Why is it called Arthur’s Seat?

POSTED ON July 5, 2024 BY James Garry

‘A hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design’

Arthur’s Seat is an ancient volcano located in the heart of Edinburgh at the foot of the Royal Mile.  It stands as the main peak within a group of hills that form Holyrood Park. It is hard to miss. Described by Robert Louis Stevenson as ‘a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design,’  Arthur’s Seat offers captivating views of the city and beyond. The origin of the name Arthur’s  Seat is something of a mystery. Nobody really knows how it got its name. But  there are several theories. The  hill is one of many sites identified as  the legendary Camelot, the home of King Arthur, his Knights and the famous Round Table but there’s little evidence to support this.. However, some slightly more plausible origins of the name have also been suggested by scholars over the years.

Arthur’s Seat is mentioned is several 12th century charters drawn up between Holyrood and Kelso Abbeys. At this point the hill, or at least part of it,  was called  ‘Craggenmarf’, from the Gaelic Crag nan Marbh, ‘Dead Men’s Crag’.  In his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey of Monmouth,  the medieval English chronicler and bishop of St. Asaph (1152),   includes a possible reference to  the founding of Edinburgh. Geoffrey refers to a ‘Dolorous Mountain’, which could be interpreted as Craggenmarf’. This is speculation. However, Geoffrey is certainly a significant source for Arthur’s tentative connection with Edinburgh just  as he is the source of much of Arthurian myth.

The site is first recorded as ‘Arthuris sete’ in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, which was performed in the early 16th century by William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy for the court of James IV. This has been described as a medieval insult-trading rap battle between two clever men. It was published in 1508 by the Edinburgh printers to King James IV, Chepman and Myllar. These printers also published the Arthurian ‘Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane’. In the same year, James IV staged an elaborate, allegorical tournament in which he himself participated as the central figure of ‘a knycht of King Arthuris brocht vp in the wodis’.  Clearly, Arthuriana was of interest to the Scottish elite and literati at this time.  The  Stewarts themselves made a point of  taking opportunities to promote their supposed claim to King Arthur and Camelot.   The name Arthur’s Seat, in a variety of forms,  continued in use  during the 16th century, several theories exist for the enduring use of this name. These include the site’s emblematic value to Edinburgh as the seat of the Scottish Court and then of James VI & I’s royal power as ruler of Britain, harking back as it does to an ancient legendary ruler of Britain.

By the 18th century alternative origins  for Arthur’s Seat had started to emerge which had none of the Arthurian associations of earlier centuries. The antiquarian William Maitland in his book, ‘History of Edinburgh’, published in 1753, suggests that the Gaelic name, Àrd-na-saighead , (height of arrows), had gradually been changed to Arthur’s Seat over time. He also repudiates an association between the hill and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s King Arthur. Nevertheless, other writers have continued to suggest alternative Gaelic origins for the name such as  A’rd Seir (place or field of arrows), Ard Thor (High Thor’), denoting the Norse God, and Ard-thir Suidhe (Place on High Ground).

The origin of the name Arthur’s Seat continues to be disputed. Moreover, the supposed links between the hill and Southern Scotland and  a legendary or real King Arthur persist in popular histories. Not least because of the enduring influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian legacy.  One thing  we can be certain about is the enduring popularity of Arthur’s Seat as an area of recreation and respite  for Edinburgh’s residents and visitors alike.  It is a site rich in folklore, being associated with number of customs and holy wells, andit has fascinating wildlife and invaluable archaeological and cultural remains which witness the central role the hill has played over the centuries to the city of  Edinburgh and its people.

Image: Pixabay

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