Its been quite a week. Only the other day I made the first inroads into the previously unfathomable mysteries of the Voynich manuscript, then yesterday I made the first chink in the academic armour of the Pictish symbols. These enigmatic images are found on memorial stones & bits of jewellry across northern Britain, & their true meaning has – until now – remained a mystery. Speculation has abounded, but with no Pictish literature to speak of, nothing has ever been able to be properly verified.
So… two days back I’M just about to finish off this book Im writing about King Arthur, when I suddenly came across some information which forced me to secure Victor Pope’s company (& his plus one free bus pass) & head off into Scotland in search of a Pictish stone. Our journey took us from Edinburgh, over the red-iron leviathan that is Queensferry bridge – an experience which now reminds me of crossing the Goan river estuaries. From there we trundled through Dumfermline & the western reaches of Fife, before arriving in the gorgeous, stately Tayside town of Perth. Changing busses, we now set off east in the direction of Dundee, along the lush stretch of undulating Green that is the Strathmore.
After passing through Coupar Angus, the bus veered north-east for a while & took us to the excuisitely compact & cute townlet of Alyth, over which stand the earthy remains of a majestic Pictish hill-fort. Full of Arthuriana, the 16th century Scottish historian Hector Boece writes that following the disastrous battle of Camlann, in which Arthur met his doom, Guinevere was taken to Alyth, as in;
On the following day, the British camp was ransacked. In it were discovered Arthur’s consort Queen Guanora, and no few men and women of noble blood. Furthermore, ample spoils were collected and shared out among the victors in the traditional way. The Scots were allotted wagons decorated with precious British ornamentation, horses of noble appearance and speed, arms, and the captive nobles, while Queen Guanora, illustrious men and women, and the rest fell to the Picts. These were led to the Pictish district of Horestia, to Dunbar, which was then a very stoutly fortified stronghold (in our days, the name of the place endures, although nothing of the fort save some traces). There they were detained and spent the rest of their lives in wretched servitude.
The bus then trundled on another 3 miles, dropping me & Vic off at Meigle. We had an hour to spend there, the purpose of the visit to check out the collection of Pictish stones found in the village churchyard & gathered together inside a small, yet atmospheric musuem. Luckily, Vic’s plus one bus pas got us in half-price (£2.25 each) & we had a jolly good time checking out the marvellous carvings of a long-dead race. Outside the church there is also the famous ‘Vanora’s Mound,’ said to be the grave of Guinevere herself. The New Statistical Account of Scotland 1845, tells us; ‘Like other places of the same kind, it is the scene of innumerable legends, which agree in representing it as the residence or prison of the infamous Vanora or Guinevar, who appears in the local traditions under the more homely appellation of Queen Wander, and is generally described as a malignant giantess, ‘ while Boece adds, ‘The most ornate of these is that of Queen Guanora, as we are advised by its inscription. There is a superstition in that district that women who tread on that tomb henceforth remain as barren as was Guanora.’
The connection between the mound & the grave comes from a massive symbol stone at whose centre stands a figure in a dress being torn apart by lions – local folklore suggests this is Guinevere being attacked for getting it on with Mordred. Other scholars think it might likely to be the biblical Daniel – who also got torn apart by lions & appears elsewhere in Pictish imagery.
Anyway, thats our starting block – two separate traditions that place Guinevere in the area. The thing is, the reason I’d hauled ass up into this pretty corner of Scotland was that I had a different idea as to the location of Guinevere’s grave. So me & Vic jumps on a bus 3 miles down the bus to Newtyle, chomping on a bridie as we went, from where we began a six mile hike back to Coupar Angus through fields full of May flowers & buzzing insectry. Across the Strathmore the Grampians began their epic journey north to the Moray firth, with pockets of snow still skipping the tallest peaks in the distance.
About two miles into the walk, we came across a tall Pictish stone known as the ‘Keillar Stone.’ It stands on an ancient burial mound, with a clear view across Strathmore to the hillfort at Alyth, & is a really special location indeed. Of it, in 1875, William Oliphant described it as an; ‘old and striking monument, making the spot on which it stands historical, though no syllable of the history has come down to us.‘
It is, one writer says, “one of those remarkable sculptured monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Scotland, embellished, in this instance, with the rude outline of the boar.” In 1856, John Stuart reports of the ‘graveyard’ under the stone as in; ‘The tumulus on which it is placed is formed of earth and stones, and several cists containing bones have been found in it. Ancient sepulchral remains have also been dug up in various parts of the adjoining field.’
Apart from the wolf symbol – which some scholars think could actually be a bear – the stone sports the oblique double-disc/z-rod Pictish symbol & a rimmed mirror & comb combo which scholars have suggested represents a female. Now I would just like to project the following hypothesis;
1 – Guinevere & her fellow nobles taken in captivity to Alyth, where ‘they were detained and spent the rest of their lives in wretched servitude,’ were buried in this spot.
2 – The local tradition that Guinevere was buried in the area, under a mound, was accidentally shifted from the Keillor stone to the Vanora Mound at nearby Meigle.
