Merlin's PeopleRaymond Foster
Wales is possibly the best place in the world from which to understand and follow one of the greatest changes in human lifestyle that ever took place: the transition from wanderers to settlers.
When the English first came to Britain they did what they always do when they visit foreign lands. The Romans had not long left, and the natives were used to welcoming foreigners to their land, but they soon realized their mistake as the new lot of foreigners got off the boat. "Excuse me, young man," they said to the boy on the jetty. "We're not foreigners; we're English! You're the foreigners—what we call welisc. Don't you speak Anglo-Saxon? Oh well, you'll learn..." And I suppose they did learn, for 'Welsh' they are to this day: foreigners in their own land! Isn't that just like the English?
Of course, I personally am in a privileged position, being Welsh on my mother's side, and English on my father's side; so when I say 'we', I could just as well mean 'they', and when I say 'they', I could just as well mean 'we'. At least I can see both points of view.
When the Romans left, Britain was virtually all 'Wales' and the British were virtually all 'Welsh', but we know what the English are like. They edged the native inhabitants further and further into the unploughable hills to the north and west and never even realized that the land had not always been theirs. But we've got used to it now, and since King Offa built his dyke the Welsh have settled down in their own little corner of Britain: a place where they can retain their own distinctive foreignness, drawing their own ethnic boundary like a cloak ever closer around themselves. The Victorians tried to turn the Welsh into English and failed. The Royal Tudors tried to deny their Welsh origins and gloss over the difference, and they too failed. King Edward the First and the Normans both tried to do away with Wales and make it part of their domain, but they were fooling themselves. Wales is here to stay.
Myself, being a native on my mother's side and a colonizer on my father's,
have lived and worked in forest lands from Coed-y-Goror on the English border
to Gwydyr in the Snowdonia Forest Park (and in villages ranging from sheltered
Pontfadog in the picturesque Ceiriog Valley to stark and stony Capel Curig
beneath the bare slopes of Moel Siabod). Please don't ask me about rugby,
coalmines, or politics: I am a woodland, hill and forest person—and the
woodlands, hills and forests of Wales are what I hold most dear. These are the
places where Merlin's people are to be found, and they are the places which the
visitor ought to seek out.
Any Welsh person will tell you that, in fact, there was no such person as 'Merlin'; or at least, that the historical Merlin had a different name. Perhaps I shall come to that in a minute. Merlin one associates with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the Red Dragon... But why a dragon? Does one crop up in Welsh mythology? I should point out that the English on arrival in Britain, and learning about the dragon that, in mythological terms, ruled the land, recruited an obscure hero-figure called Saint George to kill the poor beast. The Welsh, on the other hand, retained their dragon and, indeed, revered it. That must tell us something.
The dragon is not particularly a Celtic symbol. As far as I know, neither the Irish nor the Scots have ever recognized such a thing, and yet the Red Dragon survives with renewed vigour as a national emblem. Mystics throughout the world will tell you that the dragon is a symbol of the passions—a guardian of the passions, in fact: something that veneers over the top of the passions and prevents foreigners inspecting them. Look at the Chinese: they are dragon-mad, and their passions are completely veneered over, wouldn't you say? Yes: inscrutable. You can never tell what they're thinking, can you? Well, the Welsh too are like that. You can't tell what they are really thinking unless either they know you extremely well, or they blow their top. Beneath that veneer may be one of the nicest people you've ever met—or perhaps one of the nastiest. It's no use scratching the surface: that only causes the ethnic veil to be drawn ever tighter and the dragon to spread its wings a little. You'll just have to guess.
But meanwhile, take it from me. The English person seems solidly material on the outside, but is really quite soft and subtle within the English soul. The Welsh person seems quite fluid and nebulous on the outside, but deep within the Welsh soul is the hardness of granite and the strength of an oak, the hardy resistance of a wind-swept mountain. These are not the passions of the heart, these are qualities beneath the passions, hidden by the guardian dragon. Y Ddraig Goch, glowing red with the effort of holding those passions in check.
We British do not really care to discuss such things, the Welsh even more
so than the English, or the Scots, but I don't mind discussing them, particularly in
writing. What do the Welsh think of life after death, for instance? Are their
musings on a par with those of the English? The spiritual foundation of nature is
solid rock—it has to be so—and the Welsh soul is full of nature. My friend Stan
Bach Colomendy (who had the nimblest wrist for wielding a cryman among the
brambles of any man I've ever seen—one who had mastery over the plant
kingdom) confided in me one day: "When we die, we go into animals. I've seen it
in a vision - like a dream." Not particularly comforting, you might think. Not much
reward for someone who has been slogging through the brambles all their life,
but the connection between dreams and a possible afterlife is one which has
often occupied my thoughts.
