The fourth book of Hector Boece's History of the Scottish People tells the epic story of the hero-king Galdus. (A still more stirring version is found in the vernacular verse rendition by William Stewart, written in the 1530s but not published until 1858.) A nephew of both Caratacos and Boudicca (here called Voada), he has a troubled childhood: fostered by his famous aunt, and forced to return home after her uprising against the Roman Empire ends in defeat and death; orphaned young; sent away again with his younger brothers for education by Druids while his cousin Dardannus the Gross assumes the throne; losing both brothers and barely escaping with his own life when Dardannus attempts to secure his own claim by wiping out the young princes.
In CE 75 he leads a rebellion, overthrowing and executing Dardannus, and installing himself as King of Scots. (Boece's history, as was conventional by his time, projects the early medieval existence of side-by-side Scottish and Pictish kingdoms back into the pre-Roman era.) He convenes a Parliament, tours the Hebrides, and suppresses robbery and lawlessness, abolishing an old law that had given the nobility droit-de-seigneur. He then learns that the kingdom of his Pictish neighbours has been invaded by the new Roman Governor of Britain, Petillius Cerialis. (Here we run up against Boece's frequent difficulties with chronology and geography in his early books: Cerialis' governorship ended in 74, and he never got further than Yorkshire. One of the "Pictish" territories mentioned here by the chronicler was actually in North Wales.)
Thus begins a series of campaigns against Roman incursions, in alliance with the Picts, Voada's daughter Vodicia (in fact a duplicate of Boudicca), Germanic Moravians recently settled in Moray (which folk-etymology said was named from them), Usipian auxiliaries who had deserted the Roman side, and a force of the Picts' alleged kinsmen from Scandinavia under the Danish general Gildo. Despite a devastating defeat by the Roman general Agricola at Mons Graupius, Galdus ultimately regroups his scattered forces, and after Agricola's recall wins a great victory, securing the peace and independence of his realm for many years, before his unworthy son Lugthacus succeeds him. He is buried in Galloway, which is named after him.
So who was Galdus?
Historically, of course, the Caledonian leader who was defeated at Mons Graupius in CE 83 was Calgacus, of whose career outside the battle nothing is known. Our source is the Roman annalist Tacitus' biography of Agricola, who was his father-in-law, and governed Britain from 77 to 85. (Tacitus, incidentally, is the source for the Usipian defection - but the deserted auxiliaries did not in fact join the Caledonians. Instead they stole a ship and navigated back to Germany, losing many to starvation along the way, and the survivors were captured by Frisian tribes allied to Rome.) Boece remarks in passing that "Tacitus calls [Galdus] Galgacus" [sic]. In his account, "Galdus" means "Foreigner" and was a nickname bestowed on the Scottish prince - whose real name was Corbredus - because of his upbringing among the Britons, at Voada's court. (This is the Gaelic word gall.)
This is a remarkable multiplicity of names for one man. Apart from Tacitus, what was Boece's source? The principal one he cites throughout his history is a chronicle by one "Veremundus", thought to be the thirteenth century cleric Richard Vairement: this has not survived, and Boece has often been accused of inventing it. The likelihood is that it did exist in some form, but that Boece massively embellished it: probably the early kings were little more than a list of names and synchronisations with Roman and other Mediterranean history. If Vairement had synchronised a king named Corbredus with the Flavian Dynasty (CE 69-96), it would be a small step for Boece to identify him with Calgacus, whose stirring speech before the battle (penned, of course, by Tacitus himself) remains famous to this day.
It's worth noting here that Vairement, writing before the destruction of much early documentary material in the Wars of Independence, may well have had access to sources lost by Boece's time, let alone ours. After Boece, the Protestant Reformation and the Civil and Covenant Wars would wreak yet further devastation on Scotland's documentary heritage.
The name "Corbredus" and Gaelic genealogies
The earliest surviving Scottish chronicle to cover this period at all, John of Fordun's Chronicle of the Scottish People (c. 1360), gives names alone and no synchronisation. Lugtach, corresponding to Boece's Lugthacus, is "son of Corbre, son of Dordremore, son of Corbrefynmore, son of Coneremore". This roughly matches traditional Gaelic genealogies of Scotland's kings and chiefs, although some versions contain conflations such as "Daire Findmor", or call the first Corbre something like firmaora (meaning unknown) rather than fionn mór ("big fair one").
