Picture of George Borrow

George Borrow

places mentioned

To Ruthin

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Expedition to Ruthyn - The Column - Slate Quarries - The Gwyddelod - Nocturnal Adventure.

NOTHING worthy of commemoration took place during the two following days, save that myself and family took an evening walk on the Wednesday up the side of the Berwyn, for the purpose of botanizing, in which we were attended by John Jones. There, amongst other plants, we found a curious moss which our good friend said was called in Welsh, Corn Carw, or deer's horn, and which he said the deer were very fond of. On the Thursday he and I started on an expedition on foot to Ruthyn, distant about fourteen miles, proposing to return in the evening.

The town and castle of Ruthyn possessed great interest for me from being connected with the affairs of Owen Glendower. It was at Ruthyn that the first and not the least remarkable scene of the Welsh insurrection took place by Owen making his appearance at the fair held there in fourteen hundred, plundering the English who had come with their goods, slaying many of them, sacking the town and concluding his day's work by firing it; and it was at the castle of Ruthyn that Lord Grey dwelt, a minion of Henry the Fourth and Glendower's deadliest enemy, and who was the principal cause of the chieftain's entering into rebellion, having, in the hope of obtaining his estates in the vale of Clwyd, poisoned the mind of Harry against him, who proclaimed him a traitor, before he had committed any act of treason, and confiscated his estates, bestowing that part of them upon his favourite, which the latter was desirous of obtaining.

We started on our expedition at about seven o'clock of a brilliant morning. We passed by the abbey and presently came to a small fountain with a little stone edifice, with a sharp top above it. "That is the holy well," said my guide: "Llawer iawn o barch yn yr amser yr Pabyddion yr oedd i'r fynnon hwn - much respect in the times of the Papists there was to this fountain."

"I heard of it," said I, "and tasted of its water the other evening at the abbey;" shortly after we saw a tall stone standing in a field on our right hand at about a hundred yards' distance from the road. "That is the pillar of Eliseg, sir," said my guide. "Let us go and see it," said I. We soon reached the stone. It is a fine upright column about seven feet high, and stands on a quadrate base. "Sir," said my guide, "a dead king lies buried beneath this stone. He was a mighty man of valour and founded the abbey. He was called Eliseg." "Perhaps Ellis," said I, "and if his name was Ellis the stone was very properly called Colofn Eliseg, in Saxon the Ellisian column." The view from the column is very beautiful, below on the south-east is the venerable abbey, slumbering in its green meadow. Beyond it runs a stream, descending from the top of a glen, at the bottom of which the old pile is situated; beyond the stream is a lofty hill. The glen on the north is bounded by a noble mountain, covered with wood. Struck with its beauty I inquired its name. "Moel Eglwysig, sir," said my guide. "The Moel of the Church," said I. "That is hardly a good name for it, for the hill is not bald (moel)." "True, sir," said John Jones. "At present its name is good for nothing, but estalom (of old) before the hill was planted with trees its name was good enough. Our fathers were not fools when they named their hills." "I daresay not," said I, "nor in many other things which they did, for which we laugh at them, because we do not know the reasons they had for doing them." We regained the road; the road tended to the north up a steep ascent. I asked John Jones the name of a beautiful village, which lay far away on our right, over the glen, and near its top. "Pentref y dwr, sir" (the village of the water). It is called the village of the water, because the river below comes down through part of it. I next asked the name of the hill up which we were going, and he told me Allt Bwlch; that is, the high place of the hollow road.

This bwlch, or hollow way, was a regular pass, which put me wonderfully in mind of the passes of Spain. It took us a long time to get to the top. After resting a minute on the summit we began to descend. My guide pointed out to me some slate-works, at some distance on our left. "There is a great deal of work going on there, sir," said he: "all the slates that you see descending the canal at Llangollen came from there." The next moment we heard a blast, and then a thundering sound: "Llais craig yn syrthiaw; the voice of the rock in falling, sir," said John Jones; "blasting is dangerous and awful work." We reached the bottom of the descent, and proceeded for two or three miles up and down a rough and narrow road; I then turned round and looked at the hills which we had passed over. They looked bulky and huge.

