This quest was a return trip for some, like our fearless leaders: Justin K Prim, an upcoming Merlin scholar, and Jan Hogarth, a landscape artist. For others, it was our first time hearing the legends and standing in the places where they are believed to have occurred. When I met Jan that morning, she welcomed me with her message: the story is rooted in the landscape, so it takes on new meaning when we explore the legends while in the landscape.
The story was of Merlin. This was not the wand-waving Merlin supporting the legendary King Arthur that I had grown up with. This landscape told the story of a tribal leader’s bard named Myrddin. He may be credited with shamanic or druidic magic in some sources or hailed as a prophet in others, but this Merlin felt much more corporeal than the magician caricature presented in many modern retellings of the legends. His was the story of a simple man fleeing into the wild forests in the hills of Southern Scotland, ‘driven mad with grief’ or maybe PTSD, and seeking sanctuary from his trauma and the enemies pursuing him. As with any legend it was a quest of imagination, but I think it was easier to picture this man running from his suffering with the grasses of the hills beneath our boots and the breeze on our faces.
Our quest group met up in Moffat, the spa town that blossomed due to the healing waters of the well we were seeking: the spring on Hartfell Ridge. Together we crossed the hills that are divided up into farm plots for sheep and deer to graze. Our first real pause was by a row of evergreens. There Justin read his first selection to us. He shared some poetry that tells the story of Merlin wandering in the forests, searching for food, struggling to survive, and running from the King of Strathclyde.
It’s not difficult to imagine the rolling green hills covered in forests.
However, it is jarring to remember that even these green and brown hills covered in growth and life are so fundamentally different now because of human impact. The forests in Merlin’s time, just before 600 C.E., would have blanketed the entire area apart from the very tops of the hills, according to the poems around a century old. One of our scientific questers tells us that this is because the ground at the top of the hills would have been too wet and boggy for trees to be supported. Now the hills are adorned primarily by long grasses, although seedling trees remind us that it may change yet again.
Our journey to the top of the hill is punctuated by these pauses. We stop to catch our breath. We stop to drink water or take off a sweatshirt, but mostly we pause to listen and discuss. Justin reads to us, telling the story of Merlin’s journey over the same ground. Our discussions have an emphasis on this man, but also an emphasis on humanity in general. We talk about how climate change is changing these hills. We discuss the accuracy of these stories that were only written down at least 500 years after the stories were to have taken place. How much were they changed by the people who passed them on? How much came from the monk scholars who finally recorded these stories?
We ate our lunch sitting on the hill above the valley where the water rushes up out of the earth and turns into a river. Together we pondered the allure of nature, whether truly wild or a manicured nature like this one. Nature is a solace for us, a place to go in a time of struggle. We could all share stories of being hurt or shocked by life and finding refuge in the arms of mother earth, just like Merlin did when he fled in grief.
Nature holds wisdom for people to seek out in times of struggle.
A guru lives isolated on the mountainside. The Buddha found Enlightenment while meditating under a tree. It is a common thread wound through society. A troubled person can leave man-made order behind and seek the life of nature. The seeker returns to their with a sense of peace or new meaning. Merlin was seeking solace for his pain. Today we were seeking Merlin.
We made our way down the hill and into that valley. Following the path of many pilgrims looking for the healing waters of a chalybeate well, naturally rich in iron and calcium to heal their various maladies. Here we listen to the end of Merlin’s story. He has wandered for 50 years in these woods, tormented by poor mental health and paranoid of being taken prisoner. He was known as a prophet having visions primarily of death and war. Was it predicting the future or were they flashbacks? Poor, tortured Merlin drinks from the Hartfell Well and is miraculously cured.
The story says, his mind returns to him then and despite being offered places in court, Merlin resolves to remain in the environment that has sheltered him for the past 50 years. There is nothing for him in the castles of civilization anymore. Maybe that is the true message that we search for in nature, how to give up the conveniences of modern life and live immersed in the natural world. If it is, we haven’t reached that point yet. Instead we return after drinking from the spring together.
Our story in the landscape ends where Merlin’s began. We make a short drive over to Longtown, just over the border of England. Hidden away in more fields is the remains of a fort. All that is left are the hills, built up as embankments to add an extra layer of protection for the fort defenders. The defensive nature of the structure is easy to see, and through the trees to the north, you can just make out the hills we had climbed earlier in the day with a river connecting the two landscapes.
Merlin Academics believe that this was the location of the Battle of Arfderydd. We look to the south with the Cumbrian hills in the distance and imagine the armies of the King of Strathclyde spread out across the fields between us in 573 C.E. Here the bard, Myrddin or Merlin, watched his Lord Gwenddoleu die with many of his closest comrades. It was from here that he fled after the long and bloody battle and after three days of mourning for his fallen.
We imagine even more. Could his madness be from more than just grief or PTSD? Could it be survivor’s guilt? If Myrddin were a shaman rather than a bard, could it have been his duty to raise the druidic mist to protect the army during battle? If that failed could guilt over not protecting those who died have caused him to go mad? We can let our imaginations run free here, at the place where Merlin’s journey into the hills began.
People have a connection to the land they live on, whether it’s a land mostly untouched by human hands or if it’s built up into towns, cities, or skyscrapers. The land we live on shapes our lives, and I think most people would agree that the natural landscape invigorates us. On this quest we came together to travel over the hills. Through our imaginations we could travel even further, through time and into legend, each of us returning with something special and a day to remember.
Laura Schrader is from the United States and is studying for an MLit in Environment, Culture and Communication at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries. A big thanks to artist Katie Anderson for the stunning images.