Digging in the horticultural archives

Collections - Posted 29-04-2020

The garden has always been a source of solace, delight, exercise and food production, never more so than in the recent worldwide health crisis. To celebrate National Gardening Week, and for those who are unable to access a garden, we bring you an armchair guide to some of the Library’s horticultural archives.

An early example is a manuscript draft of Sir Thomas Hanmer’s ‘Garden Book’, written between 1650 and 1664, and published with an introduction by E. S. Rohde in 1933. Sir Thomas Hanmer had formerly been cup-bearer to Charles I and he had fought on the Royalist side in the Civil War. In the aftermath he escaped to France but returned to make his home at at Bettisfield in Flintshire, where he devoted much of his life to the garden. The ‘Garden Book’ contains memoranda of monthly tasks, lists of plants, notes on viticulture and methods of increasing plants. At the very time that tulipomania was sweeping Europe, Sir Thomas indulged his own passion for tulips. One of the finest specimens which he introduced to Britain was named after him, ‘Agate Hanmer’.

There is a portrait of Sir Thomas Hanmer by Cornelius Johnson in the National Museum Wales.

Another keen horticulturalist and botanist was John Wynne Griffith (1763-1834) of Garn in Denbighshire. The Garn Estate Records contain several letters of significant botanical and horticultural importance from Heneage Finch Earl of Aylesford, Sir Joseph Banks, William Bingley, Hugh Davies, James Dickson, John Fenton, Edward Hasell, James Hunter, Jonathan Stokes, Robert Teesdale, Dawson Turner, James Watt, and William Withering, senior and junior, 1794-1830. The depth of his knowledge may be judged from the plant lists which he exchanged with William Withering in 1794:

226. C[ircaea] intermedia. The specimen bearing this no. according to shape of the pairs belongs as you observe to C. lutetiana but the shape of the leaves much resemble those of C. alp.

Most of the Welsh gentry houses, like their English counterparts, were surrounded by gardens. The layout of the formal garden at Gogerddan in Cardiganshire is illustrated on a wonderful plan by William Combs, dated 1765. It shows the parterres, terraces and steps around the mansion, the watercourses and the straight paths radiating out in a fan shape to the more natural woodland landscape beyond.

The Gogerddan Estate Records also contain a garden account book showing produce for August and September and the prices, 1835, and a cash book recording receipts mainly for produce and plants, payments for garden equipment and carriage charges for parcels of horticultural goods, 1916-1919. Wage records reveal that in 1870 the male gardeners at Gogerddan earned between 10 and 15 shilling per week; their female colleagues earned 6 shillings.

The final destination on our horticultural tour is the twentieth century garden of Penny Condry at Ynys Edwin, Eglwys Fach, near Machynlleth. The papers of her husband, William Condry, contain numerous references to the wildlife and ecology of gardens. There is an unpublished script about Ynys Edwin called ‘Wild Welsh Garden’ dated 1991, accompanied by notes on weeds, bee keeping, pests, and various wild plant and animal species.

Penny shared her keen horticultural interest with Mildred Elsie Eldridge (Elsi), wife of R.S. Thomas. Elsi’s letters to Penny were highly descriptive and they were sometimes illustrated with delightful sketches of mice and plants. They are explored in a previous NLW Blog post.

While searching for suitable images to accompany this blog post, I noted that the Library holds several beautiful flower paintings by John Parker (1798-1860). This is one of them, showing white narcissi against a natural background of rocks and ferns.

Finally here is that musical icon of Wales, Aled Jones in an adaptation of Handel, portraying a young man wistfully gazing after his lady as she walks down the garden path singing.

Hilary Peters


  • NLW Manuscript NLW MS 21753B
  • Garn Estate Records FPG3
  • Gogerddan Estate Records GBC3, GBF
  • William Condry Papers LP1/15, RT5/9

A sprinkling of history

Collections - Posted 28-04-2020

Achieving Royal Assent to the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011 was an historic event. The National Assembly for Wales gained the power to legislate in certain areas and in certain circumstances under the Government of Wales Act 2006, and a number of government measures had been passed on issues such as education, health, and waste. The Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011 was the first law introduced by a backbench Assembly Member (AM) to be passed by the Assembly. Ann Jones, AM for the Vale of Clwyd, was the AM responsible for the law and as a former fire officer, she had expertise and a long-term interest in the field.

