There once existed a tradition amongst the northern Britons of locating Annwn north of Hadrian’s wall. Its origins may be found in the writings of Tacitus about tribes beyond the northern frontier who spoke a different language to the Britons and were impossible to subdue. Ptolemy was the first person to refer to this area as Caledonia Silva.
The 6th C classical writer Procopius said: ‘Now in this island of Britain the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it… on the north side… it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even half an hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy their area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straight away… They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.’
These writings show within the Romano-British culture of the Old North the Caledonian forest was considered to be a wild, hostile place associated with death.
Culhwch and Olwen (1350), a medieval Welsh text set during the Arthurian period preserves remnants of these superstitions. In the stories of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad and the Very Black Witch, Arthur ‘goes north’ to inhospitable lands. Both stories feature Gwythyr ap Greidol, a northern ruler and warrior of Arthur’s court and Gwyn ap Nudd, a king of Annwn. The latter is an ancient British god associated with wild places and the dead. It is my intuition it was after a vision of Gwyn and his host at the Battle of Arfderydd that Myrddin Wyllt went mad and fled to Celyddon (Caledon) where he wandered thirty years amongst gwyllon (wild, ancestral spirits).
As the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad is set at Calan Mai, a friend and I decided to head north to Coille Coire Chuilc (one of the southernmost remnants of the Caledonian forest) on the May bank holiday weekend.
Coille Coire Chuilc is an ancient woodland of Scots pines lying between the river Cononish and Allt Gleann Auchreoch close to the village of Tyndrum in Strath Fillan. Tyndrum grew out of the lead mining industry. The mines were located in Beinn Chuirn. During the 18th C pack horses travelled 50 miles to Alloa with lead ingots then back with fuel for the smelter.
During the 19th C gold was discovered in the hills of the Cononish glen, which led to a miniature gold rush. This ended in the 20th C but has recently restarted with the approval of a second planning application to Scotsgold Resources in 2011. Gold is once more being mined from the hills and may be panned from the river Cononish, although it is more likely one will find lead and pyrite: ‘fool’s gold’. As the area is renowned for its ‘fairy places’ it was interesting to hear the hills were hollowed with mines where one is more likely to find false gold than the real deal…
Our expedition to Coille Coire Chuilc did not go to plan. Firstly we took the ‘wrong’ path, ending up north of the river Cononish rather than within the woodland. However this had the advantages of providing a good view of the distant Scots pines and an excuse to walk back down the river, seeing some sensational falls, ravines and trees clinging drastically to rocks.
The next set back was that the bridge across the Allt Gleann Auchreoch pictured in The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Guide (2013) was plankless and uncrossable!
This led to a precarious injurious fording of the burn into a woodland of bent old round-crowned pines and deep sphagnum mosses that didn’t feel overly friendly to two foolish searching humans.
On our return, after I slipped over again crossing a boggy patch, one of the more positive points was glimpsing a magnificent bird which I think may have been a golden eagle.
Tyndrum itself, however, was hellish. No longer a mining village but conglomeration of shops and a tourist information centre. We arrived at the scene of an accident where a car had hit a motorbike and shortly afterward saw two near car crashes within the space of a minute. We saw the whole place was now based around the tourist industry and as tourists we were part of the problem.
I felt like I was a long way north of the wall far from home in a landscape that did not want me.
I left with the impression that whilst the story of Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad in Culhwch and Olwen contains universal themes (the battle between winter and summer kings for a maiden goddess on May Day) its variant from Strathclyde locating Annwn in the Caledonian forest very much belonged to its time and people.
The fairies of Coille Coire Chuilc had concerns of their own with mining and tourism and little care for a pair of wanderers from Lancashire seeking the ancient roots of a Brythonic tale that may never have been located in their woodland at all.
Whether Myrddin ever fled quite so far remains uncertain. Perhaps we went too far north. However I think sometimes you must stray too far to come back…