By the way, if the wolf is a bear, we have the celtic-influenced Pictish word Arto – which means bear – an obvious semantic match to Arthur. This is all well & good, but the coolest bit about visiting the Keillor stone was a sudden & inspired insight I got upon looking at the Double-disc symbol. It suddenly connected in my mind two separate strands of thought – my recent studies into the late-Roman period & a look at the Pictish King list I made a couple of weeks ago. Let us now follow a wee ‘facto-ring,’ through which we shall eke out the true meaning of a Pictish symbol – I believe being the first on the planet to do so.
1 – This is the symbol, as found on stone 7 at Meigle
2 – This is the symbol of the ‘Heruli Seniores,’ a late-Roman auxillary regiment. Some were even packed off to defend in Britain in the 4th century during the so-callled ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of the 360s.
3 – The word Heruli is a later evolution of the original ‘Erilaz,’ as found on runestones across Scandinavia.
4 – & now the clincher. Here’s a section of the Pictish King List & their rough reign-dates.
Nechtan Morbet son of Eriop (448-472)
Drest Gurthinmoch (472-502)
Galan Erilic (502-517)
Drest son of Gygurn (517-522)
Drest son of Hydrossig (522-530)
Garthnach son of Gygurn (530-537)
Cailtaine son of Gygurn (537-538)
Talorc son of Muircholaich (538-549)
Drest son of Munait (549-550)
Galam Cennelath (550-551)
Bridei son of Mailcon (551-581)
Galan Erlich’s epithet is a perfect match for the Nordic ‘Erilaz,’ & so we can safely say that the double-disc represents the Herulians. That there are two of them joined together can be reconciled with the origin stories of the Picts & Herulians, both of whom were said to have come from Scythia;
The nation of the Picts, putting to sea from Scythia, as is reported, in a few ships of war, and being driven by the winds beyond the bounds of Britain, came to Ireland and landed on its northern shores. There, finding the nation of the Scots, they begged to be allowed to settle among them … The Scots answered that the island could not contain them both; but “We can give you good counsel,” said they, “whereby you may know what to do; we know there is another island, not far from ours, to the eastward, which we often see at a distance, when the days are clear. If you will go thither, you can obtain settlements; or, if any should oppose you, we will help you. Bede
Now the aforesaid race, as the historian Ablabius tells us, dwelt near Lake Maeotis in swampy places which the Greeks call hele; hence they were named Heluri. They were a people swift of foot, and on that account were the more swollen with pride, for there was at that time no race that did not choose from them its light-armed troops for battle… But after a short space of time, as Orosius relates, the race of the Huns, fiercer than ferocity itself, flamed forth against the Goths. We learn from old traditions that their origin was as follows: Filimer, king of the Goths, son of Gadaric the Great, who was the fifth in succession to hold the rule of the Getae after their departure from the island of Scandza,–and who, as we have said, entered the land of Scythia with his tribe Jordanes (Getica)
Essentially, then, in Galan Erilic the Picts & Heruli were united in himself, who chose to symbolise the reunion is symbol form, a piece of dark-age heraldry if you will. Another connection between the Picts & the Heruli comes with both people’s proliferation for nudity & dying their skin, as in;
As for the Harii, not only are they superior in strength to the other peoples I have just mentioned, but they minister to their savage instincts by trickery and clever timing. They black their shields and dye their bodies, and choose pitch dark nights for their battles. The shadowy, awe-inspiring appearance of such a goulish army inspires mortal panic; for no enemy can endure a sight so strange and hellish. Defeat in battle starts always with the eyes Tacitus
Either to fight more expediently or to show their contempt for wounds of the enemy, they fought nude, covering only a part of the body modestly Paul the Deacon
Most of the regions of [northern] Britain are marshy, since they are flooded continually by the tides of the ocean; the barbarians are accustomed to swimming or wading through these waist-deep marsh pools; since they go about naked, they are unconcerned about muddying their bodies. Strangers to clothing, they wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with coloured designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes
To conclude this post, & to neatly bring us full circle to the Battle of Camlann again, here is that battle’s reference in the Annales Cambrae…
537 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.
Now, look again at the Pictish King List at the guy who died in 537. Here, Garthnach son of Gygurn, is a direct match to Arthur son of Queen Igraine – & knowing that the Picts, according to Bede, would choose, ‘a king from the female royal race rather than from the male: which custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day,‘ we can now imagine Arthur was a king of the Picts between 530 & 537, inheriting the crown through his ma. This then explains why in the 12th century, Lambert of St Omer wrote;
Arthur, Dux Pictorum, ruling realms of the interior of Britain, resolute in his strength, a very fierce warrior, seeing that England was being assaultedfrom all sides, and that property was being stolen away, and many people taken hostage andredeemed, and expelled from their inherited lands, attacks the Saxons in a ferocious onslaught along with the kings of Britain,
That Arthur is the man signified by the double-disc/z-rod I’ll leave for a future blog…