The gist is that your typical Welsh person has the world of nature in their soul, and the concept of 'soul' they see as living on a par with nature. A visitor to Wales may well be shown giant standing stones which are reputed to walk about, and visit the waterside for a drink at night. Nobody would think of that unless they were firmly convinced that stones lived on a soul level. I know of one such stone at Llanymynech, on the Shropshire border, which stomps down to the river bank quite regularly. Somebody even reported seeing it on the road halfway to Welshpool, and he was a parson too—so let's say no more about that.
Can you imagine an English person even contemplating a stone walking? No, neither can I. And that is one more fascination to be sought by the visitor to Wales. Ghosts in Wales are not diaphanous wraiths like they are in England: they are solid. In Wales the spark of life might inhabit, motivate and mobilize lifeless solidity.
Every land has its own brand of ghosties and ghoulies and haunting
things. In Wales they tend to be solid to the point of materiality, and determined
enough to conduct their own funeral rites, to organize their own processions, and
to walk around in tangible if skeletal form. Throughout the Celtic fringe of the
British Isles and across the Channel in Brittany, death, funerals and spectral
candles are the stuff of hauntings. In Celtic Cornwall the frightful kegrim rises
vampire-like from the tomb to terrorize the neighbours, fortunately seldom
wandering too far from their home graveyard. No such nonsense in Wales itself,
however. What we have in Wales is the tolaeth: the spectral funeral when the
spellbound onlooker, wandering through the night, first hears the sound of
sawing and hammering as the ghostly coffin is made; as his scalp starts to
prickle he (or she) hears the procession starting out, a mournful dirge on spectral
lips, the slow regular footsteps of the mourners, the horses' hooves striking
stone, and the jingling of harness. Close to the ground, the feet and hooves and
wheels can be seen. Higher up the vision disappears, but the spectral sounds
continue and swell, gradually fading into the quiet sounds of night. If you find
yourself at night in a wild spot of Wales, listen carefully and watch well.
There used to be a Bronze Age barrow—a crug—at Mold, known as Bryn yr Ellyllon, or Fairy's Hill, and the story attached to it indicates what a Welsh fairy is like. Not a butterfly-like tiny winged creature as you might expect to see in England, or such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have expected to see, but a full human-size being, supernatural but solid. The fairy in question was said to be the ghost of a Bronze Age chieftain, clad in golden chain mail, who would appear by the side of his hill, gesturing to passers-by. As the town and its roads and suburbs spread the hill was demolished, but first excavated by archeologists who discovered the remains of a tall person fitting the description, complete with the remnants of his golden cape, now to be seen in the British Museum.
That's what Welsh fairies are like: just like you or me in fact. You will not know the difference until something remarkable happens. But I suppose we mustn't confuse fairies with ghosts. There is a real ghost in Powis Castle near Welshpool—a place which attracts hundreds of visitors as much for its famous gardens as for its beauty and long history—but you will probably not be able to stay the night in the haunted chamber and experience it for yourself, so you'll have to take my word for it.
Ghosts tend to have a certain lifespan—or should that be death-span—and never seem to survive more than three hundred years or so. Despite this perhaps the most ghostly-seeming places in Wales are the prehistoric rock tombs. These are to be found across the Celtic regions of Europe, and are said to date from the Mesolithic Period towards the close of the Stone Age, their construction continuing during the first thousand years or so of the Neolithic Period. The people built these vast chambered tombs to contain the bones and no doubt also to commemorate the lives of their dead. They are well worth a visit.
A remarkable thing about the Welsh rock tombs is the fact that, in archeological terms, after so many centuries of use they came to an abrupt end. A great tomb, you might think, is something of a materialistic symbol, as though celebrating the material aspect of human life. A long way from the simple shroud and an unmarked grave which would express a transitional stage, a mere sloughing off of the unimportant bits of life in the expectation of something unknown, unseen, but much better—some form of future life to be looked forward to, such as pious minds take for granted today. If the individual tomb marked the end of an individual cycle—or a tribal cycle perhaps, the end of the tomb-building era must have signified the end of a much larger and more significant cycle.
Hundreds of years apparently elapsed without any permanent buildings of this nature, until the next phase; the next cycle of humanity beginning to take hold. Moving huge stones and building large monuments with Stone Age tools must have taken great effort, and we might wonder why this effort apparently went by the board for so many generations. The next phase was the coming of the stone circle, which must also have taken great effort to construct, but it was effort of a different order. The fact is that something very significant in the life of the people must have happened in the interim: a whole lifestyle had changed, never to return.
