’

Cai did not long survive this act of retribution.  He appears in the list of Arthur’s 24 horsemen as the ‘Brave-Servant’, Drudwas.  An ancient legend claims that ‘Drudwas’ was mistakenly slain by his own ‘griffin’ warriors.

Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, meanwhile, refers to Cadog’s hermitage as Maedóc’s tent or ‘tabernacle’, and remarks:

The Gododdin spoke truly after their exertions:
When they returned from Madog’s tabernacle,
But one man in a hundred would come back.

St Cadog was just one of the two treacherous individuals named in Culhwch and Olwen, where he masquerades as ‘Grugyn Silver Hair’ – the same Grugyn (‘Ant’) whose fellowship attacked Arthur on the last day of the Battle of Camlann.

What, then, of that other figure, glossed as Llwydog Gofynniad, the ‘Holy One of Govan’, who escaped to the ‘Vale of Yews’?

The Smith
The betrayal of Arthur began with the ‘conversion of Constantine’, which turned Gartnait mac Áedáin against the rest of his family.  Constantine sought refuge in an Irish monastery, remaining there until he blew his own cover.  He then returned to claim the throne of Strathclyde in about 614.

St Constantine was principally associated with Govan (Baile a’ Ghobhainn, the ‘Town of the Smith’) near Glasgow; a ‘Chapel of my Smith’ (Cill mo Ghobhannan) also adjoined St Columba’s monastery on Iona.  The early Arthurian sources hint at the involvement of a ‘Smith’ in the death of Arthur.

Both Brân and Llew were slain by poisoned spears.  So, too, was Arthur.  The anonymous Vera historia de morte Arthuri (circa 1200) depicts the emperor leaving the battlefield with a heavy heart, ‘although he had gained the victory’.  Leaning on his shield, he sat down and told his companions to remove his armour.

A tall, pleasant-looking youth then approached on horseback.  In his right hand he held a shaft of elm:

… which was firm, and neither twisted or knotty but smooth, with a sharp point like a lance, since at some time in the past it had been hardened with fire by a smith and made harder by being tempered in water.  It had been dipped in adder’s venom, so that it wounded less by the force of the thrust than by the poison …

This ‘high-spirited’ youth rode up to Arthur and ‘cast the weapon just described at the king, adding to his already serious wounds a yet more grievous one.’  Arthur’s death was assured: ‘And he gave the realm of Britain to Constantine.’

But while Arthur and his alter egos – Brân and Llew – were pierced by a poisoned spear, Llew’s aquatic twin, Dylan Eil Ton (‘Ocean Son of Wave’), was the victim of a fatal blow which was dealt by his uncle Gofannon (‘Smith’).  Taliesin sang of this:

A rebellious groom, poison-inspired, worked up by fury,
Piercing Dylan, a malignant church, violence visited upon us.

The identity of this avuncular figure who slew his own nephew – the obscure ‘twin’ of Llew – is alluded to in the Life of Cadog.  There, we read that ‘a certain very brave leader of the British’ named Ligessoc son of Eliman had killed three of Arthur’s soldiers.  He was given sanctuary for seven years at Cadog’s monastery.

Arthur finally brought his army to a ‘very large river’, where Cadog volunteered to arbitrate (as he did in Strathmore).  There was a tense standoff, with bitter words and a lengthy battle, after which Arthur was offered compensation in the form of marvellous cattle.  These were driven to ‘the middle of the ford’, where Arthur, Cai and Bedwyr received them.

But the cattle were an illusion: they turned into ‘bunches of fern’ when Arthur brought them to the riverbank.  The ‘most illustrious king of Britannia’ then saw the error of his ways and begged St Cadog’s forgiveness.

The Christian legend shows Cadog playing his ‘Iddog’ role of the forked-tongue go-between, tricking the ‘bull of battle’ into receiving monkish warriors posing as Mithraists at a showdown by a river.  But it is Ligessoc son of Eliman who killed Arthur’s men.

The name ‘Ligessoc’ contains the element cess – a ‘spear’ – which relates him to the St Kessog or Cessóc who was once considered the patron saint of Scotland.  As Cessán (‘Little-Spear’) he was the son of a king of Alba (Scotland).  His fair was held at Callander on the River Teith, close to the Cascade of the Smith, and he was primarily associated with the Lennox region, hence the designation ‘son of Eliman’, where Eliman stands for ‘The Liman’ or Loch Lomond (Gaelic Loch Laomainn).

