Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
In the following pages I have endeavoured to give a correct idea of the habits, manners, and mode of life of the Welsh hill farmer, a class which, on account of the late Rebecca disturbances, has excited much interest. Having spent some years in Radnorshire, Brecknockshire, Glamorganshire, and other parts of South Wales, and been frequently in the dwellings of the farmers and country people, and had many opportunities of observing their customs and manners, all that I here mention is from my own observation, or obtained by conversation with the parties. I have taken Glamorganshire as the locality of most of what I describe, as I am best acquainted with that part and the borders of Carmarthenshire, where the recent disturbances have been most prominent.
Whenever there is any great difference in neighbouring counties I have noticed it. I may here observe that in Radnorshire the Welsh manners are in a great measure lost with the language, which is entirely English, spoken with more purity than in many parts of England, with the exception of those parts bordering Cardiganshire and Brecknockshire, where the Welsh is still used among the old people. The River Wye, which is the boundary of the latter county and Radnorshire, in its course between Rhayader Gwy and the Hay, also separates the two languages; on the Radnorshire side of the river you will find in nine houses [[p. 207]] out of ten English commonly spoken, while directly you have crossed the river, there is as great or a still greater preponderance of Welsh. In the country a few miles round the seaport town of Swansea most of the peculiarities I shall mention may be seen to advantage. In the east and south-eastern parts of Glamorganshire, called the Vale of Glamorgan, the appearance of the country and the inhabitants is much more like those of England. The land is very good and fertile, agriculture is much attended to and practised on much better principles. This part, therefore (the neighbourhood of the towns of Cowbridge and Cardiff), is excepted from the following remarks.
Domestic Life, Customs, and Character.
The generality of mountain farms in Glamorganshire and most other parts of South Wales are small, though they may appear large when the number of acres only is considered, a large proportion being frequently rough mountain land. On the average they consist of from twenty to fifty acres of arable land in fields of from four to six, and rarely so much as ten acres; the same quantity of rough, boggy, bushy, rushy pasture, and perhaps as much, or twice as much, short-hay meadow, which term will be explained hereafter; and from fifty to five hundred acres of rough mountain pasture, on which sheep and cattle are turned to pick up their living as they can.
Their system of farming is as poor as the land they cultivate. In it we see all the results of carelessness, prejudice, and complete ignorance. We see the principle of doing as well as those who went before them, and no better, in full operation; the good old system which teaches us not to suppose ourselves capable of improving on the wisdom of our forefathers, and which has made the early polished nations of the East so inferior in every respect to us, whose reclamation from barbarism is ephemeral compared with their long period of almost stationary civilization. The Welshman, when you recommend any improvement in his operations, will tell you, like the Chinaman, that it is an "old custom," and that what did for his forefathers is good enough for him. But let us see if the farmer is so bad as this mode of doing his business may be supposed to make him. In his farmyard we find the buildings with broken and gaping doors, and the floors of the roughest pitching. In one corner is a putrid pond, the overflowings of which empty themselves into the brook below. Into this all the drainings from the dungheaps in the upper part of the yard run, and thus, by evaporation in summer and the running into the brook in winter, full one-half of the small quantity of manure he can obtain (from his cattle spending the greater part of their time on the mountain and in wet bushy pastures) is lost.
The management of his arable land is dreadfully wasteful and injurious. [[p. 208]] Of green crops (except potatoes can be so called) he has not the slightest idea, and if he takes no more than three grain crops off the land in succession, he thinks he does very well; five being not uncommon. The first and principal crop is wheat, on which he bestows all the manure he can muster, with a good quantity of lime. He thus gets a pretty good crop. The next year he gets a crop of barley without any manure whatever, and after that a crop of oats, unmanured. He then leaves the field fallow till the others have been treated in the same manner, and then returns to serve it thus cruelly again; first, however, getting his potato crop before his wheat. Some, after the third crop (oats), manure the land as well as they can, and sow barley with clover, which they mow and feed off the second year, and then let it remain as pasture for some time; others, again, have three crops of oats in succession after the wheat and barley, and thus render the land utterly useless for many years.
In this manner the best crops of wheat they can get with abundance of manure, on land above the average quality, is about twenty bushels per acre--ten bushels is, however, more general, and sometimes only seven or eight are obtained.
The rough pastures on which the cattle get their living and waste their manure a great part of the time consist chiefly of various species of rushes and sedges, a few coarse grasses, and gorse and fern on the drier parts. They are frequently, too, covered with brambles, dwarf willows, and alders.
The "short-hay meadows," as they are called, are a class of lands entirely unknown in most parts of England; I shall, therefore, endeavour to describe them.
