Author Archives: Alex Deans

Sea Pies and Tom Noddies: Thomas Pennant on the Farne Islands

Alex Deans

Thomas Pennant’s Tour In Scotland 1769 presents a few obstacles to the unsuspecting reader. In the first edition of 1771, it takes a healthy 39 pages to arrive on the Banks of the Tweed (omitting Pennant’s dedication to his friend and neighbour Sir Roger Mostyn). The itinerary is hardly direct, striking almost due east so that Pennant can linger in the natural-history-rich Lincolnshire Fens, before heading north up the coast, with some notable excursions on the way. I’ll admit that in the past I haven’t given the English opening leg of Pennant’s Tour the attention it deserves, instead hastening on to see what he had to say about Scotland. Now that I’m editing the text, such selective reading isn’t really an option, and since relocating to the north east of England a few years ago, these materials have become more interesting to me, for the simple reason that they describe places close to me. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve begun to appreciate how valuable some of Pennant’s descriptions of England are from the perspective of natural history.

In the peat wetlands of the Lincolnshire Fens, Pennant gives a rich account of a landscape regarded at the time as a featureless waste, but which is now recognised for its huge environmental importance as a carbon sink and wildlife habitat, lost when the Fens were drained over the subsequent decades. Of the Fens, Pennant wrote: ‘I never met with a finer field for the Zoologist to range in.’[1] Efforts are now underway to preserve and restore some parts of the English Fens, now seen as a key part of the planetary biosphere, comparable to equatorial rainforest.

Further north, Pennant takes to the sea for an excursion around the seabird colonies of Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, followed by a trip to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast on 15th July. Pennant made his journey to the islands on a coble: ‘a safe but seemingly hazardous species of boat, long, narrow and flat-bottomed, which is capable of going thro’ a high sea, dancing like a cork on the summits of the waves.’[2]

A black and white print entitled 'Eider Duck and Drake', showing two ducks swimming in water near a grassy piece of shore in the foreground.
An illustration of Eider ducks from Pennant’s tour.

As in the Lincolnshire Fens and at Flamborough Head, it is the exhilarating abundance of birdlife on the Farne Islands that captures Pennant’s attention, producing some of the most dense and colourful natural description of the whole tour. Pennant’s paratactical description of the nest of an Eider Duck captures his naturalist’s delight at being able to observe the animals and their behaviours up close:

Landed at a small island, where we found the female Eider ducks at that time sitting: the lower part of their nests was made of sea plants; the upper part was formed of the down which they pull off their own breasts, in which the eggs were surrounded and warmly bedded: in some were three, in others five eggs, of a large size and pale olive color, as smooth and glossy as if varnished over.[3]

Even the purely denominative takes on a lyrical quality in these moments, with Pennant giving the evocative names of features in the seascape (the Pinnacles, House Island, the Meg, the Churn), as well as lists of bird species, including ‘Sea Pies’ (Oystercatchers), and the Northumbrian names of ‘Puffins, called here Tom Noddies’, as well as Eiders, or ‘Cuddies Ducks’, the latter after St Cuthbert, who lived as a hermit on one of the Farnes.[4]

Detail from an eighteenth-century map showing the Farne islands and part of the nearby coast.
John Adair, Holy-Island, Fairn Islands with the many Rocks and Hazards that lye Scatter’d in that Sea (Edinburgh: 1703), National Library of Scotland

In August 2023 my family and I followed Pennant’s voyage around the Farne Islands, joining one of the many tours that run from Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. Even on the tour company’s substantial catamaran, we felt the effects of what Pennant calls ‘a most turbulent rippling, occasioned by the fierce current of the tides between the islands and the coast.’[5] My sense of Pennant’s intrepidity in making the same journey in a coble was immediately increased, let alone St Cuthbert, voluntarily stranded one of these lonely rocks in the seventh century. The violent currents didn’t seem to trouble the Grey Seals, which tumbled around quite comfortably in the white water, demonstrating an agility almost comically at odds with the animals I’ve seen hauled-up on the shore.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guard rail, showing an island out to sea under a cloudy sky.

From a distance, the Farnes appear almost flat, but as the boat approaches they rise up out of the sea in a series of jagged black cliffs. The boat made its way slowly around each island, and I quickly lost my sense of direction: we’d round a corner to find yet another dark outcrop breaking the surface, where I’d expected a distant view of the mainland and Bamburgh Castle. Between the rocks, the seabed rose up beneath the boat, and sand shone turquoise through the water.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guardrail, showing a steep rocky shore with seabirds flying above it.
Farne Islands, August 2023

Our visit was less well timed than Pennant’s, coming at the end of the breeding season by which time many of the birds had moved on, although we spotted a few straggling Puffins flying low over the water, alongside Cormorants, Kittiwakes, and the odd Gannet. The Farnes have suffered from the impact of the ongoing avian flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 6000 birds in 2022; landing to get closer to the bird colonies as Pennant did in 1769 is out of the question for the foreseeable future. Something about the isolation and relative compactness of the Farne Islands creates a certain sense of proximity to those who have been there before you, saints and naturalists. Seasons aside, I couldn’t but compare my own visit to the Farnes with Pennant’s, and think not only about what has been lost, but perhaps more urgently, what we still stand to lose in places like these.

