King Arthur of Angus (and Gowrie)? Constantine, King and Saint
Firstly, I must make it clear that I don't think that King Arthur (whoever he was) personally ruled Angus, or whatever the area was called before it was Angus. That would, of course, be absurd. I have in fact a love/hate relationship with Arthurianism. Is it undoubtedly a historical cul-de-sac, diverting attention from its Celtic origins and cynically hiding the theft of native British culture by cynical Norman overlords? Or is it a fascinating world where a dizzying array of cultures and influences collide to create - in some cases - astounding art and legend? Bit of both.
The Northern Arthur means different things to different people. Every bit of the byzantine world of Arthuriana means different things to different people - many of whom would describe themselves as 'experts', and a fair number of whom repeatedly claim to have uncovered the 'real' Arthur. Recent decades have seen a trend to claim that the historical Arthur was primarily active in the area of north Britain which later became Scotland. They cite the early epic The Gododdin (set around Edinburgh, but in its present form much later than its supposed composition around 600 A.D.) which mentions Arthur in passing. Also there is the extremely active and warlike ruler Aedan of Dal Riata, around the same time, who named one of his sons Arthur. But enough of that unsolvable stuff. What about Arthur of Angus? We should actually broaden that to Strathmore, since the traditions are shared with Gowrie, that Perthshire region which shared the great broad valley of Strathmore.
Arthur of Strathmore - a Sidlaws Idyll?
First thing to say, (and I will not fully develop this observation) is that the traditions of Arthur in Strathmore seem to lie alongside - possibly underneath - a rich seam of traditions about Macbeth. I leave that thought there. It seems to be true that the traditions of Arthur, Merlin, et al, which exist in Scotland seem to exist either in the Welsh-British areas of southern Scotland or in the adjacent regions of Pictland which would have spoken a similar language and shared some of the British cultural heritage. There are only a few outlier Arthurian place-names in the Gaelic region.
One of the earliest propagators of the northern Arthur conjecture was the Victorian John S. Stuart Glennie, whose book Arthurian Localities (1869) throws a mass of evidence excitedly at the reader, and some of it sticks. Glennie tramped much of Scotland and northern England on foot, looking at sites first hand and becoming more convinced every step of the way that he was on to something. Maybe he was. A myriad of modern writers have, in essence, ripped him off.
Barry Hill, Meigle
Glennie started his survey of our area from the hill of Barry in Alyth parish (Perthshire), from where he was able to survey the broad valley of Strathmore beneath him. On this site of an old hillfort, Stuart Glennie noted that tradition held this spot as 'the Castle to which the Pictish king Mordred, having defeated King Arthur in a great battle, carried off his Queen Quenivere, or, as she is locally named, Ganora, Vanora, or Wander.'
The queen succumbed to Mordred and Arthur had her torn apart by wild horses when he reunited with her. This barbarous execution was thought to have been represented in a carving on a Pictish stone erected at nearby Meigle. This monument marked the poor dismembered lady's grave. Glennie asserted that the queen was buried in four different places in the locality, though one Meigle worthy was sceptical and sourly remarked, 'Thae auld histories are maistly lees, I'm thinkin'.'
The local minister, reporting for the Old Statistical Account in 1795 described this stone (now classified as Meigle 2) as, ' the remains of the grand sepulchral monument of Vanora'. Anna Ritchie notes: 'This tradition may have derived from the early legend known among the Britons but is more likely to belong to the developed Arthurian cycle of the 12th century and later; it is one of the most northerly of the surviving traces of the legend, most of which are south of the Forth.' ('Meigle and Lay Patronage in Tayside in the 9th and 10th centuries AD,' Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 1, 1995, 1-10.) There is a place (and a stone) nearby called Arthurstone and a farm once named Arthur's Fold. The associations with the deeply significant Pictish settlement of Meigle are profound, even if not necessarily early.
