Kenneth MacAlpin/ Scota
Truth factor: 3/5There have been many interpretations of the origins of Scots and truth and myth are hard to distinguish. Alex Woolf says there is no truth at all in origin myths – and Kenneth MacAlpin was no Dr Evil. But who knows?HIS ARCH-ENEMIES sat around him enjoying a sumptuous banquet. After a suitable period of toying with his prey, the host cackled evilly, pulled a lever and sent his guests plunging to the deaths in a concealed pit below.
It may sound like something out of an Austin Powers film, but this is actually a medieval explanation for the mysterious "disappearance" of the Picts, with the Dr Evil character played by no less than Kenneth MacAlpin, reputedly the first King of Scots. With their nobility wiped out, the story went, it was easy for MacAlpin to take over and enforce Scottish ways on the rest of the Picts.
Stories telling how the Scots came to live in Scotland contain some of the more inventive tales among its myths and legends. Apparently, the Scots are the descendents of an Egyptian princess, Scota, and their language, Gaelic, was humanity's original form of speech as spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. These beliefs were taken seriously in times gone by. The idea that the Scots are the sons and daughters of Scota and her husband, Gaythelos, whose name supposedly gave us Gaels and Gaelic, gave them a connection to one of the world's great cultures and a touch of its status. And creating a lineage with a special connection to the Bible was another good idea, emphasising the shared membership of the international club of Christianity.
The people who seemed to have been displaced by the Scots were something of a puzzle to early historians. Henry of Huntingdon, who lived from 1080 to 1160, commented in his book, Historia Anglorum that the Picts, mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his earlier history, had inexplicably vanished.
Alex Woolf, a historian who specialises in early medieval history at St Andrews University, says: "His [Henry's] idea is to continue Bede's history up to the present, which was about 1140. So he starts copying out Bede's introductory chapter, and, when he gets to the bit about the four languages of Britain, he says:, 'Hang on a minute, that's not right, the Picts don't exist anymore,' and that 'they have so completely disappeared even their language has gone.'"
The story about the fiendish use of trapdoors beneath the seats of his dinner guests was an attempt at an explanation that dates back at least as far as the 12th century. "It's the Dr Evil version of Kenneth MacAlpin," says Woolf. "He had seats rigged so they dropped away into holes in the ground. It was automated so he pulled a lever and the nobles of the Picts fell into a great pit and were then buried."
However, it is not a story to which the likes of Henry of Huntingdon would have given much credence. He and others around at the time were much like modern historians, according to Woolf, doing their best to tell the truth.
However, one notable exception was Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose "history" invented King Lear, much of the King Arthur story of today and added to Britain's mythical traditions. "He was probably taking the piss out of them [the serious historians]. He probably knew them and was writing a spoof, Spinal Tap version of history, " says Woolf. "The real tragedy is, by the end of the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth has become a bestseller and the most influential person for late medieval chroniclers." And it's easy to believe that many origin myths were the product of this kind of "history" going on informally round firesides for generations.
Walter Bower, writing an impressive tome called the Scotichronicon in the 1440s, airily declared that it was possible to deduce "from various writings of ancient chroniclers" that the Scots were descended from the Greeks and the Egyptians. Scota, the daughter of a pharaoh, was said to have married Gaythelos and they had a child, called Hiber, whose name would eventually be given to an Edinburgh football club, among other places. The story goes that the royal family were expelled from Egypt, sailed to Spain and then travelled north to Ireland and Scotland.
The story is believed by some to this day. In a new book, Scota, Egyptian Queen of the Scots, Ralph Ellis claims it was based on The History of Egypt, a text written in 300BC by Manetho, an Egyptian-Greek historian. He claims to have proved that Scota was Ankhesenamun, daughter of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, who married the famous Tutankhamen. Ellis argues Gaythelos was not Greek but an Egyptian pharaoh called Aye.
Part of the Scots' origin myth was recently given backing by a scientist using genetics to trace the movements of people. Oxford University professor Bryan Sykes claimed to have found evidence that the Celts of Britain actually came from Spain about 6,000 years ago and suggested the myth was based on a "residue" of this memory.
Connections with the societies of antiquity were all the rage in medieval times. The Britons of Strathclyde and elsewhere claimed descent from Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome. "Brutus was supposed to have come to Britain in exile because of a kin-slaying. The Britons claimed to be Romans and that gave them higher status," says Woolf. The Picts were said to be warriors from Scythia, who arrived first in Ireland looking for land, but were persuaded to go away by the Gaels who were the ancestors of the Irish and Scots. "The Irish said, 'There's a nice country to the east of here, and, if you go away, we'll give you some of our women,'" Woolf says. "Later on, when there are stories about the Pictish matriliny [descent through the female line], the idea was that it was a condition of getting the women that, when royal succession was in doubt, it would follow the female line as a courtesy to the Scots/Irish. Possibly the story originated to explain the similarities between the Picts and Scots. There's a similar story about the Bretons - why they were similar but not the same as the Welsh."
