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The Original Maid of Sker

The original Maid of Sker, wooed by a penniless harpist

I am sure many students of literature will be familiar with the romantic novel by RD Blackmore called ‘The Maid of Sker’. You may or may not also be aware that the author grew up in the village of Nottage near Porthcawl. It is Sker house at the end of the dunes in Kenfig that was his inspiration for the story. The name of his novel, however, was borrowed from a much older Welsh legend from a book called Y Ferch o’r Scer, which was translated into English by William Davies of Neath in 1806.

It is claimed that the story originated from an air composed by a local harpist by the name of Thomas Evans. As is the usual way, the story has been further embellished by subsequent retellings and whether it is entirely true is disputed, not least by the family it is about. The characters themselves however are indisputably real.

Isaac Williams of Sker had two daughters. The youngest, Elizabeth, was tall, beautiful, and elegant, and she loved to dance. She lived for the annual Mabsant (festival of the saint). One of the traditions of the Mabsant was that a harpist would be brought in to play throughout the night for the younger members of the community to dance until dawn.

One especially popular harpist was Thomas Evans of the parish of Newton and Nottage, the man credited with writing the song that this legend is based on. The sight of the beautiful Elizabeth Williams, dancing so elegantly through the night, caught his eye and quickened his pulse. He was utterly transfixed with her, and to his joy she made it obvious that his attraction was reciprocated. By the time the sun rose in the morning they were lovers.

When Isaac Williams got wind of this courtship, he was furious. After all, he was a gentleman farmer and lord of the manor, and Thomas Evans was a mere carpenter. He could not possibly be considered a worthy suitor for his daughter, no matter how good a harpist he was. Undeterred, Evans hired a horse and carriage and rode out to Sker House at night, in the hope that he could persuade Elizabeth to elope with him. But his plan was scuppered when he woke the dogs, who started barking and gave the game away. In response Isaac refused to let Elizabeth leave the house, and she was kept a prisoner in her room under lock and key until she was married off to Mr Kirkhouse of Neath.

She never got on with the husband that had been forced on her, and always begrudged him and her father for breaking her heart. She never forgot about her first true love and sought him out wherever there was a Mabsant in the area. She would always find a way to contrive to meet him in secret. On one occasion they were even caught together by her husband.

Eventually she could not take the pain of being without her true love anymore and died of a broken heart. She was buried 6th January 1776 in Llansamlet. Thomas Evans pined for her for so long that he did not take a wife until he had turned fifty. He died in 1819 and is buried in Newton churchyard.

There are obvious parallels between this story and the far more famous one about ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’. May be the Welsh bards liked telling stories about the beautiful daughters of wealthy families falling head over heals in love with penniless bards.

This item is an exert from my book Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale. Available to buy here.

You may be interested to know that my blogs are published in The Glamorgan Star newspaper.

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The quirky family of Cadoc

No matter how embarrassing your father may have appeared to be when you were growing up, compared to St Cadoc, you had it easy. ‘Who is St Cadoc?’ you may be asking. I am sure you have noticed the many references to ‘Cadoc’ or ’Cadog’ around South Wales. In the names of churches, streets, wells, houses, schools, community centres and hospitals. To say nothing of the village of Cadoxton.

Historically, he was one of the most revered saints in the early Christian church. It gives you an idea how significant a figure he was when you consider that he was born in the latter quarter of the fifth century. Over 1,500 years ago. And we are still naming things after him today.

The life of St Cadoc is recorded in the ancient works of the Cambro British Saints. His story is the first ever to reference the now legendary King Arthur ‘the Great’ of Camelot. Amongst his achievements are the founding of the ‘Clas’ monastery at Llancarfan near Cowbridge as well as many churches throughout Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany. He also managed to fit in time for the odd miracle. Even as a baby it is claimed that he made the water in the font he was baptised in turn into milk.

All these achievements, however, were in spite of a really dysfunctional upbringing. It was so weird, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Channel 5 documentary

First of all, he was not the only saint in the family. Pretty well his whole family were saints. Then you have his father. All I can say is, I think the bar for sainthood must have been set low back then.

