FISHTRAPS AND FOLKLORE

 

 

Tradition has it that the boulder-strewn formation exposed at low water immediately to the south of the causeway at Wallog contains an ancient gored, which is the Welsh name for a fish trap or weir. Massive boulders and pole fences were formed into walls to create triangular, circular or oval goredi. At Aberarth and Morfa Mawr, twenty miles to the south of Borth, there are several well preserved medieval goredi. Around that time, Aberarth was a grange and small port for the inland Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida. Some of these weirs were still in use up until the early years of the 20th century.

 

The word Wallog may mean unusual, quirky or not quite right. Obviously the phenomenon of the causeway promoted otherworld possibilities. Such feelings still spring to the forefront of the mind as at low water the bouldered causeway seems to beckon one to walk on its dreamlike surface over the sea and out beyond the horizon. Such notions also occur whilst walking amongst the remains of the sunken forest often exposed on Borth beach. Others maintain that Wallog is a mans name, Gwallawg (the hairy one) who figures in early Welsh poetry (G. Morgan, pers. comm., 2003). This is Gwallog ap Lleenog who came to Wales from the north of Britain towards the end of the 6th century and was mentioned in a poetic dialogue between Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd (Stephens, 1853, pp.43-62). He is supposedly buried at Llanddeiniol.

 

The gored at Wallog is far older than any of those at Morfa Mawr and has traditionally been attributed to Gwyddno Garanhir. If this is so, then it is the one mentioned in The Book of Taliesin that was entwined with the Mabinogion stories. Mabinogion is a pluralised version of the original term mabinogi, which means boyhood, thus Tales of Boyhood. It may also mean the tales that an apprentice poet or story teller had to know. The Mabinogion and associated stories are a collection of tales originating from the 11th and 12th centuries; concentrating on the coastal regions of Wales. They were the accumulation of much older stories from the dawn of Celtic civilisation, brilliantly elaborated and embellished by the Welsh. Compiled by Lady Charlotte Guest, from ancient texts, these tales eventually appeared in print in the 19th century. Due to the great age of their settings, geophysical differences are detectable, especially pertaining to sea level changes.

 

Evidence of sea level changes conjure up mythologies concerning ships plying the old Celtic sea routes. There are references to a kind of floating world, where there were hallucinatory sightings of strange ships and improbable crews plying the shallow seas between Wales and Ireland. There had been a centuries old connection between the Welsh and the Irish across the short stretch of sea that divides their respective lands. During the Norman conquest many Welsh princes took refuge in Ireland. From the 17th century onwards Irish imports such as nets and salt were important for the development of Ceredigion’s herring industry. Another outcome of this Celtic trading alliance cemented down the centuries are references to the high regard that Welsh mariners had for their Irish counterparts. The fact that Welsh sailors chose, of all the world’s nationalities, to have an Irishman with them on the yardarm in perilous conditions encountered on sailing ships. This is referred to not only in local Borth stories, but can be found in D.W. Morgan’s Brief Glory and also in a letter that appeared in Maritime Wales (no.4, p.128).

 

In ancient and medieval Wales, coastal fishtraps were quite common. Some of these have been fished successfully up until the 1900s. At the Rhos Fynach (Monks Meadow) gored, built around 1200, near the Little Orme, north Wales, they caught 35,000 herring on a single tide in 1850, and ten tons of mackerel were caught overnight in 1907. When these structures were located far from an abbey site, weir wardens were appointed to look after them. The gored of Gwyddno Garanhir is reputed to have produced a valuable catch on every May Eve. The Book of Taliesin refers to its location as being on a strand between the Dyfi and The Ystwyth rivers (Guest, 1997, p.190). In his essay Taliesin and the Borth Weir D.W. Morgan favours a Borth location, but as the shoreline has changed he conjectures that it is now beneath the sea. However for centuries the Wallog location features in local tradition. It is between the Dyfi and Aberystwyth, with a strand in the form of the causeway Sarn Cynfelin, and has obviously older weir remains than the Cistercian ones at Aberarth. Sarn Cynfelin means Cynfelin's causeway; he was a Welsh born saint descended from Cunedda. He also gave his name to the ancient church two miles inland from Ynyslas called Llangynfelin, as well as the now vanished coastal chapel between Wallog and Clarach, called Capel Cynfelin. There are areas in the Clarach Valley that also bear his name.

 

If Gwyddno’s gored is the one at Wallog, then he may have had his fort or manor house on the high hill of Moelcerni, or somewhere between Wallog and Clarach. Another contender is today's underwater mound of stones just offshore nearby, called Tol Faer (Fort Mound). This may have been a substantial mound at the end of a small causeway extending from the bouldery ground under the adjacent cliffs 16 centuries ago. Owing to erosion it appears only as a stony protrusion above sea level on an 1841 map; to thereafter disappear . These conjectured locations are within a mile of the weir, which would always have been in view. There are tantalising poetic references to places associated with the name Cynfelin. Little Gwion, who transmogrified into Taliesin, was questioned by King Maelgwyn as to his identity. The poetic child prodigy answered in the form of a riddle poem, where one line stated:

 

, "I have been on the White Hill, in the court of Cynvelyn" (Graves, 1971, p.81).

