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Beregonium, Scotland's lost capital

There is a legend of a fallen city, once the glorious capital of the ancient Scots, before it was destroyed in fire. But where did the story come from?

High on a rock the palace stood,

Looking afar o'er vale and flood,

Amid a mighty citadel,

To force of man impregnable.

Seven towers it had of ample space,

Which still the stranger well may trace.

Much famed in legendary lore,

'Twas Selma in the days of yore,

But east and north the city lay,

On ridge and vale, from bay to bay,

And many a stately building shone

Within the ancient Beregon,

And many a fair and comely breast

Heaved in that jewel of the west.

While round it cliffs and walls arose

Impassable to friends and foes.

Thus James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, describes his heroine's capital in what is now one of his most obscure works (though celebrated in its day): the epic poem Queen Hynde (1824). Ultimately, however, the defences of this Highland Camelot have a weak spot, in that it can be approached by sea. The poem tells the story of a seaborne Norwegian invasion. After many vicissitudes, the Scots are victorious in the field: but the fighting men's absence from seven-towered Beregonium affords to some desperate Norwegians who had escaped the battle the opportunity to sack the city. But at the invocation of St Columba, God sends fire from Heaven to destroy both Beregonium and the invaders:

One single moment, and no more,

All glitter'd with a glowing gleen,

Then pass'd as they had never been.

Walls, towers, and sinners, in one sweep,

Were solder'd to a formless heap,

To stand, until that final day,

When this fair world shall melt away,

As beacons sacred and sublime

Of judgment sent for human crime.

The completeness and instantaneousness of the destruction makes the modern reader shiver. Belonging to an age before nuclear weapons, however, it is surely fantastical. What reality, if any, lies behind Beregonium and its fiery end?

The story of the legendary capital of the ancient Scots in fact begins with a misprint. Around the middle of the second century, the Greek-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy produced the Geography, an atlas and gazetteer of the world known to imperial Rome: and in the territory of the Novantae, a tribe occupying roughly what is now Galloway, he mentioned a settlement called Rerigonium, probably meaning "The Place of the King". Rerigonium appears to have sat on the shores of Loch Ryan, whose name likely derives from it; probably around where Stranraer is today. (The only other known Novantan settlement, Locopibium, might be Rispain Camp near Whithorn.) In the fifteenth century, like many another classical author, Ptolemy was rediscovered by a Europe eager for ancient learning: and an edition of the Geography printed in the German city of Ulm in 1482 happened to render Rerigonium as "Berigonium". When Hector Boece came to write his History of the Scottish People, completed in 1527, the Ulm edition of Ptolemy was among his sources, and he picked up "Berigonium" and other errors from it.

Confused by Ptolemy's misshapen map of Britain, which bends Scotland some ninety degrees to the right, Boece thought that the Novantae had lived in Argyll - the heartland of the early medieval Dalriadic kingdom from which the Kings of Scots derived their male line descent. It was a small step from there to assuming that the principal town Ptolemy assigned to them had been a capital of the ancient Scots.

Exactly how much of the early part of Boece's history is his own invention is now difficult to tell: he did have access to sources lost to us: but be that as it may, in his account the kingdom is founded in the fourth century B.C.E. by an Irish prince named Fergus. (This character seems to be at least in part a projection backwards of the real Fergus Mór mac Erc, traditionally regarded as having founded Dalriada in the fifth or early sixth century C.E.) Fergus builds the castle and city of Beregonium (Bergonium, Berogomum, etc.), in Lochaber, as his seat - though Boece avoids assigning it a definite location. It remains his people's sole capital until the foundation of Evonium, "not far" away, some 150 years later; about a generation after that it disappears from Boece's narrative. Later editions, appearing after Boece's death, identified Evonium with Dunstaffnage.

But Queen Hynde is set in the sixth century, long after Boece's last mention of Beregonium; nor does the chronicler give any indication that it was destroyed by fire. Later chroniclers expanded slightly on Boece's account, but not much. Then in 1760-65, James Macpherson's Ossian poems burst onto the Scottish cultural scene. Purporting to be the surviving works of the legendary third century bard Oisean (the Irish Oisín), these provoked a debate over their authenticity which has not altogether subsided yet (though nobody today would claim quite such antiquity for them as Macpherson did). What seems most likely is that Macpherson did much what Elias Lönnrot did when composing Finland's national epic, the Kalevala (1849): strung together genuine surviving fragments of mythological material with folk songs and poems originally unconnected with the myth cycles, and bridged the gaps with his own composition. The difference, of course, is that Lönnrot never claimed to be doing anything else. (The less solemn Queen Hynde has been described as "Ossian with jokes".)

