Carmarthenshire Classic Legends
Llyn y Fan Fach
Carmarthenshire is a place where you can step back in time. The land is rich in heritage - but at times, and in certain places, the facts become intertwined with fiction. The resultant landscape is one steeped in myth and veiled in legend.
These Fairytales for young and old alike hold a special fascination for many, and form an important part of the history and culture of the Welsh nation. Here is a selection of some of the most well known myths and legends of Carmarthenshire, along with a few that may be less familiar.
The extent to which you subscribe to these tales is entirely up to you - are they complete fabrications or did they originate from some strange factual basis? One thing is for certain - they have been around for longer than any of us, and it is important to Welsh heritage and culture that we keep them alive for the interest and enjoyment of generations to come.
One of the most famous 'Dynion Hysbys' (wise men) or Wizards in Wales was a Doctor John Harries of Cwrtycadno, Caio. Allegedly people would travel from all over Wales to be consulted by him up until his death in the 1830’s. Doctor Harries is reported to have been able to cure diseases, eliminate pain, overcome witchcraft and evil spirits, predict the future and search out anything that was missing- including people and livestock.
One story tells of a man who went to see Dr. Harries in order to locate three missing cattle. The doctor asked the man to return the following day, in order that he may have time to consult his books. The farmer was disappointed, and to save a journey, he decided to sleep in the barn belonging to the Wizard. In the middle of the night the man was awoken to the sight of Dr. Harries summoning spirits before him. The man asked again where his cattle were and was answered by one of the spirits before him. The man asked again where his cattle were and was answered by one of the spirits. The following day, he man made his way to Carmarthen bridge by midday, where, as the spirit had prophesied, he found his cattle. As he drove them home, however, they fell down, as if dead. He returned to the wise Dr. Harries for advice. It emerged that the Wizard had put a spell on the cattle, because the man had left without payment. So the man paid and sure enough, when he retuned the cattle, they were all fit and well again.
Dr. Harries is said to have kept one of his books under strict lock and key- the local people were afraid of it’s powers, and even the Wizard himself dared open it but once a year. This occurred in annual ceremony at a secluded wooded spot. Once opened, the book was said to bring a raging thunder and lightening storm to the Vale of Cothi. Near the ruins of his home there is a flat stone named 'Carreg Y Doctor' (the Doctor’s stone), which is reported to mark the spot at which Dr. Harries carried out many of his magical rites.
2. Llyn Y Fan Fach
Towards the end of the twelfth century a widow with an only son was left to farm at Blaensawdde near Llanddeusant. She proved to be a successful farmer and as her herds increased she was forced to seek grazing further a field for the animals. She is reported to have sent her son to graze a herd of cattle at the foot of a black mountains near Llyn Y Fan Fach. One day, to his surprise, he witnessed a beautiful young woman - who appeared to be sat on the surface of the lake. He fell in love with the enchanting vision immediately and in a vain attempt to entice her from the waters he offered her what few pieces of bread he had. The lady of the lake refused the offer. 'Hard baked is thy bread' she said, before quickly disappearing into the depths of the water.
On his mother’s advice the son returned to the lake on two further occasions, on the second visit he took with him some unbaked dough, which was again refused by the lady - but not without a smile. On the third occasion he returned to the lake to witness a number of cows walking along the surface of the water, followed closely by the lady. He offered her the half-baked dough that had been suggested by his mother and this time she accepted the bread graciously. After some deliberation the young woman consented to become his wife but he had to pass one test. The lady disappeared into the water and returned with an elderly man - her father - and another woman whose appearance was identical to hers. The old man insisted that the young man distinguish his bride from her sister in order that they may marry. This he was able to do only because she gave him a signal with her foot. Her father provided the bride with a dowry of as many sheep, cattle, goats and horses as she could count in one breath. The only condition imposed was that should her husband strike her three times without just cause the woman would return to the lake - taking with her all the animals.