[1] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769 (Chester: 1771), p.10.

[2] Pennant, p.35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pennant, p.36.

[5] Pennant, p.37.

‘The Attraction of Mountains’ — Schiehallion, Spring 2017

Alex Deans

Dunkeld Larches

Fat glossy pheasants catch the light between fields of greylag geese. Others are dead in the road, having made it through the shooting season only to find their snapped tail feathers nodding in the slipstream of passing cars. Then Nigel spots a red squirrel in the roadside canopy. Perthshire in early April. We’ve come here to transcribe a handful of Thomas Pennant’s letters at Blair Castle, but also to pick up his trail in a part of Scotland that neither of us know well. And then there’s the chance to walk Schiehallion, the long mountain that aligns Stob Dearg on the other side of the watershed with the sweeping river valleys of Tayside.

Dunkeld Cathedral

This part of the map is thick with names that drew eighteenth-century tourists: Blair Atholl, Killiecrankie, Birnam wood and Dunsinane, and the rivers Tummel, Lyon, Garry, Braan and Tay. The modern roads here tend to follow the military routes set down by Wade and Caulfeild, so we find ourselves intermittently crossing the paths of earlier travellers on their way to completing the section of ‘petit-tour’ that ran through Dunkeld and Loch Tay to Breadalbane. People passing this way often described the defile where the newly mixed rivers race out of the Highlands towards Perth in rapturous terms, a dark chasm whose sides seemed to close above their heads. The crags are now thick with conifer plantations, including deciduous larch, which at this time of year hangs above the valley like a rust-coloured mist. This part of Perthshire is larch country, the legacy of the 4th Duke of Atholl, who dreamed of establishing a lucrative industry supplying the navy with home-grown timber — a story told in Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s book, Enlightenment’s Frontier. Nigel mentions that the less accessible crags were planted by loading cannon with larch seeds, conjuring up a slightly unsettling image of landscape improvement as aristocratic autocthony. In any case, these valleys must have been used to the ring of gunpowder by the 18th century. When we stop in Dunkeld for coffee and cake, information boards describe the street skirmishes that took place here between Jacobites and covenanters, as the vicious epilogue to the nearby battle of Killiecrankie.

We walk to the ruined cathedral, scanning the walls for pits left by musket balls. When Pennant first visited here it was without Moses Griffith, so the building is illustrated in the 1769 Tour with a view by Paul Sandby. In the cathedral grounds a board points out the 300 year old ‘Parent Larch’, the last remaining ancestor of the trees now crowding the hills around. It seems to have a second trunk growing straight up from one of its branches, like a new tree ready to be deposited — a living picture of its own legacy. As we discovered from reading the correspondence at Blair Castle the next day, Pennant’s characteristically brief account of Dunkeld and the Atholl estate in the 1769 Tour was taken as something of a slight by the Duke, and Pennant had to patch things up in advance of his second visit in 1772.

Tay Bridge, Aberfeldy

Eager to begin our hill walk while the weather still looked good, we don’t linger long in Dunkeld, and also decide to leave the town’s favourite tourist destination for another trip— the Hermitage with its waterfalls and mirror-covered Ossian’s hall. After driving by fields of lambs getting fat on the grassy valley floors we arrive in Aberfeldy, where we stop for a view of the famous Wade Bridge across the Tay. The bridge is a monument to Hanoverian power as much as a piece of infrastructure, its central span flanked by obelisks and inset with a relief of the initials ‘G II R’  between a crown and crossed swords. I didn’t catch the bridge’s famous Latin inscription, which hammers the point home:

Admire this military road stretching on this

side and that 250 miles beyond the limits of the

Roman one, mocking moors and bogs, opened

up through rocks and over mountains, and, as

you see, crossing the indignant Tay.[1]


Tree near Wade’s bridge

Like Dunkeld and the pass of Killiecrankie nearby, this place is stamped with its history as an insurgent landscape of armed rebellions and braided rivers gradually thinned away. On the riverbank just above the bridge, something else catches my eye. The bright orange of a willow trunk almost severed at its base. I remember a running controversy about a population of escaped beavers that have made a home in the Tay and its tributaries, gnawing through trees, damming up streams and ditches and flooding fields. Farmers and landowners here see them as a pest, but others have welcomed their enlivening effect on these valleys and their ecosystems, and are keen for them to stay. Though not native European beavers, I wonder if this landscape will one day be as hard to imagine without their influence as it is without the larch. The ‘G II R’ on the bridge faces our first glimpse of snow across the floodplain, where it lines out the ridges of Schiehallion’s neighbours, Meall Liath,  and Meall na Aighean. The air here is getting cold, and we decide to cross the Tay and head for the mountain.