The Ossian poems are set in and around the "kingdom" of "Morven": i.e. Morvern on the Sound of Mull, just across Loch Linnhe from Dunstaffnage. Beregonium is not mentioned: but the capital of Morven is that Selma which Hogg would identify with Boece's ancient city. ("Selma" is usually thought to have been derived from the Gaelic "Seallad math", meaning something like "a good sight to see". There is no known usage of it before Macpherson, who apparently invented it.) Selma's location and description are vague: it sits on the western coast, within sight of woods and streams, and its walls are implied to be high, casting long shadows: and it is doomed to fall into ruin some time after the main action of the stories the poems tell. But it was Selma, home of heroes, which entered the European imagination as the capital of ancient Scotland, and was established as such by Hogg's time, supplanting Beregonium.

Hogg was not in fact the first to conflate the two. That element he got from John MacCulloch, a geologist whose researches took him to the Lochaber area in the 1820s, and who credited the identification to unnamed "historians". By the time Macpherson's "discoveries" were published, it had become conventional to identify Beregonium with the large vitrified fort at Dun Mac Sniachan, above Loch Etive (no distance from Dunstaffnage). Where this identification came from is unknown: the earliest references cite chronicles that do not actually mention Beregonium, and a "new map" which has been claimed as a reference to the pseudo-medieval forgery Description of Britain. But the Description clearly shows Beregonium in Galloway.

Be that as it may, MacCulloch followed up this identification with his own investigations, informed by the chronicles and by local folklore. Although Hogg had also travelled in the western Highlands and listened to local tales, MacCulloch was apparently his main source here - though Hogg ignored the scientist's conclusion, which pointed out Boece's error and the real origins of the name. From MacCulloch also comes the alternate name "Baile an rìgh", which he cites as "the Highland name of Berigonium", and which coincidentally means much the same as Rerigonium (King's Town: interestingly, the fourteenth century French romance Perceforest names the capital of ancient Scotland as "Royalville"); and the seven towers and fire from Heaven, which he had from "the people". Cities with seven towers, seven walls, or seven gates, are a staple of folklore and myth, thanks to the number's widespread mystical associations.

And here is the explanation for the tale of Beregonium's destruction. For Dun Mac Sniachan, like several other Iron Age and early medieval fortresses in Scotland (and a small number elsewhere in Northern Europe), had been subjected to vitrification, an intensely hot fire having fused the stones of its walls and turned them to a glass. The reason for this practice has never been satisfactorily determined, but it is easy to see how it could have given rise to such a legend, especially since the technique was lost along with the rationale.

But this is not the only point of interest regarding Dun Mac Sniachan. The name is widely agreed to derive from Dun Mac Uisneachan - the fort of the son(s) of Uisneach. This ties it to the famous legend of Deirdre, who was brought up in isolation to be the wife of the King of Ulaid (Ulster), but eloped to Scotland with her lover Naoise son of Uisneach, accompanied by his two younger brothers. The story is ancient and tragic, all four of the young people meeting untimely ends through the treacherous contrivance of the abandoned bridegroom. As far back as the earliest recorded version, written down around 1160 in The Book of Leinster, the brothers' Scottish hideaway is explicitly located on Loch Etive. A thirteenth century lyrical "Lament of Deirdre" is the oldest surviving piece of literature in praise of Scotland's landscape:

Beloved is that eastern land, Alba, with its lakes. Oh that I might not depart from it, Unless I were to go with Naos! ...

Glen Etive! in which I raised my first house,

Delightful were its groves on rising When the sun struck on Glen Etive. My delight was Glen Urchay; It is the straight vale of many ridges.

The tale of Deirdre belongs to the Ulster Cycle, the older story cycle of Irish mythology. While the Fenian Cycle remained popular in oral lore on both sides of the Irish Sea, most of the Ulster Cycle was, between the Middle Ages and the Romantic era, confined to the page in Ireland, and barely remembered in Scotland: but Deirdre's story was an exception, never falling out of the seannachaidh's repertoire. Versions collected by Victorian folklorists from illiterate old men in the Hebrides are recognisably the same story as that told by the Irish scribe seven centuries before. There seems little doubt that Dun Mac Sniachan was always a part of this story; but that it played any role in the Fenian Cycle, or in legends of Scotland's ancient kings, before the eighteenth century is much less likely.

The leap from exiles' hiding place to royal capital is curious: but maybe the mere fact that the fort was believed to have an heroic and storied past was enough to ensure its adoption into the pseudo-history derived from the combination of Boece and Macpherson. The latter even included in "Ossian"'s works a version of the Deirdre story, called Dar-thula - and named as his heroine's original home "Seláma, a castle in Ulster". Seláma is, in Macpherson's work, distinct from Selma, but the similarity of the names is impossible to miss, and may have helped to suggest that Dun Mac Sniachan and Selma were one and the same.

From this curious patchwork of mythology, typography, forgery, and geology, Hogg fashioned his Gaelic Gondolin and its fiery fall. The two historical elements in the mix are that the Novantae had a capital named Rerigonium in Roman times, and that Dun Mac Sniachan was subjected to extreme heat that later generations could not explain. Small beginnings indeed for so grand a scene as the destruction of Beregonium: but the poet weaves them together with a deft hand. It is a great shame that the story is now so little remembered.

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