King Arthur was an Ulsterman

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In the summer of 2020 my husband and I set off for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland on a research trip funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The grant was to research a piece of family history which had been told to me in fragments over the years, and to turn this research into a poetry collection. In researching archives in museums, and clan history databases I discovered an astonishing thing. King Arthur was an Ulsterman!

My Great Grandfather, Donald, was a MacArthur. The MacArthurs used to be a prominant clan who had been granted substansial lands around Loch Awe in Argyll by Robert the Bruce in thanks for their support in the Battle of Brander Pass. Then their sibling clan, the Campbells, became jealous of their success and power, and in 1567 drowned the Clan chieftan and his son, seizing the MacArthur lands, and effectively that was the end of the MacArthurs, they dispersed.

It was traditional for Clan Chiefs to carry the clan history and boodline on vellum to evidence their status and lineage. With the drowning of Duncan MacArthur and his son this history was lost. But what would have been enscribed on that vellum was a line to King Arthur, or Arthur MacAedan, and through him to his father, Aedan MacGabrain who was a Dal Riadan king. Dal Riada was the kingdom of Antrim, Rathlin and Argyll, and those kings could trace their line to the Irish High Kings and beyond.

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The Annuals of the Four Masters holds the succession of the High Kings of Ireland right back to the Milesians, and from there John O'Hart has traced the lineage back through the kings of Gotha and Scythia into the Old Testement, and ultimately to Adam (although arguably everyone should be able to trace their ancestory, mythical or otherwise, to Adam!). There is much more evidence held in the ancient names in the landscape that points to King Arthur being Scottish, or Dal Riadan than there is to suggest he was from the South West of England. Ben Arthur, better known as the Cobbler now, Loch Arthur, Arthur's Seat, these are all old names which indicate Arthur's presense in the mind of the Scots. And, of course, anyone who is a MacArthur is a descendant of King Arthur. Including, through my Great Grandfather, me.

Writer Emma McKerveyWriter Emma McKervey
Writer Emma McKervey

However, this wasn't the story I had wanted to uncover. Donald had moved from the Isle of Lewis to Greenock to train as a ship wright in the early 1890s. There he met Lizzie Dykes McColl, daughter of the head gardener to Sir Alexander Park Lyle, of Tate and Lyle. When he returned to Lewis for Christmas and Hogmanay their love letters, using the Victorian Language of Flowers, were intercepted and burned by a jealous village girl. When discovered this resulted in a Sheriff's Court Case in Storonway. The publicity, helped by letters written by Lizzie to the Highland News, realised a change in how Royal Mail delivered the post on the Islands. No longer was it considered safe or acceptable to have a casual system of leaving the post in the local schoolhouse in the expectation that someone at some point might collect it and would ensure it reached the correct recipient.

What struck me was that Lizzie, from the low lands, had a level of education far beyond any of Donald's sisters. There she was writing letters to newspapers with confidence, but Donald's sisters couldnt read or write, and had to sign their names with an X. This was not a lack of intelligence as Donald and his brother (also, imaginatively, called Donald) both won prizes for the academic work, but simply circumstance and opportunity. Life was hard on the Islands. Lizzie, although also working class, had the advantage of education, and a father who must have also been educated, he would have had to know some Latin in his gardening work at least. Lizzie's first language was English, the Islanders' first language was Gaelic, and still is. But what shines through is the strength of Lizzie's character. It was hard to imagine for me when I first explored this story. The only image I had of Lizzie was a couple of old photos from the 1940's after Lizzie had had 12 children, which had taken its toll. Regardless there was a mischievous spirit shining in her eyes through her little round spectacles.

After his apprenticeship ended at the Watts Dry Dock in Greenock Donald got a job as a shipwright in the Belfast docks, and he and Lizzie moved to Holywood. Donald was a key member of Holywood Yacht Club for many years, designing with his son Neil the Holywood Sharpie in the 1930s, a yacht which is still sailed on Belfast Lough today. The MacArthur women also continue to impress. Granddaughters of Lizziwe and Donald include Margaret Rutherford (alias - to use the old Scots term - MacArthur) who was the founding teacher of the Holywood Steiner School, Helen MacArthur was one of the first women to be ordained as a Church of Ireland Minister, Loraine Hindley was the first car saleswoman in Northern Ireland, working for Rover.

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It is a source of pride that I come from such a line, not from King Arthur, but from a lineage of such brave, individual and determined women.

Emma McKervey's poetry collection, Highland Boundary Fault, is published by Turas Press