Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, 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.
Wow, you’ve really got a beautiful way with words…I’m inspired to visit this area on my next trip over in February. Definitely going to go to the cemeteries as I’ll be staying in Edinburgh.
You’ll have no shortage of wonderful things to see 🙂
Your blog is excellent for a former traveler who can no longer be in the toxic outside world beyond air purifiers and organic everything. I have severe Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Lyme disease. This post really interested me because I’m of the Tweedie clan, of Tweedsmuir. Raiders who had a revolving door at Edinburgh prison, never baptised right hand so you can kill better . In the year 1000 an.old man was on the Crusades and came home to find his young wife pregnant from “the Fairy of the headwaters of the Tweed.” So I.honor the Tweed as my ancestor. I donate money to keep it clean.
Anyway any other upper Western Tweed River folk tales or myths I’d greatly appreciate. My family is filled with Scottish clans but Tweedie is my.name. I suppose the story we have of the knight really is an older pagan story . In Indo-European folklore which we see quite a lot of in Ireland with the Shannon River and the Boyne River, the pool or well or headwaters of a river is a male God whose name originally means something like relative or uncle . He is the God of preserving the sacred fire in the water , the main Indo-European symbol for what is sacred , and we know from Irish myth that a lot of rivers start when his wife violates the purity of the sacred well and when she runs to the ocean the river is created . We also know that especially Germanic end Celtic peoples names their tribes often after the river on which they lived , recognizing the river as a goddess who offers food , transportation , obviously water , fish and eels , all of the animals to come to drink , etc.
I suppose that this story about the Crusades was just a modern invention . Perhaps there was an actual tribe which live on the upper Tweed and the headwaters where the sacred pool and the river herself was the mother Goddess for them , I don’t know , but I can’t explain the clan origin story otherwise .
I really really would love if you could point me in the direction for learning more about the ancient history and the folklore and the mythology associated with the Tweed River . I downloaded all your photos to put in my ancestor shrine . I’ve started hearing the call to work more with my Scottish heritage , there was a lot about my Anglo-Saxon , Northern Wales , Scandinavian ancestors which I have had great results with , and many of the Scandinavians moved to Scotland , but now it’s time to focus on Scotland . I wish that I could read German so I could work more with those ancestors but one thing at a time right ?!
Thank you so much for all the lovely photographs , I don’t normally follow blogs but even when the Lyme disease plays keepaway with my brain I can look at the amazing photographs ! Blessings Heather
I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that it shed a little bit of light onto your own past; and yes, I’d be delighted to do what I can to help you know a little more about where your blood comes from. The story of the knight I have read; as with a number of stories form that era, in the middle ages in the Celtic countries, it seems like an older story brought ‘up-to-date’ for a medieval audience. King Arthur is claimed in medieval legend to have had ‘knights’ – but there were no knights in Britain during the Dark Ages when Arthur is supposed to have reigned, centuries before the medieval period. The presence of the faerie character is an older animistic spirit, and they often gave rise to lineages. Urien fathered Owain and Morfydd by Modron, a spirit related to water. That such beings should sleep with humans is actually a common motif, particularly around the Tweed Valley. Have a read of the tales of Thomas the Rhymer, and of Tam Linn for some other examples deriving from the Tweed region. I’ll come back to you with some more material a little further down the line…
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Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, who died in the plague of around 547,, the pagan , bisexual hedonist was married. His son Rhun ‘Hir’ (‘ The Tall’), who was illegitimate, succeeded Maelgwyn’s immediate heir Cynglas around 550. Rhun’s mother was the daughter of the enigmatic Avallach or Aballach, possibly ‘the’ Avallach who was recorded in literary legend as owning the island off the west coast (Bardsey?), which later became known as ‘Avalon’. Modron is known as the daughter of that man or place we now associate as Avalon . Because I am a descendent of these people through my mother , I have taken a lot of interest in how Modron meaning mother probably Mothered many great kings, being a sovereignty goddess and that the Arthur story was propaganda to make Christianity legitimate since Modron is waiting for a Christian man to impregnate her .
