Wizards and Fairies and Romans, oh my!

Eildon, the name of which is said to be derived from the Old English for Old Fort, is a significant hill (or hills!) in terms of topography, history and folklore.   The three peaks dominate the local landscape with views far beyond their home of Roxburghshire.  They dominate local legend and history, also.

We went on a walk of around ten miles, much of it up the steep slope of Eildon Hill North, passing by the remnants of history stretching back some 3,000 years or so.

So significant was this place, that the Romans under Agricola chose a flat plain in the shadow of the peaks to build their Trimontium – the place of the three hills.  Arriving around 79 C.E. the Empire would construct what would become its largest fort in what is now southern Scotland and which would at its height contain housing with underfloor heating, barracks for 800 cavalry troops, an amphitheatre and bathhouse.  It was included on Ptolemy’s 2nd century map – the one where Scotland resembles a sore thumb, sticking out at entirely the wrong angle.  The point is, Trimontium was important.  From here, the tribes of southern Caledonia would be subdued as the legions began their stay of a century and a half.

Detail from Roy, 1793. Detail from William Roy – Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, 1793. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Perhaps, the physical location suited them.  Their arrow-straight road, known as Dere Street, stretches south towards York.  To the north the road continued, indeed continues, beside the Leaderwater towards Lauder (and briefly becoming Malcolm IV’s Girthgate or Royal Road for the now sadly lost church and hospital of Soutra Aisle) and ultimately the Roman fort of Cramond.

Perhaps, though, the position under the noses of the local tribe in their hillforts was more a display of power and authority.

We set off on a bright, sunny morning leaving Olga* parked outside the tiny but very pretty village of Newstead.   Newstead itself has a fascinating history and is suggested as the place where the stonemasons responsible for the magnificent Melrose Abbey lived during their labours.  Nevertheless, we were heading upwards, towards Eildon.

Our first stop was at the Rhymer’s Stone.   What at first glance looks like a simple gravestone is, in fact, a memorial to a piece of folklore and legend.

Erected in 1929, the stone marks the supposed place where once the Eildon Tree grew.  The tree is where, according to The Romance of Thomas of Ercildoune, Thomas met the Queen of Elphame, the Queen of the Fairies.  Lying resting under the tree’s branches, Thomas spotted a beautiful maiden, dressed in green.

True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank,
A ferlie he spied wi’ his eye
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

Sadly, the Eildon Tree is long-gone.  Captivated by the tale, local literary superstar Sir Walter Scott lamented its loss, centuries before.  The tree was marked by another stone, also long-since disappeared.  A newer thorntree is growing quietly, behind the 20th century monument.

I’ve mentioned Thomas before in a previous post, so won’t dwell on him too long here.  Suffice to say, he went off with the Queen of Elphame for seven years and returned with the gifts of prophecy and the inability to lie – hence his epithet of True Thomas.  Some versions of his tale also claim he was given immortality and rests beneath Eildon Hill.

Sir Thomas of Ercildoune was a real historical figure dwelling at Ercildoune (now the Berwickshire town of Earlston) in the 13th century, in the shadow of the old hillfort of Black Hill – mentioned in my previous post.  There, sandwiched between a cafe and a petrol station, you can glimpse the shattered stump of a small castle, known as the Rhymer’s Tower.  Driving into Earlston the signs read ‘Home of Thomas the Rhymer’ so clearly there’s still some pride in the local lad!

Thomas is associated with various prophecies and possibly the authorship of some Arthurian legends.  It is little wonder, then, that he featured in the ballads and tales of the Borderlands which Scott so loved and which inspired him to write his histories and novels.

The Stone is easy to visit and stands on the side of the old main road which has been closed to traffic, so is very popular with joggers, cyclists and walkers.  This road rejoices in the glorious name of Bogleburn Road.  I’m yet to discover the origin of the name Bogle Burn (Ghost Stream in English), but it seems to some to refer to the goblins Thomas was acquainted with – although I’m not convinced that that’s the reason.

Leaving behind Thomas and the Fairies, we began the steep climb up to Eildon Hill North.  There are a number of fine paths which meander around the hills, part of the great Melrose Paths network.  I think we, inadvertently, took the steepest and had to stop several times to ‘admire the view’.   Enough to say I was red as a balloon and sweating like a large cheese in a shop window.

