Although the figure of King Arthur is known throughout the world it is little appreciated that the original stories about this great heroic figure seem to derive from that area of North Britain known since the ninth century as Scotland. Arthur is seen as in some way a typical English or Welsh figure while the scanty evidence of Arthur as a historical figure actually points to his northern origin. Just as the original mythological figure was that of a tribal hero, so the historic figure of the early sixth century was the leader of a war band rather than a king. The idea of the British king fighting off invaders from the Continent which is at the heart of most later developments of the Arthurian material is no longer sustainable in the light of modern scholarship. I put forward a different potential reason for Arthur’s twelve battles.
Historians have long understood that the notion of the great feudal king with his Knights of the Round Table, the organised jousting tournaments and the romanticised notions of medieval chivalry are all creations of the early Middle Ages but the notion of Arthur as coming from southern Britain persists. As early as the nineteenth century W F Skene put forward sites for the 12 battles of Arthur described by Nennius that could all be located in Scotland. Most commentators who have located the battles in England have had to suggest a wide geographical distribution, from Bath to Lincolnshire, from Wales to the far north of Britain. W F Skene suggested a series of locations that provides a basis for what can be seen as a concerted military campaign, and I have used his suggestions as the starting point for my analysis. I believe there are better potential sites for some of the battles than those suggested by W F Skene and I hope through my own ideas to move the argument forward and providing a starting point for further discussion.
Behind the figure of the romantic hero-king is a tribal warrior leader and in such creations as the Round Table perhaps all we are seeing is a memory of a time when the warriors, like the rest of the family groups who made up the British tribes, sat around a central hearth to eat and to talk. However, strip away the romantic trappings of chivalry and idealised feudal kingship and even chivalry can be seen to echo the honour code of the tribal warrior – an honour code that respected the individual above all and in which no man could follow another he did not respect. In the ancient tales that contain the earliest Arthurian material we can see remnants of ancient pre-Christian beliefs, and in the women of these tales there are clear suggestions of a time when the role of the female was more significant than the later Romances suggest. In the figure of Morgan we have a female closely related to goddess figures on the one hand, and on the other to a specific institution that existed within the pagan religion. In the stories of shape-changing that occur in several tales we have perhaps a remnant of beliefs that are linked to shamanistic practice, and in several tales from ancient Welsh sources we have references to beliefs that hark back to the very dawn of time.
Although we rely on Welsh sources for almost everything we know about the figure of Arthur, we should remember that the ancestor of Welsh, recently referred to as Common Archaic Neo-Brittonic, was spoken at one time, in one form or another, from Scotland down to northern France. And in Scotland it is now realised that the Picts, the people who lived in northern and eastern Scotland spoke a similar P-Celtic language. Where languages are the same. or similar, it is likely that traditions and beliefs will likewise be very close. We rely today on history as a written discipline but it was not so for the people of sixth century North Britain. They had only word of mouth and memory by which to learn and to pass on what they knew and considered important. Recent studies have shown the remarkable capacity of oral transmission to carry provable data over stunning periods of time – tens of thousands of years. Our reliance on the written word has blinded us to the value ancient tales can have. It is also true that even when written literature arrived in Britain, the old stories continued to be told amongst the people. Even today we have storytellers who have never learned to read or write yet who have vast treasuries of knowledge and lore that they carry with them wherever they go. As storytelling becomes more and more popular the value of such treasuries is better appreciated.
The stories of Arthur, of course, do not belong to Scottish culture – they are integral to Welsh, Cornish and Breton tradition and in literary terms Arthur is truly pan-European. Most people know of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur, but are unaware of Morte Arthur, written at an earlier date by Sir Hugh of Eglintoun, a Scot. There are Arthurian romances like Lancelot of the Laik, Golagros and Gawain and Sir Gawain and Sir Galeron of Galloway which survive in the Scots language and various Arthurian tales that exist within Gaelic tradition. There are also motifs in many ancient Gaelic and Scots sources that echo the earliest Welsh sources we know of. Within these Welsh sources there are many references to both Pictish and Gaelic individuals, which is precisely what one would expect from material that originated in an area where the Britons, Picts and Scots co-existed. The only place this happened was in central Scotland. The peoples of the areas we know of as Strathclyde and Manau Gododdin in the fifth and sixth centuries spoke Common Archaic Neo-Brittonic and their cousins the Picts spoke something similar. It is only in a later period that the language shift took place that resulted in Welsh becoming restricted to the north -western part of so much misinterpretation of British history. We now know that the influx of Germanic speaking peoples from the Continent started much earlier, and lasted much longer than earlier interpretations have suggested. The idea of the Anglo-Saxon invasion itself as a concerted campaign is no longer tenable. We also no know that language shifts do not occur only because of invasion and slaughter. To say that Arthur was a Welshman from Scotland shows the weakness of trying to define people by the language they speak, but as a tribal warrior speaking an earlier form of the Welsh language and living in Scotland what can we call him?
The truth is that Arthur is now universal, a virtual archetype of the hero and belongs to all of us. However, since the Treaty of Union in 1707 the realities of Scottish history have all too often been suppressed by the dictates of creating a British history in which the role of England has been dominant. This process has been as common amongst Scots, happy with the advantages of Empire, as amongst the English. Times change, empires fall and history itself is subject to being revisited. Many writers on Arthurian material have interpreted him as having been heavily influenced by the ideas of the Roman Empire. I suggest that by the early sixth century Roman influence, never greatly significant in Scotland, was essentially irrelevant. Further I believe that just as the earliest historians were influenced by their role as classically-educated Christians, so many of our later historians have been over-influenced by a classical education that stressed the importance of Greece and Rome. This attitude has been further influenced by the fact that England was under Roman rule for centuries and so English history and culture has been greatly influenced by the Romans. And English history became British history. In Scotland this influence comes into play much later and is essentially restricted to the influence of classical education and in particular the long tradition of Latin scholarship that flourished on Scotland. On the ground in sixth century Scotland the Romans were effectively irrelevant. The new religion, Christianity, that they brought with them was not.