Monday, March 01, 2010

2009 In Review

-- A look at the key trends and events of the year just past.
To keep this to manageable length, I’m focussing this year-end review on the main developments, those clustered around Scotland’s official ‘Year Of Homecoming.’ For, by more than coincidence, this nexus led to press stories about King Arthur, the ‘original’ Merlin, the controversial Stone Of Destiny, the ‘Pictish’ mystery, the Knights Templar, and their supposed successors the Scottish Rite Freemasons of America - background subject of Dan Brown’s latest ‘factually based’ novel The Lost Symbol.

The cornerstone historic exhibit of Scotland’s ‘Year Of Homecoming’ national celebration was of course the Stone Of Destiny – coronation stone of the ancient kings of the Picts and Scots, kept at Scone Palace, where excavations of the area were finally begun in 2009. Stone Of Destiny is also the title of a famous book by Ian Hamilton QC, who was one of the nationalist students from Glasgow U who in December 1950 ‘recovered’ the stone from its place under the coronation throne in Westminster Abbey. (Edward I, after he defeated William Wallace in the 1290s, ordered the Stone sent to Westminster for all future English kings to be crowned on, to show they were also kings of Scotland.) The story of the daring stunt was made into a film in 2008, and this (not much seen on its cinema release) was released on DVD in April 09, together with behind-the-scenes items relating the background events, in which Ian (still going strong in his 80s with his own nationalist blog) appears. Today, there is considerable suspicion the Scone monks sent Edward a substitute (probably a sandstone cistern lid), as ancient codex descriptions suggest the stone is not the original. (For details, see earlier post on this: MacCamelot Revisited.)

Of course, some see the Homecoming Year (so designated as it was Burns’s 250th anniversary) as a way of rallying broader support for the now hotly topical issue of Scottish independence, with cultural representations that show more finesse than the main modern ‘touchstone,’ the crude ‘Jocksploitation’ film Braveheart, which depicted nationalism as defiant exhibitionism, protesting against English tyranny, on the level of a chanting football crowd.

In 2009, Scotland continued to be depicted on screen as a barbarian province, with several films going into production set in the North but with non-native heroes - invading Romans, or Viking raiders. This is an old problem which can be seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which a new study, Fiona Watson’s Macbeth: A True Story, revealed once again was historically a travesty. The actual Macbeth was a long-serving popular (and probably Pictish) ruler; historians say Shakespeare was trying to feed the anti-Scots prejudice of the time. (For details of these invading Romans/ Viking raiders films, see earlier post Those Pictish Blues Again.)

Braveheart itself was in the news again [Oct.] when Gibson admitted he knew from historical research that William Wallace was no Mr Nice Guy but ‘a monster’ akin to a Viking berserker. When the film came out in 1995, Gibson had reportedly tried to distance himself from the way it was used as a recruitment aid [leaflets handed out in cinema queues etc] by militant nationalists, who have since continued to paint their faces a ‘Pictish’ blue like Gibson’s - which like much else in the film is historically wrong. (Scots-born Wallace was from a Norman-Welsh family, his surname ‘le Wealeas’ meaning The Welshman, the family being from Shropshire.) Its American scriptwriter Randall Wallace (no relation) defended his screenplay on the grounds it was based on a 15C codex source, a verse epic by a minstrel called Blind Harry. Gibson has announced he is making a blood-and-thunder epic about the Viking berserkers, which will have Leonardo DiCaprio speaking subtitled Old Norse and ‘chronicle the Viking raids on England and Scotland in the ninth century.’

This was the background to another film produced last year (out March 2010), the Danish film Valhalla Rising shot in Scotland, Scandinavia and Canada, about a Viking escaping from slavery among the Highland clans. The idea Viking raiders might end up as slaves to the fierce Highlanders they tried to raid got some wry press coverage in 2009 when an academic conference promoted it to emphasise how the Vikings weren’t as fearless as believed to be by Mel Gibson. (Apparently Icelandic codex sources warned them to avoid Scotland as dangerous!)
(Earlier post here.)