Boece's Corbredus Galdus is the son of Corbredus, son of Catallanus and great-nephew of his predecessor Metellanus. "Dordremore" (the Gaelic Dáire Dornmór), the generation between the two Corbres, has apparently been transformed in his account into the murderous tyrant Dardannus. (Confusion between genealogies and succession lists is not uncommon. Unfortunately where both versions exist it can be difficult to tell which came first.) Before Galdus' father there is a divergence in the two genealogies. This is directly attributable to Boece's desire to link every famous Briton of the early Roman era to the Scottish royal house. "Catallanus" derives from the Welsh name Cadwallon, which is connected to the Catuvellauni, a powerful tribe in the Thames valley. Caratacos - another son of Catallanus in Boece's account - was a ruler of this tribe at the time of the Roman conquest in CE 43-51. But who are the other characters in Fordun and the Gaelic genealogies?
"Coneremore" is of course Conaire Mór, a major figure of Irish mythology, who according to the Book of Invasions of Ireland became High King of Ireland during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE - CE 14). Early historical Kings of Scots proudly claimed descent from the High Kings of Ireland, though not explicitly that Conaire had reigned in Scotland itself. And after Conaire there is a positive wealth of Irish figures called Coirpre or Cairbre. Conaire's immediate family did not succeed him in Ireland, but the traditional genealogy does go much as above - even if the generations don't always match precisely. (It's worth noting here that, if the Irish High Kingship existed in ancient times, it would have been largely nominal: the idea of a single authority ruling the whole island is anachronistic: but Tara was a sacred centre and it is not impossible that people later thought of as High Kings were real kings there, deemed to hold an office senior to that of other local rulers.)
But there's more. An unrelated Cairbre Cinnchait, High King of Ireland, is synchronised in the Book of Invasions with the Emperor Domitian (81-96); and this Cairbre's father was named Dubthach Dornmór, a possible conflation / confusion with Dáire. The next direct descendant of Conaire Mór to rule Ireland was Lugtach's grandson or great-nephew Conaire Cóem (synchronised with Commodus, Emperor 180-92). This Conaire's three sons were, in Irish tradition, all named Cairbre - and one of them was Cairbre Riata, supposedly the founder of Dál Riata and therefore direct predecessor of the Kings of Scots.
Cairbre Riata's myth is very old. As far back as the eighth century, before any of the surviving Gaelic sources, Bede recorded in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that the Scots derived from an Irish prince named "Reuda". Even before this, the ruling family were called the Corcu Réti, which appears to be of the same derivation. (There was a sixth century king named Domangart Reti, but it is impossible to tell whether the family's name derives from him or predates him.)
Reuda / Riata appears twice over in Boece, as King Reuther - who returns from exile in Ireland in the third century BCE - and as his cousin and successor Reutha or Reuda. Boece explicitly says that this return was later mistakenly reported as the Scots' first arrival: in fact, the reverse process - in which a new beginning is spun as a return - is a known phenomenon in mythologised history, and this is almost certainly an example of it.
Fordun places a "Rether" at roughly the same place in his genealogy as Boece's Reuther. However, this is in fact the Rothrir of Irish genealogies - a name without a story, possibly a duplicate of his reported son Trir, and certainly nothing to do with Riata. Whether it was Boece or someone earlier who conflated the two, we cannot now know. Fordun regarded this man as significant - he gives no details of the reigns of most of his early kings, but tells us that Rether was a conqueror who greatly expanded his kingdom - but says nothing about him having a founding role.
An obscure Irish text "Of the Seed of Conaire" - the term by which Kings of Scots referred to themselves down to the thirteenth century - appears to conflate several of these figures, passing from Conaire Mór to "Conaire Mogalama" (conflating Conaire Cóem with his father, Boece's Mogallus), whose sons assume the shared name "Coirpre" in adulthood. They have in this version begun with different names, Coirpre Riata being Eochu Riata: under which name, Latinised as Ethodius or Euchodius, he appears in Fordun and Boece a couple of generations after Mogallus. Boece's Ethodius spends his entire career in Scotland and there is no indication that he was regarded as the beginner of anything. (The very fact that Scottish kings called themselves "seed of Conaire", not of Cairbre, suggests to me that they were thought to derive directly from a famous Conaire. It is therefore surely more likely to refer to Conaire Mór than to the relatively obscure Conaire Cóem, and more likely that the founder was considered Conaire Mór's son than his distant descendant. On the other hand, if the two Conaires were originally separate, it is also possible that the Scottish kings accidentally or deliberately confused their ancestor with his more famous namesake.)
