A series of improbable kings

We've looked at the legend of King Galdus, and how it relates to the fragmentary older legends of Cairbre Riata and other supposed founders of Dál Riata, here and here. However, it's worth looking at the whole sweep of Hector Boece's pseudo-history and how he created his story: in particular, the many times that I believe he repeats the myth of Cairbre Riata which I reconstructed in those earlier articles. This article is only a brief, reign-by-reign summary, but I think still more detailed than has been attempted before. I will return to some of these kings in greater detail.


Fergus I: The founding father of Boece’s ancient Scottish kingdom, this Irish prince is a character we have already glanced at. He is simply a combination of the real fifth/sixth century Fergus Mór, projected back to the fourth century B.C.E. to provide the kingdom with greater antiquity, with the “Forgo” of the Gaelic genealogies, who is just a name. The connection was not made by Boece, but existed at least as early as the fourteenth century, when John of Fordun told much the same story: it may derive from Boece's lost thirteenth century source Richard Vairement. (There might also be an echo of the Pictish culture hero Cruithne, Fergus' companions who give their names to regions of Scotland corresponding to Cruithne's sons who do the same.)


Ferithar: In Boece, Fergus is succeeded by his brother Ferithar because his sons are too young to rule. This is a duplicate of the name Ferquhard given to Fergus’ or Forgo’s father: both derive from the Gaelic name Fearchar. The fact that “Fearchar son of Fearchar” was a common figure in Gaelic chiefly genealogies, though not this far back, may have influenced Boece.


Mainus: Son of Fergus I. A peaceable lawgiver who establishes the country’s religion but does little else, he fulfils a standard mythic role, the good king who comes a little after a warlike founder and shapes civil society. (Numa Pompilius in Roman legend may have influenced Boece here.) A number of Irish kings are named Maine or Maen, but there seems to be little connection.


Dornadilla: Arindeil in Fordun, elsewhere referred to as Arandil, Earmail, etc. A continuation of his father’s “lawgiver” role. He was later associated with the broch of Dún Dornaigil in Sutherland: however, this is problematic, as earlier forms of the name are further removed from “Dornaigil”. We could conjecture that Boece was aware of some kind of legend of a “King Dornaigil” and combined this with the Arindeil of the genealogies because the names struck him as similar, but that is as far as we can go.


Nothatus: His son Reuther being too young to succeed, Dornadilla passes his throne to his unworthy brother Nothatus. Nothatus is not elsewhere attested, though some lists insert an extra generation here (Ewen in Fordun, Roin in one Gaelic genealogy). However, since this is the first iteration of the Riata myth in Fordun’s account, Nothatus – and Dowall, who overthrows him and installs Reuther as a puppet – are in effect both exemplars of the tyrant whom the hero must replace.


It’s harder to tell where the names come from. Dowall is a not uncommon Gaelic name, but Nothatus very unusual. However, at an earlier point in Fordun's genealogy, there appears one "Noethath" who represents a Nuadu in Irish sources. Nuadu or Nuada was the name of several mythical Irish kings - and also of an important pan-Celtic god, the Welsh Nudd or ancient Gallo-British Nodens. Whether or not it was Boece who first attached this name to the tyrant of the Riata myth, it seems likely that the connection was made late by someone unaware of the Irish significance of the name.


Reuther: Fordun’s Rether derives from the Rothrir of the genealogies, who in turn seems to be a duplicate of his son Trir (perhaps a scribal error, perhaps invented to cover a greater time gap). However, Boece conflated him with the mythic hero Cairbre or Eochu Riata, so that here we get the first iteration of the story I have dubbed the "Riata myth" – early accession, displaced by a tyrant, loses his family, has to reclaim his throne and then defend it from a foreign enemy. (It is worth noting that this myth may not originally have belonged to Riata: however, Boece links it both to Reuther and to a later Corbredus/Cairbre, and the name is convenient.)


Reutha: Reuther is succeeded by his similarly named cousin, who seems to be simply a duplicate. Boece has Ptolemy VI of Egypt send geographers to examine Scotland in his reign – an amusing conflation of the Pharaoh with the Roman-era scholar Claudius Ptolemy, and an early clue to the time period to which Riata’s story originally belonged.


Thereus: Boece paints the Trir of the genealogies as an initially pious king who slides into corruption. As we will see,in all iterations of the Riata myth, the hero is succeeded by an unworthy son.


Josina: Thereus’ brother in Boece but elsewhere his son, usually called Rosin. A scholar, healer, and religious reformer, he has another mythic role like Mainus', that of the restorer – putting right the wrongs resulting from Thereus’ tyranny and Reuther’s long wars. In fact, like Rothrir, he seems to have begun as a duplication of his son Sin or Sen; Boece then attached a story-less archetype to the name.


Fynnan: Occupies the role of Sin or Sen in the genealogies. Possibly the name derives from Sin – Fordun used the form “Syn” – but this may be where Boece first breaks with the genealogies. Another good king with an uneventful reign, supposed to have established the order of Druids.


Durstus: Fynnan’s debauched and murderous son is a clear break with the genealogies. This is where they reach people who are more than names, with Deda, founder of the Clanna Dedad – a semi-divine extended family of kings and heroes in Irish myth. It would be difficult to make Deda a King of Scots, but Boece has done it with other Irish figures: but here he inserts a character with a clearly Pictish name instead. He also has a storied reign, the first since Ferithar not to be a variant of the Riata myth – some may be drawn from more recent history, but it is tempting to imagine here that Boece may have had access to some now lost tradition. Of course, any such tradition need not actually belong to the pre-Roman era: there were no fewer than ten Pictish kings called Drest (the name of which Durstus is a variant) between the fifth and ninth centuries.


