Coille Coire Chuilc: Seeking Annwn in Caledon

Coille Coire ChuilcThere 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.

Cononish HillsDuring 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.

Blog 6. Coille Coire ChuilcDying trees stood with a stark grey dignity reminiscent of gwyllon; ancestral presences of their land. A land where we were not at home. Where all was strange and fey. And said leave.

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.

Blog 9. Golden EagleTyndrum 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…

Belisama: Goddess of the Ribble

Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble, which runs from Ribble Head in North Yorkshire, through Ribblesdale, Central Lancashire and out to the Irish Sea. Her name is known from Ptolemy’s Geography 2AD, where at co-ordinates corresponding to the Ribble’s estuary he places ‘Belisama aest[1]’. Inscriptions to Belisama have also been found in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence and Saint-Lizier, in the Pyrenees[2].

Her name has received a number of interpretations. Nick Ford translates ‘Rigabelisama (Riga-, a queen, and Belisama)’ as ‘Most Shining One’ making her the ‘Most Shining Queen’ or ‘Most Mighty Queen’[3]. Seeing the dazzling beauty of the Ribble illumined by sunlight or moonlight confirms the legitimacy of this epithet to me. However Delamarre claims the translation of bhel as ‘white or brilliant’ is based on a false interpretation of Belinus’ identification with Apollo. Belinus is ‘the Powerful One’ and Belisama is the ‘Most Powerful One’[4]. Watching the Ribble after heavy rain, particularly at high tide conveys a sense of her power, as does observing the landscapes she has shaped.

The town of Ribchester has a close connection with the Ribble. It’s native name Bremetonacon means ‘place by the roaring river[5].’ In Saint-Lizier Belisama is identified with the Roman goddess Minerva. A bust of Minerva was found at Ribchester and it was once largely accepted the town had a temple to Minerva-Belisama[6]. Whilst it would make sense that a place of worship dedicated to Belisama was located in the heart of the Ribble Valley beside the roaring ford this is based on a mistranslated inscription[7]. To whom the temple was dedicated is unknown. As a large part has been washed away by the Ribble it might be assumed either that it didn’t belong to Belisama or she didn’t want one.

A question I’ve pondered is how much to read into Belisama’s possible identification with Minerva at Ribchester- when the Romans built the fort in 70AD they were polytheists, and their experiences of Belisama may have led to this equation. Minerva is a goddess of wisdom, crafts and healing. From the Norman period (and indubitably before), until the end of the 18th century the Ribble was renown for being rich in salmon, the quintessential fish of wisdom, with the most important of the fish garths being located at Fish House Bridge in Penwortham[8]. Another possible reason for this identification is that wisdom can be gained from watching and listening to the flow of the Ribble in different spots. One of the lessons I’ve learnt from Belisama is dynamism and change; due to a combination of the tides, rain fall and the position of the sun or moon her waters never look the same in any place.

In terms of crafts, Belisama has inspired a good deal of creative writing from the poems of Richard Dugdale (the Bard of Ribblesdale 1849), James Flockhart’s ‘The River’ (1854), Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Ribblesdale’ (1876) and John Heath-Stubb’s ‘The Green Man’s Last will and Testament’ – ‘the cruel nymphs / Of the northern streams, Peg Towler of the Tees / And Jenny Greenteeth of the Ribble, / Sisters of Belisama, the very fair one’ (1973)[9]. Jane Brunning, a Penwortham based author blogging as Reigh Belisama runs a site called ‘Save the Ribble,’ which played a leading role in preventing the river barrage at Brockholes and continues to oppose fracking on the Ribble Estuary[10].

Belisama’s influence on the cotton industry can be recalled by the number of old mills on her tributaries. Without Riversway Dockland, which was created by moving the Ribble from Strand Road to her present course beside Castle Hill, Preston could not have played its huge role in the industrial revolution. Whilst I’m unaware of any associations linking Belisama with physical healing, spending time beside the Ribble usually has a calming, cleansing effect on me.

Moving from Belisama to the Ribble, the first mention of the change of name is in ‘the Latin Life of St Wilfrid’ (patron saint of Preston) where ‘lands identified as ‘round Ribble’ (iuxta Rippel), Yeadon, Dent and Catlow’ are granted by the English ruler to ‘the community at Ripon’[11]. The Saxon Ripel was taken by Ekwall to mean ‘tearing, reaping’ making the Ribble ‘the tearing one’[12] relating Belisama’s qualities of power and might. Andrew Breeze suggests that Ribble may derive from the Welsh rhybwyll, which combined with the prefix ri could mean very great wisdom[13]. The name change and it’s interpretations demonstrate the qualities of flux and continuity innate to Belisama.

For me in present day Penwortham, (which without Belisama, in its current form would not exist), Belisama and her tributaries continue to shape the valleys and plains, as well as the lives of the wildlife and people who inhabit them. Belisama’s power and wisdom shine throughout her ever changing course and in those by which it is transmitted, whether by the spoken or written word, craftsmanship, or in the actions of those who stand against her exploitation and pollution.


[1] http://www.roman-britain.org/ptolemys-geography.htm
[2] Whilst this might be seen to indicate the presence of a goddess worshipped across Britain and Gaul, Nick Ford reminds us ‘most, if not all, the names of Celtic divinities seem to be descriptive epithets rather than real names.’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p82.
[3] Ibid.
[4] http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159190
[5] Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[6] Malcolm Greenhalgh, Ribble River and Valley: A Local and Natural History, Carnegie Book Production, 2009, p83.
[7] ‘commander of the unit and region’ was mistranslated as ‘to the very mighty numen and queen’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[8] Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, 1988, p48
[9] John Heath-Stubbs ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament,’ Earth Shattering: Eco-Poems, ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 2007.
[10] http://save-the-ribble.blogspot.co.uk/
[11] Andrew Breeze, ‘Communications Yrechwydd and the River Ribble,’ Northern History, XLVII; 2, September 2010, p324.
[12] Ibid. p324
[13] Ibid. p326.