Another little known text, "Of the Sons of Conaire", outright conflates the two Conaires. It makes Conaire Mór the son-in-law and successor of Conn of the Hundred Battles (another famous king who in all other traditions reigned long after him, but in most accounts is succeeded by Conaire Cóem); and has Conaire Cóem's slayer Nemed conspire with Ingcél, the one-eyed British freebooter who murdered Conaire Mór, and on whom the three Coirpres duly avenge their father. Some later accounts, restoring two Conaires, also feature two Ingcéls. "Of the Sons of Conaire" is a very early text, written down in the twelfth century and likely created as a direct sequel to The Burning of Dá Derga's Hostel, the classic account of Conaire's death. Meanwhile, The Book of the Invasions of Ireland, an ur-text of Irish mythology, also seems inconsistent on where in the genealogy Cairbre Riata belongs, referring to "the men of Alba and of Dál Riata" as "children" of Conaire Mór.
It must be admitted that later Irish chronicles show no such confusion, but root the three Cairbres firmly in the second century, connecting them not only to Conn of the Hundred Battles but to several characters of his and immediately succeeding generations. However, while this might well represent an older tradition, it could also be a rationalisation of the confused early accounts.
(Ingcél himself may be connected with Corbredus. He is described as a British or Scottish prince in exile, with two brothers, one of whom is named Tulchinne - which corresponds to Tulcanus, one of Galdus' brothers in Boece's account. However, one name corresponding out of three is not the strongest of evidence. Furthermore, there is another Tulchinne in the Irish account, King Conaire's juggler.)
Dordremore is the Dáire Dornmór ("Big Fist") of Irish myth. But Dáire's place in the chronology and genealogy above is also uncertain. Some genealogies omit him altogether. One poem has his son Croch Mór falling at the hands of the famous Cuchulain, who was a youth when Conaire Mór was slain and barely lived into middle age; while a later chronicle has him disputing territory in the second century with the same Lugaid / Lugthach who appears in Fordun as his great-great-grandson! (I've also seen unsourced references online to Dáire ruling Dál Riata - very interesting in this context if it really does derive from traditional material, but that I have not been able to prove.) In one Fenian tale, this Dáire is substituted for Dáire Donn, a fictitious Roman Emperor who invades Ireland in the third century: there is obviously considerable confusion here. Scattered poems give other epithets and remarks on the characters of these men, but little more.
The name Dáire might be the origin of Thaara, the name of two legendary Pictish kings. It is interesting to note that the first of these is supposed to have lived a generation before Reuther, and the latter one a generation before Galdus, dying at Roman hands in a battle at York in CE 50. This battle in fact took place much further south, within sight of the Severn, and is not known to have involved any Caledonians. However, later antiquaries wrongly believed that the future Emperor Vespasian - who was in Britain, but too ill to take part - had been a commander on the Roman side in this action. Dardannus' death in Boece's account, in CE 75, takes place in Vespasian's actual reign. If Dáire were a member of a foreign, non-Gaelic royal house, it would explain the confusion over where he fits in the Irish genealogies. Interestingly, Galdus' son Lugtach also appears in lists of Pictish kings - though only in late and highly unreliable ones. (Boece, however, paints Thaara as an heroic figure, entirely unlike the evil Dardannus. Also, "Thaara" might derive from the known Pictish regnal name Taran.)
The best synthesis of these sources that could be constructed would be to assume that Conaire Mór's family established themselves as rulers of part of western Scotland in the first century, and Cairbre Riata, if he does belong later, was indeed returning there after his father's sojourn in Ireland, like Boece's Reuther. Both Irish and Scottish chronicles are clear that there were several waves of Irish migration to the west of Scotland before Cairbre Riata: he was merely the first to found a lasting dynasty there. This would also explain the family's total absence from Irish pseudo-history in the period between the two Conaires.
