exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The King Under the Mountain: The Tale of Canonbie Dick

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Arthurian legends have long been associated with England and Wales, but there is some evidence to suggest that King Arthur was in fact a Scot that lived in the seventh century: Artuir, the son of King Áedán Mac Gabráin of Dál Riata, a Gaelic kingdom encompassing the Scottish region now known as Argyll and Bute, and part of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Amongst the many Scottish myths associated with King Arthur is the story of Canonbie Dick, the northernmost version of the king under the mountain folklore motif in Britain.

Once, many moons ago in the Eildon Hills, there lived a horse trader called Canonbie Dick. He was heading home one evening, leading a handful of horses that he hadn’t been able to sell at the market that day, when he met a stranger dressed in robes, the like of which hadn’t been worn for centuries. The old man asked the price of Canonbie Dick’s horses, and offered him a purse full of coin. Now Canonbie Dick would have sold a horse to the deil himself without minding his cloven hoof, and would probably have cheated Old Nick into the bargain, so when he saw a glint of gold in that purse he agreed a price quick smart. The old man thanked Canonbie Dick and set off with the horses, disappearing quickly into the darkness.

When he got home and opened up the heavy purse, Canonbie Dick found unicorns, bonnet pieces, bawbees, groats, bodles, and golden crowns, all manner of mint, hundreds of years old. He marvelled at the glint and gleam of the coins and rubbed his hands together in glee at the thought of what such a treasure might fetch at the market. He resolved then to visit the same spot the following evening, lest the old man be there again.

Sure enough, the following night, Canonbie Dick was heading home with his straggling horses when he met the old man at the same spot in the Eildon Hills. Once again a bargain was struck and Canonbie Dick went home with a purse heavy with coin.

On the third night after a third successful deal, Canonbie Dick’s nose got the better of him and he followed the old man and his horses up the hill and into the darkness. The old man was unperturbed by his presence and seemed to even enjoy the company. They walked around the hill and up a narrow footpath that lead to the hillock of the Lucken Hare, rumoured to be a meeting place of local witches. There, set into the hillside was a great wooden door with a ring of iron for a handle. Despite having passed this way many times, Canonbie Dick was sure that he’d never seen it before.

As the old man approached, the door swung open to reveal a long passageway that seemed to reach into the heart of the hill. He turned to Canonbie Dick and said, “You may see my dwelling if you will, but if you lose courage at what you see here you will rue it all your life.” Canonbie Dick smirked at the old man’s warning and suggested they press on, and so they did.

The corridor stretched out for miles before them, and they walked for a long time before the view began to change. The rough-hewn stone walls gave way to rows and rows of stables, each stall holding a coal-black horse, and by every horse lay a knight in coal-black armour, each with a drawn sword in his hand. All were still and silent, hoof and limb, as if they had been cut out of the rock itself. The old man urged Canonbie Dick on, and at length they arrived at a vast cavern filled with soft light from the torches set in the walls. A great round oak table stood in the centre of the hall, and a sword and a horn lay atop it.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness Canonbie Dick got a better look at the stranger he had been following for so long. It only took a moment for him to recognise the old man as True Thomas of Ercildoun.

“He that sounds that horn and draws that sword shall, if his heart does not fail him, be king over all of Britain,” True Thomas said. “But much depends on courage, and all on taking the sword or the horn first.”

Canonbie Dick was inclined to take the sword but he was wary, thinking that to draw such a weapon might offend the powers of the mountain, so with a trembling hand he took up the horn and let out a feeble blast that echoed around the hall.

Illustration by Morris Williams, from The Scottish Fairy Book by Elizabeth W. Grierson

At once a great commotion arose in the chamber as with a cry and a clash of armour every one of the knights arose from their slumber. Canonbie Dick, in his terror, dropped the horn and reached out to grasp the sword when a voice boomed,

“Woe to the coward that ever he was born,
who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.”

Before he could begin to make sense of what was happening, Canonbie Dick was blasted from the cavern on the back of a whirlwind and came to land on the bank outside the entrance to the passageway. The door had gone. He was found the next morning by local shepherds with just enough breath left in him to tell his tale before he died.