Saturday, 9 July 2011

Arthur (and Merlin)

I am nearly at the end of Alistair Moffat's Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, which quotes from our other Oct 15 2011 guest, Nikolai Tolstoy's, The Quest for Merlin. Both books advance convincing arguments for the tales of Arthur and Merlin as being based on real British people active in this part of Scotland in the 6th century. Like the map on the Southern Uplands Partnership, the beautifully hand drawn map of the south of Scotland on the frontispiece of Arthur shows the river Clyde foreshortened - in this case, absurdly showing the river rising in Lanark instead of at the Crookedstane where the Daer and the Potrail Water meet. There is an ancient house between the two small rivers that become the Clyde, called Watermeetings and I suspect there must be some archaeology buried under or around the house, if 'Myrddin...held to the Druidic belief that water-meetings were magically powerful'(Arthur p125). A fascinating chapter on trees and their connection with the 'stick' alphabet, Ogham - where letters of the alphabet are associated with a particular type of British native tree - gives rise to speculation about the unpopularity of the Forestry Commission's favourite: the Sitka spruce. This introduced tree, native to every other country in the world on the latitude of Britain, evokes a unique and apparently visceral hatred, unlike any other utilitarian crop introduction such as the potato. I have been worrying away for years to address the source of this passionate resentment, which is far too widespread and lies far too deep to be reached by rational argument eg about spruce's usefulness. I now think that Alistair's chapter on the central role of trees in pre-Christian British belief and culture provides the answer. Every native British tree - the birch, rowan,alder,willow,ash, hawthorn,oak,elder, ,hazel,and yew (along with whin - gorse -, vine,ivy,and elder) was associated with a letter of the runic Ogham alphabet made up of stick-like marks across or to left or right of a central line, as well as with medicines and fundamental uses, properties for burning on a hearth and so on. Our Oct 15 2011 event is entitled 'The Roots of Scotland's Family Tree' - how appropriate in light of the tree-related culture and beliefs of our ancestors.

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