However, it must be admitted that there is no positive evidence of this, and it is at least equally credible - even assuming that we are not dealing with pure fiction - that the Scottish chroniclers or their sources anachronistically transposed Conaire Cóem's ancestors across the North Channel. Their absence from Irish accounts as more than names would make sense if the connection to Conaire Mór was spurious, invented to give a sense of continuity to the High Kingship, and inspired by the coincidence of names; or if the characters began as duplications in the first place.
But if they did begin as duplications, then we cannot rule out the possibility that Conaire Mór was the original father of the three Cairbres: especially since Conaire Cóem's son has an alternative name, Eochu, while the earlier Cairbre does not, and since a tradition existed in which Eochu never left Scotland. (On the other hand, this may be another conflation: Eochu Riata appears in some genealogies as Cairbre Riata's son. Boece's Ethodius, occupying Cairbre Riata's traditional position in the Irish genealogies, has a namesake son.) One variant text of The Burning of Dá Derga's Hostel even calls Conaire's third son not Findmór, but Coirpre Musc - elsewhere the eldest son of Conaire Cóem and brother of Cairbre Riata!
That some form of polity covering areas of both western Scotland and northern Ireland existed even in ancient times, at least, is perfectly plausible. How ancient is impossible to say. One point which does suggest the Gaels arrived in numbers later than the first century is that the Greek-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy, in the second, gave a Brythonic name - Epidii - to the tribe inhabiting the Kintyre peninsula: but his information could have been out of date, or transmitted via Britons using their own form of the name. Intriguingly, the names "Epidii" and "Eochu" are closely related, both deriving from a proto-Celtic root meaning "horse".
(Incidentally, some genealogical websites confuse the story of the three Cairbres with that of the three Collas, Irish princes said to have been banished to Scotland by a rival king in the fourth century. The coincidence of three brothers with the same name, sons of a Eochu and grandsons of a Cairbre, and the Scottish connection, has undoubtedly led to this confusion. I have variously seen Cairbre Riata cited as an alternative name for one of the Collas themselves; as a son of their great-grandfather Cormac mac Airt; or as the husband of their Pictish mother Ailech or Oileach. None of this has any discernible basis in the Irish sources.)
Wait a minute, wasn't he called Galdus?
What, though, of the name Boece clearly regards as his main one? Where does that come from?
William Forbes Skene, in Four Ancient Books of Wales (1868), argues that Boece here confused Calgacus with Gwallawg, a King of Elmet in modern Yorkshire in the late sixth century. This view he founds largely on Gwallawg having an uncle named Caradog (i.e. Caratacos), though the family do seem also to have possessed connections in Galloway. But this is hardly surprising considering the intermarriage among the royal houses of the Romano-British Old North in the early Middle Ages; nor was Caradog an uncommon name. It is hard not to regard this argument as flimsy.
Antiquaries of the seventeenth century found that oral tradition in Galloway, hardly likely to be derived from Boece, did indeed attribute the name of the province to an ancient king named Galdus or "Aldus McGaldus", with two separate megalithic monuments pointed out as his tomb. The tradition varies from Boece slightly, in that he is reported to be an enemy of the Picts, and to have fallen in battle (the chronicler's Galdus dies in his bed). And this Galloway connection is the vital clue. For in the French poem The Stone of Scotland, written at the English court in the reign of Edward II (1307-27), Galloway's name is derived from Gaidelon: that is, the ancestral hero known to Boece as Gathelus, and to the Book of Invasions as Goídel Glas.
Goídel and the Egyptian princess Scota were the culture heroes who gave their names to the Gaels and Scots. The story varies somewhat: in the Irish account, Scota is Goídel's mother, his father is a Scythian prince in the service of the Pharaoh, and a second Scota marries their descendant Milesius or Míl Espaine; while in the version Boece lifted from Fordun, Gathelus is Greek and Scota is his wife, and the founding heroes who appear as Míl Espaine's children in Irish tradition are their sons. But they agree that they were contemporaries and friends of Moses - in one story, Goídel's nickname "Glas" ("blue" or "green") derives from the mark left by a snakebite of which the Hebrew patriarch miraculously cured him - who had to leave Egypt and trek to the west with many followers, taking with them the stone on which Jacob laid his head at Bethel when he dreamed of the stair leading to Heaven.