They consist of large undulating tracts of lands on the lower slopes of the mountains, covered during autumn, winter, and spring with a very short brownish yellow wet turf. In May, June, and July the various plants forming this turf spring up, and at the end of summer are mown, and form "short-hay"; and well it deserves the name, for it is frequently almost impossible to take it up with a hayfork, in which case it is raked up and gathered by armfuls into the cars. The produce varies from two to six hundredweight per acre; four may be about the average, or five acres of land to produce a ton of hay. During the rest of the year it is almost good for nothing. It is astonishing how such stuff can be worth the labour of mowing and making into hay. An English farmer would certainly not do it, but the poor Welshman has no choice; he must either cut his short-hay or have no food for his cattle in the winter; so he sets to, and sweeps away with his scythe a breadth which would astonish an English mower.
The soil which produces these meadows is a poor yellow clay resting on the rock; on the surface of the clay is a stratum of peaty vegetable matter, sometimes of considerable thickness though more generally only a few inches, which collects and retains the moisture in a most remarkable manner, so that though the ground should have a very steep slope the water seems to saturate and cling to it like a sponge, so much so that [[p. 209]] after a considerable period of dry weather, when, from the burnt appearance of the surface, you would imagine it to be perfectly free from moisture, if you venture to kneel or lie down upon it you will almost instantly be wetted to the skin.
The plants which compose these barren slopes are a few grasses, among which are the sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) and the crested hair grass (Kśleria cristata), several Cyperaceś--species of carex or sedge which form a large proportion, and the feathery cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum). The toad-rush (Juncus bufonius) is frequently very plentiful, and many other plants of the same kind. Several rare or interesting British plants are here found often in great profusion. The Lancashire asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) often covers acres with its delicate yellow and red blossoms. The spotted orchis (O. maculata) is almost universally present. The butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) is also found here, and the beautiful little pimpernel (Anagallis tenella). The louseworts (Pendicularis sylvatica and P. palustris), the melancholy thistle (Cincus heterophyllus), and the beautiful blue milkwort (Polygala vulgaris), and many others, are generally exceedingly plentiful, and afford much gratification to the botanist and lover of nature.
The number of sheep kept on these farms is about one to each acre of mountain, where they live the greater part of the year, being only brought down to the pastures in the winter, and again turned on the mountain with their lambs in the spring. One hundred acres of pasture and "short- hay meadow" will support from thirty to forty cattle, ten or a dozen calves and oxen being sold each year.
The farmers are almost invariably yearly tenants, consequently little improvement is made even in parts which could be much bettered by draining. The landlord likes to buy more land with his spare capital (if he has any) rather than improve these miserable farms, and the tenant is too poor to lay out money, or if he has it will not risk his being obliged to leave the farm or pay higher rent in return for his permanently improving another person's land.
The hedges and gates are seldom in sufficiently good repair to keep out cattle, and can hardly be made to keep out mountain sheep, who set them completely at defiance, nothing less than a six-foot stone wall, and not always that, serving to confine them. The farmer consequently spends a good deal of his time driving them out of his young clover (when he has any) or his wheat. He is also constantly engaged in disputes, and not unfrequently litigation, with his neighbours, on account of the mutual trespasses of their stock.
The Welshman is by no means sharp-sighted when his cattle are enjoying themselves in a neighbour's field, especially when the master is from home, otherwise the fear of the "pound" will make him withdraw them after a short time.
On almost every farm water is very plentiful, often far too much so, and it is sometimes run over a meadow, but in such a manner as to lose one-half of the advantage which might be derived from it. The [[p. 210]] farmer is contented with merely cutting two or three gaps in the watercourse at the top, from which the water flows over the field as it best can, scarcely wetting some parts and making complete pools in others.
Weeding he considers quite an unnecessary refinement, fit only for those who have plenty of money to waste upon their fancies--except now and then, when the weeds have acquired an alarming preponderance over the crop, he perhaps sets feebly to work to extract the more prominent after they have arrived at maturity and the mischief is done. His potatoes are overrun with persicarias, docks, and spurges; his wheat and barley with corn cockle, corn scabious, and knapweed, and his pastures with thistles, elecampine, etc., all in the greatest abundance. If you ask him why he leaves his land in such a disgraceful state, and try to impress upon him how much better crops he would have if he cleared it, he will tell you that he does not think they do much harm, and that if he cleaned them this year, there would be as many as ever next year, and, above all, that he can't afford it, asking you where he is to get money to pay people for doing it.
The poultry, geese, ducks, and fowls are little attended to, being left to pick up their living as well as they can. Geese are fattened by being turned into the corn stubble, the others are generally killed from the yard. The fowls, having no proper places to lay in, are not very profitable with regard to eggs, which have to be hunted for and discovered in all sorts of places. This applies more particularly to Glamorganshire, which is in a great measure supplied with eggs and poultry from Carmarthenshire, or "Sir Gaer" (pronounced there gar), as it is called in Welsh, where they manage them much better.