He was a brute, a drunkard, and a pirate. And randomly; a king. He was called Gwynllyw although somehow that got Anglicised in later history to Woolos. He is credited with being the founding father of the city of Newport and the cathedral there is dedicated to him to this day. He fell head over heels in love with Gwladys, the daughter of King Brychan (later Anglicised to Brecon). He wanted to marry her, but Brychan refused him. So Gwynllyw took an army of 300 men to knock on his castle gates and kidnapped her.

His passion for her never seemed to faulter, even in old age. There is an account that in later life after being converted to Christianity by his son; Cadoc, he tried to seek a prayerful retreat on a desolate mountain. His endeavours however would perpetually fail as he could not overcome his carnal urges towards her and could not help himself from continually running back down the mountain to her bed.

If you thought he made a rotten husband, he was hardly parent of the month either. There is also a story that one day, he gave his infant son: St Cadoc away to a total stranger in exchange for a cow while out on a drinking spree. We’ve all done it. Oh no. Hold on, we haven’t, have we?

But against all the odds, Cadoc grew up to be a cornerstone of early Christian mission in northern Europe and became famous across the known world for his wisdom. In the modern Catholic church, he is still patron saint of burns and skin complaints, so he is the one to pray to if you are bothered by such things. His father is patron saint of Newport and pirates. No words needed.

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The murder of Colyn Dolphin at Tresilian Bay

One of my favourite bits of folklore from the St Donats end of the Vale of Glamorgan is a tale of how a disgruntled aristocrat had his revenge on a pirate on a beach near Llantwit Major.

A notorious seventeenth century pirate from Brittany in Northern France who was the scourge of merchant ships in the Bristol Channel went by the name of Colyn Dolphin. But his greatest haul was not silver of gold, it was when he kidnapped Harry Stradling, son of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats Castle.

The riches he gained for the ransom lay heavy in his pocket until the day came when Stradling got his revenge at Tresilian Bay between St Donats and Llantwit Major. He buried the pirate up to his neck in sand and forced him to watch his crew hang from the gallows in front of him. Then the final horror as the incoming tide finally engulfed him as he lay powerless in the sands at the mouth of Reynolds Cave.

Watch the video on the link below for the full story. 👇

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Two sunny days and a light breeze please

In the 1700s if you wanted to be sure of some good weather for the weekend, there were people from whom you could buy it! And according to some new research, Barry was full of them.

Most people back then, sailors and sea farers in particular, were extremely superstitious. This played into the hands of a small group of people who you might either call ‘enterprising’ or ‘unscrupulous’ depending on your own moral compass.

They would ‘sell’ weather and I have found records of three such people who operated in the Barry and eastern Vale area in the eighteenth century. 

The first was called ‘Modryb Sina’ (which means Aunty Sina). She lived somewhere in the parish of Cadoxton. If you sailed out of Lavernock or Sully, for a fee, she would sell you ‘a fair wind’. Enough to fill your sails and give your vessel speed on the waves, but not enough to put you in danger. It seems that she peddled her wares for over 20 years so she must have been good.

But she obviously was not quite as good as another chap who lived on Barry Island called ‘Ewythr Dewi’ (or Uncle David). He not only sold weather to local sailors but was known to travel as far a field as Swansea as his ‘fair weather’ was in such demand. His reputation for doing a good line in weather was impeccable amongst the superstitious sailors of the Welsh ports on the Bristol Channel. 

Both of these people lived and worked in Welsh speaking parts of the Vale, and therefore catered for Welsh speaking sailors. But what if you were an English speaking sailor? Have no fear, you were catered for by another local man going by the name of ‘Bill O’Breaksea’ who offered a similar service in Aberthaw (which was an English speaking part of the Vale). However, we cannot be sure when he operated as records of him are more sketchy. Chances are it was around the same point in history or slightly earlier, when Aberthaw was having its boom years, trading with the merchants of Minehead and providing the people of Bristol with their supply of butter.

There is also folklore of wives who had grown weary of drunken, slothful or abusive husbands going to these people to pay for a good storm the next time they put to sea. To rid themselves of them once and for all. Probably cheaper than a divorce. Like I said, depending on your moral compass.

