HOUSE of the Dragon has brought the world of Westeros back to the silver screen in fiery form. The epic tale of dynastic ambition, destructive dragons, and silver-haired subterfuge has proved a hit with fantasy fans despite the controversial final season of Game Of Thrones. But it’s not all fantasy – as ever, George RR Martin’s imagined realms are populated with characters, events, mythologies, and themes from real history. After all, his self-described alchemical process for creating fiction is to take history, change the colours, dial it all up to 11, and weave it all back together.

Though we no longer have such obvious ­parallels as the Wildlings and the great wall at the edge of the world to work with, the amount of Scottish ­history still echoed in House Of The Dragon has been a ­pleasantly geeky surprise. These are just a few of the slivers of Scottish history from the first half of the season.

The Dragon Prince and the Wolf of Badenoch


DAEMON Targaryen, played by Matt Smith with simmering mischief and just the right amount of ham, is a firm fan favourite despite, or perhaps because of, his superficial villainy. He is the younger brother of King Viserys, whose attention and approval Daemon constantly seeks even – ­perhaps especially – when acting against the king’s will.

His trademarks so far include strutting ­unannounced into feasts he is very much not invited to, going for the kill during “friendly” tournaments, extrajudicially maiming whole crowds of alleged criminals, incinerating soldiers from dragonback while clearly having a great time, and giving every Doctor Who fan very mixed feelings with gratuitous nudity.


Villain or antihero, Daemon’s penchant for ­violence is the basis of his dark reputation. This portrait of a bloody, impulsive, and emotionally explosive junior royal has a clear real-life mirror image: Alexander Stewart, the Wolf Of Badenoch. Alexander was the third and youngest son of King Robert II and younger brother to John Stewart, who became King Robert III during the last few years of Alexander’s life.

Alexander was given the lordships of Badenoch and Lochindorb, the latter being the site of his ­island stronghold of Lochindorb Castle, and made justiciar of the north. He enforced order in Badenoch with fire and sword, employing warrior-bands called ­caterans to harass lesser troublemakers into ­submission. Through their depredations Alexander gained the ire of the powerful Bishop of Moray. These deeds, and those that followed, are why history calls him the Wolf, though no one did while he lived.

With the king’s health failing, in 1388, ­Alexander’s other older brother Robert, Earl of Fife, became ­guardian. Something had to be done to tame the young Wolf. Robert stripped Alexander of his role as justiciar. Alexander’s wife Euphemia of Ross, a wealthy and powerful woman and heir to vast ­estates, formed an alliance with Robert. Ill-treated and neglected, she put her absentee ­husband on notice with the Bishop of Moray for ­abandoning her for his long-term mistress – just as ­Daemon abandoned his wife, with whom he also had no children, to openly consort with a mistress.

In the wake of King Robert II’s death in April 1390, the Wolf rampaged through Moray with a band of “wyld, wykked ­Heland men”, putting Forres, ­Pluscarden Abbey, and, most infamously, Elgin ­Cathedral to the torch. Hoping to ­overawe, his plan backfired – Alexander was excommunicated, forced to divorce Euphemia, and lived out the rest of his days in relative obscurity.

Episode five of House Of The Dragon, We Light The Way, opens with ­Daemon murdering his estranged wife, Rhea Royce, heiress to lands and castles in the Vale. News spreads of Rhea’s “untimely” death during a “hunting accident”. In the book Fire And Blood, which House Of The Dragon is based on, Rhea’s death appears to have been a legitimate accident.

A descendant of Alexander ­Stewart ­orchestrated an equally shocking ­murder. One of the Wolf’s lairs was Garth ­Castle, a foreboding keep perched on heights ­between Fortingall and Dull in ­Perthshire. A century after Alexander’s death, it was home to Nigel Stewart, a man with an ill reputation all his own.

He, too, employed roving bands of ­warriors, sourced mainly from the ­lawless lands of Rannoch, to ravage the estates of his foes.

Nigel’s wife, Mariota NcQueen, died on August 16, 1545 under highly ­suspicious circumstances. The 16th-century ­Chronicle Of Fortingall records that Mariota “was killed by ­Alexander Stuart [a different man than the Wolf] in the burn below the Castle of Garth ­negligently through the blow of a stone”. Nigel ­himself did not cast it, ­instead ­arranging for his kinsman to have ­Mariota ­murdered in a way that could be written off as an accident.

Having been to the spot where Mariota died, the idea of a carelessly thrown stone killing her is ludicrous. The chasm below Garth Castle is deep and dark, with much foliage and overhanging rock between it and the water’s edge. One would either need to aim very purposefully or have ill luck pushing the limits of believability to their utmost to strike someone down ­below. For his part in this and many other crimes, King James V launched a punitive expedition against Nigel, who spent the rest of his days as a royal prisoner in the dungeons of his own castle.

Fire-breathing superweapons


DRAGONS did not just change the ­balance of power in Westeros. They obliterated the foundations upon which that balance rested.

A century before House Of The Dragon, Aegon the Conqueror didn’t sweep aside centuries of Westerosi power structures simply because he had dragons. He was able to do that because he had the only dragons.

