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by Philip Coppens After the Romans decided to leave Britain, the Gododdin were left to their own devices. Their alliance with the Romans meant that they had lost a powerful ally, but it also meant that after the Romans’ departure, they were, south of the Forth, the only Celtic tribe that had retained its power. Whereas the rest of Britain was a power vacuum, the Gododdin knew where their borders were: what was theirs, and what was not theirs.
They were in a precarious position: they could try to extend their territory, although at the same time, it was clear to any thinking man that elsewhere in Britain, new power bases would be created, and they would try to extend their power. The Gododdin might have the organisation in place, but could organisation outweigh the desire, the wild enthusiasm of the new claimants? Intriguingly, we know very little of what happened to the Gododdin – but then, as we shall see, perhaps we know a great deal more than we realise – perhaps we just are just not aware of it.
First, though, let us paint the picture: the Gododdin enter into alliance with the Romans, and survive as a Celtic tribe, a unique position south of the Firth. In the 5th century, the Romans will leave and it is clear that the Gododdin are trapped between two fires: the Picts to the north will want to push south, as has been their intention for some time; from the south, new forces will arrive, in search of newfound independence, and they will challenge the Gododdin. It is in this context that we should see the legend of King Arthur. It is one of the most universally known of all myths, particularly in Great Britain, the kingdom of this hero. No other name is found as frequently in England, which gives evidence of his popularity. Furthermore, the name occurs from the extreme south to the extreme north, as well as east and west. Trying to use place names to answer where Arthur’s Kingdom was located, is therefore extremely difficult. Some people do argue that Arthur ruled “Britain” as a whole, not just parts of it – although he would have had to have been Superman to do so and traces of this would have been left not merely in legends, but history as well.
So what chance would the Lothians have of being singled out as Arthur’s Homeland? A very good one, as its ruler is mentioned specifically in the Arthurian accounts. And, if anything, it is King Loth who is able to locate the historical Arthur. The earliest known reference to King Arthur is indirect, but intriguing. Y Gododdin, is the Welsh epic poem by the bard Aneurin, composed around 600 AD. This means that around 600 AD, suddenly Welsh bards were writing about a Scottish Celtic tribe. What had happened? The story is quite simple: the Gododdin had disappeared from the Lothians, and had surfaced in Wales. It seems unlikely that this was a large exodus, but it is clear that something had happened, which had forced the Gododdin to abandon their homeland, something the Romans had not been able to manage. At the same time, the Welsh bards began to sing the lost fame of the Celtic tribe, explaining in the epic what had happened: after the withdrawal of the last Roman garrison, the Gododdin area had been subjected to various invasion attempts, and in the end the invaders were successful.
It was in this context that Aneurin refers to one warrior as being great, “although he was no Arthur”. Thus Aneurin is thus describing a lesser known character and is comparing him to Arthur, with whom his audience seems to be familiar. Historians have a problem here, as there is no earlier written reference to Arthur, though this poem is hard evidence that there was a famous warrior by the name of Arthur.
Though modern folklore firmly links Arthur with England, and Glastonbury specifically, scholar Camilla Ann Richmond, who is an expert on Arthurian traditions, concluded that Arthur was real. She concluded that the traditional claims that Arthur was an “English hero”, was frail. Instead, she felt, “King Arthur most likely resided in Scotland.” Another key to unravel the mystery of Arthur is through the various battles he fought. The exact translation of the battle site locations is much disputed among Arthurian scholars. Many of the place names no longer exist in Britain; therefore, their exact positions are left to individual interpretation. More traditional scholars place the majority of the battles in the south of England, although the sites are spread over a wide area. This in itself is remarkable, and quite unlikely. It is more likely that the battles all took place in one area. The question is: which area?
The final battle of Mount Badon is the most important to locate because it secured Arthur’s military reputation and began an extended era of peaceful reign. This battle is so significant that three of the primary sources, Gildas, Nennius, and the Annals of Wales, go so far as to describe the location in detail. The battle is even remembered by some, such as Gildas, in relation to the day of their birth.
