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Jul 9, 2012

 Merlin’s Grave?

The Fort of the Braes?

I have argued before that Merlin was assassinated and buried, not in Drumelzier-Stobo in the Scottish Borders, as is commonly supposed, but in Drumelzier-Dunipace just south of Stirling. For these present purposes I take Drumelzier-Dunipace to be the correct location because my main concern here is with what may be his actual grave.

I found Drumelzier-Dunipace when I was looking for Dumpelder[1], where Taneu, Mungo’s mother, was tried and sentenced to be thrown down a hill. I concluded that Drumelzier and Dumpelder were but two corrupt versions of the same name.[2]

Drumelzier-Dunipace is on the western edge of the modern town of Dunipace. According to the second Statistical Account of Scotland[3] (1834-1845),

“This parish [Dunipace] takes its name from two beautiful earthen-mounts called ‘the Hills of Dunipace,’ … situated in a small but beautiful plain, traversed by the river Carron, they are about sixty feet in height[4], and both together cover about two Scots acres. … About two miles to the westward of these hills, there was a very beautiful one about forty feet in height and covering nearly three roods of ground …” [5]

When I could find nothing in Dunipace that fitted the Statistical Account’s description of the Hills of Dunipace I simply assumed that they had been built over, and were gone.

I then turned my attention to the location of the ‘very beautiful’ hill that was said to be ‘about two miles to the westward’ of the Hills of Dunipace but was unable to find anything that made sense of this description, on the ground.

Going back to the books proved fruitless and so, taking a last desperate throw, I contacted Jean Gallagher, the Church of Scotland minister of Dunipace & Larbert Parish, and asked her if she knew of any records or diaries that might have been left lying around in her manse since the early 19th c. when the Statistical Account had been written. It knew this was unlikely but I also knew that the trick was to look where no one else has looked.

When I told Jean Gallagher that I was looking for a hill that lay two miles west of the Hills of Dunipace, that is, two miles west of Dunipace town, she immediately corrected me and told me that the Hills of Dunipace were not actually in the town of Dunipace, they were not even in her parish, they were half way between Dunipace and a neighbouring town, Larbert.

I had the answer I was looking for.

(Things now become a bit Stephen Hawking.)

I had jumped to the conclusion that the town had been built on the Hills of Dunipace and so I had looked for the ‘beautiful hill’ two miles west of Dunipace. Now, with Jean Gallagher’s local knowledge, I started with the Hills of Dunipace, which lay two miles east of Dunipace, and looked ‘about two miles to the westward’. This, of course, brought me back to Dunipace itself, and, more to the point, to Drumelzier on the western edge of the town.[6] Drumelzier was, of course, where I had already concluded, Merlin had been killed and buried.

I went off again in search of the ‘very beautiful’ hill or, at least the place where it had been, because in the late 1830s, the civil authorities in the Dunipace and Denny area had sent men to quarry the ‘very beautiful’ hill, despite its beauty.

“[It was] mutilated, from time to time, for the purpose of repairing roads and other purposes. It was entirely removed about six years ago, to form an embankment on the turnpike road near DennyBridge.”[7]

My first stop was Drumelzier farm. I thought, even if the hill has been removed, there might still be some evidence of its location remaining. There were hills all around the farm but there was nothing to suggest one hill was missing.

It was only when I left the farm and drove less than a mile north that I came to Northfield Quarry and everything became clear. The quarrying that had started in the early 19th century was still going on. There was a vast hole in the ground where, I was sure, the ‘very beautiful’ hill had been.

On the bright side, if the quarrymen had not demolished the ‘very beautiful’ hill in the early 19th century, they would not have found a grave on its summit.

“On the top of this hill, and about three feet below the surface, was found a coffin or tomb, composed of five large unwrought stones, in which were the bones of a human body, scull [sic] and teeth not much decayed. Along with these was a vase of coarse unglazed earthenware, containing a small quantity of material resembling the lining of a wasp’s nest, probably decayed paper or parchment, which in the lapse of ages had assumed that appearance. No conjecture could be formed about the individual here interred; tradition being entirely silent on the subject; but this circumstance corroborates the opinion of some writers, that the hills of Dunipace might have been used as burying-places for ancient chiefs.[8]

Five unwrought stones makes sense if there had been four stone sides, a stone base and a stone lid and if the workmen had broken the sixth stone, the lid of the coffin, when they, quite literally, struck upon it.