A full examination of the traditions here will have to be put off - and completed by another person. That arch dissembler, the dubious historian Hector Boece included perhaps local traditions of Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred in a locality that was known intimately to him as a native of Angus. Did he incorporate genuine local traditions? That would be too much to say. Yet the 'traditions' are alluring, despite what that old local man once said. Here's what it says in Our Meigle Book, published in 1932 say about the spot where the queen was slain (p.11):
Many were the stories and superstitions that grew up around Venora's Mound, and up to a hundred years ago even, it was believed that if a young woman were to walk over this spot no baby of hers would ever gladden her home! We can afford to laugh at these quaint superstitions in our enlightened mand matter-of -fact days, but we cannot altogether explain away these legends of Arthur.
The local authors gained the tradition about the fearsome infertility causing grave from national historian and Angus man Hector Boece, who was certainly a liar in one sense,but did he here, in this instance, tap into something genuine, or at least traditional? What rational reason would there be for a belief that the grave of an unfaithful queen make young women infertile. A passage from Boece, via his Scots translator John Bellenden, sits at the bottom of this piece - though it hardly sheds much light.
Dumbarrow Hill, Dunnichen - Arthur's Seat
The author of the New Statistical Account for Dunnichen parish related of Dumbarrow Hill in the parish of Dunnichen: '...a rock on the north side of Dumbarrow Hill...has long borne, in the tradition of the country, the distinguished name of Arthur's Seat'. The earlier author of the Old Statistical Account (1791) commented: 'The only other hill in this parish [apart from Dunnichen Hill itself] is called Dumbarrow, probably from having been the burial place of some person of eminence. A rock on its north side is still called Arthur's Seat. This hill is not so high as that of Dunnichen.'
This, in a sense, is where the trail grows cold. It is also where it becomes more intriguing. The fortification on Dumbarrow has never been excavated. Nor are there many legends that would explain the association of this site with King Arthur. We are left with mystery. Alexander Warden in the third volume of Angus or Forfarshire (p. 190) gives this information:
The Hill of Dumbarrow (anciently Dunberach), in the parish, disputes with
the Hill of Barry, near Alyth, the honour of having been the prison of
Arthur's frail Queen, Guanora, and the claim is strengthened by a jutting rock
on the hill being called Arthur's Seat.
So the original element in the place-name would seem to be a Celtic personal name - Berach - rather than 'barrow', which English word would suggest a burial. Possibly this commemorates St Berach of Termonbarry, an Irish cleric who died in 595. His placement in the landscape here chimes in well with other Irish saints, such as St Buitte, associated with nearby Carbuddo (Kirkbuddo), another fort. Possibly Irish saints or their acolytes were drawn by the power and prestige of local Pictish royalty. Here then is a possibly dedicant of this hill site before Arthur was imposed upon it. This is to assume that Warden is correct and Dunberach applies to Dumbarrow and not Barry. There is clearly a confusion between Barry Hill and Dumbarrow, though whether this goes back beyond the 16th century and the historian Boece is anyone's guess.
Dunnichen's Importance & The Case of Constantine - King or Saint?
The contention here is whether there is any significance in the fact that the name of Arthur - the most important legendary Brittonic figure - is attached to a landscape feature in the parish of Dunnichen. Dunnichen , as Dun Nechtan, was an important power centre of the Picts and likely, in the 5th century, the site of power of a king named Nechtan. Unfortunately, we cannot go much further back than Boece in teasing out any Arthurian connection here. We can however bring out to the light another name with Arthurian connections, Constantine. Constantine was the parish saint of Dunnichen. St Constantine sometimes known by the diminuative of Causnan - was marked by St Causnan's Fair, held here every March (second Wednesday of March, Old Style, and latterly devoted only to the sale of toys). There was St Causnan's Well in the parish, and also of course the church dedicated to him. The Old Statistical Account also informs us, intriguingly, that the falls of snow which were frequently observed in March were known here as St Causnan's Slaw (or Flaw), coinciding with his feast date. The word slaw may generally refer to a blast of wind, but its association with icy, snowy blasts in March is a natural extension of meaning. The writer James Murray Mackinlay noted an interesting (significant?) parallel in Norfolk ,of all places, where the Whinwall Storm was a local name for early March foul weather, taken from the saint named St Winwal or Winwaloe, significantly a British Celtic saint of the 6th century (Influence of the Pre-Reformation Church on Scottish Place-names, Edinburgh and London, 1904, p. 95).
