The many legendary founders of Scotland

One remarkable thing about Scottish legend is just how many beginnings the country's pseudo-history seems to have. In my article on the legend of King Galdus, I looked at two of these: the stories of Gathelus and of Cairbre Riata: but they are far from the only ones. Let's examine them all in (as far as possible) chronological order.

1: Gathelus and Scota

Briefly, as gone into in the Galdus article: an Egyptian princess in the time of Moses, married to an exiled Greek or Scythian prince, has to flee Egypt with her husband or their son and a large number of followers. They go west, settling in Spain, and become the eponymous founding culture heroes of the Gaels / Scots; their descendants move soon after to Ireland, taking it over from the god-like Tuatha de Danaan, and somewhat later colonise Scotland. In most of the best known accounts, they die in Spain, but more obscure versions exist from an early date in which both reach Scotland.

2: Albanus / Albanactus

This is tied up with the Welsh legend of Brutus or Britto, an Italian-born descendant of the Trojan Aeneas who came to Britain a century or so after the fall of Troy, conquered the giants who lived there, and gave the island his name. The first account of Brutus, in The History of the Britons (c. 830, traditionally attributed to one Nennius), mentions no other culture heroes directly associated with him: but a later Irish adaptation, The Book of the Britons, contains a poem called The Song of the Scots in which Brutus is accompanied by his brother Albanus, who gives his name to Alba (Scotland). (The Song dates to the eleventh century, though most of The Book of the Britons is earlier.)

Albanus, however, despite his antiquity, is barely to be seen again in Irish or Scottish historiography. But Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his colossally influential History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138), changed him into Albanactus.

Albanactus is not the contemporary and equal of Brutus. Instead he is his youngest son, brother to Locrinus and Camber (whose names are given as the origins of Lloegr and Cymru, the Welsh terms for England and Wales). When Albanactus is killed by invading Huns, Locrinus annexes his kingdom. The earlier Albanus has here been demoted to a subordinate figure, and the political implications are clear: this story was later explicitly cited by English kings as a precedent for their sovereignty over Scotland.

This is probably why Albanus was forgotten in Scotland itself. Albanactus has not proven an inspiring figure: while Locrinus became the antihero of a tragedy apocryphally attributed to Shakespeare, his brothers are footnotes to his story. But the Italian romance Palamedes (late thirteenth century) does at least make him the ancestor of several Arthurian heroes, via his own youngest son Arbrun or Albrun, who conquers the giants of the Savage Realm (a remote corner of Britain unreached by Brutus) and marries Vagés, daughter of the giant king Galbon.

3: Rothesaus

In John of Fordun's genealogy of the ancient kings, there appears one Rothach or Rothotha, "the first who dwelt in the Scottish islands". Hector Boece expands on this slightly, calling him "Rothesaus" and asserting that Rothesay takes its name from him.

Looking at the generations before and after him, it is clear that Fordun or his source has conflated two mythical High Kings of Ireland, both named Rothechtaid, who were supposed to have lived over two centuries apart. What is not clear is what, other than the slight similarity of the name to "Rothesay", suggested the Scottish connection, which is not mentioned for either of them in Irish tradition until the seventeenth century, by which time it had probably been influenced by the Scottish chronicles.

4. Simon Brek

Fordun, again followed by Boece, states that the coronation stone was first brought to Scotland a few generations after Rothesaus, by a certain Smonbricht or Simon Brek. (Earlier accounts attribute the bringing of the stone to Fergus Mór - see below.) This is Siomón Brecc, another mythical Irish High King not associated with Scotland in Irish sources until very late.

5. Fergus I

Fordun and Boece both regarded the true founder of the Scottish kingdom as a fourth century BCE descendant of Simon Brek named Fergus. Despite the priority of Rothesaus and Simon, Fordun insists that he was "the first who brought the Scots out of Ireland", while Boece - perhaps troubled by this inconsistency - says that he was their first king in Scotland (sent from Ireland by his father, King of the Scots there, to an existing population). It seems almost beyond doubt that this is simply a projection back in time of Fergus Mór (see below). That later king seems to have been conflated with another Fergus in the Gaelic genealogies, called Forgo in Ireland, but to whom no story is attached there. This part of the genealogies, however, makes no chronological sense: there are far too many generations between Irish High Kings whom the synchronisations place relatively close to one another in time. Certainly Forgo does not appear to belong as early as the Scottish chroniclers place Fergus.

6. Cairbre Riata or Reuda

We begin to approach something which may be slightly more related to history here, but the surviving traditions are a tangle. I went into them in some detail in the Galdus article, but here is a recap.

The very earliest surviving mention of a founding ruler of the Scots calls him Reuda. In Irish tradition this is Cairbre Riata, founder of Dál Riata, usually remembered as a son of the second century High King Conaire Cóem, but much confused with a Cairbre who was the son of the more famous Conaire Mór, over a century earlier. Which tradition is the older is impossible to piece together, though I offered some hypotheses in my earlier article.

Boece fails to recognise that his two first-century kings named "Corbredus" have anything to do with Cairbre Riata. Instead, he identifies his equivalent (here named Reuther) with an earlier and completely separate figure known in the Irish genealogies as Rothrir. However, as I pointed out in the Galdus article, his account of Reuther's life bears many similarities to that of the second Corbredus. It is quite possible that an otherwise lost legend relating to Cairbre Riata has been preserved here in somewhat garbled form.

7. Niall of the Nine Hostages

Niall, a semi-legendary High King of Ireland conventionally supposed to have reigned at the beginning of the fifth century, was reported by Geoffrey Keating and other Irish annalists to have been the first to oversee large scale Gaelic settlement in western Alba and give the people there the name of Scots.

8. Fergus Mór and his brothers

As far back as The Song of the Scots, it was remembered that Dál Riata had in some sense begun with Fergus, Aengus, and Loarn, the three sons of Erc, around the end of the fifth century. There are variations to the story, which we'll look at in more detail in a later post: but this was only a couple of generations before we enter the solid recorded history of the kingdom. Whether Fergus was real or not, his legend was sufficiently established, and linked to recorded history, that Fordun could not avoid it. He gets round this by reporting that Fergus had "wrested the kingdom from the Romans and the Picts" after his uncle had lost it in war.

Modern historiography has, until recently, tended to write off all the earlier founders as mythical and regard Fergus as the founder of the Gaelic presence on the western seaboard of Scotland. In the later twentieth century, however, it began to be recognised that peoples seldom move wholesale with rulers, and that Gaelic presence had probably been established slowly over centuries. If there is any truth to the story of Cairbre Riata, it is possible that the sons of Erc usurped an existing Gaelic kingdom and then claimed descent from its former rulers - a topic for another time.

Whatever the case, it seems likely that the sons of Erc existed, and represented some kind of significant turning point, but were not the sole founders of Gaelic Dál Riata. Those must belong earlier, if such a role can be claimed by anyone. The figures before Niall, and especially before Cairbre, cannot be accorded even this much historicity. But what remains mysterious is just why the founding story is repeated so many times, attached to people without significant names, whose careers in Irish tradition never touched Scotland. The country seems to have altogether more founding heroes than it needs.

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