Galdus: The king with two tombs

Cairnholy II chambered tomb. One of the reputed final resting places of King Galdus.

Our lands are inhabited by heroes. Robin Hood, Cuchulainn, Bran the Blessed, Fionn mac Cumhaill and of course King Arthur to mention just a few. We mythologise our landscape to reinforce our roots in an unstable world, legitimise the power of ruling dynasties, explain the mysterious and because we just love a really good story.  We place those stories in the landscape in significant places to denote holy reverence, astronomical alignments, commemorate births and deaths, great deeds, woeful wrongs, battles and burials. This is the story behind such a story.

Corbredus II ‘Galdus’, King of Scotland, so the story goes fought against Julius Agricola, eventually driving the Romans from Scotland, leading a coalition with the Picts, Norwegians and Danes. He was the son of King Corbredus, the nephew of Caractacus and cousin of Boudicca. He reigned Scotland for thirty five years and when he died in either 111AD or 131AD was buried in an elaborate grave in part of Brigantia, which was renamed Galdia in his honour.

His body, borne up with a celebrated pomp, just and mournful, while many mortals lamented with great sadness, was buried in a nearby plain, as he had commanded while alive, where a very ornate monument was erected to him, according to his native custom, of immense stones; how he had freed his country from Roman arms. There were several obelisks erected next to the tomb, as a testimony of his excellency in prowess in warfare (as it was then done). And lest the memory of so great a king should ever exceed the minds of mortals, by which the posterity of Galdus were admonished for valor in so splendid a deeds, that Brigantia, after changing the name of the king, should henceforth be called Galdia by the prince; The name Galloway remains in our country today, with a little name changed (as it does in older things).1

Peculiarly, two of Galloway’s best known ancient monuments are said to mark his grave. It isn’t unusual for such places to be associated with mythical heroes, it is a tale reminiscent of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that Stonehenge is the tomb of Uther Pendragon2. But as both Torhousekie Stone Circle in Wigtownshire and Cairnholy Chambered Tombs, on the eastern side of Wigtown Bay in the Stewartry, are over 4000 years old and already ancient before the Romans arrived, there is clearly something strange afoot. How did both of these megalithic sites come to be associated with the burial place of a mythical king who fought the Romans?

Below these stanes
Lie Galdus’ banes
A man beloved by great and sma’
But now he’s dead
And low’s his head
Amang the braes o’ Gallowa’ 3

Torhousekie stone circle, near Wigtown. The central setting of stones is known as King Galdus’ Tomb.

There are a number of problems with the account of the deeds of Galdus. Firstly, Scotland or at least the proto-Scottish kingdom of Alba, did not exist until the union of the Picts and Scots in 843AD under Kenneth I MacAlpin. Caractacus was the chieftain of the Catuvellauni who resisted the Roman invasion over the course of several battles, escaping capture and fleeing northwards into the territory of the Brigantes, who’s Queen Cartimandua handed him to the Romans4. Boudicca, the famed queen of the Iceni, was of course otherwise engaged in her own struggle with the Romans in what is now East Anglia and certainly not campaigning in Caledonia.

If Galdus was a figure of ancient legend, as would be expected of such an illustrious king, there would be references to him in literature going back to the earliest times, such as you find with Arthur in Aneirin’s early 7th century ‘Y Gododdin’ and ‘Historia Brittonum’ by Nennius in the 9th century, but it seems that Galdus is nowhere to be found anywhere until the 16th century. Edward III destroyed many of Scotland’s national records in the 14th century, prompting John of Fordun to be the first to attempt a continuous history of Scotland in his ‘Chronica Gentis Scotorum’, and although this formed the basis for the works of later authors, there is no mention of a King Galdus. Neither is he mentioned in Andrew Wyntoun’s ‘Orygynale Chronykill of Scotland’, written around 1420, a history of Scotland from the beginning of the world until the succession of James I in 14065.

The first appearance of Galdus is in 1527, in Hector Boece’s ‘Historia Gentis Scotorum’, which draws heavily on the work of Roman author Tacitus in regard to the events in which he places Galdus. Tacitus was the son-in-law of Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britain, who campaigned in Scotland in the early years of Roman occupation and in his account of Agricola’s battle with the Caledonians at Mons Graupius in circa 83AD, he names the Caledonian leader as Calgacus (sometimes Galgacus) and recounts his fiery speech to his troops before battle. Of course, Tacitus wasn’t there to hear it, so that in itself is a matter of conjecture. The Caledonians were beaten by the Romans, melted back in to the hills and Calgacus disappears from history. But Boece moulds and embellishes this into the account of an extended campaign by Galdus, which eventually drives the Romans from Scotland.

