Researched and compiled by
Hugh D.P. McArthur, FSA Scot
Clan Arthur Seannachie
High Commissioner for Clan Arthur in Britain
© 2020 Hugh DP McArthur
Behind the shadowy origins of Glasgow's patron saint lurks a greater mystery - The figure of the legendary "King" Arthur himself. Saint Kentigern's mother was Saint Thenew or Enoch (Buried in Glasgow's Saint Enoch Square) who in turn is remembered as the daughter of Loth, sixth century Pagan "King" of Lothian and Orkney. Some sources say that Morgause, "King" Arthur's aunt, was married to Loth and therefore may have been Thenew's mother.
Kentigern's father was Owain (or Eugenius), a knight of round table fame and the son of Urien ("King" of Rheged or The Lennox) and Morgana - "King" Arthur's sister. This relationship effectively makes the legendary Arthur, Kentigern's great uncle.
There are variations on the Glasgow saint's life - Glasgow City Council's web site states that Kentigern was the son of Urien and therefore the half brother of Owain and nephew of Arthur. In some ways this slightly earlier time frame suits my story better and is a closer fit with Kentigern's dates, but there are difficulties with dates whichever generation is adopted. That is why this period of history remains dark. Another variation is that Morganna was in fact married to Loth and was the mother of Mordred and Gawain - two more of Arthur's prominent nephews.
The story of Kentigern's origin is roughly like this ~ Thenew had allegedly embraced the new religion of Christianity and rejected Owain as the suitor her Pagan father had arranged. However it could equally have been the loss of Thenew's virginity essential to remaining one of the nine maidens in the pagan faith that enraged her father. Whatever the circumstances, Owain "raped" the hapless young Thanew, in the pig run she had been set to tend, and Glasgow's patron saint was conceived.
When the pregnancy began to show, Loth ordered his own daughter's execution. The first attempt failed, but the pregnant Thenew was then bundled into a cart and cast down the hillside of Dunpelder (Traprain Law) in Lothian, to be dashed on the rocks below ~ she survived. Eventually she was cast adrift in a rudderless boat without oars on the Firth of Forth, but drifted to sanctuary at Culross on the Fife Coast where her child was delivered. If ever a boy was born with reason to despise the pagan religion of the time, this was he.
Kentigern's upbringing was under the auspices of Saint Serf (or Servanus) at Culross (There is also a St.Serf's church at Cardross on the River Clyde) and it was here that he earned his pet name of Munghu (or Mungo meaning "Our Doggie" or " Our Puppy"). The boy doesn't seem to have fitted in with the other kids at the monastery however and was subject to much malice. In these early years Mungo performed the first of his miracles portrayed in the Glasgow coat of arms. "The Bird That Never Flew" is the remembrance of Mungo's resurrection of Serf's pet robin. The other boys had killed the bird and blamed it on Mungo.
His next trick was to rekindle the monastery fire using the green branches of a hazel tree, when again he had been framed for letting it go out - hence the second part of Glasgow's emblem ~ "The Tree That Never Grew".
By the time Mungo was in his teens life at Culross appears to have become untenable. In the company of his mother, the youth was forced to make his way back across the River Forth, along the route of the Antonine Wall into Strathclyde and the heart of the Cymric peoples. Cumbria is commonly thought to be south of the current Anglo/Scottish border and related to Northumbria, but in the sixth century, the Cymric or Welsh-speaking peoples stretched far north of the Clyde and Forth Rivers. Their presence is still well remembered in the name of the Isles of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde.
Mungo's trek ended at Glesgu, at the Mollindinar Burn on the north bank of the Clyde. He set up church on a plot previously consecrated by St. Ninian and the City of Glasgow was thus established. It is generally accepted that Glesgu means "Dear Green Place" corrupted from the literal meaning of "Green Hollow", but the true translation is Grey (Glas) Hound (Cu). It is said that Glasgow was founded close to an existing Welsh fort which already had a tradition for using war dogs - and Mungo did indeed keep greyhounds as well as a force of nine hundred monks. His new location was in the very heart of his Uncle Arthur's power base, closer to his father Owain's stronghold at Mugdock (near Milngavie) and an altogether much safer distance from his Pagan grandfather in the East.
