Memorial Stones & the Un-happily Ever After of Arthurian Legend

The Vanora Stone (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Vanora Stone (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Arthurian legend is one type of folk tale that certainly does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” In fact, it’s unclear exactly what happened to our favorite characters after the battle of Camlann.* In the most familiar versions (though not all), Arthur and Mordred are killed in the battle. Guinevere enters a convent to live out her days in penitence, and Lancelot becomes a monk. Sometimes, the two lovers meet one last time, while in other stories, Lancelot is called to the side of the dying Guinevere, but arrives too late and dies of a broken heart.

What then, are we to make of the mysterious carved stones that bear their names? Are they more a part of folk legend than truth? Or did Guinevere and Lancelot seek refuge in Scotland there after the battle? Was Tristan real? Or perhaps some of the theorists are correct and they were all from the area to begin with. We likely will never know the truth. But the stones do make for some thought provoking reading.

According to one interpretation of a Pictish carved stone found in a Highland area called Meigle, after Guinevere was kidnapped and released from the clutches of Mordred (in this version, he’s a Pict), Arthur had her executed by ordering her torn apart by wild animals (dogs or lions, depending on who is telling the tale). Supposedly, the stone, called the Vanora stone (Vanora being a version of Guinevere) marks where she is buried and tells the story of her death.

And Lancelot? There is a stone for him in Scotland, too. At least I know I read about one, but of course, I can’t find where I read it. It’s possible that I’m making it up, I don’t think I am. One thread of legend associates Lancelot with the name/area of Angus, which is something that shows up in my third Guinevere book. If any of you happen to know what stone I’m thinking of, please let me know in the comments. It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find it!


The Tristan Stone (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tristan Stone (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on the version of the story, Tristan may have been killed by King Mark for having an affair with Isolde, or he may have died in Brittany of a broken heart, thinking Isolde no longer loved him. Either way, his body was brought back to Cornwall, or he was buried there. A 1,500 year old stone in Cornwall near the town of Fowey that memorializes a man named Drustans who is believed to be connected with a possible historical or mythological inspiration for Tristan.

Lest you think I forgot about the Once and Future King, I’ll just mention here that there are hundreds of places across England, Wales, and Scotland supposedly associated with King Arthur. The most famous, is of course, the “grave” at Glastonbury Abbey, which has been almost certainly proven as a hoax. (Here’s the latest article.)

*In some versions of the legends, Guinevere is dead long before Camlann, either from disease or by Arthur’s own hand. In others, she helps Mordred in his bid for the throne and therefore must be punished by Arthur. 


What do you think about the memorial stones? I think they are likely an outcropping of legend, but that’s just me.

The Training of a Pictish Warrior

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word “Pict,” you automatically think of Braveheart, or warriors who are similar. Even with all the research that I’ve done, that’s my brain’s default image (thank you Hollywood). While that movie has a lot to answer for in the area of historical authenticity, it did do one thing right: it showed us how fierce the warriors of the north were. And the movie takes place many generations after the Picts.

So, what would their ancestors have been like? As I’ve said ad nauseam, one of the frustrating things about pre-Conquest history is the lack of solid evidence. But I have found a few good accounts of the training of a Pictish warrior and I thought you may like to know what all they went through to become so feared.

Like most other peoples of the time, warriors were rarely trained by their parents, but sent out to other houses in a system of fosterage that not only benefited the warrior, who learned from a seasoned hero, but promoted bonds of peace and trust among families and clans/tribes. According to The Pictish Warrior AD 297-841, warriors (likely both men and women, at least for a time, although the book focuses on men) began their training somewhere between age seven (Ireland) and ten (in the Highlands). They were expected to master these feats:

  • Dexterity (juggling swords)
  • Strength
  • Voice (the hero’s cry – not described, but I’m thinking it was some kind of blood-curdling battle cry, since historical sources document that the enemies of the Picts were frightened by the savage sounds they made. Another source says they purposefully learned to imitate the sounds of animals to frighten their enemies.)
  • Weapons handling
  • The spear vault (where a spear is placed in the ground butt-first and the warrior jumps up and performs on its point). This seems nearly impossible to me, but I’ve also never seen it attempted. I’ve also read this term to mean a way of mounting a horse where a person takes a running start and uses the spear as a pole to vault onto horseback. There’s beautiful depiction of this in Manda Scott’s historical fiction Boudicca: Dreaming the Eagle.

Training wasn’t all based in physical strength. They also learned more refined skills. According to the folktales “four and twenty games of the Britons,” all young warriors were expected to learn:

  • Six feats of activity (hurling weights, running, leaping, swimming, wrestling and riding)
  • Four exercises of weapons (archery or javelin throwing, sword, sword and buckler, and quarterstaff)
  • Three rural sports (hunting, fishing and hawking)
  • Seven domestic games (poetry, music, heraldry, diplomacy, etc.)
  • Four board games (no examples are given, but there is precedent in Arthurian legend that a game very similar to chess was played)

They also played ancient games like shinty to simulate fast-moving battle scenarios. At night, the warriors in training played strategy games. At the end of their training, warriors had to prove their skill by participating in a cattle raid in which they brought home some sort of proof of valor (possibly even the head of an enemy) or passing another type of test.

In my third Guinevere book, I’ve chosen to graft these Pictish practices onto the Votadini tribe (one of the four tribes living south of the Highlands in between Hadrian’s and Antonine Walls) because we have even fewer records of them than the Picts. As tribes literally caught between two worlds (the Britons and the Picts), I think it logical to assume their culture drew from both.

Correction: This post as been updated to delete erroneous information from the source material. John Matthews kindly pointed out that salmon leap was specifically learned by the Red Branch heroes of Ireland (not the Picts) and that the caber toss came into being with the establishment of the Highland Games in the the 19th century. My thanks to him for these corrections!

Source: Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner

What else do you know about the training of the Picts? Do you know of any good sources on the subject? What do you think about what I’ve recounted here?