It was these Vikings raids on Celtic monasteries which destroyed an untold number of codex manuscripts dating back into the Dark Ages. A priceless one which did survive, the Celtic Psalter, nicknamed ‘Scotland’s Book Of Kells,’ was the subject of an Edinburgh exhibition designed to conclude the 2009 commemorations. The exhibition of this long-unseen codex seems to have been caught in Scotland’s self-consciousness over image, the modern artist’s contemporising framework commissioned being rejected [Dec.] by the University library which was to exhibit it. The artist had wanted a motto warning about the fragility of a codex volume, “Every time you turn a page, it dies a little,” which Edinburgh University library thought ‘not celebratory enough’ for the 11C exhibit, which is illustrated with Pictish symbols.

Perhaps we should be using the terms Pictland and Pictish here rather than Scotland and Scottish, as stories concerning the earlier Pict inhabitants dominated those concerning the later Scots i.e. Irish colonists who with the help of the church began to colonise the country from the 6th C on. A number of these stories concerned a series of archeo finds this year which helped fill in a heretofore largely blank early history. One example of a find was of a “£1m golden hoard” near Stirling Castle, of pre-Roman era gold torcs which display similar artisanship to that found in Gaul. The press inevitably resorted to the phrase that this ‘rewrites the history of ancient Scotland’, but it was more a case of the finds indicating Keltic Pictland was not the impoverished backwater it later became under English rule. (The Stirling area, part of the same tribal kingdom as Edinburgh [and Rosslyn], that of the Gododdin, is covered in a separate web-page, here.)

Several films featuring the Picts were produced last year, mostly to be released in 2010 (again, discussed earlier in ‘Those Pictish Blues Again’ ). Since then, Bran Mak Morn - 30s pulp author and ‘Conan’ creator Robert E. Howard’s name for the supposed last king of the Picts - is now being filmed by Universal Studios, with Peter Berg [?] as director, and John (Intolerable Cruelty) Romano as scriptwriter. A pair of rival Romans-versus-Picts films are set for release in autumn 2010. Centurion, filmed on location in Scotland, has 7 survivors from the legendary Ninth legion, sent north ‘to wipe the Picts from the face of the earth’ (this is not at all historical re the 9th) being pursued by Amazonian-style Pictish women led by Olga Kurylenko as a warrior princess who has ‘had her tongue cut out by the Romans.’ Director Neil Marshall has said (I’m guessing in response to some early criticism) “It’s not meant to be historically perfect. I’m picking up on a legend and exploring it … it’s an action thriller.” (It’s a Gladiator-lookalike - trailer here.)

There is in reality no such legend of the IX Legion going north into Pictland; the legion simply vanishes from official accounts; if was defeated by British tribes, it was more likely by the Iceni of Norfolk some 60 years before. The story seems conflated with that of Boudicca [misspelt Boadicea by 19C English antiquarians] queen of the Iceni, who rose against Roman occupation in AD 60-1 after she was flogged by the Romans who looted her estate and raped her daughters. So many Roman ‘collaborators’ were massacred and butchered (women’s breasts stuffed in their mouths etc) by her rebel army that the Romans were later unable to take the usual Nazi-style mass-killing reprisals, as there would be insufficient population left to maintain the tax base. (Or so Churchill says in his The Birth Of Britain).

