Kinfolk, countrymen, people of the world, I lay before you a proposal that The Arthurian Lake, shielded by mystery and magic for so long, can now be revealed from behind the cloak of Britain’s most famous stretch of water. The 9th century Welsh chronicler Nennius recorded in his Historia Brittonum that the Wonders of Britain were as follows:
Loch Lomond is the largest expanse of freshwater in the whole of the mainland - it is The Lake of Britain. It is the bonniest, most romanced, most sung about piece of scenery on The Island of the Mighty. Historically it was widely known as The Lake and today the Dumbarton locals still know it by this name.
Lying in the northern reaches of the ancient Cymric peoples’ land, an early form of Welsh was the language of the local native Britons until around 1,000 years ago. A true geological boundary, the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland divide along the Highland Fault which courses from east to west through this majestic inland fjord. To the south The Lake is wide and generous overlying sandstone bedrock which affords lush farmlands. To the north the landscape narrows and steepens dramatically as the volcanic bedrocks jostle to form Alps beneath the ancient Caledonian forest.
The greatest Alp surrounding The Lake is Ben Lomond. Dominating the eastern bonnie bank just to the north of the islands, The Ben rises to 974m from sea level. Lomond appears to mean “Beacon” and the mountain summit was probably an ancient Beltain fire site. The ancient volcano is certainly a beacon in the landscape, with an unmistakable form recognisable from anywhere in the Clyde Valley and far beyond. Loch Lomond remains the magical island-studded Lake beneath The Ben.
To the north of The Lake, high up on the west flank of Glen Falloch (sitting at around 230m above sea level) is a huge raised boulder called Clach na Briton (The Rock of the Britons). This site is thought to be possibly where the ancient boundaries of Britain (Strathclyde), Dalriada (Argyll) and Alba (Pictland) converged. Not far to the east and west lie the other great Scottish inland waterways of Loch Tay and Loch Awe where the MacArthurs once held land. It is also said that the MacArthurs once held lands in Glen Falloch, perhaps close to this site.
Clach na Briton is composed of a mounded natural rock outcrop crowned with a rough, loose monolith, obviously placed by human hands. The site is enclosed by the remains of embankments projecting from the hillside to form a central gateway on the approach from the east. The ascent to the boulder spirals as you climb the mound and we can be certain that we are looking at an ancient sacred site, which was used for ritual.
Turning to the west we find Ben Arthur (Arthur’s Mountain) which is now more commonly known as The Cobbler. Soaring from sea level to a height of nearly 3,000 feet and collared with majestic horseshoe shaped crags, Ben Arthur personifies the mantle of Arthur’s power on the very boundary of the Britons and the Scots (Dalriada). The southwest crag is called Arthur’s Seat and local lore recalls the site as one of warrior and Druidic initiation. Further below, there is a megalithic Dolmen on the south west spur, proving that this mountain has held sacred regard from the earliest times. There is also a small loch near the summit called Lochan a Chlaidheimh, which means the Wee Lake of the Sword. That might just be relevant!
To the west of Ben Arthur on the west flank of Glen Kinglass is a massive rock outcrop known as Agaidh Artair (The Face of Arthur). As you crest the Rest and Be Thankful on the A83 and round the corner into the descent, straight ahead in the distance, the entire left flank of the glen portrays the profile of the legendary man. The face lies at an angle of about 30° projecting from the hillside. At the top, a furrowed brow and long shaggy hair streams back into the hillside, with an arched eyelid clearly defined immediately below. The nose is long and shallow, almost absent, underlined with a craggy moustache and a full craggy beard that tumbles towards the valley floor. Frozen in time, Arthur stares back at his mountain The Lake and his lands beyond.
At the foot of Ben Arthur and the head of Loch Long (The Loch of Ships) is the village of Arrochar, separated from Tarbet on Loch Lomond by only a short stretch of land. It is this isthmus that Tarbet lends its name to. In 870AD the Vikings were besieging the British capital at Dumbarton Rock. They split their fleet and whilst one division attempted the frontal assault via the River Clyde, the second group sailed north up Loch Long. They landed at Arrocher, slaughtered the local clan, dragged their boats over the land to Tarbet and set sail down Loch Lomond to attack Dumbarton from the rear. Unfortunately the siege was eventually successful and the fall of Dumbarton marked the end of British rule in the north and the beginning of the slow absorption of Cymric culture into the evolving Scottish kingdom.