These two accounts, the best known, both have Gathelus dying in Spain. It is the sons of Scota who reach Ireland, and many more generations pass before their descendants get to Scotland. Jacob's Pillow then becomes the coronation stone of the Scottish kings, first at Dunadd, and later at Scone. (Assuming that he was not palmed off with a fake, this is of course the stone which Edward I removed to humiliate Scotland in 1296, and which sat under the English throne at Westminster until it was returned to Scotland in 1996.)
However, The Stone of Scotland shows that a different version was current even before Fordun. Gaidelon and Scota bring the stone themselves to Scone, and travel on to Galloway. That they had reached Scotland was remembered in oral lore as late as the Victorian era, when the poet Colin Sievwright learned that a cave near Kirriemuir was named "the Queen's Chamber" because Scota was believed once to have slept there. There is no doubt in my mind that Galdus of Galloway was Gathelus himself.
These are not the only legendary heroes whose names are linked to Galloway. Since William of Malmesbury penned History of the English Kings in 1125, the name has been linked to King Arthur's nephew Gawain. Gawain and his family are strongly linked with Scotland: his father Lot was remembered as King of Lothian and Orkney, or in some versions King of the Picts; while another uncle was one of the rare attested historical figures in Arthurian legend, Urien of Rheged. Urien's kingdom straddled the modern border, stretching from Lancashire to Dumfriesshire: it is quite possible that a relative of his was a Gallovidian ruler - but also possible that some stories of Gawain, especially those divorced from the rest of the Arthurian mythos, were originally told of Gathelus.
(Incidentally, I suspect that Gathelus was also the original of the character known as Galatian or Golashan, who replaces England's St George in traditional Scots mummers' plays. These, however, likely have nothing to do with legends specific to Gathelus: instead, the name is simply grafted onto the conventional depiction of the dying and reviving Year-King, just as George's was. Some versions of the plays even name this hero Calgacus!)
Disentangling the mess
But does Boece's account of Galdus' career contain any remnant myth of either Gathelus, or any of the Irish Cairbres and Coirpres? Or, for that matter, any non-Tacitus-derived legend of Calgacus?
Most of the military side of it - and therefore most of the incident of his actual reign - is taken directly from Tacitus and other Roman sources. Boece has simply given Galdus command of nearly all resistance the Romans faced in northern Britain in the last quarter of the first century. But outside this, I fear that it's impossible to tell. It's highly possible that he invented a considerable amount, perhaps inspired by relatively recent history. Dardannus' usurpation seems to reflect both the rule of the Albany family in Scotland during James I's captivity (1406-24), and that of England's Richard III (1483-85); while even Galdus' role as heroic resistance fighter may owe as much to Robert the Bruce (to whom Boece even refers in an otherwise irrelevant aside in Book IV) as to Calgacus.
The Moravians may be a duplication of the Usipii, conflated with a myth about the origins of Moray. But their leader, Rodoric, is the same "Sodric" who, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138), leads the Picts from Scythia to Northern Britain in precisely this period. Geoffrey, flattering ambitious Anglo-Norman rulers, wanted the Picts to be thought of as foreign latecomers settling by Romano-British permission: Boece's political agenda is different, and his knowledge of Roman sources greater, but it seems likely that this is a repurposed version of Geoffrey's story. ("Scythia" in Geoffrey's account almost certainly means neither the historical kingdom in modern Ukraine, nor the more generic ancient term for the steppes of Central Asia, but Scandinavia.)
Names outside the royal succession and those plucked from Roman history tell us little. Dardannus is the Irish Dáire identified with a name lifted from Greek mythology (and associated with the House of Troy from which the ancient kings of the Britons were supposed to descend). Few others are identifiable. The fact that a Pictish king named Garnardus succeeds one named Karanathus might derive from the two successive kings named Gartnait or Garnaith who appear in later king lists, but it is far too common a name to be sure of this. (If traditional reign lengths are to be taken literally, these two would probably have lived in the third century.) The Scandinavian Gildo shares a name with a Mauretanian general who revolted against Rome in the fourth century, but might equally be of Gaelic or genuinely Norse derivation.