View across the Tay from Aberfeldy

I’ve climbed Scheihallion once before — in almost total cloud cover — and been lucky enough to glimpse a ptarmigan making for cover among the boulders of the upper slopes. Pennant calls them ‘silly birds, and so tame as to suffer a stone to be flung at them without rising.’ He’s more sympathetic of the ptarmigan’s mountain neighbour, the White Hare, which is described as ‘full of frolick’ and ‘fond of honey and carraway confits’.[2] When I was last here the mountain lived up to its Gaelic name, which translates as ‘The Fairy Hill of the Caledonians,’ the sheets of cloud racing by gave a confusing feeling of forward movement while I stood still on its rocky top. The good weather has put paid to any chance of mountain hares and ptarmigans today, but it’s hard to begrudge the bright procession of walkers we pass on the way up and down the hill, taking in the clear views and open sky.

Pennant mentions passing a ‘rocky hill called shei-hallen or the paps’ in 1769, but as a memorial at its base reminds us, it found a different source of fame in the eighteenth century as a scientific test site.[3] Scheihallion’s shape, isolation and east-west alignment recommended it to the Astronomer Royal,  Nevil Maskelyne, as a place to observe the ‘attraction of mountains’.[4] Using an instrument called a zenith sector, Maskelyne observed the deflection of a silver plumb line bisecting a telescope view of the celestial meridian. Measured against the positions of the stars at a certain time, tiny movements in the line revealed the gravitational pull of the mountain itself. Between the astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire Earth. Apparently the footprints of Maskelyne’s parallel observatories on the north and south slopes of the mountain can still be found by those who know where to look, but we stick to the path, spotting only sheep fanks and the spreading cairns built-up by walkers.

As we climb, the mountains around begin to rise up around us, gathering into blue and white heaps towards Breadalbane, marked by the twin ridges of Ben More and Stob Binnein. We spot a few clusters of frogspawn in the path-side ditches, covered by water that might have fallen as snow a few weeks ago — though we’re both struck by how little snow there is on the mountain for this time of year. As we make our way up the long ridge we can see down to the bright blue Lochs of Rannoch and Tummel in the North, and onto a web of burns and springs catching the sunlight in the south — like snail trails, says Nigel. In the distance what looks like smoke from late-season muirburn rises in front of a windfarm. At our feet there are cow or blaeberry leaves tucked between the heather, sphagnum, and occasional hare droppings.

I’m reminded that Nigel and I have different feelings about ledges and heights, as I watch him peering down to the valley floor, sometimes adjusting his backpack or camera while standing next to a long fall. I prefer to stay a body’s length away from any drops when I can, and there’s a moment near the very top when this looks like a wise philosophy, as Nigel almost loses his footing on a piece of broken quartzite. I hear a shout and a flurry of footsteps chasing their balance behind me, but he manages to stay upright. We agree that he’s been tripped up by the fairies, pulled off-centre like Maskelyne’s silver plumb line.

Towards Creag a’ Mhadaidh

At the summit the view into the west suddenly opens over the blue-bronze haze of Rannoch Moor to Glencoe. From those hills Schiehallion takes on a conical shape, its long body hidden behind its steep western aspect. We stay as long as we can at the top, and on the way back down a grey partridge breaks cover on the path in front of us, before fluttering away into the heather. At the foot of the mountain the low sun brings out the declivities on a cup-marked stone. An information board nearby marks Allt Creag a’ Mhadaidh — the Burn of the Crag of the Wolves — winding its way between grouse butts and the remains of shielings: it’s a name like Schiehallion, that remembers somebody else’s world. As we drive away we spot an eagle slowly orbiting a cluster of Sitka spruce, Scots pine, and bright orange larch.

Cup-marked stone

We arrive at the Atholl Arms in time for a drink in the beer garden, as the train from Inverness to London passes by on the adjacent track. We’re a stone’s throw away from the gates to Blair Castle, and the hotel is similarly decked-out in fading baronial style. We eat under high wooden beams and coats of arms in the hotel dining room. At the side is a display of stuffed game birds, including a huge Capercaillie. In what feels like a quiet act of care, someone has written a note giving the bird its name and the story of its reintroduction.

After dinner we wander around the village, where we can hear barn owls calling from the castle grounds. There’s a footbridge here across the River Garry. Pennant called it ‘an outrageous stream, whose ravages have greatly deformed the vally, by the vast beds of gravel which it has left behind.’[5] It seems to be confined to a single channel now, with the railway on one side and the main road rushing along the other. As we stand in the middle of the bridge with the black water flowing beneath, the pinprick glow of a satellite drops across the night sky and behind the trees.

Some photos from day 2: Blair Castle and the Falls of Bruar

  • Dundee's tomb at St Bride's Kirk


[2] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769, (Chester: 1771), p.79.

[3] Ibid, p.84.

[4] Nicky Reeves, ‘“To demonstrate the exactness of the instrument”: Mountainside Trials of

Precision in Scotland, 1774’, Science in Context, 22:03, 2009, pp.323-340.

