A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
In the course of my journeys around Britain and Ireland I’ve had the good fortune to come across some wonderful places that aren’t hugely well-known. I thought I’d start posting some short guides to these places, in addition to the long-form pieces I usually post. I enjoy writing the long ones, but they take ages to do; and these shorter bits might well be of a bit more practical use to readers, anyway. Here’s the first; a description of a section of the upper Tweed valley in Scotland, that’s deeply tied up with the legendary figure of Merlin.
There’s a great deal of nonsense been written about Merlin over the years, but there are enough old texts out there referring to him that we can be confident he was, at root, a real person. His original name was actually Myrddin, a Brythonic Celtic name pronounced like Mervyn, but with the ‘th’ sound as in the word ‘this’ replacing the ‘v’. A slightly dodgy chronicler in the Middle Ages re-branded him with a new, easier to pronounce label, and it was the new name that stuck.
Myrddin wasn’t a wizard – but he was something a little bit magical. He was a bard; part of a class of Celtic specialists whose role was to recount the stories of the people, and to compose poems variously praising and satirising the rulers. The bards derived their authority from contact with the Celtic otherworld, composing under the influence of an extra-personal force called the ‘awen’. This spirit was believed to give them the gifts of wisdom, creativity, and of prophecy.
Where Myrddin was born is open to debate; Carmarthen in Wales has traditionally claimed him, but there are strong grounds to believe he may have been born in the Brythonic capital of western Scotland, that now sits under the town of Dumbarton. Wherever he may have been from, though, what is certain is that he ended up serving as the court bard to a king known as Gwenddoleu, who reigned around the western end of the border country between Scotland and England at the end of the 6th century AD. Gwenddoleu was an exceedingly important figure, quite possibly one of the last great pagan kings of the Brython – history back in that era is too hazy to say with definitive certainty. He was killed around 573 by a coalition of rival monarchs from the surrounding kingdoms. Myrddin lost a great many relatives and friends in the battle, fighting on both sides, and in the aftermath he fell into the embrace of a violence-induced madness termed “gwyllt” in Welsh, and “geilt” in Old Irish. These days, we might term it post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the grip of this madness, Myrddin abandoned human habitation and went off to spend most of the rest of his life in the great forest that covered the hill country to the north. Then it was called Coed Celyddon; in later years the name changed to Ettrick Forest. The trees are mostly gone, but the high hills remain a wild place nonetheless.
While in the forest, Myrddin’s reputation as a bard and a prophet actually grew. Whatever he was creating, whatever was coming out of the forest, it caught the collective imagination of the Brythonic peoples – and Myrddin’s reputation as a magical figure was established forevermore. Forests have a big place in Celtic legend; among other things, as the training places of the druids, and as home to the king of the otherworld, Gwynn ap Nudd. Myrddin became symbolic of the wild-wood; in later years the name used to describe wild Britain, as it was before humans inhabited it, was ‘Myrddin’s Precinct’.
Myrddin’s connection to the Upper Tweed comes from the end of his life. The legend states that it was here he died and was buried, and that he prophesied the manner of his own death before it happened. He was attacked by unidentified assailants at a place called Altarstone, before falling into the river Tweed and impaling himself on a branch, where he was then drowned by the waters of the river. There are three slayings involved in this death, wrapped up in one; a pattern that has been observed in other legends, and in the bodies of Celtic sacrificial victims removed from bogs. The triple death was in some fashion a holy death to the Celtic peoples; one that established a connection with the otherworld.
There is a Christian component to the legend also. It is stated that, just before his death, Myrddin asked to be baptised by Kentigern, the priest of the early church at Stobo nearby. As with the other elements of the story, it is questionable to what degree this reflects reality; the church was in the habit of retroactively Christianising famous pagan figures through story, and so this part of the tale may be a later concoction. Whatever the truth, Myrddin’s body was fished out of the river and buried, not in the church-yard, but at the meeting place of the River Tweed and the Drumelzier Burn. By tradition, a whitethorn tree was planted to mark the spot.
For more, accurate information on this, there’s a book coming out in the spring by Tim Clarkson of the Senchus blog. You could do far worse than pick up a copy; his piece about the legend you can find here.
