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Issue 91 - Fort of the spear shafts

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017

 

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Fort of the spear shafts

Where legend and land collide

Not without cause did the ancient tribes of Southeast Scotland choose strategic vantage points for their citadels and watchtowers. From the heights of North Berwick Law, Traprain Law, Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh Castle Rock, invasion fleets and approaching armies were easily spotted well in advance. The Romans, the Saxons and the Vikings, all of them came this way.

Resembling a large pan loaf rising from the flat coastal plain of East Lothian, the 350-foot high Traprain Law, anciently called Dunpendyrlaw (Fort of the Spear Shafts), has attracted many settlers for over 3000 years. Situated close to the North Sea estuary of the Firth of Forth, it enabled its early occupants to participate in sea trade and indulge in industrial enterprises such as bronze casting and ironwork.

Long before the arrival of the Romans, the Votadini, an ancient Celtic tribe whose influence extended as far south as modern-day Northumberland, held Traprain. During an archeological dig in 1914, Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age relics were retrieved dating from around AD400. Five years later, a further haul of 160 silver dishes, bowls and chalices were also discovered.

These treasures can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but mystery continues to surround their exact provenance. Are they proof of a wealthy and sophisticated occupancy of the region or were they plundered from elsewhere?

In popular mythology, around AD518 there lived a great Celtic tribal leader named King Loth of the Gododdin who ruled the Lothians from his headquarters on Traprain Law. Those who have explored the Scottish dimension of the Arthurian Legends will know that Loth was the brother-in-law of King Arthur of the Britons. Although sometimes benign, he was more often than not a thoroughly nasty, brutal and ruthless tyrant.

In addition to his sons Gawain and Mordred, Loth had a daughter named Enoch who, much to her father's displeasure, became romantically entangled with her cousin, Owain mab Urien. When Loth discovered that Enoch was pregnant he had her tossed over the cliffs on the eastern side of Traprain Law. When this failed to terminate her pregnancy, he had her set adrift in a coracle and floated off into the Firth of Forth.

Miraculously, she survived and when the boat finally washed up on the northern shore she was taken in by St Serf's community at Culross. Here she gave birth to a baby boy named Kentigern who would go on to found the city of Glasgow and, in gratitude, be beatified as St Mungo.

Traprain Law has a lot to answer for.