[5] Pennant, p.97.

‘Now the country becomes suddenly Welsh’: John Malchair of Oxford, an artist and musician in 1790s Wales

Mary-Ann Constantine

for Liz Fleming-Williams, who introduced us to JM.

Back in 2013 the National Library of Wales held a memorable exhibition of Welsh landscape art. Among many familiar names, from J.M.W Turner and J.C. Ibbetson to Kyffin Williams, was one I didn’t know: John Malchair. The images – striking sketches of houses on roads winding through the hills – pulled me over to his corner of Oriel Gregynog. It took a minute or so before I realized that these were pictures from the 1790s; there’s something oddly modern about the sweep and boldness of the lines done in graphite, often with a watercolour wash. The exhibition also had a display case containing Malchair’s notes on the tour he made to Wales in 1795, written in his quirky spelling and open at July 28th:

‘The buildings are peculiar, Rude Rough and ragged, the people are so too.’ ‘Dinas Mouthwy – July 30 – 1795’ from John Malchair of Oxford, p. 129 (hereafter JM).

‘Now the country becomes suddenly Welsh and we enter a region of Mountains, here English is an acquired language and much wors spoaken than French in England, by no means so common…The trees are small and twisting often More picturesque than luxuriant timber trees’.

He noted too, the vivid greens at the base of the mountains: ‘Moss crumbled over with fragments of rock that continually role from the topp and are verry favourable to the painters touch as are also the summits on account of theire cragginess’.

One aspect of our project is exploring how our travel writers capture the experience of movement through landscape: not just the practical struggles of mud and pitted roads, but the continual shifts of light, colour and perspective. Malchair’s drawings are wonderfully kinetic. In one of my favourite sketches, ‘Dinas Mouthwy, 1795’ the movement is in many directions: water flows across a road which leads us up past the out-of-kilter cottages to the sharp slope of the hill. Catherine Hutton, travelling from Birmingham that same way a year later, evokes something similar in words:


Our road was a terrace cut on the side of the northern range, generally fenced with a hedge, now and then without a fence, sometimes on bridges thrown over streams, which poured down from the mountains across our road, and sometimes through them; while, swelled by the rain into little torrents, they tumbled in cascades into the river below

(NLW MS 19079C, 5)

Malchair also did many pictures of Oxford – its buildings and back-streets, full of fascinating glimpses of daily life – and his work was gathered together for an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum in 1998. John Malchair of Oxford, Colin Harrison’s beautifully-produced catalogue with essays by Susan Wollenberg and Julian Munby, is full of insights and information, and includes a full transcription of the Welsh tour notebook cited above. As these writers acknowledge, the rediscovery of Malchair was largely due to the pioneering work of Ian Fleming-Williams, a Constable scholar who built up a large personal collection of Malchair’s drawings. This sweeping view of ‘Moel-y-Ffrydd’ near Llanymawddwy was donated by Fleming-Williams to the Tate in 1997:

‘It is not difficult here to account for the Sublimity, the objects are vast and very uncommon to Eyes that are only wont to contemplate the beauties of a rich farming country’ JM p.130 John Malchair, ‘Moel-y-Frydd 1795’, Tate Gallery, donated by Ian Fleming-Williams. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence:

In 1795 Malchair travelled with the Revd George Cooke, a Fellow of Oriel who had an interest in geology; perhaps as a result of their conversations the images of landforms from this tour have an especially energetic intensity. The pair stayed for nine days exploring the country around at Dinas Mawddwy, where Malchair sketched intimate scenes of huts and pigs and tumbledown cottages as well as the grander mountainscapes, before moving on to Barmouth, where they were further entranced by the play of light and weather along the coast.

Malchair the musician was not idle in Wales. As Margaret Dean-Smith has shown, he had a keen interest in traditional tunes, which he would pick up from all manner of sources – in manuscript collections or from buskers, beggars, and even from the whistling of passers-by on the streets of Oxford. He was especially interested in the idea of ‘national’ song, a subject which – partly in the wake of the success of Robert Burns – became increasingly popular in Britain the early 1800s. His manuscript collections in the Royal College of Music and elsewhere (currently the focus of a PhD dissertation: see bibliography) contain hundreds of tunes which he defines as ‘Scottish’, ‘Irish’ and ‘Welsh’. Of the latter, we know from notes by his disciple William Crotch that some were collected on his tours: ‘written down by Mr Malchair, who heard it sung in Harlech Castle’ (JM, 41). Some of Malchair’s own compositions clearly drew on traditional songs, and this little piece, ‘Farewell to Dinas Mawddwy’ records his affection for a place that, evidently, had moved him very deeply indeed.  [We are currently recording the tune which will be available here]

Bwlch y Groes, north-east of Dinas Mawddwy: ‘In this scene the dreary and the comfortable are happely blended, Mr Pennant calls Bulch y Gross one of the most terrible passes in north Wales’, JM 131-32. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.,-North-Wales


Short Bibliography:

[JM] Colin Harrison, with Susan Wollenberg and Julian Munby, John Malchair of Oxford: Artist and Musician (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1998)

Margaret Dean-Smith, “The Preservation of English Folk Song and Popular Music: Mr. Malchair’s Collection and Dr. Crotch’s Specimens” JEFDSS 7:2 (1953): 106–11

For Alice Little’s current research into Malchair’s music:


Alex Deans, Curious Travellers in SSL 42:2

Nigel Leask and I were pleased to be able to contribute an account of the Curious Travellers project to the symposium on ‘Spatial Humanities and Scottish Studies’ in the latest issue of Studies in Scottish Literature. As the journal editors Patrick Scott and Tony Jarells note in their preface, these symposia are a great way of bringing together short and focused pieces of (often ongoing) research under a particular theme, while reflecting a wide range of disciplines and approaches – made all the more valuable by the fact that SSL is an open access publication.

Reading the other pieces – thought-provokingly framed by Eric Gidal and Michael Gavin’s  introduction –  I was struck by both the similarities and divergences in the approaches which different projects are taking to the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities. The use of technology is a common theme, and the digital methods being used by Curious Travellers are discussed in our article, including our plans for manuscript tours of Scotland and Wales and Pennant’s correspondence, and some background on our mapping collaboration with the National Library of Scotland – which has gone live since the issue went to press earlier this autumn.

Other projects in the symposium are investigating more analytic, Geo-spatial Information System or GIS-based approaches, which allow researchers to produce “deep” or (my preference) “thick maps” of the ways in which culture and place interact, or to model complex social, lexical, historical and environmental information within a common geographical frame. As in the case of Murray Pittock and Craig Lamont’s project, one advantage here seems to be that of making a great variety of histories and materials accessible to a broader audience, by opening them up to a medium that more and more of us – through our reliance on constantly available online mapping services via tablets and smartphones – are now used to engaging with on a daily basis. On the other hand, the contribution from the spatial humanities team at Lancaster University reflects on the difficulties of translating between page and landscape – even writing about place, it turns out, isn’t straight-forwardly amenable to spatial analysis.

Another common theme in this symposium seems to be the sense in which the spatial humanities – while novel in their current, primarily digital mode – owe their origins in part to a very eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense of the ways in which culture and place are mutually formative, whether through language, economy, ecology, or any number of other factors. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the travel writing of the period, but it’s also the case that no other genre seems to draw out the complexities involved in traversing, experiencing and representing place and space quite so vividly. The question of what it means to read literary works through a spatial lens is always mirrored by that of how past writers thought about the relationship between texts and places, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to either; of course, its precisely this complexity that makes it so exciting to be involved in this field as it continues to grow and develop.

Creating ‘Y Pwll’

Marged Pendrell


Continuing with my chosen place, Dinas Emrys in Nantgwynant, and following on from my small ‘Book of Earths’ using the earths collected from the land, I made two larger drawings based on the circular Pool, and the Tower, both places which play an important part in this legend.

I decided to refresh my memory of the Sygun Copper mine which I had visited only once many years ago and hadn’t realized how much water is constantly running throughout the mines. The leaching of the minerals within the depths of these caverns gives rise to rich red pools.

Returning to the site of the hill fort and more specifically to the pool that still exists below the tower foundations, I found myself unable to stop thinking of the connections between the legend of the red and white dragons fighting and the geological colours of the land. The red pools in the depths of the copper mines and the strong white quartz veins that run through as tributaries within the rocks, became the source of the sculptural idea to express my response to this place.

The pool or cistern, as it is called, lies within a hollow on the hill fort and it is possible that it had a particular status or numinous quality, a pagan shrine or a place of inaugural ritual. Bowls, being the first form made by humans, were not uncommon within the process of such rituals and it is a form that has become a strong element of my work. I decided to work with this one form and to express the two energies of the Welsh (Britons) and the English (Saxons) that, according to legend still lie beneath the pool.



White bowl symbolizing the White Dragon

Red earth bowl symbolizing the Red Dragon






Working with the different earth pigments found in the area, the installation ‘Y Pwll’ was created.

‘Y Pwll’   –  installation of 26 white bowls and 27 red.

“The boy, Merlin, prophesied that the Britons would rise again and push the Saxons back”.

Hidden Places, and a Rumour of Blue Ochre

Barbara Matthews

I am exploring the area from Mallwyd to Dinas Mawddwy and the road up towards Dolgellau and then from Cross Foxes down to Tal-y-Llyn. I have tried to follow in Thomas Pennant’s footsteps but have found that I do not have completely free access as Pennant did, and this is an aspect I would like to explore further. In a similar vein, I am looking at the way in which the beauty of a place and its desirability can make it seem unwelcoming and how the character of a place can be changed by tourism.

Private_adjustedPrivate Land_adjusted

By following in Thomas Pennant’s footsteps I have found places hidden within the landscape, which has been fascinating; remnants of the eighteenth-century world. I plan to use pieces of text with imagery to illustrate these.