Dedications to Constantine, whoever this saint was, are rare in Scotland, but the church of Kinnoull, at the western end of the Carse of Gowrie (Perthshire) is relatively close to Dunnichen, also honoured Constantine. But who was this Constatine? The son of some confusion, I fear. There was, in Boece and other unscrupulous sources, a King of the Britons known as Constantine, of uncertain ancestry. There was an Irish saint named Constantine of Rahan. More regionally significant, possibly, the Aberdeen Breviary has Constantine son of Paternus. Intriguingly, there were a number of late Pictish and early Scottish kings name Constatine (Pictish variant Castatin). The reason for this sudden appearance of the name in their genealogies is unknown.
In Argyll, we have a place name Kilchousland dedicated to one of these saints. He was specifically names as Constantine, king and saint of Cornwall, who came north and founded a monastery at Gobvan (a very significant ecclesiastical site linked with the British kingdom of Strathclyde). In his old age he retreated to Kintyre and here, at Kilchousland, he was martyred.
The Annals of Ulster, s.a. 589, records 'The conversion of Constantine to the Lord...' The British writer Gildas castigated a powerful ruler of Dumnonia (Devon/Cornwall) called Constantine as a 'tyrannical whelp'. I currently live in Cornwall and there are various, significant remembrances of this ruler in the local place-names.
The Aberdeen Breviery links this person, the son of Paternus, who went into exile in Ireland after his wife died and became a humble monk. After seven years forgetting himself he had a moment of dark epiphany while working at a mill. he asked himself:
Am I Constantine, king of Cornwall, whose head has sustained so many helmets, his body so many coats of mail?Am I? he enquired of himself.
And he replied, I am not.
By the 12th century Constantine was Arthur's successor as King of Britain, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. I believe there is some wispy, intangible connection between this faded Arthurian strands in Strathmore, though I can't quite put my finger on it yet...
Hector Boece's Account of Guinevere in Angus
Book Nine, Chapter 12
Guanora, the Quene of Britane, and spouse of King Arthure, was tane, with mony ladyis and knichtis depending on hir for the time. The hors, riches, and cofteris gottin with hir fell in pray to the Scottis; bot hirself, hir ladyis and knichtis, fell to the Pichtis, and was brocht in Angus, to ane castell calht Dunbarre, of quhilk na thing remanis now bot the prent of the wallis; quhare thay leiffit the remanent dayis of thair life. In memorie heirof, in Megile, ane towne of Angus, ten mile fra Dunde, ar mony anciant sepulturis, had in gret reverence of pepill; and specially the sepulture of Guanora, as the title writtin thairapon schawls: "All" wenien that strampis on this sepulture sail be ay barrant, but ony" frute of thair wamb, siclike as Guanora was." And quhidder that this be of verite or nocht, latte thaim schawe that hes experience thairof; bot ane thing we knaw: all wemen abhorris to strampe on that sepulture. It is said be Galfride, writare of the History of Britane, that Modrede and Arthure faucht nocht at Humbir, bot at the town of Gwintoun, and come out of the feild on live; and Guanora, for displeseir, enterit in religioun: quhilkis ar not far discrepant fra the history, as we have writtin. Nochtheles, we follow Veremond, Turgot, and otheris mony autentike authouris, quhilkis writis the trew deidis of nobill men, but ony fictioun. Attoure, quharevir this maist dangerus battal was strikin, sic displesour come, efter, to the Britons, Scottis, and Pichtis, be huge slauchter, that, mony yeris efter, thay micht nocht recover the dammage thairof.