If there happens to be in the neighbourhood any one who farms on the improved English system, has a proper course of crops, with turnips, etc., folds his sheep, and manages things in a tidy manner, it is impossible to make the Welshman believe that such a way of going on pays; he will persist that the man is losing money by it all the time, and that he only keeps it on because he is ashamed to confess the failure of his new method. Even should the person go on for many years, to all appearance prosperously and in everybody else's eyes be making money by his farm, still the Welshman will declare that he has some other source from which he draws to purchase his dear-bought farming amusement, and that the time will come when he will be obliged to give it up; and though you tell him that the greater part of the land in England is farmed in that manner, and ask him whether he thinks they can all be foolish enough to go on losing money year after year, he is still incredulous, says that he knows "the nature of farming," and that such work as that can never pay. While the ignorance which causes this incredulity exists, it is evidently a difficult task to improve him.
The house is a tiled, white-washed edifice, in the crevices of which wall rue, common spleenwort, and yarrow manage generally to vegetate, notwithstanding their (at the very least) annual coat of lime. It consists on the ground floor of a rather large and very dark room, which serves as kitchen and dining-room for the family, and a rather better one used as a parlour on high days or when visitors call; this latter frequently serves as the bedroom of the master and mistress. The kitchen, which is the theatre of the Welsh farmer's domestic life, has either a clay floor or one of very uneven stone paving, and the ceiling is in many cases composed of merely the floor boards of the room above, through the chinks of which everything going on aloft can be very conveniently heard and much seen. The single window is a small and low one, and this is rendered almost useless by the dirtiness of the glass, some window drapery, a Bible, hymn book and some old newspapers on the sill, and a sickly-looking geranium or myrtle, which seems a miracle of vital tenacity in that dark and smoky atmosphere. On one side may be discerned an oak sideboard brilliantly polished, on the upper part of which are rows of willow pattern plates and dishes, in one corner an open cupboard filled with common gaudily-coloured china, and in the other a tall clock with a handsome oak case. Suspended from the ceiling is a serious impediment to upright walking in the shape of a bacon rack, on which is, perhaps, a small supply of that article and some dried beef, also some dried herbs in paper, a large collection of walking sticks, and an old gun. In the chimney opening a coal fire in an iron grate takes the place of the open hearth and smoky peat of Radnorshire and other parts. A long substantial oak table, extending along the room under the window, an old armchair or two, a form or bench and two or three stools, complete the furniture of the apartment. From the rack before mentioned is generally suspended a piece of rennet for making cheese, and over the mantlepiece is probably a toasting- fork, one brass and two tin candlesticks, and a milk strainer with a hole in the bottom of it; on the dresser, too, will be perceived a brush and comb which serve for the use of the whole family, and which you may apply to your own head (if you feel so inclined) without any fear of giving offence.
Upstairs the furniture is simple enough: two or three plain beds in each room with straw mattresses and home-made blankets, sheets being entirely unknown or despised; a huge oak chest full of oatmeal, dried beef, etc., with perhaps a chest of drawers to contain the wardrobe; a small looking-glass which distorts the gazers's face into a mockery of humanity; and a plentiful supply of fleas, are all worth noticing. Though the pigs are not introduced into the family quite so familiarly as in Ireland, the fowls seem to take their place. It is nothing uncommon for them to penetrate even upstairs; for we were once ourselves much puzzled to account for the singular phenomenon of finding an egg upon [[p. 212]] the bed, which happened twice or we might have thought it put there by accident. It was subsequently explained to us that some persons thought it lucky for the fowls to lay there: the abundance of fleas was no longer a mystery. The bed in the parlour before mentioned serves, besides its ostensible use, as a secret cupboard, where delicacies may be secured from the junior members of the family. I have been informed by an acquaintance whose veracity I can rely on (and indeed I should otherwise find no difficulty in believing it) that one day, being asked to take some bread and cheese in a respectable farmhouse, the wheat bread (a luxury) was procured from some mysterious part of the bed, either between the blankets or under the mattress, which my informant could not exactly ascertain. The only assistants in the labours of the farm, besides the sons and daughters, is generally a female servant, whose duties are multifarious and laborious, including driving the horses while ploughing and in haytime, and much other out-of-door work. If you enter the house in the morning, you will probably see a huge brass pan on the fire filled with curdled milk for making cheese. Into this the mistress dips her red and not particularly clean arm up to the elbow, stirring it round most vigorously. Meals seem to be prepared solely for the men, as you seldom see the women sit down to table with them. They will either wait till the others have done or take their dinner on their laps by the fire. The breakfast consists of hasty-pudding or oatmeal porridge, or cheese with thin oatmeal cakes or