Until now we have not uncovered a religious context to Arthur’s campaign, but that is to irrefutably change as we reach the point of no return. Arthur’s eighth encounter turns him into the crusading knight of legend, slaughtering Pagans in the name of God. The following passage from The Four Ancient Books of Wales by William F. Skene (1868) sets the scene :
“The eighth battle was "in Castello Guinnion." The word castellum implies a Roman fort, and Guinnion is in Welsh an adjective formed from gwen, white. The Harleian MS. adds that Arthur carried into battle upon his shoulders an image of the Virgin Mary, and that the Pagani were put to flight and a great slaughter made of them by virtue of the Lord Jesus Christ and of Saint Mary his mother.”
The Welsh ysgwyd meaning a shoulder and ysgwydd meaning a shield are very similar and translations vary as to exactly where Arthur’s image of the Virgin Mary was adorned. Another source states that Arthur also carried a cross from Jerusalem into battle and that the fragments are still preserved in Wedale, near modern day Stow, just north of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. Wedale is a Saxon name meaning the “Dale of Woe” and this is where Skene opted to locate Castello Guinnion.
As we have seen Castello Guinnion means something like The White Castle or more likely The Castle of the White or Fair One(s). To locate this major religious conflict I would like to propose something entirely different and somewhat magical. So now ta ke your cup and half fill it with uisge-beatha (whisky) literally “The Water of Life”. Raise your cup, oscillate your hand and swirl the golden fluid around. Stare briefly into the vortex then drink and feel the warmth of life spread through you. Now you are ready to begin to understand the complexities of my secret . . .
The Dragon & the Holy Grail
What I am now about to relate forms the very fulcrum of my theories on Arthur in Scotland. I shall draw on three texts from Welsh tradition for evidence and furthermore suggest that the contents, which up till now have been regarded as entirely mythical, not only record a real historical event, but are the remnants of the most significant religious battle in the history of Britain.
The first Welsh poem titled Priddeu Annwn (The Spoiling on The Otherworld) is attributed to the persona of Taliesin, the sixth century north British bard. Some scholars maintain that the poem was written down in the ninth century however this would also make it roughly contemporary with Nennius eighth century list of Arthur’s Battles which we are using as our guide. Historians have long regarded this quest for the Cauldron of Annwn as the basis for the later Christian Quests for the Holy Grail . . .
I praise the Lord, the sovereign of the royal realm,
I am the one who is splendid in (making) fame: the song was heard
I am the one who is splendid in (making) fame: the song is heard
I do not deserve (i.e. I deserve better than) ? readers concerned with literature of the lord
I do not deserve (i.e. I deserve better than) ? readers, their shields hanging down,
I do not deserve (i.e. I deserve better than) ? readers, feeble their intent,
Monks throng together like a wolf pack
Monks throng together like wolves
Translation by Marged Haycock (The University College of Wales, Aberystwyth)
Caer Siddi – The Faerie Fort
The opening tone of Priddeu Annwn cannot be mistaken. Taliesin, Chief Bard of Britain, has been forced to recognise a new more powerful Christian God, and is speaking plaintively for his annihilated religion to a triumphant Christian court. The unassailable fortress of the Otherworld has fallen. If this poem is the origin of the Quest for the Holy Grail, then surely the sea island described must reveal the location of the mythical Grail Castle whom many have tried to identify. The slaughter took place at the renowned Caer Siddi - The Faerie Fort. Could this be related to the rout at Castello Guinnion? If so, on which island of Britain did the battle take place?
The American Professor Norma Lorre Goodrich suggested in her book King Arthur that the Grail Castle stood on a conical shaped rocky island surrounded by swirling seas. It was also a previous Pagan site of major significance called Corbenic or Corbiere according to the medieval French Arthurian romances.
I have already written about the Black Faeries of Colonsay; an island off the West coast of Argyll where local history maintains that Saint Columba founded his first church before setting sail to Iona. The local Clan name MacFie or MacPhee comes from Duffie, the corruption of the Gaelic Dubh Sith meaning Dark Faerie. The Faerie Battle Flag was given to the MacLeod of Skye for safe keeping when the power of the West Coast Faeries came to an end. Could this event be synonymous with Arthur’s Raid on the Otherworld?