We continued our way, and presently saw marks of a fire in some grass by the side of the road. "Have the Gipsiaid been there?" said I to my guide.

"Hardly, sir; I should rather think that the Gwyddelaid (Irish) have been camping there lately."

"The Gwyddeliad?"

"Yes, sir, the vagabond Gwyddeliad, who at present infest these parts much, and do much more harm than the Gipsiaid ever did."

"What do you mean by the Gipsiaid?"

"Dark, handsome people, sir, who occasionally used to come about in vans and carts, the men buying and selling horses, and sometimes tinkering, whilst the women told fortunes."

"And they have ceased to come about?"

"Nearly so, sir; I believe they have been frightened away by the Gwyddelod."

"What kind of people are these Gwyddelod?

"Savage, brutish people, sir; in general without shoes and stockings, with coarse features and heads of hair like mops."

"How do they live?"

"The men tinker a little, sir, but more frequently plunder. The women tell fortunes, and steal whenever they can."

"They live something like the Gipsiaid."

"Something, sir; but the hen Gipsiaid were gentlefolks in comparison."

"You think the Gipsiaid have been frightened away by the Gwyddelians?"

"I do, sir; the Gwyddelod made their appearance in these parts about twenty years ago, and since then the Gipsiaid have been rarely seen."

"Are these Gwyddelod poor?"

"By no means, sir; they make large sums by plundering and other means, with which, 'tis said, they retire at last to their own country or America, where they buy land and settle down."

"What language do they speak?"

"English, sir; they pride themselves on speaking good English, that is to the Welsh. Amongst themselves they discourse in their own Paddy Gwyddel."

"Have they no Welsh?"

"Only a few words, sir; I never heard one of them speaking Welsh, save a young girl - she fell sick by the roadside as she was wandering by herself - some people at a farmhouse took her in, and tended her till she was well. During her sickness she took a fancy to their quiet way of life, and when she was recovered she begged to stay with them and serve them. They consented; she became a very good servant, and hearing nothing but Welsh spoken, soon picked up the tongue."

"Do you know what became of her?"

"I do, sir; her own people found her out, and wished to take her away with them, but she refused to let them, for by that time she was perfectly reclaimed, had been to chapel, renounced her heathen crefydd, and formed an acquaintance with a young Methodist who had a great gift of prayer, whom she afterwards married - she and her husband live at present not far from Mineira."

"I almost wonder that her own people did not kill her."

"They threatened to do so, sir, and would doubtless have put their threat into execution, had they not been prevented by the Man on High."

And here my guide pointed with his finger reverently upward.

"Is it a long time since you have seen any of these Gwyddeliaid?"

"About two months, sir, and then a terrible fright they caused me."

"How was that?"

"I will tell you, sir; I had been across the Berwyn to carry home a piece of weaving work to a person who employs me. It was night as I returned, and when I was about halfway down the hill, at a place which is called Allt Paddy, because the Gwyddelod are in the habit of taking up their quarters there, I came upon a gang of them, who had come there and camped and lighted their fire, whilst I was on the other side of the hill. There were nearly twenty of them, men and women, and amongst the rest was a man standing naked in a tub of water with two women stroking him down with clouts. He was a large fierce-looking fellow and his body, on which the flame of the fire glittered, was nearly covered with red hair. I never saw such a sight. As I passed they glared at me and talked violently in their Paddy Gwyddel, but did not offer to molest me. I hastened down the hill, and right glad I was when I found myself safe and sound at my house in Llangollen, with my money in my pocket, for I had several shillings there, which the man across the hill had paid me for the work which I had done."


The Turf Tavern - Don't Understand - The Best Welsh - The Maids of Merion - Old and New - Ruthyn - The Ash Yggdrasill.

