Merlin's People

Raymond Foster

Part 2

Your first act upon claiming your piece of land, might well be to set up what was meant to be a permanent record of your family group, every member perhaps bringing a stone appropriate to themselves.

The idea of each stone having been carefully selected to represent an individual member of the family is an enduring and rather endearing one. It puts a whole new and very human light on the subject. The stones commemorate, or at least symbolize the commemoration of those family members: a memorial to real people that will last as long as the stones remain. No wonder people like me who visit stone circles have a sense of something very important and rather mysterious in a personal way, as though we ourselves are standing at the very tip of an unbroken line of descent, a line of inheritance spanning thousands of years: and this really is true.

As I have already mentioned, people have always been ready to ascribe their own brand of superstition and project their own religious imaginings onto their local stone circles, many centuries, of course, after their true significance was forgotten. When Christianity arrived in the British Isles (before the pagan Anglo-Saxons arrived, by the way), some of the earliest stone churches were uncompromisingly set on top of the offending circles. Some of the early Celtic buildings were later overbuilt by the Saxons, then later on by the Normans, and finally, through the combined skills arising out of the loose but liberal blending of races which now constitute the British, rebuilt and overbuilt yet again into even more impressive structures.


It often happened along the present-day Welsh border, where some churches display a regular circularity in their surrounding churchyard. One such is Church Stoke (the Saxons called standing stones "stocks" or "stokes"). Other interesting examples of circular churchyards are at Stanton Lacy in Corvedale, and at Cardington nestling beneath Caer Caradoc (of King Caractacus's fame and one of several hill forts bearing that name). One of the most often cited examples in west Wales is the one at Devil's Bridge in Dyfed.

Overbuilt circles are those on the lower ground, by and large, the places where most of the local inhabitants live now and have lived for the past many centuries. Archeologists have always claimed that the oldest circles are the ones on the highest ground. Their carbon-dating techniques ascribe the lower-lying ones to a much later date. Of course! The uplands are where people used to live and farm during all generations prior to the Bronze Age, when the weather took a turn for the worse and forced them down onto the lower ground. The circles followed the people downhill.

Both the stone circles I have mentioned so far have their newer counterparts not far away and on lower ground. The one by the crooked road: Ffordd Gam Elin, overlooks one a couple of miles away near the banks of the Dee; but that one is a cairn circle, which rather explodes John Jones's theory about buildings. But look at it this way: When land is first farmed in these areas, one of the first jobs when cultivating the soil is to remove all the big stones. It could be that the original purpose of the hilltop circles no longer applied, but if they wanted to construct a memorial circle, what better use could they find for the stones they were constantly digging out of their new patch of land? They killed two birds with one stone, and got both jobs done at the same time.

And, of course, that brings me rather neatly to the subject of cairns. You cannot travel very far on foot in Wales (or indeed in other hilly regions of the world), without coming across a cairn or two. A simple pile of stones, you might suppose, is a somewhat transient construction, liable to disappear or appear almost overnight. You would scarcely expect them to last for thousands of years. Is the one that happens to have caught your attention prehistoric, or modern? All stones are ancient, of course, and a rough pile of stones is easily made—the sort of thing anyone wishing to make their own mark on the countryside might have built. It is even the custom in some places for climbers and hill walkers to add a stone of their own to the cairn which marks the peak. Some of them, however, are known to be truly ancient, and archeologists have excavated beneath them and, as often as not, found them to cover human remains, usually the charred remnants of cremation ceremonies. These truly ancient cairns have been thought to predate even the oldest stone circles, so they could be thought of as a hangover from the days of the great rock tombs.


Many more ancient cairns, usually located on some prominence where they can be well seen, are thought to have been boundary markers erected during the farming, land-owning days. The ubiquitous boundary stone, after all, gets many a mention in some of the oldest literature (the Old Testament, for example) These were the survey beacons of their day, sited where they could be seen over the trees which no longer grow so high in the hills.

But cairns have often resulted from the far more direct, utilitarian process of picking stones from a cultivated field. Farmers are still doing it today. Wherever possible of course, salvaged stones would be put to really good use, providing building material for houses, barns and walls, but where they were surplus to requirements, cairns would make their appearance. The idea of building a cairn circle, like the one I already mentioned near Llandrillo, could well have seemed like a brainwave at the time.

John Jones was right when he said that most of the buildings of long ago were round, probably stone-paved, and with low stone walls. The remains of huts such as these are to be seen in remote places such as the wild upland area bounded by Harlech and the coast, Trawsfynydd and Dolgellau, beneath and around the peaks of Diffwys, Y Llethr, Ysgyfarnogod, and the twin Rhinogs. I dare say a great many buildings were made of wood, wattle and daub as well as stone, but all traces of these have long gone.