Although he had many critics, Boece’s account had a considerable influence over the historians that followed him and just like the tales of Arthur, they added their own embellishments to the story. George Buchanan identified Galdus with Calgacus, Holinshed placed his residence in Galloway, but it was in the second half of the 17th century that the hunt for the ornate tomb of Galdus hit its stride. The local poet John Marshall wrote the following lines to Patrick Hannay of Kirkdale, in response to his 1662 volume of poems:

“Thy ancestors were ever worthy found
Else Galdus’ grave had graced no Hannay’s ground.”

A marginal note reads, “ King Galdus, who so bravely fought with the Romans, lies buried in the lands of Patrick Hannay of Kirkdale6. “

This is the first written reference to Galdus’ tomb being located at Cairnholy7. Sir Andrew Agnew’s ‘Description of the Shire of Wigtown’ (compiled before 1672), seems to be the first attempt to place the tomb of Galdus at Torhouskie. It was from this time onwards that the association of King Galdus with both monuments begins and the numerous guides and histories of Galloway since, have referenced both sites as his tomb.

Cairnholy II, the tomb of Galdus?
Or is Torhouskie the tomb of Galdus?

William Mackenzie’s 1841 work ‘The history of Galloway, from the earliest period to the present time’ placed a foot in both camps:

Having roused the slumbering energies of his countrymen, he defeated the Romans in several battles, who, it is said, retired into Galloway. Here, we are informed, an other battle was fought on the banks of the Cree, in which , as some have affirmed, Galdus was slain , and interred at Cairn -holy. Others assert he was killed in a conflict with the Romans, at Torhouse, near Wigtown, and buried in that place. There are certainly some indications of a battle’s having been fought in this locality , which to a certain extent tend to confirm the tradition. In the vicinity of Wigtown, are also the remains of an ancient monument, which is suppos to have been erected to the memory of Galdus.

It is interesting that another piece of garbled history has now been inserted into the story, with the folktale of a battle taking place at Cairnholy being attributed to Galdus. A battle may well have taken place close by, on Glenquicken Moor, but there is confusion over the date.

Cairn-Holy is traditionally said to have been raised over the remains of a bishop of Whithorn, who, with many of his brethren, was slain in a battle with the English on Glenquicken Moor in 1150, and buried here8.

Another account from the same period gives a little more detail.

About the year 1150, three years before the demise of David I , it is said there was a battle fought on Glenquicken Moor, between the English and Scots, wherein the Scots were defeated and their general killed,—when the Bishop of Whithorn assumed the command ; but his troops being defeated, immediately fled towards the shore to their boats, and being overtaken by the enemy at Cairnholy, the bishop, and many of his men, were slain and buried. From this circumstance, it was called the Holy Cairn9.

There is the possibility of a little bit of truth in this, as David I continued to consolidate Scotland as a single nation, he took advantage of the death of Henry I and the ensuing civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’ to repeatedly attack northern England. Another possibility is the campaigns that David I’s successor Malcolm IV led into the still independent Galloway around 1160, having just returned from campaigning for the English on the continent. The Bishopric of Whithorn had been revived by Fergus, Lord of Galloway in 1128, so it is reasonable to expect that the Bishop of Whithorn would have been loyal to Fergus. Malcolm drove Fergus out of power and from then on, Norse-Gaelic influence began to wane in Galloway as Scottish influence increased.

James Denniston’s 1825 Legends of Galloway tells a different tale however. According to Denniston, in 1315 Robert the Bruce sent his brother Edward and the Earl of Douglas to remove the remaining English garrisons from Galloway. While they besieged Cruives Castle, north of Newton Stewart10,  a plan by the Bishop of Whithorn, camped at Sorbie, came to light to relieve of the castle’s garrison with a large army. Reaching what is now known as ‘Bishop’s Burn’, about two miles north of Wigtown, he found the burn impassable and made camp. Edward had sneaked around behind him, attacking his baggage train, forcing the Bishop to cross the Cree before it was properly passable, losing many men in the process11. The English were pursued in their flight towards Kirkcudbright and forced to make a final stand at Cairnholy, where the Bishop was cut down and a cairn raised over him where he fell.

