I first came across the figure of Lailoken when I was reading up on Seamus Heaney’s version of the Sweeney tale: Sweeney Astray, Faber and Faber, 1983.
This version is based on the translation from the original Irish by James G O’Keefe, 1913.
Often referred to as King Sweeney, the tale has him as cursed by St Ronan on the battlefield of Mag Rath, 637 AD, for repeatedly spurning Ronan and his disciples, the last straw being when Sweeney threw a spear that cracked the Saint’s matins bell, and killed a disciple. Sweeney was cursed, and left the field of battle, to wander mad, part bird, for many years. There were occasions when his madness began to fade, but it was replenished.
A freize of the Sweeney story.
The central part of the Sweeney tale, and where the whole tale turned around, is when Sweeney had left Ireland in his mad wanderings. He eventually arrived in Britain. There he met a madman, in a similar position and condition to himself. This ‘madman in the woods’: Fer Caille, ‘man of the woods’, was called Allan in the Sweeney Astray text, from O’Keefe’s name, Ealladhan.
Seamus Heaney, in his Introduction, comments that the tale of the madman in the woods is a far older tale, that was incorporated into the Sweeney story.
The madman in the woods has been identified as Lailoken.
According to some sources he was the bard of King Rhydderch Hael, and based at the king’s castle of Dumbarton, on Dumbarton Rock on the River Clyde, just outside Glasgow. This was in the 6th century AD.
Lailoken himself has been connected with Partick, now part of west Glasgow.
At the time this area was, as the King’s name suggests, a part of the old Welsh territory. This territory took in all the west coast of northern England, through modern Cumbria, Ayreshire and up to the River Clyde. All spoke an earlier form of Welsh.
East of this, Nothumbria and modern Border regions, Lothian, including Edinburgh and to the Firth of Forth was Old English speaking.
North of this Central Lowland region was, to the east, Pictish land; their language has not come to us in any researchable quantity. To the west the new Irish incursions were creating Dal Riata, and their language would soon overtake the Pictish, to develop into the modern version of Gaelic: Scottish Gaelic.
There was a major battle, one of ‘the three pointless battles’ according to readings of the collections of Welsh Triads. The battle of Arfderydd, 573 AD.
This was where Lailoken came unstuck. One version is he killed a cousin of his King, and was cursed. Whatever the cause, he left the battlefield, and lived a life much like Sweeney.
(In the O”Keefe he had insisted his lord’s warriors wore their best silk clothes to battle. The result was predictable.)
We know of Lailoken through St Kentigern (known as St Mungo), and patron saint of Glasgow. St Kentigern’s story was recorded in the 16th century.
The character we know through St Kentigern as Lailoken was closely connected with the Welsh figure of Myrddin Wyllt, that is, Murthin the Mad.
Sweeney’s name in the Irish is Suibne Geilt: Sweeney the mad one. Wikipedia has him as Sweeney mac Colmain, king of Dal Araidhe. The Sweeney Tale is usually attributed to the 12th century.
The closeness of Wyllt and Geillt, Brithonic and Goidelic, is shown here.
Likewise, the closeness of the name Myrddin to our legendary Merlin has drawn many to presume they were one and the same. Geoffrey of Monmouth first made this connection in his twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain.
Following up place names in the text W F Skeen identified the battlefield of Arfderydd as based on or near the present day church of Arthuret, just outside the small village of Longtown, Cumbria.
Like many of these old scenes of importance, they look rather underwhelming in the present day.
From Arfderydd, Lailoken was supposed to have fled into the Caledonian Forest. The area is now an open patch of country, close to the River Esk. There are no woods, never mind forest. The Caledonian Forest clings on, supposedly the last relics of the fir trees that followed the retreat of the ice sheet, only in a couple of patches in Deeside and that area.
So, what happened when Sweeney met Lailoken/Alan/Ealladhan/Myrddin?
He sought him out, befriended him, and travelled with him for the next year. Then Lailoken had a date with his death at the waterfall of the Black Mount.
Sweeney himself then returned to Ireland, and tried to return to his people. The whole story had changed: instead of avoiding people, he now sought them out.
When Sweeney came to Britain both the Heaney and the O’Keefe say ‘he left the fortress of the Britons on his right side’, before meeting Lailoken.
Taking that fortress to be Rhydderch Hael’s Dumbarton Rock, then Sweeney must have travelled either north, from Strathclyde, or west from Stranraer. Either way he was north of the Clyde-Forth border. Language-wide this would make sense also.
Travelling for a year – they could have travelled a long way, or circled, like St Brendan on his voyage.
My argument is they travelled north, up to the Black Mount near modern Bridge of Orchy and the celebrated Ben Dorain.
The Black Mount.
The Myrddin story is set in the Border country. This fits with the battlefield being near Longtown in Cumbria.Whether Myrddin’s is a different story, or a corrupted later version are questions as yet unanswered.
Lailoken, like Myrddin Weillt, was also known as a prophet, divinely inspired. Sweeney was not.
Were people looking for a world beyond the world, that only disordered senses could detect? There were few, if any, sane prophets: the speaking in madness was considered the authentic method.
The prophet tradition goes back so far, it is beyond sight. We cannot put it down to the split-world scenario that that the Christian religion promoted: this world, and the next, and ne’er the twain shall meet. It was older than that, this belief in a world, or worlds, beyond our known one, worlds where true reality and authority lay. Yet its communications had not our syntax, barely our vocabulary; their communications with ours were garbled, highly metaphorical, or more probably referential to an order of the world that was not ours, with different priorities, values.
We see this in many religions -and how many now have been influenced by Christianity? Most, if not all – how the ways of God are different from the ways of man. And yet we are to attain to the god’s ways, to ways not of this world, in order to save a part of ourselves, the part that lives on while the this-world part must die.
It could well be that the legendary ‘madman in the woods’ is connected to the Green Man image. Who came first, though?
We could posit connections to the legendary Robin Goodfellow character, who appears in Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and who also gave provenance to the Robin Hood tales/songs.
These tales and characters gather more and more barnacles as they travel through the seas of time.
The most moving description I have come across has Lailoken wandering ‘like many battle-maddened men’ in the woods and forests.
Was Lailoken their epitome? Was his figure a way of portraying the effects of post-traumatic stress/battle fatigue? Was this a way of giving these people a measure of dignity by making them ‘holy fools’ of a sort?
Myrddin Weillt was described as telling his tale of the terrible battle, after which he immediately jumped up and ran wildly away. It is the same with Sweeney. This reaction to reliving the trauma does make this theory sound plausible.
See ‘Scotlands’s Merlin’, by Tim Clarkson, John Donaldson Publishers Ltd, 2016