Ann Jones presented the archive of papers tracing the passing of the law to the National Library of Wales through the Women’s Archive Wales as part of their Setting the Record Straight project. The project works with current and former women Assembly Members to record their oral histories and arrange for their papers to go to an appropriate archive. This was the first archival collection to come to an archive office as part of the project and I went with Rhian James, Head of Archives and Manuscripts, to collect it from the Senedd in Cardiff in November 2019.



The story of the Measure becoming law is an interesting one, and the papers follow each stage of the process through research, obtaining a Legislative Competence Order, debates in the Assembly, passing the measure, and implementing the regulations. Among the papers are drafts of speeches in which Ann makes the case for the law passionately and effectively; drafts of the legislation; and correspondence with Welsh Government ministers, MPs and Lords, and chief fire service officers. There are copies of research into similar measures in Toronto and Scottsdale Arizona, papers of fire safety conferences, and a collection of interesting correspondence between Ann Jones and UK Government ministers, including David Jones, who were critical of a law they felt placed an unreasonable burden on the construction industry. Ann Jones’ answers demonstrate her mastery of the arguments and her expertise in the field as well as her willingness to enter discussions to achieve the goal of reducing the number of people who die in domestic fires.

The ‘Sprinkler law’ is one of the National Assembly for Wales’ most well-known accomplishments so it is only right that the documents that tell the story and record the role of the politician behind it are available as part of the Welsh Political Archive and Women’s Archive of Wales at the National Library. The archive can be browsed on our online catalog.


Rob Phillips
Welsh Political Archive


Story of Wales: Quiz 3

Story of Wales - Posted 24-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)


1. Who was the founder of the Peniarth Manuscripts collection?
2. What was the name of the famous portrait artist who was born in Haverfordwest in 1876? Her brother was also a famous artist?
3. Who sent the Pennal Letter to the King of France in 1406?
4. Who presented the enquals sign (=) for the first time in the publication The Whetstone of Witte?
5. Who was the first female to win a bardic competition in the National Eisteddfod?
6. Which King of England was born at Pembroke Castle?
7. What year did the Battle of Fishguard take place?
8. Where was the Welsh artist Sir Kyffin Williams born?
9. Where did the first recorded Eisteddfod take place?
10. Name the earliest female photographer in Wales


  1. Robert Vaughan
  2. Gwen John
  3. Owain Glyndŵr
  4. Robert Recorde
  5. Cranogwen (Sarah Jane Rees)
  6. Henry VII
  7. 1797
  8. Llangefni, Anglesey
  9. Cardigan Castle
  10. Mary Dillwyn


Lobscaws and Llymru: Welsh food and recipes

Collections - Posted 22-04-2020

I recently enjoyed reading First Catch Your Peacock: The Classic guide to Welsh food by Bobby Freeman (Y Lolfa, 2006). The book provides a thoroughly-researched introduction to the history of Welsh food, followed by examples of traditional recipes.

The book’s definition of ‘traditional’ is the food which was cooked in the Welsh cottage or farmhouse kitchen, using a pot or a bakestone originally over the open fire, or in later centuries on the cast iron cooking range. The recipes were passed down orally through families for generations, rarely written down until recorded in the the prize-winning Eisteddfod essay of Mati Thomas in 1928.



Freeman comments on the difficulty of distinguishing traditional Welsh recipes from English or foreign ones, due to the similarity of ingredients or to linguistic confusion. One example is the ubiquitous meat and vegetable broth called ‘lobscaws’ in the north,‘cawl’ further south. The ingredients may be identical but the origins of the names are entirely different. While ‘cawl’ appears to be a genuine Welsh word, ‘lobscaws’ actually derives from the north German ‘labskaus’, which in northern England became ‘lobscouse’. Conversely, Welsh food names may have passed undetected into the repertoire of ‘old English’ cookery. The gelatinous dish called ‘llymru’, made from oatmeal in Wales, became ‘flummery’ in England and it appeared with its original ingredients in Gervase Markham’s Countrey contentments, or The English husvvife (London 1623). By the mid-seventeenth century fancier variations had evolved, containing sugar, cream, orange-flower water or fruit flavourings, such as the recipe published in The Closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. opened (London 1669), which resembles more closely the modern cook’s notion of a traditional flummery.