With Badon being possibly the best evidence, where is it? Badon has traditionally been placed at Bath because of its Roman history and because Geoffrey of Monmouth put it there. But there are many reasons why this is wrong: Bath was a Roman spa, not a fortress. It does not fit the description of Mount Badon. It is very distant from the other battles. Etc. Other possibilities have been put forward, but what is clear is that in this case, the evidence needs to be looked at as a whole. There were twelve battles, and all twelve battles should have to be placed in one general area, rather than scattered across the length of Britain, an area Arthur could impossibly defend. Furthermore, it is likely that some sites will not be found; this should not be surprising, as the lack of knowledge about the sites is what has lead to the debate in the first place. These are the sites:
-Battle 1: mouth of the River Glein
-Battles 2, 3, 4, 5: by the Dubglas River in the Linnuis area
-Battle 6: the River Bassas
-Battle 7: in the Celidon Wood
-Battle 8: in Fort Guinnion
-Battle 9: in the City of the Legion
-Battle 10: on the banks of the River Tribruit
-Battle 11: on Mount Agned
-Battle 12: on Mount Badon
Where are they likely to be situated? The evidence suggests that we should look towards the kingdom of Loth, as it is clear that Arthur would most likely have fought for his brother-in-law. This suggests the Lothians. Furthermore, we need to place it within its most likely framework, the period around 430 AD, around the time the Romans abandoned Britain, at a time when it is known that the Gododdin were left to fight for themselves – and would begin a series of battles that would eventually result in their defeat two centuries later. If the Arthurian tradition is to be inserted, it seems that after the initial wars, a long period of peace did exist, before the final defeat – and the move of the Gododdin to Wales, where, it seems, they could only remember a “Dreamtime”, when they lived in their homeland, in peace. Arthur’s battles would most likely be to preserve a territory. Although in Geoffrey’s account Arthur is all over the place, fighting battles across Britain, such a form of warfare is more in line with the modern American “surgical strikes” across the world, from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. They make the American presidents into formidable warlords, and yet it is clear that in all those places, the American army has not been able to keep a government going for a period of twenty-odd years. In all cases, the Americans saw, entered, fought, conquered, and left again.
Though in some areas, it did bring peace, we should not interpret Arthur within such a framework. It is not the framework of any war before modern warfare was invented. Traditionally, wars were about territory, either to keep it, or to extend it. As a result, Arthur either defended a territory, or extended his territory. If he was in search of extension, he might have been formidable, but would he have the mystical appeal?
Arthur was remembered for his brilliant battles against the odds, but also for his defensive policies. He tried to keep the dream alive, and succeeded. If he was expanding his territory, the battles would largely follow a line: from close to home, expanding further from home, until a specific landmark was reached, or until everyone in Britain was conquered. As not even the Romans were able to conquer everything in Britain, it is clear that his task was not an easy one. If Arthur was fighting for his territory, the battles should be along the borders of the territory, possibly from various angles, if not by various means: an attack over land, an attack over sea, an attack from the south, an attack from the south, etc. When invading, or fighting off an enemy, the first attack is always close to home, so it seems logical to assume that Arthur’s first battle was close to home. His first battle occurred at the “mouth of the river Glein”. So where is the river Glein? It is clear that the name is rather general, meaning valley. Furthermore, most battles are fought in valleys, along rivers, Glencoe being one example. Alistair Moffat has proposed that there is a known River Glen, the one in Northumbria, near Yeavering Bell. This is, in retrospect, a very logical location for the first battle. The Gododdin must have had a station at Yeavering Bell and an attack from the south must have been expected. The Angles were already stationed at York and Yeavering Bell is specifically the area which would become one of the capitals of King Edwin after the Anglian expansion to the north. In later years, the area would also see the Battle of Flodden, in 1513. Flodden sits along the river Till, which is the river joined by the Glen; according to Nennius, it was the mouth of the Glen where the battle took place. The next four battles all occurred “by the Dubglas River in the Linnuis area”. It is unfortunate that Arthur had to fight four battles in the same area, as it reduces the twelve sites down to nine. Dubglas means “dark river” and is the precedent of the modern Douglas. Searches for Douglas in a region sounding like Linnuis have occurred, but without success. Though it is clear that Douglas sounds specifically Scottish, perhaps it is the river Douglas, which flows into the Clyde near Lanark. It is the area of the infamous Douglas clan, who would become one of the most heroic families in later centuries. But the area is not known as Linnuis. The Firth of Forth Again, Alistair Moffat did a brilliant analysis, by realising that the Firth of Forth was called Linn Giudain. Linn and Linnuis are very similar – if not identical. But where is the Douglas river? Moffat argues this is the River Forth itself, as the Gaels called the river Forth “an Abhainn Dubh”, which translates as “dark river”. The River Forth and the Firth of Forth is a vast area, separating the Picts from the Gododdin. Apart from the Angles in the south, it was the Picts in the north who wanted to push south – and frequently mounted attempts to do so, some of these successful. If the Dubglas river was a small stream somewhere, then it must have been a very important location and a vital thoroughfare, as one battle after another was waged there. But if it was the Firth and the Firth of Forth, then it is clear that the Picts will have tried numerous attempts along the length of the river, perhaps some by normal cavalry, such as near Stirling, to the west, or perhaps via a maritime expedition.
