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Standing Stone / Menhir


Extracted from the Spring 2004 edition of 'The Dunningite', newsletter published by the Dunning Parish Historical Society.

Dragon... or Draegen?

An unforgettable memory of Millenium eve is of a river of fire, the flames of a thousand torches, flowing down 'the Dragon' in the company of a green effigy of the mythical beast attacked by St Serf. It's a shame we can't exhibit the actual dragon's skin, as they do in Valencia; but even those who have a twinge of doubt about the literal truth of the story feel that it lends Dunning a certain distinction.

The purpose of this article is to put forward a plausible explanation for the dragon story, and suggest that, surprisingly, it may be linked with that other famous event in our history, the 1716 burning.

The story is certainly very ancient. It occurs in the earliest 'Life', that of Jocelyn of Furness, which was written about 1180, as well as in the latest, Andrew de Wyntoun's 'Oryginalle Cronykil' of the early 1400s. Both writers were apparently quoting from an earlier account composed not long after he was active here, somewhere between 550 and 750 AD. And rather oddly, virtually the only bit of corroborating evidence they offer is that it happened in a place called 'the dragons den' or 'the dragons lair'. Take Andrew de Wyntoun's version:
"In Donnyng, of his devotion
And prayer, he slew a fell dragowne;
Where he was slain, the place was ay
The Dragownes Den called to this day."

Scholars of this period believe that the various monsters and devils confronted by the early missionary saints were symbols representing the pagan religious beliefs, rites and customs they wanted to stamp out. Now by far the most distinctive feature of the old Celtic religion was the importance it attached to trees - whether singly, as the home of protective spirits, or as the sacred groves which served as open-air temples or ceremonial sites. It was for that reason that famous missionary saints of the period, St Patrick and St Martin of Tours among them, are said to have been enthusiastic tree-fellers. Which species of tree were regarded as particularly sacred seems to have varied from one country to another. In Roman times, in Gaul and also in Southern Britain, sacred groves were usually of oak, or to a lesser extent of ash. But in what is now Scotland and Ireland, the species most frequently used for sacred purposes were thorn trees, both hawthorn and blackthorn.

Certainly, right from the outset of his mission to Pictland, St Serf is shown to be an enemy of the thorn tree. For, if we can believe his biographer Jocelyn, his very first act after crossing the Forth to settle in Culross was to tell his followers to cut down a grove of thorn trees and erect a makeshift chapel in its place. It's an odd detail to have been passed down; why, in a short life story, give prominence to a simple bit of ground clearance? The obvious explanation is that, to the original writers, it had a significance which had been lost by the time Jocelyn and Andrew wrote their histories. It seems likely, therefore, that the focus of St Serf's anger on arriving in Dunning was not a mythical dragon, but the local sacred grove and the rites and beliefs associated with it.

Even after the nominal conversion of the country, pagan beliefs would have been very much alive. It is a reasonable surmise that the Pictish king of Fortrie had given him Dunning to keep him close to the royal palace at Forteviot. Clearing away the relics of pagan ritual by cutting down sacred groves would have been among his first priorities on settling in - as it had been at Culross. But why use a dragon as a symbol for a sacred grove of thorn trees and its associated cult?

Look up the ancient Gaelic word for thorn tree, and the answer jumps from the page. It was draegen, pronounced 'draygun' - exactly as we pronounce the common name for the street today! This seems a remarkable coincidence. And interestingly, the old Gaelic word for the mythical animal was pronounced the same way as in today's Scots, with a short 'a'. Is it possible that this distinction between 'draegen' and 'dragon' has been preserved for over a thousand years?

But of course, Dunning has another well-known association with thorn trees, which may well represent the long-term survival of the same ancient religious beliefs, in the watered-down form of superstition or magic. The coming of Christianity didn't kill off the old religion completely. Instead, it drove it underground, to survive for many centuries as a belief in the magical potency of certain trees, and to give rise to a host of strange tree-related customs and superstitious rituals. For instance, in the past, thorn trees standing on their own in fields were held to be home to benign spirits, and could not be cut down, however much they inconvenienced the ploughman. Again, springs (often called wells) would often have a protecting thorn tree, or grove of trees, which were similarly untouchable.

Invariably, the underlying belief was in the thorn tree's protective power. It could protect individual families or whole communities - but if the tree were harmed, it could take its revenge. The Statistical Account for Scotland of 1792 tells of a Perthshire parish not far from Dunning in which: "There is a quickthorn of a very antique appearance for which the people have a superstitious veneration. They have a mortal dread to lop off any part of it, and affirm with a religious horror that persons who had the temerity to hurt it were afterwards severely punished for their sacrilege."

Does all this help us to understand the very odd behaviour of the survivors of the burning of the village in January 1716? A very old tradition insists that the original, so-called 'commemorative' tree in Thorn Tree Square was planted in the early spring of the same year, that is within a mere two or three months of the disaster. It is not difficult to imagine the state of mind of the remaining villagers after the burning as they looked at the desolation around them. It was an exceptionally bitter winter, at the height of the 'little ice age' of the early 1700s. They were shelterless, and their food and valuables had been stolen by the retreating highlanders. They were facing the threat of death from exposure, starvation or disease. Their revered minister had died (of despair, they believed) just before the burning, leaving them without spiritual consolation or even proper burial rites. Even their landlord, to whom they might have normally turned for some assistance, was a fugitive from the victorious Hanoverians.

In such desperate straits, with no authority to turn to, where could they look for help? Where else but to the only trustworthy power left to them - the ancient protective magic of the thorn tree? So, in the early spring of 1716, as soon as the ground was soft enough to work, tradition says that those still able-bodied went up into the 'Dragonden' to dig up a young thorn, carry it back and plant it with some precision in the centre of the village. To people living in that still profoundly superstitious age, it would have seemed simple common sense to look for protection from powers possibly more reliable than the ones that had just let them down so badly.

And is the traditional explanation - that, at a time of such distress, they would have taken the trouble to plant a tree to commemorate the terrible event that caused it - even remotely credible?

nickbrand Posted by nickbrand
25th May 2004ce
Edited 26th May 2004ce

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