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Merlin and Kentigern: A Legend of Tweeddale

  1. The thorn-tree stands on the burn, about fifteen yards above its junction with the Tweed, below the church of Drummelzier. Here the local tradition has it that the Enchanter was buried.

   2. Mr Skene, in an interesting paper in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians, February 1865, fixes the site of this battle with great probability not far from Longtown, on the great road between that town and Langholm, near the junction of the Liddell and the Esk.

   3. The black dog is a familiar appendage of necromancy and wizardry; but the little pig is peculiarly Welsh, and holds a prominent place in the oldest Cymric poetry. There is a whole class of poems attributed to Merlin, beginning with "Listen, O little pig! O happy little pig!" which Stephen, in his literature of the Cymri, considers to be symbolical of the Welsh people. How the little snouted creature came to attain this dignity he does not explain; but it is no doubt a relic of the rural economy of the oldest times, when the διος υφορβος, the "divine swineherd," was deemed worthy of occupying a prominent position among the retainers of a Greek kingship.

   4. One of those green softly sloping mountains which are the glory of Peeblesshire.  It rises right opposite Drummelzier on the north bank of the Tweed, right above the mouth of the Biggar water.  The name, like not a few others in the district, is manifestly Welsh or Cornish, not Gaelic.

   5. The λογος of John i. 1.

   6. 'Morte Arthur,' vol. i ch. 60, Wright's edition.


Merlin and Kentigern: A Legend of Tweeddale

by: J. S. Blackie (Author)
from: Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Pp. 769 - 774)  December 1885

     This ballad is founded on a passage in Fordun's “Scotichronicon” (iii. 31), in which Kentigern, or St. Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, is brought into communication with Merlin, the well-known Welsh enchanter of the medieval romances. Of course no man accepts Fordun as a voucher for any historical fact; but there is evidence enough, independent of Fordun, to prove that St Kentigern and Merlin were contemporaries, both being representative characters of a great religious movement in the sixth century–the one representing the advancing cause of Christianity in the Celtic or Cymro-Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde, the other the waning cause of Druidism. The battle of Arderydd, A.D. 573, fought between the Christianised King Rhydderch Hael and the heathen monarch Gwenddoleu, divided the Britons of the west, in point of religion, into two unequal halves, of which the lesser was destined speedily to be absorbed into the larger. Of this threatened absorption, Merlin, the Court bard of Gwenddoleu, in the popular tradition appears as the rueful prophet; there is no hope for him or his sun-worship any more, and he must mope about the hills of the south Highlands, then the central part of the kingdom of Strathclyde, till he dies. This is the historical kernel of the miraculous legends which afterwards grew up on both sides of the struggle round the person of their prominent representatives–legends amply sufficient to prove the social importance of the personages concerned, however transparently fictitious, and often ludicrously childish in their details. Discount the silly miracles so bountifully showered on the saint, and the tricks of devilry so lavishly attributed to the Court minstrel of the heathen king, and you have the lasting truth of popular poetical tradition, which Aristotle pronounced to be more philosophical than history. The handling which Roger Bacon, and Doctor Faust, and other such victims of popular prejudice received in the middle ages, may teach us that we are only performing an act of historical justice when we represent Merlin, the Welsh enchanter, in a much more noble light than that in which he appears in the medieval romances, in the pages of the monkish chronicles, or even in the classical portraiture of Lord Tennyson. The facts alluded to in the verses, so far as Kentigern is conconderned, will be found in the late Bishop Forbes's “Kalendar of Scottish Saints” (Edinburgh, 1872); in Skene's “Celtic Scotland,” ii. 179; and in “The Legends of St Kentigern, his Friends and Disciples,” by the late Professor Stevenson (Edinburgh, 1872); and in regard to Merlin, in “Stephen's Literature of the Cymri” (London, 1876); in the “Morte Arthur”; in Professor Veitch's interesting and instructive volume on “The History and Poetry of the Scottish Border” (Glasgow, 1878); and in the recent work of Mr Beveridge on “Culross and Tulliallan” (Edinburgh, Blackwood, 1885).
Come with me fair maiden, Lilias,
     Come and sit a space with me,
Where the Powsail purls and prattles,
     Gently by this old thorn tree.1

Come and stir good thoughts within me,
     With bright looks of kindly cheer;
Sweetly flows an old man's story
     Where the young are fond to hear.

Yesterday, when I was wandering
     O'er the Broad Law's treeless back,
Came a mist, a white mist, floating
     Slowly o'er the moory track.

And ever as it travelled lightly
     Where the fitful breeze might be,
It took new shapes of strangest seeming
     That looked weirdly upon me:

Now a whale, and now an ostrich,
     With a neck of longest span;
Now a camel, now a white bear,
     Now a snowy-locked old man.

And I thought on old man Merlin—
     Merlin, wizard of the Tweed,—
Moaning o'er the tway-cleft kingdom,
     Wailing o'er his waning creed.

For he was a heathen, Lilias,
     Mighty man of place and pride,
Counsellor and bard and prophet
     In the kingdom of Strathclyde.