The workmen told the local Church of Scotland minister, John Bonar, and the local schoolteacher, Robert Watson of their find. (Bonar and Watson would later collaborate in writing the entry in the Statistical Account.)

Bonar and Watson thought that the hills around Dunipace town may have been used as burying-places for ancient chiefs; but no other grave was found, which suggests the grave found on the ‘very beautiful’ hill was the grave of someone important enough to be buried alone on top of this ‘very beautiful’ hill.[9] Notwithstanding the possible importance of the person in the grave, there was a paucity of grave goods and the grave itself was of rough construction, which suggested to me that the body in the grave had been buried in haste.

I thought, if the man in the grave was a warrior it would be reasonable to expect that he would have been buried with a weapon signifying his status. However, the body in the grave was buried with,

“…a vase of coarse unglazed earthenware, containing a small quantity of material resembling the lining of a wasp’s nest, probably decayed paper or parchment”.

If warriors were buried with weapons and other important people with appropriate status symbols, I supposed that someone who was buried with paper or parchment might have been someone for whom reading and writing were significant, that is, a scholar.[10]

The Silvestris says Merlin was killed in fields near Drumelzier ‘castle’, for which we may safely read fort.  On the lands of Drumelzier, only 500 yards south of Northfield Quarry are the remains of the ancient fort of the Braes.[11]

I had the name Drumelzier; a single grave on the top of a special hill; paper or parchment buried with a body; the absence of Christian iconography; the rough-hewn nature of the stones that made up the grave (suggesting a hasty burial); the isolated location; and the fact that the grave was forgotten. All of these factors were consistent with the grave the workmen found being the grave of Merlin. These factors were not consistent with the grave being the grave of any other particular person.

Of course, I accepted that these factors could be purely coincidental and that the grave could be the grave of some unknown ancient chief, but, I take the view, that on the balance of probabilities, the civil standard of proof in Scottish courts, this was the grave of the man called Merlin.

I knew the only way to prove this, beyond reasonable doubt, would be to find the contents of the grave and so I decided to see what I could find.

I did not believe the destruction of the gravesite necessarily meant that the stones; the vase; the paper or parchment; and the bones were all lost at the same time.

Of course, while the stones could have ended up part of the embankment at Denny, given two responsible, educated people, Bonar and Watson, were present on-site at an early stage, the stones may well have been removed and preserved.

The vase and parchment were more fragile and so, unless deliberate steps were taken to preserve them, I thought it unlikely that they would have survived.

The bones were a different matter. Ministers and schoolteachers in early 19th c. Scotland did not lightly dispose of human remains. The best-case scenario would have been that they had  passed the bones to a museum or university but, when I contacted the National Museum of Scotland I was told that the 1830s were ‘wild and woolly times’ and that what happened to archaeological finds was very much up to the people who found them. (Apparently some landowners put finds on display for a time and then threw them away.)

I believed that even in the 1830s, no matter what might have been done with taken the stones, vase and paper or parchment; that the human remains would have been treated with respect. I then thought of innumerable possible places the bones might have ended-up while trying to find a line of investigation that I could follow.

I looked through contemporaneous local and the national newspapers to see if I could find any record of the find or what happened to the contents of the grave but the newspaper record was incomplete and there was nothing of moment in the ones that had survived.

There was a strong possibility that the bones were given a ‘Christian burial.’ If so, I thought, it was also possible that some record of this burial might still exist and so I visited Callendar House, Falkirk,[12]where the local archives are kept, and checked the records of Dunipace & Larbert parish to see if there was some record; perhaps a record of expenditure incurred in having the bones re-interred. I found nothing useful[13].

I contacted professional historians but none of them were interested, of course.

I then did some ground work to try to identify a possible burial place. I assumed that if the bones had been re-buried that they would have been re-buried near where they had been found and so I walked around graveyards in the Dunipace area that had been in use in the early 19th century to see if there was any sign of a re-burial of the bones found on the ‘very beautiful’ hill. I found nothing useful.

On one of these graveyard expeditions I decided to have my picnic lunch on the ruins of the nearby fort of the Braes, close to where the bones had been found.

Asking the landowner for his permission I noticed the lintel above the doorway to his house had the date 1564 cut into it. When I remarked on this our conversation naturally turned to history. He told me his house had once been part of an abbey where the Scots king, James V, kept a mistress and, more to the point, that his house had come to him with, what he called, an old chest of documents. He did not think I would be interested in the documents in the old chest because some of them were in Latin. The chest, he said, also included newspapers placed there by earlier owners: one of which listed the dead of the battle of Waterloo.

