This story originally appears in Tales of Scottish Landmarks by Stuart McHardy
About 18 miles north east of Perth lies the wee Strathmore village of Meigle. All too easily ignored by the traffic going to and from the North-east this little place contains real treasure for those interested in the ancient culture of Scotland.
The old school next to the kirk on the Dundee road has been made into a museum unlike any other. It contains a unique and beautiful collection of Pictish symbol stones most of which at one time stood in or near the kirkyard. The others are from the surrounding area. One of these stones has a legend about it that links it with one of the great European literary and mystical themes of all time — the story of Arthur and Guinevere.
The stone known as Vanora’s stone was at one time part of a group of symbol stones that stood in the adjoining kirkyard on what is known as Vanora’s Mound. The name Vanora is a variant of Guinevere and these stones are said to have formed a memorial on the grave of that faithless queen.
On the side of the stone bearing her name is a fine example of a Celtic cross and in the middle of the other side is a gowned figure being attacked by animals. The official guide book tells us that this is a representation of Daniel in the Lions’ Den but local legend, unconcerned with the need to explain everything in our past as being of Christian origin, tells us otherwise.
Before the French and English romanticists took the Arthurian tales and turned them into florid fancies of chivalry and honour these stories were an integral part of the Celtic culture that existed throughout the British Isles. Like the cycle of hero-tales about Finn Mac Coul the original Arthurian legends were given local settings by the small communities that made up the population. Examples of this can be found in stories and place names from Scotland to the Scilly Isles. The ancient Celts often incorporated actual historical events into the great tales alongside older gods and goddesses given human form. This is how the historical Arthur of the 6th century became involved in the great mythological cycle of tales about his namesake.
The historical Arthur was probably not a king but the leader of a band of warriors who was made a leader of the common defence against the various invaders of his time. It was the accepted norm in all Celtic societies that the most able war chief would be given overall control of the army during a crisis, returning to his former position once the danger was past. The role of the actual king was more legalistic, ritualised and even spiritual.
The story of Vanora’s Stone has her as the queen of Arthur, a 6th century king of Strathclyde. This kingdom stretched from Dumbarton south as far as Carlisle. Although the whole of the British Isles was at this time under almost permanent threat of invasion Arthur decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was to show his loyalty to the Roman church in its struggle against the independent Celtic church of that time. Before leaving he appointed his nephew Modred to act as his regent and rule in his place. Disaster was bound to follow.
Though the Celtic peoples would unite in the face of a common enemy their first loyalty was to their tribe and Modred was a Pict. He was bound to make the most of the opportunity presented to him by his uncle. No sooner had Arthur left the country than Modred seized the throne and seduced his aunt, Vanora. Whether she was a willing victim or had plotted the whole thing with Modred is unclear but soon they were ruling as man and wife with Pictish troops to enforce their rule.
It was only a matter of time before Arthur found out what had happened and he immediately headed home to raise his followers and have his revenge upon the faithless pair. The battle where Arthur and Modred met is said to have been at Camlaan, near Carlisle, and it is the site of an actual 6th century battle. True to the old myths Arthur was victorious but in killing Modred he sustained a mortal wound himself. Soon he died and with him went any faint hope Vanora might have treasured for merciful treatment.
While Modred’s actions were understandable given the nature of the times Vanora had committed unforgivable sins. The Celtic peoples laid great stress on the ritual and spiritual importance of their rulers and Vanora had betrayed the most sacred trust. She was guilty of treason and adultery and her fate was a foregone conclusion — death.
The manner of her execution had to be decided and while the deliberations continued she was imprisoned at Barry Hill, near Alyth, just a few miles north of Meigle. Originally an Iron Age fort the site on Barry Hill was probably still in use in the 6th century and was as far from the Hollywood idea of an Arthurian castle as it is possible to be. At last Vanora was brought forth to hear her sentence and it must have surpassed even her wildest fears.
Her treachery to her husband, king and people was so bad that her death had to be as dishonourable as possible. She was to be torn to death by a pack of wild dogs. It is this grisly scene that is said to be portrayed on the stone.
After her gruesome death she was buried at Meigle with the strongest possible curses and anathema being heaped upon her grave in a manner reminiscent of Druidic ritual. More than twelve hundred years after her supposed burial these curses survive in the local belief that any young woman foolish enough to walk over Vanora’s Mound will become sterile. The curse is still remembered.
The Arthurian connection with Meigle is underlined by some of the local place names. One nearby farm is called Arthurbank and another was known till the relatively recent past as Arthurstone which got its name from a 12 foot standing stone bearing the king’s name which is in the grounds of what is now Belmont Castle. At one time this stone had a similar companion known as Vanora’s Stone. As late as the last century a 6 foot diameter quern or grinding stone was to be seen on Barry Hill and it was called Vanora’s Girdle.
It is possible that the legend and all the place-names have in fact been inspired by a mistaken understanding of the stone in Meigle Museum. However even if this is so the stone has served as a focus for a legend that long pre-dates Christianity and has helped to keep it alive.
The superb and awesome collection of symbol stones at Meigle points to it having been a site of great importance to the Picts and an investigation of Vanora’s Mound would surely tell us much more about our distant ancestors than the continuing excavations of Roman signal stations which take up so much of our archaeological resources.
Meigle Museum is on the A927 from Dundee just inside the village.
Barry Hill is on the B954 a mile and a half north east of Alyth.
O.S. Sheet No. 262 505.