One hard thing about doing Scottish mythology is that I do come from Dal Riada the only indigenous Gaelic speakers of Britain , on the western Fringe of Scotland and of the north east of Ireland . However the Brythonic people in the rest of Scotland that we call the Picts were spread much farther around what we call Scotland today. If it weren’t for another of my ancestors , Norwegian Vikings who created and ruled Dublin , having made some sort of treaty with Northern Irish Kings , those viking probably would have taken the Dal Riada to sell as slaves but they didn’t, and they took everybody else , which probably has played into why Scotland ended up being ruled by a Gaelic fringe kingdom .
Yet when I do the history of different Scottish clans about half of them are actually Normans who were given the land as thanks from William the Conqueror . So the name of the clan is not Gaelic or Brythonic , but often French , although I don’t tell Scottish Americans this LOL . I live in a very remote place where the Scottish families have been here in the same house for over 200 years and still do Highland games that are taken very seriously . These are the true rednecks who wore red scarves to identify in the United States as extremist Protestants , the rednecks I come from left Scotland end Ireland for Kentucky or North Carolina when the English Civil War ended as well . So doing genealogy with Scottish clans doesn’t connect to the Brythonic and Gaelic people that live and still live in Scotland . The clan name is often of the Flemish for Norman warlord given land .
So there is a huge disconnect between pre-Norman Scotland and post to Norman Scotland where a lot of things seem to have gotten lost . However I would imagine the people living in the same land kept the same stories , however when doing genealogy it’s really hard to find out what those are for these regions , instead you learn about some Flemish guy . It’s as if there are two Scotlands. It’s incredibly frustrating when trying to figure out the pagan practices , especially since the Gaelic minority was just that , a very small minority which survive due to intermarrying with Northern Irish Kings who had treaties with Norse Vikings .
Then I can quite easily trace my Scandinavian family lineage in Scotland as they left when Harald took over all of Norway and many went to Scotland or Ireland and later to Iceland , making the female DNA of Iceland today about 50% the same as Scotland or Ireland since they took wives and slaves from Scotland and Ireland . It’s much easier to trace the Norse ancestry because some of it is even in the sagas if they went off to Iceland . The fact that the Norse have on folk culture in northern Scotland is the subject of a book which unfortunately I can’t afford right now .
But what all of this study show is that Scotland like Ireland or England doesn’t have any homogenous cultural population from the past . Even the broad label Celtic is misleading . Which makes untangling what came in from where at what point when overwhelming when bedridden relying on what is an e-book .
I read Thomas the Reimer etc. but I still keep hoping that like when in Ireland there is very bioregional specific stories about deities , Ireland post them on the side of the road , it’s that easy to do the research LOL . However the thing is I’ve arty described topped off with being at the English border for the tweed clan , adds another layer of disappearing history as the English went back-and-forth over the river at different times in history . Add all that Protestant and Catholic war stuff , we are a long way from the original Brythonic Scotland.
I’m really sick with a Lyme flareup right now so I’m using dictation that probably screwed up words so I hope you can actually read this LOL. also with a fever it may not come out as clearly as I hoped . I have noticed that in your travels of Scotland you often mention in the archaeology it self the different layers of Scottish history one on top of another on top of another on top of another ! It would be almost impossible for me to even suggest this to be Scottish Highlanders here . It’s actually called where I live the high lands and almost everything was killed due to sheep so she farming is why Vermont was the first date to say hey maybe we should do some conservation ! Although Scottish sheep , funny how these are the legacies that got carried to the United States isn’t it? It’s a very insular community obviously . I even live in Caledonia County !
Again thank you so much for taking photos of what I would want to see if I could still travel like i used to , it’s almost as if I sent you off to explore places I wanted to know about LOL.
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Thanks for sharing this. I’m planning a trip to Drumelzier this year. Yours and Tim Clarkson’s posts will be good guides. Intriguing how the Dark Age Myrddin is suddenly inspiring so much interest 🙂
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I shall be very intrigued to read Mr Clarkson’s book; the Myrddin legend is one that deserves a great deal more exploration. Should you decide to explore around Drumelzier, you’ll certainly find plenty to keep you occupied. The Tweed valley is a bit of a hotbed for old Brythonic ruins.
I feel much better informed about Merlin now 🙂 It’s a while since I’ve been up that way but if I return I’ll know what to look for.