WE now emerged from the rough and narrow way which we had followed for some miles, upon one much wider, and more commodious, which my guide told me was the coach road from Wrexham to Ruthyn, and going on a little farther we came to an avenue of trees which shaded the road. It was chiefly composed of ash, sycamore and birch, and looked delightfully cool and shady. I asked my guide if it belonged to any gentleman's house. He told me that it did not, but to a public-house, called Tafarn Tywarch, which stood near the end, a little way off the road. "Why is it called Tafarn Tywarch?" said I, struck by the name which signifies "the tavern of turf."

"It was called so, sir," said John, "because it was originally merely a turf hovel, though at present it consists of good brick and mortar."

"Can we breakfast there," said I, "for I feel both hungry and thirsty?"

"Oh yes, sir," said John, "I have heard there is good cheese and cwrw there."

We turned off to the "tafarn," which was a decent public-house of rather an antiquated appearance. We entered a sanded kitchen, and sat down by a large oaken table. "Please to bring us some bread, cheese and ale," said I in Welsh to an elderly woman, who was moving about.

"Sar?" said she.

"Bring us some bread, cheese and ale," I repeated in Welsh.

"I do not understand you, sar," said she in English.

"Are you Welsh?" said I in English.

"Yes, I am Welsh!"

"And can you speak Welsh?"

"Oh yes, and the best."

"Then why did you not bring what I asked for?"

"Because I did not understand you."

"Tell her," said I to John Jones, "to bring us some bread, cheese and ale."

"Come, aunt," said John, "bring us bread and cheese and a quart of the best ale."

The woman looked as if she was going to reply in the tongue in which he addressed her, then faltered, and at last said in English that she did not understand.

"Now," said I, "you are fairly caught: this man is a Welshman, and moreover understands no language but Welsh."

"Then how can he understand you?" said she.

"Because I speak Welsh," said I.

"Then you are a Welshman?" said she.

"No I am not," said I, "I am English."

"So I thought," said she, "and on that account I could not understand you."

"You mean that you would not," said I. "Now do you choose to bring what you are bidden?"

"Come, aunt," said John, "don't be silly and cenfigenus, but bring the breakfast."

The woman stood still for a moment or two, and then biting her lips went away.

"What made the woman behave in this manner?" said I to my companion.

"Oh, she was cenfigenus, sir," he replied; "she did not like that an English gentleman should understand Welsh; she was envious; you will find a dozen or two like her in Wales; but let us hope not more."

Presently the woman returned with the bread, cheese and ale, which she placed on the table.

"Oh," said I, "you have brought what was bidden, though it was never mentioned to you in English, which shows that your pretending not to understand was all a sham. What made you behave so?"

"Why I thought," said the woman, "that no Englishman could speak Welsh, that his tongue was too short."

"Your having thought so," said I, "should not have made you tell a falsehood, saying that you did not understand, when you knew that you understood very well. See what a disgraceful figure you cut."

"I cut no disgraced figure," said the woman: "after all, what right have the English to come here speaking Welsh, which belongs to the Welsh alone, who in fact are the only people that understand it."

"Are you sure that you understand Welsh?" said I.

"I should think so," said the woman, "for I come from the Vale of Clwyd, where they speak the best Welsh in the world, the Welsh of the Bible."

"What do they call a salmon in the Vale of Clwyd?" said I.

"What do they call a salmon?" said the woman. "Yes," said I, "when they speak Welsh."

"They call it - they call it - why a salmon."

"Pretty Welsh!" said I. "I thought you did not understand Welsh."

"Well, what do you call it?" said the woman.

"Eawg," said I, "that is the word for a salmon in general - but there are words also to show the sex - when you speak of a male salmon you should say cemyw, when of a female hwyfell."

"I never heard the words before," said the woman, "nor do I believe them to be Welsh."

"You say so," said I, "because you do not understand Welsh."

"I not understand Welsh!" said she. "I'll soon show you that I do. Come, you have asked me the word for salmon in Welsh, I will now ask you the word for salmon-trout. Now tell me that, and I will say you know something of the matter."

"A tinker of my country can tell you that," said I. "The word for salmon-trout is gleisiad."

The countenance of the woman fell.