barley bread, which are plentifully supplied at all meals, and a basin of milk for each person; for dinner there is perhaps the same, with the addition of a huge dish of potatoes, which they frequently break into their basin of milk or eat with their cheese; and for supper, often milk with flummery or "siccan" (pronounced shiccan). As this is a peculiar and favourite Welsh dish, I will describe its composition. The oat bran with some of the meal left in it is soaked for several days in water till the acetous fermentation commences; it is then strained off, producing a thin, starchy liquid. When wanted for use this is boiled, and soon becomes nearly of the consistence and texture of blancmange, of a fine light brown colour and a peculiar acid taste which, though at first disagreeable to most persons, becomes quite pleasant with use. This is a dish in high repute with all real Welshman. Each person is provided with a basin of new milk, cold, and a spoon, and a large dish of hot flummery is set on the table, each person helping himself to as much as he likes (and that is often a great deal), putting it in his basin of milk; and it is, I have no doubt, very wholesome and nourishing food. I must mention that the women, both in the morning and evening (and frequently at dinner too), treat themselves to a cup of tea, which is as universal a necessary among the fair sex here as in other parts of the kingdom. They prefer it, too, without milk, which they say takes away the taste, and as it is generally made very weak, that may be the case. Once or twice a week a piece of bacon or dry beef is added at dinner or supper, more as a relish to get down the potatoes than as being any food in itself. The beef in [[p. 213]] particular is so very high-dried and hard as almost to defy the carver's most strenuous efforts. The flavour is, nevertheless, at times very fine when the palate gets used to it, though the appearance is far from inviting, being about the colour and not far from the hardness of the black oak table. They generally keep it in a large chest in oatmeal (which was before mentioned). Often, when lodging at a little country inn, have we, when just awake in the morning, seen one of the children come stealthily into the room, open the lid of the huge chest, climb over the edge of it, and, diving down, almost disappear in its recesses, whence, after sundry efforts and strainings, he has reappeared, dragging forth a piece of the aforesaid black beef, which is obtained thus early that it may be soaked a few hours before boiling, to render it more submissive to the knife.
From the foregoing particulars it will be seen that these people live almost entirely on vegetable food. When a cow or a pig is killed, for a day or two they luxuriate on fresh meat; but that is the exception, not the rule. Herrings, too, they are fond of as a relish, as well as cockles and other indigestible food; but neither these nor the beef and bacon can be considered to be the staple food of the peasantry, which is, in one form or another, potatoes, oatmeal, bread, cheese, and milk.
The great consumption of oatmeal produces, as might be expected, cutaneous diseases, though, generally speaking, the people are tolerably healthy. They have a great horror of the doctor, whom they never send for but when they think there is some great danger. So long as the patient is free from pain they think all is right. They have not the slightest idea of what an invalid ought to eat. If gruel is ordered, they make a lumpy oatmeal pudding, to which, however, the sick man will frequently prefer bread and cheese. When they have gone on in this way till the unhappy individual is in the greatest danger and the medical attendant insists upon his directions being attended to, they unwillingly submit; and if the patient dies, they then impute it entirely to the doctor, and vow they will never call him in to kill people again.
As in most rural districts, by constant inter-marriages every family has a host of relations in the surrounding country. All consider it their duty to attend a funeral, and almost every person acquainted with the deceased attends as a mark of respect. Consequently the funerals are very large, often two or three hundred persons, and when the corpse has to be carried a distance, most of them come on horseback, which, with the varied colours of the women's dresses and the solemn sounds of a hymn from a hundred voices, as they wend their way along some lonely mountain road, has a most picturesque and interesting effect. This large company generally meet at the house, where provisions are ready for all who choose to partake of them. The well-known beautiful custom of adorning the graves with flowers and evergreens is much practised.
When a birth takes place in a family all the neighbours and relations call within a few days to inquire after the health of the mother and child, and take a cup of tea or bread and cheese, and every one brings some [[p. 214]] present, either a pound of sugar, quarter pound of tea, or a shilling or more in money, as they think best. This is expected to be returned when the givers are in a similar situation.
The "bidding," which is a somewhat similar custom at a marriage, is not quite so general, though it is still much used in Carmarthenshire. When a young couple are married they send notice to all their friends, that "on a day named they intend to have a 'bidding,' at which they request their company, with any donation they may think proper, which will be punctually returned when they are called upon on a similar occasion." At such bidding £20 or £30 are frequently collected, and sometimes much more, and as from various causes they are not called upon to return more than one-half, they get half the sum clear, and a loan without interest of the other half to commence life with.