Wigtown Castle was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in around 1315 to prevent it falling into English hands, but it is unlikely that Edward Bruce fought a battle in Galloway during that year, as he had been sent to campaign in Ireland, where he was killed in 1318. Denniston mentions that a great number of graves were found at Barholm during ploughing:

These graves were of various structures and dimensions, some of the bodies having been interred in a recumbent, and others in a sitting posture. In some instances they had been lined and covered with flag-stones, and in these an urn, rudely formed of baked and unglazed clay, was occasionally found, containing a blackish, saponaceous earth.

These are very clearly graves belonging to the Bronze Age. Considering the amount of rock art, cairns and standing stones in the area, it is possible the area around Cairnholy was considered a sacred area in prehistory, set aside as a realm of the dead12. The lands surrounding Cairnholy are also said to have turned up weapons supposedly from a battle in the area, but again, these could be votive offerings of grave goods from a much earlier time.

It is important to end with a little bit of context. During the time that Boece was preparing his account, Scotland was still suffering the effects of their heavy defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 against the English. James IV was killed in battle and his seventeen month old son James V crowned as his successor. Scotland was still ruled by regents when Boece published his history, James not beginning his personal rule until 1528. When James IV acted against the 1502 ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ with England and resumed the Auld Alliance with France, siding against England at Thérouanne, an enraged Henry VIII declared, “I am the very owner of Scotland and he holdeth it of me by homage.” Henry’s relationship with Scotland was strained at best. He seemed to nurse an ambition to annex Scotland and force a union of sorts. The culmination of this was the Eight Years War, beginning in 1543 and better known as the ‘Rough Wooing’, with the intention of weakening Scotland, breaking the Auld Alliance and to pursue the existing marriage alliance between the young Mary Queen of Scots and the English heir Edward.

Boece’s history and the subsequent works that followed by other historical authors, were created in this febrile atmosphere of threat from Henry. It is understandable that the nation was in need of a hero to boost pride and identity and like Arthur’s promise to return in the nation’s hour of need, out stepped King Galdus from the imagination of Hector Boece. By throwing in other contemporary historical leaders who had fought against the Romans, such as Caractacus and Boudicca, and borrowing the exploits of Calgacus as a base for the story, he intended to lend the story an air of authenticity, as well as a pedigree of sedition against the empire. Where Caractacus, Boudicca and Calgacus all ultimately failed, he ensured that Galdus succeeded in driving out the enemy.

Although the Gaelic language held on in Galloway for some time after the mid-12th century, as Scottish influence increased, the gradual adoption of the Scots tongue would slowly erode Gaelic tales and traditions. National stories of origin would have replaced regional tales, as they faded from memory in Galloway, along with the language that preserved them13. Just as each generation of authors added new layers to the tale of King Arthur, from his possible beginnings as a single mention in ‘Y Gododdin’, fighting back the expansion of the Angles during the post-Roman years, to a fantastic mythical king by the time of Alfred Lord Tennyson. So it was also with Galdus and if you could claim that his grave was on your land, that too would bring you a legitimacy that was very appealing to the ruling classes. Many regions in the British Isles have attempted to reinvent Arthur and claim him as their own, Scotland too invented the hero it needed to boost its national identity.

1. History of the Scottish People – Hector Boece (1527).
2. The History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136)
3. The history of Galloway, from the earliest period to the present time – William Mackenzie (1841).
4. This led to civil war with her husband Venutious, leading to Roman occupation north of the Humber in 71AD and his eventual defeat at Stanwick Camp.
5. Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society Vol13 (1925-26) – R.C. Reid.
6. Ibid.
7. The place name Cairnholy seems to date from the early 19th century, the original name being Balmacrail.
8. A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland – Samuel Lewis (1846).
9. The New Statistical Account of Scotland Vol IV (1845)
10. There is a Cruive’s Wood and a Castle Wood in the area. Apart from the much later tower house of Castle Stewart, there seems to be no mention of a medieval Cruive Castle, but there was a motte and bailey castle at Minnigaff were the church now stands.
11. Denniston claims that many artefacts such as weapons and armour have been salvaged from the river in the years since.
12. Mike Parker Pearson, Frances Prior and others have done some excellent work on the demarcation of ‘zones’ in the prehistoric landscape.
13. No Grave for King Galdus – Alistair Livingston, Green Galloway (2017)


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