Chapter 1: The last of the dragons

‘Why are there no more dragons?’, asked the boy.
‘Ah,’ said the storyteller, ‘the last of the dragons was killed a long time ago.’

This is about a story called ‘The Last of the Dragons’. It inspired a much more famous Welsh story but its own origins were humble. We can reconstruct the process of its creation without much difficulty. Once upon a time, we are told, a prince left his father’s kingdom. Why? He wanted to see the Battle of the Birds. As he went along, he learned that the last of the dragons was blighting a distant kingdom, at Oxford, right at the centre of England, and that the king of that country, at his wit’s end, was offering his daughter’s hand and half his kingdom to any man who could kill the dragon. The prince, being as cunning as he was brave, succeeded where many lesser men had failed. He caught the dragon by lowering a tub full of ale down into his den, caught the stupefied animal in a net, and dispatched him with his trusty sword. And that, the story concludes, is why there are no more dragons.

What actually happened was something like this. Once upon a time, somewhere in Wales (since this tale is about a dragon and the Welsh have a particular fondness for dragons), a group of people are passing a convivial evening round a fire, telling good tales and chatting about this and that. Someone mentions dragons, and a thoughtful child asks: ‘Why are there no more dragons?’ This is a good question and the company give it proper consideration. What eventually they produced, in response to the enquiring voice, was the story called 'The Last of the Dragons'. But they produced it backwards.

'Why was the last dragon killed?'
'Because it blighted the land and caused famine and misery.'

'Who killed it?'
'A very brave prince, the son of a king' (for everyone knew that hunting large animals was the prerogative of the elite).

'How could even a prince kill such a thing as a dragon?'
An aged person remembered how one captured a very large and dangerous animal like a bull or a boar. 'He got it drunk, caught it in a net and killed it with his sword.'

'But how did he get it drunk?'
This required more thought and discussion but eventually the company agreed that most probably the King had donated a barrel of his best ale and the prince had lowered it down into the dragon’s den on a rope.

‘But why did he want to kill the dragon?’
This led to another lengthy detour, satisfactorily answered by borrowing a standard theme from another story of a wandering hero, where the King offers the hand of his daughter and half his kingdom to the man who can perform some great feat (and, incidentally, shows us how matrilineal inheritance worked).

Finally, the boy has only one question left: 'But why did the prince leave home in the first place?’
'He left to see the Battle of the Birds!'

And so our story starts with a joke. Once upon a time the prince left home to see the Battle of the Birds. The Battle of the Birds is a very famous but totally unrelated story. Someone had no doubt told it earlier in the evening.

How do we know that the story of ‘The Last of the Dragons’ was constructed in reverse, from the last event back to the start, by a process of question and answer? Because when retold it unfolds from beginning to end as a series of answers.

We can deduce several more things from it. This story was devised and retold within a society in which hunting was still a familiar activity. It gives practical information about how to go about trapping and killing a large and dangerous animal. Netting and drugging were both used. A wild bull might be caught in a net and pigs before slaughter were fed on spent malt to pacify them. We also learn that hunting large animals was reserved for the offspring of the ruling classes. It was also devised for a pagan audience. It is devoid of Christian references: the dragon-killer is a member of the local elite, not a Christian saint. It is a work of the imagination but it has no supernatural elements, except the dragon herself. It is full of sensible advice. Had there been a dragon to catch at the time, all those who heard this tale had a good idea of how to go about it.

The dragon of Oxford had a whelp in the form of a famous political allegory which is known from a Welsh manuscript of the thirteenth century. The story of Lludd and the Three Plagues of Britain is part of the Mabinogion. We are told that when Lludd was King of Britain, the island was threatened by three plagues. The first was an invasion by the Coranieid, an invincible race with spies everywhere, the second was a great scream heard every May Eve which blasted the fertility of the land, and the third was the mysterious disappearance of almost all the food and drink in the country after only one day of use. The first and third ‘plagues’ are political complaints which are not difficult to recognise but the great scream is coded. The scream was traced to the dragon of Britain which fought once a year with the dragon ‘of a foreign folk’. The solution is borrowed from our earlier story. The king was to dig a pit exactly in the centre of Britain, at Oxford, and he was to put into it a tub of the best mead covered with silk. As he watched on the appointed day, he saw the dragons at first fighting on the ground ‘in the shape of monster animals’, then fighting dragon-shape in the air. When exhausted they fell down on to the silk covering of the tub in the shape of two little pigs. The pigs fell into the tub of mead, drank it all up, and fell asleep. It was then an easy matter to wrap them up in the silk and transport them to the fort of Dinas Emrys (Caernarvon) in Wales where they were hidden for some time in an underground cave.