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The Winch of Cardiff

The ‘Winch’ – is not a misspelling of ‘witch’, nor is it anything to do with the sort of winch you might use to raise a heavy object. It was a character in Welsh folklore similar to the sirens in ancient Greek mythology.

They were alluring temptresses that lived in or near water and would entice their unsuspecting male victims to their deaths while under their spell.

There is a legend of a ‘winch’ which lived by the whirlpool in the river Taff in Cardiff which local people used to believe was fathomless.

This winch would bathe near youthful men who were fishing or swimming in the river. As they swum out to her they would be caught in the swirling water and dragged to their deaths.

A teller of this tale to a nineteenth century traveller in south Wales described this winch as ‘the devil in disguise’. She said of the whirlpool “it reaches from the Taff to the mouth of perdition, where Satan waits for the souls who are beguiled by the lovely lady”.

There was another legend about this whirlpool. That in its cavernous depths a serpent lived, who would gorge itself on unfortunate victims sucked in to it. If ever someone floated to the surface after being sucked into the whirlpool (either alive or dead) it was believed that they were virtuous as the serpent would not touch those blessed by God.

I remember the whirlpool but I’m pretty confident it’s now gone – the victim of flood prevention engineering and the flooded bay.

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Mythical Beasts of Glamorgan

The Bwcci Bo, Cwn Annwn and Ceffyl Dwr – Mythical beasts of Glamorgan

It always comes as a surprise to me what a rich tradition of mythical beasts we have here in Glamorgan. We have so many we could give the ancient Greeks a good run for their money. And what is more, many are unique to this area and in many cases were believed to be genuine phenomena right up until the 20th century. Especially in more remote, rural areas in the Vale of Glamorgan.

For example, we have our own, indigenous race of goblins known as the Bwci Bo. They were believed to live alongside their human neighbours, hiding out in cottage gardens or farmyards. They could be mischievous, even destructive if disturbed or spied upon, but the superstition was that they might also do country folk the odd, good turn if needed. I am descended from a long line of Glamorgan farmers, and I know that if a calf became ill or lame, if all else failed, my great grandfather would leave a pale of milk at the barn door for the Bwci Bo as an incentive to help tend the calf back to good health. They were also used as a threat to naughty children – like a sort of bogey man. Nothing would get little legs pumping up the stairs faster than the threat “if you don’t go to bed this minute, I will go out into the yard and fetch the Bwci Bo.”

The origins of this little mischief maker are firmly rooted in the traditions of tree sprites and fairies from pre-Christian Celtic paganism. So too are some of our more sinister beasties. The Ceffyl Dwr for example is undoubtedly a derivation of a pagan water spirit. It was believed to frequent the banks of the Ewenny and Ogmore rivers near fording points. When a hapless traveller would come by and climb onto the horses back to avoid getting their feet wet, the creature would show its true colours and would soar hundreds of feet into the air until vanishing and leaving its mount to plummet to their death. There are lots of water horse spirits in Celtic and Norse folklore, but this aerobatic display is unique to our home-grown version. We also have the Cwn Annwn which is a kind of demon dog. They were frequently seen in desolate areas like the crossroads at Stalling Down near Cowbridge. If you saw a Cwn Annwn it was usually a sign that a death would follow.

As much as most of these accounts of beasties come from ancient history, there are a couple which only came into existence in the 20th century. None more bizarre than the account of the dragons of Penllyn. In 1905 a lady called Marie Trevelyan published what she described as “eyewitness accounts” of what were described as “winged serpents” living in the woods around Penllyn Castle. There was even a claim that a local man had killed one and kept its hide as a souvenir. I cannot swear to it, but I would say that the origin of this beastie is far more likely to be the fruit of an overactive imagination. But I would so dearly love to be proved wrong.

This exert is taken from Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale (2020 by Graham Loveluck-Edwards. Also published in the Buddy Magazine.

The author; Graham Loveluck-Edwards is selling copies of this book with 10% discount in November & December 2021 if you visit his website www.grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk.