CLAIRE BARRAND reveals some of Wales’ most disturbing folk legends…
If you have had the pleasure or even held a desire of visiting the lush green valleys of South Wales, you won’t need me to tell you that the brooding mountains, weather-beaten coastlines, and dark, sinister lakes have the power to stir your spirit and free the mind.
It is a land where legends prosper, where spoken tradition has ensured that the past has never been forgotten through the telling of folklore and legend and is the haunt of many different entities.
Here are 10 of the creepiest folklore stories of Ghosts, Witches, Goblins, Phantoms and Fae that have grown as old as the hills themselves and are still told this day in the area by the wise elders that know the worth of paying attention to ancient lore.
Legend has it that in Cwm Pwca, which translates as “Valley of the Goblin” a certain sort of goblin named “Pwca” existed. Mythological creatures, they were thought to have a menacing shapeshifting capability, frequently beginning in the form of a rabbit, horse, cat, goat or dog but at all times black.
Said to have the influence to bring terrible fortune, people would be filled with dread if one intersected their path for dread that the “Pwca” would curse them. Pucks Valley in Clydach Gorge was so named because this is one of the areas that he was reputed to hang out.
The name was given to a variety of English fairies, but the stories in Wales are found to be very similar and across vast areas of locality varying very little in detail. Each account will be interchangeable with another with the only difference being the alteration of local names for Pwca.
The story goes that a peasant who is returning from his work (or sometimes he is returning from a fair) in the dark, sees the lit lantern travelling in front of him. He sees that it is a dusky little figure carrying a lantern or a candle over its head and so he follows it for several miles. Suddenly he finds himself on the brink of a frightful cliff. From this height, he can hear below him a foaming torrent of water. At the same time, the little goblin holding the lantern bursts out laughing with a malicious and evil cackle as he extinguishes out the light leaving the poor traveller stranded and left lost in the dark.
2. Old Magw the Witch
Historical accounts suggest to us that Welsh Witches would be conceivably misunderstood and misrepresented often in the middle ages. The term “witch” has had many meanings to many people over the years., For most of the Middle Ages, the word would have described someone who was simply a local healer, maybe someone who mixed herbal poultices and medicines, or perhaps they used charms or spells for healing cattle and other farm animals.
A law in 1563 made witchcraft a capital offence, so from that point onwards more and more people would be called out as being witches as they were universally feared.
Commonly this was simply a convenient way of labelling some ill-fated woman who was unlike everybody else – or, occasionally it would be used as a way of exacting revenge when a wise man or wise woman failed to cure an illness or heal a wounded animal.
The most feared Clydach Gorge Witch was said to be that of Old Magw. A teacher employed at the Ironworks school in Clydach by the manager Edward Frere, Old Magw was reputed to be a vicious, wicked woman with merciless means of dealing out the most severe punishments to children who were late for school or defiant. Widely feared by local folk she was reputed to curse your plants in the garden if you maddened her.
3.The Maddened Ghost of John Dawson
Another teacher reputedly a harsh tyrant at the ironworks school was a man called John Dawson who was reputed to have three pets that he kept close by his side at all times – a black jackdaw, a cat, and a welsh terrier. Disliked by many because of his nasty temper and harsh ways, Dawson would walk daily from home and back to work across the mountain from Twyn Wenallt, however, one day, he just disappeared.
Assumed that he had drowned in a nearby pond, locals in search of his body recovered a sack from the water with the three pets dead inside. However, Dawson was never to be seen again, and no trace of his body was found. The apparition of a figure wearing “old fashioned clothing” and a hat that “dated back to the Seventeenth Century,” has been described high up on Gilwern Hill near the old quarry pits, known as the Tyla. It is whispered amongst locals that this is the ghost of John Dawson, perhaps resolute to tell the story of his murder?
The ghosts of departed mortals usually are known to the witness however some terrifying ones would be of those seeking moralistic resolution. One story goes that some men were drinking in an Inn in Newport when one of the men dared another to go into the nearby charnel house (church vault where corpses would be kept) and fetch a skull. He accepted the challenge and took the skull back to the Inn, where for an hour or so the men debated over their beer as to whether the skull belonged to a male or a female.
