Quest for the truth about Arthur and Scotland...

GALLANT knights in shining armour, ladies draped in silk and satin, lavish banquets, medieval castles, a round table and the Holy Grail. This is the mental image conjured up by the mention of King Arthur, a world of courage, honour, romance, glory and, of course, Camelot.

But according to Touchstone Pictures, which has made what it claims is a historically accurate epic of the monarch, much of that image is no less mythical than, dare we breathe the words, the Loch Ness Monster.

Touchstone and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have embarked upon their own epic quest - for "the truth" - daring to suggest that there was no mystique, no shining armour and - whisper it - no Camelot. It’s sacrilege, almost blasphemy.

In place of the medieval legend emerges a story of savagery, warfare, darkness and doom, set in the fifth-century AD. But far more exciting than that is the fact that it is not set in Somerset or Cornwall. It is, in fact, located tantalisingly close at Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish Borders.

Set on the Border between Scotland and England, the film places Arthur - played by British star Clive Owen - in the Scottish Lowlands. "You’ve got a Lucius Artorius Castus in the second century, on whom all of the subsequent Arthurian characters are based. The one in the movie is a descendant of that first Arthur," explains the film’s consultant historian, John Matthews, who has written several books on Arthur.

"We’re saying in the movie that Arthur comes from the Borders. We have evidence that Arthur lived and fought and died around the area of Hadrian’s Wall.

"The theory is that there is this character, Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer from the Borders, in charge of Sarmatian knights, and that they were stationed at several forts along the wall, particularly at Birdoswald, and that they fought against the Picts. This is the same Arthur. When I started work on the movie two years ago I was aware of the theory but wasn’t sure of it.

"I have now found so much evidence that links Arthur with this part of the world that I am completely convinced by it."

He adds: "The forts at Camboglanna, now known as Birdoswald, and Port Avalanna so closely tie in with the Arthurian stories of later times. Their names are very suggestive. Avalanna sounds like Avalon.

"Camboglanna has common elements with Camelot and also with Arthur’s last battle at Camlan and the terrain is very suitable for descriptions of the battles that he is supposed to have fought.

"The last and most significant battle is listed as taking place at Badon Hill. Several sites have been associated with this place, including a hill near Bath in Somerset, and the fortress of Caerleon in Wales. In the movie, it is located at Hadrian’s Wall, which is in keeping both with the historical theories relating to Arthur in Scotland, and to the presence of other significant sites with Arthurian associations in the area."

The film itself is set three centuries later than Lucius Artorius Castus, a historical figure who commanded troops in 175AD, with another Arthur Castus, a descendant of Lucius Artorius, as the main character. "The overwhelming circumstantial evidence supports a belief that a man called Arthur - or even more than one man with this name - lived in the fifth or sixth centuries and led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons," explains Matthews.

"I am not saying that the Arthur represented in the movie is 100 per cent true. What I’m saying is that he represents the Arthurian truth. The historical facts stand up to close scrutiny and I could provide them all to you in excruciating detail if you wanted them. What we’re seeing is layers and layers and layers. Arthur is like an archaeological dig. What the movie does is to take that story and move it on 300 years to give it a more realistic setting in terms of the later Arthurian stories."

That said, Guinevere, Arthur’s queen - aka Keira Knightley - appears in battle clad in a leather bikini rather than armour in her role as a princess of the Picts, the Dark Ages tribe that lived in Scotland. Clearly historical integrity has to move aside for glamour, if not for legend.

"My job as historical consultant was to make sure that the basics were as accurate as possible," chuckles Matthews. "Among the Celts and the Picts, women warriors were common.

"You’ve got women warriors fighting alongside the men and being much more fearsome than the men. I have no control over the leather bikini whatsoever."

Meanwhile, Edinburgh historian and Arthurian expert Stuart McHardy, a lecturer at Edinburgh University’s Office of Lifelong Learning, believes the Arthur links come far closer than the Borders. He claims the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth is in fact Avalon and says Arthur himself is buried beneath its windswept turf. He says Arthur was from the local area and the legends have merely been usurped by English and Welsh historians.

"I think that Hollywood’s idea is driven by Hollywood’s love of money and not by any knowledge base whatsoever," says the author of The Quest for Arthur and The Quest for the Nine Maidens.

"Links between Arthur and the Edinburgh area have long been known to historians. I have no doubts that the evidence linking him with Lothian and southern Scotland is indisputable.

"It is not just the place names but also historical writings and the poem Goddodin which was written in Edinburgh which clearly place him here. There is strong historical evidence that the Isle of May was actually the Isle of Maidens - the nine maidens of legend who practised weather watching and shape changing there."

HISTORIAN Doctor William Ferguson, an honorary fellow of Edinburgh University who specialises in Scottish history, is less convinced: "There’s a very faint outside chance that he might have [links to Scotland and Edinburgh]. The ancient Britons were in the lowlands of Scotland at that time as well and some of the earliest of the Welsh heroic poetry relates to southern Scotland."

As for any claims of Camelot being situated where Edinburgh now stands, he says: "It’s because of a small town called Camelon. From Camelon to Camelot seems such a step, but I don’t think there’s any firm evidence for that - but he’s such a shadowy figure you couldn’t say it’s impossible."

McHardy also points to Arthur’s Seat, and Arthur’s O’on, a Roman temple near Falkirk knocked down in the 18th century, as local links.

"The MacArthur Clan claim their descent from Smervie, Arthur’s son, and other people think that the historical Arthur was the son of Aedan Mac Gabhran, king of the Scots in the sixth century. Arthur, who wasn’t a king, was a warband leader leading a Christian crusade against the Pagans. Guinevere is buried in Meigle [in Perthshire].

"A bunch of the battles were fought between here and Falkirk and Merlin’s a few miles away at Drumelzier in the Borders. Merlin’s Wynd was near the Tron and the old name of Edinburgh Castle is the Castle of the Maidens in the 13th and 14th centuries which are the same nine maidens as took him off to the Isle of May."

Meanwhile, Arthur’s Seat is thought by some to be named in honour of the king, while other accounts suggest the name is simply derived from Ard nan Saidhe - the hill of the arrow - and has nothing to do with anybody named Arthur. The same argue Arthur’s O’on is most likely derived from the old Gaelic words art, a house, and om, alone, meaning a retired dwelling.

So was he a Dark Age Scot from Edinburgh, a Roman commander, a medieval English nobleman or merely a legendary fantasy figure? The battle over Arthur will no doubt continue.

"The legend lives on," says Matthews.

• King Arthur is released on July 30.

Back to the top of the page