Who were the parents of King Galdus?

We’ve examined the legend of King Galdus before, more than once, but far from exhaustively. Today, however, I want to look at his parents.


Let’s assume that we accept the identification of Galdus / Calgacos with Cairbre Cromchenn, as discussed in those articles. In this case, the Gaelic and Irish genealogical material give two variant identities for his father: either Cairbre Findmór (equivalent to Boece’s Corbredus I, his father in the chronicle account) or Dáire Dornmór (equivalent to Boece’s Dardannus the Gross, whom he makes Galdus’ immediate predecessor – and enemy – but not a close relative). As discussed previously, this discrepancy could be accounted for by a confusion between a genealogy and a king-list: but there is another possibility, which we’ll consider below.


Boece never names Galdus’ mother, but does say that she was the daughter of a Pictish king of ancient lineage. (Comparing Galdus with Reuther and Ederus, the other two kings with very similar stories in Boece, is no help here, as nothing at all is said about their mothers. Boece seldom has much to say about female characters.) Several Irish sources do mention a princess of Alba (a term whose use varies – it originally meant all of Britain, and now means Scotland – but which can certainly refer to the Pictish kingdom before its union with Dál Riata in the ninth century) precisely contemporary with Cairbre Findmór. Her name is variously given as Dornoll, Dornolla, Dordmair, or in one more obscure source Ducreann. All of these names except the last have the same meaning: “great fist”, identical with Dáire’s epithet Dornmór. This is obviously speculation: but the confusion over who Cairbre Cromchenn’s father was would certainly have been furthered if one of his predecessors as king had, in effect, the same name as Cromchenn’s mother! And the Irish mythological texts from which Cairbre Findmór originates do not mention any other Pictish princess of his era or close to it, even unnamed.


So: what do we know about Dornoll?


She first appears in The Wooing of Emer, a Middle Irish text adapted from an Old Irish original which may be as old as the eighth century. In the relevant passage, the young Cúchulainn seeks training in arms, and goes first to Domnall Miltemail (the Soldierly), King of Alba. Of Domnall’s daughter Dornoll or Dornolla, the story says:


“Her form was very gruesome, her knees were large, her heels turned before her, her feet behind her, big dark-grey eyes in her head, her face as black as a bowl of jet. She had a very strong forehead, her rough bright-red hair in threads round her head.”


She desires Cúchulainn, but he refuses her, and she becomes angry. He then goes on, “eastward of Alba”, to be trained by the princess or goddess Scáthach (who will get her own article here some day): and Dornolla does not appear again. In The Training of Cúchulainn, an early eighteenth century expansion of this account possibly using lost or oral sources, she becomes Dordmair, and it is she, not her father, who initially trains the hero. Neither her ugliness nor her attempted seduction of Cúchulainn is mentioned: he leaves simply because he has been told that Scáthach can teach him more than Dordmair can.


In another early medieval text, The Phantom Chariot of Cúchulainn, the hero – returned as a ghost to help St Patrick warn a pagan king of the dangers of Hell that hang over him – mentions having been taught some of his particularly impressive feats of arms by “Ducreann, daughter of Domnall Maeltemel” (the latter epithet meaning “Soft-smooth”, but probably being a corruption of Miltemail). The cause of their parting is not mentioned, but once again he goes on to Scáthach.


Between her strength and impossible feats, and her grotesque appearance, Dornoll is clearly thought of as a supernatural being, though there is no indication that her father is – especially since he is the king of a real-world territory, and bears the very ordinary name Domnall. Quite possibly there was never any explanation for this: but I do like to think that there is a lost legend of Dornoll’s mother. She seems reminiscent of the troll-like hill-carles of Highland legend, usually referred to as bodaich and cailleacha: literally “old men” and “old women”, but also the names or epithets of divine beings (while cailleach can also mean “nun”, “giantess”, or “witch”).


Cúchulainn, like Cairbre Findmór, is a youth when Conaire Mór is murdered. The king’s murderers hail from Alba. In Of the Sons of Conaire, the king’s sons chase down his killers and avenge him: while in Of the Seed of Conaire, Findmór is directly equated with Cairbre Riata, the legendary founder of the Gaelic kingdom in Alba (who may have begun as a duplicate of Findmór in the first place - see the articles linked above). For Dornoll to be Findmór’s wife and Cromchenn’s mother is therefore no very great stretch. (Boece, incidentally, equates his character Reuther – whose story is a doublet of Galdus' – with Cairbre Riata.)


If we are more fanciful, however, we can go further.


Galdus, in Boece’s account, is the eldest of three brothers. Tulcanus and Brekus disappear from the narrative when the tyrant Dáire (there called Dardannus) attempts to have Galdus killed: it appears to be implied that they were successfully assassinated. Meanwhile, Ederus – one of the earlier characters who duplicates Galdus’ story – is presented as the youngest of three, his elder brothers Lysmore and Cormac certainly being killed. But Ederus and his brothers, unlike Galdus and his other duplicate Reuther, are not the sons of the tyrant’s virtuous predecessor. Rather, they are the grandchildren of an earlier king, the overthrown Durstus. Their father and uncle are still alive in exile: their Dáire-figure, Gillus, recalls and murders them.


Ederus’ name and position in the genealogy and chronology corresponds to Conaire Mór’s father Eterscél; his life story owes nothing to Eterscél’s, because it is merely that of Galdus misplaced. But Durstus and his sons, unlike almost every other character before Corbredus I (Findmór) in Boece’s account, are neither generic archetypes nor duplicates of later figures, nor do they bear names from chiefly genealogies or Irish mythology. Indeed, the name “Durstus” is distinctively Pictish.


I’ve suggested elsewhere that Boece has here incorporated an unrelated legend or folk tale, perhaps originally connected with one of the early medieval kings whose names were closely related to Durstus. In this scenario, Ederus’ relationship to him would have been Boece’s invention. This is certainly a simpler explanation than this part of the story originally belonging to the legend of Galdus: but what if we assumed it was?


The only way to reconcile that, in my mind, would be to have Dornoll marry Durstus’ son Dothan first, before leaving him for Cairbre Findmór. She would then have five sons, Cairbre Cromchenn being the middle one; either all four of his brothers, or only the two eldest, are then murdered by Dáire. Findmór would fill the role of Evenus, the good king who overthrows and replaces Durstus.


At this point, of course, I have moved into the realm of wholesale invention. But it does help to account in a dramatically interesting way for the dynasty’s presence in Scotland from Findmór onwards (Conaire and his ancestors belonging, as they do, firmly in Ireland). It also serves to tie the Durstus story back in to the rest of Boece’s pseudo-history, from which it is removed if we excise the duplications and the flat contradictions of the (earlier, fuller, and far more coherent) Irish material.


That Dornoll was once thought of as Cairbre Cromchenn’s mother is, I believe, not impossible. The rest of my speculations in this article stand on far flimsier foundations – but I hope they make for a satisfying story.

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