Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Exploring the Past

I don't know many writers who actually find writing fun. No, by and large we have to get our kicks in other ways. For me, research is definitely one of them.

This is a photo of Ormaig, once the principal settlement on the Hebridean island of Ulva. It was home to the Clan MacQuarrie, the "Sons of Guaire".

A little further along the coast, the map shows a Cille Mhic Eoghain or 'Cell of the Sons of Owain'. In this case, Owain and Guaire were probably the same person - Guaire appearing as Guaire son of Aedan in Adomnan of Iona's Life of St Columba and Owain in all likelihood being Owain of North Rheged, a British prince whose mother was Aedan's daughter. She was also Muirgein, born in Perthshire, the half-sister of Arthur.

Ulva is relevant, then, to the Arthur story (the story of the real King Arthur, that is), because "Guaire" was also the father of Gwalchmai, who later became known as Gawain. The Sir Gawain of the later romances was thus one of the Sons of Guaire, a founder of the Clan MacQuarrie of Ormaig and quite possibly one of the priests of the Cell of the Sons of Owain.

The word in Gaelic for a doctor, a wise or learned man and, by extension, a Druid is Ullamh (Irish - ollamh). Interestingly, although possible derivations of the island's name, Ulva, include the Scottish Gaelic ullamh dha - 'ready for it' (i.e. occupation) - no one seems to have suggested that Ulva could in fact be the Isle of the Wiseman. This wise man would have been Sir Ullamh O'Corn, as he is known in a Hebridean folktale - that is, Sir Wiseman son of Horn, the nephew of Arthur. Given the near God-like status of his father among the people of North Britain until his land was overrun by the Saxon foreigners in the year of Arthur's defeat, Gwalchmai (otherwise known as Ullamh or Gawain) would most likely have been a Druidic priest of sorts, and so the remains of his chapel or cell on the southern coast of Ulva represent the hermitage of a wise man who had been ejected from his proper place on the nearby Isle of Iona by the coming of St Columba and his intolerant monks.

All this is of great interest to me right now because in a few hours I shall be setting off for the Isle of Mull. By Sunday I expect to have set foot on the Isle of Ulva, the first of what might be several exploratory visits over the next week or so. I want to see Ormaig, where the descendants of Owain/Guaire (the princely son of Muirgein and Urien) lived. I want to find my way to what remains of the Cell of the Sons of Owain, to stand where the genuine Gawain once stood, to gaze out across the Hebridean sea, looking south towards Iona, which the Christians took from the Druids.

That's my kind of research, folks. Writing can never quite measure up to something like that!

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