I am also struck by the drama and cragginess of the landscape and the number of military aircraft which shatter the tranquillity.

Thomas Pennant writes of this area: ‘Leave Dinas [Mawddwy], and take the road towards Dolgellau. Pass by some deserted lead mines; which, as yet, have never been worked with success. I may here mention an earth, which this place is noted for, a bluish ochre, which the shepherds wet, and pound in a mortar, then form into balls, and use in marking their sheep. An old proverb of the three things which Mowddwy wishes to send out of the country, shews their long knowledge of it.


O Fowddy ddu ni ddaw, dim allan

A ellir i rwystraw,

Ond tri pheth helaeth hylaw

Dyn atgas, nod glas, a gwlaw.*

* Detested people, blue-marking earth, and rain.


I continue to search for the elusive Blue Ochre of Dinas Mawddwy and have found the Yew Trees in St Tydecho’s church yard which were burnt as symbol of the biblical Palms and used to mark the heads of parisioners on Ash Wednesday. If I am able to, I would lie to incorporate both these elements in my work.

This is my current thinking and though I don’t yet have a clear idea of my completed artwork, I am inching towards it.

Curious Travellers go north in search of inspiration and stories

Stuart Evans, 1st June 2016



Consider this, oh curious traveller:

Inspired by the thought of north Wales, mountains and Thomas Pennant, we get up early and luckily find it to be a sunny day.  Before we start on our journey from Borth to Penmachno in Gwynedd my travelling companion selects a box-set of Harry Potter CDs to listen to in the car.

The journey takes two hours. As we sit in comfort, views of Corris, Cader Idris, Dolgellau, Trawsfynydd, Blaenau Festiniog, and its dramatic industrial spoil, are accompanied by a tale of wizards, spells, dragons and life threatening beasts. Thrilled and excited in our magic, isolated bubble we stop at Dolbadarn Castle.



‘Drud iawn oedd adeildau a cherrig: arwyddo gyfoeth ac o rym’.

(to build in stone was expensive, a symbol of wealth and power)



Llewelyn the Great built this dominating rectangular tower

and laid claim to the land, displaying his power.

What were the needs of Llewelyn to mark out his territory?

Today this is a destination, a place to ‘pull in’, pay £3.00, climb up the steep craggy incline and read about the history of the stone fortification on a laminated text panel. With a mind filled with young wizarding adventures it is difficult to focus on the hardship of living in this barren landscape, until my son asks, ‘where did they go to the toilet?’

We peer down some rectangular holes at the back of the tower.

We journey on.



‘Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; They make the latitudes and longitudes’.

Henry David Thoreau.

Thomas Pennant had a network of knowledgeable and artistic friends that he could call upon to help him ‘see’, record and understand the landscape while he travelled through Wales.

Today we have arranged to meet an artist and good friend from north Wales, Rorik Smith ( He arrives at central Penmachno from Llandudno at the allotted time, in his white van.  But we have decided to view the landscape from a different perspective.

We are going to travel by horse.



But first, we picnic in the old church of St Tudclud’s , the church, at the centre of the village. It has recently been reopened, after a fifteen year gap, by the efforts of local people. It now acts as a community centre as well as a house of prayer. It has a coffee machine, which offers cappuccino, expresso, latte or hot chocolate to the weary traveller.

Here too stand five ancient inscribed stones.



The most visually interesting is the long narrow stone said to mark the burial place of Iorwerth ab Owen Gwynedd (11-45-1174). The ancient stone has a symbol very similar to the London underground logo, a circle with a horizontal bar through it. It dates from the 13th century.


He was also known as Iorwerth Drwyndwn, ‘he with the broken nose’. Apparently he was so ugly that he was not allowed to inherit the crown. It is claimed that he was killed in battle near Penmachno.

His son was more successful and became the man to unite Wales- Llywelyn the Great, presumably he looked OK!



We make our way to the remote valley of Wybnant following the clear signs to Ty Mawr, National Trust Property and packaged history location, another destination, where Bishop William Morgan (1588-1620) is said to have lived and translated the Bible into Welsh.

But before we get there we stop at Gwydyr Stables and take to our steeds.

Our guide for the journey into the region is a tattooed lady adorned with images of Pegasus, flanked by equally impressive images of parents Poseidon and Medusa, which cover her entire back. If I remember the Greek legends correctly the rider of the winged horse falls off while pursuing a monster! For the next three hours we follow the undulating blue and green illustrations. I hold onto the reins of my horse in fear of tumbling and grip firmly with my knees.




The sounds of the countryside and rhythm of the moving horses change my perception. My mind wanders and along a wooded hillside we ascend. Surrounded by mosses, pools, ferns, creeping ivy and glimpsing the distance crags and rocky mountains. I am reminded of the story of the beast who once was said to dominate the lives of those who lived here.



‘Y Wiber’, or flying snake, was so terrible that a reward was offered to anyone who could rid the area of this threat.

A handsome young farm boy named Owen ap Gruffydd took up the challenge. After three separate warnings, from a local wizard, that he would face mortal danger Owen remained fearless.