I believe this is a political allegory which ostensibly refers to the old conflict between Welsh and Saxon but in fact refers to conflict between the Welsh and Normans. That the story of Lludd is medieval fiction rather than a folk-tale is suggested by its scrappy and inconsequential plot, its reliance on supernatural solutions when the plot becomes too difficult to unravel by any other means, and a mixture of real and magical elements. The real elements are borrowed from the earlier folk tale. The practical details of ‘how to catch a dragon’ are virtually identical, with a silk sheet in place of a net. Sleepy pigs make an unexpected but appropriate appearance. The story-teller has introduced details which suggest that he knew that a dragon was not a fire-breathing monster but a code-word for a beacon. Welsh dragon means ‘leader in war’ which in an archaic context meant 'leader of the hunt'. The dragon, belching fire, was not a human leader but the local beacon. Welsh dragio ‘tear, mangle, mutilate’ also belongs in a hunting setting. The fight between these two dragons on land and in the air can therefore be interpreted as a dispute over control of a beacon system. The clue to the meaning of the great scream which left the land barren rests on the fact that May Eve or Beltane was an important beacon festival which marked the end of winter, the end of hunting and the migration of the flocks and herds to the summer pastures. A native economy based on transhumance and assuming their right of access to the hills would be seriously dislocated by an alien elite who operated their own beacon system and used the hills for their own purposes. By 1200 fully one-third of southern England was designated as royal forest. Where effective, the feudal appropriate of wild country marked the end of Gaelic culture in most of Scotland and was no doubt a serious problem also for the Welsh.

In this book we are interested not in Wales but in the archaic Gaelic language used by hunters in Scotland which seldom leaves such transparent traces. As the old hunting lore has been obsolete in most places since the imposition of a feudal form of government and since the Gaels were not literate, very little has survived, but one source of information is Gaelic folk tales and folk lore, nonsensical or not. Scotland has many similar stories which on the face of it make little sense but which represent the efforts of illiterate rural people to explain an archaic word or phrase which they no longer understood. Some of these stories retain elements of logical speculation but most contain miraculous elements and many have been reduced to nonsense, both within Gaeldom and by their translation into English. Particularly when we find nonsense we can be certain that there was once a nugget of important fact, like a dragon, which demanded an explanation. ‘The Last of the Dragons’ provides a model by which we can understand the origins of these tales and recover the obsolete elements. The supernatural motifs of European folk-tales, which have been extensively codified, are not part of this investigation. They flesh out the bones and add, sometimes excessively, to the length of the finished tales and, no doubt, to the story-teller's fee, but their links with the original fact are tenuous, or lost altogether.

An example of this inventive process in Highland Scotland is the way Gaelic place-names were explained in terms of historical fiction after their real meaning had been forgotten. The supernatural or nonsensical element in these place-name inventions became more marked as Gaelic culture began its terminal decline and tourism began to invade the Highlands. A surprisingly large proportion of what now passes for Scottish history is nothing more than this this kind of speculation. The Bloody Inches (NO1438) on the Tay near Perth is explained in terms of violence and bloodshed but ‘bloody’ is only an anglified spelling of G. bliochd ‘milk’ – the Inches in question are or were particularly lush water-meadows. Details of the 'battle' vary but it is said to have involved from twelve to thirty warriors from two unidentified clans, who had to fight before the King and his Court, using only their swords. The combat that ensued was so terrible the King was seized with 'inexpressible horror'. My own preferred explanation of this event is that the King watched a shinty match between two teams with 12-30 a side, who were armed not with swords but with camans. If indeed there was any 'battle' on the bloody meadows at Perth.