One son of a Scottish king was Cano, whose father Gartnait was the king of the northern Picts and the half-brother of Artúr mac Áedáin.  The legends assure us that Arthur did battle with his nephew at Camlann, and that he chose Constantine as his successor.  Cano apparently took the baptismal name Constantine on his conversion to Christianity, and Constantine did briefly hold the throne of Strathclyde before surrendering it to Neithon or Nechtán – who was also present, as ‘Nwython’ the ‘son of Gwyddno’, at Arthur’s last battle.

Constantine was buried at Govan.  In December 1855, a workman unearthed a sandstone sarcophagus in the graveyard of St Constantine’s old church.  The sarcophagus is believed to have been made to house the remains of Arthur’s nephew, Constantine.  Among the ancient carvings on its side panels is the image of a long-haired warrior on horseback, clearly identified by the letter ‘A’.

Caer Sidi
The means chosen for Arthur’s death – a poisoned spear thrust into his groin or ‘side’ – was a perversion of the Grail ritual.  Instead of the ‘knee’ or ‘thigh’ being pierced to drain the toxins from the initiate’s body, the fatal spear (which could only be worked on during the Mass on Sundays) injected its poison into Arthur’s bloodstream.  Like Brân (wounded in the foot), Llew (wounded in the side) and Gúaire (wounded in the knee), Arthur was destined to die from his poisoned wound.

He was whisked away from Arthurbank by boat, down the River Isla to the River Tay and so westward to his final resting place in a ‘hall on the Island of Afallach’.  Le chevalier Bran was locked up in a tower ‘beyond the sea’.  The legend of Brân the Blessed describes it as a ‘fair royal place overlooking the sea, and a great hall it was.’  Llew, meanwhile, flew away in eagle-form to a mighty oak, the ‘sanctuary of a fair lord’.

Aneirin declaimed that the ‘hero of Circenn’ was buried in the Swans’ Hill (‘eleirch fre’ – from the Gaelic ealadh, a ‘tomb’, here interpreted by the British poet as eala, a ‘swan’: Welsh alarch).  Like the cursed Children of Lir, Arthur and his heroes enjoyed a post-mortem existence as ‘swans’, the dead of the battlefield similarly living on as ‘birds’ which gathered every night at an oak-tree.  We might also note that Brân’s brother, Manannán son of Lir, kept his booty – including the ‘shears’ of a Pictish king and the girdle and crook of the ‘Smith’ – in a ‘crane-skin bag’, visible only at high tide, in which sacrificial victims were restored to life.

St Columba reputedly cared for an exhausted heron or crane which arrived on Iona and departed again three days later.  The crane was traditionally associated with the sacred art of writing (and therefore with the ink-yielding ‘golden apples’ of the oak-tree) and so it is instructive to find that a wounded ‘crane’ was thought to have recuperated on the west side of Iona, at the Great Spirit-Mound or Sithean Mór where the Grail initiates spent their three days of ritual imprisonment.  The same ‘Mound of the Tomb’ was also the ‘Hill of Fires’ – although Columba’s monks preferred to think of it as the ‘Hill of the Angels’.  According to an Irish bishop who visited Iona in 1760, it had once boasted a ‘Druidic temple of twelve stones, each with a human body buried beneath it.’

This burial mound was the ‘sìdh of Emhain’, the ‘fort finer than all dwellings, where bright apple-trees abound’, as the 13th-century praise poem for Raghnall, the Lord of the Isles, described it.

Taliesin called it caer sidi – ‘Fort of Spirits’ – and noted that the ‘prison of Gwair’ was prepared in it (like Aneirin’s ‘Gwair the Tall’, this refers to Arthur in the guise of Gúaire mac Áedáin, the ‘most valiant’ layman in the kingdom of the Scots).  The ‘prison of Gwair’ was Arthur’s tomb, and into the chambered cairn with him went his ‘faithful servant’ (Cai/Cian) and ‘the man of the Leven’ (Llëenog, otherwise ‘Lancelot’), along with Rhydderch’s ‘sword of lightning slaughter’ and such other Treasures of the Island of Britain as the horn of Brân and the cauldron of the Lord of Annwn.

