The Celtic Legend of a Sleeping Dragon
There is an ancient Celtic legend regarding this natural monument in the middle of Edinburgh. It is told from generation to generation that it is actually an ancient sleeping dragon. Back in the days, the beast used to fly around terrorizing the local folk and eating their livestock. One day the dragon ate so much that he landed near the settlements and fell asleep, he never woke up again.
When I hear a legend like this, I cannot help myself, but start to wonder. Is there any truth in it? The Celtic people are to blame for many creatures and places in the popular fantasy culture and I refuse to believe that all of them are straight made-up tales. A popular example would be linking unicorns to narwhals, or dragons to dinosaurs, or even to recently extinct giant mammals. Although, in this case, I don’t think the Celtic people were talking about the dinosaurs.
Sleeping Dragon in Holyrood Park. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Before I go further, I want you to stop and think of your own theory. What kind of an event, after so many generations, could be turned into this legend?
My Explanation of the Legend
Having in mind that I will ignore some certain facts disproving my theory, I could see an obvious link between the legend and an active volcano eruption. Everybody knows that Dragons spit fire and the aftermath of such an event could easily lead to crop failure. Also, a volcano eruption would form a mountain and once it is done, would go to sleep until the next time, until there is no “next time”.
Holyrood Park from Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
An Ancient Volcano
Too bad this is not true. While Arthur’s Seat, in fact, is an ancient volcano, its last eruption was 340 million years ago. ~110 million of years before even the first dinosaurs appear in the fossil record, not to mention humans capable of passing the stories from generation to generation. Unfortunately, I have to trust this one, carbon dating is solid scientific proof. Nevertheless, could the story have different origins? If so, the eruption must have happened somewhere after the Younger Dryas, 11.700 years ago. Before that, Scotland was covered by a glacier.
Despite all that I don’t mind my theory being wrong, I like the legend version better anyway. What I do here is just a thought experiment. I like to look for connections between the factual history, tales and the real place I visit. Just to give you a bit of the context to make it more fun before we go, aye?
Climbing Arthur's Seat, 251m. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Right next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the place where Kings and Queens take their rest in Scotland, lies a park, an ancient forest, royal hunting grounds. In the middle of it – an ancient dragon rest. The dragon slept for so long, that we actually forgot it. Today, many brave inhabitants and visitors of Edinburgh climb to the top of this beast’s back to observe the surrounding landscape. The whole area reveals itself in front of you, like a map, everything could be seen: the surrounding Holyrood park, whole Canongate and even Edinburgh, Firth of Forth and Forth Bridges, the surrounding islands and the Kingdom of Fife. The view is just as if you were flying on the dragon‘s back. Simply magical.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse from Arthurs Seat. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Arthur’s Seat Hike
Arthur’s seat is the main peak in Edinburg, Scotland. You can climb it from almost any direction for a beautiful panoramic view of the city, but I will focus on the most common and easiest way, starting at the Canongate.
Starting point: The Canongate
Target: Arthur‘s Seat
Distance(one way): ~2km
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate Depending on the Scottish Weather
Duration: 1 – 2h
St. Anthony's Chapel on a rainy day. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Getting to Holyrood Park
Located near the Old Town of Edinburgh, the park is easily accessible from multiple parts with different paths leading Arthur’s Seat or other interesting parts of the park.
You can get to the area by public transport, either take bus 35 or 6 to get to the Scottish Parliament, in front of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Just park your car near Queen‘s Drive between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park, next to the beginning of the path leading up to the top of Arthur‘s Seat.
On a hike to Arhur's Peak. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
This ancient volcano has two smaller siblings living in the same city under the names of Calton Hill and Castle Rock. Just like the latter, where the Edinburgh Castle stands, it is thought that Arthur’s Seat had a castle as well and it is, in fact, an ancient hill fort, dating to the Iron Age, a tribe of Celtic culture – the Votadini. Back then, Edinburgh was called Eidyn and by the time the Votadini emerged as the Kingdom of Gododdin, Din Eidyn – a castle on the Castle Rock, was the center of the area.
Ross Fountain below the Castle Rock and Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Gorse in the Holyrood park. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
As the name refers, Arthur’s Seat is sometimes associated with the legendary British leader King Arthur, as the place of Camelot. Allegedly, he successfully defended Britain against invading Saxons, unlike the latter kingdom of Gododdin, who notoriously fell to Saxons around 600 AD as it is told in a medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin, where the name of Arthur is also mentioned.
If you ever happen to end up in Scotland wondering if you are followed by swarms of small yellow flowering plants know that it is Common Gorse. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Also called Queen’s Park or King’s park depending on reigning monarch’s gender, it is associated with the royal palace of Holyroodhouse and was formerly a 12th-century royal hunting estate. The actual meaning of Holyrood is „Holy Cross“ and it is such not by an accident.
On the hike to Arthur's peak. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
Origins of Holyrood Abbey and the Canongate
Back in those times, Arthur‘s Seat was surrounded by the ancient forest of Drumselch, home to deer, roe, foxes and suchlike wild beasts. One day, an actual King of Scotland, David I was out for a game in these royal hunting grounds. The King got separated from his followers and once confronted by a white huge stag, he fell from his horse. The beast was about to ram him, but a cross appeared between his antlers and the stag calmed down. David I took that as divine intervention and allegedly founded the Abbey of Holyrood on the spot, with the Canongate burgh to support it.
Near the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
The Stag‘s antlers with a cross between them to this day appear on the Arms of Canongate. The burgh remained independent up until 1636 and was completely absorbed by Edinburgh in 1856. Today it is a district in the central area of Scotland‘s Capital and the place where the hike to Arthur‘s Seat starts.
Ruins of St. Anthony Chapel in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
St. Anthony’s Chapel
The ruins of st. Anthony’s chapel in the Holyrood park was built not later than the 15th century, as in 1426 it is recorded that the Pope gave money for its repair, but the origins of the chapel are not certain. It was probably built to support Holyrood Abbey and it is recorded in 1779 that St. Anthony‘s Chapel was a beautiful Gothic building with a tower of 12m height. I can only wonder, maybe it is the place where King David I actually saw the White Stag?
According to a Celtic legend Arthur’s Seat is a sleeping dragon which used to terrorize the local folk. The Edinburgh inhabitants got pretty prosperous ever since the dragon took a nap, aye? Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
My impressions of climbing Arthur’s Peak
Don’t be mistaken by the height of Arthur’s Seat, with a prominence of 186m. it provides a great panorama and for all its intents and purposes Arthur’s Seat is a mountain. By the words of Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson:
"..a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.."
Arthurs Seat, Edinburgh. Photo by Mantas Ališauskas
It is one of those cases where I would recommend visiting the city for different reasons, but once you are in Edinburgh and if the sky is clear, it is a must walk. Since I am from a region of really flat terrain, I might be a bit biased, but having a mountain in the city looks awesome to me. I can’t even describe how envious I am to all those people I’ve seen running in Holyrood Park.
Overall Arthur’s Peak is just one of the many amazing features in the magical Edinburgh. If you happen to be in the city and your weather cards played-out to be poor – don’t even think of climbing the mountain. There is plenty of other fun stuff to do in Edinburgh during the rainy days. Most of them, of course, should start with a glass of a fine local malt whiskey under a roof. But, if the weather is nice, you should be able to find a couple of spare hours to make the relatively easy climb to the peak of Arthur’s Seat. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed. It is not like you can observe such dramatic scenery from a tamed dragon’s back every day.
Climbing Arthur's Seat Map. Design by Mantas Ališauskas
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