"I see you know something about the matter," said she; "there are very few hereabouts, though so near to the Vale of Clwyd, who know the word for salmon-trout in Welsh, I shouldn't have known the word myself, but for the song which says:

Glan yw'r gleisiad yn y llyn."

"And who wrote that song?" said I.

"I don't know," said the woman.

"But I do," said I; "one Lewis Morris wrote it.'

"Oh," said she, "I have heard all about Huw Morris."

"I was not talking of Huw Morris," said I, "but Lewis Morris, who lived long after Huw Morris. He was a native of Anglesea, but resided for some time in Merionethshire, and whilst there composed a song about the Morwynion bro Meirionydd or the lasses of County Merion of a great many stanzas, in one of which the gleisiad is mentioned. Here it is in English:

"'Full fair the gleisiad in the flood,
Which sparkles 'neath the summer's sun,
And fair the thrush in green abode
Spreading his wings in sportive fun,
But fairer look if truth be spoke,
The maids of County Merion.'"

The woman was about to reply, but I interrupted her.

"There," said I, "pray leave us to our breakfast, and the next time you feel inclined to talk nonsense about no Englishman's understanding Welsh, or knowing anything of Welsh matters, remember that it was an Englishman who told you the Welsh word for salmon, and likewise the name of the Welshman who wrote the song in which the gleisiad is mentioned."

The ale was very good and so were the bread and cheese. The ale indeed was so good that I ordered a second jug. Observing a large antique portrait over the mantel-piece I got up to examine it. It was that of a gentleman in a long wig, and underneath it was painted in red letters "Sir Watkin Wynn: 1742." It was doubtless the portrait of the Sir Watkin who, in 1745 was committed to the tower under suspicion of being suspected of holding Jacobite opinions, and favouring the Pretender. The portrait was a very poor daub, but I looked at it long and attentively as a memorial of Wales at a critical and long past time.

When we had dispatched the second jug of ale, and I had paid the reckoning, we departed and soon came to where stood a turnpike house at a junction of two roads, to each of which was a gate.

"Now, sir," said John Jones, "the way straight forward is the ffordd newydd, and the one on our right hand is the hen ffordd. Which shall we follow, the new or the old?"

"There is a proverb in the Gerniweg," said I, "which was the language of my forefathers, saying, 'ne'er leave the old way for the new,' we will therefore go by the hen ffordd."

"Very good, sir," said my guide, "that is the path I always go, for it is the shortest." So we turned to the right and followed the old road. Perhaps, however, it would have been well had we gone by the new, for the hen ffordd was a very dull and uninteresting road, whereas the ffordd newydd, as I long subsequently found, is one of the grandest passes in Wales. After we had walked a short distance my guide said, "Now, sir, if you will turn a little way to the left hand I will show you a house, built in the old style, such a house, sir, as I daresay the original turf tavern was." Then leading me a little way from the road he showed me, under a hollow bank, a small cottage covered with flags.

"That is a house, sir, built yn yr hen dull in the old fashion, of earth, flags and wattles and in one night. It was the custom of old when a house was to be built, for the people to assemble, and to build it in one night of common materials, close at hand. The custom is not quite dead. I was at the building of this myself, and a merry building it was. The cwrw da passed quickly about among the builders, I assure you." We returned to the road, and when we had ascended a hill, my companion told me that if I looked to the left I should see the Vale of Clwyd.

I looked and perceived an extensive valley pleasantly dotted with trees and farm-houses, and bounded on the west by a range of hills.

"It is a fine valley, sir," said my guide, "four miles wide and twenty long, and contains the richest land in all Wales. Cheese made in that valley, sir, fetches a penny a pound more than cheese made in any other valley."

"And who owns it?" said I.

"Various are the people who own it, sir, but Sir Watkin owns the greater part."

We went on, passed by a village called Craig Vychan, where we saw a number of women washing at a fountain, and by a gentle descent soon reached the Vale of Clwyd.

After walking about a mile we left the road and proceeded by a footpath across some meadows. The meadows were green and delightful and were intersected by a beautiful stream. Trees in abundance were growing about, some of which were oaks. We passed by a little white chapel with a small graveyard before it, which my guide told me belonged to the Baptists, and shortly afterwards reached Ruthyn.