And so Arthur and his comrades were buried on the island of the sacred trees where the precious oak-apples grew: the Island of Apples, or Isle of the Blest, where those who had kept their oaths were transported to the Neolithic ‘palace of Kronos’, the god of abundance who was himself a prisoner in the western isle.

This was the ‘Island of the Son of Cian’, where ‘Lugh the poet’s son was raised’.  It was the Otherworldly Land of Promise, Hy-Brasil or the Island of the Mighty, where the native equivalent of Kronos – the agricultural deity known to the Britons as Hu Gadarn, ‘The Mighty’ – had given his name to the island of Hii.

In the late-8th century, Iona was indeed Hí Bresail – for the abbot who proclaimed the Law of St Columba in Ireland in 778 was named Bresal mac Ségéni.

Arthur’s burial on the Isle of Iona formed the substance of a strange legend attached to St Columba.

Columba’s attempts to establish his church had not been entirely successful.  He resolved to sacrifice one of his retinue – ‘Someone among you should go down into the soil of the island to consecrate it’ – promising the victim that ‘no one who makes a request at my tomb or resting-place will be granted it unless he first seek it of you.’

St Oran was chosen.  Other forms of his name include Odhrán and Dòbhran.  According to some, he was Columba’s brother.

Oran was buried alive.  Three days later, St Columba opened the tomb ‘to see what might be the fate of his friend’.  To Columba’s dismay, Oran ‘opened his swimming eyes’ and said:

Heaven is not special,
Nor is hell all darkness;
The good are not transformed,
And the bad are not punished.

Columba demanded that Oran’s tomb be closed again, ‘lest he blab any more’.

Realistically, Oran is the patron saint of Iona – dozens of kings and lords were buried in his graveyard – although his identity is obscure.  His name, Òran, means ‘Song’ in Gaelic (like ealadh, which can mean a ‘stone tomb’ or a ‘skilful song’), although the proper word is amhran – Middle Irish ambrán – which sounds like ‘The Raven’, as in Brân the Blessed, le chevalier Bran and the Brân ‘from the North’ whose marvellous horn was buried with Arthur.

Only the head of Arthur was buried in the ‘hill of the Sidhe of Emhain’.  It was the part of him in which the ‘High Self’ resided, and it continued to display its prophetic powers long after Arthur’s death.  The rest of him was buried in a mound or sithean beside the ‘Stream of the Sons of Arthur’ above Pennyghael (‘Head-of-the-Gael’) on the adjacent Isle of Mull.  His ghost still haunts this area.

The ‘best-known and most dreadful spectre in the West Highlands’ takes the form of a headless horseman, reportedly last seen in 1958 and known as Eoghann a’ Chinn Bhig (‘Ewen of the Little Head’).  Supposedly a member of the Maclaine (Mac’ill-Eathain – ‘Son of Áedán’s Lad’) family of Mull, ‘Ewen’ is said to have married a difficult woman called Corr-dhu, ‘Black-Crane’.  She insisted that her husband demand more land from his uncle.  The dispute intensified.  Battle loomed.

On the eve of the battle, ‘Ewen’ encountered a bean-nighe or Washer at the Ford (a role played elsewhere by Arthur’s sister, Muirgein) who told him that if his wife offered him butter with his breakfast, he would prevail; but if no butter was proffered, he would be slain.  There was no butter on the breakfast table, and Ewen’s head was struck from his body in the battle with his uncle.

Of course, it was not the absence of butter which proved fatal to Arthur on the morning of his last battle but the disappearance of his trusted companion, Iddog or Aedóc, known as Cordd Prydain (‘Churn of Britain’), who had slipped away to unleash his warrior-monks against Arthur.  It was not ‘butter’ that was missing, but the ‘churn’.

The remains of ‘Ewen’ (Eóghan – ‘yew-born’, ‘noble’) were eventually transported to Iona for burial.  Visitors to Iona in the 19th century were shown a carved stone which reputedly honoured the headless warrior.  This was almost certainly Maclean’s Cross, a remarkable 15th-century stone slab which has the image of an armed and mounted horseman on its base.  The cross stands beside the medieval Street of the Dead on the approach to St Oran’s Chapel and its graveyard of kings.

On Mull, meanwhile, Ewen’s phantom pony is said to leave round indentations in the earth, ‘as if it had wooden legs’.  Evidently, this small black horse belonged to an age before the invention of the horseshoe, when war-ponies were shod with iron plates or oval-shaped cups.  Known as ‘hipposandals’, these had been introduced to Britain by the Romans.  They would have been used by Arthur and his celebrated horsemen.