After a jolly hour, the man returned the skull to where he had found it only once he was alone an immense blast of icy wind grasped him, mauling and hauling him about so much that his teeth chattered in his head. Once he got home, his wife told him that his cane which was hanging up in the room had been beating itself against the wall in a frantic manner and convinced the original owner of the skull had come to get him he swore he would never do such a deed again.
4. The Gwyllgi and the Cwm Annwn (Phantom Dogs)
A spectral black dog ghost has been witnessed by many people in Wales, but they do vary in their consequence. In Welsh folklore, the black dog is usually a night-time apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a Hellhound (Cwn Annwn) however the is another dog that has a distinct difference.
The Gwyllgi or Dog of Darkness was a spirit dog of terrible shape and size, described as “larger than a steed nine winters old” and rather like a Mastiff with fiery breath and glowing red eyes and an unearthly howl. It can be partly human with the limbs of a dog.
The Gwyllgi was sighted around coastal areas of Wales and was not universally classed as an omen of death if seen, unlike the Cwm Annwn which has clear connotations with a warning of death. It is described to be larger than a normal dog and often has large, glowing eyes. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent. Interestingly once smuggling became unprofitable, the Gwylgi was seen less and less.
The Cwn Annwn or hounds of hell were said to be a pack of sky-bound ghostly hounds to lead out at night by the King of the Otherworld to hunt the souls of the damned. According to Welsh folklore, their growling is loudest when they are at a distance, and as they draw nearer, it grows softer and softer. In legend, the hounds are sometimes accompanied by a fearsome hag called Mallt-y-Nos, “Matilda of the Night.”
Mallt-y-Nos drives the hounds onward with shrieks and wails, which some say are evil and malicious in nature. Apparently once a beautiful but wicked Norman aristocrat who loved hunting so much that she said, “If there is no hunting in heaven, I would rather not go!”
She is said to have regretted making this wish and now cries out in despair as she hunts forever in the night sky. It is not known if she has been seen in this area but no wonder the sighting of the black dog on more than one occasion would fill the locals with fear.
5. Guardian of The Graves
In Llanelli Church yard the ghost of a dog white dog used to be often seen. Said to have once been owned by a local man from Crickhowell, by the name of Colonel Sandeman.
After his death and burial here, the loyal dog was found often pining at his master’s graveside refusing to leave, and so they placed a statue of the dog on the grave after his death.
Locals started to talk about sinister shadows of the dog that would be seen by passers-by at night and poachers coming down from the mountain would report their dog’s hackles going up and refusing to pass the graveyard.
However, the sight of a single ghost dog is not uncommon in Welsh graveyards.
Superstitious lore meant that folk believed that the first person to be buried in a churchyard would be fated to stay earthbound evermore to be the “Guardian of the Graves”.
A role that meant that soul had the duty to protect all other souls committed to that ground from evil and trespassers with ill intentions towards the graves.
As nobody would relish the idea of that role, it was often the case that a dog would be buried there instead for that purpose. The guardian of the graves, therefore, is often sighted as a ghostly spectre of a snarling and fearsome dog prowling churchyards at night.
6. Giants and Bedd y Gŵr Hir (“The Long Man’s Grave”)
The story might explain the existence of two small, standing stones in a field at Twyn Allwys near Gilwern, that used to mark the old parish and county boundary between Monmouthshire and Breconshire:
The story goes that an incredibly tall giant lived in the area and when he died the locals had to carry him a long way with the intention of burying him at Lanwenarty Church Yard. The weather unpredictably became wild, and it grew dark, so weary bearers decided to bury him there and then in the center of the field, as he was so heavy and large to continue any further.
They lay two stones at his head and foot to mark his grave.
The distance between the stones is 13.5 ft, and so he was described as a man of “gigantic size.”
Long Mans Ghost continued to haunt the area for the early years of the 19th century. He was believed to be particularly fond of peering through bedroom windows on Hallowe’en!
Gigantic apparitions such as this were also being noted elsewhere. A Thomas Miles Harry (Wirt Sikes) on his way home to Aberystruth from Abergavenny when his horse spooked and he saw the figure of a huge woman standing in the path before him. So, tall was she that he described her as being half as high as the tall beech trees on the other side of the road.