Among the cookery books consulted by Bobby Freeman at the National Library of Wales is The First Principles of Good Cookery illustrated and Recipes communicated by the Welsh Hermit of the Cell of St. Gover (London 1867) by the redoubtable Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover. While the language is English and the authenticity of some ‘Welsh’ items may be suspect, the recipe for Salt Duck (p. 408), we are assured, is convincingly genuine. A digital copy of the early edition is available on the Library’s website.

Other interesting culinary information may be found in the Library’s collections of estate records. Freeman identifies these recipes from the ‘plas’ more closely with the English cookery tradition, yet they are ‘Welsh’ in the sense that they were written down by the wives and housekeepers of the Welsh gentry homes, and that most of the fresh ingredients came directly from their own estates. One very fine example is Peniarth Manuscript 513D, a book of recipes compiled in the seventeenth century by Meryell Williams (1629-1703), the highly capable wife of John Williams of Ystumcolwyn, Montgomeryshire. The immaculate handwriting makes it quite ‘user-friendly’ for today’s cooks. The book is logically organised into sections for pottage, meat and fish, puddings, biscuits, cakes, preserves, wines and medicines, all meticulously indexed at the back of the volume. Many of the recipes were translated into Welsh by Dr Enid Pierce Roberts, Gwraig orau o’r Gwragedd (Gwasg Pantycelyn, 2003).

Gogerddan near Aberystwyth belonged to the Pryse and Loveden family. Only one recipe book has survived, together with a few loose items, one of which is a menu in Welsh, dated 1796, when the estate belonged to Pryse Pryse (formerly Loveden). The menu seems quite festive although the occasion is not specified. It includes Brithyll ffrio, math o’r pysgodin berw yn Saesneg enw Turbot, oen coes berw gyda y llwin ffrio, pwding crynu, cig eidion rhost…pastai afal ffrwythau (fried trout, boiled turbot, boiled leg of lamb with fried loin, quaky pudding, roast beef and apple pasty).

Much of the food produced from the Gogerddan estate and garden was for immediate use in the house. The lists of seeds and the accounts show what was grown in the kitchen garden between 1767 and 1919: white Spanish onions, London leeks, orange carrots, parsnips, rape seed, white Cos lettuce, imperial lettuce, Italian celery, three varieties of cauliflower, kidney beans, cabbages, cucumbers, and apples. Greenhouse crops included tomatoes and grapes. The cash book records the costs of sending parcels of produce to Aberystwyth, and more ominously, the prices of fumigating compound and rat poison. There are wonderful series of farm accounts, showing livestock bought and sold, crops sold and farm wages, 1813-1919; and the dairy accounts, recording weekly the production of milk, cream and butter, 1881-1919. Many of the groceries such as sugar and tea were purchased from local tradesmen in Aberystwyth. All of these records may be discovered among the Gogerddan estate and household administration papers.

Some of the best household records in the Brogyntyn archive date from the time of Mrs Mary Owen in the mid-18th century. Mary (née Godolphin) went as a somewhat unwilling bride to William Owen, the squire of Brogyntyn on the Welsh borders.  As Mrs Owen, she settled into her new life as mistress of a large house, facing the challenges of domestic management.  Among the household papers are the instructions which she wrote for her servants:

The Cook’s Business. She must be able to get a dinner of fiveteen dishes of meat; four or five things when the family is alone is sufficient…..She must salt all the meat……fatten the poultry…….keep the scullery and larders and kitchen clean, and the utensils belonging to them……dress the wheat flower……make the parlour bread……rise with the other maids to wash, till her own business requires her elsewhere……She has help from the other maids to scour, which is once in four weeks, but I expect her to scour the pewter plates every fortnight……She is to carve for the lower servants at dinner…..When she has time I expect her to iron her own cloaths……