And when Roderick, to the false gods
     False, and faithful to the true,
In the battle of Arderydd2
     Slew the mightful Gwenddoleu;

Merlin old, his bard and prophet,
     Cleaving to the Cymric creed,
Moaning o'er the lost Sun-worship,
     Wandered lonely by the Tweed:

Seeking death, but might not find it;
     For he deemed it sin to die
With a self-implanted dagger
     In the bright Sun's beaming eye.

And he came to where Drummelzier's
     Kirk looks o'er the Powsail brook;
And sadly here, with thoughtful brooding,
     On a stone his seat he took.

Here he sate, with none to friend him
     In his sorrow and his dool,
But his little dog, a black one,
     And a young pig white as wool.3

Sate and looked, when lo! a figure
     Cloaked and cowled, with solemn gait
Through the shower and through the sun-glint
     Came where wizard Merlin sate:

Came as one that hath a message
     Where delay might father loss,
On his breast a death's-head broidered,
     In his skinny hand a cross.

"Who art thou," cried Merlin, "coming
     From the East where dwell my foes!
I have here enough of sorrows,
     Let me feed upon my woes!

"Cause have I to hate the traitor
     Who hath laid my monarch low;
Spare to triumph rudely o'er me,
     Prostrate in my utter woe!

"Cause have I to hate the Christian;
     Hence, and give mine eyes release
From thy death's-heads and thy crosses!
     Let old Merlin die in peace."

"Fond old man, I may not leave thee;
     I am here by God's command,
With dear balm of benediction
     Near thy bed in death to stand.

"I am Kentigern: my mother,
     Not far from the Isle of May,
Daughter of the king of Lothian,
     Bore me in a wondrous way.

"Saint Theneu, my blissful mother,
     Whom the spiteful waves did toss
Rudely, in a fragile shallop
     Prisoned, bore me at Culross.

"And St Serf, from where Loch Leven
     Laves the roots of Lomond Ben,
Washed me thoroughly in the water
     Of regeneration then.

"And my mother there devoted
     Me to God, the One, the True,
To the savage West to wander,
     And convert the heathen crew.

"Bless the Lord this day, old Merlin:
     In the dear name of Theneu,
I am come with God's salvation,
     On the tree who died for you."

"Mock me not, thou sallow shaveling!
     By yon God that rides on high,
In the pure old Druid worship
     I have lived and I will die.

"Gods in guise of man we know not,
     Scourged and pierced and crucified;
God we own above all human,
     Baal careering in his pride:

"Baal, whence flows Fire's holy fountain,
     Pulsing with a pulse of might;
Baal, that o'er yon green Trahenna,4
     Streams with floods of holy light;

"Baal, whose voice is in the thunder,
     Rolling far from glen to glen;
Baal, whose glance is lightning darted
     From the blue crest of the Ben

"Baal, whose fiery virtue melteth
     Crusted ice and stony hail
Into rills that leap redundant,
     Spreading sweetness through the vale;—

"Him I own within, without me,
     In the great and in the small—
In the near and in the far off,
     In the each and in the all.

"Tempt me not with human Saviours,
     Gods to handle and to feel!
To the bright broad eye of Heaven,
     Life-dispensing Baal, I kneel.

"Preach the cross to savage Saxons;
     Crosses come when they are nigh:
As old Druid wisdom taught me;
     I have lived and I will die!"

Then with holy hand uplifted
     Spake the saintly Kentigern,
And with swelling eye of pity,
     "Old man thou hast much to learn.

"But the gnarled oak can no man
     Bend like rush or osier wand;
Take my love, and take my blessing,
     With thee to the Spirit-land.

"Allwhere lives a thoughtful Reason,5
     In the sky and in the sod;
Mind and Thought, and shaping Reason,
     This we worship, one true God.

"Sun and moon, and forky levin,
     Floods by sea, and storms by land,
Are but ministers and servants,
     Tools in the Great Master's hand.

"Take my prayer and take my blessing;
     Though I may not move thy will,
Whom I serve hath gracious magic
     To bring good from harshest ill.

"In His house are many mansions;
     If they heart is pure and true,
He can save with stretch of mercy,
     Merlin old and Gwenddoleu."

Spake: and with his cloak wrapt round him,
     Eastward o'er the moor he strode,
Leaving wise old Merlin brooding
     Strangely o'er the Christian's God.

But his brooding must be barren:
     Who can change an old man's creed?
Romish gods might not be devils,
     But Baal was God for Merlin's need.

With an eye of moody-wandering
     Gaze, he followed Kentigern,
Where he brushed the purple heather,
     Where he swept the plumy fern.

And he wandered o'er the moorland,
     Wrapt in sorrow and in dool,
With his small black dog behind him,
     And his young pig white as wool;

Wandered till he found a hollow
     Cavern by the river's brim,
Where a witch, a wily lady,
     With a strong spell prisoned him.6

And she kept him there, the fell one,
     Till his eyes with age grew dim;
Then the wily fair, the false one,
     Mixed the cup of death for him.

And wayfaring people found him
     Stretched beside the river's brim;
And beneath this ragged thorn-tree,
     Here they dug a grave for him.

And his small black dog they buried,
     And his little pig with him;
And they wailed before the Sun-god
     Sadly by the river's brim.

Weep for him, and kiss me, Lilias,
     Kindly kisses help our need,
When a tearful story moves us
     On the flowery banks of Tweed!