The national dress or costume of the men (if ever they had any) is not now in use; that of the women, however, is still very peculiar. Both use principally home-made articles, spinning their own wool and sending it to the factory to be made into flannel or cloth. They also dye the wool black themselves, using in the operation the contents of certain well-known domestic utensils, which is kept stewing over the fire some days, emitting a most unsavoury odour, which, however, they assert to be very wholesome. The men generally wear a square-cut coat of home-made pepper-and-salt coloured cloth, waistcoat and breeches or trousers of the same, and a round low crowned hat; or occasionally fustian trousers and gay flannel waistcoat with bright metal buttons, coloured neckerchief, home-knit stockings of black sheep's wool, and lace-up boots. Shirts of checked coarse flannel--cotton shirts and sheets being considered equally luxurious. One of the most striking parts of the women's dress is the black beaver hat, which is almost universally worn and is both picturesque and becoming. It is made with a very high crown, narrowing towards the top, and a broad, perfectly flat brim, thus differing entirely from any man's hat. They frequently give thirty shillings for one of these hats, and make them last the greater part of their lives. The body dress consists of what they call a bedgown, or betcown, as it is pronounced, which is a dress made quite plain, entirely open in front (like a gentleman's dressing gown), with sleeves a little short of the elbow. A necessary accompaniment to this is an apron, which ties it up round the waist. The bedgown is invariably formed of what they call flannel, which is a stuff formed by a mixture of wool, cotton, and sometimes a little silk. It is often striped black or dark blue, or brown and white, with alternate broad and narrow stripes, or red and black, but more frequently a plaid of several colours, the red and black being wool, the white or blue cotton, and often a narrow yellow stripe of silk, made in plaid patterns of every variety of size and colour. The apron is almost always black-and-white plaid, the only variety being in the form and size of the pattern, and has a pretty effect by relieving the gay colours of the other part of the dress. They in general wear no stays, and this, with the constant habit of carrying burdens on the head, produces almost invariably an [[p. 215]] upright carriage and good figure, though rather inclined to the corpulency of Dutch beauties. On their necks they usually wear a gay silk kerchief or flannel shawl, a neat white cap under the hat; laced boots and black worsted stockings complete their attire. In Carmarthenshire a jacket with sleeves is frequently worn by the women, in other respects their dress does not much differ from what I have described.
The women and girls carry (as before mentioned) great loads upon their heads, fifty or sixty pounds weight, and often much more. Large pitchers (like Grecian urns) of water or milk are often carried for long distances on uneven roads, with both hands full at the same time. They may be often seen turning round their heads to speak to an acquaintance and tripping along with the greatest unconcern, but never upsetting the pitcher. The women are almost invariably stout and healthy looking, notwithstanding their hard work and poor living. These circumstances, however, make them look much older than they really are. The girls are often exceedingly pretty when about fifteen to twenty, but after that, hard work and exposure make their features coarse, so that a girl of five-and-twenty would often be taken for nearer forty.
All, but more especially the young ones, ride most fearlessly, and at fairs they may be seen by dozens racing like steeple-chasers.
Many of these farmers are freeholders, cultivating their own land and living on the produce; but they are generally little, if any, better off than the tenants, leaving the land in the same manner, thus showing that it is not altogether want of leases and good landlords that makes them so, but the complete ignorance in which they pass their lives.
All that I have hitherto said refers solely to the poorer class, known as hill farmers. In the valleys and near the town where the land is better, there are frequently better educated farmers, who assimilate more to the English in their agricultural operations, mode of living, and dress.
In all the mining districts, too, there is another class--the colliers and furnacemen, smiths, etc., who are as different from the farmers in everything as one set of men can be from another. When times are good their wages are such as to afford them many luxuries, which the poor farmer considers far too extravagant. Instead of living on vegetable diet with cheese and buttermilk, they luxuriate on flesh and fowl, and often on game too, of their own procuring. But in their dress is the greatest difference. The farmer is almost always dressed the same, except that on Sunday and market-day it is newer. But the difference between the collier or furnaceman at his work--when he is half naked, begrimed from head to foot, labouring either in the bowels of the earth or among roaring fires, and looking more like demon than man--and on holidays dressed in a suit of clothes that would not disgrace an English gentleman, is most remarkable. It is nothing uncommon to see these men dressed in coat and trousers of fine black cloth, elegant waistcoat, fine shirt, beaver hat, Wellington boots, and a fine silk handkerchief in his pocket; and instead of being ridiculous, as the clumsy farmer would be in such a dress, wearing it with a quiet, unconcerned, and gentlemanly [[p. 216]] air. The men at the large works, such as Merthyr Tydfil, are more gaudy in their dress, and betray themselves much more quickly than the colliers of many other districts.
It is an undoubted fact, too, that the persons engaged in the collieries and ironworks are far more intellectual than the farmers, and pay more attention to their own and their children's education. Many of them indeed are well informed on most subjects, and in every respect much more highly civilized than the farmer.
The wages which these men get--in good times £2 or £3 per week--prevents them, with moderate care, from being ever in any great distress. They likewise always live well, which the poor farmer does not, and though many of them have a bit of land and all a potato ground, the turnpike grievances, poor-rates, and tithes do not affect them as compared with the farmers, to whom these are a grievous burden, making the scanty living with which they are contented hard to be obtained.