The arduous servants’ duties which were specified by Mrs Owen force us to consider the problems faced by the cooks of both the cottage and the ‘plas’ in previous centuries. Bobby Freeman and Mati Thomas each observe the difficulty of cooking to a consistent quality on an open fire or a cast-iron range, dependent on the type of fuel, the daily weather conditions and the efficiency (or deficiency) of the chimney.  They remark on the sheer physical effort expended in handling the heavy implements of the traditional Welsh kitchen and in maintaining a high standard of cleanliness. Evidence of the old cooking equipment may be obtained from a detailed scrutiny of the thousands of inventories which survive in the pre-1858 Welsh Probate Records, most of which are available in digital form on the Library’s website.



A good example is the inventory of Thomas Lewis’s house at Llan-gors, which was possibly Trewallter, although the abode is not named in the probate documents. The kitchen contained a whole array of different sized pewter dishes, basins and plates, salt cellar, candlesticks and flagons; skillets, brass candlesticks, warming pans, chafing dishes, various brass pans, bell metal vessels; dripping pans, frying pans and other iron implements; one pair of cupboards, one jack, one iron plate before the fire and other iron wares; vats, barrels, hogsheads, another cupboard, one chair and two joint stools (NLW wills, BR1680/103).

Actual utensils may be viewed at Ceredigion Museum or at St Fagans National Museum of History.


Hilary Peters
Assistant Archivist



Tags: , ,

Story of Wales: Quiz 2

Story of Wales - Posted 17-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)



1. What was the name of the father and son who composed the Welsh National Anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau?

2. What was the name of the vicar in Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, “Under Milk Wood”?  

3. What was the name of the poet who won the chair in the National Eisteddfod yn Birkenhead, 1917 “bardd y gadair ddu” (poet of the black chair)? 

4. Which three rivers start their journey on Pumlumon?  

5. According to the legend Girls of the Sea (Merched y Môr), the king of the sea turned three sisters into what?  

6. From whom did Mari Jones buy her Bible in 1800?  

7. Who sent the Pennal Letter to the King of France in 1406? 

8. What was the name of the ship that transported the first Welsh emigrants to Patagonia? 

9. What year did David Lloyd George become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? 

10. Peniarth 28 (the earliest surviving copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda) is written in which language? 


  1. Evan James and James James 
  2. Rev Eli Jenkins 
  3. Ellis Humphrey Evans 
  4. Severn, Wye and Rheidol 
  5. Seagulls 
  6. Rev Thomas Charles 
  7. Owain Glyndwr 
  8. The Mimosa
  9. 1916 
  10. Latin

Story of Wales: Quiz 1

Story of Wales - Posted 10-04-2020

As part of our Story of Wales series, we will be posting a weekly quiz every Friday over the coming weeks.

We will be challenging you with 10 questions. All the questions will have a Welsh flavour, and they’ll cover everything from Welsh history, to literature, music, geography and much more.

So, give it a go, and remember to let us know how you get on: NLW on Twitter, NLW on Facebook or NLW on Instagram

(By the way, the answers are at the bottom – no cheating!)



1. Humphrey Llwyd is celebrated as the author of the first map of Wales to be published, but who published it?

2. Who built the Menai Bridge between the mainland and Anglesey?

3. Which lake is the largest natural lake in Wales?

4. Kyffin Williams’ last work was a portrait of what?

5. Name the 4 branches of the Mabinogi

6. Which manuscript contains the earliest copy of the legends of the Mabinogion?

7. Some believe that this is the Holy Grail, but what is the famous cup called?

8. Where was the famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts (Barti Ddu) born?

9. Can you name the First Ministers / First Secretaries of Wales since 1999?

10. Who wrote the collection of short stories ‘Te yn y Grug’? 


  1. Abraham Ortelius
  2. Thomas Telford
  3. Lake Tegid
  4. A sunset
  5. Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, Branwen Ferch Llŷr, Manawydan Fab Llŷr, Math Fab Mathonwy
  6. Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch)
  7. The Nanteos Cup
  8. Casnewydd Bach (Pembrokeshire)
  9. Alun Michael, Rhodri Morgan, Carwyn Jones a Mark Drakeford
  10. Kate Roberts


Cardiff Business Club

Discover Sound / Screen and Sound - Posted 08-04-2020


Julie Kenny and Katy Stone, volunteers for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project reflects on their experience of cataloguing the Cardiff Business Club Collection.