Balquhidder, an early tourist destination, thanks to the fame of Rob Roy Macgregor who lived there, is notable for the clan battles and massacres inspired by various topographical features. For example, the Buchanans once fought the MacLarens at some undefined period for a reason that has not been invented yet. According to the MacLaren clan historian, only two of the wretched Buchanans ‘succeeded in crossing the river and their respite was short for they were pursued and slain, one at Gartnafueran, where a cairn still marks the spot, and the last at the place whose name records the whole affair, Stroneslany’. M. MacLaren, The MacLarens, a History of Clan Labhran, 2nd edition, 1984, 27. A similar account is given by E. Beauchamp, The Braes o’ Balquhidder, 1978, 37-8. But Stroneslany is not ‘the promontory of Leny’, the name of the Buchanan holding at Callander, some miles further south, but G. sron lèana ‘the nose or point of the boggy meadow’. Leny which is appropriate to its location. Leny at Callander overlooks another boggy meadow at the confluence of the rivers Leny and Teith but has no sron. As Gartnafuaran means ‘enclosure of the fire’ in the old language the cairn there probably served the dual purpose of marking the spot where the beacon should be lit and holding its pole securely upright.

Such figments were almost always - perhaps invariably - created as works of fiction by a local school-master or minister whose Gaelic was inadequate or entirely missing. Sir Walter Scott did his share in propagating the results. The circumstances in which such tales thrived were the loss of understanding which followed the decline of native culture. The boilich cloinne Labhruinn invented at Balquhidder also reflects uninformed speculation by educated men who were believed without question and quoted indefinitely as a source of true facts.

The old hunting culture had its own metaphors, though at first these were no more than pedestrian images. The White Lady or Deer Goddess was originally a tribal beacon, from G. cail 'burn'. That is still the meaning of cailleach in place-names. In southern Scotland a beacon might be a giant or a king, ruling the land. At some other place or at some other time a king was a stag or a bull. The English word fairy has various links, notably with the little Peri or angel (both words for fire) who watches at the gates of paradise. She may be the origin of E. fairy. The Gaelic word is faire 'sentinel, guard, watch', who also watched beside a fire. But the Gaelic word for 'fairy', sìth, is derived from G. sìth 'mound, hill', not because the fairies lived in mounds but because they used them as outlook posts. The key to the muddle is that Gaelic sìthean were hunters, who kept watch on knolls or mounds, still known as Fairy Hills, many of which survive in Scotland. This single fact opens the door into a fairy hill full of archaic language, strange puns and occasional enlightenment. The story of the Gaelic sìth and the English fairy, like our clan battles, is an example of the strange and almost violent confusion that arose between the two cultures and the two languages when English visitors and English education began to penetrate into the Highlands. Tourists looked for romance and were easily seduced by stories of the supernatural, even if they had to invent them themselves. The Gaels were even more ready to abandon their native common sense and believe every lurid tale told by an English tourist. Much of what is now taken to be ages-old Gaelic folklore is no older than the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Some of it was concocted by Walter Scott, whose command of Gaelic was negligible.

As the old Gaelic hunting lore became redundant and its words and images lost their meaning (though their importance was still recognised), such elements were reinterpreted in increasingly supernatural terms. The fairy is one example of this in Scotland, as the fire-spewing dragon was in Wales. The speculative process of story creation - 'What could this mean?' has gone on for centuries in Scotland, gathering force as new stories circulated and new themes were introduced. Imaginative unreal fiction grew and spread, intertwining like a garden of brilliant flowers. Kings and giants became literal creatures. Almost as soon as the great wild bull had vanished from the forests, he became the fabulous ùruisg. This is only the English word aurochs but the wild bull was transformed into a water-god, a brownie, an ugly savage fellow, a bear, or even a sloven and a slut. The hunters who once ruled the hills became fairies, witches or ghosts and their lore was reduced to nonsense tales to entertain children.

A considerable volume of traditional information once existed and was passed on orally through many generations. Oral learning was prized among the Irish, the Scots and the Gauls, and in India, where literacy existed and allowed its transcription. The survival of the Vedic hymns was not literally a matter of life and death but the survival of hunting lore in northern Europe very often was. Caesar noted that those who studied with the Druids in Gaul learned a great many verses by heart and that the training sometimes lasted for twenty years. J. Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.14. Druids as wise men combined a command of hunting lore with law and 'telling the future', which is in such a context to be understood in terms of reading and sending beacon signals.

