Legends of King Arthur in Medieval Scotland

Dr Oisin Plumb, Lecturer with the Institute for Northern Studies, Kirkwall

It is still not agreed whether or not King Arthur really existed. He was said to have been a Briton (a speaker of the language which would become Welsh) who fought against Anglo-Saxon invaders in the late-fifth and early sixth centuries. However, stories about him spread far and wide throughout the Middle Ages and he became a renowned figure of legend. Scotland was no different from the rest of Europe in its love of stories about Arthur. This article will look at some of the evidence for tales being told about the king in medieval Scotland.

It is possible that the earliest reference to Arthur in any source comes from what is now Scotland. A medieval Welsh-language poem called Y Gododdin describes various warriors said to have travelled, in roughly AD 600, from the Kingdom of Gododdin (a ‘Welsh’-speaking kingdom covering roughly what is now Lothian and the Borders) to a battle at Catraeth (possibly Caterick in Yorkshire). According to the poem, the battle was a disaster, with around three hundred killed and only a tiny number of survivors (either 1 or 3 depending on the version of the poem). The poem gives elegies for some of those killed. In one verse, amongst a list of the deeds of a warrior named Gwawrddur, is the phrase ‘though he was not Arthur’. This seems to be an off-hand reference which means something along the lines of ‘he wasn’t exactly Arthur, but he was pretty good’! It shows that when this verse was written, Arthur was such a well-known figure of legend that everyone would have understood the reference. However, there is disagreement over how old this verse, and the poem as a whole, actually is. It might have been written as early as the seventh century, but it could date from much later than this. It only survives in one thirteenth-century manuscript. It is also unclear where the poem was composed. The kingdom of Gododdin became part of the English-speaking kingdom of Bernicia, apparently following a siege of its power centre, the Fort of Eyden (probably Castle Rock in Edinburgh) in 638. Possible locations for the poem’s composition include Gododdin itself (before it was taken over), Strathclyde (which remained ‘Welsh’-speaking until around the eleventh century), or Wales.

However early they began, there are signs that stories and traditions relating to Arthur became very popular in medieval Scotland amongst ordinary people. A Roman building (possibly a temple) which used to stand near Falkirk (until it was destroyed by the landowner in 1741) was known as ‘Arthur’s Oven’, possibly as early as 1120, and certainly by 1293. The earliest attestation of ‘Arthur’ being used as a personal name in Scotland dates from 1154. John of Fordun, writing in the late fourteenth century, makes it clear that stories of Arthur and his followers were being told in Scotland. His derogatory language suggests that such tales were commonly told by older members of the community.

But we have heard old hags tell some such fable- that it so happened that one of king Arthur’s soldiers- Kay- had to fight with an enormous tom cat; which, seeing the soldier prepared to fight with it obstinately climbed to the top of a great rock; and, coming down, after having made its claws wonderous sharp for the fight, it gashed the rock with sundry clefts and winding paths, beyond belief. Kay, however, they say, killed the tom cat. (John of Fordun, translated by Felix Skene)

It is interesting that this version of the tale bears more resemblance to Welsh versions of the legend than literary French versions which were popular at the time.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which contains many tales about Arthur, became hugely influential in Scotland. This book was dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who was the half-brother of the Empress Matilda. Matilda was fighting for the English throne. David I of Scotland was Matilda’s uncle and travelled to England in 1141 to fight alongside her and Robert. He stayed for some weeks in Oxford, where Geoffrey of Monmouth lived. There is no firm evidence that David met Geoffrey during his visit, but it seems likely that he did. He certainly seems to have read the book and probably obtained a copy as it apparently inspired him to rename one of his own castles. Geoffrey’s book contains a reference to a ‘Castle of the Maidens’ in an unspecified location in Scotland. From 1142 onwards, David started referring to Edinburgh Castle as ‘The Castle of the Maidens’ in royal charters. Other Scottish castles also came to be associated with Arthurian legend. In 1365, the French chronicler Jean Froissart was a guest of David II for 15 weeks. During this time, he was told that Stirling Castle was the site of Snowdon, where Arthur’s court had sat:

It was one of the castles known in the days of King Arthur and called Smandon [correctly ‘Snowdon’], and the knights of the Round Table used to return to it, as I was told when I stayed in the castle for three days with King David of Scotland. (Translated by Philippe Contamine)

Another location associated with King Arthur was Loch Lomond. The earliest reference to the loch’s association with Arthur appears in Geoffrey’s History, in an account which features rather garbled geography and does not portray Arthur in the best light:

[Arthur] now led his army to Moray, where the Scots and the Picts were under siege. They had fought three times against the King and his nephew, suffering defeat at Arthur’s hands and then seeking refuge in this particular district. When they reached Loch Lomond, they took possession of the islands in the lake, hoping to find a safe refuge on them. This lake contains sixty islands and has sixty streams to feed it, yet only one of these streams flows down to the sea. On these islands one can make out sixty crags, which between them support exactly the same number of eagle’s nests. The eagles used to flock together each year and foretell any prodigious event which was about to occur in the kingdom: this by a shrill-pitched scream which they emitted in concert. It was to these islands, then, that the enemies of whom I have told you fled, hoping to be protected by the lake, although in effect they gained little help from it. Arthur collected together a fleet of boats and sailed round the rivers. By besieging his enemies for fifteen days he reduced them to such a state of famine that they died in their thousands. (Translated by Lewis Thorpe)

Despite the rather gruesome content of the tale, especially from the point of view of the Scots, the association between Loch Lomond and Arthur lived on. Walter Bower, the Abbot of Inchcolm Abbey, retold a shorter and much less grim version in the 1440s:

There are also in Scotland more famous lochs and very broad stretches of water containing a large number of islands, as for example Loch Lomond, which Geoffrey of Monmouth calls ‘stagnum Lumonoi’. This loch, as he says contains sixty islands and has sixty rivers flowing into it, while only one river flows out of it. In the days of King Arthur, as Geoffrey also writes, it appears that on these sixty islands there were sixty crags supporting nests of eagles. These eagles flocked together annually and gave notice of any unusual event that was about to happen in the kingdom by shrieking shrilly all together. (Translated by D.E.R. Watt et. al.)

King Arthur’s status as a legendary hero could be problematic in medieval Scotland. As has been seen, Geoffrey of Monmouth paints a picture of a king who had subjugated the Picts and Scots. This narrative had obvious attractions to the Plantagenet rulers of England, who portrayed themselves as successors to Arthur, and sometimes attempted to use the tales as propaganda in their attempts to be recognised as overlords of other parts of Britain. However, this did not seem to deter storytellers in medieval Scotland who, as we can see from the range of surviving local traditions, remained firm fans of King Arthur.