The following account was passed on to me by a fellow lover of Welsh history. It conjures up a by-gone age which we will never see the like of again, and so I felt it was important to share it. It was written by Jenkin Lloyd, Tregaron Registrar, and the article is a translation of the original which was published in the Cymru, 1912. So here it is, enjoy!
A funeral in the Highlands.
In our minds the word “Highlands” seems always to be associated with Scotland because that country is divided into highlands and lowlands and the word is seldom used in connection with Wales. But Wales too has her highlands, where we find people who live almost entirely some 1000ft or more above sea-level. I refer to the wide range of mountains which divides Radnorshire and Breconshire from Cardiganshire together with the people who inhabit these grassy expanses so well described lately in these pages by Mr Daniel Davies, Ton.
Small holdings and farms can be seen scattered here and there on this wide plain – although fewer now than formerly – where, from generation to generation there has dwelt, a race of people who have remained more faithful to old Welsh customs than their lowland brothers, a race of people with characteristics and habits peculiar to themselves. Nevertheless, these people differ among themselves in certain respects, for example, while the western side is completely Welsh speaking, the eastern slopes have been subjected to English influences, so that while shepherds on the one side work their dogs in Welsh the dogs on the other side are worked in English. Neighbours, whose animals graze side by side, attend places of worship situated as far as 12 miles apart and while some of these speak English in Builth Wells market, others do their buying and selling in Welsh in Tregaron market. We, in the lowlands, refer to these Welsh people as “the people of the mountains” and it is natural that the chapel on the river Camddwr where these dwellers congregate to worship is called “Soar of the Mountains”.
But my intention was to give an account of a funeral in these highlands. Of all our national characteristics nothing is more peculiar to us than our funeral customs and in the mountains there are particular reasons why these old customs have survived without being influenced in any way by outside agencies.
On the morning of the first Sunday in the year 1876, at Bethesda Chapel, Llandewi Brefi, Tomor Lloyd, having made the usual announcements, made a further announcement somewhat as follows:
“The funeral of Shan, wife of John Jones, Pysgotwr, will take place next Wednesday. Mr Abraham Oliver will preach at the house at 10.30 and the burial will be in the church of Llandewi Abergwesyn.”
Jac and Shan Pysgotwr were two people who lived in the mountains. It is from warm-hearted respect that I give them the familiar names by which they were known to their neighbours. Shan came of a family from the borders of Breconshire and Radnorshire – the burial place of her ancestors was at Abergwesyn and there too she wished to go. Jac came from the valley of the Upper Towy and the story goes that when Shan was the senior maid at Nant-yr-euch he used to visit the farm to court the junior maid. On his arrival there one evening, after the usual greetings, Shan came to tell him that her junior was not at home, and somehow from that night onwards Shan, the senior maid, became Jac’s sweetheart.
They got married and after several moves from place to place, eventually settled down in Pysgotwr, and it was there Shan ended her days at the age of 85. They lived a quiet simple life throughout their long span and according to what I can gather the main ambitions of their lives were: to be hospitable to the stranger, to help the poor, to pay the old debt before incurring the new, and when the end came to leave sufficient to settle all accounts, and to have an oak coffin and a gravestone. And all their hopes were fulfilled. When I returned home after the service on that Sunday morning they announced Shan’s funeral, I could hear my father and mother, while at dinner, speaking of the old lady as if no one but they were present. At the end of their discussion my father glanced towards the long table where I and some others were partaking and said, “You must attend Shan’s funeral, they will need help to carry”. The news of the old lady’s death was no occasion for rejoicing but at the same time I could not suppress a smile because a funeral was almost the only excuse for a “day out” for a spirited and healthy lad. It was not long before I found company for the journey, namely our genial neighbour, Joseph Morgan the shopkeeper, who was the family’s “universal provider”. And so, on a fair winter’s morning, we set out from Llandewi. I was in my element, riding a high-spirited cob that was to be sold at Garon Fair the following March: neither horse nor rider one would think had a care in the world.
From the village of Llanddew our path was to the east along the bank of the River Brefi, rising to that part of the mountains which forms the watershed dividing the waters of the Teifi from those of the Brefi. It was along this path that Rowland, Llangeitho, travelled on his way to Ystrad Ffin and in his lament for Rowland Williams, Pantycelyn, refers to these mountains as the Dewi Hills and the name is most appropriate for to the west stands Llandewi Brefi and to the east Llandewi Abergwesyn, with, in between the two places, some 18 miles of wild mountainous country.
In order to cross the shoulder of Bryn Caregog we had to climb over 1000 feet, then we descended to a spot where, within the short distance of about 100 yards, five small streams unite. This is the beginning of the river Pysgotwr. Near the same spot, where about the same number of roads and paths meet is a place called Postgwyn, named (it is said) after a fingerpost that stood there once upon a time, but the old post with its directions had disappeared years before we passed there that morning. Old Daniel Jones, Y Bryn, used to say that he remembered seeing the remains of the fingerpost there in his young days. What fitter site for a fingerpost? Not a house within miles, and how different from the idea of the present generation, which is to place fingerposts near towns, villages, stations. I see no reason for this, other than the rules bearing of good manners, namely, that to ask a question of a fellowship to whom one has not been formally introduced is gross effrontery.
After leaving Postgwyn we followed the river Pysgotwr for about a mile and arrived at the home of Shan and Jac where the neighbours had congregated. Here the bier had been brought the day before on the backs of little mountain ponies (how, I cannot say). It was a lonely place. If a circle of 4 miles radius were drawn with Pysgotwr as centre, less than 70 souls, counting men, women and children, would be found living within its limits. Hence, one could not expect the congregation to be a large one.