If the Mull legend remembers Arthur’s wife as Corr-dhu (‘Black-Crane’), in the Culhwch and Olwen story she appears as a witch called Orddu (‘Very-Black’).

Morgan, the king-turned-boar, had been hunted down.  Only one task remained for Arthur and his heroes: to take the blood of the witch Orddu, whose cave was located ‘on the confines of Hell’.  Arthur ‘set out for the North’ and the uplands of the hellish territory of the Picts.  He found the hag’s cave at Penn Nant Gofid, the ‘Head of the Brook of Grief’ (there is a pun here – another Welsh word for ‘grief’ is alaeth; Gwenhwyfar was held at the ‘Head of the Water of Alyth’).

Nennius, the 9th-century monk who compiled a list of Arthur’s battles, up to and including his victory at Badandun Hill – Mons Badonis, the first ‘Battle of Badon’ – also recorded a ‘wonder’ of Scotland.  This was a ‘valley in Angus, in which shouting is heard every Monday night; Glend Ailbe is its name, and it is not known who makes this noise.’

W.J. Watson tentatively identified the Glen Ailbhe of Nennius as the valley of the River Isla in Strathmore.  Arthur’s last battle ended on a Monday – and, as the song of Le Chevalier Bran implied, the ghosts of the slain gathered nightly in bird-form on the battlefield to mourn their fate.  Perhaps the area around the Allaid of Alyth was once known as ‘Ailbe’s Vale’ after St Ailbe of Emly, a 6th-century Irish bishop and patron saint of wolves who reputedly baptised St David.  It was, after all, from St David’s (Din Dewydd) that Cadog’s monks came to destroy Arthur.

It is possible that the chapel established by the monks of Iona at Meigle, immediately to the south of Alyth, in about 606 was dedicated to Ailbe, for this was on the very spot where Arthur had been attacked by the monks from Mynyw, where St Ailbe is honoured as ‘St Elvis’.  It was also the burial place of Arthur’s wife.

Gwenhwyfar (known locally as Guanora) was imprisoned in Dum Bharraidhe, the vitrified ‘Fort of the Baron-Baillie’ on the summit of Barry Hill, above Alyth.  The ‘cave’ in which Arthur’s men found her would therefore compare with the underground cavern which supposedly connected the hill-fort with the ruined castle of Inverquiech in the bealach below.

The Culhwch and Olwen legend indicates that the ‘witch’ was cut in half: they ‘made two vats of her’.  Gwenhwyfar’s blood was drained, probably beside the Alyth Burn or ‘Water of Quiech’, and then taken in the cauldron to Iona, where it was interred with Arthur’s head.  The Welsh version of the Perceval tale has Peredur of York (who died at Barry Hill) visiting the ‘hidden retreat’ of the Fisher King and seeing not a graal but a man’s head in a serving dish surrounded by a profusion of blood.

Evidence of Gwenhwyfar’s execution still exists in the area around Meigle.

In about 1120, Lambert of St Omer wrote:

There is in Britain – in the land of the Picts – a palace of the warrior Artuir … in which the history of all his exploits and wars is to be seen in sculpture.

The greatest concentrations of Pictish symbol stones occur in Aberdeenshire and Angus, both of which witnessed the clashes of Arthur’s final campaign.  Many of these carved stones depict battle scenes, with helmeted horsemen and cloaked, monkish foot-soldiers.

One of the most famous of these symbol stones is Vanora’s Stone – ‘Meigle 2’ – which appears to show Arthur’s queen being savaged by wild beasts, possibly after her bloodless body was abandoned in Meigle’s boggy meadow.

Another of the Meigle stones was destroyed in 1869.  Known as ‘Meigle 10’, it was unique in depicting a two-heeled horse-drawn chariot containing two passengers, with a crouching archer taking aim at the vehicle.  The design of the chariot suggests that it was a Roman carpentum or processional wagon.

Among the Thirteen Treasures of Britain was Car Morgan Mwynfawr, the ‘Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy’, which might have borne Morgan and Gwenhwyfar to their final destination.  It was one of items, soon to be Arthur’s grave-goods, which were gathered by Myrddin Wyllt and taken to the ‘Glass Fort’ on the hill above Alyth.

