King Arthur's Scottish Camelot

THERE are few heroic figures like King Arthur. Tales of his chivalric bravery - and that of his knights of the round table - remains as enduringly popular today as they were over 1,000 years ago when romances concerning these knights were first published.

The traditional setting for Arthur and his court at Camelot is in either Cornwall or Wales. Legend tells of a kingly man who pulled swords out of stones, protected England and eventually sent his men to quest for the Holy Grail. But what if this interpretation is all wrong?

A number of authors down through the ages have suggested that Arthur - this most English of heroes - was in fact from Scotland, a story if true that would stand history on its head.What we now refer to as Scotland didn't exist in the period during which Arthur is said to have lived. In the 6th century Scotland was tribal. The people living in and around Edinburgh and southwards into what is now the North of England were known as the Votadini – or Gododdin. It is in a 6th century poem Y Gododin that the first ever mention of Arthur appears in print:

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"… one Gwallawg who 'although he fed the ravens, was no Arthur'."

This remark acknowledges the fighting spirit of Gwallawg, who offers plenty for the ravens to pick upon in battlefields, but cannot compare with the fighting prowess of the mighty Arthur. The reference suggests that Arthur was a well-known figure at the time.

The next appearance of Arthur in literature appears in Adomnan's Life of St Columba. Written in the 7th century it tells the story of St Columba – an Irish monk who built the monastery on Iona. This book mentions a 6th century prince, Arturius, the son of Aidan who died fighting the Miathi Picts.

The main source of the "mythologising" about Arthur derives from the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth whose 1138 Historia Regum Britanniae firmly locates Arthur as a British King and sets out his exploits with his knights and Merlin. This book provided the main basis for all subsequent Arthurian legend and places him in the South of England.

Yet this book is no barrier for authors like Stuart McHardy who writes in his book On the Trail of the Holy Grail:"It seems the idea that Arthur simply couldn't be Scottish has taken a firm root, as have so many interesting, even quaint notions regarding the Grail itself, despite what common sense would suggest."

McHardy's "common sense" argues that because Scotland was effectively cut off from the rest of the UK - in that it was never fully or even properly occupied by the Romans - it remained tribal with a predominately oral culture. It came late to the practice of writing down traditional stories. McHardy thinks that to suggest Arthur is Welsh or English just because he appears in literature from these locations is simplistic. He moots that Arthur was Scottish, but well-known enough to appear in stories many miles away.

Further support of Arthur's nationality is suggested by looking closely at the locations of the 12 battles the warrior is said to have fought. The Victorian historian WF Skene has located all of the battles fought by Arthur - in Scotland. In doing so Skene follows on from a tradition by Nennius, a 9th-century historian whose Historia Britonum also argues for Scottish battlefields.

Most of the battle locations have Arthurian names: Arthur's Craigs in the west of Lanark; Arthurshiels Farm, north of Biggar; Loch Arthur in Dumfries, and so on to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh.

McHardy takes the trail of the battles further and suggests that they represented a campaign. He proposes that Arthur was involved in a crusade to re-Christianise the pagan north.

Although Christianity had existed in Scotland, it was neither widespread nor conclusive. Areas that had embraced the faith sometimes slipped back into paganism. McHardy's portrayal of Arthur as a powerful warrior who came to stamp out paganism would also account for the longevity of the Arthur myth.

"If he was involved in what was effectively a Christian crusade, his ongoing importance within the different oral traditions may well have stemmed from the fact that Christianity was triumphant in Britain," he says in his book.Those who seek a Scottish Arthur take inspiration in the possible Scottish heritage of key figures from the legends. French romance novels from the 13th century have Lancelot as the son of King Ban of Benwick – or Bannock. Others have him as the son of King Lot of the Lothians. Sir Galahad too is given a Scottish pedigree by a number of medieval writers.

Guinevere also has her place in Scottish mythology. Outside Meigle, in Perthshire, a Pictish standing stone is said to depict Guinevere's death. She is shown being pulled apart by dogs, punishment for her infidelity.

There has long been a Scottish connection with Merlin. The Merlinus Caledonensis, or Myrddin Wyllt, was a wild man who is said to have lived in the Caledonian forest after being driven wild with grief at seeing the death of his lord. A number of Merlin place names remember this figure – thought of by some to have been a druid.

The proliferation of Arthur place names is also cited as proof of a Scottish connection. Beyond Arthur's Seat you have the possibility that the Island of May was the Isle of Avalon, Camelon in Falkirk was Camelot and that the round table is still remembered outside Stirling.

But surely if Arthur was indeed of Scottish origin then the final proof would be the presence here of the Holy Grail.

Did somebody just mention Rosslyn???

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

The Grail, Jesus's children and Stone Age lasers: Scotland's madder myths