As trainee archivists at Aberystwyth University, we were thrilled to be given the opportunity to participate in the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ (UOSH) project, a UK-wide project that aims to help preserve the nation’s sounds and provide access to them for generations to come. The first collection we were tasked with cataloguing comprised of recordings of speeches given at dinners hosted by the Cardiff Business Club. This organisation promotes business inspiration and initiatives to its members, and is the leading organisation of this nature in Wales. Its patron is HRH The Prince of Wales.



The recordings covered interesting topics including: human rights; environmental impact and sustainability for businesses such as Ford, the National Grid, Mercedes Benz; healthcare systems; international interest in NICE and its future work in relation to drug development and possible clinical guideline expansion; political agendas; economic growth including inflation and the recession; the real estate market; BBC broadcasting and the charter review; the development of Wales’s biggest house builder Redrow; Margaret Thatcher’s axing of public works; the objectives of World Rugby and the opportunities offered by events such as the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic games; the effect of epidemics on businesses and the role of businesses in reducing outbreaks; Brazil’s relations with the UK; the Welsh economy; and the history and development of Cardiff Bay.

Some of the more well-known speakers include Shami Chakrabarti, Lord Tony Hall, Rt. Hon. David Cameron, Brett Gosper, and Professor Dame Sally Davies. Tributes were paid to Sir Cennydd Traherne, who was Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan.

We found listening to these recordings raised interesting points that we hadn’t considered before. It is clear to us how they could benefit a wider audience.

All in all, the time we have spent volunteering at the National Library of Wales (NLW) has been extremely valuable. It has contributed to our studies, and enabled us to develop skills that will be useful to us in our future profession. The staff at NLW have been very welcoming and accommodating, and we would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in protecting our sound heritage to volunteer.

By MA Archives Administration students Julie Kenny and Katy Stone.



Phyllis Kinney. The musician from Michigan

Collections / music - Posted 23-03-2020

Phyllis Kinney’s life is a journey from America to Aberystwyth, and from an early career as an operatic singer to becoming one of the foremost authorities on Welsh traditional music.

Phyllis Kinney (now enjoying her 97th year)  was born in Pontiac, Michigan near Detroit on 4 July 1922 – Independence Day. She was educated at Pontiac High School and then the Michigan State College, East Lansing where she specialised in music and graduated in 1943. Such was her vocal talent that she secured a fellowship at the Juilliard School of Music, New York where she studied for 3 years. In 1947 she became the lead solo with the Carl Rosa opera company, and while touring in Bangor, North Wales met Meredydd Evans (1919-2015) whom she married on 10 April 1948. Their daughter Eluned was born during the summer of 1949, and their married life was mostly spent in Wales, apart from a period of eight years from 1952 to 1960 which they spent in America – with her parents in Pontiac, in Princeton and in Cambridge Mass. She continued her musical career, performing in an opera by the American composer Roger Sessions in Princeton in 1955, and also teaching music in primary and secondary schools.

After returning to Wales she contributed to BBC light entertainment programmes, as a singer and also became a presenter and specialist researcher for television programmes. Her musical interest varies from American musicals to Welsh folk songs and she has spent the last few decades researching music manuscripts and publications at the National Library of Wales, Sain Ffagan and Bangor University. This was the background to her notable work, Welsh Traditional Music (University of Wales Press, 2011), which is the authoritative book on Welsh traditional music from its beginning to the present day. She has also contributed numerous articles to journals (notably in Canu Gwerin and Hanes Cerddoriaeth Cymru: Welsh Music History) and has published several books on Welsh folk music, and songbooks for children, some co-authored by Meredydd Evans. She was awarded an honorary M Mus degree by the University of Wales in 1991 and became honorary fellow of Bangor University alongside her husband in 1997.