Even where they seem to have had no stone walls, however, they often boasted a circular surround of flat rocks to catch and deflect the rain dripping off the thatch—the historical "eaves-drip" from which we get the expression, "eaves-drop", implying that someone is standing close enough to the hut to hear what is going on inside.

The Snowdonia National Park offers many opportunities to explore ancient Stone Age sites, the remains of villages which once flourished, where for thousands of years, perhaps, generation after generation of family members lived and died. Only when the weather became too harsh to sustain their way of life did the villages themselves falter and die. This is the basic reason why Stone Age remains of this nature seem confined to the high, rocky ground: In the lowlands and valley bottoms they have all been dug out, ploughed over, built on, and lost forever.

In Wales as in other Celtic lands, you might marvel at the extent, the sheer substantiality, of the stone walls. Mile upon mile of broad, high drystone walls running up and over the steepest of hills, separating fields and farms large or small, doubled up to mark the parallel boundaries of track, lane, or main road. They epitomize the territory of the raven and the buzzard. They do not employ neat little quarried pieces of stone such as you might see in the Cotswolds, but great, rough lumps of rock as they were turned up by the plough or spade, or dumped by a glacier, or rolled down the scree from an eroding mountain top. Wales is a small country, but the proportion and sheer impact of stone walls throughout the land is vast. What an enormous sum-total of effort accumulated over the centuries!

Several people have told me something about the history of these walls— or perhaps not history, perhaps just a folk-memory, or perhaps no more than a tongue-in-cheek yarn to fool the Saeson. But this is it: During the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, before the Romans came and built their forts, and before the Anglo-Saxons claimed Lloegr as their own, the British tribes had a great hobby, more than a leisure activity, more of a side-line profession. They raided each other. There was no malice in it, everybody did it; it was simply what they did: they drove off any cattle that could not be penned in time into one of the hill forts (and it was cattle in those days, not sheep as it is today), and they captured any suitable people they could find to bring them back as slaves. And why did they want to make slaves of each other? Why, to build their stone walls, of course.

But how, I wondered, could a farmer sleep soundly at night, with a gang of cut-throat slaves looking for a chance to turn the tables on him? And he would still have to feed his slaves, or they could do no work. Before long, the situation would probably be reversed. Wouldn't it be simpler just to rear one's own cattle and employ the local labour-force to build the walls? I was laughed at. Where would be the fun in that? Stan Bach made the point that there was no sense in working yourself, if you could get a slave to do it. As it said in the Good Book (or so Stan claimed): "Load your slave with chains and make the bugger work; that's what he is for".


Well, there must be more than an element of truth in it. Why else would the British have needed all those hill forts, which were certainly there long before the Romans invaded. It sounds more romantic to have the noble ancient Britons in their craggy strongholds fighting first the Romans and then the Anglo-Saxons, but in fact, the prime purpose of all those hill forts was to protect themselves and their cattle from each other. And as I told Stan, they would all have ended up taking it in turns to do the work just the same—but for someone else, and without pay. And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

I called this piece 'Merlin's People', but so far I have mentioned Merlin only once, and that was to say that there was probably no such person. I had better expand on this to say that I'm sure there was such a person, but not quite of that name. I thought I would be clever one day and posed the open question: what does the name 'Merlin' conjure up for you?

"Rolls Royce," said John Jones. "Enormous twelve-cylinder engines which powered the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, and the Avro Lancaster. Helped to win the war."

"The merlin is a bird," said a young man leaning on the bar. "A fierce little falcon. I've seen them a lot on the Denbigh moors.


Beautiful little creatures: one used to perch regular on the telephone wire over the road, just by our gate. A hen it was - the brown one. The male has a grey back."
"Or perhaps you mean 'merlyn'," said someone else. "As in the song:
O merlyn, codi dy cynffon;
Cadw yr haul o'r llygad ni."
'Merlyn' is, of course, the Welsh word for 'pony', or 'little horse', and the song is the hoary old music-hall refrain:
Oh horsey, keep your tail up;
Keep the sun out of our eyes.
But please don't tell me 'keep your tail up' should be translated as: 'cadw dy cynffon i fyni', because it won't scan.

"Merlin was a great magician," said my friend Stan. "But his name was 'Myrddin', not 'Merlin'. He was trapped in a rock by some woman. Then he escaped from the rock but got mixed up with another woman, and she got him caught up in a thorn bush. That's women for you. Like it says in the Good Book: a wicked man is better than a good woman."

