Arthur the Chieftain


Researched and compiled by
Hugh D.P. McArthur, FSA Scot
Clan Arthur Seannachie
High Commissioner for Clan Arthur in Britain
© 2022 Hugh DP McArthur

Ancient horse warrior“King” Arthur probably never existed. Let me explain why. The word “King” comes from the German word “König.” Arthur the “Guledig”, Welsh (or old British) for War Leader, did exist. He was also referred to as “Dux Bellorum” by the Latin scribes, meaning “Duke of Battles.” The Germanic tribes of Saxons and Angles invaded the Island of Britain in the post Roman period of the 5th and 6th centuries. Arthur was a 6th century Briton. He fought the Angles and Saxons and held back the tide of invasion. It is unlikely that he would have adopted the title of a foreign culture and his adversaries. He was a Guledig. He was the War Chief of the combined northern British (Celtic) tribes.

Sir Thomas Mallory wrote “Le Morte D’Arthur” (The Death of Arthur) in the 15th century, while he was spending time in prison. It was one of the first books to be printed on the revolutionary Caxton press and it gained wide popularity amongst the medieval nobility. Indeed, in an early instance, Mallory refers to Arthur as “Chieftain,” before resorting to titling him as “King” for the remainder of his fabulous tale.

The concept of kingship and chiefship are very different, they are not synonymous. Tribal Chiefs were elected and could be deposed. Kingship became hereditary, coupled to an imaginary, divine right to rule. In recent centuries the concept of chiefship has also become hereditary. A King always holds absolute (sovereign) power, whereas a War Chief only has absolute power during times of conflict and may hold little or no power in times of peace. Tribes and Scottish Clans often had two Chiefs, one for war and one for peace.

We cannot be certain when the northern British tribes began to adopt the concept and title of King, but when quasi-feudal kingship did eventually take full hold in the Highlands of Scotland and the Kings demanded oaths of allegiance, most Clansmen were distraught to the point of a nervous breakdown. How on earth could an honest man who had sworn an oath of faith to his Chief ever, ever swear an oath of allegiance to another man?

Arthur was not Scottish. Scotland did not exist in the 6th Century and neither did England. The “Kingdom” of Scotland was founded by Kenneth MacAlpin circa 843AD under the banner of the Saltire, making Scotland’s national flag one of the oldest national flags on planet earth. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England (derived from Angle land or Angleterre in French) was not born until 84 years later in 927AD under Æthelstan. This Anglo-Saxon Kingdom only lasted 139 years until the Norman invasion of 1066AD led by William the Conqueror from what is now Northern France. At this point in history all Englishmen succumbed to Norman rule, but the Kingdom of Scotland remained independent, although William did try to establish himself as “Lord Paramount” over the entire island.

“Lord” is another Germanic word. It comes from hlāford meaning “loaf-ward” or “bread-keeper.” Presumably Saxon Lords could determine which of their serfs were going to eat and which would starve. “Lady” literally means “bread-kneader.” It appears that although gender roles seem to have been well defined in the Anglo-Saxon tribes, that was not strictly the case in the Britonic and Celtic tribes. Girls were raised as warriors, fighting alongside their menfolk and they could become Chieftains too. Take the famous Boudica of the Iceni tribe for example, a Chieftain who raised an estimated quarter-million of her folk against the Romans in 60AD. So, Arthur was not a “Warlord” either, he was a Chieftain. He held the middle ground centred on the Firths of Clyde and Forth, stalling advances by the proto-English from the south and repelling Pictish raids from the north.

Much has been made in the Scottish Borders and Hollywood in recent years (see “King Arthur” starring Clive Owen & Keira Knightley, 2004) that Arthur was a Roman Centurion left behind on the great Roman wall. Really? The world heritage site at Hadrian’s Wall, was initially constructed with timber and turf between 122 and 128AD, and was continually fortified over the next 300 years. It was the greatest and most expensive feat of engineering ever undertaken by the Roman Empire, but it is not a monument to Rome’s success, it is a stark reminder of their abject failure. The lands beyond the wall were never fully conquered until 1746AD and the great wall is therefore in reality; a monument to the independent spirit and fighting prowess of the northern British tribes.