The rents, too, continue the same as when their produce sold for much more and the above- mentioned taxes were not near so heavy. The consequence is that the poor farmer works from morning to night after his own fashion, lives in a manner which the poorest English labourer would grumble at, and as his reward, perhaps, has his goods and stock sold by his landlord to pay the exorbitant rent, averaging 8s. or 10s. per acre for such land as I have described.
The Welsh farmer is a veritable Welshman. He can speak English but very imperfectly, and has an abhorrence of all Saxon manners and innovations. He is frequently unable to read or write, but can sometimes con over his Welsh Bible, and make out an unintelligible bill; and if in addition he can read a little English and knows the four first rules of arithmetic, he may be considered a well-educated man. The women almost invariably neither read nor write, and can scarcely ever understand two words of English. They fully make up for this, however, by a double share of volubility and animation in the use of their own language, and their shrill clear voices are indications of good health, and are not unpleasant. The choleric disposition usually ascribed to the Welsh is, I think, not general. Words do not often lead to blows, as they take a joke or a satirical expression very good humouredly, and return it very readily. Fighting is much more rarely resorted to than in England, and it is, perhaps, the energy and excitement with which they discuss even common topics of conversation that has given rise to the misconception. They have a ready and peculiar wit, something akin to the Irish, but more frequently expressed so distantly and allegorically as to be unintelligible to one who does not understand their modes of thought and peculiarities of idioms, which latter no less than the former they retain even when they converse in English. They are very proud of their language, on the beauty and expressiveness of which they will [[p. 217]] sometimes dilate with much animation, concluding with a triumphant assertion that theirs is a language, while the English is none, but merely a way of speaking.
The language, though at times guttural, is, when well spoken, both melodious and impressive. There are many changes in first letters of words, for the sake of euphony, depending on what happens to precede them; m and b, for instance, are often changed into f (pronounced v), as melin or felin, a mill; mel or fel, honey. The gender is often changed in the same manner, as bach (masculine), fach (feminine), small; mawr (m.), fawr (f.), great. The modes of making the plural is to an Englishman rather singular, a syllable being taken off instead of being added, as is usually the case with us, as plentyn, a child; plent, children: mochyn, a pig; moch, pigs. But in other cases a syllable or letter is added.
Their preachers or public speakers have much influence over them. During a discourse there is the most breathless attention, and at the pauses a universal thrill of approbation. Allegory is their chief speciality, and seems to give the hearers the greatest pleasure, and the language appears well fitted for giving it its full effect.
As might be expected from their ignorance, they are exceedingly superstitious, which is rather increased than diminished in those who are able to read by their confining their studies almost wholly to the Bible. The forms their superstitions take are in general much the same as in Scotland, Ireland, and other remote parts of the kingdom. Witches and wizards and white witches, as they are called, are firmly believed in, and their powers much dreaded. There is a witch within a mile of where I am now writing who, according to report, has performed many wonders. One man who had offended her she witched so that he could not rise from his bed for several years, but he was at last cured by inviting the witch to tea and making friends with her. Another case was of a man driving his pig to market when the witch passed by. The pig instantly refused to move, sat up on its hind legs against the hedge in such a manner as no pig was ever seen to do before, and, as it could not be persuaded to walk, was carried home, where it soon died. These and dozens of other similar stories are vouched for by eye-witnesses, one of whom told me this. A still more extraordinary instance of the woman's supernatural powers must be mentioned. She is supposed to have the power of changing herself into different shapes at pleasure, that of a hare seeming to be with her, as with many other witches, the favourite one, as if they delighted in the persecution that harmless animal generally meets with. It is related that one day, being pursued by men and dogs while in this shape, the pursuers came to a coal mine the steam-engine of which was in full work, bringing up coal. The witch-hare jumped on to the woodwork which supports the chains, when immediately they refused to move, the engine stopped, pumps, everything remained motionless, and amid the general surprise the witch escaped. But the pit could never be worked again, the pumps and the engine were taken away, and the ruins of the [[p. 218]] engine house and parts of the other machinery are now pointed out as an undoubted and visible proof of the witch's power.
The witch, being aware of her power over the minds of the people, makes use of it for her own advantage, borrowing her neighbours' horses and farming implements, which they dare not refuse her.
But the most characteristic and general superstition of this part of the country is the "corpse candle." This is seen in various shapes and heard in various sounds; the normal form, from which it takes its name, being, however, a lighted candle, which is supposed to foretell death, by going from the house in which the person dies along the road where the coffin will be carried to the place of burial. It is only a few of the most hardy and best educated who dare to call in question the reality of this fearful omen, and the evidence in support of it is of such a startling and voluminous character, that did we not remember the trials and burnings and tortures for witchcraft and demonianism, and all the other forms of superstition in England but a few years ago, it would almost overpower our common sense.
I will mention a few cases which have been told me by the persons who were witnesses of them, leaving out the hundreds of more marvellous ones which are everywhere to be heard secondhand.