If someone had put a newspaper in this old chest in1815 then perhaps someone in the late 1830s had done the same thing: especially if the newspaper recorded the finding of an ancient grave half a mile away.

I did not ask to see the chest at that time. I was sure that if I said what I was looking for to anyone that they would follow the trail themselves and find the evidence before me.

I waited until the day I sent the finished draft of Finding Merlin to my publisher and that afternoon went to Dunipace to see the old chest. Later I wrote in Finding Merlin, ‘That after noon I found another place to look.’

I have been rightly criticised for this because I did not say what I had found. I should have said what I found or said nothing at all. In my defence the reason I did not say what I had found was because I did not want someone with a torch and a spade destroying the evidence before it could be properly excavated. (That was five years ago. Not one of the professional archaeologists I have approached has shown any interest.)

I was invited into the house, given a cup of tea, shown the old chest and allowed to go through its contents. As it turned out the next clue did not come from the documents in the old chest but from the lady of the house. Within half an hour, now armed with the lady of the house’s local knowledge, she and I were making our way up to the fort of the Braes to see what she called ‘the grave.’

I had eaten my picnic lunch on what I had thought were the remains of the single enclosure of the fort of the Braes but, as my guide explained to me, the fort was in two parts.[14]

On the smaller part she showed me a large flat flagstone some two feet, by four feet, by nine inches, that she said, they had always called ‘the grave.’ It appears that some forty years ago, when she and her husband had bought the house, an old lady who had lived there since she was a girl at the turn of the 19th c., said that this stone had been known as ‘the grave’ for as long as she could remember.

This meant this stone had been there since at least the late 1800s. It could, of course, have been there for hundreds of years but, equally, as far as I knew, it could have been placed there in the late 1830s to cover the bones found in the grave on the ‘very beautiful’ hill.

All this made some sense. The stone was heavy in the extreme. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to place it on the fort-top. There was no railing around it, as there often is with family graves. There was no other grave-like stone in the vicinity. There was no known oral tradition that any particular person was buried there and no memory of any marker. The stone was embossed with a clover like shape (but this meant nothing to me).

If, as I suspect, Bonar the minister and Watson the schoolteacher Watson decided to bury what they thought were the bones of an ancient chief on an ancient fort only 500 feet away from where the bones had been dug up, then this was the spot. It made sense to me to suppose this is what these two men would have done.

All they would have had to do would have been to ask the workmen from the quarry to help them move the large stone that now covers ‘the grave’ to the fort, dig a hole, rebury the bones (and, perhaps, the vase and the paper/parchment) and cover everything with the stone.

Of course, I cannot say that there is anything in ‘the grave’, there may be nothing beneath the stone but grass; far less can I say ‘the grave’ contains the bones found in the grave on the ‘very beautiful’ hill; far less can I say that these bones were the bones of the man called Merlin but they may be.

I am simply curious about what lies beneath the stone on the fort of the Braes. If there is nothing there then I will remain curious as to what happened to the bones and the paper or parchment found in the grave on the ‘very beautiful’ hill.

[1] Dumpelder turned out to be synonymous with Drumelzier and all the many other innumerable variations of the name (including the many DM and DP variations).

[2] Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern. I have argued elsewhere that Drumelzier and Dumpelder are synonymous (Finding Merlin).

[3] Page 379. The New Statistical Account, that is the second of three, was published in three formats. The first edition …was published between March 1834 and October 1845. A re-issue in 33 county volumes was published between 1841 and 1845. A second re-issue, in 1845, took the form of 15 collected county volumes.

[4] Dunipace is more than 40 m above sea level and so this passage must mean ‘sixty feet’ above the surrounding land.

[5] Statistical Account – Parish of Dunipace I. Topography & History.

[6] Drumalzier on one map Drimallier 1865 OS Map on another [] on another.

[7] Stat. Acct.

[8] Statistical Account, Parish of Dunipace,I. – Topography and Natural History, 1843 Edn.

[9] I have assumed the body was that of a man in the absence of any particular finds pointing to the occupant being a woman.

[10] My first thought was Beaker Person but I understand the description of the grave is not consistent with a grave of the Beaker People. If there was paper/parchment in the vase this alone would rule out Beaker People.

[11] RCAHMS website – ref. 47973 –  OS ref. NS7973 - 8476

[12] The world’s leading centre for Falkirk Studies.

[13] The records are, however, incomplete.

[14] The RCAHMS map shows only one oval fort-shape.



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