The Giant and the Dwarf

I investigate a story from Angus that may not be all it seems.

Content note: kidnapping; slavery; objectification of disabled people.

Image: Redcastle today.


One of the books from Celtic Educational Services’ Folk Tales from Scotland series which I owned and loved as a child was entitled The Two Good Friends. The cover shows a stereotypical blond viking warrior, complete with inauthentic horned helmet (and apparently two left hands: the artwork is not of the highest quality), bending to stroke the head of a smiling little man who stands no higher than his knee. Within, we learn their identities: Daniel and Licinius, rescued from dire circumstances in their native Scandinavia by Sir William de Barclay, Lord of Redcastle in Angus, who has sailed thither to rescue his wife and daughter from the viking marauders who hold them hostage. (They appear to be an actual non-human giant and dwarf, although this isn't quite explicit.) The story recounts their friendship, their service to Sir William, and ultimately their tragic deaths – Daniel defending Redcastle against the vengeful vikings, Licinius from a broken heart at the loss of his friend.

Nobody has been able to trace this story further back than Alexander Lowson’s Tales, Legends, and Traditions of Forfarshire (1891). Indeed, Keith Coleman, an indefatigable investigator of Angus folklore whose blog on the subject I strongly recommend, roundly declares that Lowson invented it wholesale. Lowson himself is highly inconsistent concerning the source of his stories. In the Dedication, he thanks his friend James Donald for providing "much of the material" in the book; in the Preface, he claims to have assiduously researched the verifiable historical matter, but to have allowed his imagination free rein "in the fictitious parts"; while in the Introduction, he asserts that the whole book is essentially the work of his maternal grandfather Donald Jolly, "slightly touched up here and there" by himself for publication. The story of the giant and dwarf is presented as Jolly's report of the account given to him by a "blue-gown" or licensed beggar named Graham Grant, shortly after the bodies of the two friends were discovered at an excavation at Redcastle in the late 1810s; Grant supposedly claimed to have found it in an ancient manuscript.

This is a farrago. It is clear that the antiquarian circumstantial details colouring this story and others like it were the product of Lowson's own researches, and it seems highly unlikely that Jolly left him any written accounts. Furthermore, it is far from the only story of his which seems to have left little trace before 1891. This does not mean, however, that this story or others were purely Lowson's invention. He certainly seems to have drawn on reminiscences from his grandfather in treating of more recent history; and it is not impossible that some confused local rumour, perhaps bolstered or even inspired by a discovery of unusually sized graves, may have formed the germ of the story. (It is equally possible, of course, that Jolly himself entirely invented the "tradition" which his grandson augmented.) The first formal archaeological investigations at Redcastle seem to have taken place in the 1880s, and no doubt Lowson was aware of them: but the private activities of Georgian-era amateur antiquaries no doubt often went unrecorded.

"Grant"'s account differs considerably from the one which became commonplace in the twentieth century. The knight's name is not William but Walter, described as the first Lord of Redcastle: here, perhaps anticipating scepticism, Lowson directly cites evidence of the real man’s career. Sir Walter was a servant of King William the Lion, and was granted Redcastle and Inverkeillor in 1194. (The castle, though the current structure is considerably later, is traditionally supposed to have been constructed on King William’s own orders, and was probably a reward for services rendered.) De Barclay was a major figure in the realm: he had served as Great Chamberlain of Scotland from 1165 to 1189, and stood surety for William’s ransom when the latter was captured by Henry II of England in 1174. Much of this Lowson reports accurately.

There is, in this version, no kidnap and pursuit to Scandinavia. Instead, Sir Walter sails to Stockholm on a peaceful mission, with the specific intent of acquiring a giant and dwarf as servants. (Lowson is clearly referring here to human beings with gigantism and dwarfism respectively, though Daniel is described as ten feet (3 m) tall, considerably larger than any real person. The exploitative employment of people with various disabilities as ornaments and diversions for the rich was unfortunately commonplace in medieval and early modern Europe.) There he meets King Christian of Denmark, represented as ruling Sweden as well; Licinius Calvus, the son of "a Greek orator and poet", kidnapped by vikings in the Mediterranean and brought to Christian's court; and Daniel Cajanus, already Licinius' devoted friend.

King Christian is an anachronism. Denmark and Sweden in 1194 were separate kingdoms, ruled by Knud VI and Knut I respectively; although Christian I of Denmark did indeed also rule Sweden, he lived in the fifteenth century. Lowson may have been thinking here of Christian IX, who was King of Denmark (but not Sweden) when he was writing his Tales. Vikings in the Mediterranean are entirely out of place any later than the eleventh century - but there is another element likely at play here, which we will examine below.