He searched the valley and was caught by surprize. The flying creature suddenly appeared from above and bit him, causing him to stumble and fall onto the jagged outcrop below. His neck snapped like a branch. He tumbled into the swirling river below and drowned. His blood flowed swiftly downstream. The monster drank its fill before resting nearby.

With hundreds of arrows and sharpened spears Owens family and friends came and destroyed the creature.

It was never seen again. The valley retains the name Wibernant.

But today the peaceful valley is filled with sunshine.



Allowing ourselves the luxury of riding this route on horseback gives us the opportunity to really appreciate our surroundings.

These horses know the route and the incline of the land, I begin to relax:

‘Llawn o nerth, llyna ei nod

Llew rhudd unlliw a’r hyddod.

Da rhed deubarc, craed dibau

Do iawn ei duth yn dwyn dau.

Nid arbed, er dalled wyf

Ŵr neu wal, ern a welwyf.’

Guto Glyn (poem 51.39-44)  

(Full of strength, that is his characteristic,
a red lion of the same colour as stags.
He runs well over two parks, sure his footing,
very good is his trot carrying a blind man.
He won’t shy away from, even though I’m so blind,
a man or a wall, although I cannot see. Guto Glyn)

This is about the journey and not the destination.


Taking our time gives us the chance to feel what it is like to work with the animal and travel together, to feel and see thing differently. No wonder Pennant spent time appreciating what he found.

I wonder if Bishop Morgan, his house stands below us, ever thought of the flying snake and the young Owen when he translated the story of Adam and Eve being threatened by another serpent.

Languages can forge friendships, or create enemies.

What does speaking Welsh mean to me? my mother tongue. Welsh  seems to live in this valley I can hear it in the river. Pennant had the motto ‘ Heb Duw, heb dim’ (Without God, without anything)  inscribed on his family home, so how strong were his religious and Welsh beliefs?



As we steer our way along the well-worn path we follow a dry stone wall covered in thick moss buried in layers of growth.

Does this keep us in or keep us out?

Ancient boundaries are formed and our lives are ruled by established barriers, but these can be broken and changed. Sometimes the old walls fall down and the stones tumble to the ground.

Mending Wall:

‘ ………..and on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again

We keep the wall between us as we go……’

Robert Frost

This landscape is covered in miles of meandering walls and each so considered and carefully made. They are such beautiful and special constructions but hardly noticed as they become part of the landscape, nestling into the greenery. Like lines drawn on a map they mark the land but also keep the order of a network of old established boundaries.

Thomas Pennant must surely have walked or ridden past many of these walls, farms, dwellings, castles. He collected as much information on all manner of topics to try to understand his surroundings.

What were his thoughts about encouraging visitors to Wales?



Walls shape, not only the landscape, but the cultural identity of the area. When we think of the way in which people move from one place to another crossing farms, parishes, estates, and counties they carry with them their own stories of the past.

The curious traveller will observe and absorb as much as possible to try to make sense of the world. Our short journey ends where it began, in the twenty-first century: time past is so hard to understand.

Time present is difficult too. We return to the speed of our car and two hours later watch the stars in a clear sky back in Borth, pointing out Pegasus in the northern sky and wondering what stories other cultures have about the creation of the universe.  

Stuart Evans

Of Fires and Giants: Thomas Pennant and Tre’r Ceiri Hillfort

By Jan Woods

As soon as I started to read Thomas Pennant’s account of journeying through Wales in the eighteenth century, I was hooked. Every page bore witness to his lively and enquiring mind and the diversity of his interests and investigations. The extent of his travels, on foot and on horseback, was astonishing and when I then came to read the account of his visit to Tre‘r Ceiri, the atmospheric hillfort on the easternmost peak of Yr Eifl on the Llyn Peninsular, I knew that this was the location that I wished to evoke in film.

I had visited Tre‘r Ceiri just once before. I climbed up the steep pathway from Llanaelhaearn on a hot summer’s day to find an extensive and well-preserved settlement at the top of the mountain, which was beyond my wildest expectation. Who were the people who, with their sheep and their cattle, had occupied the many stone huts in this lofty place overlooking the Irish Sea two thousand years ago? I could almost hear their feet ringing on the distinctive, flat flakes of stone. Pennant names the place as  ‘Tre‘r Caeri, or, the Town of the fortresses’, but local legend has it as ‘Tre‘r Ceiri’, the dwelling place of red-headed giants!

Pennant had approached from the West, having first explored ’Nant y Gwytherin, or Vortigern’s Valley’. He describes this as being ‘embosomed in a lofty mountain, on two sides bounded by stony steeps, on which no vegetables appear but the blasted heath and stunted gorse; the third side exhibits a most tremendous front of black precipice, with the loftiest peak of the mountain Eifl soaring above.’ On the occasion of my next visit, I intend also to approach from the west, while keeping Pennant’s description in mind.