 

Centuries later, a place called Capel Cilvellen, Cynfelin? sometimes spelt with a 'k', appears on old maps marked as being on the hill between Wallog and Clarach. Perhaps its occupants built the Wallog weir, or they may have, as was common practice, rebuilt an older weir that was already in place, in that instance Gwyddno Garanhir’s fishtrap.

 

Other than the piscatorial element of Gwyddno's gored, there is the associated legend concerning the Welsh poet Taliesin (Radiant Brow). The infant Taliesin had been cast, Moses-like, into the sea in a small coracle which drifted with the tide to eventually become trapped in Gwyddno's gored. Taliesin’s story is an example of the beauty of ancient Welsh folk tales. This is the version I know:

 

Ceridwen, wife of Tegid Foel, became a witch so as to give her ugly son Morfran some compensatory gifts. A cauldron was to be kept boiling for a year and a day whilst she searched the countryside for special herbs to compound a magic potion. This potion would change Morfran into a brilliant handsome individual. Blind Morda and Gwion Bach were given the task of cauldron minding. Eventually during this task three drops of the potion flew out and one landed on Gwion's finger. To soothe the scald he instinctively put it in his mouth which meant that he now had the magic power intended for Morfran. Rightly fearing Ceridwen’s wrath he took advantage of his newly acquired powers and changed into a hare, whereupon she became a greyhound. He hastily changed into a fish and took to the river; Ceridwen now chased him as an otter. Gwion, now desperate, turned into a bird; but she became a hawk. Terrified, he turned into a grain of wheat, whereupon Ceridwen changed into a black crested hen and ate him. Nine months later she gave birth, but could not find it in her heart to kill the tiny infant. Ceridwen put him in a leather bag, placed him in a coracle and cast him into the sea, where fate saw him caught in Gwyddno’s gored. It was Gwyddno’s son Elfin who found him. Hitherto Elfin had been a luckless lad, so much so that his father let him mind the gored on the always bountiful eve of May. Unbelievably, and to the weir warden’s disgust, the only thing caught was a small coracle - but what a catch! It was the infant that not only changed Elfin’s luck but became one of the great poets of Britain, Taliesin.

 

There are variations to the Taliesin story, depending on where the storyteller located the weir site. In another Borth version Elfin marries Angharad, daughter of Seithenin, who caused Cantre Gwaelod to be flooded. Elfin, now landless, ekes out a living keeping bees on Cors Fochno and trapping salmon around the Dyfi. He makes a cunning fishtrap near his home. One night, Angharad, hearing strange sounds, goes to the weir and finds the baby Taliesin there in a coracle. He is adopted and becomes Britain's greatest bard, and when he dies he is buried near Borth, above the village honouring his name, Taliesin. One can easily adapt this story to a specific location at Borth in the following speculative scenario: Elfin and Angharad’s home is on Ynys Dwrgi. The surrounding fenland of Cors Fochno is where the beehives are kept. The weir is thirty yards away, situated at the bend in the Leri river that is commemorated in the present day field being marked on the tithe map of 1841 as Cae Gored (Weir Field). The Williams and Rowlands families of today’s Brynllys commented on this matter by stating that they had not known about its old name, but had often wondered why there was a gravelly area arching through its corner (Williams & Rowlands, pers. comm. 2001).

 

The most famed legend in the Borth area is that of Cantref Gwaelod, the Lowland Hundred. It is a tale of disaster whose only survivors were later involved in the Taliesin story mentioned previously. It was they who discovered Taliesin as a foundling and gave him his name. The Cantref Gwaelod story inspired poet and essayist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) who produced it in book form as The Misfortunes of Elphin published in 1829. No doubt he had heard the story from his Welsh connections by way of his 1819 marriage to Jane Gryffydd whom his friend Percy Bysse Shelley referred to as the ‘White Snowdonian Antelope’.

 

The story of Cantref Gwaelod that I know is as follows:

 

This Cantref was held in ancient times by Gwyddno Garanhir who had his castle at Caergwyddno, situated in an area at the end of Cynfelin’s causeway, which today lies under the sea eight miles off the coast. The then low lying area necessitated sea defence embankments with a watchman to guard them. Seithenin had this responsibility, which was unfortunate as he was a great drunk. Elfin, Gwyddno's son, nagged his father to no avail concerning the state of the sea defences. On a night of high tide and accompanying tempest, with Seithenin inebriated, the sea broached the dilapidated embankments and drowned forever this Lowland Hundred. All were lost except Gwyddno, Elfin and Angharad. ‘Proof’ of such tales is the submerged remains of a forest along Borth beach.