In literate feudal English-dominated Ireland, traditional learning was preserved by several hereditary families. A school of traditional Irish law persisted into the seventeenth century at Cathair Mhic Neachtain, a prehistoric cashel near Noughaval, in the Burren, and there were others. ‘Amongst the medieval Gaelic [Irish] clans, the professional learned classes (physicians, jurists, harpists and poets) formed a distinctive element. These professions were generally based on hereditary families, and their continued existence was very much intertwined with the maintenance of many aspects of Gaelic culture. Such families were often closely associated with particular clans.’ Paul Gosling, in J.W. O’Connell and A. Korff (eds.), The Book of the Burren, 1991, 122.

That this oral learning included hunting lore is suggested by the 'tree' version of the Irish Ogam alphabet which incorporates hunting puns. Those connected with the first five letters are shown below.

B beth (birch): beithir ‘lightning’, beò ‘living animals, fire’; beatha ‘life, food, salvation’; beòchan ‘small fire’; beòthadh ‘kindling, lighting a fire; beithir ‘serpent (hunting knowledge)’, buth ‘shelter’.
L luis (rowan): loise ‘flame’, AG. lus ‘flame, light, signal bonfire’.
F fearn (alder): AG. fear ‘fire’, fearann ‘fire-land, deer-forest.’
S suil (willow): solus ‘light’, sùil ‘eye’(of a beacon’).
N nuin (ash): neimh ‘brightness’, naomh ‘sacred place (deer-forest)’. This is the origin of Saint Ninian in all his manifestations.

I have attributed supernatural or nonsense tales to recent interference by English but the archaic nature of hunting language led to explanatory tales among the Gaels themselves. Hunting continued to be important for so long in Highland Scotland that everyday language, evolving to keep pace with an evolving society, changed around it, leaving an increasingly archaic language to a few learned specialists. When hunting became the pastime of the new feudal elite the ancient lore and archaic Gaelic became obsolete.

Their subsequent fate depended very much on local factors. In Ireland the learned class became literate at a very early date, perhaps as early as the third century AD, and, to judge by the content of later Irish Christianity, in particular the stories of Irish saints, their first use for their literacy was to write down their inherited learning. The almost total absence of Biblical themes shows that the old learning was more influential in Ireland than the Bible itself. But even before then its language had begun to give rise to speculation and debate about meaning. A whole branch of Irish scholarship, the Dinn-shenchas ‘the lore of important places’, was devoted to the interpretation of place-names. To compensate for their lack of understanding, scholars searched for linguistic parallels, puns, and what they knew of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Similar speculation was applied to history and genealogy. The end-results of this invention include pseudo-history, the Ulster Cycle, tales of fairy changelings, and the pedigrees of imaginary saints.

In Scotland there were no independent repositories of oral learning, as in Ireland. Oral learning vanished as Gaelic society declined, initially under feudal administration, and sennachies and bards became redundant. The development of fictional reinterpretation was limited by the persistence of hunting in Scotland into the eighteenth century. The absence of literacy among the Gaels meant that little of importance was recorded before the nineteenth century, and by then Lowland influence was marked and only a few genuine Gaelic tales were in circulation. Even where genuine material did survive, it was not unknown for collectors to edit it into a more suitable form. Given that much of it might well have been unfit for the drawing-room, at least one would expect to find the MS record in the national archives. The first five volumes of Carmina Gadelica, edited by Alexander Carmichael, purport to be rare and irreplaceable oral material which he had collected from the last native speakers of the Hebrides but are totally devoid of any authentic archaic material. The good news is that such scraps as do survive are much closer to the original archaic hunting language than the elaborate fictions of the Irish and Welsh.