St. Constantine ~ the abdicated "King" of Cornwall who had gone to Ireland and taken holy orders from Saint Columba to invade the Clyde ~ founded the religious centre at Govan, on the south bank, in 565AD. It is reckoned that Mungo was of a Roman Christian persuasion and it was probably his "Royal" connections that allowed him to establish himself so close to the powerful Govan site, but we must question the interaction of these two differing religious communities.
Bishop of Strathclyde
Mungo's career began to blossom as he continued with his miracle working and indulged in deeds of penitence. He immersed himself naked in the cold torrents of the Mollindinar Burn chanting Christian verses and in doing so "entered upon a fiercer conflict with the great and malignant Dragon that, according to the prophet, lieth in the midst of his rivers". As Bishop of Strathclyde (which stretched from west coast to east coast and south to the Borders) he "set about rectifying the idolatry that his flock had fallen back upon" ~ It is obvious that Mungo was entering into confrontation with the Paganism inherent to the Northern peoples.
In the 6th century, Dumbarton was the Royal power centre on the Clyde, while Glesgu was still a monastic settlement, and it remained the centre for the forgotten Kings of Strathclyde for centuries to come. Dumbarton means Fortress of the Britons and in Malcolm Canmore's time was called Castello Arturius ~ Arthur's Castle. It is here that Mungo had his run in with a tyrannical usurper by the name of Morken, who could easily be the Mordred of Arthurian infamy. Local tradition maintains that Mordred was born in Dumbarton's Red Tower. The verbal exchange resulted in Morken taking a kick at Mungo, not long after which Mungo fled the district.
Culhwch ap Olwen
It is not recorded when Mungo's name changed to Kentigern meaning "Hound Lord" or "Head Lord", but we must not forget the saint's status in society. He was still son of the future "King" of Rheged, grandson of the "King" of Lothian and Orkney and great nephew of "King" Arthur: a very powerful bishop indeed. So far we have been drawing our evidence mostly from written ecclesiastic sources, but there is another tradition to consider ~ the story of Culhwch ap Olwen from the Welsh Mabinogion and the mouths of the poets.
The lead characters from this story are Culhwch meaning "Pig Run", Olwen meaning "Moon Face" and King Arthur. The tale begins when Pig Run, Arthur's bold young nephew, rides straight into Arthur's court. He is described as a man of princely state accompanied by two white fronted grey hounds wearing ruby encrusted collars. Kentigern was certainly a bold young nephew of Arthur's, who kept grey hounds and was conceived in a pig run. The idea of him being nicknamed Culhwch by those who held him in contempt is too obvious to ignore, although the nickname could also apply to his Owain for his actions in the Pigrun to bring about Kentigern's conception.
Arthur asks what boon he can grant his cheeky nephew, and Culhwch's reply seems somewhat strange until examined more closely. He asks Arthur for a haircut. In sixth century northern Britain there were two types of religious haircuts. There was the tonsure of the Roman church, representative of the way that Latinos bald from the crown, and there was the Celtic recession, representative of the way wise old Celts recede from the forehead. If I am right, and I am sure I am, the young Culhwch asked Arthur for a Roman tonsure, right in the middle of a Court which up till now, had been more in tune with the ancient ways of the Celtic Bards. Arthur acceded ~ he gave the haircut.
What a statement! We are witnessing a truly tumultuous historical event - King Arthur has turned from the old ways and acknowledged the power of Rome! The Court, presumably Camelot, must have been in shock!
Arthur then asks if there is another wish that he can fulfill for his nephew, and Culhwch asks for the hand of Olwen in marriage. Olwen is the Pagan Celtic moon goddess so Kentigern, Bishop of Strathclyde, has in effect just asked that 'Britain' be wed to Christianity.
To achieve this monumental task the story relates that the thirteen treasures of Britain must be retrieved from their keepers' possession, and only in so doing will the very head of the old religion be removed. Interestingly, Rydderich Hael (Rodderick the Good) one of Arthur's Christian supporters possessed one of the thirteen treasures - a sword that burst into flames on penetration! (An easy chemical trick?) Arthur again accedes to the request, and leads his knights to accompany Culhwch on the various tasks to complete this mission.
Note that the romantic part of the tale, "The Wooing of Olwen", is set in a pig run where Arthur is left to tend the swine. A location that takes us back to Kentigern's conception.