The Reverend Abraham Oliver had already arrived and while those who proposed carrying Shan to her distant resting place were taking a little nourishment, he delivered the funeral sermon to the old people, the women and children of the neighbourhood. It was not the numbers of mourners nor the costliness of the mourning apparel that was the dominant feature of the funeral but it’s pure, unostentatious simplicity.
The sermon over, we set out for the place of burial some 12 miles away. At the head of the procession, riding a shaggy pony with a horse-hair halter was Nathaniel, Y Ddinas, an old neighbour of Shan’s. He led the way, holding a long hazel stick in his hand like the sword of a general, and indeed he was a general for it was his duty to decide the route our journey was to take along this vast pathless expanse, and how long each team of four bearers was to carry its burden. Nathaniel’s judgement on the latter important problem was not determined by distance or by time: if the way was fairly level the team had good measure, but if the path was rough the measure was shorter. Careful judgement, sound common sense and a good eye for country were Nathaniel’s strong points, and of these we had ample proof before our journey was over.
Before we had gone 100 yards from the house we turned eastward where a long slope faced us. Every ditch was full of water and every bog was dangerous to both man and horse, but in spite of all these difficulties everybody was in a good mood as we now climbed the high mountain which separates the Pysgotwr valley from that of the Doethie. The number of bearers was but 20, and eight of us would ride in turns and lead the remaining horses for all would be mounted on the return journey that evening.
We soon reached Maes-y-Betws where it was necessary to decide which team of four bearers would ford the rivers. After crossing the two Doethie rivers we faced the mountain and climbed Rhiw’r Gelynen, or Rhiw’r Gelynion (as some call it). The ancient paths and tracks in these mountains are very steep and fall sharply sometimes, for they were intended for sledges and are still used as such. Such a one was Rhiw’r Gelynen and it was not surprising now, to notice that progress was slower with conversation very much on the wane.
Before reaching the crest of the mountain the path turned south along the ridge for a short distance and below us was Cwm Nant-Y-Benglog with a lonely house of the same name at the bottom of the steep valley. When he travelled along this path some years previously, Cerngoch composed the following verse:
Behold a rugged “cwm”
That only cat or hare could climb:
O spare me from rearing children
Within sigh of Nant-Y-Benglog!
The old bard had lost a child there through accident a short while before this and the place must be seen before the full meaning of the verse can be sensed.
In spite of the extreme cold at the bottom of this steep valley we found the ascent out of it warm work and when we reached yet another crest, the Camddwr valley opened out before us. As we descended towards the river the path took us near Soar chapel and I recollect well what struck me most forcibly at the time was the similarity in size between the Chapel itself, the caretaker’s house and the stable. This equality of size seems particularly appropriate; and I leave it to the reader’s imagination to find out the circumstances which call for it.
(The writer implies that the size of the congregation in such an isolated chapel was so small that the chapel and stabling for the worshipper’s horses did not need to be any larger than a house. J.)
After leaving the Chapel the way improved compared with what had been our lot till then and our General was quick to take advantage, for he signaled the changes with his stick less frequently. The carrying now was easier and Nathaniel at the head worked his legs on either side like two wings moving in rhythm with the movements of the pony. Nature too seemed to have taken a hand by cleaving a way through the back of the merciless mountain, and once again we lost sight of Cwm Camddwr while Cwm Tywi opened out before us. But before we take a last look at the old chapel I must quote Cerngoch’s verse:
On the banks of the Camddwr river
Stands a temple to our Saviour;
Whoever comes over such country
Proves himself a true Worshipper.
Shan was one of the ‘true worshippers’ all her life, and she had great regard for Soar but she wished to return to her own people for her last long rest: and in this respect she remained a typical Welsh-woman.
As the panorama of the Towy valley opened out before us we saw ahead Pant-y-Clwydau on the eastern bank of the river. The way to Abergwesyn ran along a small brook that had scooped a bed for itself down the mountain side and after crossing the Towy we climbed Rhiw-yr-Yeb (as it is called). This was far the steepest place where I ever shouldered a bier and indeed I almost believed that Shan had become much heavier in the course of the journey. To this day I consider that it was a feat to have carried Shan up this steep incline and Cefn Coch, the mountain that Rhiw’r Yeb was but a preliminary test.
Eventually we reached the top whence, for more than 3 miles we covered places so rough there was not a sheep track even for us to follow for any distance, but we felt perfectly safe under the leadership of Nathaniel who soon brought us within sight of the Irfon Valley. My spirits rose once again as Abergwesyn and the end of the journey appeared in the distance, and as we went downwards to the church through Llwynderw woods I placed my shoulder under Shan’s coffin for the 47th time. By now everybody – both man and beast – presented a worn-out appearance and as the sun disappeared behind the mountains it cast long shadows across the valley.
We turned into the graveyard and passed through the doorway of the ancient church. There were signs of neglect everywhere in the churchyard and in the church itself the walls were bare and the roof had fallen in except for a small portion that remained above the rickety pulpit. The priest went through the service with due solemnity and never, I am convinced, did he face a more sober congregation; and while he spoke of the sure and certain hope of eternal life I confess that my mind wandered back to my father’s house in Cardiganshire the other side of the mountain over which I had plodded my weary way till the end of the day. Shan’s grave was filled and I bid it farewell feeling that I had faithfully fulfilled my duty by her. After nourishment (for man and beast) we set out on our return journey across the mountain and arrived home shortly after midnight.
After making a fair reckoning of ascents and descents made during the outward and return journey, I consider it as if we had carried the bier and corpse over Snowdon from Portmadoc to Llanberis and back again. How different were the feelings of the rider, and his poor mount too I fear, on the return journey. I felt so heavy that I wondered how my horse could bear up beneath me, and the horse, poor creature, walked as clumsily as an old 15/- hack from Rhos Fair.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.
You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71
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