Tuesday, January 5, 2016

King Arthur, Man or Myth? Check Scotland....

by Mary Anne Yarde

“The legendary Arthur is said to be buried in an island in the Western Seas – Avalon – but in the South of Britain there are no islands in the Western Seas.” Adam Ardrey

Growing up in the Southwest of England, the tales of King Arthur and his knights were a part of my childhood. We all knew who he was, we knew what he did, we knew about his knights, and we knew about his code of honour. We couldn’t get away from him, even if we tried.

Arthur and his knights is an obsession that I have never grown out of, but as an adult I wanted to look for the truth behind the myth. I thought it would be easy. He was, after all, buried just down the road in Glastonbury Abbey. Avalon and Cadbury Castle was a stones throw away, and Tintagel Castle, a simple day trip. I thought I had it all figured out. I was wrong.

The hunt for Arthur has taken me away from my beloved Southwest of England. I have journeyed to Wales where I listened to the tales of their King Arthur – so similar to mine. But even then there seemed to be more myths than facts - the shape of a horse hoof in a stone, a large river and a cave where it is said Merlin is imprisoned - I was not convinced.

So I journeyed on and found myself in Scotland. When I think of Scottish heroes, I think of Wallace and The Bruce, not Arthur - never Arthur. But the evidence that Arthur was not only very real, but of Irish/Scottish heritage is very compelling.

There was a man, a prince, who went by the name of Artúr mac Aedan. He was born c599, and his father was the King of Dalriada. This Artúr is mentioned in three ancient manuscripts that predate Nennius and his great work, The History of the Britons. I always thought that the first mention of Arthur was by Nennius in the 9th Century. But maybe I was wrong about that as well.

In c.700 there lived a monk on the remote island of Iona. His name was Adomnan. Life of St.Columbia is Adomnan's masterpiece. And in this masterpiece Adomnan talks about Artúr, the son of King Aedan. This account was written a mere hundred years after Artúr lived, and it is probably as close as we are going to get to a reliable source. It is accepted by historians as a genuine document, so maybe, for once, there is something in this story.

So why has no one ever heard of this so called Scottish King Arthur?

The answer to that is easy - no one wanted to contemplate such a truth - because Arthur came from the South of England, he was an ancient Briton...end of story...how dare you try and tell us differently.

Artúr mac Aedan, may not have been an ancient Briton, but Adomnan states that he fought on the side of the Britons, against the Saxons. Does that sound like a familiar story to you? Arthur fighting the Saxon’s is a common thread in Arthurian Legend. But remember, this isn’t a story, this is fact. Which begs the question, how did a Scottish prince become an English hero? This is where it gets really interesting. Artúr and his father, King Aedan, formed a coalition with the Britons, or the Welsh to be more precise, and together they fought the Saxons of Northumbria as well as the Picts. Is it the case of an ally becoming a subject with the passage of time? Possibly.

Prince Artúr never became King. Columbia prophesised that he would fall in battle, which he did. Should we dismiss this Artúr then? We are, after all, looking for a king not a prince. Or are we? Even Nennius, 200 years later, stated that Arthur was a great general, he said nothing about him being a king.

Arthur is mentioned again in The Annals of Tighernac, another ancient text.

"Death of the sons of Aidan. Bran, Domingart, Eochach find, Arthur at the battle of Chirchind, in which Aidan was victorious".

Can we trust these sources?

Well according to the scholars, yes. They are genuine and without the fictitious traits of later works such as Geoffrey Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain.

But what about Nennius and his famous 12 battles that Arthur supposedly fought in? Surely they must fit in somewhere?

The British academic, Andrew Breeze, has discovered that seven of these battles can be linked to places in Scotland, and one was at the River Glen in Northumberland. And even the last famous battle at Camlann, the battle in which Arthur fell, was in Carlisle. What would a Southern King being doing fighting in Scotland?

Also, in yet another ancient manuscript "The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee" states that Artúr had a sister called Morgan – Morgan le Fray; recognise the name?

Much of what we think we know about Arthur and his Knights comes from the work of Geoffrey Monmouth and a few French poets. Their stories are beautifully told and very enjoyable, but they are stories and should not be used as a source of historical evidence.

So should we dismiss the legend completely? Was there a Camelot? Was there a Sword in a Stone? A Round Table? Avalon? Are they just stories too?

