Friday, 24 July 2015

Den Fenella - meaning and derivation of name

This is a research stub for "Den Fenella" prepared for the novel Looking for Spring. I have always wondered about the name of the terrifying cliffs and drop that bear the name in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.

As the darkness descended on Rome, Pope Celestine I sent missions to far places of the world, including Ireland. Palladius, son of the praetorian prefect of the Gallic provinces, was appointed Bishop of the Irish. He was ejected from his first choice of location in that land and came instead to the north east of North Britain. There he established a community, leaving relics and books when he died.

Den Fenella

In the dying days of the first millennium, King Kenneth visited the church established by St Palladius. But on his way home, nearby was decoyed by the Lady Fenella into her castle of Fothircarne, near Fordun. Kenneth had killed her son, but Fenella promised the king her loyalty and invited him to view a wonder she had constructed in his honour.

Here the accounts differ.

Sarah Hamilton (calling herself a resident of Sherwood Forest) in 1825 repeated in part the story I prefer. Kenneth came into the keep to discover a brass statue of himself, holding a golden apple into which was set six different kinds of precious stones. He was awed by the statue, which was beyond the art of the province and the jewels represented wealth beyond that of his kingdom. He reached for the apple, and was killed by darts issuing from within the statute.

The historian John of Fordun, living closer and only a little later, tells the story of Fenella (he calls her Finele) differently:

"The principal of these were Constantine the Bald, son of King Culen, and Gryme, son of Kenneth, son of King Duff; and, plotting unceasingly the death of the king and his son, they at length found accomplices for the perpetration of such a crime. The daughter of Cruchne, Earl of Angus, who was named Finele, consented unto their deeds and design, her only son having formerly been ordered to be put to death by the king at Dunsynane, whether by the severity of the law, or for what he had done, or in some other way, I know not. This wily woman, | therefore, ardently longing for the king's death, caused to be made, I in an out-of-the-way little cottage, a kind of trap, such as had never before been seen. For the trap had, attached to it on all sides, crossbows always kept bent by their several strings, and fitted with very sharp arrows ; and in the middle thereof stood a statue, fashioned like a boy, and cunningly attached to the cross-bows ; so that if any one were to touch it, and move it ever so little, the bowstrings of the crossbows would suddenly give way, and the arrows would straightway be shot forth, and pierce him through. Having thus completed the preparations for perpetrating the crime, the wretched woman, always presenting a cheerful countenance to the king, at length beguiled him by flattery and treacherous words. The king went forth one day, with a few companions, into the woods, at no great distance from his own abode, to hunt ; and while pursuing beasts hither and thither with his dogs, as he hunted, he happened by chance to put up hard by the town of Fettercairn, where the traitress lived. She saw him ; and, falling on her knees, she besought him with great importunity to come into her house — " otherwise," said she, " I shall, without fail, think myself mistrusted by your Majesty's Grace. But God knows — and thou, my king, shalt soon know — that, although the tattling of the spiteful may repeat many a lie about me, I have always been faithful to thee — and shall be, as long as I live. For, what thou not long ago didst to my most wretched son, I know right well, was justly done, and not without cause ;" and tripping up to the king, she whispered in his ear, saying : — " When thou be come with me, I will explain to thee, my lord, who are the accomplices of that accursed son of mine, and the manner of their treachery. For they hoped to get me to join them in their conspiracy to deceive thee ; but I straightway refused to countenance their heinous treachery Nevertheless, they forced me to lay my hand on the Gospel and swear never to betray their secret; but, though I promised them this on my oath, still I should be most false and traitorous towards thee, my lord king — to whom, above all others, steadfast and loyal fealty is due — were I to conceal the danger to thy person. For who knows not that no sword covenant holds good against the safety of the king's majesty.

Thus that crafty woman cunningly misled the king's mind, and drew him, alas ! too ready of belief, into the house with her, everything speeding her design. Why say more ? Why dwell on so sad a tale ? After the king had alighted from horseback, she took his hand, and quickly led him, alone, to the house where the trap was concealed. After she had shut the door behind them, as if with the view of revealing the secrets of the traitors, as she had promised, she showed him the statue, which was the lever of the whole trap. He naturally asked what that statue had to do with him ; whereupon she answered, smiling — "If the top of the head of this statue, which thou seest, my lord king, be touched and moved, a marvellous and pleasant jest comes of it." So, unconscious of hidden treachery, he gently, with his hand, drew towards him the head of the machine, thus letting go the levers and handles of the crossbows; and immediately he was shot through by arrows sped from all sides, and fell without uttering another word. The traitress then went hurriedly out by the back-door, and hid herself in the shades of the forest for the time ; but, a little after, she safely reached her abettors. The king's companions, however, after having long awaited his return from the house, wondered why he delayed there. At last, having stood before the gate, and knocked persistently at the door, and hearing nothing, they furiously broke it open ; and when they found that he had been murdered, they raised a great outcry, and ran about in all directions, looking for the guilty woman — but in vain : they found her not ; and, not knowing what to do, they consumed the town with fire, and reduced it to ashes. Then, taking with them the king's blood-stained body, they shortly afterwards buried it with his fathers in lona, as was the custom with the kings. About the twentieth year of this Kenneth, after he had established the statutes respecting the succession, on the death of Malcolm, the son of Duff, Prince of Cumbria, he wished to make his own son, Malcolm, prince of that Lordship ; so he sent him to Ethelred, king of the English, who willingly admitted him, under the conditions above touched upon — of fealty and homage."

Some say that Lady Fenella fled to the coast, coming to a deep ravine. The ravine is named after her - and has a couple of different spellings: Den O'Finella, Fenella or Finella. The ravine is about two miles to the north-east of St. Cyrus - it has a waterfall and is spanned by a railway bridge. 

John of Fordun does not venture an opinion. Sarah Hamilton says Lady Fenella escaped by a postern down into the Den Fenella to freedom. Others say she was cornered by the King's men and threw herself from the top of the waterfall into the Den Finella to her death to avoid capture.

Some tell how she had a family, and grandchildren. And how one of her children, Macbeth, also killed a king.

Lady Fenella's name disappeared into history, becoming attached to natural features attributed to her witcheries, the real story relegated to the improbable until clergyman Dr Leslie discovered engravings on an old red sandstone slab reused as a paving stone. When the stone was cleaned, it showed a hunting scene with a celtic cross and strange circular markings. The stone came to the attention of the antiquarian John Stuart of Inchbreck who first described the figures on it, and attached the provenance of the stone to the story of Kenneth and Fenella. Today the restored stone can be found at the Fordoun parish church, Scotland.

Den Fenella lies on the other side of the world to North Britain, high in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia. It is supposed that a homesick settler, coming upon this landscape of cliffs and snow, gave to it the remembrance of the supposed witch, the Lady Fenella.

But the full story was probably not known to the settler. Perhaps the real story has been lost. But across the ages, the magic of past can recombine for a moment. There is power in names. 

Peter Quinton
July 2015

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