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The swan ladies of Glamorgan

In Welsh folklore, there is no shortage of people able to morph into other forms. A flick through the pages of The Mabinogion can confirm that. There’s the story of Bloden- wedd, who transformed into an owl; Delilah, who transformed into an eagle; and Gilvaethy, who first turned into a deer, then a hog, then a wolf and finally back into a human.

Todays blog is about a more specific trend in Glamorgan folklore from later history. Stories about swans able to transform themselves at will into beautiful girls. I suppose given the delicate, porcelain like features, pure driven snow white complexion, long necks, demure bowed heads and overall glamour of your common or garden swan its probably not that surprising. But it isn’t something you commonly observe so frequently in the folklore of other areas.

These stories not only capitalise on the Welsh tradition for people taking the form of animals and vice versa to achieve a goal, they are also in that hopeless romantic genre so popular especially in the 19th century. A genre where people lose the love of their lives and die shortly afterwards of a broken heart. Or at the very least go mad.

Here are a couple which though unrelated, have a definite thread.

The first is set in the village of Candleston which used to lie between Merthyr Mawr and Tythegston, but these days has been lost to the sand dunes. It was a thriving community in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which makes it a little easier to date when this story originates from. Probably not co-incidental that this was also a time when it was very fashionable for the castles and great houses of the landed gentry to have a resident Welsh bard come along and stay for a few months, to write stories and songs. These would have been primarily for entertainment, and there were bragging rights to be had from who had the best bard. The stuff they would write would ostensibly be based on stories from history and would usually feature a celebrated descendant of the paying lord doing something tremendously brave or chivalrous. However, sometimes, their output like in this example, would have been purely for their entertainment value.

In this tale, a Candleston inn keeper’s wife had a reputation for keeping a string of lovers behind her husband’s back. What my mother would have described as being “a bit of a girl”. A wizard, seeking to punish her for her propensities, transformed her into a swan. Despite her indiscretions, the inn keeper loved his wife dearly and begged the wizard to turn her back. He refused, saying that she would turn back into human form in a year, by which time she would have learned the value of monogamy.

The inn keeper tied a blue ribbon to one of her wings, so that when she was swimming with the other swans in the estuary of the Ogmore river, he would know his beloved wife from the others. But one day, when she made advances on a male swan, his partner fought her off, and in the struggle that ensued, the ribbon was lost.

When all the swans flew south away, he watched them departing, unable to stop them, or even to spot his wife amongst them to bid her farewell. He never found out where she had flown to, or whether she turned back to her previous human form. They were never united again.

But if the innkeeper had come to hear a certain other local tale, then his story might have had a different ending. This might be total coincidence, but I think I might know where his wife got to.

There is quite a well-known local story about a farmer on Gower, although in some tellings it is set on Barry Island. This was back in the sixteenth century, when the island was still physically detached from the mainland, before it had houses or fun fairs, and the whole island was farmland.

While working in a field above Whitmore Bay, he saw a beautiful swan alighting among the rocks. There she laid aside her feathers and wings, turned herself into a beautiful maiden and bathed in the waters. After a time she put back on her trappings of a swan and flew away.

The amazed farmer watched this repeated on several occasions. Then one day he lay in wait for the swan, and as soon as she was transformed and enjoying the water, he snuck to the water’s edge, seized her swan garments and hid them. When eventually she rose from her bathe, she spied the farmer. Unable to recast herself as a swan, she asked him if he knew where her garments were. He claimed ignorance.

He offered instead to fetch her some clothes from his mother’s house, to save her dignity. This he did, and they walked along the beach together while he consoled her for the loss of her wings. As time passed, they got to know each other, fell in love and got married. For three years all was well. Then one day, by chance, he happened to leave open the oak chest where he had hidden her wings. Spotting them, she was enraged at the deception. However, over the years she had grown to love her husband, so striving to forgive him she said nothing about her discovery.

But having seen the wings, now all she could think about was the freedom of the skies and the life she had once lived. Then the day came when she heard her flock flying overhead. She could resist the call no more. She went back to the chest and put on her wings.

The farmer returned home from work that day to see his beautiful swan-like wife, her wings outstretched, slowly flying into the sunset. Her voice could be heard plaintively crying, ‘Farewell.’ The farmer so bitterly lamented his loss that he pined away and within a few months had died.

There is another version of this story, in which a man from Cadoxton and his friend from Rhoose find another two swan-ladies on Barry Island. Like the farmer, they marry these ladies, taking them back to their homes. However the Cadoxton swan-lady gets run over by a cart (being a swan she was unaware of the dangers of road traffic), while the one in Rhoose re-discovers her wings and takes to the skies. A nice detail of this version is that, after the swan ladies are gone, the two husbands are left to raise their children alone, and they all have conspicuously long necks.

This story was first published in my regular column in the Glamorgan Star. I have compiled these articles into a second book on the subject of local history, folklore and legend called ‘More legends and folklore from Barry, Bridgend and the Vale’. It retails for £12.99 and is available from Amazon, all good book shops or from my own website at a discounted price on this link. It would make a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Glamorgan’s colourful past.

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Barry Island – Land of myths and legends

If you have only ever briefly visited Barry Island or your only point of reference to it is Gavin and Stacy, this video might make your eyes pop out of your head.

Barry Island in the Vale of Glamorgan may be famous for Butlins holiday camp, the beach, the funfair and the arcades. But did you know it is supposedly the site of multiple miracles?

In the 6th or 7th century a monk called Baruc who was originally from Ireland, was a disciple of St Cadoc and was based at the ‘Clas’ Celtic Christian monastery at Llancarfan. He like countless monks before him, was using Barry Island as a retreat but events were to unfold here which would lead to a miracle and the canonisation of St Baruc.

This little known story led to Barry Island being the destination of countless pilgrims for the best part of 1,000 years. All eager to drink the waters of the holy well, claimed to have miraculous healing properties. Barry Island was the ‘Lourdes’ of the Vale of Glamorgan. Yet today very little remains to remind us of this. A few metres of crumbling masonry and a sign and that is about it.

In this latest video I tell the story of St Baruc, his legend, his miracle and his legacy.

I also cover a fun bit of folklore. A story published in 1909 but possibly dating back to the 17th century about two men. One from Rhoose and one from Cadoxton who spot two swans landing on a beach at Barry Island which turned into the women of their dreams.

I hope you enjoy it. If you want to watch more videos like this I have a YouTube channel full of them at https://youtube.com/user/grahamloveluck

If the written word is more your thing, both these stories are lifted from my latest book entitled ‘More legends and folklore from Barry, Bridgend and the Vale’. It is the second volume of such stories and is available at a discounted price from my online store. Just follow the link.

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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.