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Is Merlin the magician buried in Peeblesshire?

Posted in British Countryside, British Towns, Geography, Historical articles, History, Legend, Scotland on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Peeblesshire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 113 published on 14 March 1964.

The dying Merlin, picture, image, illustration

The Lady of the Lake visits the dying Merlin by Richard Hook

The legend of Merlin, the wizard, has always had strong connections with Wales and the chivalrous King Arthur and his Court.

But in fact the stories of Merlin travelled far farther than Wales and the west country. The folklore of both Brittany and Scotland are full of tales of his prophecies and his existence in the fifth and sixth centuries.

And if you travel to Peeblesshire, just a few miles south of Edinburgh, you can visit the spot where Merlin, according to legend, is buried.

His “grave” lies between the River Tweed and the Powsail in the midst of rolling pleasant country.

Surrounding the grave is yet another legend – the work of a Scottish self-styled wizard, Thomas the Rhymer.

This medieval wizard who would prophesy with amazing accuracy the violent deaths of kings, and important historic events, said of Merlin’s grave:

“When Tweed and Pausayl (old spelling) meet at Merlin’s grave, England and Scotland shall one monarch have.”

And, says the legend, on the very day that James VI of Scotland and I of England was crowned, the Tweed overflowed into the Powsail.

This county of Peeblesshire with such ancient myths has an ancient history too – a history of invasion by Romans, English borderers, and English armies.

The Romans have left remains of their occupation camp at Lyne called Randal’s Walls. The many hill forts and towers scattered over vantage points, particularly on hills above the River Tweed, were built in medieval times for fear of attack by England. Peebles still has its cellars and parts of its town wall which were built for protection against English borderers and as safe hide-outs.

Neidpath Castle’s ancient tower, on the bank of the Tweed, dates back to the thirteenth century and became famous in Cromwellian days.

The second Earl of Tweeddale, who owned it, supported Charles II. Standing as it does on an important “roadway” north, the castle was battered in 1650 by Cromwell’s cannon commanded by General Lambert. Eventually the Roundheads won.

After conquering Neidpath Castle, General Lambert went on to occupy the county town where he particularly affronted the townspeople by stabling his horses in Peebles’ oldest building – the ruined St. Andrews Church which was built in 1195.

The second oldest building in the town, Cross Kirk, was built by Alexander III in 1261.

It was Alexander who used Peebles Castle (now gone) as a hunting lodge and he and his court would ride out to Ettrick Forest to hunt wild boar, deer and other game.

An ancient tradition dating back even further than Alexander is the “Beltane Feast or Fair,” which is celebrated every June.

This lasts a whole week and opens with a church service at Cross Kirk. Then comes the installation of the “cornet” and his lass. The “cornet” is the principal male figure in the festivities and is elected by popular vote. His “lass” is usually his girl-friend. During the year this couple visit hospitals, attend all local events, and act as important dignitaries.,

After the installation comes “the riding of the marches.” This is a well-known border custom and dates back to the times when the inhabitants liked to check that all was well on the perimeter of their estates. Riders on horseback make a complete circle of the town’s boundaries. And on the Saturday comes the crowning of the Beltane Queen.

This is a queen elected not for her beauty but for her brains. The “dux” (head girl) of Peebles primary school is automatically crowned. Her “court” is chosen from the school’s pupils – ladies-in-waiting, and the rest – and the Queen parades through the town of flags and bunting with all her retinue.

Peebles today, a tiny county town with a population of only 6,000, is the only Royal Burgh in the county.

Tweed, woollens and hosiery keep most of the 6,000 employed. A relatively new pottery industry is growing up turning out ornaments. But to look at, Peebles is an attractive old world market town, the weekly market giving the impression of being of greater importance than the industry.

The next largest town in the county is Innerleithen, which has a mere 2,000 citizens.

For hundreds of years the wealthy have built gracious and sometimes ostentatious homes by the side of the lovely River Tweed which runs for more than half its course within the county. And although a rash of houses sprang up in the nineteenth century, there are some far older.

One is Traquair House, one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland. This dates back to the twelfth century.

The explanation for the attraction of the Tweed is simple. Apart from its beauty, it has fine salmon and trout fishing and this has encouraged many Edinburgh business men to move out, and many more to spend holidays in the county.

Peeblesshire, being the least industrialized of any of its neighbours, has lost some of its population to Edinburgh, but better roads and faster cars have brought Edinburgh to within daily travelling distance.

Some business men even combine a business in Edinburgh with a farm in Peeblesshire. Here they go in for sheep – the main type of farming in the county – with the black face breed on the hills, and the Cheviot sheep around the farms.

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