Wales is possibly the best place in the world in which to understand and
follow this great change in the lifestyle of a whole people—the whole of Europe
in fact. To visit a prehistoric rock tomb is to glimpse the world of the huntergatherer.
To visit a prehistoric stone circle on the other hand is to visit the dawn
of farming communities, of families, tribes and races settling down in one place,
a place they could call home. To take the matter further, to visit a prehistoric rock
tomb is to experience an era when the earth owned the people, and the people
functioned on instinct. To visit a prehistoric stone circle is to feel something of
the new era, during which the people owned the earth—or at least their own little
patch of it—and they functioned on thoughts rather than instincts. Tracking and
trailing wild creatures had given way to understanding the nature of the soil, to
rearing beasts rather than hunting them, to sowing and reaping foods rather than
merely gleaning them.
The days of the rock tomb, frankly, are something of a mystery. The days of the stone circle we can relate to, especially if our own roots are in the countryside. None of this is exclusively Welsh in the modern sense, of course, but it all—stone tombs, stone circles, hill forts—predates the Welsh. To put it another way, everybody was Welsh in those days, certainly the whole of Britain and much of the rest of Europe was wholly 'Welsh'. Wales, I think, is simply the best place in which to feel this all-embracing Welshness, though I would have to include the adjoining border counties of England in this idea.
Geologically speaking, Wales is certainly incredibly ancient. The thing I like about geology is its disarming vagueness. It seems quite happy to pin events down to the nearest ten million years or so. It is an attitude that confers a properly respectful scale to the life of the earth. Archeology too seems happy to settle for a date that may very well be a thousand, or even two thousand years out. How can it be anything else? Stones are literally as old as the hills, so the task of finding a date—even a very approximate date—for when someone put a stone in place cannot be much more than a pretty well educated guess, but it does seem that the first of the stone circles appeared about a thousand years after the last tomb-builders had finished. They might, of course, have been a different set of people altogether, seeing how whole populations move around and take each other over. At all events, the original purpose of the great stone tombs must have been gone and forgotten by the time the circle builders got to work.
Within the British Isles it is said that about a thousand ancient stone circles still exist, or were at least known to have existed within the last century or so before becoming obliterated. Obliteration is a constantly ongoing process, both by natural means such as the build-up of peat, and by the advance of civilization, not to mention those indignant people who see them as the pagan remains of past heathen practices and worthy of destruction: not a few Christian churches have been built on the sites of stone circles. At all events, to me it is fairly incredible that any have survived at all. Most of them are fairly insubstantial when compared with something really unmovable, like the famous Stonehenge.
When you stand in an ancient stone circle and wonder at it, remember this: the earliest stone circles are thought to have been put in place during the fourth millennium BC. The earliest estimate by the famous archeologist Aubrey Burl is around 3500 BC, and the very best estimate for the building of the very last circle is around 1200BC, by which time I daresay the original use of the circles had long been forgotten, and it was just one of those customs which people blindly followed. The very oldest ones are believed to be in Cumbria, a name which, like Cambria, is a latinization of Cymru, the land of the Welsh.
To put these matters in a world perspective, the oldest circles, half lost
among the heather, peat and bracken, are older by far than the great pyramids
of Egypt. They appeared around the time when the first writing evolved—the very beginning of the historical period—in the form of Mesopotamian cuneiform characters inscribed on clay tablets, and Egyptian hieroglyphics before they invented papyrus. They coincided with the earliest Minoan civilization, and the time when great Indo-European tribal migrations from east to west were taking place.
By the time the pyramids were built and the Pharaohs were at the peak of their power, when the great Ziggurat was being built at Ur of the Chaldees, these stone circles were already halfway through their functional life. By the time Abraham and his tribal followers left Ur and reached Canaan, the freshness of purpose of these circles must already have deteriorated beyond recall. At the time of the Exodus, when Moses led the chosen people through the wilderness before reaching their promised and soon to be ethnically-cleansed lands, the very last stone circles had long since been completed, and their original purpose probably quite forgotten.
By the time Solomon built his great temple, it is possible that the long abandoned stone circles had given way to the woodland groves and valley glades of the Druids. They may too have been taken over by the Druids and under their influence given a new religious significance, because local legends frequently make the connection between 'stone circle' and 'Druids'. Almost everybody assumes that the circle must have had a religious significance, if not a spiritual one, and people have been inventing their own little quasi-religious ceremonies to perform around and between and inside the stones. Once people start doing things like this to some ancient monument you can be sure that the original purpose has gone forever. Nobody struggles to put heavy stones in place simply to dance around them. They meant something far more solid and abiding than that.
