’I am the nakit Blynd Hary
That lang has bene in the fary
Farleis to fynd …’
* “I am the naked Blind Harry
That has lingered long in Faery
Fey things to find …”
These are the words of the Scottish poet William Dunbar (1459?-1530?) in ‘The Manere of the Crying of Ane Playe’ with my adaptation to current English following. The words are spoken by a dwarf who identifies himself with ‘Blind Harry’ a poet from a previous generation to Dunbar and one he wrote about elsewhere in his ‘Lament for the Makars’, a poem celebrating what Dunbar regarded as Scotland’s bardic heritage. Although Blynd Hary (‘Harry the Minstrel’) was apparently the author of a popular poem about the scottish hero William Wallace, he was also a legendary figure much like the welsh Taliesin, the vehicle for inspired, prophetic or magical verses that the poets who wrote them might not wish to put their names to. The dwarf here claims just such an ancestry for Harry, making him an habitué of the Otherworld and a descendant of Finn McCool:
’My foregrantschir hecht Fyn McKowle,
That dang the Devill and yart him yowle
The skyis rangd quhen he wald scowle
And trublit all the air
* My forefather was Finn McCool
That man who made the Devil howl
The skies cracked when he would scowl
Troubling all the air
What we have here is the characterisation of Finn as an ancestor to a speaker who frequents the Otherworld, continuing a traditional Irish theme still alive in medieval Scotland.
There is also a fascinating association between Finn and the Cailleach, for such, surely, is his ‘wife’ in this section of the poem:
He had a wyf was lang of clift
Hir head wan heiar than the lift
The hevyne reddit quhen scho wald rift;
The las was no thing sklender.
* He had a wife, she towered high
Her head was lifted to the sky
The heavens shifted when she passed by;
She was no slender lassie.
It is also said that she “She spittit Lochlomond with her lips” and that “Thunner and fireflaucht flew fae her hips” Thunder and lightning emanating from her seem to indicate her control of the weather. The ironic tag “The las was no thing sklender” reinforces this with characteristic humour.
In his The Book of the Cailleach (an essential text) Gearóid Ó Crualaoich says of her ; “ … the Otherworld female, the Cailleach of the Irish and the Scottish Gaelic tradition, regarded as the shaper who has formed the features of the landscape”. And later on the Book, he suggests that “a kind of harmonious balance has existed, over many cycles of renewal of the Cailleach between the human and the Otherworld orders”.
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich writes of her as she appears in the oral folklore of Ireland and Scotland. That Dunbar made this reference in the literary tradition without the need for contextual comment in his evocation of a legendary bardic figure indicates how pervasive she must still have been in the consciousness of medieval scots along with Finn who, of course, does also have a presence in the literary tradition of both Ireland and Scotland.
A final note on Blind Harry: Some commentators have felt that his name relates to Hár an alternative name for Óđinn. This may be a coincidence. But, if there is anything in it, it does suggest a tantalising crossover between the Gaelic and the Norse pantheons in the name of a legendary bardic figure in medieval Scotland.
They say the Hidden Path can't be found. Because it's hidden. But that is not quite true. It is only hidden from those who can't see it. Otherwise it's there, clear as a shaft of moonlight through the trees. So it was said to be. And so Gareth believed it to be. For he was sure he had caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye once or twice, though when he looked more directly it was not there. Life was like that for Gareth, always catching glimpses of things, hints of something just out of sight. Or snatches of music or soft whispers that his ears soon lost the sound of. Gareth also thought there was someone or something else in the woods that he had glimpsed through the trees.
It so happened that there was someone else in the woods and she too thought she had seen the path and caught glimpses of things and followed enchanting sounds that always eluded her. And she too thought that she had caught a glimpse of someone or something else. Her woods were some way from Gareth's, though they were both part of the same forest. Gwenno was her name and as a child she had always thought of herself as flying through the air like a bird because her name was nearly, but not quite, gwennol which was the name in her language for a swallow.
So they wandered, each of them, in a different part of the forest, following paths that looked inviting, getting to know the ways through the trees, always hoping to find the Hidden Path, sometimes even thinking they may have found it for a while, but not for long. Neither of them was unhappy for they loved the woods and always thought of them when they were not there. When they were there the sense of something enticing always called, though it was always just out of reach.
One day, when the Autumn had set the leaves aglow with different shades and there was an intensity in the air that called to each of them in the same way, they both decided to pack some food and spend all of the shortening daylight hours in the woods. So each of them walked further than they usually did and found a path that seemed to lead into a mysterious part of the forest. It was then that each of them saw someone or something coming towards them. What did they see? Neither knew but the path seemed to bend away as if it went to somewhere else, not the forest they knew, but still it was a forest. Each of them saw a figure beckoning but could not make it out clearly. They followed the figure because there seemed to be no other choice.