The abundance of Iron Age hill forts, such as The Chesters near Drem, is clear evidence of a threat from across the Firth, and it was Gildas himself who described the Picts as “transmarini” – from over the water. If the battle was fought by cavalry, then the most important battle site in Scotland would also have been the most important battle site for Arthur.
The Firth of Forth cut Scotland in two, with the bog land called Flanders Moss in the west, from Stirling to the lake of Menteith and the foot of the mountains around Ben Vrackie. The only safe passage through was dominated by the rock of Stirling Castle, and the bridge over the Forth. It is here that the Battle of Bannockburn would take place, in 1314, which would grant Scotland independence. The sixth battle occurred “beyond the river which is called Bassus”. Alistair Moffat tried to place this battle, but notes that the only examples of “Bas”, such as Basingstoke, are in England. Others have been equally unsuccessful. There is a Bassus, a Roman poet, who is believed to have lost his life in the eruption of Vesuvius. Another Bassus was a Roman historian, noted for his histories of the German battles. The name is therefore well-known as a Roman name, but is apparently lacking in Scotland. However, there is one candidate, and it is the Bass Rock. The Bass Rock is an island off the coast of East Lothian. And that is the problem: it is not a river.
The Bass Rock was connected with St Baldred, and the coastline closely identified with him was the strip of land from Tantallon Castle – a stronghold of the Douglas family in later centuries – to Tyninghame, situated along the Tyne. We can perhaps speculate that the Bass Rock and the river Tyne, both of which were strongholds of Baldred in later years, somehow became identified as one. Though logically this is not a stretch of the imagination in general, trying to make this fit with “the river Bassus” from Nennius’ account is. Even so, the area would have been subject to invasions from the Picts; the Tyne near St Baldred’s Seat, where it empties into the North Sea, is a prime location from where to sail into the heartland of the Lothians, with Traprain Law rising majestically in front of you. For a maritime force, it would have been an ideal approach for laying siege to Traprain Law. Though confusion reigns over battle six, battle seven is agreed by all Arthurian historians to have been Southern Scotland: “the wood of Ceilidon, that is, Cat Coit Celidon”, or Caledon. Today, it is known as the Ettrick Forest, to the West of Selkirk, in the Borders. This was in the heartland of the Selgovae, the Western neighbours of the Gododdin. Despite there being no great controversy over where the battle occurred, Arthur’s enemy remains unknown. Although it could have been the Selgovae, this is unlikely, and it is believed that once again, the enemy might have been the Picts. Fortingall Nennius’ information on battle eight is scant: “in the stronghold of Guinnion.” Moffat again goes through a linguistic analysis, stating the word is close to a P-Celtic word meaning “white place”. This only places it within the local language, not within a properly definable geographical context. As a result, no-one has been able to locate this battle site with any success – of course speculation exists, but none of it worth repeating. Except, that is, for one, if only because of the novelty value. There is a persistent legend that Fortingall, a small village near Glen Lyon, in an area that has an enormous treasury of preserved folklore and megalithic remains, was the site where Pontius Pilate was born.
This ancient tradition also claims that Pontius Pilate was related to the Scots King, Metallanus, whose royal seat was located on a hill fort called Dun Geal (the White Fort) at Fortingall. According to the ancient Scots Chronicles, Metallanus was on very good terms with the government of Caesar in Rome. Local tradition records a Roman camp at Fortingall and perhaps a clue as to its presence there may be found in the Latinised name of the Scots King, Metallanus.
Though there is no evidence of a hill fort, there is evidence of a fort at Fortingall. It sits just to the west of the village, in a field along a river. It is most unlikely that this was the area where Arthur fought, but it does suggest that the stronghold of the White Fort might have been applied to more than one Roman camp, or an Iron Age hill fort – both of which are present in and near the Gododdin territory. “The ninth battle happened in the city of the Legion.” This means it was a city in which a legion was stationed, which does not specifically reduce the odds, as legions were stationed both in Scotland and in England. But there was only one city of the Legion: York, known as Eboracum, or Ad Legionem Sextam, “the place of the Legion”, in this case the Sixth Legion, which throughout Roman times was stationed in York.