The fate of the last dragon allows us to offer an explanation for the origins of early literature and folklore, not only in Scotland and Ireland but more widely. Archaic language survives in all European countries and can be recognised, once the key is known. I have called this language Archaic Gaelic, as I have approached it by way of modern Gaelic but it can also be seen as the north-west dialect of a widespread European language with Mesolithic and even older components. The discussion which follows is generally restricted to Scotland and Gaelic but it is relevant to other countries and other languages. The main novelty is to put hunting back where it belongs, in the foreground of prehistoric life and language.

Finally, to introduce the complexities but also the rewards of Archaic Gaelic, here is a note on the place-name Aberlady.

The simplest interpretation of Lady in place-names is to take the word literally and equate her with the Virgin Mary. However early written forms of Aberlady point elsewhere.

Other examples are rare. Lady’s Rock, between Mull and Lismore, is a dangerous rock in a busy shipping lane and is equipped with a lighthouse. Tradition says that an errant lady was once stranded there by her husband. Ben Ledi, Perthshire, said to be 'the mountain of God', was one of the principle beacons linking Lowland and Highland Scotland. Before its harbour silted up, Aberlady, a small coastal village on the Firth of Forth, East Lothian, was the port for Haddington, the county capital, which lies a few miles inland. At an earlier date it probably served the Iron-Age hill-fort on Dulpelder (Traprain Law), oppidum of the Votadini. Documented forms of Aberlady from c.1200 onwards certainly point to Our Lady but this is a Christian pun - never forget the clerk!

The coastal Abers of east Scotland are all prehistoric landing-places established on gravel beaches. Admittedly Aberlady is noted for its mudflats but the silting is post-medieval. If Aber were to be given its Welsh meaning of ‘confluence’, the river which enters the sea at Aberlady should be the river Lady but it is in fact the Peffer. This name is also found as the Peffer Burn in Midlothian and as the Peffery in Easter Ross. W.J. Watson 1926, 461. Peffer in place-names can be compared with E. pepper ‘fiery substance (fire)’ which suggests that there was once a landing-light or coastal beacon at Aberlady.

Early forms of Aberlady are Aberlauedy c.1221, Aberleuedi 1214-29, and Aberlefdi 1275. J.B. Johnston 1934, 77. The structure of the second element is LFD, representing LMD or LBD. It is also found in the English surname Loveday (Leuedai, Leuedey) and in Anglo-Saxon hlafdige ‘lady’. Lomond, found in the Lomond Hills, Fife, and Ben Lomond, Stirlingshire, represents G. laom ‘flame’. This root is also found as liomh ‘polish, gloss’, lomhair ‘brilliant, shining, glittering, bright’, and Scots lowe ‘bonfire’. It is found in another form in Leven: the outlet of Loch Lomond is the river Leven, while the Lomond Hills in Fife overlook Loch Leven. W.F.H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, 1976, proposes G. leamhanach ‘having many elms’.

AS. hlafdige ‘lady’ is said to mean ‘loaf-kneader’ or ‘dough-kneader’ but, apart from the lack of status this implies, the Lady is probably older than the Loaf. E. loaf is a relatively recent word meaning ‘fired’ while AS. hlaf is an older cognate word meaning ‘fire’. The initial aspirate of hlaf is found in its original state in G. plath ‘flash, beam of light, volume of smoke or flame’, and G. blàth ‘warm’, and in an intermediate state in E. flash. The second element of hlaf-dige is what it appears to be: a cognate of G. dìg ‘ditch, dyke’, digh ‘rampart, fairy knoll’, and E. dig, dyke, ditch. The hlafdige was not a person but an enclosure for a fire. The lady did not knead dough, she tended the hearth-fire, always the primary responsibility of a housewife. From hlafdige or some similar word comes eventually ‘lady’. The Lady and the river Peffer give us two references to a coastal beacon at the old port of Aberlady.

A third comes from Luffness, an elite site at Aberlady. It retains the LF ('flame') element of Aberlefdi and E. loaf. Early forms are Lufenac 1180, Lufnauch 1250, Lufnois 1585. J.B. Johnston 1934, 244. It can now be read as G. liomhanach ‘place of the bright light’.

I began by distancing the place-name element Lady from Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. However this title is not merely honorific. All her names and attributes are related to fire or to hunting. Early dedications to Notre Dame in France are invariably on important pagan beacon sites.

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