Eildon Hill North
View from Eildon Hill North

The views are spectacular from the top.  The large flat area once contained a hillfort, with some 300 hut circles identified at the site.  When the forces of Rome arrived, it’s thought they built a signal tower at the summit.  Various theories exist about the relationship between the hillfort and the Roman fort, but there is much that is unclear.  Were both occupied at the same time?  Archaeologists have uncovered much native and Roman finds, but the Roman finds all lie above the native, possibly showing that the local tribe had abandoned the site when the Imperial forces arrived.   The Selgovae tribe is mentioned as being sited here by Ptolemy, but this is challenged by some who claim they were further south and west in modern Galloway.  If they did live here, this fort was very close to one of their rival tribes, the Votadini, who occupied a much larger and presumably stronger kingdom and are perhaps more likely to have been the original British people to have made this place their home.  Both became subjects of the Imperial occupation.

Was the hillfort – one of the largest in Scotland, covering 39 acres in total – lived in or was it, as many believe, only an important ceremonial site?

The continued folklore  would indicate the mythological stature of the place.  It one of many hills said to be hollow, like its Lothians’ counterpart Arthur’s Seat.   In both, Arthur is said to be sleeping with his knights, ready to defend the country against its worst foe – a reminder that the legends of Arthur cover much of the island of Britain and not only Cornwall or England.

One story tells of a shepherd (or horse dealer) being led inside the hill by an old man in ancient dress, who offered him strange old coins if he provided horses for a surprising band of riders.  In a chamber underneath the hill, he saw a sleeping king and knights, who required steeds.  Here, the shepherd is shown two objects: a horn and a sword.  The old man asks him to choose an object.  The shepherd chooses the horn, blowing it.  The king –  Arthur, of course! –  and knights awake, cursing him as a coward for not taking up the sword, at which point he is expelled from the chamber.  On telling his tale to his friends, he dies of exhaustion and the entrance to the underground chamber is never seen or heard of again.  Scott claimed the old man with the money was our old friend True Thomas.

Another legend links another historical figure about whom much myth and mystery has developed like a thick fog.  Michael Scott has become known as the Borders Wizard, or Wizard of the North, who used his magic staff to split Eildon Hill into three – or who got his demons to do the same!

Michael the Mathematician, as he was known to his peers in Paris, was a late 12th century scholar who was so renowned for his knowledge and academic influence that he was employed by both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and Dante included him in his Inferno.  Now largely forgotten, except as a supernatural maybe, his skills as mathematician, linguist, human biologist, translator and astrologer have become mingled with myths of magic, demonology and sorcery.   He was able to fly from France to Scotland in the blink of an eye, according to one story.

Like Thomas of Ercildoune, he is also said to have had the gift of prophesy and is said to have prophesied his own death, although where he lies buried is unknown.  Like Thomas, he may also have achieved immortality.

He claimed he would die from being struck on the head by a stone and, as a result, took to wearing a metal cap for protection.  I’m now envisaging Nicol Williamson’s Merlin in the 1981 film, Excalibur!  On entering Melrose Abbey, however, to attend Mass, he removed his cap and surely a pebble fell from some loose masonry and struck him on the head.  The wound would be fatal and the Wizard of the North was proved correct one last time.

Sir Walter Scott, who claimed some form of kinship, stated that Michael lies buried with his books on magic, at Melrose Abbey – just below Eildon Hill.

Supposed tomb of Michael Scott, Melrose.

For many years, and odd-looking carving of a bearded man in gown and hood was pointed out as his tomb at the Abbey.  I didn’t spot this at all, the last time I visited Melrose, but maybe he’d just nipped out to France for a bit.  I feel Michael Scott should be better known: he was a giant among European intellectuals of his age and, like poor old Duns Scotus, deserves a better memorial and reputation.

We carried on with our walk, dropping quickly down the steep slope of the hill towards the old road that would take us over to the site of Trimontium.  Walking through the woods was a welcome break from the hot sunshine, and we walked down wooded paths that seemed very, very old indeed.

We followed the old road back past the Rhymer’s Stone, then crossed over fields where an Iron Age fort once lay – until the Roman complex was built almost on top of it.  Following the old Berwickshire railway line, we stopped off to admire the magnificent Leaderfoot viaduct – a wonder of Victorian engineering – which sits near the 18th and 20th century road bridges.  Here, too, was a stone bridge built by the Romans, next to Trimontium.  Visible, apparently, into the 18th century there is nothing of this to be seen now.

Not far from these bridges, the slight hollow in a field marks where the amphitheatre was built, opposite the enormous rectangle of the main fort.  The scale of the fort is quite remarkable, but – apart from marks in the ground really only visible from above, there is nothing to be seen.   It is still very much worth visiting, though, and we hope hope to go to the Trimontium Museum when it reopens after the Covid-19 lockdown closure.

It is incredible how much history can be discovered in such a small part of Scotland.  There’s so much more I could have included here.  Maybe another time.


*That’s the car’s name.  Honest.









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