This rebellion indeed is or was (before his current Viking project) to be the subject of a long-planned Mel Gibson produced bloody-mutilation-and-suffering drama, work-titled Warrior but nicknamed by the industry ‘Braveheart in a bra.’ (Even its primitive ‘bandeau’ form, the bra of course was one item of clothing legendary women warriors like the Amazons didn’t wear; supposedly their name meant ‘no breast’, referring to the belief they cut off their breasts as these got in the way when drawing a bow.) Gibson’s was one of 3 rival such projects at the time, including one from Spielberg's Dreamworks (called Queen Fury), and another titled Warrior Queen [also the title of 2 novels on Queen B., plus a 1978 BBC TV series with Sian Philips]. All these may have been abandoned since being pre-empted by a TV movie starring Alex Kingston as earthy queen of a pack of beer-swilling Celts. Some of the major-studio interest here may have been prompted by a speculative (not much is known) 2006 biography, Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge, plus an imaginative trilogy of novels by M.C. [Manda] Scott, who originally trained as a veterinary surgeon at Glasgow University before switching to a teaching ‘shamanic’ dreaming and writing novels, notably her 'Boudica Dreaming' quartet, 2001-6.

This seems part of a Hollywood trend we’ve mentioned in earlier posts towards ‘women warrior’ heroines, something that works in this setting, especially among the Picts who (Bede says) practised matriarchal descent, their noble women ( a Roman historian says) consorting openly with the bravest warriors, and also (Irish legend says) employing women weapons trainers in places like Skye. A new novel published by Penguin last year, Warrior Daughter, by award-winning Scots poet and novelist Janet Paisley, depicts such a sexually-liberated (and bisexual) Iron Age people on Skye led by the orphan daughter of a warrior queen.

The 2nd film being made about the IX Legion was probably the first work of popular fiction to promote the notion it vanished in Scotland: Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 young-adult novel The Eagle Of The Ninth, about “a wounded Roman soldier and his loyal Celtic slave who try to solve the mystery of the Ninth Legion.” This is not another action adventure but a tale of friendship and personal discovery amidst a strange culture, a framework the director of the current film, Kevin Macdonald, is adhering to – adding a layer of deliberate contemporary political allegory about ‘cultural imperialism’ by having the Romans played by Americans in their native accents to emphasize a parallel with Iraq etc. Macdonald has said the ‘natives’ will speak Gaelic, though in the story they are a pre-Celtic Inuit-like relict population, The Seal People whom even the Celtic-Britonnic interpreter cannot understand. (More details in earlier post here.)

Although the ‘natives’ were historically portrayed as barbarians, a number of individuals who had previously been considered non-Scots were ‘repatriated’ or re-claimed as being ‘really’ Scotsmen. Columbus was claimed, on the basis of re-examining some old codex evidence, to have been a blond freckled Scot. This was a claim by a Barcelona historian [A.E. de Villalonga], so can’t be put down simply to Scots nationalist fervor.

As I discussed in an earlier post (see North To MacCamelot) , a proposed relocation of the Arthurian legend to Scotland was in the news. It was suggested Scotland's Southern Uplands rather than Wales were the likely locale of the original Merlin, Myrddin, such as Hart Fell near the source of the Clyde. In this post, I included a photo taken as I flew over the area in May, showing the old Caledonian Wood had been replaced by farmland and modern conifer plantations. Since then, Galloway Forest Park (near where The Wicker Man was part-filmed) because of its relative remoteness from built-up areas has, as part of International Year of Astronomy 2009, been named Britain’s first ‘dark sky’ site, where a view of the night skies can best be had free from urban light pollution. (Instead of the 200 or so stars you can see in cities, it is dark enough there to see up to 7,000 stars.) This is perhaps worth mentioning here, as the starscape was an important feature of life which inspired some of the stellar and lunar myths the ancients wrote of, and whose calendric alignments are also thought to be the basis of megalithic sites like Callanish, rather than just the solar events [solstice etc] celebrated by today’s popular New Age gatherings.

A Scots provenance for legendary Arthur was also proposed, which I won’t go into here as it was covered before in two earlier posts North To MacCamelot and MacCamelot Revisited. Since then, the only headline announcement I’ve seen is ‘King Arthur Was A Genocidal Warlord, Claims New Book’ - which turned out to be advance PR for The Celtic Revolution : In Search of 2000 Forgotten Years that Changed Our World by Dr Simon Young, whose interesting attempt at simulating a lost travel-guide codex, A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland, I reviewed 2 years ago [here].