Between Colonsay and mainland Argyll there is an island chain formed by Islay, Jura, Scarba and Lunga from south to north, with the Holy islands of the Garvallachs lying in a crescent to the west of Scarba. All these Hebridean islands lie very much on the edge of the world with very little beyond except “the land beneath the waves” (The Island of Tiree) the Atlantic Ocean and America. Hebrides means the islands of Bride (Bride being the summer aspect of the Pagan Goddess). This is a region that can only be described as otherworldly; a magical mix of sky, sea and islands.
The conical shaped rocky island of Scarba lies at the heart of this world surrounded by swirling seas. On the east coast is a place called Blar nan Sith, meaning literally The Battlefield of the Faeries, or as one commentator translated, The Elysian Field! On return from a trip to Scarba in 2003 we were passing the south west coast of Luing when the boatman turned to me and said “That’s Tir nan Ogg”. “What?” I said. “The locals call that Tir nan Ogg” he repeated. Now Tir an Ogg is the Celtic mythical land of never ending youth, to find suggestion of it lying just west of Scarba . . . I wonder if we’re getting close? Taliesin gives us further clues within the last verses of another of his poems titled:
The Defence of the Chair
To the borders of the city come the ocean’s flood,
Martin Martin reported in the 17 th century that a woman had recently died on Scarba at the age of 140, still having possession of all her faculties however the Hebrides is a place where time has always turned slower. Manawydden is a Sea God from Welsh and Gaelic culture associated with the Isle of Man and Slamannan and Clackmannan in Central Scotland, however much closer to the proximity of this story, Manannan’s Fort can still be found on Saint Columba’s Island of Iona.
Perhaps the fruitful fountain refers to Carn a Chiber the Well of the Cairn, or the well to the west of Camus na Bearnach (formerly Bagh Ban – the Fair or Feminine Bay) both located on Scarba’s south shore overlooking the Corryvreckan whirlpool. The three fountains are:
The fountain of the Sky – The rain that strikes the hillside
On the Good Ship Prydwen
Returning to Priddeu Annwn, Prydwen is known to be the name of Arthur’s ship and three loads went by sea. This would suggest quite a small elite force numbering between 100 and 300. The Senchus fir n’Alban (The History of the Men of Alba) gives details on the Dalriadic (Argyll) Navy of the 6 th century. It is recorded that every twenty houses had to supply a seven bench vessel with crew for sea going missions. Based on the number of houses in Dalriada at the period it is estimated that the Scots could raise around 2,000 seasoned marines. A seven bencher possibly being crewed by around 30 is much the same as the later Scottish Galleys. We must remember though that the Romans had a fleet on the Clyde hundreds of years before this event and the West Coast of Britain was very much in touch with sea technology carried on the Trade Winds for thousands of years. Arthur probably had something bigger for this adventure and maybe a total fighting crew of 300 elite warriors.
The Revolving Fortress
Four turreted fully revolving or Four times revolving can only be one place – The four turning tides of the Corryvreckan whirlpool herself. Twice a day on the ebb and twice a day on the flow.
Childhood stories were told of a dark fearsome place on the West Coast of Scotland, a monster that ate ships and boats. A malignant old hag who stirred a sea cauldron and decided which vessels sank and who drowned. The Corryvreckan is legendary to shipping. It is the third biggest whirlpool in the world out of only seven, the largest in Europe and is a completely unique geophysical phenomenon in the British Isles. The massive eddies are caused by a submerged mountain spike called the Cailleach (The Old Hag) lying in the narrow sea channel between Scarba and Jura. When the Atlantic tide drops to the west of the island chain, the water retained in the Sound of Jura races through the gaps between the islands causing ferocious currents of which the Corryvreckan is the most notorious. My neighbour, Donny McLean, grew up on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist. He recalls that in bad conditions the Whirlpool could be heard rumbling and roaring from 20 miles away. As a child he was told that the noise was the screaming of the bad children who had been fed to the terrible Old Hag!