The figure beckoned. The path beckoned. Gareth followed, thinking that he was alone. Gwenno followed, thinking that she was alone. The path and the figure; the figure and the path : which of them beckoned? Gwenno soon realised she was lost. Gareth soon realised he was lost. They were lost. The afternoon passed to evening. The colours on the trees darkened as the light became thinner and began to fade. The Hidden Path led them to a hidden place, across the Ford of Forgetting where the stream tumbles away all thoughts of the world. There was no world. There was only this place. Night had fallen and Gwenno sat by a moonlit pool. Dawn had broken and Gareth saw the water in the pool brighten as the sunlight filtered through the trees. No time that they knew of had passed. Who was there to mark this difference?
The figure they had followed cast aside a veil and it was dark. The Dark of the shade of a yew tree grove beneath a clouded sky under the stars. The figure turned and they followed by sixth sense rather than sight. A thick mat of rotted yew needles carpeted the ground. Some red arils had fallen. Some remained to fall. They could see these in the darkness, but not with their eyes. They could see the Hidden Path clearly now in the same way, winding through the tangled knots of roots. Gwenno saw the figure beckoning and followed Gareth along the path. Gareth saw the figure beckoning and followed Gwenno along the path. They followed each other along the path and the dark shape before them led them and followed them into a dark place so deep that is was Void ... Nothing ... Nowhere ... not even dark anymore, just empty.
Gwenno was alone; Nothing was there.
Gareth was alone ; Nothing was there.
Nothing was not alone; Gareth and Gwenno were there.
Each of them knew what they had always known, that the Hidden Road led to Nowhere.
Is there a way back, and would they take it together? For now there is no answer to any question. There is only the Dark.
"Along the tops of the hills between Carno and Pontdolgoch in Montgomoryshire there are three lakes called Llyn Tarw, Llyn Mawr and Llyn Du which have traditionally been regarded as a haunt of the Tylwyth Teg ('Fair People'). Even today the lakes are off the beaten track and rarely does anyone pass them except the occasional shepherd or angler. But in September 1936 Mrs Edwards of Clogiau Farm passed by Llyn Tarw with her children and they heard, just as evening was closing in, the sweetest singing they had ever heard. They looked about them but could see nothing though the singing continued.
In response to this being reported in a local newspaper, Mr George Pollard, a London journalist, visited the spot and wrote in the News Chronicle for 28 September 1936 that "when we crossed the path leading to the end of the lake we were both surprised and enchanted by loud singing from under the ground and all around us". Other people in the locality have claimed to have heard the singing on occasions in the past and said that it came from beneath the rocks by the side of the lake. The journalist failed to solve the 'problem', but it was not considered a problem by those who believed in the Tylwyth Teg."
Translated from the Welsh of Evan Isaac in Coelion Cymru (1938)
Herla was out hunting in what is now the border lands between Wales and England when he came across another hunter in the same woods. He had a great red beard and hooves like a faun, but he said he was a king among the Dwarves. Herla told him he, too, was a king among the Britons who then inhabited that land. The two of them made a pact each to attend the wedding of the other.
When Herla was to be married the dwarf king came to the wedding feast with his company and many generous gifts from the dwarf halls, and more than this, they see to all the provisions for Herla’s wedding and the care of his guests. After the wedding, as the dwarves were departing, Herla was invited to the wedding of the dwarf king exactly one year later.
Herla and his retinue set out for the wedding laden with gifts and passed through a doorway in the mountain into the dwarf realm and along a passageway lit by lamps.
The wedding ceremony lasted for what seemed like three days and when it was over, Herla prepared to depart. He was given many gifts to take with him including a hunting dog but told that no man should get down from his horse before the dog leapt to the ground.
After they came out of the entrance to the mountain the doorway seemed to melt away behind them and was no longer visible. They hailed an old shepherd to ask for news. But the old man cannot understand the Brittonic tongue, for he is a Saxon and it was his people that now inhabited this land.
Herla could not understand how things could have changed in just three days. Some of his men got down from their horses to question the shepherd more closely but crumbled into dust as their feet touched the ground. Herla remembered the dwarf king’s words and warned his remaining companions to stay in their saddles until the dog jumped down, but he has not yet done so and Herla and his companions have wandered the land like ghostly hunters ever since, waiting for the dog to jump.
According to Walter Map, who told this story in the twelfth century, Herla's band are said to have plunged into the River Wye during the first year of the reign of King Henry II (the year 1133), though others report that the Wild Hunt still rides.