As well as thirteen treasures, thirteen kings of Northern Britain were associated with Arthur at this time. Each throne could relate to a treasure. It is known however, that Caer Siddi (the origin of the Grail Castle) held the Four Pagan Hallows: the sword, the spear, the orb and the cauldron or cup (later to be Christianized as the Holy Grail).
Priddeu Annwn and other Welsh poems by Taliesin (Chief Bard of Britain) relate to the "Spoiling" of the Four Pagan Hallows, and I have illustrated elsewhere how this one battle from the treasure hunt saga was focused on the Dragon in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, south of the Isle of Scarba off Scotland's West Coast.
Culhwch ap Olwen and Priddeu Annwn end with the retrieval of the treasures and the final downfall of Paganism, a pattern akin to Arthur's twelve-battle campaign recorded by the 8th Century chronicler, Nennius. Arthurian tradition remembers that the thirteen treasures were eventually taken into Merlin's keeping, who disposed of them in "A tomb without walls". Could this be the Corryvreckan Whirlpool?
Although none of these events feature in the Life of Saint Kentigern, they are contemporary with his life, his location and his absence.
Back to Dumbarton and Morken the usurper. Jocelyn of Furnace, the ninth century author of Kentigern's Life, records that about this time Kentigern had become the target of several assassination attempts in the Clyde Valley causing him to flee from his enemies again, but this time south to safety in the land of "King" Cathwallain.
Kentigern set up nine churches throughout Cumbria and Wales including Crosthwaite (near Keswick) and Saint Asaph or Llanelwy not far from Bangor. He generated a large following in the south, where he was known as Cynderyn and a strong cult remains to the present day. He also had an important monastery at Hoddam close to Arthur's southern Strathclyde capital at Carlisle, and for several years declined to venture out with his newfound security.
Meanwhile, war raged up and down the Clyde Valley and presumably the religious contention had spilled into the surrounding territories of Perthshire, Argyll, Lothian and the Borders. Famine and plague added to the misery of the Northern Britons portraying the years of Kentigern's absence akin to the Waste Land Years of Arthurian myth where nothing grew for a decade. Recent archaeology has shown that there was a massive volcanic eruption in the southern hemisphere around the mid sixth century, which inhibited tree growth in Northern Europe for around ten years!
The third part of Glasgow's coat of arms is "The Bell That Never Rang". The origins of the bell are vague, but Jocelyn maintains that Kentigern brought the bell back from one of his seven visits to Rome, a gift from the Pope. "King" Arthur is also reputed to have visited Rome - perhaps they visited together.
Battle of Arthuret
The battle of Arfderydd (or Arthuret) was fought in 573AD in the borderlands to the North of Carlisle, although another theory places the site at Airdrie in the Central Belt of Scotland. Aeden MacGabhran was in his forties and his sons were in their prime. No doubt Artur and his brothers Eochaid Bhuidhe (Yellow Horse), Eochaid Find (White Horse) and Bran (The Raven) would have supported their father and his allies, one of whom was Rydderich Hael. Historians still dispute whether this was an Arthurian battle as the date is too late for the mythical Arthur of the early sixth century, but it is highly likely that Artur MacAeden acted as the "Leader of Battles" on this occasion. He had probably done so previously, in the victory against the Northumbrians at the Battle of Ardinning near Mugdock in 570AD.
The bards record that Arthuret was fought over a "Lark's Nest", which could have something to do with the strategic ownership of Caerlaverock Castle and harbour which guard the entrance to present day Lowland Scotland. The bards also record that 80,000 Cymry came to the field, and although this may be an exaggeration, it was obviously a very significant battle. Rydderch Hael killed the "British Prince" Gwendoleu; the combined forces of the North annihilated his Pagan/Northumbrian host, and the druid Myrddin, Gwendoleu's chief advisor ("husband" to Rydderch Hael's sister!) went insane from witnessing the slaughter and became "a wild man of the woods". All in all, the account illustrates the depth of internecine warfare that had developed, roughly divided by religion within Kentigern's Bishopric.
After the victory at Arthuret many of the Christian leaders acceded to positions of power. In 574AD Aeden MacGabhran was appointed King of Scots in Argyll by Saint Columba, the first time in Northern British history that a King was chosen by a churchman - Could this be Merlin the Kingmaker at work? Rydderch Hael returned to his seat at Cadzow on the upper Clyde and Kentigern followed by triumphant invitation, back to his monastery at Glesgu, where later the only recorded meeting with Saint Columba took place, although each must have had full knowledge of the other's activities.
Around this time Rydderich Hael gave his wife Queen Languoreth of Cadzow (Chatelherault near Hamilton) a ring. Languoreth in turn gave the ring to her lover who promptly lost it. When Rydderich asked Languoreth to produce the ring she stalled for time and begged Kentigern for help to recover it.
The Saint obliged by miraculously pulling a salmon from the Clyde with the lost ring in its mouth, and in doing so completed the fourth and final part of Glasgow's Coat of Arms - "The Fish that Never Swam". The truth of this story is subject to personal discretion, yet it still informs us about Kentigern's influential relationship with the Cymric "Royalty" of the period.
Nestling in the upper Tweed Valley, Stobo Kirk claims to be Kentigern's first church and it was here, not long after the Battle of Arthuret, that the saint is reputed to have Christianized Myrddin, the pagan bard who is often Confused with the real Merlin. Myrddin met his triple death soon after.
When did this all happen?
Saint Kentigern (Bishop of Strathclyde), Artur MacAeden (Prince of Argyll, Strathclyde & Lothian), Aeden MacGabhran (King of Scots, Lord of Aberfoyle & Prince of Forth), Taliesin (Chief Bard of Britain), Urien (King of Rheged & Gore), Owain (Prince of Rheged), Saint Columba (Founder of the Celtic Church), Myrddin (Tribal Druid), and Rydderich Hael (King of Cadzow) all met in late sixth century Strathclyde. In fact both saints, and many more, were related to Oor Arthur. Artur MacAeden died in battle in 596AD and could not have been born much before 540 - 550AD.
St.Kentigern was supposedly born in 512AD and died in 618AD (603AD according to Glasgow City Council) at a great age. However, Owain his father undoubtedly lived in the latter part of the sixth century. Kentigern's grandfather, Urien was murdered by Morcant (Morken?) on Lindisfarne around 590AD. It is therefore very unlikely that Kentigern could have been born much before 550AD making him close to Artur MacAeden's age.
Why is Mungo the Patron Saint of Glasgow?
He founded Glasgow Cathedral in the 6th century, but for several centuries, Govan remained the Royal Church for Dumbarton. It was not until after the demise of the Strathclyde kings that 12th Century King David I of Scotland encouraged Glasgow to "Flourish" in competition with Govan and established the Saint Mungo Legend.
"The bird never flew, the tree never grew, the bell never rang and the fish never swam"
- Is the whole story just a sham?
Rydderich Hael is reputedly buried beneath Clochoderick Stone near Howwood in Renfrewshire. He died less than a year after Kentigern. St. Thenew's day is the 18th July.
Greyhound Footnote: This article has been revised as a result of James Edward Moir MacArthur's appointment as Chief of Clan Arthur
"King" Arthur's Coat of Arms, from a 16th Century reference, portrays two white fronted greyhound supporters. When James Edward Moir MacArthur was still Commander of Clan Arthur (before he became Chief) his crest was a greyhound couchant set between two bay branches on an Azure (blue) and Argent (silver) wreath. His crest has now reverted to the ancient form of two bay branches on an Azure (blue) and Or (gold) wreath.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan lies to the south of the Isle of Scarba, to the north of Scarba is another treacherous stretch of water; Bealach a' choin Ghlais, the Grey Dogs. Local legend has it that the ghosts of evil sailors are pursued across the Isles by the greyhound, which drowned in the water between Scarba and Lunga.
To escape the drooling fangs of the dogs, the phantoms must confess their sins! To this day the screams of the Pagan Picts, hunted down by the hounds of Arthur's warriors, can still be heard on dark, moonless nights. Moonless, because Olwen was the Moon Goddess and this slaughter was all part of the 'The Wooing of Olwen'.
MacQuarrie, Alan "The Saints of Scotland" ISBN 085976446X
Llanerch "Lives of the Scottish Saints ISBN 0947992391
Penguin Classics "The Mabinogion" ISBN 0140443223