A respectable woman, in a house where we lodged, assured us that on the evening before one of her children died, she saw a lighted candle moving along about three feet from the ground from the foot of the stairs, across the room towards her, that it came close up to her apron and then vanished, and that it was as distinct and plainly visible as the other candles which were in the room.
Another case is of a collier who, going one morning into the pit before any of the other men were at work, heard the coal waggons coming along, although he knew there could be no one then at work. He stood still at the side of the passage, the waggons came along drawn by horses as usual, a man he knew walking in front and another at the side, and the dead body of one of his fellow workmen was in one of the waggons. In the course of the day he related what he had seen to some of the workmen (one of whom told me the story), declaring his belief that the man whose body he had seen would meet with an accident before long. About a year afterwards the man was killed by an accident in the pit. The two men seen were near him, and brought him out in the waggon, and their being obliged to stop at the particular place and every other circumstance happened exactly as had been described. This is as the story was told me by a man who declares he heard the prophecy and saw the fulfilment a year afterwards. When such stories are told and believed, it is, of course, useless arguing against the absurdity of it. They naturally say they must believe their own senses, and they are not sufficiently educated to appreciate any general argument you may put to them. There seems to be no fixed time within which the death should follow the "candle" (as all these appearances are called), and therefore when a person sees or thinks he sees anything at night, he sets it down [[p. 219]] as corpse candle, and by the time he gets home the fright has enlarged it into something marvellously supernatural, and the first corpse that happens to be carried that way is considered to be the fulfilment of it.
There is a general belief that if the person who meets a candle immediately lies down on his back, he will see the funeral procession with every person that will be present, and the corpse with the candle in his hand. There are many strongly authenticated instances of this. One man, on lying down in this manner, saw that it was himself who carried the candle in his hand. He went home, went to bed, never rose from it, but died in a week. These and numberless other stories of a similar character foster the belief in these uneducated people; indeed, it is so general that you can hardly meet a person but can tell you of several marvellous things he has seen himself, besides hundreds vouched for by his neighbours.
They have an account of the origin of this warning in the story of an ancient Welsh bishop, who, while being burnt to death by the Catholics, declared that if his religion was true, a candle should precede every death in the Diocese of St. David's, going along the exact road the coffin would be carried. They are very incredulous when you tell them that these corpse candles are in great repute in Radnorshire, which is not in the Diocese of St. David's, and that there are the same appearances under a different name in Ireland.
A celebrated astrologer or conjurer, as he is called in Carmarthenshire, is a living proof of the superstition of the Welsh. This man has printed cards, openly professing to cast nativities, etc., of one of which the following is a literal copy:--
"In which are given the general transactions of the native through life, viz. Description (without
seeing the person), temper, disposition, fortunate or unfortunate in their general pursuits,
Honour, Riches, Journeys and Voyages, success therein, and what places best to travel to or
reside in; Friends and Enemies, Trade or Profession best to follow and whether fortunate in
speculations, viz. Lottery, dealing in foreign markets, &c., &c., &c.
He is, however, most generally consulted when money, horses, sheep, etc., are stolen. He then, without inquiring the time of birth or any other [[p. 220]] particulars, and without consulting the stars, pretends to know who they are and what they come for. He is, however, generally not at home, and his wife then treats them well, and holds them in conversation till he returns, when he immediately gives them some particulars of the neighbourhood they live in, and pretends to describe the person who stole the goods and the house he lives in, etc., and endeavours to frighten the thief by giving out that he will mark him so that everybody shall know him. In some few cases this succeeds, the person, fearful of the great conjurer's power, returns the goods, and the conjurer then gets great credit. In other cases he manages to tell them something which they cannot tell how he became aware of, and then, even if nothing more is heard of the goods, he still keeps up his fame. Two cases have come under my own observation, in which the parties have gone, in one case forty the other sixty miles, to consult this man about some stolen money; and though in neither case was the desired end obtained, they were told so much about themselves that they felt sure he must have obtained his knowledge by supernatural means. They accordingly spread his name abroad as a wonderful man, who knew a great deal more than other people. The name of his house, "Cwrt y cadno," is very appropriate, as it means in English "The Fox's Court."
Besides these and numberless other instances of almost universal belief in supernatural agency, their superstition as well as their ignorance is further shown by their ascribing to our most harmless reptiles powers of inflicting deadly injury. The toad, newt, lizard, and snake are, they imagine, virulently poisonous, and they look on with horror, and will hardly trust their eyes, should they see them handled with impunity. The barking dogs at night, hooting of owls, or any unusual noise, dreams, etc., etc., are here, as in many parts of England, regarded as dark omens of our future destiny, mysterious warnings sent to draw aside the veil of futurity and reveal to us, though obscurely, impending danger, disease or death.
