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The Dragon-Slaying Bishop of Caithness

Image: Dornoch Cathedral.


Dragons in Scottish tradition are overwhelmingly associated with water, not with fire. They live in lochs or wells or the sea; their breath may be poisonous but is not described as hot; they cannot fly; and indeed in a number of cases it is fire that proves fatal to them.

There is, however, one significant exception. The destruction of much of the northernmost part of the ancient Caledonian Forest is blamed in folklore on a monster both winged and fiery. Charlotte Dempster of Skibo, repeating a story heard in 1859 from one Alexander the Coppersmith, reported in The Folk-Lore Journal in 1888 that:

“There lived once upon a time in Sutherland a great dragon, very fierce and strong. It was this dragon that burnt all the fir woods in Ross, Sutherland, and the Reay country, of which the remains, charred, blackened, and half-decayed, may be found in every moss. Magnificent forests they must have been, but the dragon set fire to them with his fiery breath, and rolled over the whole land. Men fled from before his face, and women fainted when his shadow crossed the sky-line. He made the whole land desert. And it came to pass that this evil spirit, whom the people called the ‘beast’ … came nigh to Dornoch as near as Lochfinn, and when he could see the town and spire of St Gilbert, his church – ‘Pity of you, Dornoch,’ roared the dragon. ‘Pity of you, Dornoch,’ said St Gilbert, and taking with him five long and sharp arrows, and a little lad to carry them, he went out to meet the ‘beast.’ When he came over against it he said, ‘Pity of you,’ and drew his bow. The first arrow shot the beast through the heart. He was buried by the towns-people. Men are alive now who reckoned distance by so or so far from the ‘stone of the beast’ on the moor between Skibo and Dornoch. The moor is planted, and a wood called Carmore waves over the ashes of the destroying dragon.”

This account, with its sapient, articulate, and consciously malevolent dragon brought down in its own rage of fiery destruction by a master archer, seems irresistibly reminiscent of the death of Smaug in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Yet if it did influence Tolkien, this has escaped the notice of most commentators. (That Dempster remarks in the same article on the saint’s by-name “Carthophilax”, and Tolkien named a dragon Chrysophylax in Farmer Giles of Ham, may be another point in favour of a connection. For Tolkien to have known the story is perfectly plausible: Dempster's article was quoted at length by George Henderson in his 1911 introduction to The Celtic Dragon Myth by John Francis Campbell, and Tolkien, a lifelong student of fairy tales and admirer of the pioneering tale collectors of nineteenth century Europe, would surely have known Campbell's work.)

Despite the “once upon a time”, the story is in fact – as Dempster noted – tied to a real person and therefore to a real era. The heroic St Gilbert is Gilbert de Moray, Bishop of Caithness from 1223/4 to his death in 1245; the church mentioned is Dornoch Cathedral, built under his auspices in the late 1230s, by some accounts with magical assistance. Dempster notes that the saint was identified locally with the Gobhaìnn Saor – that is to say, with a master builder of Irish legend, traditionally identified in Ireland with the seventh century St Gobban, but probably deriving from the ancient Celtic god Gobannos, a patron of smiths and craftsmen. That the Gobhaìnn Saor is remembered as a great builder of churches, which Bishop Gilbert really was, no doubt helped fuel this identification: but it would be stretching indeed to suggest that a lost myth of Gobannos is preserved here.

Legends of Christian saints as slayers or tamers of dragons have a venerable history, and were indeed popularised not long after Gilbert's time by Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (1260). The combination of already popular tropes of romance and myth with Christian piety, and the use of the dragon as a symbol for Satan, proved irresistible to the medieval mind.

Dempster notes in passing that variants of the legend identified the dragon as a Norwegian witch rather than a Sutherland monster. This is the version known further south, in Rothiemurchus, and recorded by Affleck Gray in Legends of the Cairngorms (1987). In that (unsourced) account, an unnamed King of Norway, envying the beauty of the Highland forests, called on his supernatural foster-mother to destroy them. She, in the form of a gigantic creature with “the head of a woman, the body of a whale and the wings of an eagle… carrying a huge load of fire in her belly” flew across the North Sea, while the King by sorcery raised a great wind to spread the fire. However, a wise hunter of Kingussie laid a plan to slay the monster. He persuaded the local farmers to attract her attention by driving all their young lambs, calves, and foals to one side of the River Spey, and their mothers to the other, so that the noise of the distressed animals should be heard even in the sky: then he lay in wait, and brought down the witch with a silver bullet fired through her eye. Her body was eaten by ants which never left the region, and trouble it yet.

Though divorced from its Sutherland locality and the life of Bishop Gilbert, and set in a time when accurate portable guns existed, this is clearly the same story. Interestingly, the King of Norway in Gilbert’s time was Håkon IV, later a famous enemy of Scotland: his failed expedition to the Hebrides in 1263 and subsequent death led to the end of Norwegian sovereignty over the islands and their final return to the Scottish Crown, a story which has itself generated a quantity of folklore. It may well have been as part of this offensive that a party of “Danes” landed in eastern Sutherland, where they were routed in the Battle of Embo by St Gilbert’s younger brother Richard de Moray, who was slain in the moment of his victory (though this battle cannot be dated with certainty to 1263). There is, unfortunately, little reason to suppose that any oral transmitter of the story knew any of this: though perhaps a vague memory of Norway being a source of danger - possibly dating back before Håkon, to the Viking Age - informed the story.

It is interesting to note that the Norwegian connection is much more detailed in Gray's version than in Dempster's. Scandinavian cultural influence was always strong in Caithness and Sutherland, and might perhaps account for such an un-Scottish dragon, which would certainly be more at home in an Icelandic saga: but there was much less Nordicisation in Badenoch. Perhaps this accounts for why Gray's bizarre-sounding monster is never explicitly called a dragon. (Other legends of St Gilbert, as Dempster notes, have a distinctly Norse flavour - he even possessed a magic hammer which could fly from his hand and return to it like Thor's Mjolnir; though the saint's was used in cathedral-building, not troll-smiting.)

Gray notes that forest fires have never been rare in the region: but for a single historical fire to have generated legends in both Dornoch and Rothiemurchus, nearly 90 km apart as the dragon flies and further by road, it would have to have been on a truly catastrophic scale. It may be more likely that one version derives ultimately from the other – whether the first was entirely invented or reflects some real event, even if the only true part is likely to be the fire. If it is instead part of the wider body of oft-transplanted European myths, then it is a part that has been forgotten outside the north of Scotland: I know of nothing like it from anywhere else.

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