Perhaps Arthur realised that he should fight his battles further from home? Perhaps the continuous success of his army had made tribesmen join his rank. He had been successful eight times before and rather than let the enemy come to him, a pre-emptive strike in the south might scare any invader off. Arthur pushing south towards York from the Firth of Forth is not unique; William Wallace would repeat that offensive eight centuries later. Both realised that to defend their territory, they could not defend it at its borders, but had to push further south. Should the enemy attack, they felt or hoped that it would merely be to recapture lost territory, and would not result in a push further north, trying to invade the homeland of the Gododdin or the Scots.
Furthermore, the Y Gododdin remembers the famous battle of the Gododdin fighting the Anglian forces, at the Battle of York, specifically at Catterick, a major crossing of the Roman road system. The attack occurred in 595-600 AD, when a crack warrior band of three hundred men set out from Gododdin to attack the invading English. They met at the battle of Catraeth (Catterick) and, though the Gododdin men were reputed to have slain seven times their number of the enemy, they were overwhelmed by superior numbers and perished without a survivor. It is here that one Gododdin tribesman fought heroically, though “he was not Arthur”. In other words, unlike Arthur, he was unable to fight off the invaders, and the Gododdin lost; their end, and abandonment of the homeland, was near. There were other Roman camps near the Gododdin territory, the most famous of which had been Trimontium. Trimontium had been the site of the twentieth legion and as it sat right next to the territory of the Gododdin, on an important route running north-south (Dere Street, the modern A68), it may have been known locally as the “the city of the Legion”. The problem here is one of scope; from a British perspective, York or Carlisle were known as major Roman sites. But from the Gododdin perspective, Trimontium must have been the most famous one. Situated along the River Tweed, in a valley in the shadow of the Eildon Hills, it would have been another site along a river, like the first battle, along the river Glein. Alistair Moffat stated on the first battle: “Arthur was defending a Gododdin fortress at the Battle of Glein on ground that was flat and unobstructed, and, crucially, that was near a river. This last is a tactical theme which occurs throughout the Nennius list and it was the choice of a cavalry general commanding a small force of troopers who went against foot soldiers.”
The same applies to the site of Trimontium, and even such Roman camps as the one at Fortingall. Although it teaches us little about the actual locations of some of these battles, what it does tell us, is that Arthur fought in the tradition of the Romans, which might explain part of his success: the Roman army had been the biggest war machine the ancient world had seen, and the Romans’ method of warfare had brought them success everywhere. If the Gododdin were able to fight the Roman way, it might have explained why Arthur was able to fight off his enemies. “The tenth battle happened on the bank of a river which is called Tribruit”. Tradition places this river in Scotland, but there is no clear evidence where this battle might have occurred, only that it took place on the river bank. The eleventh battle “was done on the hill which is called Agned.” Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Monte Agned as Edinburgh; did he finally get one right?
In the 5th century, the name “Breguoin” replaced or appeared alongside “Agned” in several manuscripts. Welsh poetry transformed the name to Brewyn. There is reason to believe Agned was Bremenium, the Roman fort of High Rochester, Northumberland, which in Celtic was called Bregion. Bremenium was a fort north of Hadrian’s Wall, along Dere Street (A68).