Our North British ancestors remained Pagan until relatively late in history, eventually succumbing to the preachings and teachings of Saint Columba operating from his sea kingdom base on Iona in the late sixth century. The Pagan religion, amongst other things, venerated sea Gods and water spirits. In the words of a Church of Scotland minister (in Govan) “To them the Corryvreckan was God”, except the Pagans believed in a Goddess. She was Mother Earth personified, the ruler of the seasons. She was the beautiful maiden Bride in the summer and the horrible Cailleach or Old Hag in the winter. Scottish historian and storyteller Stuart McHardy relates the ancient myth of the whirlpool:
At the end of autumn the Cailleach makes her way to the Corryvreckan. (This annual event coincides with when the whirlpool is at its fiercest under the spring tides of the October full moon). There at the whirlpool the Cailleach disrobes and washes her plaid in the whirlpool (Hence the name Corryvreckan – The Cauldron of the Plaid). She is a formidable being who, being the oldest of the old, wears a white plaid. Once her plaid has been washed and tumbled in the cauldron she then drapes it across the land to dry, thus explaining the winter snows and the reference to the White One of Castello Guinnion!
The Cauldron was kindled by the breath of nine maidens or fanned by the breath of nine muses in some translations. The Cauldron is an artefact and symbol common at the heart of many Welsh and Irish tales, and so it should be. The Cauldron or cooking pot is central to the hearth, the home, storytelling and human culture; the place where poets drew their awen (inspiration). The Gaelic coire means the cauldron, the cooking pot, a corrie on a hillside and the whirlpool all at once – a powerful symbol. It is worth noting that during the late 6 th century, Saint Blaan (Artur MacAedan’s half-brother whom I have written about elsewhere) was resident on the south end of Bute next to an ancient Pagan site known as The Cauldron.
The Nine Maidens are a cult related to the priestesses of Avalon and reminiscent of the cult found at the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece. Maiden place names and female references are prevalent in the Scottish landscape and significantly Rubha Righinn the Point of the Princesses or Maidens, can be found on Scarba’s south tip at the entrance to the Corryvreckan. One of the rocks on the point is called Cailleach nam Peur, the Cailleach of the Buttock, although the Buttock of the Cailleach might make more sense.
The seasons, the Goddess and her Cauldron are all strongly associated with birth and rebirth. There is a fort on the north east coast of Colonsay called Dunan na Nighnean - The Small Fort of the Maidens. This was where the wives of the MacFie (Faerie) Chiefs went to give birth. The entrance is one of cut steps in the natural rock leading to a small single chamber whose only entrance looks directly into the Corryvreckan. Thus the layout dictates that the women would have given birth towards the Cauldron.
Traditionally Arthur is known as Pendragon meaning Head Dragon whom some interpret as “Battle Leader”. Perhaps so, but in earlier cultural origins, the Mesopotamian Goddess of the seas was personified as a dragon. In Chinese and Norwegian lore the dragon is associated with the whirlpool. It is simple to view the vortices as being formed by a dragon chasing its tail beneath the waves, or even two dragons circling each other, which reminds me of Merlin’s famous prophecy about the Red Dragon overcoming the White Dragon in a pool beneath a fort. Perhaps the daring raid through the treacherous Corryvreckan was how Arthur gained his title.
In Argyll the Enduring Heartland, the author Marion Campbell gives a brief reference to a story in the Gaelic tradition about a young hero called Fraoch who swims across the Dragon Pool to retrieve some rowan berries for his lover Finnabhar (Guinivere?). Here we have another reference to the Dragon Pool in Argyll which, in my opinion can only be the Corryvreckan.
According to Glasgow City Council’s web site, Saint Kentigern (or Mungo) the Patron Saint of Glasgow was King Arthur’s nephew, whom I have written about elsewhere. In The Life of Saint Kentigern , Jocelyn of Furnace is quite specific that the Saint was involved in religious contention and that he "entered upon a fiercer conflict with the great and malignant Dragon that, according to the prophet, lieth in the midst of his rivers". Perhaps Kentigern was involved in the spoiling of the Otherworld.
Arthur is also associated with the Red Dragon of modern day Wales which lies against a green and white background however it is also worth noting that the Battle Standard of Strathclyde was the Green Dragon.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan is about half a mile wide and runs at roughly 100 to 120m deep. The channel is a myriad of currents and agitated effects where the waters are made to boil and dance. As mentioned the main whirlpool is formed by the mountainous spike in the ocean floor rising to around 29m below the surface opposite Camus na Bearnach. To the east of the Cailleach on the approach to the pool, opposite Rubha Righinn, there is a pit in the sea bed that plummets 100m to a total depth of 219m. It is called the Gateway to Hell.
The Island of the Strong Door
The Island of the Radiant Door is often translated as The Island of the Strong Door and we can assume that the door is the whirlpool – The Door to the Otherworld. The Corryvreckan lies due west of Loch Craignish and is approached through the channel of Dorus Mor (The Great Door) where the mouth of the loch slams into the Sound of Jura (The Perilous River?) with a bang.
