Stirling in the Dark Ages – the legend of the Wolf

If you pay close enough attention you can find ferocious wolves all over Stirling…no don’t worry this is not a rewilding project gone amok, but rather one of our proud burgh’s ancient symbols.

Tradition has it that during the ninth century, Stirling had been conquered by two Anglo Saxon Princes – Osbrect and Ella, images of whom appear on the side of the Nationwide Building in Port Street. The Anglo-Saxons had ruled in the settlement of Stirling for twenty-eight years when, under the cover of night, the Vikings approached the city on one of their raids. The guard at the South Port (presumably the Dirt Raw Port under Boots the Chemist in the Thistle Centre) had fallen asleep at his post. Fortunately for the townspeople, the Vikings disturbed a wolf sleeping at some rocks near what is now Wolf Craig. The howling of the wolf woke up the rest of the Town Guard who chased the Vikings off. The fate of the sleepy guard is not recorded.

The earliest version of this story that the writer has been able to find is in William Nimmo’s wonderful history of Stirlingshire, written in 1777. This is such a very good story with some great traditional elements: the threat from an outsider, the guard asleep on duty, the last-minute reprieve owed to a wild animal (which could still be interpreted as a form of divine intervention, preserving the good people of Stirling against the interloper in the nick of time), but is it true? First of all, the wolf element is possibly the least controversial aspect of the story. There were wild wolves in Scotland at this time without doubt, the only dubiety pertains to how likely it might be that a wolf would come to be sleeping so near to a major centre of human habitation. The second objection relates to the originality of the story. In terms of the motifs, it is very similar indeed to the story of Rome being saved from raiding Celts by the honking of the city’s geese. It also contains some factual errors. The tale references a King Donald V of Scotland who never existed. Also, while Osbrecht and Ella were real kings of Northumbria, they do not appear to have raided Scotland at any point, let alone conquered Stirling or indeed done anything together. In fact there is no evidence for anything at Stirling at this point, so it’s not looking good for this one!

But…..the Vikings did raid this area after the Battle of Dollar in 875, and archaeological excavations on the fort on the Abbey Craig (the rock formation on which the Wallace Monument stands) indicate that it was occupied at this date. Perhaps it was here that the wolf was sleeping, and the guard woken by its howling, it is certainly more the kind of terrain that a wolf would have been comfortable in. It is just possible, then, that the legend contains some garbled remnant of a memory of the aftermath of the Viking raid on Dollar, when the Norsemen tried and failed to conquer the fort at the Abbey Craig.

Interestingly, however, it would seem that someone did ultimately capture the Abbey Craig fort. The remains uncovered by the archaeological dig showed that at some point, the complex was completely destroyed by fire. The fire was so intense, with temperatures reaching in excess of 1000 degrees centigrade that the stones began to melt and vitrify, and it is these fused and vitrified stones that were found on the dig at the site. Imagine the whole hilltop on fire for several days – it would have been possible to see the smoke for days across the whole Forth Valley, and the fiery red eye of destruction visible even further at night. The vitrification remains as evidence of awesome destructive power and regime change. Unfortunately it is impossible to know who was defending and who was attacking….but certainly the wolves of Stirling will have howled!