 

The Cantref Gwaelod legend was convenient to explain the remains of a sunken forest that is always visible somewhere along the Borth shoreline. The antiquarian and historian Edward Llwyd commented on them in 1695 when he stated that “I have observed them myself betwixt Borth and Aberdyfi”. In the Dark Ages and Medieval times the forest remains must have been more evident than they are today, to the extent that sudden inundation must have seemed the only answer to this puzzling phenomenon. According to scientific studies, there were several periods of gradual inundation triggered by rising sea levels beginning around 6000 B.C. In the Neolithic period in Britain, from 4500-2500 B.C., the human inhabitants witnessed this slow inundation which possibly continued well into the Bronze Age, 2500-800 B.C. The associated tales could have been passed down by the original pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain, and became mixed with the Celtic mythology. Scholarly research denies any sudden shift in land or sea levels, so obviously it was a process that lasted for centuries. It is supposed that the Romans, who recorded much of life in Britain, would have noted such events or the remains of sea walls or sunken towns (North, 1957, p.163). There have been animal remains found in the shallow seas around the Welsh coast with arrow heads amongst the bones, testifying to the fact that people had lived and hunted where the sea now is during the Mesolithic and Neolothic periods. In 1968 Mr. Aran Morris found the remains of an auroch on Borth beach. This animal, the now extinct European ox, was hunted by the ancients and its images were painted on the cave wall and ceilings at Altamira and Lascaux. In 2016 a 4,000 year old red deer skull and antlers were uncovered on Borth beach.

 

Topographic changes can be wrought by sea erosion. In some places the cliff formations between Borth and Wallog are continually changing because of rock slides. In the last thirty years even productive lobster holes, one near Craig y Delyn (Harp Cliff), and another by Carreg Mulfran (Cormorant Rock) that were accessible during the smallest of tides, have both been smashed by the sea. Another one further south opposite Carreg Felen (Yellow Rock), so named because it is covered with the lichen xanthoria parietina, has also been destroyed by winter gales. This was where local fisherman Aran Morris caught a record six pound lobster in 1968. It was reported in the Cambrian News that his father, Thomas Rowley, caught 15 lobsters in one tide in the 1930's. The once large grass topped rock feature by Twll Ladi Wen (White Ladies Cave) near Trwyn Pellaf, that could easily be scaled forty years ago, is now no more than a large boulder. Tol Faer the folkloric contender for the weir keeper's station, situated between Wallog and Clarach, suffered the same fate centuries ago. Nowadays this submerged formation is the haunt of the lobster, the summer visitor the black bream, and in winter the cod.

 

Twll Ladi Wen is the site of an ancient ghost story This is the little cave where a white-draped female apparition would sometimes be seen gliding over the boulders into her cavern home. This cave has now almost disappeared as a cliff slide in the winter of 2000 saw much of it destroyed. The Reverand D.T. Hughes’ articles about old Borth called Looking Back records this local ghost story being set further south than the one I know. Hughes’ site is in the cave called Ogof y Delyn (Harp Cave), which is just north of Craig Y Delyn. His ghostly lady is not a gowned figure gliding in and out of her cave home, but a mermaid who comes ashore to comb her tresses. I began to speculate that perhaps the differing locations meant that Borth and Morfa Borth had separate versions of local stories. However Aran Morris whose antecedents have always lived at Morfa Borth, concurs that the cave is located at Trwyn Pellaf. The Williams family of Tydu and their relatives the Griffiths's of Gwastad know of another tale associated with Twll Ladi Wen. Their story suggests that there was a tunnel leading to Brynrodyn Farm which was used to smuggle contraband, especially salt, during the 1700's.

 

Ogof y Delyn is not always easy to enter, as it fills with stones after storms. Years ago when it was accessible, one entered a large round chamber with beautifully smoothed walls and a fine gravel floor. In the centre of this domed cave was a large upright stone called Carreg yr Eglwys (Church Rock). Unfortunately much of the ‘ceiling’ has now fallen to the floor and the solitary menhir-like ‘pulpit’ is no more. There are another two stories attached to this cave. It was purported to be the secret meeting place of Catholics in Tudor times. The other story is that it was the meeting place for the early Nonconformists, as they were much loathed by the established church. Prior to a law being passed in 1689, giving nonconformists the right to practice their religion, they were constantly persecuted. These stories were told by Mr Willy James, the Borth County Primary School headmaster in the 1950s. The Borth coastal strip had long evoked such stories. According to an article written about the Clarach area, concerning secret passages to and from churches:

 

… all sorts of legends were popular at one time in regard to such passages and caverns as could be seen in the rocks at Borth (Samuel, 1914, p.45).