The idea of viking raids on Scotland continuing in the 1190s also seems, on the face of it, completely anachronistic. However, the great Somerled, first Lord of the Isles, and the Orcadian freebooter Sveinn Asleifarson, who died in 1164 and around 1171 respectively, would have fit perfectly into the Norse world three centuries earlier; and the civil wars in Norway between 1130 and 1240 produced many an outlaw and exile. Chronicles explicitly state that men excluded from the peace concluded between the Bagler and Birkebeiner factions in 1209 fled to the Hebrides and “went a-viking”. Indeed, it is arguably possible to trace a direct continuity from the viking era to Hebridean piracy as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century. But although twelfth century vikings are less anachronistic than one might imagine, regular large scale raids on eastern Scotland from bases in mainland Scandinavia do seem to belong to an earlier era. The occasionally seen idea that Redcastle was built to guard against such raids is a modern one, for which I have never seen any evidence advanced, and possibly derives from this story in the first place. It is, however, true that viking raids left a significant mark on the popular memory, and that they commonly feature in folkloric explanations of old fortifications: so perhaps this notion, even if mistaken, is at least a piece of genuine folklore.

One particularly interesting aspect of the story is the provenance of the names. Licinius Calvus was an orator of the late Roman Republic (echoed in the dwarf's reported paternity). It’s possible, of course, that this name was simply plucked from the air by Lowson as possessing a suitably classical gravitas, and bestowed upon an originally nameless character: but Daniel Cajanus is another matter. This really was the name of a man known as “The Swedish Giant”, the exact term Lowson uses (he was an ethnic Finn, but a Swedish subject). The real Cajanus lived not in the Middle Ages but from 1704 to 1749, and grew famous touring the courts of Europe. His height was at different times estimated as between 2.24 and 2.47 metres (7’4” to 8’1”). He never visited Scotland, but on the first of two extended visits to England in 1734, he was made the subject of two portraits by the Polish-born artist Enoch Seeman – and from 1767 onwards, one of these was exhibited at Dalkeith Palace in Midlothian. It is likely that it was from this, and from pamphlets regarding his life and his time in England, that his fame reached Angus.

Clearly, the story cannot have been true as Lowson reports it, but that’s not the same as showing it to be a complete invention. Indeed, if it was Lowson who appropriated Cajanus’ name, he must have done so in a spirit of mischief, almost daring critics to catch him, rather than with a seriously fraudulent intent. Might he (or Jolly) rather have been deceived by a similarly mischievous informant? Or might one “Swedish giant” have become conflated with another in the normal course of a folk tale’s evolution? (The very mention of Sweden argues against the story being old. Sweden sent few raiders westwards, and never occupied much of a place in the Scottish popular imagination, in stark contrast to Norway and Denmark.)

Much the same questions could apply to elements of Licinius' story - specifically, his capture and enslavement by marauders in the Mediterranean, and an episode in which he leaps out of a giant pie served at the knight's table. An historical person with dwarfism had been known for exactly this party trick: the remarkable Jeffrey Hudson (1619-82), whose eventful life included an eighteen year spell as one of the coterie of entertainers attending Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria. Moreover, Hudson enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship with a man with gigantism, William Evans, another of the Queen’s servants: and shortly after leaving the Queen's service, he was captured by Barbary corsairs, and spent 24 years as a slave in North Africa. To find one early modern court celebrity sucked into a legend of earlier times is merely curious: to find two seems distinctly suspicious.

There's also the question of how the story I first read came to be different from Lowson's in so many particulars. Well: in 1971, the Reader's Digest book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain included a short notice of this story. Sir Walter's name was, for the first time that I am aware of, rendered as "William"; and the two friends were said simply to have been "brought home from Scandinavia", with no further context or detail. If the Celtic Educational Services' book, produced in the 1980s, was expanded from this meagre mention by someone without knowledge of Lowson, the whole rescue expedition could have been invented to account (in a manner consistent with the rest of the story) for de Barclay's presence in Scandinavia and the two friends' willingness to join and serve him. Every element that The Two Good Friends shares with Lowson is also found in Folklore, Myths and Legends, while episodes such as Daniel's fight with a Norman giant at King William's court appear only in Lowson.

I can't shake the feeling that Lowson's story was built around some pre-existing kernel, however small. A curious pair of graves? A yarn spun by (or to) Donald Jolly? In any case, however, whatever earlier story there may have been surely had no historical validity. It seems almost certain that it was Lowson himself who wove whatever (if anything) he inherited together with the real details of Sir Walter's career, and the appropriated names and attributes of Cajanus, Calvus, and Hudson. We have traced how the story he created went on to evolve in the twentieth century - into, to be honest, a better and more dramatic story than the one Lowson told. I for one am heartily sorry that it isn't true.

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