Artus de Bretania
The Glamis Manse Stone displays the ‘Triple Disc and Cross Bar’ image which appears on no fewer than 14 Pictish stones and surely represents the two-handled cauldron.  Also shown are two men fighting with axes and a cauldron with a pair of human legs sticking out of it.  Almost the exact same image can be seen on the St Vigeans 7 stone, where a human figure is being dunked headfirst in a large vat.  Both of these stones were found within a few miles of Meigle.  Their comparable images recall the initiation tableau on one of the interior plates of the Gundestrup cauldron – the difference being that, while the Gundestrup cauldron represents the equestrian ‘rebirth’ of humble foot-soldiers, the Pictish stones of Angus show us the cauldron as an instrument of death, like the cauldron of Medea, which both gave and took the blood of life.

St Vigeans in Angus also boasts a stone inscription which names ‘Drosten’ (Drystan/Tristan).  At nearby Invergowrie, a slab depicts a mounted warrior quaffing from a drinking horn, the end of which forms a bird’s head, smirking quizzically, as if to remind us that the ‘sweet’ mead turned to ‘poison’ in the bellies of the Gododdin.

Other images found on the Pictish stones include the comb and shears which Arthur’s heroes sought to seize from the head of the renegade Boar-King and such recognisably Druidic symbols as the salmon and the serpent, the latter often ‘pierced’ through its middle – as was Arthur.

In Brittany, Arthur’s queen was remembered as Wenlowen, recalling St Luan and the Kerlouan fort of Elouan, as the émigrés from Lothian thought of Alyth.  Meanwhile, on a marble archivolt above the Porta della Pescheria in the Italian cathedral of Modena, Gwenhwyfar is identified as Winlogee – possibly from ‘Lughaidh’, a variant of ‘Luan’.

The Modena archivolt was completed between 1120 and 1140.  At the centre of the carved relief stands a twin-towered fortress, labelled Burmaltus (a ‘berm’ is a ledge or embankment between a defensive ditch and a rampart – compare the Scots barmkin, the ‘outermost fortification of a wall’; Burmaltus therefore signifies the ‘High Fortress’ or ‘Hill-Fort of Alyth’).  Two figures shown inside the Burmaltus castle are named Winlogee and Mardoc, the latter being reminiscent of St Cadog or ‘Mádoc’, who was almost certainly the foster-father of Gwenhwyfar.

Artus de Bretania – ‘Arthur of Britain’ – attacks the fortress from the left, along with Isdernus or Áedán, who was romanticised as ‘Yder’ or ‘Edern’ and Christianised as ‘St Ethernan’ (Ithernanus in 1219; Ydarnasius in 1220).

On the right-hand side of the hill-fort, Carrado (Caradog) fights with Galvagin, while Che (Cai) and Galvariun approach bearing lances.

Galvariun indicates a ‘follower’ of St Barre or Findbarr, who was honoured at Nevay, two miles east of Meigle.  He was the inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Barinthus’, the ferryman who transported Arthur to Avalon, who was also identified as Manannán (Brân’s brother, Manawydan).  As St Finbarr, he was originally known as Lóchán or Loan, and it is clear that Finbarr/Findbarr bears comparison with Findabair – the Irish form of Gwenhwyfar – just as ‘Loan’ recalls the Breton name for Arthur’s wife.  These names are preserved at Alyth (the only place with a church dedicated to ‘Luan’) and Meigle, where the farmstead of Glenluie/Glenlouie reminds us of the ‘Luan Lake’, Llyn Llywan, where Arthur finally confronted his boar-like nemesis.

What is portrayed on the archivolt over the Porta della Pescheria at Modena is the storming of the ‘High Hill-Fort’ above Alyth in the summer of 594 and the violent treachery of a ‘follower of Fagan’ – Galvagin, named after an obscure missionary who, like St Cadog, was associated with South Wales.

Forbes, IWG 2012 The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones. Stroud: Amberley.

Laing, L and J. Laing 1993 The Picts and the Scots. Stroud: Alan Sutton.

MacArthur, EM 1995 Columba’s Island: Iona from Past to Present.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Maclean, C 1997 The Isle of Mull: Placenames, Meanings and Stories. Dumfries: Maclean Publications.

Senior, M 1979 Myths of Britain. London: Book Club Associates.

Sharpe, R 1995 Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba. London: Penguin.

Stirling, SA 2012 The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero. Stroud: The History Press.

Leave a Comment