There was never a kingdom or a castle called Camelot. Camelot was the invention of Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th century French poet. If Arthur were a prince then he would have lived in a hill-fort, one can assume. But if he were Scottish then Cadbury Castle in Somerset would no longer be a contender as the once mighty seat of Arthur. Ardrey suggest a hill fort in Argyll.

In 2011, Glasgow University Archaeologists, Stirling Local History Society and Stirling Field and Archaeological Society, were surveying the King’s Knot at Stirling Castle. The Kings Knot was constructed in the 1620’s for Charles I, but the survey uncovered a much older, ancient would probably be a better word, earthwork than was previously thought. It has been suggested that maybe this was Arthur’s burial ground, or maybe it had something to do with The Round Table. King Arthur has been long associated with Stirling Castle, which would hardly be surprising if he was Scottish, but such a link, or rumour, which ever you want to call it, first seemed to come about in c.1375, when John Barbour, a Scottish poet claimed that Arthur’s Round Table was south of Stirling Castle. In 1478 the English chronicler, William of Worcester, claimed that;

“King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle.”

And so it continued, as legends often do...they seem to get better with the retelling. Whether there is any truth in them, I don’t know.

So how about Avalon. If not at Glastonbury, then where is it? Ardrey states;

“Iona fits all the criteria. It’s an island where hundreds of kings were buried. Some say 128. Other members of Arthur Mac Aedan’s family were buried there too. I say Arthur was also buried there.”

There are places in Scotland that have been put forwards as a possible Avalon but Iona makes logistical sense. As for the Sword in the Stone...what do you think?

There are so many what if and maybes, so many contenders who could be Arthur. But maybe, in Artúr mac Aedan, we have stumbled upon the real man behind the legend of The Once and Future King.


Adam Ardrey Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind The Legend Of The Once and Future King (2013)
Adomnan Life of St.Columbia Adomnan's (c. AD 697/700)
The Annals of Tighernac
The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee

David Francis Carroll Arturius: Quest for Camelot (1996)
Simon Andrew Stirling The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero (2012)
Robin Crichton On the Trail of King Arthur: A Journey into Dark Age Scotland (2013)

All illustrations are in the public domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Wikipedia.


Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury—the fabled Isle of Avalon—was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood. Her debut novel The Du Lac Chronicles is out in the spring of 2016.

The Du Lac Chronicles

A generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.
Wounded and left to die in the cold, young Alden du Lac has lost his army, his kingdom, and his friends. Is the shadowy figure approaching death or salvation?


  1. ....but in the South of Britain there are no islands in the Western Seas.” Adam Ardrey.

    I suggest Mr Ardrey should get a map and look at it.

  2. In the end, everybody wanted to claim Arthur. Even the Saxons! ;-) I love my Saxon-fighting Arthur, whoever he was. Scotland? Maybe. Why not? And he doesn't need to be king - I've always believed in the Romano-British general, and I love what Rosemary Sutcliff did with him.

    But this Artur mac Aidan doesn't seems to have done anything special, something that would make him remembered, if in garbled form, so long afterwards. The Gododdin, okay preserved in a 13th century MS, but apparently much older, says of a character that "he glutted ravens on the fortress wall although he was not Arthur", suggesting a hero so strong that the author could assume everyone reading it knew who he was talking about. Mind you, it was a northern poem. :-)

  3. Very interesting article. However, I don't think it makes sense to talk about Scotland, England and Wales as separate countries as early as this. The indigenous "British" population had to some extent been Romanised during the occupation, more so in the south than the north, and there must have been a good deal of intermarriage. When this population was no longer defended by Roman troops, the Saxon invasions began, and understandably the British fought back. Wherever Arthur came from, he should be seen as British, rather than exclusively Scottish or English.

    1. I presume by "Scottish" Mary meant to imply that Arthur was operating in what is now the Scottish lowlands and Border Country, not the nationality -- though by the 7th century, Dalriada (of which Arthur MacAidan was a prince) was populated predominantly by descendants of the late-5th/early-6th century Scotti immigrants from what is now Ireland. As for the indigenous Picts, their ancient bloodlines were probably so diluted from generations of intermarriage with neighboring Celts and the Scots that they were well on their way to racial extinction by Aidan's day. IIRC, by the 8th or 9th century, a hundred years or so after Aidan, none of that region's kings could claim Pictish lineage anymore.

  4. The "Scottish Arthur" theory is no newsflash; it's the one I latched on to in the late 1980s when I first began putting pen to my award-winning Dawnflight, book 1 in The Dragon's Dove Chronicles. All of the place names and many of the character names make so much more sense in a Scottish setting. Arthur MacAidan is too late for my taste, however -- 200+ years too late, just as the Roman centurion Lucius Artorius Castus is about a hundred years too yearly to jive with other documented references to Arthur, such as the Annales Cambriae. I think Aidan used a time-honored tradition and named one of his sons in honor of a famous dead hero, and as for Castus... well, you'll have to read my explanation of that one in the sequel to Dawnflight, Morning's Journey. :D

    This is the beauty of being a novelist: I don't have to substantiate anything, I just need to craft an engaging story. Though the real Arthur may be forever lost to us, I like to think he'd have approved of the spin I've put on his legend.

  5. All the myths and legends to do with Arthur and Merlin are wonderful. All the novels about Arthur are magical in their own rights. But oft times the obvious is missed in self belief of who and what Arthur was and whether he truly existed, in the same way the true meaning of the Sword in the Stone is not a sword but perhaps what constitutes a sword and the process of its creation. It matters not if Scotland Cornwall or Wales lay claim to Arthur, because offshore islands exist off all three coastlines in the Western Approaches. Pembrokeshire has six main islands off the coast, five of these islands were inhabited at various points in their history, including the building of a monastery in the 12th century on Caldey.

    And what of the Scilly Isles of the coast of Cornwall? Inhabited since the Stone Age. Offshore, midway between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly, is the supposed location of the mythical lost land of Lyonesse. Islands have disappeared off the British coast and remain submerged, and coasts erode away where once small land masses stretched miles out to sea. The problem with 21st century thinking re travel in fast cars, trains and planes, we forget armies marched hundreds of miles, crossed continents, and travelled by sea. In comparison to Hannibal marching his army over the Alps the British Isles are a piece of cake from north to south and vice versa. Tribes were more mobile than we give them credit for, and we have to remember individual kingdoms and principalities existed. England was no more a united kingdom than Scotland or Wales. Each had their warring factions for long while. And Arthur may not have been his first name, and perhaps like Kings of the past and the future King, he chose to use a secondary name. After all Prince Charles supposedly is destined to be King George.

  6. We all have our own theories and argue like mad that ours is right - thank goodness for novelists who throw caution to the wind and keep Arthur - whoever, wherever, whenever (if-ever) - he was alive!

  7. Sadly, we have almost no primary source knowledge about the Sixth Century and I now just get a bit itchy about presenting widely disputed snippets as though they were fact. For example, the most commonly cited evidence for Arthur's existence does indeed come from Y Gododdin, a medieval Welsh poem, which may have been written at the start of the Seventh Century by a northern poet-prince called Aneirin, and contains the tantalising Old Welsh half line "bei ef arthur", previously translated as “he was an Arthur”. Clear enough, except that subsequent linguistic scholars argue that it actually means, “he was no Arthur”; or, “he blamed Arthur”; or, even one assertion that the word arthur is not a name at all but, rather, an obscure noun. In truth, the earliest manuscript version of Y Gododdin dates from the Thirteenth Century so that, added to the problems brought by perhaps 600 years of errors and tampering, we can now add the uncertainties arising from disputed translation of Old Welsh and Middle Welsh, or even the possibility that 13th Century editors may simply have added the "Arthur" reference because, by then, it was fashionable to do so. I think Helen Hollick and others are right - the "Arthur" myths are wonderful and need to be kept alive, but I think we should also be extremely cautious about presenting any of the normally quoted manuscripts as being "evidence" for his actual existence.

    1. David, I personally feel that the only reliable facts about Arthur are that no one knows where he came from, when he was there, or even if he actually existed - _everything_ else is conjecture. I do agree though that authors should make this caveat clear. Arthur belongs to the realm of story, perhaps not quite as much as Cinderella or Vampires, but as a character of fiction he is The Once and Future King because he will live forever in the world of Imagination, Speculation and Debate! Long may he reign!

  8. Well said, Helen Hollick. I think I agree with that summary!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.