 There were no "Knights" at the Round Table. Arthur's horse warriors who gathered about the Round Table at Stirling were fighting for freedom from invasion and suppression. The word "Sir" did not exist in their language. The origin of this word arrived in Britain with the Normans in 1066AD. To quote Wikipedia:

“Sir is a formal honorific address in English for men, derived from Sire in the High Middle Ages. Both are derived from the old French "Sieur" (Lord), brought to England by the French-speaking Normans, and which now exist in French only as part of "Monsieur", with the equivalent "My Lord" in English.”

The word “fealty” derives from Anglo-French, but takes its root from the Latin fides, meaning faith. The oath of fealty had strong differences north and south of the Wall. In medieval England an oath of fealty was a one-way street. The oath to one’s feudal superior was binding. The breaking of an oath to a monarch is considered treason and was punishable by death. In ancient Scotland, the oath was bi-directional. During inauguration, a Chief swears fealty (faith) in his Clan folk, and they swear fealty to him (or her). Unlike modern day politicians, if the Chief failed the Clan he or she could be deposed immediately, and if the Clansman failed the Chief, he was considered a broken man and cast out from the tribe.

The following is an extract from the Declaration of Arbroath, written in 1320AD, in reference to Robert the Bruce, King of Scots:

“To this man, inasmuch as he saved our people, and for upholding our freedom, we are bound by right as much as by his merits, and choose to follow him in all that he does.

But if he should cease from these beginnings, wishing to give us, or our kingdom to the English or the King of the English, we would immediately take steps to drive him out as the enemy and the subverter of his own rights and ours, and install another King who would make good our defence.”

All the rules of engagement and codes of honour surrounding Arthur and his warriors stemmed from the Celtic tribes, latterly maintained by the Scottish Clans, and ultimately passed on down to the infamous gangs of Glasgow. In the aftermath of the disaster at Culloden in 1746AD, the Highlanders and Islanders were cleared from the lands that they and their ancestors had held since centuries before the Roman Empire dragged itself out the swamps around the River Tiber. The industrial revolution was gathering pace and these broken people gravitated to the burgeoning cities of Central Scotland in search of food and work. They settled extensively in Dumbarton, Govan and Partick; three ancient sites from northern Arthurian legend and tradition.

Glasgow Macarthur Society 1797The men who crafted and oared the galleys of the powerful Scottish Chiefs began to build ships for the world earning the renowned brand of “Clyde Built.” Life was tough in the city squalor, but the Gaels clung onto their identity, beliefs and traditions as the broken Clans evolved into urban gangs – young men once again forced into violence by circumstance. They upheld the honour of their ancestors with the “square go;” an agreed one-on-one warrior duel which strictly barred the participation of other combatants.

Why is it called “a square go?” Because all sides are equal and this satisfies the inherent Scots’ sense of fair play rooted in ancient tribal society from thousands of years ago. It is not a fair fight if one side is a man down. Even today, if a Scotsman witnesses an unequal contest, he will automatically back the underdog. If the contest is overly weighted in one direction, then the Scotsman will inevitably step in to the level the pitch.

The ancestors of Clan Arthur fought the Romans. They fought the Angles and the Saxons. They fought the Vikings, both Norwegian and Danish. They fought the English and ultimately, they fought the British Empire and eventually we lost our lands.

The legends of Arthur and Merlin originate from the landscape now known as Scotland, but they have been predominantly written up by English and French writers who look through the lens of kingship; the only system and culture that they fully understand. The title of “King” has been foisted upon the legendary Arthur, the north British Chieftain who is the progenitor of Clan Arthur (The Children of Arthur). Arthur should no longer be referred to as “King,” but only as “Arthur of the Round Table,” the original title he enjoyed before the medieval writers got hold of our story. It is time for Clan Arthur and the Scottish people to reclaim our history, our culture and our legends. It is time for us to tell our own story . . .


Top – A photograph from the 6th century Govan Sarcophagus (held in Govan Old Parish Church) affectionately known as the Govan Horseman. Govan is an ancient spiritual site on the Clyde that became the capital of Strathclyde after the Vikings torched the fortress of the Britons at Dumbarton in 870AD. It is the only contemporary image that we have of a 6th century Strathclyde horse warrior. Could it be Arthur? Maybe . . .

Bottom –Brass plaque from the front of the Clan Arthur Chest believed to have been made in the Glasgow shipyards and dated 1797AD.

Hugh DP McArthur FSA Scot
Clan Arthur Seannachie

December 2022