Delighted to find this piece on Merlin, as I follow the Druid path. More importantly, my family comes from the area around the River Tweed, so I cherish this insight into my ancestral lands. I have been to visit Scotland and Wales, once, a few years ago. Just wish I had read this piece before going but will keep it in my heart for any future adventures in the Celtic Isles. Thank you! ❤
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As a tiny footnote, my maternal grandfather was a Young, whose family hailed from Scotland.
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We’re a sept of the house of Douglas, whose name comes from the Gaelic ‘dubh glas’; ‘dark water’. There’s a river and a town by that name in the southern uplands. The chiefs of the name are commonly buried in the church of St Bride in the town of Douglas. St Bride is a Christianisation of the goddess Bride, who you can read a little of in my post Queen of the Snows.
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Ah, I follow the Druid path because Brighid called to me in a dream. Thank you for the insight. Today has been one taken “out of time” for me to reflect, on the eve of my birthday. And in doing so I have received many gifts of the heart. May you continue to walk in Light. Thank you again. ❤
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Do you mind if I ask your surname? I know a fair bit about the stories of the families of that particular region, and might be able to give you one or two insights more you might appreciate.
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Whoops, thought I had alredy answered this question, but apparently it has flown away on the ethernet…. My maiden name is Lauder, paternal grandfather was Robert Lauder. And there are also Tweedies on that side of my family, Tweedie was my dad’s middle name. My maternal side are Young and Roast. Both families are in Nova Scotia, though originally came from Scotland. Grateful for any informationor insights you may have on my ancestors.
Tweedie’s a very old Celtic name, in its oldest form being Twydyn. They claim to descend from a girl who was seduced by the fairy/spirit of the Tweed, so are about as old a race as you’ll find in these parts. Tinnis was their castle.
On Lauder I know less. There’s a town and a valley of that name on the route of the old Roman road from Edinburgh down to York. A lot of interesting things in the area, but exactly how they connect to the families I don’t yet know. It sits at the edge of Lammermuir, a great expanse of empty moorland studded with little stone circles and old earthworks. A beautiful place in late summer, when the heather’s in bloom.
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Wow! I never suspected Tweedie would be such a connection to the world of faery! Ta for this, as it is important to my shamanic work in Faery Doctoring.
On our trip to Scotland, we did take a daytrip along the route you describe and drove through the the town of Lauder. It was a very beautiful drive on a pleasant, fall day in mid October.
I want to thank you again for sharing your knowledge with me. It has been a wondrous gift to receive. I honour you for your openness and skill of storytelling. I liked to share with you, when I was reading your latest blog post on Glen Cailliche, it touched me deeply. Deep, inside on a primal level. It made me weep. Not necessarily tears of sorrow but tears of resonance and connection, for the loss of the old ways. And perhaps of hope that such a place still can survive. Thank you again. May you continue to walk on the spiral path in Light and health.
Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.
Have you ever been to Hartfell Spa and the Devil’s Beef Tub associated with Merlin?
To the Beef Tub and to Hartfell itself, yes – but not to the spring of the Spa yet, no. Might be worth including in a summer trip… Do you know; is the association with Merlin one of any great age? As I understand it, the Spa was discovered in the last few hundred years, and the Merlin association attached thereafter?
Stobo Kirk is a Norman Kirk so a little late to be baptising Merlin there. Merlin was baptised on the actual Altarstone (thus converting a heathen altar to a christian one) at Altarstone Farm. Here is the altarstone. It is the big squared-off block.
The wood carvings at Stobo Kirk were carved by some William Morris types in the late 19th/ early 20th Century.
The Tweedie family attacked and “accidentally” murdered John Fleming of Boghall at Biggar. As a penance the bad Tweedies were ordered to pay for a new Kirk in Biggar which still stands today. It was built in 1546, was the last pre-Reformation Church built in Scotland and it actually has gunslots in its central defensive tower. Those were violent times and this area was a violent place. I live here now… its quieter these days. Though there are still a few Tweedies around…
The Kirk at Stobo, though most of the structure’s later, was founded back in the 6th century by St. Kentigern, which is where the Myrddin connection comes in; http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/peebles/stobokirk/
On Altarstone you’re quite right – I’ll amend the article accordingly. Thanks for pointing that out!
William where are you based?
Edinburgh. How so?
We are currently researching info for a documentary, would you mind if we put you on our file as a possible source.
Go right ahead. I’ll email my contact details to the address on your website.