We went to an inn called the Crossed Foxes, where we refreshed ourselves with ale. We then sallied forth to look about, after I had ordered a duck to be got ready for dinner, at three o'clock. Ruthyn stands on a hill above the Clwyd, which in the summer is a mere brook, but in the winter a considerable stream, being then fed with the watery tribute of a hundred hills. About three miles to the north is a range of lofty mountains, dividing the shire of Denbigh from that of Flint, amongst which, almost parallel with the town, and lifting its head high above the rest, is the mighty Moel Vamagh, the mother heap, which I had seen from Chester. Ruthyn is a dull town, but it possessed plenty of interest to me, for as I strolled with my guide about the streets I remembered that I was treading the ground which the wild bands of Glendower had trod, and where the great struggle commenced, which for fourteen years convulsed Wales, and for some time shook England to its centre. After I had satisfied myself with wandering about the town we proceeded to the castle.

The original castle suffered terribly in the civil wars; it was held for wretched Charles, and was nearly demolished by the cannon of Cromwell, which were planted on a hill about half a mile distant. The present castle is partly modern and partly ancient. It belongs to a family of the name of W- who reside in the modern part, and who have the character of being kind, hospitable and intellectual people. We only visited the ancient part, over which we were shown by a woman, who hearing us speaking Welsh, spoke Welsh herself during the whole time she was showing us about. She showed us dark passages, a gloomy apartment in which Welsh kings and great people had been occasionally confined, that strange memorial of the good old times, a drowning pit, and a large prison room, in the middle of which stood a singular-looking column, scrawled with odd characters, which had of yore been used for a whipping-post, another memorial of the good old baronial times, so dear to romance readers and minds of sensibility. Amongst other things which our conductor showed us was an immense onen or ash; it stood in one of the courts and measured, as she said, pedwar y haner o ladd yn ei gwmpas, or four yards and a half in girth. As I gazed on the mighty tree I thought of the Ash Yggdrasill mentioned in the Voluspa, or prophecy of Vola, that venerable poem which contains so much relating to the mythology of the ancient Norse.

We returned to the inn and dined. The duck was capital, and I asked John Jones if he had ever tasted a better. "Never, sir," said he, "for to tell you the truth, I never tasted a duck before." "Rather singular," said I. "What, that I should not have tasted duck? Oh, sir, the singularity is, that I should now be tasting duck. Duck in Wales, sir, is not fare for poor weavers. This is the first duck I ever tasted, and though I never taste another, as I probably never shall, I may consider myself a fortunate weaver, for I can now say I have tasted duck once in my life. Few weavers in Wales are ever able to say as much."


Baptist Tomb-Stone - The Toll-Bar - Rebecca - The Guitar.

THE sun was fast declining as we left Ruthyn. We retraced our steps across the fields. When we came to the Baptist Chapel I got over the wall of the little yard to look at the grave-stones. There were only three. The inscriptions upon them were all in Welsh. The following stanza was on the stone of Jane, the daughter of Elizabeth Williams, who died on the second of May, 1843:

"Er myn'd i'r oerllyd annedd
Dros dymher hir i orwedd,
Cwyd i'r lan o'r gwely bridd
Ac hyfryd fydd ei hagwedd."

which is

"Though thou art gone to dwelling cold
To lie in mould for many a year,
Thou shalt, at length, from earthy bed,
Uplift thy head to blissful sphere."

As we went along I stopped to gaze at a singular-looking hill forming part of the mountain range on the east. I asked John Jones what its name was, but he did not know. As we were standing talking about it, a lady came up from the direction in which our course lay. John Jones, touching his hat to her, said:

"Madam, this gwr boneddig wishes to know the name of that moel, perhaps you can tell him."

"Its name is Moel Agrik," said the lady, addressing me in English.

"Does that mean Agricola's hill?" said I.

"It does," said she, "and there is a tradition that the Roman General Agricola, when he invaded these parts, pitched his camp on that moel. The hill is spoken of by Pennant."