Later in history, the Earl of Lennox appointed the MacFarlanes as protectors of the pass at Tarbet to stop his cattle slipping north with the perpetual clan raids. There was no road on the bonnie banks until 150 years ago and the land route known as the String Road wended its way through the hills from Arrochar to Luss. A few miles to the south the route crosses Glen Douglas the scene of many a clan conflict and many resulting atrocities. According to Nennius, King Arthur fought his 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th battles at a river called the Dubglas in the region of Linnius. W.F.Skene, the 19th century Royal Histiographer for Scotland, identified this river as Glen Douglas in the region of the Lennox. The glen still has a strong military presence.
Travelling south on Loch Lomond we reach the islands, in particular Inchgalbraith, a small island castle not far from Luss. The name Galbraith means British Stranger and the clan held their seat of power on Inchgalbraith. It is ironic that twists of fate and time should remember the Galbraiths as strangers in their own homeland.
Turning east to the rising sun we face the most important island in The Lake. Inch Cailleach (The Island of the Veiled One) lies close to the eastern shore at Balmaha. The Irish Saint Kentigerna (mother of Saint Fillan) reputedly founded a nunnery on the isle early in the 8th century, but it is doubtless that a sacred island of women existed in the location long before this event. The motif is repeated time and again in Scotland with similar ancient religious female island establishments being found on Inishail on Loch Awe, Priory Island in Loch Tay and the Isle of May (Maidens) in the Firth of Forth.
To find the elusive Lady of the Lake we need quest no further. Inch Cailleach with its tor at the eastern end and its Ridge of the Maidens (Tom na Nigheanan) fits perfectly with the romantic descriptions of Avalon. The Highland Fault runs the length of the island and this magnetic anomaly lends further power to the sacred isle.
An ex officer of the British army and a very good friend of mine, Alex Macadam, was a firm advocate of Arthur’s Scottish origin. Alex explored the legends and scant history from his extensive military experience, analysing Scottish fortresses, tactics and strategy. He concluded that there had once been a tower where the River Endrick empties into a bay in The Lake adjacent to Inch Cailleach. This, Alex said, was Joyous Garde, the home of Lancelot du Lac from the French romances.
This site is also the end of the ancient land route that reaches east, along the Endrick Valley to Fintry (The Land of the White One) at the gateway to the old Arthurian Kingdom of Bannog. Bounded by the formidable ramparts of The Campsie Fells and the Gargunnock Heights, Bannog forms a ring mountain fortress. Standing between the old impassable swamps of the Forth to the north, the Roman Dyke to the south and the ancient fortresses of Stirling and Dumbarton to the east and west, Bannog is also the source of the Bannock Burn.
Face the south and the Vale of Leven (The Valley of the Elms) opens before you and the one stream from Loch Lumonoy, the River Leven (which is one of Britain’s fastest rivers) empties into the sea via the Firth of Clyde. Journeying through the Vale, we come under the shadow of Carman (The Fort of the Welsh Sea God Manannan) sitting at 244m above sea level high on the western slope. To the southeast the massive bronze-age ring fort of Dumbuck rises to over a 150m above the surrounding landscape dominating the eastern approach along the Clyde to the Vale. Dumbuck is extensively quarried now, and one of the many sacred sites that has met its ruin in this way.
Look dead ahead and at last we face the irrefutable witness – At the point where the Leven meets the Clyde, Dumbarton Rock stands sentinel at the mouth of The Vale. Also known as Alt Clywd (The Rock on the Clyde) this long extinct volcanic plug has been a fortress since prehistoric times remaining active till WW2. Dark and foreboding, the uneven breast shapes formed by the cleft rock give a constant reminder of the Goddess in the landscape and add a sacred dimension to the site.
Dumbarton literally means The Fortress of the Britons - Arthur was styled King of the Britons surely he spent time here!
Oh ye'll tak' the high road An’ I'll tak' the low road