The archives of Meredydd Evans and Phyllis Kinney, which were kindly donated to the National Library is a treasure trove of information about Welsh traditional music. Phyllis Kinney’s’ files (over 30 boxes) containing detailed and meticulous notes and analysis of tunes, with information about musicians and collectors of music. Her systematic approach, looking at rhythm, cadence, form, harmony and modes meant that she could confidently state in a letter to the poet Keith Bosley that the most popular folk metre in Welsh folk song is the trochaic tetrameter quatrain; and write an article on the connection between ‘Migldi Magldi and a particular Irish / Welsh tune family. Her correspondence shows her generosity in answering enquiries and providing support for students, researchers and fellow enthusiasts worldwide. The archive reflects the way she embraced Wales, its people and its culture, becoming a fluent Welsh speaker and elevating Welsh traditional music through her musicological studies.

Nia Mai Daniel
Rheolwr Rhaglen | Programme Manager
Yr Archif Gerddorol Gymreig | The Welsh Music Archive

@cerddllgc | @MusicNLW


The Folk Song Tradition in Wales

Story of Wales - Posted 06-03-2020

All peoples and all nations worldwide have a tradition of songs and tunes that mirror their culture, their character and their way of life. For this reason, it can be said that all those traditions are unique.

What makes the Welsh tradition unique, above all else, is the language of the songs themselves i.e. Welsh. Amongst the songs that can be described as ‘traditional’, at least 90% of them are Welsh, for the simple reason that they originate from a period in the history of Wales when the Welsh language was the principal language of the majority of the population – indeed very often, the one and only language.

For anyone examining Welsh folk songs for the first time, it will become obvious:
• that they have played a vital part in the culture of the Welsh people throughout the centuries;
• that they are numerous and diverse;
• that there is an astonishing variety of tunes, many of them exceptionally beautiful and memorable.

They can be roughly categorised as follows:

Love Songs
Love is the most popular theme of the Welsh folk songs. Meredydd Evans estimates that there are as many as 170 of them. A considerable proportion of those deal with rejection in love, and hence they are rather sad songs; some sing the praises of a loved one, others portray the trials and tribulations which obstruct the path of love immensely.

Examples: Y Gwydr Glas, Beth yw’r Haf i Mi?, Dacw ‘Nghariad i Lawr yn y Berllan, Cariad Cyntaf, Tra Bo Dau.

Lullabies (Hwiangerddi) and Children’s Songs
Throughout the centuries, mothers were all-important in the task of presenting songs to generations after generations of children. The literal meaning of ‘hwiangerdd’ is a song that lulls a child to sleep, and there are many examples of this type of song, but the word ‘hwiangerdd’ is also used in a wider sense to describe other simple songs for children.

Examples: Suo Gân, Si Hei Lwli ‘Mabi (hwiangerddi); Dacw Mam yn Dwad, Fuoch Chi Rioed yn Morio, Mi Welais Jac y Do.

Work Songs
The most notable songs in this category are the songs ‘Gyrru’r Ychen’ deriving from Glamorgan: songs encouraging oxen to keep working when ploughing. Some of these were collected and documented by Iolo Morgannwg:

Examples: Cân yr Ychen, I Ysgafnhau ein Gwaith.

Humorous Songs
In recent times in Eisteddfod competitions, there has been a tendency to give prominence to melancholic folk songs. But it is deemed that it was the jolly songs which were given priority at the old ‘nosweithiau llawen’ (happy evenings) and informal meetings. The clue is in the word ‘llawen’ – happy!

Examples: Cân Merthyr, Yr Hen Wyddeles, Mari’r Glwyseg, Ar y Ffordd Wrth Fynd i Lundain, Cân y Cwcwallt.

