Notorious Knight Greysteil and His Magical Sword Sit on the Cusp Between Legend and Reality
Swords imbued with magical powers and supernatural qualities are like nails in mythological systems and having originated in ancient legends, they now feature in fantasy fiction. Being inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings featured the wizard Gandalf using the sword Glamdring to battle the Balrog, who wielded its own sword of flame. There is one sword, however, the sword Egeking, that transcends the world of myths and brings a legend into our real world.
Lord of the Ring’s Gandalf with the sword Glamdring (HD Wallpaper)
Greysteil was a very popular 16th century poem in both England and Scotland and although this poem has been analyzed by hundreds of scholars, what most don’t know, is that Greysteil and his magic sword Egeking, can be associated with a real life ruinous ancient building on the edge of a loch in the remote north highlands of Scotland.
Faroe Island stamp by Anker Eli Petersen depicting the magical sword Gram.
Brought alive with music and performed to the “charm and delight” of both James IV and V of Scotland, Greysteil was a love epic. It hit aristocratic circles like a blockbuster movie at the time, and two historical figures took the nickname Greysteil, William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie and Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie, who according to historian David Reid “was dominated by his wife.” The poem was also known as Syr Egeir and Syr Gryme, the names of the two knights who battled with the evil knight Greysteil, and although there exist several versions of this story they all follow the same narrative structure, which goes loosely as follows.
Living “in the Land of Doubt or the Forbidden Country” Greysteil was a “strong and agile knight, a red man, with red hands, carrying a red shield and riding a huge red steed.” He was skilled in the “black arts” and rumored to have had “extra fingers on his hands.” (Basilius, 1937). To win the favor of “a high born lady, Winglaine,” Sir Eger challenged Greysteil but lost his little finger in the battle, so Lillias (or Loosepain) nursed Eger and she told him that his “efforts are worthless if they are not reciprocated by his lady.”
Knowing better, Eger decided to try again and his brother (or friend), Sir Graham, obtained a supernatural sword, Egeking, from Eger's aunt, who warned that it ”should never come into a coward's hands.” Sir Graham rode to the “Land of Doubt” and killed Greysteil, however, there was a price, as “no man of woman born could abide the drawing of the sword Egeking.” Suitably impressed with the defeat of Greysteil, Winglaine married Eger, but after his Graham's death she discovered that Greysteil fell not to Eger’s bravery, but to the sword Egeking, and she left him. In later versions of this poem, Eger ventured on a crusade and upon his return, married Lillias or Loosepain.
Greysteil In the Real World
Within this poem, a thick matrix of mythological archetypes dwell, for example, “the boundary with the otherworld” and “the magical otherworldly opponent.” According to Mabel Van Duzee in her 1963 book A medieval romance of friendship: Eger and Grime, similarities are drawn between Loosepaine and Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legends, in that Loosepaine had “skills in leechcraft (healing)” and Le Fay was known for ”healing Arthur in Avalon,” according to the Vita Merlini.
In England and southern Scotland, this story existed only in poetic form and was only ever seen by the few folk in society who could afford theatre tickets. But in the far north of Scotland, Greysteil had much, much more meaning. Caithness is a county located on the north east coast of Scotland and is home to almost 200 circular Iron Age stone dwellings known as brochs. From the village of Latheron, the A9 heads north across open moorland towards Thurso and situated on a peninsula on the east side of Loch Rangag stand the crumbling remains of a partially-excavated broch called Greysteil Castle.
Ruined Broch located on Loch Rangag. Courtesy of Chris Sinclair Photography and the Caithness Broch Project.
According to Historic Environment Scotland this scheduled monument is “half covered in turf, approximately 20 meters in diameter and 4 meters high with a guard chamber on the north side.” In Caithness, legends and myths have the name Greysteil associated not with a “supernatural knight,” but he is seen as an “evil giant” who charged travelers a fortune to pass this part of the road. Known as the Causewaymire, it was the main trunk route in and out of west Caithness and the location of Greysteil Castle was traditionally a place of opportunistic highwaymen. In some accounts, he was a notorious robber, freebooter and expert swordsman, and it was said “no person who had a conflict with him or set foot on his land lived to tell the tale.” He was eventually overcome by a “magic sword” that a “widow” from Halsary had loaned to a “young aggrieved hunter.”
Greysteil Castle looking west, courtesy of Chris Sinclair Photography and the Caithness Broch Project.
Comparing the Caithness Greysteil Castle myth with the poetic rendition told in southern Scotland, we find many correspondences, for example in both renditions Greysteil was “otherworldly” and “invincible,” and at both ends of the country the magic sword “was given to the protagonist by a wise old woman.”
Having considered these archetypes within the Greysteil myths, I concluded that they ‘all’ find their origin in early medieval grail romances. In Wolfram Von Echenbach's 13th century Parzival, the eponymous hero is given a “magic sword” and in the legends of King Arthur, he drew a “magic sword” from a stone proving that he was the rightful king. In some variants of this legend this sword was broken, and Arthur received excalibur from the Lady of the Lake - arguably the most famous of all magic swords.
The lady of the Lake, “who nurtured King Arthur in his last hours of life” was the keeper of the “magic sword” and this is precisely what is retold in the Greysteil Castle myths in the north of Scotland. The “wise woman” who protected the sword gave it to a “young aggrieved hunter,” and in these three magic words, we see a north highland reference to a young Arthur, before he wielded the magic sword Excalibur and became king.
Top image: Old rusty sword (CC by SA 4.0)
By Ashley Cowie
The History of Sir Eger, Sir Grahame and Sir Gray-Steel, Robert Sanders, Glasgow (1669), 72 pages, cat. Wing (2nd ed.) / H2139.
Basilius, H.A., 'The Rhymes in "Eger and Grime', Modern Philology, vol. 35, no. 2 (Nov., 1937), pp. 129-133.