7. The Gwrach y Rhibyn
Truly one of the most terrifying amongst all Welsh apparitions is that of the Gwrach y Rhibyn. The main thing that makes her distinct is her phenomenal ugliness. A rare female goblin, a common saying in Wales used to be “Y mae mor salw a Gwrach y Rhibyn” which means “She is as ugly as the Gwrach y Rhibyn.” She is hideous to look at with having disheveled black hair, long black teeth, long, lanky withered arms, leathery wings and a corpselike appearance. She comes in the still of the darkest nights, and you hear her flap her wings against the window and at the same time a blood-curdling howl and the name of the person about to die. She calls the name in a lengthy dying tone, and her shrieks are said to be unutterably horrific to hear. She sometimes appears on a mountain side if it is misty or at crossroads or by a body of water.
8. Grotesque Ghosts
Many 19th century Welsh ghosts have a distinct strangeness about the way they look or move about. Often, they were sighted whirling, throwing stones, walking on their hands or on all fours whistling and distorting their shapes terrifying those that witnessed them.
Another tale goes that a man by the name of Lewis Thomas was returning from a journey and in passing a field near Bedwellty, he witnessed a ghost of a man whirling along on his hands and feet. When a John Jenkins hanged himself in a hay loft near Abertillery, his sister discovered his body and let out a scream. Jeremiah Jones who lived in the nearby house upon hearing the scream looked in her direction only to see a figure of a man emerging from the hay loft upside down and moving violently towards the direction of the river. One freakish goblin sighted by a Thomas Andrew in the parish of Lanhiddel claims to have seen a goblin whirling across a wall on all fours and making a horrible mowing sound shaking its head from side to side.
9. The Gwyllion
The Gwyllion is one type of female fairy you don’t want to meet on a dark, lonely road at night on top of Clydach mountain. She haunts the lonely roads and as the welsh word “Gwyll” is used to describe gloomy dark hag or witch. What is special about this particular one is that she shows herself as an apparition in the form of an old woman with an oblong four-cornered hat ah coloured clothes, her apron across her shoulder and she carries a wooden pot. She shouts “ Wwb!” ( “Whoa up!” ) And those that hear her cries on a foggy night would follow the cries unaware that they were being led purposefully astray and became disorientated and lost before hearing her cackle an evil laugh. It is said that her face has never been seen. She became a regular spectre after the death of Juan White (a local witch) and is seen on many mountains in the area. It is also said that once a knife is drawn in front of her, she disappears as the Fae (Twlwyth Teg) reputedly do not like knives.
10. Twlwyth Teg
The modern Welsh name for fairies is the Twlwyth Teg which means “fair folk” or family. In the Celtic tradition, fairies were entities who were barred from paradise.
They inhabited a middle kingdom between the human world and the Otherworld of the dead – though as we shall see, that was frequently a somewhat blurred distinction.
They lived in and moved around the land, but were invisible most of the time to the human inhabitants. Contact between the human and fairy races was most often indirect: fairies would be heard and not seen, their effects felt (such as good/bad luck, illness), and changes they made to the house, farmyard or field noticed.
The places that they were believed to inhabit or haunt were treated with fear and respect because it was known that interference with them could cause misfortune. Certain protocols had to be followed for humans to keep on good terms with the fairies, who at the best of times could be mischievous and were nearly always a little touchy.
When traveling, fairies either flew or else trooped along special paths that belonged to them. They could fly on winged insects or plant stalks, as mentioned earlier, or they could simply fly of their volition. Robert Kirk stated that fairies could “swim in the air near the earth.” All in all, sharing the land with the fairies was a delicate and at times dangerous business. Less than 3 miles from Clydach in BLAINA. Folklorist Edmund Jones recorded a curious case of an alleged fairy funeral relating to the old church in Blaina (in the ancient parish of Aberystruth) in the eighteenth century. He reported:
“Mr. Howel Prosser, Curate of Aberystruth after seeing a Funeral going down the Church Lane, late in the evening, towards the Church, imagined it was the body of a local man from the upper end of the Parish towards Brecon-shire, whom he heard was sick; and thought was now dead. He assumed he was going to be buried; so he put on his Band to perform the burial office; and hastened to go to meet the burial: and when he came to it … putting his hand on the Bier to help carry the Corps, in a moment all vanished; and to his very great surprise and astonishment, there was nothing in his hand but the Skull of a dead Horse.”
The church site is in the centre of the village at SO 201.078, and it is now occupied by the modern church of St. Peter, replacing the “old church” of the same dedication.