What is History, but a myth agreed upon?
- Napoleon Bonaparte
The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice
- Mark Twain
We are still taught a very Romanised / Anglicised view of our history: the Ancient Britons (sometimes referred to as Celts) not credited with much to shout about but a warlike and drunken disposition, along with a heavy handed application of blue face paint. How wrong this is: but the Scots, Irish and the Welsh, along with the Cornish, Northumbrian and Cumbrian peoples would continue to detect a slight condecension in the Anglo Saxon view of them to the present day. But we did have a vibrant society, and were respected throughout Europe for our mysticism and learning., replete of accomplishment architectually and culturally. Therein lay one of the dangers: with such a strong "British" sense of culture, The Romans, later the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglo Saxons needed to eradicate the pagan traditions and national consensus, to fully colonise these Islands. There are few signs of that past that still exist, yet 2000 years on, they are recognised more and more: and Lundy surely has something to contribute.
The really great thing about Lundy history, is that whilst the (relatively) well documented post-norman periods are full of lively characters and colourful incident, there is so much more, as Lundy not only has a real place in Celtic and Arthurian myth, but also offers a range of interesting conundrums – the “what ifs”. This, for me, is the really exciting thing, as it allows your own imagination to fill in the spaces around the frail fragments of historical record that do exist.
It is known that Lundy had earlier names: Ynys Elen is oft quoted, and is worth remembering for later discussion. It is believed in certain quarters that this means, in the Welsh tongue, the Island of Elen, a Celtic saint. There is no other evidence that links the Island to her, but Lundy certainly had its own resident saint: Saint Nectan. It was pretty well established that the Old Cemetery, next to the Old Light on Beacon Hill, had existed since the early Christian period, but archaeological surveys have identified the central grave of Nectan (from the 5th Century). His bones were re-interred on the mainland at Hartland Abbey, where there was a shrine dedicated to him. The soil on the Island is acidic, and does not take good care of remains. However, the site of his original burial is recognisable.
The four standing stones against the wall of the Old Cemetery (not their original locations) are perplexing, and many efforts have been made to define their original purpose. I favour the conjecture mentioned (although not necessarily supported) by Tony Langham, in the spring edition of the Lundy Island Chronicle, 1985, regarding the possibility of a link with St. Patrick. Two of the names engraved may refer to Potitus (Patrick’s grandfather) and Restitutus (related through his sisters marriage). Certainly this is highly circumstantial. But the origin of the name “Lametry”, the bay beneath the castle, has always been a mystery: yet the Bishop of Auxerre, whose name happened to be Amator, ordained Patrick. It is also quite likely he may have at least visited the Island: a natural staging post on his travels from the South West to Ireland. But let go of your logic for one moment, resort to your imagination for the final piece: there are no snakes on Lundy!
But the spiritual dimension to the Island predated both Nectan and Patrick’s time. In the Celtic world, Islands, particularly those on the west coast, were holy and powerful places almost by definition. Yet Lundy had special status: it was the island of “Annwyn”, gateway to the otherworld and home to half human powerful beings: this is arguably still the case in the winter shutdown, when something happens to the islanders (what happens on the island, stays on the island!).
The earthworks at the top of the cliffs on the Westside actually stretched up beneath the site of the lighthouse complex – and abutted the Old Cemetery. I would contend that it is unlikely these were dwellings, as the location is as uninhabitable and exposed as anywhere on the Island. Anne Westcott (a knowledgeable and committed Lundy Veteran) suggested to me that perhaps they were burial mounds, and certainly this would seem more appropriate. But there are so many; certainly more than would be required solely by Island inhabitants. Therefore, it is possible that the dead were actually brought to Lundy: perhaps important people (Kings and spiritual leaders?) . This seems quite possible, and the implication is that, combined with the Old Cemetery, Beacon Hill has been spiritually significant for something approaching 5000 years. This would be highly important. Lundy role as a bastion of Early Christianity, particularly of the Celtic strand has been well documented elsewhere, but this means the Island had an existing importance to the peoples on the mainland. It was the usual practice for the early Church to absorb traditions, mythologies and significant locations into its own teachings as it gained a cultural foothold in its growth. Lundy would have been no different.
So, perhaps we can agree that Lundy was significant both spiritually and culturally for 5000 years: at least locally. Lundy is visible from the majority of South Wales and North Cornwall, the heartland of the Celtic peoples as we acknowledge it, and the Island was slap bang in the middle of that world. But was there any significance attached to the place in wider society, would the peoples “upcountry” be familiar with it? Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be any real hard evidence to confirm this, but Robin Heath has achieved a great deal of interesting work in his studies of Stonehenge.
Heaths studies are very involved and highly technical: it is beyond the scope of this site to explain anything other than the possible conclusion. But his book – see Further Reading is absorbing and highly significant to the Islands possible role in Stone Age times. Stonehenge was built around 3000BC, yet why was it located where it is? Why not move it closer to the source of the Bluestone, used in some of the construction, which came from Prescelli in South Wales. (The use of Bluestone must have been considered essential to the constructors of the henge: the effort and organisation involved rule out any other explanation). Heath has discovered how the builders and designers of Stonehenge used its geometry to provide the calendar that underwrites its existence. Interestingly, the root of it is a Pythagorean Triangle. If you expand this triangle to run the hypotenuse from Stonehenge to Prescelli, then drop down the other two sides as proscribed by Pythagorean rule, the “elbow” of the triangle rests securely, indisputably on Lundy: on a small hillock just north of Pondsbury. Where, if one looks carefully, is a small, decayed stone circle. Perhaps this is just wild conjecture: but to refer back to the name Ynys Elen: an alternative meaning is derived from the welsh word Elen, as opposed to the name: it means elbow. ( A chill up the back is the correct response at this point). The implication is that Lundy was the reference point: Prescelli then became the source of the bluestone: in which case Stonehenge could only be built at its present location. It is an interesting and compelling conjecture; unlikely to be proven one way or the other, just another question of the many that make the Island the mystery it is today, just as it was thousands of years ago.
It is easy to see Lundy as some sort of early Celtic place of pilgrimage: and perhaps it was. The ancestors that we today refer to as Celts - the description is a cultural rather than racial distinction - were obliterated by the Romans, in all their cultural glory. These "barbarians" were learned mathemeticians, lawyers, scientists, doctors and travellers in their own right. Women had rights of property, and along with children and the infirm had protection under law: not the case with the more "sophisticated" Romans. But their society and culture - our heritage - was wiped from history in a manner that twentieth century Stalinists would have approved of. Lundy was significant, for sure, but its true significance is not, nor ever will be known. But it does offer a small glimpse of a history that the British have not been allowed to feel proud of for 2000 years.