The most famous magician in British folklore is Merlin, the wise, mysterious figure who supposedly advised King Arthur during his campaigns against the invading Anglo-Saxons. In most people’s minds, the Arthurian legends are most closely associated with Cornwall and Wales, although I have a French friend who never tires of reminding me that some of the tales have also been linked to la Petite Bretagne, i.e. Britany in modern-day France.
However, there are some who’ve tried to claim Arthur and Merlin for Scotland too. As evidence of Arthur’s Scottishness, for instance, they’ve cited the commonness of ‘Arthur’ in Scotland’s place-names, such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Ben Arthur near Dumbarton and Arthur’s Oven near Stirling. And for Merlin, they often repeat the story that the magician’s grave is located at the little village of Drumelzier in the Scottish Borders, along the Tweed Valley southwest of Peebles. Supposedly, the grave is a short distance beyond Drumelzier Kirk, next to where Powsail Burn (also known as Drumelzier Burn) flows into the River Tweed.
How could Merlin have ended up in the Borders? According to my much-consulted 1973 edition of the Reader’s Digest’s Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, Merlin raised an army of pagan warriors and led them into battle against the Christian community of Strathclyde. The pagan campaign ended disastrously. Merlin’s army was slaughtered and Merlin himself – driven insane by grief and guilt – spent the rest of his life living as a hermit in the forests of southern Scotland.
In his 2002 book The Borders Alastair Moffat disputes these details, saying that the Christians were from York and the pagans led by King Gwenddolau of Carlisle, while Merlin was a bard rather than a warrior. However, the result was the same – Merlin went mad and took refuge in the Borders forests. (Moffat has also devoted an entire book, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, published in 1999, to arguing that Arthur’s seat of power was in the Scottish Borders, but I haven’t yet got around to reading it.)
Apparently, Merlin didn’t remain a pagan until the end of his life. Legend says that shortly before his death Saint Kentigern converted him to Christianity. The conversion took place at Altarstone Farm, near the village of Stobo, a few miles up the road from Drumelzier. Today it is commemorated in Stobo Kirk by a picture in a stained glass window showing Merlin kneeling before the saint. Here’s a picture of that window, and one of the picturesque Stobo Kirk itself.
To anyone who encountered him during his crazed wanderings, Merlin would make contradictory prophecies about his own death. Sometimes he predicted that he would die by falling over a cliff. At other times he said his death would be the result of hanging. At other times again he said it would be caused by drowning. In fact, his eventual death combined all three of these prophecies. One day he was attacked by local shepherds and fell down a bank of the River Tweed onto some stakes that were holding salmon-nets. Impaled on those stakes and hanging helplessly upside down, the river-water covered his head and he drowned. Hence, all three deaths he’d prophesised for himself, by falling, hanging and drowning, came true.
There is another prophecy connected with Merlin at Drumelzier. According to a couplet:
“When Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin’s Grave,
Scotland and England shall one monarch have.”
Supposedly, this prophecy was realised in 1603. Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless and without any immediate heirs, so her second cousin, King James VI of Scotland, was made monarch of both countries. On the day of the Union of Crowns the Tweed is said to have burst its banks. Its waters mingled with those of Powsail Burn at the site of Merlin’s grave. (There is disagreement about who made this prophecy – some attribute it to the 13th century philosopher, alchemist, astronomer and astrologer Michael Scot, while others say it originated with the mystical seer and poet Thomas the Rhymer, also believed to have lived in the 13th century.)
Today, the alleged site of the grave is marked by a thorn tree. The easiest way to reach it is to follow Powsail Burn as it flows away from Drumelzier. Approaching the village from the north on the B712, the first thing you encounter is a bridge across the burn. A track runs alongside the burn from an entrance on the right just before the bridge. You should walk along this track and, when the burn veers away leftwards from it, climb over a fence and continue following the burn through a sheep-field. There’s a second fence to negotiate just before it joins the Tweed and near to the confluence the thorn tree stands within a little fenced enclosure.
At the base of the thorn tree is a plaque explaining that the original tree marking the alleged grave-site was swept away by a flood in 1928. The current one was planted in 1996. Actually, the ground here looks like it could be flooded regularly, which rather removes the sting from the old prophecy about Scotland and England having one monarch when ‘Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin’s grave’. Obviously the waters of the two rivers have mingled here on many occasions, not just in 1603.
Drumelzier Kirk, which is at the end of a short road branching off to the right of the B712 after the bridge, is no longer a fully functioning church and opens only for occasional services. However, it’s worth having a look at. Externally at least, the kirk-building has seen better days, but there are some interesting details in the kirkyard.
While I was researching this entry, I came across some other interesting lore about Drumelzier. For instance, in her 1985 book Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, Jennifer Westwood relates a tale about the wife of a local baron. While her husband was away fighting in the Crusades, she went for a walk along the River Tweed one day and was accosted and impregnated by a ‘river spirit’. The offspring of this unholy coupling, a boy, grew up to become the next Baron of Drumelzier. Because of his strange conception on the banks of the river, people there gave their local aristocrat the nickname of ‘Tweedie’.
Meanwhile, in his 1989 book Scottish Kirkyards, Dane Love mentions the ancient fire-worshipping ceremony of Beltane, which was “one of the longest surviving pagan services… from the Gaelic Bealltainn, held on the first day of May.” Folk in Drumelzier seemed especially enamoured with the custom of Beltane, which didn’t go down well with the Christian authorities. “(E)ven as late as 1598,” writes Love, “on the first day of May the parishioners of Drumelzier in Peeblesshire built bonfires on the summits of local hills – for which they were called to the kirk session and put on trial.”
I very much doubt that the remains of British legend’s number-one magician really repose under that thorn tree at Drumelzier. But the claim sits comfortably alongside the other Celtic-flavoured stories told about the place.