The conversion of these islands to Christianity meant there was a new and important story to tell. Biblical stories start to merge with the older myths to produce some interesting results.
According to one such tale, Gaelic was the product of an ancient exercise in comparative linguistics, which managed to recreate the original language of Adam and Eve from all the different ones spoken after the Tower of Babel was destroyed.
The result was named Gaelic in honour of the great King Gaythelos and taken up by the descendants of Scota. "Most of the early Gaelic origin myths are about Ireland, but some are transferred across to Scotland. They then become progressively more Christian," says Woolf. "Everybody has to be descended from Noah, so you've got to get your people from Mount Ararat to your country."
The stone of destiny
Well-travelled rock of ages with undeniable symbolic importance
Truth factor: 3/5
It seems unlikely the cornerstone of the Temple of Jerusalem ended up in Scone. Yet the stone has been a potent symbol for centuries – and a geologist said it was unlike any stone in Scotland, but like a type found near the Red Sea.IN THE book of Genesis, the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, after being granted the blessing of the firstborn by his father Isaac, fled his homeland and used a stone as a pillow.
As he slept, Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven, and God told Jacob his descendants would be "like dust upon the Earth, and spread from north to west to south to east". Jacob poured oil upon the stone and declared it would become a pillar of the church. Did the stone on which he slept become the Stone of Destiny?
Irish traditional stories say Jacob's Pillar was carried to Northern Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem - then carried to Scotland by King Fergus, who took it to Argyll, where the Scots were fighting the Picts.
When Kenneth MacAlpin united the Scots and Pictish kingdoms in 840 AD, he moved his capital to Scone - and it is said that the Stone of Destiny was set upon Moot Hill. Every King of Scotland was crowned upon the stone until 1296, when it was stolen and carried away to Westminster Abbey by Edward I.
It was captured again on Christmas Day 1950, when a group of Scottish nationalists stole the stone and carried it back to Scotland.
They left it at Arbroath Abbey, with a plea to the Government to return it to Scotland. Finally, in 1996, 700 years after the stone was taken from Scone, then prime minister John Major allowed it to be carried back to Scotland, to Edinburgh Castle, where it is now on display.
Rumours persist that the stone on display is not the original, which some believe was hidden by those who stole the stone in 1950. There is also a story that monks at Scone hid the original in 1296 and that the one Jacob once used as a pillow has been hidden somewhere in Scotland ever since.
It may seem hugely unlikely that the cornerstone of the Temple of Jerusalem ended up in Scotland. However, the stone has been potent symbol of power for hundreds of years. Moreover, a Canadian geologist, Edward Odlum, argued that there was no stone like it in Scotland or Ireland - but that a similar kind of rock is found near the Red Sea.
The Holy Grail
Treasure, relic, metaphor, bloodline - or just a cup?
Truth factor: 1/5
Most modern scholars think the Holy Grail was a metaphor for a spiritual quest, with medieval origins. Some say the story of a healing cup was a Celtic tale woven into Christian myth. But no-one knows what lies in Rosslyn's vaults.IN ARTHURIAN legend, the Holy Grail is a relic, a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper which came to have miraculous healing powers.
Biblical relics were very popular in Medieval times. The Veil of Veronica, the Vera Icon, on which Christ is said to have wiped his face was supposed to have great healing powers and fragments of the Holy Rood, "the true cross", were claimed to have been carried to Holyrood Abbey.
One of the earliest references to the Grail is in Chrtien de Troyes's Arthurian poem Perceval, where the cup is a supernatural phenomenon, which appears and disappears, according to the virtue of the seeker.
In English folklore, the cup was brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea and buried high on Glastonbury Tor. But there are also those who believe the Holy Grail is concealed in the great sealed vaults beneath Rosslyn Chapel, where the knights of the Sinclair family still sleep in full suits of armour.
Legend has it that Rosslyn was built using hidden treasure from the Knights Templar, who had fled from persecution in Europe. Mary de Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, mentioned "a great secret" hidden at Rosslyn, and the intricately carved chapel escaped destruction at times when many other churches were destroyed.
Many claim to have uncovered, among the arcane carvings of Rosslyn, clues which suggest the real purpose of the building was to hide a great Templar treasure. Investigations in the 1980s showed that the vault under the church was as deep as the chapel is high, and speculation about buried Templar treasure grew.
However, the church was built long after the order was disbanded, and Sir William Sinclair, grandfather of the Earl of Rosslyn who built the chapel, actually testified against the Templars at a trial at Holyrood.
In 1982, the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published, suggesting the Grail was actually a metaphor for a secret bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. American novelist Dan Brown used the theory as background for his blockbuster The Da Vinci Code and revived speculation that the key to the Grail was to be found at Rosslyn. Most scholars believe the Grail is a metaphor for a spiritual quest, which had its origins in mediaeval literature.