Canmore - Who was Big Head?
The head that wears the crown has to be large. But what exactly does this mean - symbolically big, physically huge, an appellation with mystical connotations? Severed heads loomed large in several strains of Celtic legend and the cult of the severed head was an attested reality in pagan times. The most famous survival in literature, thanks to his starring role in the Mabinogion, is Bendigeidfran, Brân the Blessed, whose separated head entertained his comrades as they journeyed back from campaign in Ireland and was interred on the White Hill in London to protect the Island of the Mighty being invaded by foreigners.
Also in the Mabinogion - in the tale of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed - there is a character named Pendaran who teaches Pryderi. This name is a compound of pen and taran and seemed to mean 'big headed'. T. F. O' Rahilly (in Early Irish History and Mythology, p. 515) also highlights the Irish name Condollos 'Great-headed' (cennmór), which he states 'would have been [an] appropriate [appellation] of the Otherworld deity. . . and such appellatives were frequently used as names of men.’ In the year 580 the Irish annals record the death of 'Cennaleth, king of the Picts' (alternately called Cindaeladh, Cennalath). Nothing is known of this person, albeit that he reigned during the time of Aedan mac Gabran of Dal Riada and was perhaps an oppenent of his. H. M. Chadwick (Early Scotland, p. 14) states that the name seems to be Gaelic and then speculates that, 'Perhaps it was a nickname, denoting “head-warrior” or “speckled-head”.'
All of which brings us to the most famous Big Head of them all, Malcolm Canmore. King Malcolm III ruled from 1058 to 1093, dying on campaign in Northumbria where he focussed much of his warfare. Otherwise known in Gaelic as Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, his alternative designation by later historians was King Malcolm III Canmore. Putting aside the puzzle of whether Canmore in his case was an indicator of a physical characteristic, or a nickname applied to the primacy of his chieftainship, or even a quasi-pagan name steeped in antiquity, the historian A. A. M. Duncan stated that the name did not relate to this Malclom at all, but to Malcolm IV, otherwise known as the Maiden, who reigned from 1153 until 1165 (at the age of 24).
In The Kingship of the Scots (2002, pp. 74-75), Duncan points out that the nickname was not used by contemporaries of Malcom III, but was only entered into later written histories. Moreover, there is a record by the chronicler William of Newburgh that suggests that the notoriously ailing Malcolm IV may have been afflicted with a condition that would have well matched the soubriquet 'big head'. William states that the young king suffered from severe pains in the feet and head for several years before his death. This, according, to Duncan shows that:
Malcolm IV suffered from Paget’s disease, osteatis deformans. . . whose hallmark is “excessive and disorganized resorption and formation of bone”, particularly observable in the tibia and the skull...Those with such pronounced symptoms experience pain, even severe pain, in the affected bones, but, even before modern treatments, the disorder was itself not rapidly fatal unless bone sarcoma, signaled by rapidly worsening pain, set in.
He adds that the Annals of Ulster noted his demise by stating that Maelcoluim Cennmor son of Henry, highking of Alba, died, and it was only later that the name became fixed to the previous King Malcolm. He then cites transference of nicknames in other dynasties, such as 'the legend of Kyffhäuser which arose after the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250 and was later applied to his grandfather, Frederick I.’ But of course there is still the possibility that it was wrongly ascribed by the Annals of Ulster to the wrong ruler.
Whatever the truth, the name Canmore has a mysterious resonance still, and we are unlikely to ever pinpoint the exact relevance of its meaning.
|X-Ray of skull affected by Paget's Disease|