On arriving at Tre‘r Ceiri, Pennant was amazed: ‘On the Eifl is the most perfect and magnificent, as well as the most artfully constructed British post I ever beheld.’ He describes the construction of the huts as being ‘of various forms; round, oval, oblong, square’. This evolution of form is now regarded as evidence for the different phases of occupation, the later, more rectangular enclosures dating from Romano-British times having developed from subdivisions of the original circular huts. Apart from their buildings, the inhabitants of Tre’r Ceiri left almost no traces of their society. Tantalisingly few objects which would enable us to glean any insight into their way of life have ever been found.

The Curious Travellers project has presented an impetus for me to re-visit Tre‘r Ceiri, but I am writing this first contribution to the blog while all is still in the imagination and much may change. In that imagination the setting and content of the film has already crystallised into an evocation of light on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.

As a celebration of light, Midsummer was a time when beacons were traditionally lit on hilltops and animals were driven through purifying fire. In the Christian tradition, this light is represented by St John, whose feast day, 24 June, is coincident with the summer solstice. The herb which bears his name, St John’s wort (hypericum perforatum), was thought to ward off evil and hung over doors and windows at this time. From the time of the ancient Greeks the plant was considered to have magical properties and amongst other things, has been used to combat depression. Yarrow, likewise, used since ancient times for healing wounds, was burnt on the Eve of St John as a protection from disease during the forthcoming year.

While pondering on these things, my mind turned to a visit made to a reconstructed lake dwelling, Araisi, in Latvia. The site had been occupied since prehistoric times, but the excavated dwellings in the lake had been rebuilt upon their ancient foundations and in one of the structures, bundles of herbs gathered from the adjacent meadows hung from the timbers of the roof.

By great good fortune, both St John’s wort and yarrow grow in my garden, though neither are currently in flower. I shall be interested to see whether they are in flower at midsummer, as I wish to draw on their auspicious associations by gathering bundles for my filming expedition.

St John’s wort, salad burnet, greater celandine and Welsh poppies

St John’s wort, salad burnet, greater celandine and Welsh poppies

Yarrow growing amongst speedwell

Yarrow growing amongst speedwell

An associated interest in plant material, developed for other projects in the past, is its use for making paper. The results are not necessarily recognisable as paper, in that one would be hard pressed to write or draw upon it, but, nevertheless, the paper-making process is employed and some interesting results can be obtained. I have to date made paper from moss, seaweed and grass with good results and, as part of this project, intend to experiment with St John’s wort and yarrow.

The next step in my involvement with the Curious Travellers will be for me to assemble my filming equipment and make a planning expedition. I need to re-acquaint myself with the approaches and lie of the land in order to prepare for midsummer. Exciting times!

Hafod: 15 June 2016

Walk around Hafod


The day will consist of a leisurely walk of about four miles in total, with frequent stops for talks and performances. Many (though not all) of these will happen during the first part of the day, so participants could leave earlier if desired. We will aim to have a lateish lunch (bring a picnic) about 1.15. We will be following marked paths, but please be aware that some of these are steep and slippery – more so in the afternoon when we head up to the Cascade. There is no charge for the day, but contributions towards Eglwys Newydd and Hafod Trust would be welcome. There is NO mobile phone coverage: nearest landline is Hafod Estate Offices. Bring anoraks, sun-cream and midge-spray!

Times below are very approximate and our progress will depend on the number of people who turn up. Besides the scheduled talks there will be more impromptu readings / songs as we walk. Any further queries please contact

10.30: Gather at Eglwys Newydd church: parking and toilet available. The Friends of Eglwys Newydd have organized a small exhibition and are kindly offering tea and coffee. The artist Sarah Byfield may be showing some of her maps.

10.50: Jennie MacVe: welcome on behalf of the Hafod Trust

  1. 00: Martin Crampin: Stained glass at Eglwys Newydd

11.20:  Easy walk down (part of the Lady’s Walk) from church to Estates office (20-30 minutes)

11.50 – 12.30: Short talks by Peter Wakelin (the painter John Piper at Hafod) and Peter Stevenson (current film project on stories from the area).

12.30 – 12.50: Outside the ruins of the house: landscape archaeologist Andy Peters on the Treescapes at Hafod.

12.50 -1.10 Easy walk to Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden. Picnic here if nice, and a chance to explore the work of artist Christine Watkins, who will be making a labyrinth on the grass.

Short talk by Michael Freeman on tourists to Wales.

2.15 pm: Walk (20-30 minutes) from garden, over bridge and loop right, cutting diagonally up to Gentleman’s Walk, and along to the wooded knoll by Pant Melyn.

2.45: Short talk by Mary-Ann Constantine on Iolo Morganwg’s visit to Hafod in 1799.

3pm onwards. From here people can visit the Cavern Cascade (10 minutes’ walk) in small groups – note the path is steep and slippery.

3.30: Option to head directly or indirectly back to Church – the latter route will take in the Chain Bridge and the newly restored Gothic arch, and will probably add 20-30 minutes to the walk.

4-4.30 return to Eglwys Newydd and depart.

Click to download poster