Very little here is remotely compatible with Gathelus' story. However, the lack of any other substantial narrative regarding Cairbre Crom-chend (traditional successor of Dáire), with little more regarding Cairbre Riata, means that it could easily be grafted onto one or both of them. There are, moreover, several parallels with Boece's earlier account of "Reuther". Like Galdus, he loses his father young, does not succeed him directly, is subject to the machinations of ambitious relatives, has to spend part of his youth in effective exile, allies himself with the Picts, and later leads an heroic resistance against invaders from the south. (Instead of Romans, these are the Britons under Kings Oenus and Sisillius, who outside Boece are just names in a succession list. The list was probably derived from Welsh genealogies which actually belong to the post-Roman period.) Nearly of these things are also true of yet another of Boece's earlier kings, Ederus, whose name and chronological position come from the Irish High King Eterscél (father of Conaire Mór), but whose story does not. The only exception is that Ederus' realm is not invaded - instead he goes south and joins the Britons to fight the Romans under Julius Caesar. But, like Galdus, he is the only survivor of three brothers brought up by Druids on Mona, and is ultimately succeeded by an unworthy son. It seems clear that Ederus' story and Galdus' are the same.
The parallelism with Reuther strengthens the possibility that we have here echoes of a legend of Cairbre Riata that was forgotten in Ireland. However, it is true that Irish traditions of Cairbre Riata do not quite fit this pattern. He does have two brothers, and his antagonistic stepfather Nemed has some parallels to the "tyrant" character: but all three brothers live to maturity; neither Nemed nor Cairbre inherits Conaire's kingdom; he fights no Romans, and in versions where he fights Britons he does so before leaving Ireland; there is no indication that any son of his was considered evil. If this story did not originally belong to Cairbre Riata, however, one possible reason for its association with him in Scottish tradition might be that it belonged to another Cairbre. If this were Cromchenn, it would fit Boece's account of Galdus perfectly.
There is another indication that the story of Reutha belongs later than Boece places it: he welcomes to Scotland a delegation of Egyptian geographers, who are described as beginning the project Claudius Ptolemy would complete over 300 years later! This only makes sense if it refers to the second century, and representatives of the geographer: not, as Boece rather absurdly states, of his namesake the Pharaoh Ptolemy II (286-48 BCE). (Being contemporary with Ptolemy still places him some decades before Commodus, though rather later than Calgacus is likely to have survived.)
The discrepancy of names need not even be a bar, as Calgacus - which means something like "swordsman" or "possessor of a blade" - could have been a title or nickname. "Crom-chend" means something like "crooked head", perhaps connected with Cairbre Cinnchait's by-name "cat-head". In one poem, "Comur Cromchenn, King of the Men of the Dog-Heads" fights the King of the Cat-Headed Men - though this is supposed to take place in the third century. Most intriguingly, it's been suggested that this epithet should be read as "Cruithneachan": i.e. "the little Pict" or "of the Picts", firmly connecting this Cairbre with Scotland. However, another Cairbre Cruithneachan lived in fifth century Munster, so there may be some confusion here.
There is also one odd fact which might even suggest a storied-but-forgotten Irish connection for Calgacus. Long before European historiography rediscovered Tacitus, Derry was known as "Doire Calgaich", the oak-grove of Calgach or of the Swordsman. Oak groves were places of worship for Druids like those supposed to have educated Galdus (on the Isle of Man in Boece's account, which he confuses with the known Druidical power centre on Ynys Môn), and Columba, apostle to the Picts, founded a church at Doire Calgaich before he left Ireland, probably following the common early Christian practice of taking over pagan sacred sites. Was it from here that Cairbre / Calgacus returned to overthrow Dáire? It must be admitted that, apart from this reference (which cannot be proven to refer to the Caledonian war leader), Calgacus was entirely unknown in either Scotland or Ireland until the learned rediscovered Tacitus in the early Renaissance.
All we can be reasonably confident of is that neither Cairbre nor Calgacus was called Galdus, and that the burial in Galloway does not belong to them. But it is difficult to imagine a character better calculated to be Scotland's ur-hero than a synthesis of Gathelus, original culture hero of the Gaelic people; Cairbre Riata who led them into Scotland; and Calgacus, first named inhabitant of Caledonia known to sober record, and valiant resistance leader against a rapacious foreign empire. If the legend of Galdus did not exist before Boece, it was surely an inspired creation.