Sights Directly Relating to Myrddin:
Altarstone; The site of Myrddin’s death is now a farm, where a nice little path runs along the side of the river. The original, presumably pagan, altarstone after which the place is named is still there by the side of the road, overgrown with brambles; it was also here that he was supposedly baptised prior to his death. There’s a nice view up the valley.
Grave; The actual site of the grave is a bit rubbish. The course of the burn has moved over the years, so it’s unlikely this is the original spot, and the old thorn tree was washed away in a flood about a century back. The villagers planted a replacement tree, which is enclosed by a small fence. It’s not the most aesthetically enchanting spot, but the walk down the stream to get here is nice enough.
Stobo Kirk; The church has a stained glass window portraying Myrddin’s baptism by Kentigern. This is now flanked by some mysterious old sculptured stones, and there’s a great deal of impressive Celtic carving in the woodwork. The place actually has a really nice atmosphere.
Tinnis Castle; Tinnis Hill is the site of a major old hillfort that commands views right over the valley. There’s a ruined castle on top of it, within the hillfort walls as well. In later years, this was the seat of a family called the Tweedie, whose name is earliest recorded in the rather Brythonic form of Twydyn, and who claim ancestry from the spirit of the river. It’s not certain, but it’s likely that this was the centre of power for the valley chieftains back in Myrddin’s time; the name ‘Tinnis’ derives from the Brythonic ‘Dinas’, meaning ‘fortress’. He was either in the region with the support of the chieftains, or their men may have been involved in killing him. Either way, events in this old place played a key role in the run-up to his passing.
Other Sights of a Similar Kind:
The Thieves Road; From either of Drumelzier or Stobo, you can hike up to an old high-level track that runs southward over the hilltops into the heart of the highest hills of the southern uplands. It’s a great route for hill-walking or mountain-biking, with some truly immense views. The track takes its name from the middle ages, when it was used by raiders moving around the border country; it’s likely it’s far older, and due to its remoteness, it’s not at all improbable this was one of the tracks the wild man of the woods used in travelling around the region. There are some great campsites up here, but a shortage of water, so be sure to pack plenty.
Burial Mounds; A number of ancient burial cairns are located along the valley of the Tweed, upstream from Drumelzier. There’s a nice path along the river here that takes you past a few; look out for big mushroom circles in the autumn.
Worm Hill; Worm Hill, southwest of Drumelzier and further up the valley, was the legendary home of a giant serpent, whose body coiled around the hill to leave striations on its surface. These shapes are now known to be prehistoric cultivation terraces, probably related to the peoples who built the cairns on the valley floor. There’s a Celtic-era hillfort here, and a dramatic stone monument on the summit.
Woods around Dawyck; There are some deep woods around the Tweed valley, which sometimes help to recapture a little of the feel of what the forest was like when Myrddin dwelt here. Perhaps the best patch is in the hills around Dawyck House, just across the river from Altarstone. The house and its gardens are run by the Edinburgh Botanical gardens; the surrounding woods can be easily enough accessed from there, and you can hike through the woods and the hillsides to Stobo or Drumelzier.
Getting There; The valley is easy to access. The B712 road runs through the valley; you can drive here from Edinburgh or Glasgow within an hour, or, if coming from the south, divert from the A74 at Abington and head for Biggar. Once there, it’s only a fifteen minute drive to the east. If you’re arriving by bus, there’s a service to Biggar from either of Edinburgh or Glasgow; once there, take the bus to Peebles, which runs along the valley and can stop at Drumelzier, Dawyck, Altarstone and Stobo. There’s one every hour; check the Traveline Scotland website for up-to-date timetabling.
Accomodation; If the weather’s good, camp. There are plenty of good places available; I especially recommend Tinnis Castle itself as a wonderful place to wake up. If you’re looking for a rental cottage, Woodend is by the old burial mounds and Worm Hill, while Merlindale sits right in the middle of it all in Drumelzier. You can also get B&B accomodation in season at the Glenholm Wildlife Centre, though this is at a slightly greater remove.
© William Young and Feral Words, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.