Ewen I: The warlike distant cousin who deposes Durstus has no equivalent in the genealogies; nor do Durstus’ sons. Instead this is where we find Deda’s son Íar, King of Munster and ancestor of the Érainn.


Gillus: Ewen’s bastard who usurps the throne, sets Durstus’ sons against each other, and tries to kill off his grandchildren, is also not equivalent to any character in the genealogies. (Íar's son Ailill appears at this point.) However, if I am right in conjecturing that Ederus below is another duplicate of the Riata myth, Gillus is another iteration of the tyrant who threatens the young hero.


Ewen II: Once again a Ewen rides to the rescue. This is the Eoghan who appears in the genealogies as Ailill’s son, and is equivalent to the various helpers who protect and aid the young hero in the Riata myth; we are again in line with the genealogical material for a little while.


Ederus: Durstus’ grandson, restored by Ewen’s wish, bears the name of the mythical Irish High King Éterscel (Fordun calls him Therskeol). Éterscel is usually described as Íar's son, but some genealogies attempt to cover larger time periods by making him Eoghan’s. Boece’s version, however, has a very different life story from Éterscel, and appears to be another iteration of the Riata myth.


Ewen III: No equivalent in the genealogies. This is yet another unworthy son of the Riata figure.


Metellanus: Where the genealogies feature the great Irish High King Conaire Mór, son of Éterscel, Boece introduces a figure he has apparently created to link the southern British royals of the early Roman period into his Scottish royal family.


Caractacus: Metellanus’ nephew and successor is the historical Caratacos, a king of the Catuvellauni in the Thames Valley, and leader of the British resistance to Claudius’ invasion in 43-51 C.E. Boece has somewhat ridiculously made him a Scot. (The real Caratacos was the son and successor of Cunobelinos or Cymbeline, but later tradition had transferred his exploits to a figure of Welsh myth called Guiderius; early modern chroniclers with access to Roman sources, trying to re-insert Caratacos into the narrative, found Guiderius named as King of the Britons, and had to try to make the two exist alongside one another. Boece found a neat solution which also played to his nationalist agenda; unfortunately it happened to be nonsense historically.)


Corbredus I: Caractacus’ brother and heir is the genealogies’ Cairbre Fionn Mór or Findmór, son of Conaire Mór. There is considerable confusion between the various Cairbres in Irish legend: and although Cairbre Riata is traditionally identified as a great-great-grandson of this Cairbre, it is certainly arguable that Riata was originally thought of as a son or grandson of Conaire Mór.


Dardannus: The Dáire Dornmór of the genealogies is sometimes Cairbre Fionn Mór's son rather than his cousin, but that may be only because "successor" was equated with "son". In either case, we have here another iteration of the tyrant in the Riata myth.


Corbredus II Galdus: The hero of the Riata myth once more, combined by Boece with Calgacus, the Caledonian war leader who fought the Romans in CE 83.


Lugthacus: The unworthy son of the Riata figure, again.


Mogallus: The Mogalama or Mug Láma of the genealogies, attached to anti-Roman campaigns of the second century, probably just because he was a good chronological fit.


Conarus: Conaire Cóem, a second century High King of Ireland in legend, may be a duplicate of Conaire Mór, or a separate figure later confused with him. Boece’s Scottish Conarus, deposed for his vicious living, shares his name and parentage but has a wholly different life story.


Ethodius I: Conarus’ nephew or cousin, in other sources his son. Fordun calls him “Euchodius Reid”, a clear reference to Eochu Riata, an alternate name for Cairbre Riata in one Irish source: but there is nothing of the earlier Riata myth in Boece’s telling of his story, apart from fighting Romans. Possibly the Irish identification of Ethodius with Riata is due to confusion between Conaire Cóem and Conaire Mór; though, as glanced at above, it is also possible that Boece's Riata myth did not originally belong to Riata - there is certainly nothing of it associated with him in Irish sources.


This is where Boece leaves Irish myth behind and largely stops deviating from the genealogies, as well as no longer repeating the Riata story.


If we may venture to reconstruct an older version of this timeline, I suspect that it would begin in the first century C.E., with the two Corbredi, who may or may not be originally one person. Either way, they come to Alba after the death of Conaire Mór, and the story thereafter follows much the lines given by Boece in the stories of Reuther, Ederus, and Galdus. This is the lost myth of how Scotland began.


The earlier names, insofar as they are consistent with Fordun and the Gaelic genealogies, mostly belong in Ireland. The obvious exceptions are Nothatus and Durstus, though as discussed above, Dornadilla and Fynnan may possibly also represent deviations from the genealogies. If so, it is possible that Boece or his sources used folk tales here which were originally unconnected with this line of kings. Metellanus' role in the story is likely Boece's creation, but where his name came from is uncertain. Irish myth does include a King of Alba named Domnall Miltemail or Maeltemel at roughly the right period, but the names are not that close; "Metellanus" looks more Roman than Celtic. (In any case, the Irish writers may have misplaced a later King Domnall.)


It feels very much as if the kings before the first century are a somewhat desperate attempt to fill the gap between Fordun’s “Fergus I” and the Riata / Calgacos story, using as much duplication and appropriation from Irish, English, and Welsh sources as necessary; while those after Corbredus I, and especially after Ethodius I, are much more chronologically grounded and less reliant on transplanting Irish material into Scotland. This does not, of course, mean that they are necessarily any more real historically: but that is a matter for another article. This still gives Scotland a lengthy pseudo-history before documented figures begin to dominate in the sixth century.

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