Hearing about my interest in stone circles, my friend Stan Bach offered to introduce me to a certain Mr John Jones—someone, he said, who would tell me all about them. John Jones turned out to be a local historian, and an expert not only on stone circles but, so it seemed, on every other subject under the sun as well.
We met him in the pub at Llandrillo, and after a few pints each we set off for a gentle stroll up the hillside path to join the Ffordd Gam Elin—the trace of one of the most ancient of roads across the Berwyn Hills, and well named, for it is certainly 'well crooked'—which ran very close to one of the oldest stone circles around. The Ffordd itself was not easy to see in places, and we blundered for a while through the heather and tussocky grass until we saw a familiar landmark—a sheltering belt of old and storm-bent larches, and there we located what we had come to see.
We inspected the stones for a while. "I honestly don't know what all the
mystery is about," said our guide, relieving himself into a clump of bell heather. "You can walk across the Berwyns all day long and not meet another soul. But look at that peak over there: Moel yr Henfaes, the hill of the old fields. You can't imagine any fields up there, can you? But there were at one time. The climate has changed, and so has the land use. In prehistoric times the whole place was covered with farms and mines and houses. And in those days most of their buildings were rondavels, like African huts: a central pole, low stone walls, and thatch.
We looked at the old stone circle. "And you think that's what this was? A building?"
"Well, I'd have thought it was obvious," he said. "These big stones are the only ones left, of course. They were the keystones that held the place up, dug into the ground to prevent the walls bulging outwards. All the smaller stones have long since gone, been scattered about, or taken away to build houses and walls and barns."
But some circles are very much larger, and I wondered how they could
roof an area like that. Mr Jones thought it was obvious. "There would be timber
uprights set in a circle at a convenient distance from the walls, and these would
be joined by crossbeams. That would be no problem at all." Certainly, I have to
agree that traces of postholes arranged in this way have been discovered in
some stone circles. "In very large circles there would have been more than one
circle of poles to link with the centre pole. Obvious, or what?"
If John Jones was right, what sort of large buildings could they have been; built for what purpose? A court house, a cathedral, a town hall, a palace, a storage barn, a youth centre: who knows? Some stone circles are closely associated with prehistoric quarry sites, places where the chipped remains of axeheads and arrowheads and various tools have been found. There is one such just over the border in Shropshire on the Powis Estate. Perhaps, after all, they were nothing more exciting than factory buildings where the local workers would clock in, work their shift fixing stone axeheads to wooden shafts, and clock off again each evening. How unromantic! After so many generations of boring old work, the roof would finally fall in, or stone axes would go out of fashion, and the stones which made up the walls would be plundered by the local peasantry, leaving the basic battered foundation stones to baffle the best brains for centuries to come.
Personally, I think that my own theory is much more likely to be correct. John was right when he said that the climate had changed over the centuries. The highest land was cultivatable in those days. And remember the long link with the rock tombs. The circle marked the first ownership of land. Forget all the theories about astrological clocks or what have you. That sort of thing might apply to Stonehenge, which has been modified over and over, and is not itself a particularly old stone circle, and is anything but typical. Land settlement: that is the clue.
The largest stone circles, we are told, tend to be the oldest. At that time large family groups or small tribes stuck together and forged their lives together; and that is what the circles represented: the family circle. This is our land, and this is our family. Strangers take note! There were large circles, and small circles (especially later on when family groups split up as farming families tend to do). Some stones were tall, others were short. Some were standing up, others lying down. Some were close together, others far apart. Suppose that is how they were intended to be seen: not haphazardly, but carefully thought out, chosen and arranged. What better permanent record could there be of a family circle? Especially when there was no way of writing it all down for posterity.
Walking over a heathery hilltop today, amid skylarks and meadow pipits, scolded by curlews and grouse; or slurping through a peat bog where ancient stone circles perhaps lie buried beneath the peat, it is hard to imagine that these were once rich farmlands amid fields and forests. A beautiful view? Well, perhaps when the circles were built the view would have been obscured by the surrounding trees, with every small glade overflowing with the dense vegetation that we now find only in the sheltered lowlands.
Imagine you are one of those early farmers of Neolithic times, or even of
Bronze Age times. The soil within and around the stone circle would certainly
have been of a much better quality than it is now: deeper, easily workable, generously supportive of the lush grasses and herbs that have since retreated a thousand feet or more down the hill.