"Thank you, madam," said I; "perhaps you can tell me the name of the delightful grounds in which we stand, supposing they have a name?"

"They are called Oaklands," said the lady.

"A very proper name," said I, "for there is plenty of oaks growing about. But why are they called by a Saxon name, for Oaklands is Saxon?"

"Because," said the lady, "when the grounds were first planted with trees they belonged to an English family."

"Thank you," said I, and, taking off my hat, I departed with my guide. I asked him her name, but he could not tell me. Before she was out of sight, however, we met a labourer of whom John Jones enquired her name.

"Her name is W-s," said the man, "and a good lady she is."

"Is she Welsh?" said I.

"Pure Welsh, master," said the man. "Purer Welsh flesh and blood need not be."

Nothing farther worth relating occurred till we reached the toll- bar at the head of the hen ffordd, by which time the sun was almost gone down. We found the master of the gate, his wife and son seated on a bench before the door. The woman had a large book on her lap, in which she was reading by the last light of the departing orb. I gave the group the sele of the evening in English, which they all returned, the woman looking up from her book.

"Is that volume the Bible?" said I.

"It is, sir," said the woman.

"May I look at it?" said I.

"Certainly," said the woman, and placed the book in my hand. It was a magnificent Welsh Bible, but without the title-page.

"That book must be a great comfort to you," said I to her.

"Very great," said she. "I know not what we should do without it in the long winter evenings."

"Of what faith are you?" said I.

"We are Methodists," she replied.

"Then you are of the same faith as my friend here," said I.

"Yes, yes," said she, "we are aware of that. We all know honest John Jones."

After we had left the gate I asked John Jones whether he had ever heard of Rebecca of the toll-gates.

"Oh, yes," said he; "I have heard of that chieftainess."

"And who was she?" said I.

"I cannot say, sir; I never saw her, nor any one who had seen her. Some say that there were a hundred Rebeccas, and all of them men dressed in women's clothes, who went about at night, at the head of bands to break the gates. Ah, sir, something of the kind was almost necessary at that time. I am a friend of peace, sir, no head-breaker, house-breaker, nor gate-breaker, but I can hardly blame what was done at that time, under the name of Rebecca. You have no idea how the poor Welsh were oppressed by those gates, aye, and the rich too. The little people and farmers could not carry their produce to market owing to the exactions at the gates, which devoured all the profit and sometimes more. So that the markets were not half supplied, and people with money could frequently not get what they wanted. Complaints were made to government, which not being attended to, Rebecca and her byddinion made their appearance at night, and broke the gates to pieces with sledge- hammers, and everybody said it was gallant work, everybody save the keepers of the gates and the proprietors. Not only the poor but the rich, said so. Aye, and I have heard that many a fine young gentleman had a hand in the work, and went about at night at the head of a band dressed as Rebecca. Well, sir, those breakings were acts of violence, I don't deny, but they did good, for the system is altered; such impositions are no longer practised at gates as were before the time of Rebecca."

"Were any people ever taken up and punished for those nocturnal breakings?" said I.

"No, sir; and I have heard say that nobody's being taken up was a proof that the rich approved of the work and had a hand in it."

Night had come on by the time we reached the foot of the huge hills we had crossed in the morning. We toiled up the ascent, and after crossing the level ground on the top, plunged down the bwlch between walking and running, occasionally stumbling, for we were nearly in complete darkness, and the bwlch was steep and stony. We more than once passed people who gave us the n's da, the hissing night salutation of the Welsh. At length I saw the Abbey looming amidst the darkness, and John Jones said that, we were just above the fountain. We descended, and putting my head down I drank greedily of the dwr santaidd, my guide following my example. We then proceeded on our way, and in about half-an-hour reached Llangollen. I took John Jones home with me. We had a cheerful cup of tea. Henrietta played on the guitar, and sang a Spanish song, to the great delight of John Jones, who at about ten o'clock departed contented and happy to his own dwelling.

George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery (Oxford, Mississippi, 1996)

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