Reckoned by the usual standards on these subjects, the religion of the lower orders of Welshmen may be said to be high in the scale, while their morality is decidedly low. This may appear a contradiction to some persons, but those who are at all acquainted with mankind well know that, however luxuriantly religion in its outward forms and influence on the tongue may flourish in an uncultivated soil, it is by no means necessarily accompanied by an equal growth of morality. The former, like the flower of the field, springs spontaneously, or with but little care; the latter, like the useful grain, only by laborious cultivation and the careful eradication of useless or noxious weeds.
If the number of chapels and prayer-meetings, the constant attendance on them, and the fervour of the congregation can be accounted as signs of religion, it is here. Besides the regular services on the Sabbath and on the other days, prayer meetings are held early in the morning and late at night in different cottages by turns, where the uneducated agriculturist or [[p. 221]] collier breathes forth an extemporary prayer. The Established Church is very rarely well attended. There is not enough of an exciting character or of originality in the service to allure them, and the preacher is too frequently an Englishman who speaks the native tongue, but as a foreigner.
Their preachers, while they should teach their congregation moral duties, boldly decry their vices, and inculcate the commandments and the duty of doing to others as we would they should do unto us, here, as is too frequently the case throughout the kingdom, dwell almost entirely on the mystical doctrine of the atonement--a doctrine certainly not intelligible to persons in a state of complete ignorance, and which, by teaching them that they are not to rely on their own good deeds, has the effect of entirely breaking away the connection between their religion and the duties of their everyday life, and of causing them to imagine that the animal excitement which makes them groan and shriek and leap like madmen in the place of worship, is the true religion which will conduce to their happiness here, and lead them to heavenly joys in a world to come.
Among the youth of both sexes, however, the chapel and prayer meeting is considered more in the light of a "trysting" place than as a place of worship, and this is one reason of the full attendance, especially at the evening services. And as the meetings are necessarily in a thinly populated country, often distant, the journey, generally performed on horseback, affords opportunities for converse not to be neglected.
Thus it will not be wondered at, even by those who affirm the connection between religion and morality, that the latter is, as I said before, at a very low ebb. Cheating of all kinds, when it can be done without being found out, and all the lesser crimes are plentiful enough. The notoriety which Welsh juries and Welsh witnesses have obtained (not unjustly) shows how little they scruple to break their word or their oath. Having to give their evidence through the medium of an interpreter gives them an advantage in court, as the counsel's voice and manner have not so much effect upon them. They are, many of them, very good witnesses as far as sticking firmly to the story they have been instructed in goes, and returning the witticisms of the learned counsel so as often to afford much mirth. To an honest jury a Welsh case is often very puzzling, on account of its being hardly possible to get at a single fact but what is sworn against by an equal number of witnesses on the opposite side; but to a Welsh jury, who have generally decided on their verdict before the trial commences, it does not present any serious difficultly.
The morals and manners of the females, as might be expected from entire ignorance, are very loose, and perhaps in the majority of cases a child is born before the marriage takes place.
But let us not hide the poor Welshman's virtues while we expose his faults. Many of the latter arise from his desire to defend his fellow countrymen from what he considers unfair or unjust persecution, and many others from what he cannot himself prevent--his ignorance. He [[p. 222]] is hospitable even to the Saxon. His fire, a jug of milk, and bread and cheese being always at your service. He works hard and lives poorly. He bears misfortune and injury long before he complains. The late Rebecca disturbances, however, show that he may be roused, and his ignorance of other effectual measures should be his excuse for the illegal and forcible means he took to obtain redress--means which, moreover, have been justified by success. It is to be hoped that he will not have again to resort to such outrages as the only way to compel his rulers to do him justice.
A broader system of education is much needed in the Principality. Almost all the schools, it is true, teach the English language, but the child finds the difficulty of acquiring even the first rudiments of education much increased by his being taught them in an unfamiliar tongue of which he has perhaps only picked up a few common-place expressions. In arithmetic, the new language presents a greater difficulty, the method of enumerating being different from their own; in fact, many Welsh children who have been to school cannot answer a simple question in arithmetic till they have first translated it into Welsh. Unless, therefore, they happen to be thrown among English people or are more than usually well instructed, they get on but little with anything more than speaking English, which those who have been to school generally do very well. Whatever else they have learnt is soon lost for want of practice. It would be very useful to translate some of the more useful elementary works in the different branches of knowledge into Welsh, and sell them as cheaply as possible. The few little Welsh books to be had (and they are very few) are eagerly purchased and read with great pleasure, showing that if the means of acquiring knowledge are offered him, the Welshman will not refuse them.
I will now conclude this brief account of the inhabitants of so interesting a part of our island, a part which will well repay the trouble of a visit, as much for its lovely vales, noble mountains, and foaming cascades, as for the old customs and still older language of the inhabitants of the little white-washed cottages which enliven its sunny vales and barren mountain slopes.