Dragons are flying, ­fire-breathing ­stand-ins for the principle of ­asymmetrical warfare. We see this principle in ­action when Daemon Targaryen menaces royal envoys with his dragon in front of ­Dragonstone, only for the odds to be evened when Princess Rhaenyra arrives atop her dragon, Syrax. While the most obvious modern analogy is to nuclear weapons, the dragons of Westeros have a very real medieval, fire-breathing equivalent: cannons.

Just as dragons rendered even the mightiest Westerosi castle, Harrenhal, utterly helpless, so too did late medieval and early modern artillery grind down Scotland’s castles. In Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister proclaimed that a ­million men could march on Harrenhal and a million men would be repelled – yet all it took was one dragon to obliterate it.

Tantallon Castle in East Lothian was one of the staunchest fortresses in the kingdom. There was even a rhyme – “Ding doun Tantalloun, ding doun ­Tantalloun, mak a brig to the Bass” – meaning you were more likely to build a bridge to Bass Rock than enter Tantallon uninvited. It held out even against 20,000 men, yet in 1651, Cromwell’s cannons battered the ­defenders into surrendering.

Dragons and cannons are also ­deterrents. The mere presence of a ­Targaryen dragon is often enough to make the other side abandon hope of ­victory. This was similarly true of Mons Meg, the gigantic bombard given to King James II as a wedding present from ­Burgundy. One of the largest-calibre ­cannons in world history, it could fire massive ­cannonballs at targets over a mile and a half away. The great castle of ­Dumbarton fell to it, and the mere threat of its use – as at Threave Castle and Crookston ­Castle – was enough to make rebellious lords come to heel.

However, such powerful weapons do not come without risk. Both dragons and cannons could be just as deadly to those wielding them as those they’re aimed at.

We’ll see plenty of examples of this as the storyline of the Dance Of Dragons plays out in House Of The Dragon. In our own history, King James II, the same who received Mons Meg, fell victim to his own bravado. At the siege of Roxburgh Castle, James was inspecting his cannons when one, named The Lion, burst its barrel. Shrapnel tore through the air, slashing James’s thigh. The king bled out on the field, the victim of the unpredictable and ­violent nature of his favourite toys.

Royal hunts and white harts


IN the third episode of House Of The Dragon, Second Of His Name, a royal hunt nominally led by Paddy Considine’s King Viserys gets off to an auspicious start with a sighting of a white hart. It is not the king or any of his noble huntsmen who encounter it, however.

That honour goes to Princess ­Rhaenyra, accompanied by Ser Criston Cole. The white hart appears to them, stands fast for several moments, and returns to the wilds. That Rhaenyra made no effort to find the hart, it instead choosing to show itself to her, signals to the viewer that within the mythology of Westeros, the gods seem to have chosen their favoured ruler. Whether the rest plays out like a fairytale is in the hands of future seasons, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In Arthurian lore, the white hart is a symbol of the quest for knowledge. It can never be caught, just as no one person can literally know it all. Celtic people saw it as a harbinger of the Otherworld. An ­exceptionally rare and beautiful ­animal, its associations with the gods (or God singular) and royalty go back long before there was such thing as Scotland.

Edinburgh boasts its own white hart legend, relating to the founding of ­Holyrood Abbey. On September 14, 1128 – Holy Cross Day in the Christian ­liturgical calendar – King David I was hunting in the royal forest in what is now ­Holyrood Park. It was a day meant for worship, not hunting, so his advisers did not approve.

The king’s company spotted a white hart, and David broke off in pursuit. His horse reared, pitching him to the ground, and the hunter became the hunted. There are several versions of the story: one claims that as the king wrestled with the hart, its antlers transformed into a cross, scaring it away. Another says the clouds parted, and the very hand of God passed the king a cross, which he used to scare off the hart.

That night, St Andrew appeared to the king in a dream with instructions on how to repay this divine intervention – build an abbey named Holyrood, with “rood” being the Scots word for the holy cross. The old burgh of Canongate’s arms was a stag’s head surmounted by a cross, and a white hart can be seen atop the mercat cross in Canongate Kirkyard.


Back to the hunt in House Of The Dragon, it’s good to see one portrayed with historically accurate pomp and ­excess. George RR Martin said that out of all eight seasons of Game Of Thrones, his least favourite scene was the royal hunt in season one, episode six, A Golden Crown. Ever a stickler for the minutiae of historical accuracy, he lamented the tiny scale of King Robert’s hunting party as just “four guys walking on foot through the woods”.

In reality, he said: “There would have been a hundred guys. There would have been pavilions. There would have been huntsmen. There would have been dogs. There would have been horns blowing. That’s how a king goes hunting!”

He’s absolutely right. Royal hunts could last for days and involve hundreds of ­people and the killing of staggering numbers of game animals using well-organised methods of mass slaughter. With the bustling festival atmosphere of the hunt in House Of The Dragon, hopefully, Martin can now sleep sound.

David C Weinczok is a writer and historian based in Edinburgh. His best-selling 2019 book, The History Behind Game of Thrones: The North Remembers, examines dozens of Scottish historical inspirations and parallels in the Game of Thrones television and book series.