Wassail Songs
These are songs pertaining in particular to special occasions at different times of the year. The literal meaning of wassail is ‘Good Health’ and an important part of the ritual was a special drink which was shared from the wassail bowl. The term ‘canu gwasael’ (wassail singing or wassailing) was synonymous with a ritual where a small group of merrymakers would go from one house to another wishing the families good health and blessings in their lives – in the hope of obtaining a warm welcome and hospitality. The singing occurred in the open-air (although some of the rituals meant that some singers within the house would answer and challenge the singers who were outside). The terms ‘canu tan bared’ (singing beneath a wall) and ‘canu yn drws’ (singing at the door) is also a description of the custom. Wassailing is associated with the following rituals: Y Fari Lwyd, (The Grey Mare or Mary), Y Calennig, (Gifting on New Year’s Day) and Hela’r Dryw / Hunting the Wren (January), Gŵyl Fair / Mary’s Festival of the Candles, Shrove Tuesday (February/beginning of March), May Day, and also weddings. There are many ‘contesting songs’ – caneuon ymryson – (the ‘progressive songs’ where each verse has to be sung at a quicker pace than the previous one), that are associated in particular with Mary’s Festival.

Examples: Wel Dyma Ni’n Dwad, Hela’r Dryw, Cadi Ha, Mwynen Mai. (Caneuon cynyddol): Cyfri’r Geifr, Un o Fy Mrodyr I.

This is by far the most prolific category – approximately 4,000 of them in number with the majority from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Their topics were the events of the day: murders, uprisings such as the Tithe War, Rebecca Riots, storms and shipwrecks, the opening of new railway lines etc. Since these ballads were sung in the open air, at a fair or market, it was paramount that the ballad singer had a strong voice and a spectacular style, as his aim was to sell copies of the ballad to his audience.

Examples: Baled y Blotyn Du, Storm Fawr 1846, Llofruddiaeth Dafydd Lewis.

Maritime Songs
Welsh sea shanties are relatively few and far between but J Glyn Davies composed a wealth of maritime songs in the 1920s, and within a short space of time they were recognised as part of the folk tradition.

Examples: Sianti Gymraeg, Fflat Huw Puw, Llongau Caernarfon, Santiana

Canu Penillion – Penillion Singing
In recent times, the term ‘canu penillion’ was replaced by the term ‘cerdd dant’, (i.e the skilfulness of singing poetry to the accompaniment of set melodies played on the harp, in line with specific rules). These days, this skill has moved to a different direction from that of folk singing. Formerly, ‘canu penillion’ was the pleasurable pastime of the folk people: it was a spontaneous technique making significant use of ‘penillion telyn’ and light-hearted, informal verses and no one at that time would have contemplated putting ‘canu penillion’ and folk singing in separate categories.

Examples: simple four or six line verses on melodies such as Cader Idris, Llwyn Onn, Pen Rhaw.

The Plygain Tradition
This singing is of a religious nature, the type of singing associated with Christmas time and heard in plygain services in churches and chapels. It is more akin to folk and ballad singing than to hymn singing: natural, unassuming, untrained singing, always unaccompanied and more often than not in simple harmony. Many of the melodies onto which the words are set are folk tunes.

Examples: Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore, Carol y Swper, Tramwywn, Ffarwel Ned Puw, Y Ceiliog Gwyn.

Of course, not every folk song falls neatly into the above categories. For example, Myn Mair, is a song sung in a vigil in the presence of a dead body. It is a prayer for the soul of the deceased person. The plea to the Virgin Mary at the end of each verse manifests that the song originates from the period before the Religious Revival when Wales was a Catholic country.

By today this collection of folk songs has been safeguarded but they could have easily been lost. Two bodies in particular were responsible for collecting and documenting the songs: Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru, (the Welsh Folk-Song society), especially their early members at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Sain Ffagan Museum at a later date. As J. Lloyd Williams, one of the leaders of Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin noted, “It was quite a feat for the old melodies to have survived through generations of neglect and a greater achievement still that they refused to die under the contempt and shame of the Religious Revival.”

Arfon Gwilym

[Note: In the modern world, the exact meaning of the word ‘ folk ’ varies greatly. This article in particular concentrates on the type of songs passed down orally from one generation to the next over a long period of time; the type of songs one could describe as ‘traditional’]

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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