A man called Griff remarked that Merlin, or Myrddin, had been responsible for floating all the giant stones to Stonehenge by magic. Some of them were floated all the way from a quarry at Mynydd Preseli, not far from Fishguard. "All that way without touching the ground! Sheer strength of mind; incredible willpower."

"Incredible indeed," said John Jones. "What a load of lol! Magic power, indeed! I suppose Merlin did the quarrying too, did he? Why does everyone nowadays think that our ancestors were helpless primitives who couldn't even move a rock unless some magician floated it through the air? They would have used heavy wagons drawn by horses or oxen, the same as everybody else. I would have thought it was only too obvious. Even in the unlikely event that they hadn't invented wheels, they would have used sledges. If they had to wait around for someone to float things around for them they could never have done anything. Never moved a rock; never cut a tree. They'd still be hanging about waiting for a magician to show up."

To Tanat Williams, another old friend of mine, Merlin was chief among ancient bards, though he could not quote from his works. I believe there have been several historical bards named Merlin, or Myrddin, though their work is obscure. If you want to hear a poet's viewpoint in Wales, you need never travel far. There is no psychological claptrap in Welsh poetry; it is not clever-clever, as English poetry sometimes is, and it never sets out to shock. It comes from the heart.


Tanat was—and I hope still is—a poet. His very name is poetic: how many English people could say they had been named after a river? Especially a picturesque dipper-frequented stream like the Tanat, which rises with multiple tributaries on the wild raven-haunted heights of Trum y Fawnog and Cyrniau Nod: a stony little brook at first which swells often into a raging torrent, flowing beneath alder and oak through a narrow valley between the Berwyn hills and the peak of Das Eithin, then meandering through meadows before taking on the Rhaeadr and swelling into a sizeable river before joining the Vyrnwy near the border village of Llanymynech.

Tanat (the person, not the river) can produce a poem suitable for most occasions, and the idea of a great poet still heard faintly through the mists of time prompted him to recite some lines by fellow poet Huw Goch. Memories of Merlin the Great, he said, recalled:

"A brotherhood well versed in poetry; a country never without song."

Traditionally, of course, Merlin has been associated with the Dark Ages, as either bard or sorcerer or adviser within King Arthur's court, though neither he nor King Arthur himself can be proved to have existed. Merlin the bard is said to have died in battle, not against the departing Romans, or the incoming Anglo- Saxons, but against his own countrymen during inter-tribal violence, a feud between war-lords vying to establish themselves as the new British Supremo.

Perhaps Merlin the Seer emerged, to confirm his people in their recently acquired Christianity, and counter the background cacophony of Celtic and Roman deities still clamouring to be heard. Perhaps it is the mystical rather than the bardic or the political side of Merlin that captures the imagination most firmly: the idea of spirituality trapped within the rock of materiality. Prophets tend to appear at times when they are most needed but least wanted. Popular thinking wants divine truth to be hidden, waiting to be unearthed like Aladdin's cave, a source of wisdom and wealth to be opened only by guile and effort.

Inevitably, perhaps, to Merlin's power have been ascribed various hidden caves said to be lit by supernatural light, and full of treasure. One such magical cave has long been said to exist beneath the slopes of Fan Gihirych in the Brecon Beacons National Park—a good choice of site since the area is riddled with mysterious limestone caverns deeply carved by an underground river. Hidden below ground are lakes and waterfalls which can sometimes be heard roaring and rumbling beneath the hillside. Some of the caves nowadays are open to the public. The Ogof-yr-Esgyrn, or cave of the bones, is the site of archeological digs. Lower down the slope a vast complex of caves and tunnels is know simply as Dan-yr-Ogof, 'beneath the cave'. The area includes what I would call the most likely contenders for the mythical Merlin's cave. The most impressive of these is the Cathedral Cave, enormous, floodlit, and open to the public. There are still many more caves beneath the hill waiting to be discovered.


Britain as a whole is not much troubled by earthquakes, because it lies cleanly in the middle of a tectonic plate and thus escapes the 'grinding' effect around the edges. But there is one area of Britain that experiences more minor tremors—an average of twelve a year—than most other places on earth, and seismologists do not know why this should be. And where is the epicentre? Why, precisely here, in the region of these deep caves. Merlin was trapped in the rock by the enchantress Nimue, so runs the fable. Perhaps at last he is near to bursting his prison walls. A few more good shakes, a good fall of rain on the hillside, and the whole area will collapse, wash itself out, and create a new Welsh version of the Cheddar Gorge. On that day, perhaps, Merlin's secrets will be revealed.

Copyright© 2006, Raymond Foster

Copyright© 2007, Undiscovered Worlds Press