The name of the fort is mentioned in three of the four major geographical sources, though it is absent from the Notitia Dignitatum of the late 4th century. The absence suggests that by then, the province had receded behind Hadrian’s Wall to the south. The Bremenium entry in Ptolemy’s Geography appears along with two other towns attributed to the Gododdin tribe; CORSTOPITVM (Corbridge, Northumberland) and ALAVNA (Learchild, Northumberland). Whether Agned is therefore Bremenium or Edinburgh, it is clear that both sit firmly within the reach of the Gododdin. Nevertheless, all eleven battles were preludes to the twelfth battle, at Badon Hill, “in which Arthur destroyed 960 men in a single charge on one day, and no-one rode down as many as he did by himself. And in all these battles he emerged as the victor.” Three of the primary sources (Gildas, Nennius, and the Annals of Wales) describe the location in detail. Bowden Hill So where was this site? Amongst the possible locations for Badon Hill are two Scottish contenders: Bowden Hill, West Lothian and Dumbarton Rock, Strathclyde. W.F. Skene suggested that Bowden Hill was Badon Hill. Another Arthurian author Norma Lorre Goodrich provides a convincing explanation for Geoffrey’s mistake of placing the battle in Somerset by using linguistics to divine that “Somer” could easily be mistaken for “Cymry”, the ancient Celtic name Old Wales or Strathclyde. Thus, the huge, red lava rock at Dumbarton has been labelled a prime candidate for “Mount Badon”. It controlled the Clyde estuary and the Irish Sea. But the first is an intriguing and a logical choice. On a good day, the views from Cairnpapple Hill are spectacular. On a bad day, the top of the hill might be covered by clouds and visibility is close to zero. On an average day, anyone will notice Cockleroy Hill rising to the North. Cockleroy Hill itself is a far more popular destination than Cairnpapple Hill to climb; it is closer to Linlithgow and a large car park has made it an ideal destination for families and dog walkers. From the top of Cockleroy Hill, again a vast panorama is visible – on a clear day. But whatever the weather, the small hill rising to the west of Cockleroy and the North of Cairnpapple won’t immediately strike any observer as a hill that might literally be legendary.
That hill is Bowden Hill. Like Cockleroy, Bowden Hill has a hill fort, it is situated in a valley, in an area where Arthur could have been defending the Gododdin territory. There is no ultimate evidence to suggest Bowden Hill was Badon Hill, but it is clear that taken en masse with the other battle sites, all sit on the border of the Gododdin territory. It makes historical sense that Arthur would have defended the territory of his brother-in-law, and if he was, he would not be fighting in Bath, and perhaps not even in Dumbarton. He would literally be involved in border skirmishes, trying to keep his enemy out. There was, however, a 13th battle, in which Arthur perished, and which occurred fifteen years after his final victory. Although Arthur had been able to maintain peace, it was clear it would never last. As a result, there was “the Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished”.
Though tragic, it did not result in the immediate demise of the Gododdin. They had lost their leader, but they would continue for a few more decades. Medraut, or Modred, was the son of King Loth, and hence a nephew of Arthur. As heir to the throne, it seems likely Modred also had to become a great warrior to lead his people in battle – and where better to learn it than from Arthur himself?
Again, much speculation exists where this battle was fought. Once again, romantics place it in south-western Britain, but Camlann is a Welsh derivation of Camboglanna, a British word meaning “crooked bank”; another battle site along a river. Most modern historians recognise the battle site as a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The place is now called Birdoswald in Cumbria and of course places Arthur again in a Northern context. To some extent, he was still fighting the Roman fight, using their defences as his own. The fort sits on a high spur overlooking the River Irthing, offering spectacular views.
The strongest candidate, however, is Camelon, near Falkirk, on the south side of the River Forth. In 1522, Hector Boece associated Colania with King Cruthneus Camelon of the Picts. In 1695, Gibson recorded that the old Roman Fort of Colania at Camelon, on the outskirts of Falkirk, was: “A little ancient city, where the common people believe there was formerly a road for ships. They call it Camelot. It may be gathered from history that this was the Palace of the Picts.” If it was indeed a “palace of the Picts”, it becomes a logical site for a battle between the Picts and the Gododdin.
Camelon is connected to a place called “Arthur’s O’on”, a structure that stood until 1743, when it was demolished. “Arthur’s Oven” has been put forward as the site of the “Round Table”, because as if it were the circular baking-place, it could be the location where food was prepared for the Knights of the Round Table. And let us note that it was apparently also known as Camelot. Camelon, once a Roman temple, is recorded in Bowert’s Scotichronicon as having been erected by Julius Caesar. Caesar came to the River Forth and had the temple erected to sleep in, apparently its stones being carried around with him. When he heard of trouble in Gaul from ships sailing into the Firth of Forth, Caesar immediately departed, leaving the temple behind. But that is not all; the story continues that Arthur liked to come to this site “by way of recreation”. Nennius does tell us that Carausius built, on the banks of the Carron, a roundhouse of polished stone as a triumphal arch in memory of his victory. Centuries later, Hector Boece stated that it was raised by Vespasian, in honour of his predecessor Claudius, and that it covers the ashes of the distinguished officer Aulus Plautius. It suggests that though Bower might have overlaboured the point by linking it with Julius Caesar, it was a place where the Romans honoured their military leaders. If Arthur was a Roman warrior, where better to come to “by way of recreation”; what better description of Camelot and the home of its twelve most valiant knights: the Knights of the Round Table?