This slighting approach to Arthur by English historians is in itself not new. But instead of “He wasn’t real, just a myth propagated by Welsh and Scots nationalists (and later woolly-minded Romantic Celtophiles overseas),” we typically get “Ok, we’ll agree he was real, provided you agree he wasn’t a proper king, just a Dark Ages warlord, a murderous tyrant.” (You can almost hear the unspoken coda – “a typical bloody Celt.”) The Telegraph article [27-Sep-09] painted Young’s Arthur as a "genocidal warlord whose deeds would have been the stuff of Nuremberg trials today." This didn’t encourage me to order the book, though from the Telegraph’s actual book review I see Arthur is only discussed in an Appendix, where “two sixth-century warlords, one called Arthur and another named Artur” are suggested as main inspiration. The review goes on to outline the thesis of the book’s subtitle, indicating Young does regard ‘Celtica’ as a real culture which made a major contribution to western civilisation. So it may be worth ordering when the paperback comes out.

On the other hand, the claim that one famous historical figure was half-Scots was debunked by a Scottish historian, Neil Hooper. The idea, which has made its way into tourist guidebooks over the years, that Pontius Pilate was born of a Scots mother and Roman father, at Fortingall in Perthshire, where a famous old yew stands, was attacked [Dec.] by Hooper as lacking any documentation before 1899. Hooper argued the new local laird, who entertained the likes of Kipling and Tennyson there, ‘invented the story as a prank with the help of his literary friends.’

As to the perennial Holy Legend, referenced in the famous Blake verse, that Jesus himself visited Britain, there is a long-standing belief in a visit to Scotland. This goes back at least to William Comyns Beaumont (1873-1956), a Daily Mail staff writer. In books with titles like Britain, The Key To World History and After Atlantis: The Greatest Story Never Told, he argued that Jesus was born in Glastonbury, and lived in Somerset, Jerusalem being really Edinburgh etc. – all this being covered up by a gigantic conspiracy by the Romans, who had the Bible rewritten. Since then, others (like Barry Durnford) have concentrated more on folktales of Holy Visits by Jesus and/or Mary to the Hebrides (Iona etc.) This past year, Scottish scholar Dr Gordon Strachan did provide the research basis for a new documentary film on the legend, called [what else?] And Did Those Feet?, which debuted in late November at the British Film Institute. (No sign of it since.) This was based on Dr Strachan’s theories, which for anyone interested, are largely given in his book Jesus The Master Builder. (They’re mainly mathematical arguments based on the idea of cross-cultural commonalities found in ‘Pythagorean’ geometry, and gematria.) For details, see our earlier post prompted by the film’s press release, here.

Scotland’s claim to independence was built partly around Robert the Bruce’s 1314 victory at Bannockburn, with the date figuring on nationalist flags. One of the recurring motifs in recent years in regard to Scots independence is that Bannockburn, would not have been won if it were not for a handful of English Templars who had fled here from the purge of their order in France and England which the Scots king refused to take part in. (The last part is not true, as I’ve mentioned before.) This it-was-really-the-English-Templars-who-won-it claim returned in 2009 [Dec.], based on a ‘statistical’ analysis that a certain percent of Templars would’ve wound up here, and this total is then added to Bruce’s forces. An analysis by a Californian lawyer claimed to demonstrate that, as 335 Templars went missing in France, 29-48 logically would have fought alongside the Scots. It was endorsed by the "Grand Prior of the Scots" Templars, then denounced in the Times as "rubbish" insulting to Scots by British Templar historian Helen Nicholson, who teaches mediaeval warfare at Cardiff U. Inevitably, the claim turned out to be promoting a new book, The Knights Templar And Scotland, and the author a Knight Commander in a modern Scots Templar order. Coincidentally, Helen Nicholson published an article for BBC History Magazine earlier this year on the fate of the English Templars, which provided me with one new item of info on the Knight Templar I had researched as a case study (see England’s Last Templar): the knight in question had, with others, disappeared not to Scotland but to Ireland. (There’s probably another book in that.)