Freshwater and jet are mixed . Scientists have recently realised that if there were no whirlpools on earth then there would be no life on earth. The world’s whirlpools are the bringers of life to the ocean. Without them freshwater and brine would not mix, the oceans would freeze, there would be no photosynthesis and no spark of life. It appears our ancestors understood this realising a primary role of their Goddess was to stir the Cauldron and create the water of life.
The Fortress of Intractability and The Fortress ofImpediment are perfect descriptions of the shifting waters surrounding Scarba bubbling out from the Cailleach’s cauldron.
The Glass Fort
David McDowell recently brought forward the idea that this may refer to a vitrified fort which are only found in Scotland. Vitrification is caused by high temperatures melting rock to create a glassy surface. Equally the Glass Fort may simply describe Scarba’s quartzite formation (with abundant pure quartz veining) which glitters in the sunset. Quartz has long been associated with ancient sites, pilgrims often carrying quartz pebbles to hilltops, a practice that continues in Ireland today. More specifically it may refer to the high arts of glass making and enamel working “on an industrial scale” that were prevalent in the locale and period as supported by the recent archaeological evidence from Dunadd.
This phenomenon was not accidental; the geology of the region surrounding Scarba is somewhat unique and abundant in minerals. Strontian at the head of Loch Sunart about 30 miles to the north (mostly by boat) is world famous for the rare minerals found in the early 18 th century. I will be exploring this line of enquiry much further when we look behind the colour of Arthur’s and Clan Arthur’s shield in my forthcoming article Braw Bricht Blue Enamel.
Caer Fandwy translates as The High Fortress or God’s Peak, an apt description of Cruach Scarba the highest point that soars to 449m dwarfing the surrounding islands. The Goddess Mountain towering above the edge of the world.
There is another Welsh source that also tells of a battle at Caer Fandwy. In the following dialogue could we be looking at another record of Arthur’s Raid?
Dialogue Between: Gwyddneu Garanhir & Gwyn ap Nudd
. . . . . . .
I come from battle and conflict
I will address thee, exalted man,
Round-hoofed is my horse, the torment of battle
. . . . . .
Polished is my ring, golden my saddle and bright;
Before Caer Vandwy a host I saw,
. . . . . . .
I have been in the place where was killed Gwendoleu,
I have been in the place where Bran was killed,
I have been in the place where Lachleu was slain,
I have been in the place where Meurig was killed,
I have been in the place where Gwallawg was killed,
I have been in the place where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
I have been in the place where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
Gwyn ap Nudd is King of the Faeries and appears to have been the defender of Caer Fandwy which we have seen is another name for Caer Siddi or the Faerie Castle – A suitable abode for the King of the Faeries and Lord of the Otherworld. Is this the same event as Priddeu Annwn relates?
Gwyddneu Garanhir appears in the story of Taliesin’s rebirth as a poet from the Cauldron. When Taliesin received the three drops of wisdom from Ceridwen’s Cauldron it broke and the remaining fluid poisoned Gwyddneu Garanhir’s horses.
Bran is a hero found in Welsh tradition as a King of the Britons involved a in quest for a magic cauldron. He is also found in Irish tradition sailing to magical islands of women. More importantly Artur MacAeden had a brother called Bran and their family was to be found at Dunadd and Kintyre on the doorstep of the Corryvreckan. It is also mentioned in one source that Dalriada fought a battle against the Picts on the north of Jura around 578AD, could this be the battle in question?
Lachleu is named as Arthur’s slain son. There is another ancient story from the Corryvreckan about a Prince Breacan of Lochlann (meaning Viking). The name Breacan may come from Brychain who is prominent in North British ancestry. Breacan asked the Lord of the Isles (Lord of the Otherworld?) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He was told that in order to win her he would have to anchor his Dragon prowed ship in the whirlpool for three nights. Seeking advice he was told to make three ropes, one of hemp, one of wool and one from the hair of three virgins. On the first night the hemp broke, on the second night the wool came apart, on the third night the hair held through the raging waters before eventually shearing and the Prince was drowned. The explanation given is that it was later found out that one of the three virgins was not what she claimed. The motif of three ropes and three virgins is reminiscent of Arthur’s three ships and the nine maidens.
