[Tales of the Highlands Contents]
THIS collection of Highland Tales is published in continuation of that which appeared in 1837, and in pursuance of a plan – long cherished by the author – of collecting and preserving in print all the more interesting of the traditional and local histories of the Highlanders that yet remain, but which, to the regret of all antiquaries, are fast melting away. Not a year passes over us that does not see some ancient Seanachaidh, whom perhaps we may have known as the venerable historian of the district where he lived – to whose tales of love, strife, or peril we may have often listened with eager attention – borne to his silent grave in the simple churchyard of some lonely Highland parish, where his snow-white head is consigned to its parent earth, and there left to moulder into dust and oblivion, together with all the legendary lore which it contained. The author has always had great pleasure in availing himself of every opportunity that occurred to him of conversing with those living records of the glens, and he has never failed to write down whatsoever curious matter it may have been his good fortune to gather from them. By such means, as well as by the assistance of many kind friends, he has been enabled to make a very considerable collection of these traditions from all parts of the Highlands of Scotland; and, like all other collectors, he has become only just so much the more insatiably avaricious to increase his store the larger that he sees the heap becoming.
Such legends are not only curious and interesting in themselves, but they will often prove to be helps to history, from the little incidents which they furnish, that may throw light upon it. But, however they are to be estimated in this respect, they must always be considered as having some value, from the pictures which they afford of the manners of the times to which they belong.
It is quite possible that many of these traditions, in the course of their long descent through successive ages, during which they have been distilled and redistilled through the poetical imaginations of so many narrators, may have undergone considerable alteration, and even, perhaps, in some instances exaggeration. To many fervid minds such an effect produced by their antiquity may not render them one whit less palatable, whilst people of a less romantic and more common-sense cast will always be able to winnow out for themselves the more solid grains from the glittering but empty chaff. But anyone who, from the apparent improbability of some of their attendant circumstances, should assert that such legends have no foundation in fact would fall, it is apprehended, into a very grievous error. The author thinks that no legend, however improbable, can have been created without having had some foundation in reality – some germ, in short, from which it had its origin – and perhaps he cannot better illustrate this observation, or prove its truth, than by narrating a circumstance, with the particulars of which he was favoured by his friend the Venerable Archdeacon Williams, which shows this connection in the strongest light. What he has to tell, it is true, belongs more particularly to the Principality of Wales, but it only furnishes a more than ordinarily curious and striking example of a class of which many similar samples might be easily produced from the Highlands of Scotland, as well as from many other parts of the world.
Some of the Welsh legendary historians tell us that in the year 500 there flourished a renowned chief called Benlli Gawr. His usual residence was where the present town of Mold now stands, and his hill-fort, or place of strength, was erected on the highest of the Clwydian range, nearly due west from Mold, and about half-way between that place and Ruthin. The hill on which the remains of this fortalice still exists is called Moel Benlli, or the conical hill of Benlli, and it presents a conspicuous object from Mold, Ruthin, and Denbigh. An immense carnedd, or cairn of stones, which was still to be seen some years ago in an entire state in a field about half a mile from the town of Mold, was supposed to have been the place of this hero’s interment; and if we may believe what we read in the Welsh verses on the graves of the warriors of the Isle of Britain, his son’s place of sepulture was in a spot about eight miles distant, and is thus noticed in the following rhymes:-
“Pian y bedd yn y Maes Mawr,
Balen a law ar ei larn awr:
Bedd Beli ab Benlli Gawr.”
That is –
“He who owns the grave in the large field,
Proud his hand on his blade:
The grave of Beli, son of Benlli Gawr.”
But to return to the great Carnedd of Benlli himself in the field near Mold. It was always called Tomen y r Ellyllon, or the Tumulus of the Goblins, and for this reason that from time immemorial it was believed that the grim ghost of Benlli, in the form of a knight clad in splendid gear, and especially wearing a Celain Aur, or golden corselet, appeared after sunset standing on the cairn, or walking round it, and that there he continued to maintain his cold post till the scent of the morning air or the crowing of the cock drove him to the necessity of retiring from it to some more comfortable quarters. This legend had for generations so terrified the people that no bribe could have tempted anyone to have passed by that way after nightfall. Yet, though nobody went thither, and that every possibility of having anything like direct evidence as to what the spectre knight’s personal appearance and dress really were, had been thus precluded by the circumstance that everyone shunned his dreaded presence, the most wonderful and incredible accounts of his stern countenance and terrific bearing, together with the most fearful stories of their effects upon people who had beheld them, continued to be propagated, although no one could specify the individuals who had seen them, or been so affected by them.