The couple lived happily with their three sons at Esgair Llaethdy, near the village of Myddfai, for some years. Over time the husband mistakenly struck his wife on three separate occasions. The first blow occurred when he was playful slapped her for failing to fetch the horse in order for the to attend the christening. The second came about in a wedding, when she had cried he had tapped her gently on the shoulder for comfort. The third strike took place at a funeral when the wife had angered her husband by laughing inappropriately. As her father had warned the lady back to the lake, taking with her the livestock of the farm - calling to them individually. The oxen are reported to have followed the lady back to the lake dragging the plough behind them - hence leaving the great furrows that can be seen to this day.
What happened to the husband does not figure in the remainder of the tale but the lady of the lake is said to have appeared to all three of her sons in order to advise them on the profession of healing. It is said that crowds of people used to descend upon the small lake every year on the first Sunday in August - in the hope of catching a glimpse of the lady of the lake.
3. The Physicians Of Myddfai
Following the disappearance of the lady of the lake at Llyn Y Fan Fach - just south east of Myddfai - her son’s were reported to have been seen wondering the shores of the lake, hoping for a glimpse of their mother. She is said to have appeared to each of her sons on separate occasions, in order to advise them on the profession of healing. The most frequently reported incident happened at a site named 'Llidiad-y-Meddygon', which translates as 'The Physician’s Gate' Here the lady spoke to eldest son, Rhiwallon (named after his father), she told him that his job on earth was to cure people’s ills and relieve their suffering, in order to help him carry out such a task she provided him with a bag that contained many prescriptions and instructions for healing. Furthermore, she promised to return should he need any further advice. She is reported to have met with her sons on several occasions in order to teach them of the medicinal properties and virtues of the plants herbs and flowers that grew in the area.
From this time onwards it appears that generations of able physicians flourished in the small village of Myddfai. They are collectively referred to as the Physicians of Myddfai, and gained fame throughout Wales. Many are buried in the village church. The family of physicians continued to thrive until the eighteenth century. David Jones and his son John Jones were the last to practice in Myddfai but the last representatives of the family is claimed to be one Rice Williams M.D. of Aberystwyth, who dies in 1842.
4. Llyn Llech Owain
Some versions of this tale assume that this Owain is Llawgoch, others associate it with the perhaps better-known Owain Glyndwr. Either way this Owain looked after a well on the mountain named 'Mynydd Mawr' which lies just north of Gorslas. A huge flagstone covered the well and after extracting enough water for himself and his horse he was always careful to replace the stone. On one occasion, however, Owain neglected to replace the slab and torrent of water poured down the side of the mountain. It is said that if Owain had not used his magic to check the flood, by galloping around it on horse, the whole area would have been inundated. The resultant lake on Mynydd Mawr was hence name 'Llyn Llech Owain' (the lake of Owain’s stone slab).
5. Rhys Pritchard’s Goat
The reverend Rhys Prichard was the vicar of Llandoverey at the beginning of the 17th century. It is reported that he was one of the greatest Welsh churchmen of his time with so many people travelling to here him preach that sermons often had to be held in the churchyard or even the open fields surrounding the church. Prichard was a royalist and a Calvinist and was intolerant of both Catholism and Puritanism.
In his younger days at Oxford he is alleged to have been more interested in liquor than his studies for the church. Following his appointment as Vicar of Llandovery, Prichard became notorious in the area for his excessive drinking habits and was more often than not found in one of the local taverns. The vicar would sometimes take his pet goat with him on his drinking sprees and this tale tells of one such occasion when Prichard offered the animal some of his ale. The goat acquired the taste quickly, and the pair drank until they could drink no more. The next time the vicar went out drinking, again he took the companion with him. On this occasion, however, when offered the ale the animal stood back in disgust. Such a reaction from such a simple creature is said to have had an overwhelming effect on Prichard. From that day on he became a reformed man, vowing never to touch a drop of drink again. Thereafter, the Reverenced Rhys Prichard became the great preacher that he is remembered s to this day. He also penned a number of poems that were gathered together in 'Cannwyll Y Cymru' (The Welshman’s Candle', further ensuring the survival of his name in Welsh memory.
