Quest to unravel the Scots roots of Merlin is underway

Quest to unravel the Scots roots of Merlin is underway <i>(Image: PA)</i>
Quest to unravel the Scots roots of Merlin is underway (Image: PA)

For centuries, the name ‘Merlin’ has conjured up magical images and inspired countless tales of spells and the supernatural, of Hollywood wizards and Arthurian legend.

Now tiny fragments teased from hilly ground in the Borders are on a journey back in time, in a magical process of modern sorcery to unravel some of his story which would surely have mystified Merlin himself.

Barely bigger than the smallest fingernail, it’s hoped assorted splinters of vitrified stone, bone, shards of charcoal and other materials retrieved from the ground beneath a 15th century Borders castle may hold the key to separating slivers of fact from the fable that has swirled around the story of Merlin for centuries.

The fragments were collected during a series of archaeological digs, and are now to be radiocarbon dated, in the hope they might turn out to be rooted in the Dark Ages era of the enigmatic druid.

If confirmed, it would add a thin layer of evidence to a centuries-old mystery, and boost hopes that Merlin’s ties with the Southern Uplands may one day be explored in a major tourist attraction that use the magic of virtual reality and modern storytelling to tell his tale.

A complex mishmash of oral and written stories handed down over generations, legend has it that the mystical druid Merlin – whose supernatural powers were said to have led to him predicting his own grim death – lived for years in a secluded cave tucked high in the Moffat hills.

While St Mungo embarked on an effort to turn central Scotland to Christianity, Merlin risked his life by steadfastly clinging to his Pagan beliefs.

Having eventually emerged from his cave - wild haired, wild eyed and tormented by battle - he was said to have met his unfortunate end in the area around Tinnis Castle, one of a series of towers that stretch along the Tweed Valley.

He was said to be buried by the Powsail Burn near the town of Drumelzier on the banks of the Tweed.

Oral versions of his story are thought to have existed for centuries before they were written down and eventually shared more widely in the 15th century.

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While Merlin’s story became entwined in mythical tales and – despite being separated by two generations from King Arthur - conflated with Arthurian tales of Excaliber, the Round Table and Avalon.

Drumelzier’s Hidden Heritage Project, instigated by the Arthur Trail Association and led by GUARD Archaeology launched last year in an ambitious effort to shed some light on life in the area in Merlin’s time.

“The Dark Ages are a bit of a blank,” says Robin Crichton of the Association and developer of The Merlin Trail, a route that takes in various sites across the Borders said to be linked with the ancient mystic.

“The Dark Ages doesn’t appear in history books, it’s not in the school curriculum – it’s a 300 years blank page in our history.”

Professional archaeologists alongside amateurs and enthusiasts carried out a series of digs at three key sites last summer and autumn: at Tinnis Castle, built on the site of an ancient hillfort and where Merlin was said to have witnessed scandalous behaviour leading to his death, at a site near Drumelzier claimed to be Merlin’s final resting place and at Thirlestane Barrows, discovered in 2018 and thought to be the site of Iron Age or medieval graves.

The excavation at Tinnis turned out to be among the most promising, with traces of the medieval courtyard uncovered, late-medieval artefacts including pottery, lead, iron nails, animal bones and charcoal.

All are now being analysed using radiocarbon dating. It’s hoped the results may reveal precious detail of life at the site during the 15th and 16th centuries.

However, further digging at the site, also uncovered the remains of a much older rampart – possibly dating back to the age of Merlin.

Vitrified stone showed the ancient hillfort’s timberlaced drystone rampart had been deliberately burnt in a sustained, intense heat – so powerful it melted the stone.

Often seen on hillforts across Scotland, such damage is said to be rare in the Scottish Borders. While the nucleated layout of the fort, with fortified summit and non-concentric enclosures, has echoes of early medieval fort layouts.

It’s hoped technology to date the fragments will establish whether the site was occupied in Merlin’s time, during the late 6th century AD.

While far from a direct link to Merlin, establishing that the site was occupied during his era would be a tiny piece in a giant jigsaw that, admits Robin, will probably never be fully solved.

The aim of the project, he stressed, is not to confirm the stories of the enigmatic character but rather to search for archaeological evidence from his era.

“We’ve not found Merlin’s false teeth or anything,” says Robin. “But when we have facts, people, places and events, we can then look at the way in which it is all connected.

“It’s like a detective trying to solve a murder.

“There’s a lot of myth around Merlin,” he adds. “But if you look at myth, there’s always a germ of truth somewhere.

“If we can identify that with the archaeologists’ help we can start to put the story together.”

Merlin is thought to have been born in the 530s AD, and named Lailoken – the name was changed to Merlin by writers in Wales some 500 years later.

Rather than become a warrior, he chose to become a druid – a high ranking role that gave him control of many elements of life at the time.

“Although there were clan chiefs, the power was with druids, who ran the equivalent of today’s civil service,” adds Robin. “The clans called themselves “the Men of the North” and Merlin was number two druid in the hierarchy of the time, and very well known.

“But his world was shattered when the Chief of Strathclyde died and was succeeded by his son Rydderch.

“He was devoted to Christianity, which had spread around the coast from Whithorn, through Ayrshire to Strathclyde and Stirling.”

Rydderch called upon St Mungo to convert the remains of his kingdom to Christianity, while a series of brutal battles that saw members of his family slaughtered led to Merlin hiding in the Moffat Hills for ten years.

Having been persuaded to meet St Mungo, Merlin witnessed a scandalous liaison between a royal lady and a steward, leading to his predicted ‘triple’ death of being bludgeoned, stabbed and drowned as he made his way back to his cave.

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His body was said to have been buried at a site known since the mid-18th century as Merlin’s Grave on the east bank of the Tweed, north of Drumelzier.

A geophysical survey of the area was carried out in November as part of the project.

Guard’s commercial director, Dr Ronan Toolis said: “The survey was to see if anything under the ground might be a grave.

“We found some anomaly, so there might be a grave – but that doesn’t mean it’s Merlin’s grave.”

The Thirlestane Barrows dig, meanwhile, unearthed evidence of Bronze Age burials – including a pot which is also to undergo radiocarbon dating.

Dr Toolin added: “We are not trying to prove that the Merlin story is true.

“Instead we are looking for the archaeological roots of the legend, to see if it relates to sites that where the story is set.”

“If we find proof that Tinnis fort was occupied in 600AD, there’s potential that the legend originated there and was embellished over the centuries.”