Gwallawg is a warrior whom Taliesin writes about in other poems. I will be making reference to him again in the next battle at the City of the Legion. He was definitely alive at this battle which suggests that the list of dead heroes above may not all have been killed in the conflict before Caer Fandwy, or indeed that Nennius’ list of battles is not in the correct sequence.
Returning to the poem Priddeu Annwn, we find our final geographical description, Caer Ochren the Fort of the Shelving Tide or Shelving Side. Either applies to Scarba’s shelving landscape and the underwater waterfalls of the Corryvreckan.
So far I have identified a site for the Faerie Fort defended by the heavy grey chain of the Corryvreckan. The Fortress of Intractability, of Impediment, unassailable beyond the Strong Door. A place of magic, myth and legend associated with the White Goddess, her maidens and her cauldron.
We also have three written references to the demise of the pagan religion and the people which appear to support the location, the period and Arthur’s involvement.
What more do we need? Sometimes the truth is more brutal . . . Only seven came back . The last two verses of Priddeu Annwn tell of the aftermath of the encounter of the masters, when two Gods clash . . .
The Grey Dogs
Monks throng together like wolves or sometimes translated Monks throng like a choir of dogs. There is a legend on Scarba that on moonless nights, you can still here the screams of the evil sailors (Picts?) being hunted down by the grey hounds. To escape the gaping jaws of the dogs the evil sailors must confess their sins! One of the pursuit dogs was over zealous and chased his quarry into the treacherous rip tide on the north side of the island and drowned in the channel now known as Bealach a’ Choin Ghlais or The Pass of The Grey Dogs.
If we assume that this event took place during the Christianisation of the Western Isles it would be contemporary with Saint Columba and ArturMacAeden in the late sixth century. The Law of the Innocents was not written until the late seventh century by Adomnan of Iona, later successor to Columba. This law was written to protect non-combatants and was the first to state that women, children and clergy should no longer be involved in conflict, which indicates that during the preceding Arthurian period, the clergy were involved in conflict. It is therefore not unreasonable to further assume that in the wake of the victory achieved by Arthur’s decimated warriors in Priddeu Annwn that armed Monks led war dogs into the ensuing rout. “T he Pagani were put to flight and a great slaughter made of them by virtue of the Lord Jesus Christ and of Saint Mary his mother.”
At this point we should also note the grey hound’s association with King Arthur’s Coat of Arms, MacArthur of Milton’s Coat of Arms, the name of Glasgow and Saint Kentigern the Hound Lord who I have mentioned already. It is said that Kentigern led 900 monks in Wales, presumably armed.
There is a small Columban chapel on the east coast of Scarba. It was reported by John Fordun c1380 to be “The Chapel of the Blessed Virgin where many miracles occur”. Could this island site of medieval pilgrimage be Saint Columba’s elusive retreat known as Hinba?
One of the most ancient power symbols revered by earlier and widespread cultures; is the spiral. Today the recognised symbol for a whirlpool is that same spiral. There is a type of rock carving found prolifically in Argyll known as cup & ring marks (a shallow formed depression – cup, with one or more concentric rings). Both these and the carved spirals found on Columban Crosses may be seen to be representative of the energy vortex in general and the whirlpool in particular. The spiral is also widely believed to be particularly associated with the Goddess representing the spiral of life.
Taliesin’s poem Hostile Confederacy contains the following lines:
Fecund and nourishing,
Stuart McHardy points out that this can be interpreted as part of the whiskey making process – now known as distilling. The ancient tribes of Britain could manufacture good tubing as proven by their Carnyx (War Horn) and it is possible that they could have known about distillation early on in the north-west. Perhaps the poets’ inspiration has long been drawn from uisge-beatha (the water of life) brewed secretly in the cauldron.
We started with a whiskey so we’ll end the story with a dram to the poets and the storytellers – The keepers of the Heroic Tradition. If my deductions and resulting theories are correct then Christianity, far from being a peaceful conversion, was delivered at the point of Arthur’s sword. The evidence fits. A matriarchal tribal system that revered a mother Goddess through a maiden priestess cult and maintained an ancient oral tradition was supplanted by a patriarchal system of priests, a male God and written history. The magic had gone – The long slow demise of North British tribalism which would end in feudalism had begun. Literacy ruled and our heroes became the stuff of faerie stories to be told over whiskey glasses.