6. Carreg Cennen Castle
Carreg Cennen Castle is situated about 4 miles from Llandeilo - it’s ruins standing majestically 900 foot above the River Cennen. The Castle is well known for the narrow 150--foot long underground tunnel that leads down from its south. A legend tells that the tunnel was constructed following the murder of a servant. The young lad was killed as he collected water from a spring in the cliff face.
7. Culhwch Olwen
This particular folk tale appears as part of a collection of twelve romantic Welsh stories known as the Mabinogion. The Mabinogion are believed to have evolved over the period from the second half of the 11th century to the end of the 13th century, as they were passed from storyteller to storyteller. The tales were unknown outside Wales until they were translated into English in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and published in Llandovery.
Culhwch is reported to have been the son of a Prince and first cousin to the legendary King Arthur. The story tells of how he desired the beautiful Olwen, daughter of the chief giant Yspaddaden Penkawr, as his bride - even though he had never met her. Culhwch was advised by his father to visit his cousin King Arthur for help. This he did, although Arthur was unfamiliar with the lady in question he vowed to be of assistance to his cousin. Culhwch - accompanied by Arthur and his finest knights - set out to find the castle in order to claim Olwen as his bride.
They finally reached the castle after much searching only to find Penkawr to be less than co-operative - in three consecutive meetings he attempted to kill his visitors with poison darts. Eventually the giant revealed a seemingly endless and impossible list of tasks that Culhwch was to undertake in order to gain the hand of Olwen and bring about the demise of the giant. He was required to grub up a hill, plough it, sow it, and ripen the crop - all in one day. He had to locate Mabon, son of Modron, who had gone missing at three days old and, most notably, he had to hunt down the vicious Twrch Trwyth (a king that, for his sins, he had been transformed into a wild boar by God).
Mabon was located through the help of the oldest creatures in the kingdom - namely the blackbird, stag, owl, eagle and salmon. The majority of the tasks were completed with the magical help of King Arthur and his consort. The Trwch Trwyth had to be caught in order to obtain the comb, razor and scissors that were hidden between his ears. These were to be used to shave the giant before he was killed. The chase began in southern Ireland at a place named Esgeir Overel, and took King Arthur and his mighty warriors all around the countryside of south Wales where a number were slain in the battle. Places noted in the chase included Llandysilio, the Black Moiuntain and the Amman Tywi Valleys. St Clears is still, to this day, associated with the wild boar, The Twrch was eventually surrounded in the Severn estuary where the scissors and razor were seized but the beast escaped and made it’s way through the West Country. The story tells of how the comb was snatched in Cornwall just before the creature disappeared into the sea for eternity.
On the completion of these tasks Culhwch returned to Yspaddaden Penkawr to claim the hand of his daughter. Olwen became Culhwch’s wife and remained so until the day she died. The giant himself was slain by King Arthur’s men and the couple were left to live happily ever after.
8. Gwenllian’s Head
Gwenllian was the wife of Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr, the prince of south Wales. In 1136 she was decapitated in an attack she led on the Norman strong hold that was Kidwelly Castle. The field in which she died is still known as Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s field). For centuries following her death the ghost of Gwenllian is said to have haunted the countryside around Kidwelly Castle. She could not rest until she found her head, which, so the story goes, was eventually returned to her by a man who searched the ancient battlefield for the skull.
9. Owain Llawgoch
Owain Llawgoch (Owain the red-hand). Also known as Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, is thought to be the great nephew of Llewellyn - the last true prince of Wales. He is also believed to be the Owain that appeared in the prophesies of Merlin as the once and future saviour of the Welsh people. He was a Welsh chieftain who inhabited the area during the fourteenth century and his name has been associated with a number of legends based in the Carmarthenshire area.