In the cliffs along the coast of Cardigan Bay there is a deep gash through the rock known as the ‘Monks’ Cave’. It is difficult to get to except from a boat as the tide comes right up to the cliffs and to walk along the beach would be to risk getting cut off before you could get back again. But it’s possible to see it from above, where the coastal path passes an opening allowing you to look down into it and to hear the waves rushing in at high tide, near the remnant ancient oak woodland of Penderi which clings to the cliff edge. But why is it called the ‘Monks’ Cave’? Legend has it that a secret passage runs from the cave inland to the medieval monastery at Strata Florida. This lies more or less due south-east of the cave in a straight line, but the tunnel would have to be nearly fifteen miles long to get there. There are many such legends of tunnels to or from abbeys, castles, prehistoric monuments and other such places; from sea caves to significant sites inland; from wells or springs feeding underground water courses; to caves under hills where treasure is buried or heroic figures like Arthur lie sleeping biding their time to awaken.
On the other side of Wales on the border with Shropshire is a place called ‘The Giant’s Grave’ beneath a site where a cromlech once stood. Although the place was reputed to contain treasure, legend has it that those looking for it have either disappeared or died in the attempt. On the other side of the same hill a legend tells of a blind fiddler from the village of Llanmynech who wandered into the ‘Ogo’ (Welsh for cave) and was never seen again, though the sounds of a fiddle playing could be heard deep below the cellar of the village inn. It was said that he had been captured to play for the fairy folk.
So one explanation of such tunnels is that they are ways to the Otherworld, either underground or somewhere under the sea or on an unseen island off the coast. Sometimes these legends are linked to leats of old mine workings or other underground constructions. Visiting such places such as the Roman gold mines at Dolaucothi which I went into recently often evokes memories of passages traversed in meditations or path workings which in turn resonate with some of the great stories of visits to the Netherworld such as that recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid.
I have a definite sense of the memory of a tunnel under the cliffs near where I live which I have walked through in the past, but which is now closed. But I don’t know where it is. Did I dream these walks and the subsequent closure of the tunnel? I really don’t know. But images of the tunnel and the place where it emerges into woodland are clear in my mind. Legends, dreams, psychic journeys, winding ways into the Otherworld : tunnels persist in the cognitive landscape.
There was a young girl called Jane whose mother had died and her father kept her in the house and didn’t like her to go out without him for fear, at first, that she might come to harm but as she grew older, in case she might meet someone and leave him to live alone.
So she would sit in her room and talk to an imaginary friend called John. Now her father soon became jealous of John and forbade her from talking to him, so she could only have whispered conversations with him at night, speaking into her pillow as she drifted off to sleep to meet him in her dreams….
……. There was John, knocking on the door and asking her father if she could come out with him.
No! said her father.
Yes! said John pushing her father aside and taking her hand to lead her away from the house……
The beginning of the dream was always the same, time after time. John was always so assertive and she was always so decisive in taking his hand and stepping past her father. But after that the dream never developed in the same way. Sometimes they went to a large space and danced, sometimes he bought her beautiful clothes to wear. But at other times he led her into a dark forest and took out a long knife, or she was made to do things against her will. Other times they just walked down the road into the mist.
Jane began to be unsure of John and wondered what these dreams meant. In some ways he was no different from her father but in other ways he seemed her only hope of getting away from him. Sitting quietly in her room one evening she felt a presence in the room with her and thought it must be John, but the voice was not John’s voice. It was a woman’s voice, soft and gentle but also firm and admonishing saying
“What’s to be done my dear, this will never do”.
As she listened to the voice she felt a pull away from everything she knew and everything she wished for and she knew that she only had to reply for the conversation to take her away but she could not reply and the woman’s voice faded as she drew away.
The next night as she sat sipping a hot drink with her father she heard the voice again and looked fearfully over at him but he had not heard it saying
“What’s to be done my dear, this will never do”
But again she did not reply.
Later she spoke to John in whispers as she drifted off to sleep and then, in her dream, they walked under some trees by a wide river that was flowing in a fast torrent and on the torrent came a boat and in it was the woman. Jane knew it was the same woman though she had only heard her voice up to now. She had long flowing silver hair that was the water of the river and a billowing cloak that was the boat. John wanted to lead her away from the river then, under the trees where it was dark and the woman would not see them. But the woman called to her to jump into the boat. Jane didn’t know what to do. John was calling her. The woman was calling her and she seemed for a moment to be suspended between them. The trees were dark, but they were a place to hide. The river was rushing on, and she thought for a moment about where it might be rushing to. She looked out at the woman drawing level with her
”Who are you?” she asked.
The woman held out her hand then and Jane had her answer. They were swept away from John. From her father. From the dream which was not a dream except that it had held her like a dream so she could not escape from it. The river rushed on through the world. A world without her father. Without John. Without her mother, but she was always there, as John had been, now she was talking to her. Now she came and went as she pleased, and no-one prevented her from going out and when she did she always knew where she was going. Except when she stepped out into the river and was wrapped in the boat’s cloak and was enclosed in the silver hair and listened to the whispers telling who she was and how much she was loved. So when she stepped freely off again her life with her father, with John and with anyone else she chose could go on untroubled.