There were also press stories about the Templars owning mediaeval estates in lowland Scotland, east and west. I’m assuming here (this is not clearly spelt out in the coverage) that Scots post-1314 independence allowed survivors of the purge and their descendants there to openly profess Templar affiliation. Gravestones found [Oct.] under a gateway by a ruined medieval church in the village of Temple, Midlothian carried strange carvings called by the press 'Pac-Man' markings. As its name indicates, this was a Templar property (some say the Templars’ Scottish headquarters), seized in the purge. To the west, Kilwinning in Ayrshire was proposed [cf article by AJ Morton in Fortean Times Mr 2010] as an overlooked Templar centre, with dozens of identifiable properties around its ruined Abbey, plus another score nearby at Irvine. Some of these properties were owned by key individuals with titles like High Constable Of Scotland and Guardian of Scotland, and who apparently included both Wallace and Bruce. Over a century before England’s Grand Lodge was founded [1717], Kilwinning also became in 1599 the ‘mother lodge’ of Scottish Rite Freemasonry – the name Kilwinning Lodge being used in the USA, when Scottish Rite Freemasonry was exported to the Colonies. (Unlike the English variety, Scots Freemasonry was opposed to an Established i.e. state church like the Church Of England - a Scots Presbyterian idea that soon found its way into the US Constitution as the separation of church and state.)

In America, Dan Brown’s long-awaited Da Vinci Code followup finally appeared, years behind schedule. Originally announced as about the idea the US capitol was founded according to a secret Masonic masterplan, nonfiction guidebooks had already ‘outed’ some of this historical background, about which he had given pointed clues. (This was still better from Brown’s viewpoint than books attacking his bad research, as with TDVC, and would have helped him establish his background claims of “Fact.”) The appearance of his latest thriller [Sep.] provided the amusing highlight of the year, as well as the biggest mystery of the year. The amusing highlight was when he switched the title at the last possible moment, leaving all those who had already published books with titles like ‘The Guide To Dan Brown’s The Solomon Key’ racing to reissue their works as ‘The Guide To Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.’ There was also a seeming mystery behind the delay. TDVC’s cover had clues pointing to US Freemasonry as the basis of Brown’s next conspiracy thriller. Inevitably, stories soon went around the novel would attack the Masonic order the way TDVC had with secretive Roman Catholic orders. This would set up a revisionist take on US history, portraying Freemason George (‘I cannot tell a lie’) Washington as a traitor who left a deathbed-confession manuscript, buried with him by conspiring fellow Masons in a sealed coffin at Mount Vernon, to avoid scandal.

There was also speculation the novel would deal with the fact the founding-father Masons were not orthodox Christians but Deists – hence the symbol of the Egyptian pyramid with the all seeing eye put on the dollar bill etc. Freemasonry as 'a unique system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols' seemed a natural choice of topic for Brown. Scotland’s leading writer on matters Masonic [he is curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland], Robert Cooper, said Brown’s title change was due to Cooper’s 2007 nonfiction book Cracking The Freemason's Code – The Truth About Solomon's Key, and while on a US lecture tour, he heard from ‘an inside source’ that Brown was using the tale about George Washington’s buried confessional manuscript as his plot hook.

However, when the novel appeared, all of this, which had been written up in advance in guidebooks by Dan Burstein and David A. Shugarts (whose books I have), was missing. No ‘ancient secrets rewriting western history’ were proferred: the plot was just another solve-the-puzzle-quick chase thriller, not based on any conspiracy theories. Brown did depict a few Masonic ‘bad apples,’ but gave out in PR releases how much he admired the order, and would even like to join himself [hint, hint], his book then being adopted as a recruiting tool by US lodges. One can only wonder if he decided he had had enough of controversy and threats in his life, and decided to play it safe from now on.
Of course, as usual, we’re unlikely to be able to establish the truth of the matter ….