Towards the end of the year 1833 it happened that the occupier of the field where the carnedd stood took it into his head that the stones of which it was composed might be of use for the construction of a road, or for filling drains, or for some such rural purpose. It was with some difficulty that he could procure workmen bold enough to make such an assault on the very castle of the goblin, even although it was to be carried on during the hours that the blessed sun was abroad. But having at last succeeded in obtaining these, he proceeded to work, and soon drove away some four or five hundred cart-loads of stones from the cairn, when at last the workmen came upon something of a strange shape, which was manifestly constructed of some sort of metal. It was with no little dread that they ventured to touch it, but their observation having led them to believe that it was some old brass pot-lid or frying-pan, it ceased to be an object either of dread or of interest in their unlearned eyes, and they threw it carelessly into a hedge, where it lay all night neglected.
Some person of education having come to the spot next morning, who had heard of such a thing having been found, was led by curiosity to examine it, when, to the astonishment of all who heard of it, the brazen frying-pan was discovered to be a lorica, or corselet of gold.
The metal was found to be of about the same degree of purity as our present coin. It was so thin, that it weighed altogether no more than sixty sovereigns, and therefore it appears evident that it could not have been used as armour of defence in combat. It is more than probable that it must have been worn merely as an ornamental piece of armour on occasions of state or parade, in which case it was, very likely, originally lined with leather. It was embossed all over it, of a simple pattern, but it was not perforated.
The obliging correspondent through whose kindness, and that of his friends, I have become possessed of these very remarkable facts. amuses himself by circulating the immense value which such a piece of dress must have had in the time of Benlli-Gawr, its wearer, that is, in the year 500. “This,” says he, “may be done by referring to the ancient laws of Wales, now publishing under the Government Commission. In these laws, the average price of a cow was five shillings, and allowing for the difference in the value of money, a cow would now cost about ten pounds. Then one pound at that time would buy four cows, and the ten pounds would buy forty cows, and the sixty sovereigns would be the value of two hundred and forty cows, or two thousand four hundred pounds sterling.”
This curious and highly valuable morceau of antiquity was immediately claimed by the Honourable Edward Mostyn Lloyd Mostyn as lord of the manor, and by Colonel Salusbury of Gallbfarnan as the possessor of the field where it was found, and the law having determined that it should belong to the former gentleman, it is now in his possession. It is gratifying to the Author to think, that it should have fallen into the hands of Mr. Mostyn, with whom he has since had the honour of becoming acquainted, during the Welsh Eisteddvod, held at Liverpool, where, a President of that body, his high attainments – his courteous manners – and his ardent devotion to the cause of the preservation of Welsh literature and antiquities, gave universal satisfaction to all present, and afforded a sufficient assurance for the safety of the interesting relic, of which an account has been given.
This is certainly a very powerful instance of the soundness of the proposition, that legendary tales, however incredible many of their circumstances may be, have always some foundation in truth. It appears to be by no means difficult to speculate reasonably enough on the probabilities of the matter in this case; and it would seem that they have in all likelihood been these:- In the year 500 or thereabouts, the renowned hero, Benlli, died, and in obedience to his own last instructions, or of those of his son, Beli, or of some other relative or friend, he was buried in the tumulus with his golden corselet on, and then the Carnedd was heaped up over his remains. To prevent the risk of any avaricious follower or serf, or any other promiscuous pilferer, uncovering his body during the night, in order to possess himself of the glittering prize, his surviving friends circulate the story that his ghost, frowning fearfully, as such ghosts are wont, is seen nightly to guard the tumulus, girt in the golden armour. Terror fills the superstitious minds of the inhabitants of the district, and no man for his life will venture to approach the Carnedd after sunset. This lie protective is thus very naturally and innocently handed down from one generation of the superstitious people of the neighbourhood to that which succeeds it, and implicitly believed; and so the story is traditionally preserved for about fourteen hundred years, until it is now at last unravelled, in our own time, by the removal of the Carnedd of stones, and the discovery of the golden corselet itself.
Let not anyone refuse then to give credence to the main circumstances of these, our Highland legends, because they may perhaps be somewhat overlaid with circumstances of a romantic or doubtful nature, but let the judgment rather be exercised to discover, and to discriminate, between the thread of the true and original history, and those adventitious filaments of later manufacture which have from time to time been introduced and interwoven with it. This will generally be found to be no very difficult task, and there are many by whom it will be considered rather as an agreeable amusement, than as an irksome occupation.