One association is with the limestone crag referred to as Craig Derwuddon (Druid’s Crag) at Pantllyn near Llandybie, Llawgoch, along with his warriors, are said to be sleeping within the crag, awaiting a call to defend their country in it’s hour of need. Some tales portray Owain as the Welsh equivalent of King Arthur, others suggest he was a bandit and a thief driven to the cave and trapped there by the people of Llandybie. Cavers have reported that the crag leads to a number of narrow passages and caverns, typical of limestone areas - a few have ventured some 900 feet within the crag.
At the beginning of the 19th century quarrymen reached a cave 30 foot below the limestone surface and discovered 13 human skeletons laid out carefully. The skeletons were unusually large, which have led to the suggestion that this may have been a Celtic burial site.
10. Twm Sion Cati
About one mile west of a place called Ystrad-Ffin there is a cave. Legend tells that this cave - nbamed Dinas cave - was once the hideout of a notorious outlaw called Twm Sion Cati (Thomas Jones, son of Catherine). This character from the 16th century was born in Tregaron. He is reported by some to have been a fearsome man but by others he is said to have been a Welsh version of Robin Hood - stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
One story tells of how Twm fell out with a fellow highwayman whose cruel antics he disapproved of. He decided to trick the highwayman and so disguised himself as a poor farmer riding a tired old nag, filling his saddle bags with nothing but shells. The cruel highwayman jumped out of his hiding place and held the old farmer at gunpoint but instead of quietly handing over his bags Twm threw them over the hedge next to the road. As the highwayman scrambled to pick up the bags Twm jumped from his old nag to the robber’s beautiful mare, whose saddle were bags were already full of treasure, and rode away as fast as he could.
Later in life Twm was pardoned and went on to become a respectable antiquary. At 77 he married the widow of his former enemy only to die himself two years later. The cave he once his in is, today, an RSPB reserve - providing a home for the rare Red Kite.
Merlin, who is well known as the principal advisor to King Arthur in Arthurian legend, is believed to have lived at the beginning of the 6th century. The story is thought to originate from the legends of a Celtic poet and prophet named Myrddin. According to the writings of Geoffery of Monmouth during the early 12th century, Merlin was the son of a demon, which had lain with his mother, a nun, at St. Peters church in Carmarthen, while she had slept.
The Welsh name for the town of Carmarthen is Caerfyrddin. The term 'Caer' translates to 'Fort' and 'Myrddin'- - the English version of which is Merlin - is said to by many to relate to the ancient prophet. From about the 9th century onwards, Merlin’s prophecies were contained in poems said to have been composed by the man himself. Many of these poems can be seen in Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmarthen), written in the min 13th century, which I stored at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Many of the Welsh legends concerning Merlin revolve around the town of Carmarthen. The most well known have been the famous oak tree that stood in the centre of the town for centuries. Merlin prophesied the demise of the town on the removal of the tree:
"When Merlin’s tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen town."
The tree was cared for by the municipal authorities until it’s removal became a necessity due to safety issues, in march 1978. The stump of the tree can still be visited by at the county museum and in respect of Merlin’s legend, a young oak was planted as a replacement at the site of the Roman amphitheatre in Carmarthen - and the town continues to stand.
Merlin’s fate is shrouded in mystery. One tale tells of how the wizard fell in love with a woman named Vivienne )also referred to as Nimue or Nyneve(. Merlin was able to foresee his tragic end, but nonetheless was unable to prevent it. He took Vivienne on a journey to learn his magic - even though she had not consented to become his lover. Vivienne eventually tired of the old man, and turned one of his own spells against him. He was imprisoned for eternity within a cave, buried beneath a great rock.
The cave is believed to be situated on Bryn Myrddin (Merlin’s Hill) in Abergwili, about two miles away from Carmarthen. Furthermore, it has often been said that his wails and groans can be heard in the area at twilight. Some have reported the sounds of the iron chains that bind him. Others say that he can be heard hard at work in the smithy within the underground prison.